Neah-Kah-Nie mountain translates to the place of the supreme deity in the native language of the Tillamook Indians.
Standing 1680 feet above sea level at it’s peak, the section of the Oregon Coast Trail one can use as a manual elevator to ascend the huge dome of a mountain begins near a parking lot leaning over the Pacific off of 101 a few miles north of Manzanita. The parking lot itself looms 700 feet above the ocean, leaving the second two mile half of the trek up to your own two feet.
The Tillamook Indians, the original inhabitants of this area who are believed to have originally setup camp in the area in the 1400s, believed Neah-Kah-Nie to be a great sleeping giant, a warrior waiting to be awakened. The mountain is thought by some to be a sort of magnetic source of energy, which contributes to many a local’s tale of seeing strange lights in the sky nearby, often attributed to aliens come to visit the beaches of Manzanita. The Tillamook thrived in this area, living on salmon and crafting legend from their actual lives. Though now no longer intact, they told of a Spanish ship appearing out of the fog only to crash into the side of their sleeping warrior, another hoisting anchor safely offshore, its sailors bringing a treasure to be buried deep in the slopes of the mountain. To this day treasure hunters still seek the as of yet undiscovered fortune, or at least as of yet claimed treasure. Past entrepreneurs looking for the hidden Spanish trove discovered the remains of what they claimed to be a “negro giant”, only later to have what was left of the body disappear. Artifacts of all shapes and sizes have been found on the cliffsides, even as the whereabouts of the treasure itself remains an enigma.
Today my ten year old son Tristan, myself and two friends—Mr. Fit in significantly better shape than I, and Whiskey Joe in as much the worse—have chosen to summit the peak for an afternoon. Between the four of us we run the gamut from top physical shape to perhaps not so and then down to the short legs and expendable energy of youth. The first set of switchbacks rolls through the grassy hillside stockings Neah Kah Nie wears above it’s Pacific Coast cliffside boots. The trail is clearly defined, somewhat heavily traveled by those looking for a quick day’s journey to the top and back down or passers through participating in the 425 miles of the Oregon Coast Trail. At this stage in the hike we’re whistling dwarfish mining tunes and joking around amongst ourselves as the sky couldn’t shine any bluer, as the wind couldn’t swim any perfectly cooler through the tall tan grasses. We stop only a short way into the hike to look down on the majesty that folds out before us as the ever blue and green ocean crawls out as far as our eyes can manage to see. Even at this beginning height it seems as though we can see all the way around the world, as though we’re staring at the backs of our own heads.
As the elevation climbs and the grasslands give way to a dense, mossy forest of hemlocks and firs, Whiskey Joe begins panting a little, falling a few steps behind me. Mr. Fit is a good ten yards ahead of myself and Tristan runs back and forth between us both, like a scout providing communique between two exploration parties. I too, no stranger to a pack of cigarettes, am starting to feel the burn in my chest. It’s steep, and though there are switchbacks, we’re still climbing quickly. The ocean to our West peaks in and through the trees when it gets a chance, but as we continue to climb we’re eventually above as many trees planted lower down the mountainside as we are underneath those enjoying higher ground. Whiskey Joe is having significant problems after a while, the trail relentless in it’s apparent desire to get us all to the top as quickly as possible, or die trying.
We take breaks as needed, Tristan in flip flops itchy to keep moving every time we kick back. Mr. Fit, an arborist by trade, tells us about the various types of trees, about zip line adventures and the history of the redwoods in Oregon. He tells a tale of a Sitka Spruce that lives not far from here, about 18 miles north on the Sunset Highway west of Seaside. The tree, known as the Klootchy Creek Giant, stood 200 feet tall—the tallest tree in Oregon and the tallest Sitka Spruce in the world—and stood firm even after being struck by lightning. The lightning took its toll though, leaving a scar the tree never managed to recover from. Eventually the bark began to rot away, and the final straw came with a horrendous wind storm which robbed the tree of more than 100 feet of its height. He talks about the 600 or so year old tree as though it were a great hero lost, every syllable from his mouth formed like a parable of the land. With his beard and general nonchalance, his steady steps and easiness with anything green and leafy, I picture him one day living in the canopy above us.
Finally Whiskey Joe is ready to continue, though he’s clearly a little angry or jealous at Tristan’s apparent lack of an ability to grow fatigued. Tristan is, of course, merely attempting to impress Mr. Fit, who he’s taken a shine to for one reason or another. Possibly his large hippy beard, or perhaps simply the fact that he likes to throw a football, frisbee or any other catch and release sporting good around.
The trail begins to level out about half a mile before the peak, sometimes even dropping a notch or two in elevation, providing a nice, rolling pace toward the end which allows everyone a chance to catch their breathe, swear to themselves they’ll give up or at least cut back on smoking a little, and let the laughs start pouring back in. Just before the final bend in the trail, to your left, a massive hedge wall lives, stalwart like a white picket fence for this mountain of the gods. As you round it’s final bush, so does the world below unveil itself through the trees. Jagged, climbable rocks follow along the mountainside, leading to the peak itself.
Mr. Fit rises up over them as though each craggy outcropping is just another step on an escalator. Tristan is eager to follow, but I hold him back while Whiskey Joe pulls himself up and onto the top, no sooner planting his seat than lighting himself another smoking stick, a treat, I imagine, for managing to make the mountain another mark off his “been there done that” list. I climb just behind Tristan, worried that he might slip and find himself on the fast lane down to the beach below, but his footing is sure and he is up the outcropping almost twice as quickly as I am.
There’s a US Coast & Geodetic Survey marker fastened into the rock, stating an elevation of over 1600′. But our height is irrelevant, it’s what spans out before us that is the true piece of Tillamook Treasure here. All of those endless gallons of salt, water and waves washes clean the view as far as visibly possible to the right. The beach frames the land, the town of Manzanita completely and clearly visible below, the daily goings on of bartenders, police officers, store clerks and the vastly outnumbering tourists they all service move like pixels through an early 80’s video game grid. The fields and forests ease into the Coastal Range off to the East. We all look directly down the coast and try and estimate where the head in the distance could be, Mr. Fit guessing it to be Pacific City, some HOWMANY miles south. Whiskey Joe argues a little over whether it is. I stand firm that it’s Cape Meares, west of the city of Tillamook.
We take a few photos of ourselves, kick back and enjoy it all for a moment, and then begin our descent back down the way we came, calling it a day for hiking this particular mountain.
Of course, we could have continued on the trail, which would have lead us back down over the mountains even steeper side and directly into Manzanita itself, but without a shuttle, it would have been hard to get back to our vehicle in that scenic view parking lot we’d begun. All in all, while some of us had a harder time making the climb than others, everyone was left satisfied and with no harsher a thought in their heads than “maybe it’s time to cut back, get in shape again”.
For those of you who really want a challenge though, approach Neah-Kah-Nie from the southern trail entrance, where the climb covers just as many feet in elevation, but over a significantly shorter distance of about 9/10 of a mile, leaving the Mrs. and I, on a separate trip, desperate for air by the time we reached the leveled off top of the trail. Making matters even worse, we were passed several times by locals who apparently make it a daily habit to run—that’s right, straight up, full on running—the entire up, crest and descent of this sleeping warrior god.