Rockaway Beach is a laid back coastal town that’s recently been making appearances in travel guides - and for good reason. It’s an easy, scenic drive from many Oregon cities, boasts seven miles of rugged coastline, and is immersed in Oregon history. Plus, it’s close enough to the cheese wonderland of Tillamook to have cultivated its very own culinary scene.
But the first and last attract of Rockaway Beach will always be its spectacular coastline, and the wild, swampy acres of semi-hike-able woodlands it calls home. It can be an intimidating tangle of trees to navigate, especially for folks traveling with kids, but luckily there’s an easy way to check out the wilderness without even leaving the town.
I’m talking about the Old Growth Cedar Wetlands Preserve, of course, a rare example of an intact native urban forest, located in the middle of residential Rockaway Beach.
Sure – it’s only a tiny remnant of what used to be a far larger sprawl of primeval swampland, but it’s a still a healthy and protected 45 acres of bog land with massive spruce and cedar and an untamed understory. Since these types of trees, growing on flat land, are often snatched up by logging interests, it’s a real natural gem and a singular kind of ecosystem along the Oregon Coast.
The trails networking the preserve used to be local secrets, but in 2001 The Nature Conservancy and Rockaway city gathered funds to create a trail and viewing platform through the woods to Big Cedar, one of Oregon’s largest cedar trees, estimated to be 700-900 years old. About 2005, Terri Michel (city manager for Rockaway) had a dream to bring everyone to see and experience an old growth wetland close up. Her vision was that schools and universities and forest technology classes would have field trips and studies along the preserve.
Terri’s dream was realized when the city applied for a grant from Oregon Parks and Recreation to co-finance an ADA accessible boardwalk from Hwy 101 all the way to the Big Cedar. Built with Alaskan Yellow Cedar, this boardwalk was constructed with no heavy equipment, and using Diamond Piers for footings, leaving no impact on the old growth wetland. There is now a 1.2 mile boardwalk through several mini environments starting with a canopy of willow branches, through dense vegetation passing a tall snag with an active osprey nest, crossing two creeks and then winding through the dark old growth forest with massive hemlock, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and Western Red cedar. Passing edible plants like elderberry, salmonberry, and blackberry the pathway winds between salal and willow and skunk cabbage meadows.
A viewing platform at the halfway point has a picnic table and benches provides a resting place to look at the area in detail. Then into the old growth area that crosses Saltair Creek on the elevated boardwalk and opens to the giant Western Red Cedar. It is quiet, cool and the tree towers over the walkway. It is 155 ft high and 45 ft around the base with huge burls common to the cedar tree in a swamp environment.
A perfect excursion for the entire family, it is 2.5 mile round trip to visit the Rockaway Big Cedar. Strollers and wheelchairs are welcome on the path. And there is a water fountain and restroom at the trailhead.