One of the Oregon Coast's most beautiful spots has become an increasing headache for rescue teams in Lincoln City.
Four rescue operations have been required this year at God’s Thumb, a volcanic plug that rises above Road’s End beach on the city’s north end.
The uptick in accidents has included hikers falling from cliffs and breaking legs, often requiring helicopter rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard.
"This has become our problem spot," captain Jim Kusz of North Lincoln Fire and Rescue said. "Maybe because it's so close to an urban area, I think people forget that they're heading into a wild, dangerous area."
The number of accidents has spurred the beginnings of a plan to improve conditions on the unofficial trail up God's Thumb, officials said.
“Fixing this has become a priority for us,” said Eric Johnson, coordinator for Explore Lincoln City. “We’re in the preliminary stages of getting the right partners together and considering what needs to be done next."
For decades, the route to God's Thumb was surrounded by private land and considered a local secret. That started to change during the past five years, as pictures showing the area's dramatic cliffs began popping up on social media.
As more people showed up, it became a vexing local issue, with tourists leaving trash, crowding local neighborhoods and wandering onto private land.
Lincoln City took measures to establish a standard route that includes signs, a trail easement and preferred parking area. They also worked with the Statesman Journal on a detailed story highlighting the correct route.
Despite those measures, more unprepared hikers arrived on the steep and undeveloped cliffs, and the number of accidents increased, Kusz said.
"We get a lot of people that just aren't prepared or don't know their limitations," he said. "It really is a wilderness area."
In early August, Mitch Baggett, 59, of Corvallis, was trapped on steep cliffs surrounding God's Thumb after climbing down to an isolated beach, according to a story in the Lincoln City News Guard.
When Baggett tried to climb back up, he was trapped on a small overhang, where he called for help on a cell phone. He stayed there for five hours before he was rescued by a National Guard helicopter.
In March, two teenagers were also rescued after getting stuck on the steep cliffs that surround the peak.
"It has been a lot of people venturing out too far and then losing their footing," Kusz said. "It's not a developed or maintained area, and I don't think people realize how easy it is to slip."
In May two hikers were rescued from the trail after injuring their legs. A 78-year-old hiker who fell and broke an ankle was airlifted off the peak via helicopter. Two days earlier, a different hiker severely fractured her lower leg and was taken down the trail on a stretcher.
Part of the problem could be the unique nature of the route, which crosses from Lincoln City onto Siuslaw National Forest.
There is no official trailhead or trail, and limited signs, depending where you come in. The route travels gravel roads, washed out and confusing trail intersections, and across tree roots and other hazards.
The climb from the upper meadow to the summit is also steeper than people expect. And the top is surrounded by sharp cliffs in a region where high winds and foul weather can arrive swiftly from the ocean.
"We want our guests to enjoy God’s Thumb," Johnson said. "But we also want them to be safe while hiking the trail. That's our top concern."
Decisions about what happens next on God's Thumb will be part of a process aimed at addressing recreation around the Cascade Head Scenic Research Area. A number of groups, including the Forest Service, Lincoln City and The Nature Conservancy, are meeting and doing outreach to consider how to manage the area from Cascade Head to God's Thumb.
"It's a step in the right direction, as we've been meeting regularly since March to discuss these trails, access planning and safety," said Jeanne Sprague, Parks and Recreation Director in Lincoln City.
An open house on the subject is scheduled for Sept. 27 in Lincoln City, while people can also fill out an online survey on the subject here.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 10 years. He is the author of the book “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.