The sun peeked through the clouds on a calm summer morning. Downtown Astoria was surprisingly quiet. Few people walked along the sidewalks.
Heading out of my apartment, I wondered whether to head toward the Astoria Riverwalk or stroll by the many downtown shops.
After a quick deliberation, I started walking east, feeling nervous. This wouldn’t be an ordinary walk — I was on the hunt for treasure.
As I walked, I kept glancing at my phone’s screen. Acting as a modern treasure map, Geocaching, an app, directed me to a treasure marker just a couple of minutes away.
A few blocks over, off 12th and Duane streets, people at the Astoria Sunday Market maneuvered their goods into bags and backseats. I looked around, checking to make sure I wasn’t in anyone’s way on the sidewalk. No one was within a block of me.
Feeling slightly relieved, I took a couple of minutes to ease into my surroundings. Checking the app, I read a description of the hidden treasure.
“There is no need to leave the sidewalk … This is near a sign commemorating Clark Gable’s first acting job. It was in a theatre that was this location before it burned down in the Great Astoria Fire of 1922,” the description read.
After quickly reading the sign about Gable, famously known for his role in the 1939 classic, “Gone With The Wind,” I looked around the area to see if anywhere stood out as a good hiding spot. After a few minutes of no success, I took a second look at the app, reread the description, followed by a second clue: “Totally tubular.” This was the missing hint I needed. Soon enough, in a hidden nook, I found what I was looking for — a micro cache.
What is geocaching?
Geocaching is a game of socially distanced treasure hunting. The premise of the activity is simple: people find caches — or treasures — hidden by other people. The game is essentially a wide-scale version of hide and seek for adults.
Geocaching started in 2000 after an Oregon resident hid a cache, according to a New York Times interview with Bryan Roth, co-founder and president of Geocaching HQ. People have hidden caches throughout the U.S. and abroad in the more than 20 years since the game began. In 2020, the Geocaching app’s sign-ups increased by 70%.
The North Coast isn’t a stranger to the activity. More than 100 caches are hidden between Raymond, Washington, and Manzanita — many of which are located in historical and scenic spots. In 2020, many coastal caches were found by local residents and visitors.
Astoria resident Gene Hankins is an avid geocacher on the North Coast who has hidden several caches for others to find — including the Gable cache. Hankins said he found all of the North Coast’s caches within about a year and a half. He spends his free time driving to other towns like Vernonia to find other caches.
“I keep going out and finding geocaches. I have to go a long ways out because I’ve found everything around here,” Hankins said.
Hankins learned about geocaching after a friend brought him along for a hunt in McMinnville. The pair found what’s called a lamp post cache, a small piece of metal or plastic that connects to a lamp post.
“After that, I went and created a name and all that on the geocaching website. About a month later I found my next one. Since then, it’s been pretty steady,” Hankins said. “I got my GPS because back then, they didn’t have the apps on the phone. I would load up the locations one by one. I still use it.”
Hankins’ geocaching adventures have introduced him to new friends and places. He’s met people by geocaching on his own and by attending cache events — specially curated get-togethers for geocachers to meet each other and search for caches.
“I get to see new places I never would have gone. There are a lot of places I never would have known about without geocaching,” Hankins said.
How to geocache
To start geocaching, download a geocaching app on your phone. The Geocaching app is free to download and features dozens of free caches. Some caches in the app require a premium membership. Other geocaching apps include Cachly (costs $4.99 to download on iPhones) and c:geo (free to download on Android phones), among others.
Next, create an account to track your progress. After that, you’re set to go. While the app is open, you’ll see a GPS map of your region to search around for local caches.
Each cache will include hints about where it is hidden plus descriptions that detail the size and type of cache hidden. Caches differ in size, shape and type. Some caches are about the size of a dime, called micros. Others increase in size.
Each cache includes a log for geocachers to sign. Larger caches often include small gifts that geocachers can take. Bring a pen in case there isn’t one at the cache site. If you’re going to visit a cache with a prize, consider bringing a prize of your own to replace the one you take.
Cache descriptions and user comments detail the difficulty of finding caches. All are reachable by walking. Some are accessible by wheelchair but check cache descriptions ahead of time to be sure.
Hankins recommends geocachers bring along a friend when searching for caches. He also suggests geocachers don’t give up on tough caches.
“The other day, I was looking for five caches and two of them I couldn’t find. It happens to everyone. You can always sort caches on the app and look for easier ones,” Hankins said. “My basic motivation is it gets me out there doing stuff, doing hikes and just walking. That’s always good. It helps me exercise my mind and body.”
Where to geocache
There are several caches to find along the coast. Hankins recommends looking for caches along hiking trails.
“I like puzzles. A lot of the caches I like doing are hiking caches: Cape Falcon, Neah-Kah-Nie,” Hankins said. “If they’re in interesting places, that’s great.”
Hankins has also hidden caches in spots like Youngs River Falls and along the Discovery Trail.
In Washington state, most local caches are located on the Long Beach Peninsula and along U.S. Highway 101. Breaking up geocaching by region likely will work best and save you time. Consider staying in one area per day. Possible day trips could include heading north on the highway; heading along the highway toward Naselle; exploring the northern portion of the peninsula; and searching the southern portion of the peninsula, plus Fort Columbia State Park.
Popular cache hubs on Oregon’s North Coast include the Astoria Riverwalk, Fort Stevens State Park, Gearhart, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Oswald West State Park and Manzanita. Each area features dozens of caches and could easily make for separate day trips.