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Walking the Edge: Explorations on the Wildest Coastline in America

 

The towering headlands, crowned with mist,

Their feet among the billows, know

That Ocean is a mighty harmonist 

                                             – William Wordsworth

There’s something about spending days and nights beside the sea. Maybe it’s the invigorating wind that blows across it, unhindered for 5,000 miles. Perhaps it’s the rhythm of the waves, like a heartbeat, slowing the pulse and deepening one’s breathing. It is intoxicating.

For backpackers with a yen for the sea, the Olympic Wilderness Beach is paradise found. The 48-mile stretch from the Hoh River to Shi-Shi Beach is without equal in the contiguous U.S., with enough splendor and satori  to last a lifetime.

I’ve been fortunate enough to hike almost this entire coast. A lot of miles of sand, seaweed-slippery rocks, headlands climbed on sand ladders and ropes. A lot of bright moments.

Point of Arches. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Point of Arches. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Hiking here presents a unique set of challenges, different from those of the mountains. First and foremost is the all-important business of tides – it is unfeasible (and seriously dangerous) to hike this coast without a tide table and a map that indicates the tidal heights when various points and headlands are roundable. Many only permit passage when the tide is low and getting caught by an incoming tide would certainly be problematic – and potentially fatal. Also, camp sites have to be situated above the reach of the highest high tide during your stay. Waking up in the sea is not a good way to start the day.

Although the elevation gain is obviously small compared to treks in the mountains, it generally comes in the form of near-vertical scrambles, aided by sand ladders (steel cables bridged by wooden steps) or, in some cases, simply ropes. Although they look daunting, they don’t pose an undue problem for most people. If they freak you out, go back. These bits are often muddy, so prepare to get righteously slathered. Bring gloves – they make climbing the ropes much more comfortable.

Fording the Ozette River at low tide. Trekking poles come in handy. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Fording the Ozette River at low tide. Trekking poles come in handy. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Stream crossings are another issue. After a heavy rain, some creeks are un-fordable. Crossings near the ocean are greatly affected by tides (good thing you have that tide table). Some, like the Ozette River, require both a low tide and a relative dry spell to get across. Trekking poles are de rigueur.

You will also encounter (generally short) stretches where you’ll be crossing slippery, seaweed-covered rocks. Progress in these stretches is slow and strenuous. Before one trip from Ozette to Shi-Shi, the ranger at the Wilderness Info Center told us, “you’ll be on all fours,”  with a not-altogether wholesome chuckle. He was right.

This epic coastline can be hiked in three separate traverses. From south to north they are: Hoh River to Third Beach, Rialto Beach to Cape Alava, and Cape Alava to Shi-Shi Beach. With some logistical heroics you could do the whole thing in one glorious shot. But I’ll treat them as three separate hikes, listed in order of easiest to most difficult.

Ozette (Cape Alava) – Rialto Beach: 22 Miles

Near Kayostla Beach on the Ozette-Rialto Traverse. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Near Kayostla Beach on the Ozette-Rialto Traverse. Photo by John D’Onofrio

The walk from Lake Ozette to Rialto Beach at the mouth of the Quillayute River is the longest point-to-point hike on the coast, but it is also the most straight-forward and user-friendly. Only one small point cannot be rounded at low tide (and it’s an easy one to climb over) and the creek crossings are generally not a problem. The key is to synchronize your walking with the retreating tide.

From Ozette Lake,  access the coast via either the Cape Alava or Sand Point trails (these diverge at a fork just up the trail from the lake). Although the Sand Point shortcut shaves three miles from the total, the beach between Alava and Sand Point is spectacular and shouldn’t be missed. The trail, mostly boardwalk (slippery when wet – which is almost always) winds through verdant coastal rainforest, reaching the beach at Cape Alava in three miles. For those of you keeping score, this is the western-most point in the contiguous United States. Lots of campsites here, if you’ve gotten a late start or want to wait out a high tide. Heading south from the Cape, you’ll pass the Wedding Rocks (rocks containing ancient Makah petroglyphs) in a mile and arrive at Sand Point after two more miles of beach walking. You’ll reach Yellow Banks (named for the yellowish clay cliffs above the beach) two miles farther south. Campfires are prohibited between Wedding Rocks and Yellow Banks.

Stream mouth near Norwegian Memorial. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Stream mouth near Norwegian Memorial. Photo by John D’Onofrio

2.5 miles south of Yellow Banks is a point that must be rounded at low tide. Another two miles will bring you to Kayostla Beach and the Norwegian Memorial, a memorial to 18 Norwegian sailors who lost their lives in 1903 when the Prince Arthur was smashed on the rocks offshore. They are buried here, wrapped in a sail from their ship. The beach is exquisite, with a reliable creek and sublime camping spots.

The next four miles offer cobbles and sandy beach with a few points to round and only one small point that cannot be rounded at any tide (a short, easy climb over the top).  At 18.5 miles you encounter Cape Johnson and the going is slow as you’ll be doing a lot of rock-hopping until you reach Hole-in-the-Wall at mile 20.5. If the tide is accommodating, you can slip through the “hole” and enjoy an easy stroll on Rialto Beach to the trailhead at its southern end (Ellen Creek will need to be forded or climbed across on logs).

Hoh River – Third Beach: 17 Miles

Toleak Point. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Toleak Point. Photo by John D’Onofrio

This stretch is a jaw-dropper. It’s the second-longest of the three sections and the second-most difficult. The highlight, Toleak Point is 6.4 miles from Third Beach and is a very special place, a sacred destination. Off-shore rocks perfectly complement the broad beach and wildlife is abundant: seals provide a raucous soundtrack and eagles gather overhead.

This one is best hiked north to south, so start at Third Beach. The trailhead is 11 miles up the La Push Road which leaves U.S. 101 two miles north of Forks. Hike a mile and a half through enchanting moss-festooned forest to the beach and climb over the log jam that usually accumulates where the trail meets the sand. Turn left and head south on the broad beach. Ahead is a waterfall tumbling down from a headland (Taylor Point). A sand ladder provides access to the top of the point for a mile-long – usually muddy – traverse across the top. Regain the beach near Scotts Bluff (roundable at low tide, otherwise climb over it) and continue south. Crossing Scotts Creek can be interesting at high tide when the creek is running high. There are excellent campsites in the vicinity of the creek.

Sand detail. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Sand detail. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Continuing south, after rounding another smaller point (at high tide climb over) you’ll enjoy a long, beautiful stretch of smooth sailing. Round enchanting Strawberry Point 4.5 miles from the trailhead, another wonderful place to spend an evening.

From here, another easy mile brings you to the aforementioned Toleak Point, yet another spectacular place to pitch a tent. Be careful to do so above the height of the anticipated high tide. A reliable creek is found just beyond the point. After a mile of beach, the route climbs a steep headland for another traverse (1.25 miles) through lush forest (and probably lots and lots of mud). Two creeks in this section could pose problems if they’re running high: Falls Creek and beyond it the bigger Goodman Creek. Trekking poles will come in handy.

Back on the sand, it’s easy beach walking until Mosquito Creek, 10 miles from the trailhead. Pick up the trail south of the creek and follow it for 3.5 miles through the forest (and you guessed it, mud) over Hoh Head. Back on the (rocky) beach you’ll also want a low tide for the last stretch of coastline to the Hoh River. Find the trail beside the river, which will take you to the Oil City trailhead.

Ozette (Cape Alava) – Shi-Shi Beach: 15.5 Miles

Shi-Shi Beach in evening light. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Shi-Shi Beach in evening light. Photo by John D’Onofrio

This stretch – the Northern Traverse – is the wildest hike on the coast. Famous for its trials and tribulations as well as its unequaled scenic grandeur, this route should be done south to north, as the biggest variable – the fording of the Ozette River – is only five miles from the start. Sometimes the Ozette simply can’t be forded. The stretch north of Seafield Creek is the most challenging on the Olympic Coast.

Near the Ozette River. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Near the Ozette River. Photo by John D’Onofrio

As with the Ozette – Rialto segment, the starting point is lovely Lake Ozette, 3 miles inland from the coast. Hike the Cape Alava trail and turn north when you reach the beach. Soon you’ll pass Tskawahyah Island, which is connected to the mainland at low tide. Hikers call this Cannonball Island, owing to the smooth round stones that surround it. It’s a sacred spot for the Makah Tribe and access is strictly forbidden.

Continue north. If the tide is up, you should expect some clambering over drift logs along the way. After two miles of beach walking, the Ozette River blocks passage. Fording the river can be ticklish – or impossible. You will need a low tide and even then, if it’s been raining, getting across is not a slam-dunk. Crossing as close to the ocean as possible is generally the best bet. You’ll definitely want trekking poles. There are campsites here, should you need to wait out the tide. You should be prepared to turn back if the river is too high.

Once across the river, you’ll have 3.5 miles of beach walking, easy going in any but the highest tide. Then get ready for adventure. The next 2.5 miles are a spectacular obstacle course of seaweed-slick boulders punctuated with near-vertical rope ascents and descents over looming headlands. It will take a lot of time to navigate this stretch and you will absolutely need to time this with a low tide: the last point that you will need to round (Point of Arches) is only passable at low to medium tide.

Learning the ropes on the northern traverse. Photo by John D'Onofrio
Learning the ropes on the northern traverse. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Although this hike is demanding, it is unquestionably the scenic highlight of the Olympic coast, arguably the grandest stretch of beach hiking in the country. Sea stacks rear up from the wild Pacific and the surf pounds the continent’s edge. Thanks to the arduous nature of the hike, you are likely to have it to yourself (at least until the last few miles) and the absence of company adds to the wild ambiance.

The climax is reached at 11.75 miles when you reach Point of Arches, a dramatic cacophony of off-shore fangs that reach out into the tempestuous sea for nearly a mile. At low tide you can explore the wondrous tide pools around these sea stacks. Shi-Shi Beach, just past the point offers superb campsites and is a place to linger. From here, it’s an easy two miles of beach walking to the clearly marked trail that heads steeply up into the woods and eventually leads to the Makah trailhead in another 1.75 miles.

NPS LogoPermits, maps and tide tables for hiking on the Olympic Wilderness Beach are available at the Olympic National Park Wilderness Information center in Port Angeles, the Olympic National Park/Olympic National Forest Recreation Information Center in Forks, the Quinault Wilderness Info Center at Lake Quinalt and the Staircase Ranger Station near Hoodsport. On the web at nps.gov/olym. 

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