Some sophisticated folks that I know visit Paris every year.
Some enjoy a yearly trek in Nepal. I find myself returning to a much-loved locale over and over too. The lingua franca of my favored destination is the rhythmic unspooling of the ceaseless surf. I return to Shi-Shi Beach.
How many times? I’ve lost count. Will I go again? Absolutely. I love surf music.
Over the years, I’ve hiked pretty much the entire Olympic wilderness coast and have come to the conclusion that Shi-Shi is the absolute apex. If the Olympic coast was fireworks, Shi-Shi would be the grand finale.
And so it is that I find myself on the ferry, chasing a predicted high-pressure system, bound for the Olympic Peninsula, hoping for a weekend of blue skies and sunshine. Is that too much to ask?
It feels like going home.
We disembark at Port Townsend and drive west across the Olympic Peninsula, past the strip malls of Port Angeles and out into the rainforest. We make camp beside Bear Creek, west of Lake Crescent and enjoy a sorrel salad, good for the digestion.
True to the predictions, the morning is dazzling, the sun brilliant, and the air full of promise. We drive to Neah Bay through a thousand shades of vibrant green and then beyond this last outpost out onto the broad delta of the Hoebuck River. I enjoy the sense of being out here beyond the world of clamor and advertising, approaching the end of the line. We unload our backpacks at the Makah trail head, park in the backyard of the last house on the road (a Makah tradition) and set off upon the delightful trail through a kaleidoscope of green.
Back in days of yore, one had to slog up the remains of an old road through ankle-deep mud to reach Shi-Shi Beach. But in 2003, the Makah Tribe opened a new trail with boardwalks and fancy cantilevered bridges, an epic bit of trail-making. Unfortunately this new and vastly improved trail ends rather unceremoniously after a mile and deposits the eager supplicant into the same mud as yesteryear. But this, my friends, is a small price to pay for the wonders that lie ahead.
One must not oppose the mud, but rather become one with it. This is why God created gaiters.
As we approach the sea, the hush of the forest is gradually supplanted by the melodious and captivating roar of the surf. Music to my ears.
We encounter the Olympic National Park boundary and descend a cliff face on a brand new section of trail (including several deluxe staircases). Prior to this welcome development, one was compelled to slither and slide down the muddy slope with the aid of fixed ropes. At the base of the cliff, we step out of the trees and onto the sun-dazzled beach.
Negative ions and warm sun. The breakfast of champions.
It is two miles south on the beach to our destination – the Point of Arches. The tide is down and the compacted sand makes for smooth sailing in the sunshine. Eagles circle overhead and gulls gather at the mouth of unfortunately-named Petroleum Creek. Driftwood is piled in great tangles. Bull kelp floats on the tide like muscular eels.
We drop our packs near tiny Willoughby Creek with a front row seat for the spectacle that is the Point of Arches and set about the business of establishing camp: pumping drinking water the color of ice tea from the creek (tannins in the water give it a the look of a seriously botched mixed drink) and gathering driftwood for the evening fire.
The late afternoon sun is warm, prompting several knee-deep forays into the lapping surf to cool off. Ooh la la.
The Point of Arches has been described as possessing the appearance of a submerged stegosaurus, and this seems apt. A line of sea stacks juts nearly a mile out into the tumultuous Pacific, each one a complicated sculpture of sea-worn rock and luminous green plants, opportunistically clinging to the continent’s edge.
Ashore, the unlikely symmetry of grooved bedrock tinged with lime green seaweed is revealed at low tide, leading the eye out to sea.
High drama? You bet.
We wander out the point, picking our way along polished rock, newly-revealed by the retreating tide. As the sun begins its descent into the wave-splashed Pacific, rays of golden light stream between the sea stacks. Shimmering pools reflect the sky in pastel pinks and purples. Can Paris compete with this joy?
Farther out on the Point, I find myself in the lurid mardi gras realm of starfish and anemones, gleaming like extraterrestrials among translucent orange kelp in the last light of the sun as it drops below the horizon. The sea itself is an impossibly deep magenta, the color of octopus ink.
Back at camp in the darkness, a fire is kindled and stories are told before the surf lullaby eventually calls us, one by one to our sleeping bags.
In the morning we explore tide pools in the intimacy of a thick mist, our visibility limited to the wonders close at hand: purple, red and orange starfish (sadly now a rarity), a pair of octopi, clusters of mussels. An imposing rock looks exactly like long-ago Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. We’re obviously in some kind of alternate reality.
Just in time, the fog lifts and we head around the point, rock-hopping across pools filling with the incoming tide. No return to camp now until the tide changes.
Crescent Beach is a beautiful arc of fine polished stones that hiss when the waves recede. We round the curve, passing great smoothly-carved rocks the size of Volkswagen vans and clamber over slippery rocks to the Slot, a briny stone passageway that affords passage to the south.
The Totem, an angular rock spire marks the place where our route takes us up the cliff. Ropes are provided (and necessary) here but with their aid, the top of the headland is quickly achieved.
From the rim we tiptoe across the thin ridge that leads to the Aerie, a high perch from which we can gaze straight down to the swirling surf, sweeping around the rocks in mandala-like patterns. A blow hole far below emits a foghorn-like bellow. We linger here, in no hurry. It will be a few hours before the tide retreats enough for us to round the point back to camp. We settle back among the salal and listen to the music of the waves.
You’ll need both a National Parks Hiking Permit and a Makah Recreation Pass (the trail passes through Makah lands) to overnight on Shi-Shi Beach. Makah Passes are available at Washburn’s Store in Neah Bay.
Trailhead: Hobuck Road on the Makah Reservation, southwest of Neah Bay. Paid overnight parking available at private residences about a half mile before the trailhead (bring cash!).
Ten Reasons to Go to Shi-Shi Beach At Once
Here are ten reasons why Shi-Shi is the best beach on the Olympic coast (and hence, the best beach in the lower 48):
- Point of Arches – the chorus line of sea stacks, many of them arches, is unquestionably the scenic highlight of the coast. Visible from anywhere on Shi-Shi, it provides a super-dramatic backdrop, the best this coast has to offer.
- Eagles – Sure, eagles are common on the Olympic coast, but at Shi-Shi, they seem to be just everywhere. In the trees. On the beach. Flying overhead. Too many to count.
- Length – Shi-Shi stretches for more than two miles, an unusually long strip of sand on this rock-tortured coast. Lots of easy walking.
- Camping – Wonderful places to pitch your tent abound; protected enclaves back in the greenery above the beach (for when the weather is questionable) and countless sandy spots amidst the prodigious driftwood (for those clear, star-spangled nights).
- Water – Two major creeks (Petroleum and Willoughby) provide fresh (if ice-tea colored) drinking water for overnight visitation, a sometimes rare commodity on the coast. It’s important to note that a water filter is required – purification tablets or drops won’t work here.
- Portage Head – the area north of Shi-Shi, on the Makah Reservation is a wonderland of surf and rock pinnacles. Access is from the beach (at low tide) or overland from the Makah trail.
- Tide Pools – Truly the best tide pools that the Olympic coast has to offer (and that’s saying a lot!), the Point of Arches and the area below Portage Head are bristling with starfish, anemones, and countless other tidal denizens. Come during a minus tide and discover a new world.
- Access – The trail to Shi-Shi from the Makah trailhead is short, easy and straight-forward. No ropes to climb, no boulders to navigate. Luckily, it’s ridiculously muddy and invariably brushy, keeping the riff-raff out. Or perhaps, letting them in.
- Proximity to Further Wonders – A short, easy day-hike from a camp on Shi-Shi will take you south around the Point of Arches and on to the wonders beyond. Behold The Totem. Slip through a sea arch. Climb a fixed rope to the Aerie. Just watch the tides.
- Sunsets – The end of the day on Shi-Shi can be a religious experience. With the right combination of clear skies and clouds, the scene is transcendent. If you’re camping, enjoy every moment. If you’re day-hiking, enjoy every moment. Then hike back in the dark.