Photo by Gary Peniston

The Good Old Days on the Wild West Coast: Home Sweet Home on Shi Shi Beach in the 1970s

We’ve all met those guys; they tell you how great things used to be when they were young. “The men were tougher in those days (meaning they themselves were), the ocean was wider, the current ran faster in the Tacoma Narrows (someone once said that to me), the mountains were taller when I was climbing.” Actually, that last one is partly true due to the volcanic eruption of Mount St.Helen on May 18, 1980.

Here’s another true story about the Washington coast in the 1970’s. A guidebook published in 1974 proclaimed that Shi Shi Beach “is perhaps the most scenic single segment of the Washington ocean coast.” To get there required about two miles of “pleasant walking” alongside the “virtually undrivable road.” Be prepared for “much mud” during the “wet season.” OK, we went in August.

You might be inclined to call them shacks, but they were more than that. Fanciful, eclectic, creative, a crazy-angled equivalent of jazz.

We shouldered our packs filled with a week’s worth of food, a camp stove, and gas, and set off. Oh, it was muddy, all right! We skirted the worst of it as best we could by hiking along the edges while suspiciously eyeing huge puddles of unknown depth. Our boots got caked with mud as we clomped along like Frankenstein. We found our answer to the depth question about a mile in when we encountered a Dodge Power Wagon mired, at least axle deep, in one of the puddles. Two or three guys were determinedly trying to free the truck, shovels in hand, jamming planks under the wheels, looking for a sturdy tree to hook the winch cable to. If you didn’t have a winch on that road, you had NO business being there.

Shi Shi Beach. Photo by John D’Onofrio


On later trips, I wore knee-high rubber boots, which ran the risk of getting sucked off my back foot as I stepped forward. Often, I found myself balancing on one foot while trying to thread the other foot into the not-so-visible boot behind me, even as I tried to avoid being gravitationally pulled into a black hole puddle, pack, and all. And that was in the DRY season!

So what’s with the truck? Why not just hike like the rest of us? It turned out that this was a routine occurrence, as these people lived on the beach. Wow, they lived there! Every week or two, they drove to town to collect mail, stock up on groceries and wine—a good reason for the truck—and to bring in “materials.”

We continued our “pleasant walk,” climbing steeply down the hillside to the beach and began the long sandy walk to the other end, the scenic end. Another surprise greeted us: this was a nude beach. Well, the guidebook hadn’t said anything about this! Luckily for all concerned, the weather was cooperative.

Shi Shi Cabin. Photo by Gary Peniston

Then, after discovering four or five cabins snuggled among cedar and Douglas fir trees alongside a stream flowing onto the sandy beach, we found out who the truck-borne materials were for. You might be inclined to call them shacks, but they were more than that. Fanciful, eclectic, creative, a crazy-angled equivalent of jazz. Unlike the driftwood structures people create in an afternoon or two on beaches, these had evolved over years of patching, remodeling, and refining by adding found and store-bought materials to the mix. Sheets of plywood lay here and there, wood shingles, a piece or two of metal roofing, large wood beams and posts for structure, and various driftwood logs, perhaps for support or decoration. The structures had windows and chimneys. For the most part, they looked weatherproof. They were small—maybe 16 x 20 feet—but they had more space than a tent. One, so help me, even had a stained-glass window.

I saw the inside of that one on a later visit; it looked pretty comfortable. Table, chairs, front door, shelves, candles, a small cooking fire pit—this was a real-life funky Lord of the Rings-type cottage with a dramatic ocean view. The alternating soundscape of the surf provided music as waves pulsed up and down.

Driftwood Lean-to. Photo by Gary Peniston

Of course, such trippy hippy-type dwellings attracted idiosyncratic residents—or perhaps it was the other way around. They were free spirits, to be sure. One got the olfactory impression that a lot of herb got smoked in those cabins. On my first visit, one particular resident stood out; he had quite the tan (no tan lines) and an interesting backstory. In those days, there was a famous and controversial commune called the Love Israel Family in Seattle. Charles P. LeWarne wrote a book about it, The Love Israel Family: Urban Commune, Rural Commune.

All I knew about the Love Family was this one guy, who called himself “Freedom Love.” The moniker certainly fit. Freedom from clothes, freedom from cares (except those grocery runs through the mud), freedom from building codes and government in general, freedom from worry about skin cancer, apparently.

So, who got to spend the summer in these cabins? They didn’t belong to anyone, and they weren’t locked. Apparently, whoever was first to get there in the spring claimed them for the season. They just walked in and set up house. Of course, they had to keep them occupied and protected from intruders, both human and animal, so they banded together in community. Someone had to keep watch while the road crew went out for supplies.

Still life with seaweed. Photo by John D’Onofrio

 When the winter weather set in for good, I presume folks trekked back to more secure housing. I’ve camped on the coast in early spring, and it can get RAINY. And windy. Really windy. As in 100 mph, three or four times a year. The beach was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1971, yet the cabins remained, at least through 1977, when these photos were taken.

In the late 1970s, a generous donation from Portland heiress and sculptor Marie Louise Feldenheimer enabled The Nature Conservancy to purchase the land that boasts Point of the Arches. The Conservancy, in turn, sold the property to Olympic National Park. The proceeds from the sale helped establish a Land Preservation Fund.

When the area was added to the park, in keeping with the idea of wilderness (not to mention the fire hazard), the “human artifacts” were removed. Was this a good thing? I’ve been there many times and wish I had photographically documented the cabins much more than the few shots I have. They told a story. They looked as if they grew organically out of, then into the landscape, weathered and wind-swept like the surrounding trees.

Understandably, they could be considered an “attractive nuisance” in today’s social climate. The last time I was there in 2018, this was no longer a place to seek solitude. Perhaps 200 campers were there, which the rangers said was common.

The cabins are now long gone, along with the clothing-optional tradition. But the natural beauty still opens one’s eyes wide with wonder. The timeless landscape, the exuberant ebb and flow of waves, the dramatic sea stacks framing the setting sun (many a calendar has that iconic photo), tide pools, sea stars, wave-worn boulders, the laughter of gulls, that glimpse of the infinite as you gaze across the open sea. All these remain, as they have for eons.

Approaching Squall. Photo by John D’Onofrio


If you venture a hike along what the Department of Natural Resources website currently calls “a notoriously muddy trail,” you will encounter terrific views. Perhaps you can imagine what it was like to live there, with only a few neighbors. Imagine the tinkering and improvising, carefully carrying a stained glass window down the slippery trail, patching the leaks, year after year, and all that went into those little Hobbit homes. You couldn’t stay long, but imagine a whole summer there!

Now, you need a camp permit and a bear canister to stay there. Your time and space will be limited. You know, some things WERE better when I was younger. The ocean looks just as wide, though, and the sea stacks are just as tall. And my favorite tree is still there.


Gary Peniston has been backpacking since before he can remember. Along the way, he has added climbing, backcountry skiing, sea kayaking, road and mountain biking. He has been known to carry too much photo gear on backpack trips.


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