The Olympic Coast is a sublime strip of wilderness beach that stretches for 60 miles, from the mouth of the Hoh River in the south to the legendary Shi-Shi Beach in the north. It is widely acknowledged to offer some of the best ocean-front hiking on Planet Earth, including three glorious point-to-point traverses that are, each in their own way, spectacular. Perhaps the best known of these is the traverse from Lake Ozette to Rialto Beach, a 23-mile trek. This hike was briefly world-famous in 1958 when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a group of 72 people on a three-day excursion along the wild Pacific to raise widespread opposition to plans to build a highway there. His highly-publicized effort successfully drew attention to this threat, saving the wilderness.
I wanted to see this portion of the coast for myself, so along with a pair of old hiking comrades, we set out from Lake Ozette on a spring evening, backpacks crammed with provisions for five days beside the sea.
A burnished crescent moon hangs over the dark sea before dropping to the horizon and being swallowed by the ocean, as if by a magician’s handkerchief.
The meticulously-maintained trail quickly carries us through forest shadows, past luxurious gardens of skunk cabbage ( poetically known as bog lantern). The sound of the surf grows louder as we approach Cape Alava, the western-most point in the contiguous U.S. and our destination for the first evening on the trail. We make camp in the trees at the edge of the beach as a blue mist settles over the coast, muffling the roar of the waves.
In the morning, light rain is falling. Richard dons a pair of rain pants he purchased at Big Lots for $5.00. They are many, many sizes too big for him, and he looks like a cartoon character as we start down the beach toward Sand Point. Progress is slow; the tide is high, and most of the beach is underwater. Chaotic jumbles of beach logs frequently challenge our passage. We climb over, crawl under, or when required, do a combination of the two.
We pass Wedding Rocks (a collection of petroglyphs dating back some 500 years), the tide ebbs, and the going gets easier. The rain stops as we round Sand Point, climb over a headland and reach the exposed clay cliffs of the Yellow Banks, where we pitch our tents on a sandy patch above the high-tide line.
The clouds have blown away, and the sun is shining in an azure sky. We spread our wet gear out on driftwood logs to dry and then wander the beach, examining the flotsam and jetsam. Barb constructs an animist shrine on the beach consisting of bones, seaweed, and gnarled wood.
As the day draws to a close, a few wispy clouds blush crimson to the west. An eagle dives like a missile to snatch a fish out of the sea. It carries it, wriggling in its talons, to a nearby rock where it dines with gusto. A burnished crescent moon hangs over the dark sea before dropping to the horizon and being swallowed by the ocean, as if by a magician’s handkerchief.
The morning finds us enjoying our coffee in the warm sun on what we have dubbed Bunny Skull Beach. Raucous gulls flutter around us, their cries alternating between demanding (WHERE’S THE FOOD!) and celebratory (I fly on the wild ocean winds!). We break camp and head south on loose rocks, reaching a vast tidal shelf exposed by the tide where we pick our way through a labyrinth of tide pools. No sand to be seen.
After a few miles, we round a point and commence boulder-hopping on dark, sculpted stones. A sea arch graces the outthrust tip of the point. Finally, we step onto smooth sand, the epically beautiful Kayostia Beach, a mile-long stretch of unbroken white sand, and the home to the Norwegian Memorial, a monument that commemorates the wreck of the Norwegian bark Prince Arthur, lost here in 1903.
In the distance, a congregation of seagulls reveals the presence of the mouth of a stream. Rounding the arc of sand, we establish camp near the freshwater among the gnarled trees at the edge of the beach. A tiny creek flows through an idyllic sun-dappled glade among the cedars. Somber eagles perch on the tallest trees like jurists, feigning disinterest in us.
We explore the offerings the most recent tide had scattered across the beach: polished wood, seaweed, twisted nets, dead crabs: an arrangement destined to last only until the next incoming tide shuffles the deck. Stranded pools of water reflect the sky, and the sinuous sand patterns formed by the creek ripple and undulate in the rose-colored evening light. A sea stack stands in silhouette, a single tenacious tree clawing its pinnacle.
We sit by a small driftwood campfire on the beach, relaxed and comfortable. Barb and Rich head for their tent, and I roll out my bedroll beside the fire and count the stars.
Awakened in the dim light of morning by the barking of vociferous sea lions, we tarry over our morning coffee. It’s an absolutely brilliant morning—the sun gleams on the blue Pacific, and a gentle breeze escorts clouds, fluffy as an illustration in a children’s book, across the sky. After a respectful period of contemplation, we set about breaking camp and loading our backpacks. We’ve covered 14 miles and have only nine left until the end of our traverse at Rialto Beach. We intend to cover that distance over two days, with ample time along the way for further contemplation.
We hike up the beach in the sparkling sunshine until confronted by an abrupt headland which we climb, using the fixed ropes provided. Shortly after descending the other side, we reach the mouth of Cedar Creek and a breathtakingly beautiful beach. The creek cuts a curvaceous channel through the sand, and offshore rocks rise from the tumultuous sea like black chessmen. We are obliged to stop, drop our packs and savor the wild aesthetics for a half-hour, grateful for our unhurried itinerary.
Continuing south, the walking is captivating: a small point we easily round, another outrageously beautiful beach, and a fine assortment of sea stacks.
Next comes a small headland that requires a short ‘up and over,’ again utilizing fixed ropes, dropping us down to a lonely-looking pocket beach with a diminutive creek issuing forth out of the cedars, splashing in a little Disney-esque waterfall. After looking south towards Cape Johnson and calculating the incoming tide, we decide to make camp here beneath a cliff, protected from the tide’s reach by a massive beach log.
We relax in this picturesque enclave as the tide rolls in, enjoying the wild scene. We haven’t seen another soul since we left camp this morning. Leaning back on a log in the sunshine keeps me occupied for a good long time. In my experience, there’s nothing like sitting on a Therm-a-Rest chair and watching the tide change on a lazy afternoon.
As the tide recedes, we explore the general vicinity, walking south until a towering headland precludes forward progress. The tide pools here are plentiful, slowly being revealed by the ebb tide, each one a lustrous basin of undulating ocean anime. My companions head back to camp, but I linger as the light turns rosy, reflecting on the wet sand. Offshore, dark gargoyles of rock form a quintessential Olympic Coast sculpture garden enlivened by dancing waves.
By the time I head back to camp, darkness has fallen, and the moon shimmers on the incoming breakers. After a few hours around a crackling campfire, Barb and Rich head into their tent, and I sit quietly, enjoying the evening, listening to the surf music, and watching the liquid moonlight on the sea.
A dense layer of coastal fog settles over the beach at first light, reducing our world to the little beach and adjoining headland. A pair of eagles sit side-by-side on a sea stack as if posing for a group picture. A tangled masses of seaweed left behind by the evening tide covers the beach and in the muted light, it is an unnaturally luminous green. We have some rough travel today—three large points to round, all requiring a low tide for passage—but our packs are noticeably lighter now, owing to our diminishing stores of food.
We time our departure with the receding tide and set out around the point north of Cape Johnson, where we are obliged to engage in some serious boulder hopping across the seaweed-slippery tidal shelf. Barb describes it as something like climbing on wet bubble wrap (but more slippery). Then, after a brief respite on a small half-moon-shaped beach, it’s back onto the rocks and the rounding of Cape Johnson itself, a vast jumble of sea-splashed rocks, driftwood, and starfish, very popular with the local eagles.
We reach sand again at the Chilean Memorial, where a stone marker commemorates the wreck of the Chilean ship, W.J. Pirrie, lost in a horrendous storm in 1920. The schooner’s hull split in two, and all 20 sailors were swept into the storm-tossed sea. Two crew members made it to shore to eventually be rescued by members of the Quileute Tribe. Eighteen crew members perished.
The cove, encircled by cliffs, is filled with shadows.
We navigate around the rocks of the last unnamed point, through the Hole in the Wall, and step onto the fine sand of Rialto Beach. The final mile is pure joy, sailing across the packed sand, backpack feeling as light as a feather. The fog rolls around the offshore rocks, and the sun shines through here and there, illuminating us in a painterly light. I find myself singing.
We cross Ellen Creek on a convenient log and stride into the trailhead parking lot, enjoying the delightful mixture of elation and well-earned weariness that marks the end of a good hike. The 23 miles we’d covered from Lake Ozette was filled with enough splendor to last a lifetime. One can only say a silent ‘thank you’ to William O. Douglas for his part in saving this amazing place.
On the Beach
The 23-mile traverse from Lake Ozette to Rialto Beach is the easiest of the major Olympic Beach Traverses. Still, it challenges hikers with sections of surfside boulder hopping, and several climbs over headlands that require the use of fixed ropes. In addition, knowledge of the tides is essential—numerous places can only be passed on a slack tide, and getting caught by an incoming tide could be disastrous. A tide table is mandatory.
The entire way is hugely scenic: lonely wind-swept beaches, towering sea stacks, luminous tide pools, and coastal forests that redefine the color green. This is primeval wilderness. Hikers must be self-sufficient and practice strict no-trace ethics, including storing all food in ‘bear cans’ (the raccoons here are practically safe-crackers) and properly disposing of human waste. A wilderness permit (available through Olympic National Park) is required for all overnight stays.
The Ozette – Rialto Traverse: A Guide to Superlatives
Best Beaches: Kayostia, Cedar Creek
Best Sea Stacks: Norwegian Memorial to Hole in the Wall
Spookiest Campsite: Chilean Memorial
Gnarliest Boulders: Cape Johnson