Backpacking Olympic National Park’s Spectacular Wilderness Coast

The Olympic Coast

The Olympic Coast

Each summer, Jeff and a buddy embark on a backpacking trip in the western US. Each of these trips has been an adventure, and each one has traversed some spectacular backcountry — usually through a national park. But our backpacking trip along the Wilderness Coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park was perhaps our most unique: most of the hike is along remote stretches of beach, and the remainder winds up and down the roadless headlands, offering dramatic views of the ocean below.

Tucked into the far northwest corner of the lower 48 US states, Olympic National Park is home to an extreme variety of landscapes: ocean beaches, temperate rainforest, snow-capped mountains, rivers, and lakes. Getting to the Wilderness Coast requires some determination, as it’s about a four-hour drive from Seattle. We chose to make the spartan Hobuck Beach Resort our home base, where the gals holed up in our friends’ RV while the guys headed out on their hiking adventure.

(Hobuck Beach itself turned out to be pretty amazing: Erin found hundreds of fully intact sand dollars washed up on the sand!)

Tidepool at Shi Shi Beach

Tidepool at Shi Shi Beach

The four of us drove to the Shi Shi Beach trailhead, where we paid a modest parking fee to the Makah Indian Reservation (the trailhead is situated on Makah land, just north of the NPS boundary). We set out on the trail, which wanders through coastal forest for about two miles before opening up onto a hilltop that sits about 200 feet (60 m) above Shi Shi Beach. A sandy trail zigzags down to the beach, which has some of the best tidepools we’ve ever seen!

We explored the tidepools for a while before the four of us had a picnic lunch on the beach. Then the ladies headed back up the trail to the car (and eventually to the cozy RV) while we headed south along the beach toward our campsite. The park service requires a permit for camping on the beach, but there’s no limit on the number of permits issued. However, reservations are required for all backcountry camping south of Shi Shi.

Camping ON Shi Shi Beach!

Camping ON Shi Shi Beach!

For our “campsite,” we chose a spot on the sand well away from the surf, near the trees and a meandering, freshwater creek. Driftwood campfires are permitted, so we found an established fire ring and warmed up near the fire before calling it a night.

Our plan was to hike south, camp two more nights, and then meet the gals at the north end of Ozette Lake on Day Four. However, the stretch of beach between Shi Shi and Ozette requires rounding some headlands and fording some creeks at low tide. We had a difficult time finding reliable tide tables for this remote stretch of the coast, and by extrapolating from the data we could find, we figured that if we rounded the second headland by 3:00 p.m., we’d be able to make it to our campsite at Seafield Creek on the second night.

We were wrong.

Despite foggy conditions, the hiking on Day Two was still great — traversing stretches of rocky beaches, watching Black Oystercatchers wandering across the rocks, and scaling the headlands with the help of NPS-provided ropes. We descended from the headland onto a steeply sloped, rocky beach just before 3:00 p.m. (apparently we’d been enjoying the scenery just a little too much). We started to round a blind point, but were having to scramble over rocks in the water as the tide was coming in. It was a little dicey since we couldn’t see around the point to tell if the beach was right there or if it was well inland. We could tell that the water was rising, and that the 10′ x  10′ swath of beach grass perched precariously at a 20° angle over our heads wouldn’t be a pleasant place to spend the night if we got stuck.

So we doubled back.

Getting back to the rocky beach we’d just left was also a bit dicey with the tide coming in, and it made us glad that we’d opted to play it safe. But … now we were off schedule, meaning that if we continued heading south in the morning (allowing for the low tide at both this blasted point and also at a stream crossing further south), we’d end up reaching Ozette Lake and our wives at least six hours late on Day Four of our trip. With no way to contact them, we knew that they’d have the Coast Guard out looking for us by then!

So we really doubled back.

We decided to spend Day Three hiking all the way back to Hobuck Beach, but that meant skirting the first headland after the tide had gone out. It also meant finding a place to camp on Day Two, as we were sandwiched in an area between two non-passable headlands with no designated campsites. The only flat piece of non-forested land we could find was atop a tiny tuft of an outcropping surrounded on three sides by 100′ dropoffs to the water below and connected to the headland by a wall-clinging trail. Unique but a bit unnerving!

Back to the starting point :(

Back to the starting point 😦

Day Three found us scrambling back down the ropes to the beach, waiting for the tide to go out to round the point back to Shi Shi Beach, and retracing our steps all the way to Hobuck Beach, where our wives were pretty surprised to see us! Still, this was a great adventure that we highly recommend and that we plan to finish this summer — leaving plenty of time for the tides!

Have you turned back from a big adventure in the name of safety? Leave us a note in the comments. And enjoy (all of) your next backpacking adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

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