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 trips along the Wilderness Coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park have perhaps been 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. After having to double back on our previous attempt to hike a remote stretch of the Wilderness Coast a few years ago, we returned to finish the job last summer, and we’re glad that we did.
Getting to the Wilderness Coast requires some determination, as it’s about a four-hour drive from Seattle and about six from Portland. We chose to make the Lost Resort at Ozette Lake our home base, staying in a rustic cabin the night before our hike, and eating a couple of meals at their cafe. It’s a stone’s throw from the Ozette Ranger Station, which was our eventual hiking destination.
We hired a shuttle to take us from the Ozette Ranger Station, where we parked our vehicle, to the Shi Shi Beach trailhead. Our friendly driver, John, was very knowledgeable about the area and shared some interesting local history. The parking lot at the trailhead offers pit toilets, and the trail 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 from the bluff to the beach. On our last visit, in 2010, the tidepools here were the most spectacular we’d seen — filled with sea stars and other creatures. In 2016, the sea stars were few and far between, further evidence of sea star wasting disease.
We explored the tidepools and had a picnic lunch on the beach before heading 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.
For our “campsite,” we chose a spot on the sand well away from the surf, near the trees and a trickle of a creek just north of the Point of the Arches. A few pit toilets are hidden in the forest just above the beach; look for markers or ask neighboring campers for directions. Driftwood campfires are permitted, so we found an established fire ring and warmed up near the fire before calling it a night — a heavy mist was falling.
The stretch of beach between Shi Shi and Ozette requires rounding some headlands and fording some creeks at low tide. On our previous trip, we missed the tide and had to turn around. This time, we chose a campsite at the south end of Shi Shi Beach in order to get an early start around the Point of the Arches, the first of several stretches of trail that can only be traversed at low tide.
Despite foggy and soggy 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. The trail on the headlands wandered through rainforest, and the wet ferns and branches kept us pretty damp and glad that we had our waterproof backpack covers. In these slippery conditions, some of the rope ascents and descents were a little sporty, but they added to the adventure!
We made it to the point where, several years ago, we’d had to turn around due to the tide. This time, we arrived with plenty of time. We quickly learned that we’d made the right call to turn around, as the next stretch of the coast was an unmarked boulder scramble that required some route planning, scaling some boulders and sliding down some others, and crossing more slippery, algae-covered rocks. After about 30-40 minutes of scrambling, and realizing that the tide was starting to come in, I was convinced that we’d missed a trailhead that would’ve allowed us to bypass this sadistic stretch! (We hadn’t.)
Finally, we dropped from the boulders onto the algae-covered rocks and to the rocky beach. With the most difficult stretch of trail behind us, we were in good spirits — and the patches of blue sky poking through the interminable clouds didn’t hurt. We continued down the beach to Seafield Creek, where we camped in an established site that offered a rope to climb the bluff and access fresh water from the creek.
Day Three took us along the beach — no more headlands to clamber over — with only one more tide-related obstacle ahead: fording the Ozette River. The sandy beach near Seafield Creek quickly gave way to rocky beach, but the walking was relatively easy and it was easy to see that we were literally leaving the fog behind us and heading toward beautiful, cloudless blue sky. We came across a fantastic campsite on the north side of the river, and stopped for an early lunch while we waited for the tide to recede. A bald eagle, perched on a nearby tree, kept an eye on us while we ate.
Our concerns about fording the Ozette faded quickly, as it was pretty shallow. I tossed my boots across the river and forded it in my sandals; it was less than knee-deep. From here, there were no more tide worries all the way to Ozette Lake, although much of the hike took us across algae-covered rocks. I highly recommend using hiking poles — they saved me from slipping into the water more times than I can count.
Once we forded the Ozette River, we found ourselves encountering more and more people as we headed to Cape Alava. We’d seen only a handful of hikers and campers between the Point of the Arches and the Ozette River, but the parking lot at the Ozette Ranger Station is only three miles from Cape Alava, making it a popular hiking and camping spot for weekenders. Hiking from south to north, tides permitting, might be preferable for those looking to “escape” the crowds and wrap up their hike in relative solitude (although Shi Shi might seem equally busy on weekends).
We explored the beach, watched the sunset, and even were lucky enough to watch the Perseid meteor showers from the beach that night. Cape Alava has a dozen or so designated campsites just above the beach; although permits are required, sites are not assigned. Arrive early to get a choice of campsites. A nearby trickle of a creek provides a fresh water source, and there’s a pit toilet amidst the designated campsites.
Day Four consisted of a relatively short hike back through the forest to the Ozette Ranger Station. Much of the hike between Cape Alava and Ozette Lake was on a boardwalk, and a footbridge over the Ozette River marked the end of the trail — right at the parking lot, where our car awaited … and a hearty lunch and cold beer were just up the road at the Lost Resort!
We’re really glad that we finally finished what we’d set out to do a few years ago — the Wilderness Coast hike is definitely adventurous and unique. Although clouds, fog, and rain are the norm along the coast of the Olympic rainforest, with good weather, its scenery turns from impressive to spectacular. The solitude offered between Shi Shi Beach and the Ozette River is hard to come by on many national park hiking trails, and the difficulty of hiking that stretch certainly made the solitude understandable!
While it was a great adventure that I’m glad I did once, I can’t see returning to that stretch of the coast (the boulder scramble north of Seafield Creek is enough to deter me from a return visit). Still, the seals, Black Oystercatchers, Bald Eagle, sea stars, and other wildlife we saw, coupled with the rugged beauty of the coastline, made the trip well worth it.
What’s a hike you’ve done that left the crowds behind? Leave us a note in the comments. And enjoy your next backpacking adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!