Ultimate Coast Guide: Olympic Peninsula
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Go here if: you love rugged, sometimes difficult-to-access beaches (you may need to hike in) and count the limited number of tourist amenities (shops, restaurants and hotels) as a bonus. Vast stretches of the Peninsula’s beaches are part of the Olympic National Park. Estimated travel time: three to four hours from Seattle
Stand at the Northwest tip of the continental United States at Cape Flattery
Trails at Cape Flattery (makah.com/capetrail.html), located on the Makah Indian Reservation (and accessed via Highway 112) lead a short distance through dense old-growth forest to a dramatic cliff-top overlook with views north to Vancouver Island and west over the deep blue Pacific. In the foreground, Tatoosh Island and its 65-foot-tall lighthouse, constructed in 1854, warn ships of the oncoming mainland (many have crashed here) and serves as a visual focal point on the otherwise endless horizon. Puffins and auklets dart in and out of the cliffs below while hawks and eagles soar overhead. Watch for migrating whales off shore, especially in winter.
Surf Hobuck Beach
A sandy mile-and-a-half-long crescent, Hobuck Beach (also on the Makah Indian Reservation) attracts surfers who catch the tail end of rogue waves making their way over from Japan. The Hobuck Beach Resort (2726 Makah Passage; 360.645.2339; hobuckbeachresort.com; campsites $20/night, cabins from $150/night May-September, $110/night October-April) is run laissez-faire style by the Makah Tribe, and offers surfers and beachcombers the chance to sleep right where all the action happens. Cocktails on the beach at sunset, anyone?
Moonlight Camp at Shi Shi Beach
The reality of Shi Shi Beach (makah.com/shishi.html) lives up to its reputation. Long heralded as the ultimate Olympic coastal beach, it features wide sandy stretches, massive driftwood corpses strewn haphazardly by tides and offshore sea stacks that serve as rookeries for thousands of seabirds. Accessible via a mostly level and sometimes cedar-plank-lined 3.3-mile trail leaving from the outskirts of Neah Bay, Shi Shi (in Makah, meaning “smelt beach”) is the perfect beach to haul a backpack full of camping gear to. (Wilderness camping permits from Olympic National Park are required for overnight stays; go to nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wilderness-permits.htm) You might get the place to yourselves, especially on a weeknight. And your camp food will never have tasted as good as it will when enjoyed around a driftwood bonfire as the golden orb sets over the ocean. And that sunrise—you’ll see it before anyone else in the Lower 48.
Grab breakfast at the Lost Resort
Lost Resort (208660 Hoko-Ozette Road, Clallam Bay; 360.963.2899; lostresort.net; $70/night for cabin, $15/night for campsites), just across the road from Lake Ozette, has rustic cabins as well as RV and tent sites available year-round. An excellent on-site deli serves up great breakfasts, baked goods, espresso and a welcoming atmosphere. Diversions include going for a canoe or kayak paddle on the lake (though you have to bring your own craft—no rentals are available) and drinking in the sounds of the forest primeval all around.
Do the Loop: Hike Cape Alava, Sand Point and Lake Ozette
Universally considered one of the premier hikes in the Pacific Northwest, the 9.2-mile, triangular Cape Alava–Sand Point Loop features six miles on a sometimes slippery boardwalk through marshy coastal forest mediated by a stunning three-mile stretch on a remote wilderness beach. Along the way, a mile or so south of Cape Alava (the northwesterly stop on the triangle), keep your eyes peeled for Wedding Rock, where ancient Makah Indian petroglyphs can be seen close to the high-tide line. Sand Point, the southwesterly nexus of the hike, is one of the best spots in the Lower 48 to spy cute and furry sea otters (bring the binoculars) feeding on kelp beds and frolicking in the nearshore waters. Start at the Ozette Ranger Station (take State Route 112 west past the town of Sekiu, then hang a left on Hoko-Ozette Road, which culminates 21 miles later at Lake Ozette) and choose whether to head for Sand Point or Cape Alava first, although both ways yield similarly awesome views and scenery.
Camp beachside at the Olympic Shores
The National Park Service runs four coastal campgrounds: Ozette (on Lake Ozette near Cape Alava), Mora (on the Quillayute River near Rialto Beach), Kalaloch and South Beach (both near the Kalaloch Lodge). The first three campgrounds mentioned stay open year-round—weather permitting—while South Beach is a summertime-only affair. Reservations for the summer season can be made for Kalaloch (via the federal government’s reservation.gov Web site), but all the others are first come, first served.
Drift along at Rialto Beach
Three miles before State Route 110 hits La Push, a spur road leads northwest past Mora Campground along the outflow of the Quillayute River to Rialto Beach, one of Olympic National Park’s signature wilderness beaches, where you’ll find driftwood piles up to 12 feet high. Hike north for less than a mile to the Hole-in-the-Wall, where the eroding forces of wind and water have poked a hole in the side of a cliff jutting into the Pacific, making for sweet photo ops and a nice lunch spot amidst swirling tide pools teeming with marine life.
Get crabs at La Push
Splitting off from U.S. Route 101 and just south of the logging town of Forks is State Route 110, an 11-plus-mile road that travels through dense second-growth forest and deadends at the oceanside town of La Push, the hub of the Quileute Indian Reservation and a great place to walk the beach or launch a sea kayak. While the town itself is a bit grimy (picture doublewides and cars on blocks)—the tribe runs a series of seaside amenities appealing to city slickers desperate for some salt air and cultural stimulation. The River’s Edge Restaurant (41 Main St.; 360.374.5777) offers moderately priced seaside fare, including locally harvested crabs and salmon; at the Quileute Ocean Side Resort (330 Ocean Drive; 360.374.5267; quileuteoceanside.com; $63-$280) you’ll find a dozen or so cabins, two houses and a motel-style building, all tucked behind a small dune fronting sandy First Beach, a great place for surfing or kayaking. Next door, the Lonesome Creek Store offers the necessities: food, toiletries, postal services, pay showers, laundry machines and RV hook-ups. On summertime Saturday nights, the Quileutes’ weekly fish-and-crab feed at the community center also includes native dancing and drumming.
Commune with the coyotes at Manitou Lodge
The full-service Manitou Lodge Bed and Breakfast (813 Kilmer Road, Forks; 360.374.6295; manitoulodge.com; prices vary depending on season: 11/1 - 5/17 $99-$129/night; 5/18 - 5/24 and 10/1 - 10/31 $119-$149/night; 5/29 - 6/14 and 9/4 - 9/30 $129-$169/night) is tucked into 11 forested acres surrounded by Olympic National Park and the Quileute Indian Reservation—and just three miles from Rialto Beach. The wood-and-stone main lodge building has five well-appointed guest rooms, and a large great room with a massive stone fireplace. A detached cottage features two additional guest rooms, and two small one-room cabins are available in summer. Owners Ed and Lynne Murphy promise that the “nights in our forest are silent except for the distant rush of the Sol Duc River and occasional interruptions by coyotes or owls.” Just the tonic a city slicker needs to unwind.
Brave the waters at Quillayute River Resort
The motel-style Quillayute River Resort (473 Mora Road, Forks; 360.374.7447; qriverresort.com; 10/1 - 10/31 and 4/1 - 5/31 $145/night; 6/1 - 9/30 $180/night; 11/1 - 3/30 $110/night; Memorial Day weekend and 6/15 - 9/3 $139/night) is perched on a bluff high above a raging curve in the Quillayute River. The recently updated housekeeping suites offer views of the river and all the amenities of civilization: free high-speed Internet and Dish Network on in-room flat screens. A small path switches back down to the riverbank proper, where an inviting swimming hole awaits those willing to brave the low temps in the glacially fed Quillayute. Luckily the resort’s fire pit, situated riverside, provides a nice spot to warm up those chilly bones.
Hitch your RV at Three Rivers Resort
For non-campers, the Three Rivers Resort near Forks (7765 LaPush Road, Forks; 360.374.5300; threeriversresortandquideservice.com; prices vary for cabins) offers rustic cabins, as well as tent sites and RV hookups, a satisfying burger joint, a well-stocked general store chock-full of fishing tackle, and, of course, surfboard rentals. Staff can also hook you up with guides to take you kayaking, fishing or hiking in the surrounding area and along the coast.
Don't forget! Beach Camping Permits:
Backpackers looking to camp on their own stretch of wilderness beach need only strong legs, a tent and, of course, a backcountry permit. Get one in advance (reserve at 360.565.3130) or on the spot at the National Park Service’s Forks Recreation and Information Center in Forks, or the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles. The sandy stretches at Shi Shi, Cape Alava, Sand Point, Third Beach and the Mosquito Creek drainage are some of the Peninsula’s favorite backcountry beach camping spots, but anywhere that’s not too crowded will do just fine.
See sea stacks at Second and Third beaches
Just south of La Push, take the 1.4-mile one-way coastal rainforest hike from the trailhead off State Route 110 to emerge on magnificent Third Beach. Adorned by sea stacks to the right, the endless Pacific horizon out front, and a stunning waterfall coming off a cliff a mile or so to the south, Third Beach is as close as the Olympic coastline comes to paradise. A little farther south on SR 110, another trailhead beckons to Second Beach, an equally scenic locale (just a .7-mile hike in) where ambitious visitors can climb atop 40-foot-tall onshore sea stacks, tide willing, and watch the setting sun light the sky ablaze with shades of red, pink and orange (clouds willing).
Hiking and tide-pooling along the Olympic National Park coastline may seem like a day at the beach, but visitors should take heed: Every year dozens of unsuspecting people get stranded on beaches by rising tides that block access trails. Even day hikers should always carry an up-to-date tide table and (water-resistant) timepiece in order to minimize the risk—and watch out for pounding surf that can unseat huge drift logs and turn them into massive steamrollers.
Snap a beauty photo at Ruby Beach
As you emerge from a green curtain of coastal forest on Highway 101, tumbled driftwood, just-out-of-reach sea stacks and the Pacific Ocean—lapping at the soft sand beach—come into view. Ruby Beach (27 miles south of Forks), named for the reddish sand that gathers in occasional patches, is a gem waiting to be found at the end of an easy quarter-mile trek from the marked trailhead (at milepost 164.7) along Highway 101. Where the trail meets the beach, you can walk south to Beach 6 or three miles north to the mouth of the Hoh River. This photogenic beach has attracted local artists for decades. Pack your paintbrushes, your camera or just use your memory to capture the phenomenal sunset glinting off multicolored cliffs. During low tide, you can walk way out onto the beach and see sea creatures squirm in the sand as the tide carries them back out to sea.
Search tide pools for ochre sea stars at Beach 4
As just about anyone who has ever donned a pair of wellies and braved a minus (lower than low) tide will tell you, the Olympic Peninsula offers some of the world’s finest tide-pooling. Beach 4 just north of Kalaloch delivers the goods: ochre sea stars, giant green anemones and spiky sea urchins are just some of the intertidal characters sure to make appearances if the tide is out. While Shi Shi, Second Beach and Third Beach also get high marks for coastal tide-pooling, none can compete with Beach 4 in regard to easy access.
Gaze up at big cedars at Beach 6
It’s hard to take your eyes off the Pacific as your cruise along Highway 101 on the Olympic Peninsula’s northern coast. But this region’s also known for its giant trees, and you’ll find some of the biggest specimens here. Washington’s western red cedars, Douglas firs and Sitka spruces give even California’s redwoods a run for their money in terms of wood mass. Just a few miles north of Kalaloch, near Beach 6, watch for signs marked “Big Cedar Tree” that lead to a turnout. There, motorists can park and walk along a short trail to see and even stand inside the above-ground root cave of a western red cedar that’s more than 20 feet in diameter at ground level. A few miles farther south are the spruce burl forests that nest between Highway 101 and the coastal beaches. No one is sure what causes the strange bulge-like “burls” in the area’s Sitka spruce populations—perhaps some kind of rare virus or just a reaction to the constant barrage of salty sea spray—but the trees don’t seem to mind: Many of them are hundreds of years old and reach up 125 feet into the coastal canopy. The woods surrounding the access trail to Beach 1 feature easily accessible examples of the eerie spruce burl phenomenon.
Unplug at Kalaloch Lodge
While the inside accommodations may be less than four-star, sitting on your back patio watching the sun set over the crashing waves is one nice perk of staying at the Kalaloch Lodge (157151 Highway 101, Forks; 866.525.2562; visitkalaloch.com; prices vary based on date), in operation in its current format since the 1950s. While many of the 44 freestanding log cabins and 10 main lodge rooms show their age, it’s easy to embrace this shabby chic décor when breathtaking natural vistas are just outside the door. Where else along this wild and protected coastline can you sleep in a bed, indulge in hot showers and cold beer, and grab a decent sit-down meal (at the restaurant in the main lodge) after a long day of beach walks and tide-pooling? If getting away from it all is everything, Kalaloch Lodge, perched on National Park Service land above a wilderness beach with nary another hotel within dozens of miles (most cell phones don’t get reception here), might just have it all.
This article was originally published in May 2011
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