The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast
By Michael Lanza
On a remote, sandy beach on Washington’s Olympic coast, we stop in our tracks and gaze up. A wall of muddy earth rises some 300 feet into jungle-like rainforest. A thick strand of hemp rope dangles down this steep, eroding embankment. A ladder of wooden steps built into the muddy ground rises in tandem with the rope.
We’re going up it.
We’ve reached this spot after an hour of stepping and clambering cautiously over a beach tiled with big boulders, each one coated with wet, slick kelp and barnacles. Our group of six—including my wife, Penny, our school-age son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, my brother-in-law, Tom Beach, and his 15-year-old son, Daniel—crossed that beach while racing the clock against an incoming tide that was rapidly transforming that rocky stretch of coast to ocean. Now, this rope ladder marks the start of a three-mile-long overland trail through the rainforest. This detour off the beach is necessary to get around Hoh Head, an impassable section of coast where cliffs rise straight out of the pounding ocean.
“Oh, there’s a slug! There’s ANOTHER slug!” Nate excitedly calls out every sighting of these slimy creatures that are as long as his hand as I follow Alex and him up the rope ladder—bracing myself to, in theory, catch a tumbling kid.
It’s early on the first afternoon of our three-day, 17.5-mile backpacking trip on the southern stretch of the Olympic coast, from the Hoh River north to La Push Road. On the outer edge of the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park protects the longest strip of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States. You can’t order fried seafood or buy a T-shirt anywhere along these 73 miles of seashore. In fact, it’s one of the few remaining pieces of ocean-view real estate in the Lower 48 that Christopher Columbus or Capt. George Vancouver would recognize.
It’s also one of America’s most stunningly beautiful shores. Up and down the coast, scores of stone pinnacles—called sea stacks—rise as much as 200 feet out of the ocean, some of them topped with a copse of a few trees, others just bare rock. Some lie close enough to the beach to walk to them at low tide; others erupt from the sea far offshore. They were once part of the mainland. Composed of harder sandstone than much of the headlands that face the Pacific, the sea stacks remained standing after the waves eroded away softer rock and dirt surrounding them.
Seeing the stacks that stand hundreds of yards from the beach speaks volumes about what the ocean does to this coast.
We follow the overland trail through primeval rainforest, where mosses grow thickly on enormous trees. On this windward side of the Olympic Mountains, up to 14 feet of rain a year sustain one of Earth’s largest virgin temperate rainforests, an ecosystem possibly containing more living biomass than anywhere in the world. Sitka spruce and western red cedar grow to 150 feet tall, with diameters of 10 or 15 feet; Douglas fir and western hemlock soar well over 200 feet. Ferns carpet the ground.
Offshore upwellings of nutrient-rich cold water nurture a food chain ranging from the foundation species of life—phytoplankton and zooplankton—to invertebrates, many kinds of fish, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and humpback, gray, minke, and blue whales. Salmon spawn in wild rivers. You can see bald eagles, tufted puffins, and many seabirds. Olympic National Park offers a tremendous diversity of recreational activities, but its greatest value may be in the incredible diversity of life it sustains.
As we hike, fog swirls around in the treetops—although not far to our right, inland, we can see blue sky. Just a few hours ago, in Forks, the little town on US 101 that has reinvented itself as a tourist destination for fans of the vampire book series, Twilight, it was sunny and in the 70s. Here on the coast, it’s foggy and in the 50s. That’s not unusual here.
Even during this relatively “drier” season, in mid-August, boot-sucking mud defines much of the trail. And while my topographical map, with its 80-foot contour intervals, suggests this trail is a gentle stroll through the woods, in reality the path plunges repeatedly into 20-foot-deep ravines and climbs steeply back out of them. We walk toe-to-heel across slick logs over bogs of knee-deep muck, stride over tree roots as big around as an anaconda, and scramble up and down numerous wooden ladders and steps built into the saturated earth. This trail around Hoh Head will be the roughest three miles of the trip.
By mid-afternoon, having taken five hours to hike a bit more than five miles, we grab a spacious campsite in the forest near Mosquito Creek. Beyond the edge of our site, an eroded bluff drops steeply about a hundred feet down to a rocky beach buffeted by waves as the tide rolls in.
The kids drop their packs and dart immediately down the trail to the beach. After pitching our tents, I find them wading knee-deep in a wide pool where Mosquito Creek backs up behind the beach. They have already constructed sand castles, and outfitted long chunks of driftwood as battleships, complete with sand-and-stick cannons. As they launch into extended explanations of their ships, I touch the cool creek water and note that the air temp is still in the 50s, and the sun a faint orb glowing weakly through the gray overcast. But my kids don’t even seem to notice the chill.
On our second morning, the six of us continue hiking north along the wide beach, crossing firm, damp sand exposed at high tide. Again, the overcast hangs low overhead, and the temperature rests in the 50s—great hiking weather. We’re not even breaking a sweat.
Nate had salvaged an old buoy from the beach near Mosquito Creek. Now, it dangles by a string from his pack; he’ll carry it for the rest of this trip and bring it home, a flotsam memento from the Olympic coast that will fit nicely into the general junkyard ambiance of his bedroom.
A mile beyond Mosquito Creek, we come upon one of the delights of a wild coastline.
A boulder about twenty feet tall sits in the intertidal zone, the strip of beach that’s exposed now, at low tide, and underwater at high tide. Below the high-tide line around the boulder’s waist, barnacles, sea anemones, and vividly orange or purple starfish wallpaper the rock. Above and below that high-water line, thousands of mussels packed shell-to-shell cover the stone’s surface. Alex and Nate reach out and touch fingertips to the starfish and mussels.
The beach up and down this coast is a graveyard of tree trunks as white as giant femurs, stripped of their bark by the sea after the surf eroded the turf at their base, toppling them over. Those stacks of skinned trunks on the beach may grow larger in the future.
The ocean has always steadily chewed away at this wild coastline. But as average temperatures continue rising in coming years, scientists say this erosional process will accelerate. About one-third of the Olympic coastline is rated as “highly vulnerable” to sea-level rise. Increasingly powerful storms, pumped up by warming temperatures, will hammer the coast. Experts fear calamitous impacts on salmon populations from warming waters, and on the intertidal organisms that live part of every day underwater and part above water. Those organisms, one scientist told me, “are not particularly good at dealing with significant changes in temperature.”
Later that second afternoon, I clutch a rope in one hand and lean out over a ladder that hangs down a nearly vertical, 80-foot cliff. At its bottom, I see what I’ve expected: several rungs missing from the ladder’s bottom.
I had been warned about this rope ladder being in disrepair. But after descending it to leave my pack at the bottom and inspect the section of missing rungs, and climbing back up, I’m reasonably sure that I can escort each of my kids down it safely. And sure enough, while it’s very exciting, everyone descends cautiously without a problem.
By mid-afternoon, we have pitched tents on the beach at Toleak Point for our last night out here. Dozens of offshore stacks conjure the ruins of a flooded city. The fog has lifted slightly. Nate and Alex head straight for nearby Jackman Creek, which like Mosquito Creek pools calmly behind a sand dune. A sea otter crawls out of Jackman’s pool and flops across the sand to the ocean. A harbor seal cavorts in the water thirty feet offshore. I walk over to explore the sea stacks off the point, reachable at low tide. A great blue heron lifts off the grassy summit of one stack and beats the air with its long wings.
On our final morning, the fog has risen a bit, giving us views of scores of sea stacks on the hike from Toleak Point to Strawberry Point. As we’re walking along the sandy beach, Alex tells me, “I think this is tied with Glacier Bay for our best trip so far.”
I look ahead to watch Nate strolling by himself along the beach, lost in thought, with that old buoy dangling below his pack.
[Author’s note: I write more about this trip and Olympic’s climate story in my book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press.]
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR moderately fit adults and kids who can hike five to seven sometimes-rugged miles per day, don’t mind trails that can be extremely muddy, and are comfortable climbing and descending high, vertical rope ladders. Navigation is not difficult—just follow the coast except where you take well-marked overland trails around headlands. Weather can be very rainy, cool, foggy, and windy; time your trip for a good forecast.
Make It Happen
Season While this coastal route can be hiked year-round, the season with mildest temperatures runs May through October, with mid-July through mid-September typically offering relatively drier conditions.
The Itinerary Plan three days for the 17.5-mile hike along the southern stretch of the Olympic coast, from the Oil City Trailhead on the Hoh River north to the Third Beach Trailhead on La Push Road. It could be done in two days, but the overland trails are quite rugged and slow, particularly in muddy conditions, and take time to hang out on the beaches and explore tide pools and the sea stacks close to shore in spots like Toleak Point. Hike from south to north to get through the hardest stretch, the three miles over Hoh Head, on the first day; this direction of travel also allows you to time your start to get around the headland south of Jefferson Cove at low tide.
Day one—hike 5.3 miles from Oil City to campsites in the forest or on the beach at Mosquito Creek.
Day two—hike 5.1 miles from Mosquito Creek to campsites on the sandy beach at Toleak Point.
Day three—hike seven miles to the Third Beach Trailhead on La Push Road.
For an easier and shorter trip that avoids the vehicle shuttle and the difficult overland trail around Hoh Head, hike from Third Beach Trailhead 6.5 miles south to Toleak Point and back.
Getting There You will need to shuttle two vehicles. To reach the Third Beach Trailhead, from US 101, 55 miles west of Port Angeles and two miles north of Forks, turn west onto WA 110 (to Mora and La Push). Drive 7.7 miles and turn left onto La Push Road. Continue 3.8 miles to the Third Beach Trailhead. To reach the hike’s start at the Oil City Trailhead, from Forks, drive south on US 101 for 15 miles, then turn right (west) onto Oil City Road. Continue 10.6 miles to the road’s end at the trailhead; the road turns to good gravel at 5.2 miles, passable for cars.
Permit A backcountry permit is required, but there are no limits on the number of backpackers on the southern Olympic coast, so no reservation is needed or available. Pick up a permit in person at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles or the Forks Information Center in Forks (see below).
Map Green Trails La Push map no. 163S, $5.50, (206) 546-6277, greentrailsmaps.com.
Guidebook Backpacking Washington, by Craig Romano, $18.95, The Mountaineers Books, (206) 223-6303, mountaineersbooks.org.
• Some stretches of the shore with headlands can only be rounded at low tide; carry a tide chart (available at the Wilderness Information Center). If hiking south to north (as described above), time your start from the Oil City Trailhead for low tide in order to get around the first headland, south of Jefferson Cove.
• A few creek fords can be dangerous at times of high water, right after a heavy rainfall or in spring. Creek crossings are generally shallow and easy during dry periods, as they were during the August trip described in this story. Check on current conditions with the Wilderness Information Center (below).
• Rope ladders are sometimes in disrepair; ask at the WIC.
• The overland trails through the forest are often extremely muddy, even in summer, but particularly so from autumn through spring.
• Hard-sided food containers like bear canisters are required and can be borrowed from the national park for a suggested donation of $3.