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The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast

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.

Mussels plastered to a boulder on the Southern Olympic Coast.

“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 Lewis and Clark or Capt. George Vancouver would recognize.


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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.

Olympic National Park

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.

A trip like this goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”

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.

. . .

About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hello Michael. I was wondering if the trail was deserted, few people, or popular.

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Hi Daniel, it’s certainly not deserted on any part of it, unless you go during the off-season (between mid-autumn and early spring). From Toleak Point north to the Third Beach trailhead, you’ll see other backpackers and eventually some dayhikers, but I don’t think so many that it feels “crowded.” Between Mosquito Creek and Toleak Point there will probably be some other backpackers. South of Mosquito Beach, in the hardest part of the hike, there are fewer people.

      Good question. Good luck to you.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    I absolutely love your site (and book!) and have duplicated some of your trips with my own family (Grand Canyon and Teton Crest Trail, specifically). Thanks to you again, we are leaving next week for Olympic National Park! We plan on backpacking from 3rd Beach to Toleak Point (out and back). Our kids are like little mountain goats (ages 9,10, and 12) and don’t fear heights, but I wanted to get your input on the rope ladders on this stretch of trail. Are they fairly safe to climb without any additional safety measures in place? I had the thought of bringing some webbing and making a swiss seat style harness and attaching a prusik to it and the rop the NPS has in place already. But is that complete overkill, or worse, would it actually put them in more danger if they’re having to mind the prusik if their hands should be focused more exclusively on the ladder instead of the rope? Many thanks for all that you do–you are quite an inspiration to me! 🙂

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Thanks for the compliments about my blog and book, Nancy. Your question is a good one. Before we backpacked the southern Olympic coast with our kids, who were nine and seven, I checked with park rangers and a guidebook author friend about the rope ladders. I decided my kids would be fine on them without any belay or setup like a prusik, but I did carry their packs for them and I descended/ascended each rope ladder immediately below each of them (one at a time). The stretch between Third Beach and Toleak Point has an overland section with a rope ladder, but it’s not a hard one. (The hardest is between Mosquito Creek and Toleak Point; it’s exposed but not terribly hard as long as it’s not in disrepair.) I think the prusik is unnecessary and would only complicate going up and down it. Remember to bring a tide chart and time your crossing of some spots for low tide.

      Thanks for following my blog, get in touch anytime.

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Thank you so very much for the quick reply and helpful information. It’s great to hear that this stretch isn’t overly difficult. We will definitely bring a tide chart and discuss the timing of everything with the rangers when we get our permit. Many thanks again!

        Reply
        • michaellanza

          You’re welcome, Nancy. Have fun, it’s a wonderful hike for adults and kids.

          Reply
  3. Avatar

    Excellent resource for this hike. What kind of shoes do you recommend for this trip given the varied terrain and obstacles?

    Reply
    • Michael Lanza

      Hi Dave, Good question. Boot advice is always tricky because fit, needs, and preferences vary so much between individuals. But generally, I think you want a lightweight to midweight, mid-cut boot that protects ankles on the rocks and offers moderate support in steep terrain. Check out the boot reviews I have at https://thebigoutside.com/tag/backpacking-boots-reviews/. I think either of the Scarpas and the La Sportiva would all be excellent for this trip, depending on how heavy a boot you prefer (and your backpack weight). But look at my review of the Keen boots for my thoughts about waterproof vs. non-waterproof. That issue also raises the question about whether you want to wear waterproof, neoprene socks. Always try on and walk around in boots before buying, and get your foot size measured accurately. Good luck, it’s a great trip.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    The first overnight backpacking trip I ever did as a kid was Third Beach to Toleak Point with my step-dad when I was about 9 or 10. I love that hike and area, and have been back many times. I can’t wait to take my own kids there soon. I just showed the video to my four year old to get him excited and inspired!

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Your son will receive the gift of a wonderful memory, just like you did, Jason. Thanks for sharing that story.

      Reply
  5. MichaelALanza

    Hi Ken, thanks for the nice words. It is a great trip for families.

    Reply
  6. Avatar

    I love your video. Last June my wife and I took our two kids 10 and 8 to the Lake Ozette Triangle for our family’s first 2 night backpacking trip(wish we started sooner!). We loved it and look forward to going back there. This area is beautiful and a great spot for kids to explore. We saw deer, eagles, small sea life in tide pools and even saw a whale on the first night. Super fun. Thanks for doing what you do, it is inspiring.

    Reply

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