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 Lewis and Clark 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.
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.