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Hiking the Olympic Coast, Washington

It's Washington's wettest and wildest shore, a 57-mile long strip practically unchanged since famed explorer Captain James Cook sailed by in 1778. With monumental sea stacks, dramatic capes and coves, rocks and reefs, Olympic National Park's ocean shore is one to remember.

All is not quiet on the park's western front, especially in winter when huge waves, high winds and heavy rains lash the shore. The surf tosses giant logs upon the shore like so many matchsticks. Ah, but Pacific Northwesterners sometimes make a spectator sport of it: "Winter storm watching," they call it. Between storms the hiking is magnificent.

Some 100 inches of rain a year falls on these beaches in the shadow of mighty Mt. Olympus. Of course the weather is worse inland: the adjacent rain forest is rainier and 7,965-foot Mt. Olympus gathers 200 inches of annual precipitation-- mostly in the form of snows. Three-fourths of this prodigious rainfall soaks the shore during the late fall-winter-early spring rainy season. However, even the summer hiking season averages a few inches a month.

Shore pine overlooks the surf line. A little farther inland thrives a forest of sitka spruce, red cedar and hemlock, towering above a forest floor that's a tangle of ferns, mosses, salal sorrel and ocean spray. Elk, porcupine, black tailed deer and black bear roam the bluffs above the beach. Double-breasted cormorants, black oystercatchers, gulls and great blue herons are among the frequently seen airborne denizens of land's end. Sea stacks (the tall offshore rocks) are mini-wildlife refuges, offer sanctuary for murres, guillemots, auklets and those favorites of every binoculars-equipped child --puffins. Minus tides present opportunities for exploration of this coast's abundant tidepools, teeming with mussels, starfish, anenomes, sea urchins, rock oysters, hermit crabs and many more creatures.

Certainly this coast is a wilderness by all outward appearances--charcoal-gray beaches heaped with humongous driftwood logs, pine-spiked headlands enshrouded in the mist. It's managed as a wilderness by the national park service. Within this public domain, and adding to it's end- of-the-world feeling, are three Native American holdings: the Ozette Reservation on the north side of Cape Alava, the Quileute Reservation at La Push and the Hoh Reservation on the south side of the Hoh River. Native people have lived on this coast for centuries. A village site at Cape Alava, buried by a mud slide some 500 years ago, preserved a multitude of artifacts that helped archeologists understand the culture and live of these early people.

The hiking opportunities are many: weekend and weeklong backpacking trips, half- day and all-day treks, easy beach walks. Backpacking is the only way to see two seventeen mile long sections of this coast, which have no road access. Beach hiking is much slower than you might imagine. The beaches themselves are of two varieties: long, wide sand strands and minor coves bookended by rocky points. Some of these rocky points can only be rounded at low tide. Other points can be surmounted by forest trails that climb inland before returning the hiker to the beach.

If you're willing to brave the rain or try to time your visit between storms, Olympic National Park beaches are open all year. Temperatures are relatively mild for this part of the world--rarely dropping below freezing or above 65 degrees F. Summer, the most popular hiking is often cool, mosit and foggy. For some hikers, autumn is the favorite time to beach comb or backback. Thanksgiving weekend is particularly popular here, marking the last hike of the season for many.

Although some intrepid backpackers do hike the whole 57-mile length of coast, most hikers favor one, two and three-day journeys. The complete absence of local public transportation means that overnighters must make car shuttle arrangements or plan roundtrip hikes. Directions to trailhead: From the parking lot, walk to the Ozette Ranger Station and inquire about the latest tide and trail information. The trail begins at a nearby information kiosk.

Follow the path a quarter-mile to a junction. Sand Point Trail (your return route) forks left but you bear right on Capae Alava Trail and follow the boardwalk path through a lowland forest thick with salal, huckleberry and ferns. About halfway along, you'll reach a boggy area known as Ahlstrom's Meadow. Lake Ozette pioneer Lars Ahlstrom, native of Sweden, resided here from 1902 to 1958, The boardwalk returns to the forest before dropping to the driftwood-strewn beach facing Ozette Island. Cape Alava and Cannonball Island are to the north.

This hike heads south a mile along the beach, reaching a minor headland called Weddding Rock where the astute observer will find native petroglyphs on the boulders near the beach. Two more miles of beach travel brings you to the (perhaps misnamed) Sandy Point, a rocky point crowned with grass. Here you join a second boardwalk trail, traveling past a stand of Sitka spruce and through the lush green forest back to the trailhead.

For more information:
Olympic National Park
600 E. Park Ave.
Port Angeles, WA 98362
tel. (206) 452-4501


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