Where Shore Storms Are a Spectator Sport
It’s Washington’s wettest and wildest shore, a 57-mile-long strip practically unchanged since explorer Capt. James Cook sailed by in 1778. With monumental sea stacks (tall offshore rocks), dramatic capes and coves, rocks and reefs, Olympic National Park’s 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 beach like matchsticks. Ah, but Pacific Northwesterners sometimes make a spectator sport of it: “Winter storm watching,” they call it. Between storms the hiking is magnificent.
About 100 inches of rain a year falls on these beaches in the shadow of mighty Mt. Olympus. Of course the weather is wetter inland: the adjacent rain forest is rainier and 7,965-foot Mt. Olympus gathers 200 inches of annual precipitation--mostly in the form of snow.
Shore pines overlook 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, sorrel and ocean spray. Elk, porcupine, black-tailed deer and black bear roam the bluffs above the beach.
Double-breasted cormorants, black oyster-catchers, gulls and great blue herons are among the frequently seen airborne denizens of land’s end. Sea stacks are mini-wildlife refuges, offering sanctuary for murres, auklets and those favorites of every binoculars-equipped child--puffins.
The hiking opportunities are many: weekend and weeklong backpacking trips, half-day and all-day treks, easy beach walks. Backpackers enjoy hiking the entire 57-mile coast with overnight stops at spectacular beachside trail camps; in fact, backpacking is the only way to see two 17-mile-long sections of this coast, which have no road access.
The park’s Olympic Coastal Strip publication, which details camping and crucial tidal information, is indispensable for a hike, short or long, along the wilderness coast.
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 going above 65 degrees. Summer, the most popular hiking, is often cool, moist and foggy. For some hikers, autumn is the favorite time to beachcomb or backpack.
My favorite day hike links three trails in the Lake Ozette area of the coast. A long wood boardwalk takes you through lush forest to a magnificent beach, which you follow south to another boardwalk that returns you to the trail head.
Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Sappho, turn north on Washington 113 and drive 16 miles to the town of Clallam Bay. Head west on Washington 112 four miles to the turnoff for Lake Ozette, following a county road 20 miles to Olympic National Park’s Ozette Ranger Station.
From the parking lot, walk to the ranger station and inquire about the latest tide and trail information. The trail begins at a nearby information kiosk.
The hike: Follow the path a quarter-mile to a junction. Sand Point Trail (your return route) forks left, but you bear right on Cape Alava Trail and follow the boardwalk path through a lowland forest thick with sorrel, 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, lived 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 Wedding 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 trail head.
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Olympic Coast, Washington
WHERE: Olympic National Park.
DISTANCE: 9.3 miles round trip.
TERRAIN: Wilderness beach, rain forest.
HIGHLIGHTS: Boardwalk trail, Washington’s wildest shore.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate.
PRECAUTITONS: Bring rain gear; always consult tide table for beach hiking.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Olympic National Park, 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362; tel. (360) 452--4501.