We’ve made two backpacking trips along the coastline of Olympic National Park in Washington State. It is a place of unparalled beauty. Between a dense wilderness and a relentless sea runs a ribbon of sand along which one can observe a rare, undisturbed coastal environment. Combined, we’ve backpacked over 40 miles of the most remote portions of the Olympic Coast. Our trips are detailed below as a resource to future adventurers.
Olympic National Park, located on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, was our destination for a backpacking trip in September 1995. Officially designated a National Park in 1938 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the park was almost called Elk National Park for its herds of Roosevelt Elk. The park is actually split into two distinct pieces: a 57 mile strip of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, and a much larger interior region of lush rainforest and severe mountain peaks. In total, the park consists of over 920,000 acres, and 95% of this land is legislated wilderness, making it accessible only by trail. Perhaps most indicative of the diversity of Olympic National Park is that within a span of just over 30 miles, the park takes you from the roaring surf of the Pacific Ocean at sealevel to the majesty of 8,000 foot-high Mt. Olympus.
Our trip took us to the middle of the coastal part of Olympic National Park for a one-night, two-day, backpacking trip. Starting at the mouth of the Hoh River near Oil City, we began our 18-mile hike north along the coast. Our destination was Third Beach, and then a short trail up to Highway 110 where we would be picked up the next day. Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and the coastal portion of Olympic National Park that we covered on this trip are shown in the maps below.
One of the problems with hiking along the coast is that you are often at the mercy of the tide. In our case, just shortly after leaving Oil City we ended up having to wait for about 2 hours to round an outcropping of rock. Initially, it seemed like a good opportunity for lunch. We patiently waited with another couple for the tide to give us room to get around. Jen eventually dug out her book and did a little reading, while I, antsy to keep going, explored other alternatives. Realizing that the tide was in no hurry to retreat, we devised an alternate approach.
While the tide hadn’t receded enough for us to go around the outcropping, it had receded enough so that if we could get over the rocks, we could continue the hike on the other side. On our side, the rocks were climbable, but the other side was just a steep, slick rock face. Lots of fun with a 30 pound pack on.
By the time we got around the rocks, it was already mid-afternoon, and we were behind schedule. We had arranged to be picked-up late the next afternoon and we’d only covered 3 of the approximately 18 miles in this trek. We had been hoping to split the distance evenly across the two days.
Determined to make up for lost time, we pushed forward to Hoh Head, a headland that is only passable at the lowest of tides. To bypass such potentially dangerous areas, the National Park Service maintains short overland trail segments. While the hiking along the beach is both exciting and beautiful, the overland trails are safer in certain areas. They also provide a good opportunity to see some of the beautiful wooded areas along the coast. At nearly 5 miles long, the trail over Hoh Head is one of the longer of these overland segments. The trail begins with a steep ascent of the south side of Hoh Head. For both assistance and trail preservation, the Park Service has installed log/rope ladders on the steepest sections of the trail. While climbing up, the trail doesn’t look so steep, but the view from the top tells a slightly different story.
The Hoh Head overland trail dropped us back onto the beach at Mosquito Creek, which fortunately did not live up to its name. While we had made good time on the gradual descent from Hoh Head, we were ready to call it a day and have dinner. Plus, we didn’t have much more daylight left. A couple other people had set up camp at Mosquito Creek, so we continued up the beach for a few more minutes and finally set up camp a little ways north of the creek.
Our original plan was to camp the first night at Toleak Point, perhaps one of the most awesome (in the true sense of the word) places along the Pacific Coast. Toleak is a place I’d been to only once before. My dad, however, had stayed there several times. Now retired, my dad was a high school math teacher who also headed up a hiking club for students and teachers interested in the outdoors. He used to lead groups into Toleak along a very different, even more adventurous route, though.
Goodman Creek rushes dramatically into the Pacific Ocean just south of Toleak. In the days of my dad’s hiking club, there was a trail, mostly used by fishermen, along Goodman Creek that ran from just outside the park boundary to the overland coastal trail that circumvents the headland where Goodman Creek empties into the Pacific. From what I know, the headland is impassable, and unfortunately the view from the north does not show the creek.
Twelve years after the last hike club trip into Toleak, my dad and I led three other people into the area, hoping to retrace the trail he once used. Well, the trail along Goodman Creek no longer existed. On that trip, we ended up just following the creek, struggling over and under wind-fallen trees and through the thick rainforest flora. It was a true adventure, my first real backpacking experience, and something that I will never forget. While my dad and I had a great time, we found out later that two of our three guests didn’t think we were going to get out alive!
Anyway, back to the trip at hand…. The next morning, we got up with the sun so that we could make up for the previous day’s delay by the tide. We’d only covered about 1/3 of the total mileage so far, which left us a good 12 miles to cover by late afternoon. The unfortunate aspect of this was that we pretty much had to rush through areas like Toleak Point. Nonetheless, there was time for Jen to wield the camera and snap a picture of me as I crossed Goodman Creek, close to where the old hike club trail used to be. Shortly after this, we reached one of the most breathtaking views of the hike as we descended onto the beach immediately south of Toleak Point.
One tends to view hiking along the coast as a simple (albeit long) “walk on the beach.” The reality is something significantly different, however — at least along the Olympic Coast. I’ve already mentioned the numerous overland trail segments that tend to include short, steep ascents over impassable headlands. Many of these trails, like the one over Hoh Head, have wooden log and rope ladders. The ladders make it safer and easier for hikers and simultaneously reduce bank and trail erosion, but they are still something of an obstacle. (Of course, scrambling down a steep gravel bank with a large pack on isn’t my idea of a good time either.) And then there are the rock outcroppings like the one we were delayed at just north of Hoh Head. In some cases, you can just go around, provided the tide is in a cooperative mood. In retrospect, though, a little splash of the Pacific could hardly make it worse for our already sweat-soaked bodies! It might even have been refreshing. In other cases, the trail just goes over the rocks, often requiring removal of your pack so you don’t topple head over toe as you try to slide down the other side.
Yet another obstacle, particularly at the mouth of the Hoh River, is driftwood. Yearly flooding of the Hoh has created a literal beach of driftwood on the north side of the river. In other places, you simply have to hike over piles of driftwood to reach an overland trail. At any rate, the point is that backpacking along the Olympic Coast is really nothing at all like a “walk on the beach.” In many ways, it is much more difficult than hiking in mountainous areas. Perhaps more than anywhere, you are at the mercy of nature when hiking along the coast. Appreciation of this fact, combined with a bit of patience, seem central to maximizing the experience.
In our case, we made good time along the beach so we could take our time navigating the tricky or difficult areas… and stop once in a while to appreciate the scenery or take a few pictures. Next time we do this hike or one similar to it, we’ll definitely allow more time. 18 miles in two days along the coast is pushing it. Not only was it a physically demanding endeavour, it limited the amount of time we could spend appreciating the incredible beauty of the area. It was still an incredible trip, one that we won’t soon forget and will hopefully repeat someday on a more leisurely schedule.
While the coastal strip of Olympic National Park is typically only about a mile wide, the rugged appearance of the area has survived the ages. It probably looks virtually no different than it did several thousand years ago. Yet, just beyond the mile-wide preserve of the park, vast tracts of land have been clear-cut right up to the park boundary. While one can still feel the natural isolation along this part of the Olympic Coast, the habitats and ecosystems of this region do not exist in that isolation; they are critically dependent on the environments uphill and upstream from them. The continued destruction of the surrounding lands will have a single, deterministic, and tragic effect on this area.
Just as my dad shared this area with me several years ago, I want very dearly to be able to do the same with my kids… so that they too can pose for a picture on the beach — the endless surf pounding behind them, a creek cutting its way through the wet grey sand, a lush green forest beckoning as they smile for the camera.
In late September 1998, we made a 5-day, 4-night, 25-mile backpacking trip along the North Wilderness Coast in Olympic National Park. This was a special hike for two reasons. First, we had hiked the Southern section three years earlier (see above), and so on this trip we completed hiking the majority of the magnificent Olympic coastal strip. The second reason this was a special trip was because we got engaged (and later married). Some of the pictures in the gallery linked to below detail exactly how this happened. The map to the right shows our approximate route (highlighted in purple), leaving from Rialto Beach and heading North to Cape Alava, and then backtracking a little to head inland to the Ozette Ranger Station.