Olympic National Park, located in the northwest corner of Washington state, protects some of the most primitive natural coastline in the 48 contiguous United States. The park’s 73-mile-long strip of rugged beaches provides an oceanfront wilderness experience, a rare treasure in a country where much of the coastline has been developed.
Here, where the Pacific collides against the shore, hikers and backpackers see magnificent views that include offshore sea stacks topped by nesting seabirds and wind-sheared trees, and abrupt headlands cloaked in old-growth temperate rain forest that have changed very little in thousands of years.
Hiking Details: There is an almost endless network of backcountry trails and hiking routes in Olympic National Park, leading through a vast inland area that includes the 7,980-foot summit of Mount Olympus. However, there are those who claim the premier multiday getaway lies along the park’s isolated Pacific shoreline. Hiking options are many on this lengthy seaside strand, but the North Wilderness Coast is generally regarded as the best section to explore.
Beginning at the Ozette ranger station and campground, located three miles inland on the north end of Ozette Lake, backpackers can continue south all the way to Rialto Beach, 21 roadless miles away. The trip can be done one way by staging a vehicle at either end, or out-and-back, chewing off as much distance as time and energy allow. No matter what direction you roam, no two miles of this dynamic coastline are alike. Travel is along beaches and intertidal shores, except for a few stretches up and over rocky headlands where the cliffs plunge into the sea.
Camping Details: Coastline campsites are either in small clearings tucked away at the forest’s edge, or on the beach above the high-tide line snuggled among piles of driftwood and giant storm-cast logs. Wilderness camping permits are required and cost $5 per group, plus $2 per person per night. (There is no nightly charge for youths 15 years of age and under.) Park-approved bear canisters are required for food storage on the coast, not so much for bears, but for resourceful and aggressive raccoons. The canisters are available for loan at some of the park’s ranger stations.
Of Interest: The North Wilderness Coast is a top-notch area for picking berries, beachcombing and examining colorful ocean tidepools. Watch for whales, seals and sea otters offshore, and black-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, river otters, bobcats, mountain lions and black bears inland. Some of the most spectacular sunsets you’ll ever behold can be viewed from this wild seashore.
When to Go: Use is year-round in the park, and weather can be extremely variable. Overall, the Olympic Peninsula has a moderate marine climate with pleasant summers and mild, wet winters. August and September are the driest months, with heavier precipitation during the rest of the year. This can be a busy area in summer, so avoid camping on weekends if possible. Between May 1 and Sept. 30, permits and reservations
are required for some of the more popular sections of coastline.
Did You Know? Three miles west of the Ozette trailhead is Cape Alava, generally considered the westernmost point in the continental U.S. Also, Olympic National Park protects the largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk in the world. Olympic was almost named “Elk National Park” and was established in part to protect these stately animals.
Local Wisdom: Changing tides and weather should always be considered when exploring Olympic’s coast. Always carry (and know how to use) a tide table, topographic map and a watch whenever hiking here. Several points along the coast are passable only at lower tides. Also, the variable hiking surfaces of the beach, including sections of soft to hard sand, gravel, cobblestones and boulders, usually limit even strong hikers to between five and 10 miles per day.
Getting There: U.S. Highway 101, which goes around the Olympic Peninsula, offers access to all park destinations. The main visitor center is at 3002 Mount Angeles Road in Port Angeles, Wash.
Resources: Olympic National Park, 360-565-3130; nps.gov/olym. Backcountry camping permits may be obtained at the Wilderness Information Center, located within the Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles.