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Sept. 24, 2021

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Backpacking Olympic National Park’s wild coast reveals a slice of Pacific Northwest paradise

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Olympic National Park.
Olympic National Park. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

The rugged and wild coastline of northwest Washington can be visited only by foot. Preserved as a wilderness inside Olympic National Park, it’s a stunning getaway for all who can make the effort to see it.

When it comes to backpacking the Olympic coast, effort is the operative word. Traversing sections of the 73-mile coastal wilderness means contending with rough terrain, the ever-changing tides and wildlife that populates the land.

There is no singular trail that runs along the coastline. Hiking the wilderness means walking along beaches, tiptoeing around tide pools and navigating the many fields of boulders beneath the steep cliffs. A few overland trails offer alternate routes around some hazards, though they may be hard to find and could be difficult to access.

Tides offer a whole other challenge to a backpacking trip. Depending on where you are, you’ll need a tide lower than four to six feet, which means you can only hike at certain times of the day – typically the two to three hours on either side of low tide.

And while Olympic National Park is known for its population of black bears, roving packs of raccoons are also a menace, requiring all overnight campers to pack their food in a clunky bear canister.

Despite the challenges, the Olympic coast remains one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the region, drawing so many visitors in recent years that all campers must now reserve a permit in advance, specifying at which campsites they will be staying.

With so many complications, it’s tempting to ask: Is a backpacking trip along the Olympic coast worth it? The answer is an emphatic yes. Whether you’re making a long-haul adventure or spending just a single night in the wilderness, it’s a quintessential Pacific Northwest experience and an unforgettable journey through a rugged and beautiful place.

A friend and I recently spent three days dipping our toes into the Olympic coast, backpacking and day hiking the rocky shores.

TRIP PLANNING FOR THE WILDERNESS

There are several places to backpack along the coast at Olympic National Park: the 17-mile South Coast Route between Oil City and Third Beach, the 20-mile North Coast Route between Rialto Beach and Ozette Lake, and the northernmost section of the park that includes Shi Shi Beach and Point of the Arches (which is currently closed to the public). And while many backpackers opt to tackle the entirety of one of the two major routes, others hike only a short way in.

We opted for the latter approach, and landed on a place called Chilean Memorial to camp. The small cove is reached by hiking about four miles north from Rialto Beach, a busy day-use area next to the Quileute Reservation town of La Push.

Planning for the trip was complicated. After setting out some time around the middle of June, I looked to the tide tables for guidance, after calling the park and getting guidance from a ranger. I was looking for a stretch of three days with good low tides at reasonable hours. (With two to three hours on either side of low tide, it doesn’t make much sense to visit when low tide is at 5 a.m.)

We found a Thursday, Friday and Saturday with low tides in the late morning and early afternoon, allowing us plenty of time to navigate the shoreline, set up camp and explore. I booked our permits online and two weeks later we packed up the car and headed north.

After driving five hours from Portland to the small town of Forks ( well-known in the “Twilight” community ), we spent the first night at a local motel and rested up for our first day of hiking. The next morning, we drove 30 minutes to Rialto Beach, where we parked in the backpacker lot, strapped on our packs and hit the sand.

BACKPACKING THE COAST

A towering, twin-pinnacled rock formation about a mile down the beach is the first of many fantastic sites on the route, and nearby Hole in the Wall is the second. Day hikers typically make it through the actual hole in the rock wall, past which you can find anemones in tide pools and walk another stretch of beach before turning back.

Crowds thinned considerably beyond Hole in the Wall, where we soon found ourselves facing a field of large boulders against tall cliff walls. There, we began what would be a days-long process of navigating boulders – a physically and mentally exhausting effort that requires careful footwork to avoid injury.

In these many boulder fields on the North Coast Route, backpackers can expect to only go about one mile an hour, park rangers say, limiting how far you can hike in a day. On wet days, the boulders may be slippery and therefore even more hazardous than usual.

Once around the rocky headland, we reached a narrow cliff wall that ran beside tide pools stretching out along the shallow shoreline. Smaller boulders here were easier to navigate, and soon we found ourselves on gravel beach again.

One final rocky headland led us to the edge of the Chilean Memorial cove. After navigating a rough stretch of beach, we reached a short but particularly tough set of boulders. As we sized it up, we spied a pair of weathered ropes leading up a crumbling hillside — one of the few overland routes.

We pulled ourselves up the ropes and found a narrow trail leading through a lush forest. After a morning of ocean smells, the scent of cedar and fir were a welcome departure. The trail led past a small cliffside campsite before another rope led down another steep hillside to the beach.

A red buoy hanging from a tree marked the first of several campsites at Chilean Memorial, where a uniformed park ranger was arriving at the same time. He checked our permits and pointed out both the pit toilet (up a rope to a cliffside clearing) and water sources (a few seeps located around the beach). The beach was vacant of other campers, so we picked out a sizable site behind a massive driftwood log and rested in the shade of a tree.

Chilean Memorial is named for a small stone memorial on the beach, erected in remembrance of the 18 people who died in a shipwreck in 1920 just offshore. That fall, the W.J. Pirrie was on its way to Chile when high winds shredded its sails and slammed it into a reef. The victims were initially buried in a mass grave on the beach, though the bodies were later reinterred.

While paying our respects at the former gravesite, it was hard to imagine a storm of such magnitude in this quiet, peaceful place. Calm waters lapped against the shore under a tranquil blue sky. Songbirds sang in the trees and a lone bald eagle circled above. Time seemed frozen as the near-solstice sun hung high in the sky, a gentle wind nudging the beach.

We spent the afternoon wading into the surprisingly warm waters and walking out to Cape Johnson on the north end of the cove, where we spied on a group of seals. Two other pairs of campers walked in, one staying at the cliffside site and the other beneath a tree down the beach.

We collected water from a nearby seep and boiled it, killing any cryptosporidium or giardia parasites that might be present. Olympic National Park recommends you either boil or filter water before drinking it (treating the coastal water sources with iodine or chlorine will not kill the cryptosporidium). The boiling water went into a bag of freeze-dried chili mac and came out as a dinner for two.

A beautiful sunset painted the sky shades of blue, lavender and gold. As we watched, the tide slowly came up and locked us into the cove. Light from a half moon glimmered in the waves, and stars began to wink in from the growing darkness. We sat up talking until conversation turned to yawns and a cold chill forced us to our tents.

A DAY HIKE FROM CAMP

A blanket of clouds greeted us the next morning, as we left our tents and backpacks behind to hike up the coastline for the day. After rounding Cape Johnson, we navigated a shallow tide pool to reach yet another rocky beach. More backpackers crossed our path, headed in either direction, most hiking with heads down as they hopped from rock to rock.

Around the next headland we reached the toughest field of boulders yet, perched precariously on a steep slope. Fallen trees over the boulders added another layer of complexity: horizontal hazards in a diagonal world. Another rope led overland, but by this point we had a good rhythm on the rocks.

On the other side we found a beach with a large, sandy intertidal area that was a perfect place to rest. We wandered around the sea moss garden and poked around piles of kelp. Tiny crabs scuttled in tide pools and snail shells covered the rocks. After resting up, we made our way back to camp, where we fell fatigued to the sand.

Overcast skies opened up, and puffy clouds formed for a heavenly sunset. Thin whispers of vapor crossed quickly through the sky, opening small windows for the moon to peek through. With another day of backpacking ahead, we turned in for a good night of sleep.

Our final day on the coast saw a return of blue sky, the sun illuminating more stunning views as we traced our initial path backward. In the timeless afternoons at Chilean Memorial, I had completely forgotten it was Saturday, and at first was shocked to see huge crowds at Rialto Beach. A few people stopped us to ask about camping (“it was incredible”), about the hike (“slow going on the boulders”) and about bears (“we saw none”).

I thought back to my first time at Rialto Beach, back in 2019, when I saw backpackers crossing the sand and I yearned to someday camp out on the wild coastline. My feet and mind were now exhausted from the trip, but I couldn’t help but smile at the beachgoers who talked to me now, their eyes twinkling with that same aspiration.

The Olympic coast isn’t the easiest backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s far from the most difficult. A good challenge was a fair price to pay for two nights on the beach of a remote coastal wilderness, a place where our troubles went out with the tide.

PLAN YOUR OWN TRIP: Find more information on exploring the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park at nps.gov/olym, and reserve wilderness permits online at recreation.gov. Before you go, make sure you know the backpacking basics, understand how to read a tide table, and pack the 10 essentials for outdoor recreation.

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