Seattleites spend summer nights obsessively gazing west, watching as the sun works its way through a glowing, neon-colored sky to dip below the jagged edges of the Olympic Mountains. Well beyond those mountains is another world, Washington's Olympic Coast.
Give yourself at least six hours to get there. It's a rugged landscape of cliffs, headlands, and islands, dominated by the cold, crashing waves of the Pacific. Towering about the ocean are many sea stacks—columns of rock that have been eroded by years of relentless wind and waves into defiant, pointy crags. They serve as a reminder that while destruction is natural, so is resistance.
Most of the beaches are accessible only by foot. Trails are often shrouded by a thick canopy of Sitka spruce and flanked by fallen, decaying trees that provide an ecosystem for a community of fungi, slugs, and ferns. It seems like a miracle that there's any path to the beach at all.
There are a number of ways to experience the coast. If you're staying at a hotel nearby, take a day hike and spend an afternoon exploring tide pools: Wander amid rocks covered with orange and purple starfish, their limbs draped amorously over each other, or squishy aqua-green anemones that shrivel at the slightest touch.
Or bring a tent and spend the night on the beach—just be sure to make camp above the high-water line or you may find your shelter flooded in the middle of the night.
But the best way to experience the Olympic Coast is by backpacking, carrying only the few things you need—bear canisters, yes; cell phones, no—and spending a few nights amid the driftwood and sand. Explore hidden coves and vast stretches of land. You'll test your balance on slippery rocks, climb steep cliffs, and take in epic sea views. Bald eagles, deer, whales, otters, and seals will keep you company.
No matter how many times you visit an Olympic beach, it will never be the same. If the constant waves alter the coast imperceptibly over time, a Pacific storm and a high tide can rearrange the landscape overnight. (On that note, be sure to bring a tide chart.)
Some headlands can only be rounded at low tide, while others can't be bypassed at all, requiring you to scramble up sandy cliffs on ropes. And while some of these cliffs can be treacherous, traversing them is far safer than the alternative.
A few years ago, having missed a marker for such an overpass while hiking south from Shi Shi Beach, I tried rounding a point by hopping between tide pools on slippery kelp and razor-sharp mussel-covered rocks. The water got deeper faster than I expected, the rocks much bigger and harder to walk over. Several hard falls, one of which I still carry with me as a scar on my right knee, left me bleeding and cursing. I looked back at shore, spotted a trail marker, and realized that I had lost my way.
Then I looked straight down into a deep, frothy tide pool to see a massive Pacific octopus, its orange tentacles and body drifting effortlessly with each powerful swell. I'm not sure how long I stood there watching it, but sometimes I feel forever lost in that moment.
No matter where you go on the coast, you'll be on what was once or still is tribal land. A trip to Shi Shi requires two permits: one from the Makah Nation and one from Olympic National Park. Farther south, you'll be in the Ozette or Quileute reservations. Everywhere, the presence of people who have made this land their home for thousands of years can be felt.
At the coast by Lake Ozette, you can hike to Wedding Rocks, where centuries ago Makah people etched renderings of people, animals, and, before any contact with European settlers, boats seen offshore. After hundreds of years, the petroglyphs remain unmarked and unprotected.
Later, at your campsite, gather firewood along the beach—cedar gives off a sweet smell when it burns. You might fall asleep to the strange, haunting sound of a colony of sea lions barking several miles offshore.
In the morning, you can take a piece of charcoal from your campfire and use it to draw your own words or pictures on the rocks and fallen logs. Then make your way back to the city knowing that by the time you get home, the elements may have already washed them away.