We went backpacking to Shi Shi Beach on the Pacific Ocean at Olympic National Park, via the Shi Shi Trail out of the Makah Indian Reservation, and saw a spectacular sunset from our campsite on the soft, sandy beach.
This was actually our fourth day in Olympic NP, but as we were merely driving and day-hiking like normal tourists I won’t be writing about that. (There are photos on the Flickr link down below if you really want to find out.) I’d rather write about backpacking, and beach backpacking has become one of my favorite things, no matter how much I love the high mountains.
After getting our wilderness permits at the Ranger Station near Port Angeles, we drove northwest to the Cape Flattery area, within the Makah Indian Reservation. They charge an access fee (for a separate permit) as the Shi Shi Beach Trail mainly exists on tribal land. When we got to the trailhead, we discovered that it was crowded with the cars of day-hikers, so that we had to pay yet another fee to park a half mile away on a nearby tribe member’s property. But that was OK with us, as the tribe really needs the money. So we paid for parking and put on our big backpacks. I also carried a full gallon of water, as the nearest source was far down the beach itself. It was only a three mile hike, so a bit of extra weight was worth the peace of mind.
It was already midafternoon when we started (thanks to additional touristy activities that we did earlier that day), so we hustled right along. The first part was super-easy, hiking along a paved road. There was very little traffic as the road doesn’t really connect to anything except a salmon hatchery and the trailhead.
After that, it was time to complete the main hike of the day. At first the trail headed through private property, which had been logged once upon a time, judging by the sawn-off stumps. It was well maintained, and had numerous wooden walkways and bridges to protect the rainforest from all those hiking feet. This was reminiscent of our trip to the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island a few years back, and we really liked it.
Not surprisingly, the good path didn’t last. We had heard about the mud on this trail, so we weren’t caught off guard. The West Coast Trail had been the same way, and we were veteran mud-hoppers by this time. We walked around the deepest parts, standing on roots and branches to prevent sinking, and/or followed side-trails that avoided the mud. We met other hikers returning from the beach, and many of them had given up all hope of keeping their boots clean and dry. They walked right down the middle, smiling stoically. They made much better time than we did. But we remained dry!
After the Mud Zone, the trail finally neared the coast, and we were treated to a view of fantastic coastal rocky islands. I think that the park calls them Sea Stacks, but maybe that’s only for the larger ones. They are constantly eroding due to storms and the huge seas that occur up here in Winter. But the ocean was benign in Summer.
The Shi Shi Trail “ended” when it crossed the boundary into Olympic National Park. At that point, it headed down to the beach itself, via a series of wooden stairways. Vicki groaned, knowing that she’d have to climb back up tomorrow morning, but that’s life. Sometimes you have to pay for the good times. We could hear the surf down below us, and we knew that the Good Times were about to begin! Sand is much better to walk on than mud.
We popped out on the beach, and gloried in the blue sky, the pretty clouds, and the mellow surf. The sand was deep and soft. There were many driftwood logs piled high next to the cliffs, just like on Vancouver Island. It was obvious from the footprints that the tide rarely made it that high. These logs must’ve been tossed here by Winter storms, so we had nothing to fear by pitching our tents nearby.
I asked Vicki if she wanted to hike further down the beach before setting up our tent, but she said No. This was perfectly fine, thank you very much. So I put down my pack at a likely spot and leaned it up against a big log. Then we took a walk to check out the water. Vicki even waded into the surf, as her feet were hot from hiking.
We set up the tent and chilled for a while. One of the park’s backcountry rangers came by and introduced herself to us. She also asked to see our permit, as some people don’t bother getting one. This is sad, as there are no quotas for camping at Shi Shi! Checking permits was only one part of her job, and we told her that we were jealous. This was a great place to work! She laughed, because it was true. She was super nice, and very helpful with answering our questions. Her tent was a short distance away from ours.
As it was already getting on toward evening, we cooked up a freeze-dried meal, then sat on our trusty driftwood log to enjoy the surf and sunset. And it turned out to be a spectacular one! Sunsets in the tropics are known to be of short duration, but up here in the higher latitudes the show was prolonged. I took some photos, then a few minutes later the colors got even better, so I took some more. Later on they got deeper and better still. Yet more photos! It was truly amazing, and we were so happy to be here.
As the sky grew dark, the air grew cool, and we headed inside the tent. We put on our night clothing, and snuggled underneath our goose down quilt. We fell asleep to the soft sound of the surf washing up on the beach. It’s a great way to spend the night.
The morning dawned all foggy and damp. The sky was overcast and a low mist was heading inland above the waves. Our tent was soaking wet on the outside, and a bit on the inside, too, from condensation. But we were perfectly dry and happy. We opened the door and saw that some other folks were camped a bit south of us. They must have arrived at night. We got up, got dressed, and started packing everything away. We had another beach backpacking trip to do later on that day, a but further south, at Cape Alava, so we needed to get back to the car. I was a bit sad, and wished that we had opted to stay another night, so that we could have day-hiked further south along Shi Shi Beach, but it was too late now.
We ate some oatmeal for breakfast, and packed up the soggy tent. We would dry it that afternoon at our next camp. We’ve done this before. Then we started the hike back to the car, climbing up the steps on the bluff to the main trail through the Makah Reservation.
At first the trail was nice, but soon we came to the muddy region. We knew what to do this time, so our progress was swift. It seemed that the mud had receded a bit, and we recalled that it had rained on our drive to Cape Flattery yesterday morning. We were glad that we left so early, as we had the trail to ourselves. It’s wonderful to walk through a quiet, misty rain forest.
Before long, we arrived on the better-maintained section of trail, and we knew that the trailhead wasn’t far off. It’s amazing how fast you can hike in the morning when the air is cool and you’re feeling fresh.
When we got to the end, we decided to cheat a bit. Vicki stayed with the two big backpacks by the roadside, while I slack-packed to the parking area. It was misty there, too. I started up the car and drove back to get Vicki. When I arrived, the park ranger also showed up. She was dragging a huge pile of plastic debris that had washed up on the beach. This wasn’t exactly part of her job, but we appreciated it, and told her so. There’s too much plastic in the ocean as it is.
After that, it was time to say goodbye to Shi Shi Beach! We had a long drive ahead of us, as we had to head inland for quite a ways before aiming south to our next beach adventure, at Cape Alava. So many beaches, so little time!
For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page
For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page