Go West, Young Man!

This is the time of year when a lot of folks in the Pacific Northwest start itching to get back to hiking and backpacking in a snow-free environment. Not everyone wants to avoid the snow up in the mountains, but lots do. So the question of where to go when your favorite trails are still under several feet of snow always comes up. Well, truth is, you can head in any direction from Seattle and find good spots this time of year as long as you watch your altitude, but today we’re going west – just about as far west as you can go and still be in the continental United States. We’re going to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Heidi and I got on the Seattle to Bainbridge Island ferry and headed to the coast. Our objective was to camp on one of the beaches on the Pacific Ocean so we would be in position to photograph sunrise and sunset on the coast. If you haven’t tried camping on the beach, you’re missing an amazing experience! A word of caution, though: you cannot do this safely if you don’t understand how tides work in the area!

The Olympic National Park is about as diverse as a park can get, containing the Olympic Mountains, temperate rain forests, and much of the beach along the Pacific Ocean in Washington. Back country camping on the beach is therefore regulated by the National Park Service, so a visit to the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles was in order. We stopped at the WIC and picked up our overnight permit and a free food canister for Heidi. This is a good time of year to do this because permits are readily available without reservations and the weather is not that extreme. Things get more complicated as it gets closer to summer.

Golden Ripples, Olympic National Park, WashingtonOur spot of choice was a place called Second Beach (yes, it’s between First Beach and Third Beach, my standard answer when asked where it is!), so we headed to the trailhead near the town of La Push. A quick seven-tenths of a mile backpack brought us to the beach where we quickly located a campsite above high tide and set up our tents. Second Beach, like much of the Pacific coast, is adorned with sea stacks, an arch, rocky headlands and tide pools filled with abundant marine life – a photographer’s wonderland! And it was a gorgeous day – not a day with dramatic weather that hardened photographers dream of, but certainly about as pleasant a day as one could hope for. At least we knew the sun would be visible at sunset and sunrise.

Crying Lady Rock and Natural Arch, Second Beach, Olympic National Park, WashingtonMy GPS told me to expect low tide in the evening and again in the early morning, so with that in mind we scouted shot locations. We were hoping the sun would set through an arch on the north end of the beach, but the angles didn’t quite work out. That evening, there were no clouds to light up the sky, but it was an attractive sunset nevertheless.

After dark, I wandered around the vast beach under the stars with my headlamp off, just listening to the crash of the waves far out with the low tide. Little did I realize that later, back in my tent trying to sleep during high tide, it would sound like the Pacific Ocean was going to sweep me away at any moment! We were camped high and dry, but it was seriously loud!

Purple Sea Star, Second Beach, Olympic National Park, WashingtonThe next morning I was amazed at the number of sea stars, or star fish as I have always called them, that were exposed during low tide. They were everywhere! It reminded me of the abundance of goats in The Enchantments last fall – it was difficult to find a composition that didn’t include a star fish in it! This area has two predominant varieties of them, the Purple Sea Star and the Ochre Sea Star. Virtually every rock of any size had one or more of them stuck on near the base. We also spotted large number of small dead crabs. I’m not sure what that was all about.

So the next time you’re looking for an off season backpack that doesn’t involve snow, consider beach camping. As long as you do your homework, it can be a delightful experience that you’ll not soon forget!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Responses to “Go West, Young Man!”

  1. Heidi says:

    Backcountry permits aren’t free. They are $5 for the permit then $2 per person – still a screaming deal for the experience. Bear canisters are free but they ask for a donation.

    • Ed Leckert says:

      Thanks for the correction, Heidi. I started having second thoughts about that while lying in bed last night and planned to follow up this morning. Post has been corrected.