Great American Road Trip: Part 4

Olympic National Park

July 27–30, 2018

After a week in Portland, I felt the call of the wild again, and figured I’d escape the 95+ degree temperatures inland for the cool and cloudy pacific coastline. It was a Friday morning, and after debating whether it would be easier to find a camping spot in Oregon or Washington (the latter seemed like a better bet), I decided to head up to the Olympic Peninsula for some hiking, surfing, and exploring of old growth forests.

The drive from Portland to La Push, WA takes about 4.5 hours, and first curves along the Columbia river with views of the water and Oregon shore before turning northward at Longview, WA. From there, you only travel on the interstate for about 50 miles before turning once more onto US-12 Scenic Byway. I much prefer the country highway kind of driving over the interstate, since I don’t move very fast and would rather see a bunch of trees and fields than tractor trailers. The drive to the coast winds through a bunch of forests (many are used for timber production) and eventually meets up with US-101 near Humptulips, where glimpses of the Olympic mountains start to rise along the horizon.

Highway 101, somewhere between Humptulips and the Hoh Rain Forest with beautiful old growth forests.

The Olympic Peninsula is 3600 square miles, with over 1400 square miles of the peninsula are protected by National Park lands and additional parts of the peninsula are reserved as National Forest or as Native American Reservation land. As you head north on US-101, you will pass through entrances to the Quinalt Rain Forest, the Hoh Rain Forest, then finally arrive at the coastal stretches of the Olympic National Park. The park is not one continuous stretch of land, but instead includes two stretches of coastal land that are also managed by the National Park Service. As I turned westward from the Hoh Rain Forest, the warm dry air turned to a dense coastal fog layer, with temperatures dropping dramatically as I reached the Pacific Ocean. I find that the misty fog that seeps in and out of the old growth Spruce and Fir trees is what gives the Pacific Northwest forests their mystique.

Old growth forests meet rugged coastline along the Olympic Peninsula

Since I arrived in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday, the campsites along the coast were completely filled up for the night, and many of the overnight parking lots for backcountry hikers along the road to La Push were already filled up with weekenders looking to spend the night camping along the beach. I stopped in at a ranger station, and the park ranger suggested I head up Forest Service Road 29 north of the town of Forks, where there are apparently “a ton of great dispersed camping spots” along the old logging road. I figured it would be worth checking out before too late, but first I wanted to see if I could find a place to buy some wax for my surfboard so that I could get in a quick session before heading into the forest. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the wilderness explorers), the La Push/Forks area is not heavily developed, and finding a surf shop of any kind remained elusive. So, without getting wet I headed to the forest to find a spot for the night.

I’m not sure exactly what the park ranger’s definition of a great dispersed campsite is, but I certainly didn’t see an abundance of them along this forest road. There were a few sites along the river that looked promising, but they were already taken for the night. Two of these spots were out on vistas overlooking the river, separated by a small gorge. As the forest road started climbing higher and crossed some small bridges (whose weight capacity wasn’t listed), I ended up at two different crossroads and eventually on a dirt logging road without any campsites for about 2 miles. I also ended up on a pretty narrow dirt road with a steep drop-off on one side and very few shoulders where I could turn my van around. To say I was getting a bit nervous is an understatement. Eventually I was able to maneuver a 27-point turn on the narrow road (did I mention I don’t have power steering?), and then headed back out on the main road toward the highway 101 thinking I may have to drive another 45 minutes to the next stretch of National Forest. Luckily, though, I did find a spot just off the side of the main forest road that offered just a bit more than a pull-off. I made dinner, listened to a couple of podcasts, and fell asleep to the sound of birds.

The National Forest spot I ended up in for the night.

Rialto Beach near Forks, WA is a great setting-off point to hike the northern stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail along the Washington coast or for those seeking a day and/or night along the beach. With long stretches of sandy beach coupled with some rocky headlands and massive coniferous forests, this coastal stretch offers visitors a range of day hiking opportunities, surfing, or for continuing 20 miles north on the PCT to Ozette — the next ranger station and road out from the coast.

You’ll see people throughout the day packing up their gear and heading anywhere from 0.5–8 miles up the coast from here. Many campers opt to stay within 0.5 miles of the beach facilities.

I decided it would be a fun excursion to hike up to the Chilean Memorial, a 3.7 mile hike with all of my gear on my back. The hike to the Chilean Memorial needs to be timed correctly with the tides, as some of the rocky points become impassable at anything other than low-to-medium tide. Setting off around 11am and with high tide at 2:25 pm, I knew that it would be tight.

The first 1.4 miles of the hike are along sandy beach before reaching Hole-in-the-Wall, a big rocky point with a giant hole in the rock that acts as a passageway for hikers at low tide. During high tide, hikers must pass over the top of the point to carry on northward.

Hole-in-the-Wall at mid-tide (left) and low tide (right)

Hole-in-the-wall is more than just a passageway for , however. The big rocky point that juts out from the coast here also acts as a northward barrier for the drifting sand. Beyond this point, the coastal sediment becomes coarse rocks and pebbles, and gives way to a classic rocky intertidal coastline. North of here, the coastal waters are marked by rocks and islands, separated by narrow channels and kelp beds. The shore is also littered with big boulders and massive tree trunks that have been dried out by the sun and salty air. Hiking along this stretch of the coast is much more challenging, as it requires occasionally leaping from boulder to boulder, walking lengthwise across downed trees, and finding footing in the loose pebbles on the beach. After taking my time admiring the coastal beauty, I reached the rocky point just before the Chilean Memorial. There was one problem… I took my time and now it was peak full tide. Around the corner of this point a shear vertical rock wall shot out of the water. It looked impassable, so I was forced to sit and enjoy my book while waiting for the tide to lower.

I waited about two hours on the rocks until becoming a bit restless. Some other hikers had also reached the same point and were waiting patiently for the tide to drop, but I decided that I’d see if I could use my rock climbing skills to traverse the section of rock without falling in the water. First, I tried without the pack, then decided to go for it with all my gear on. It was definitely a bit tricky, but I made it across just fine. One of the fellow hikers that was waiting was a guy that looked to be about 60 years old. I looked back after making it to the next stretch of sandy beach and saw him with all of his gear on, sitting and staring at the rock wall in disbelief. I told myself he was thinking “how the hell did that guy get across there??”

Views of my camp site at the Chilean Memorial

The cove near the Chilean memorial is protected by rocky tidal pools with two points on either side. I was the first person to arrive at this section of beach, so I chose the best spot in the cove — one with a rope swing and an up-turned box to use as a table. I quickly set up camp, soaked my feet in the cool Pacific water, skipped some stones, then chopped some driftwood to use for a fire. The scenery here is so serene and powerful. In one direction you see the thick trees lining the rocky coast that look like the gateway to some mystical world. Turning around, you can stare out across the ocean and think about just how big our planet really is. I let my fire die out and went to bed to the sound of the waves lightly lapping against the rocks. It was the perfect ending to a great day exploring the coast.

The cove in front of my campsite in the morning light, with the low tide exposing many of the rocks.

The next morning I woke up to a much lower tide that exposed a lot more rocks in the bay. There were three or four seals playing around in the tidal pools, who got scared when they heard my footprints on the beach. I was also blessed with a retreat of the coastal fog layer overnight, giving way instead to blue skies in the morning light. I packed up camp relatively quickly and decided to head back to Rialto beach while the tide was still low and the sun was shining. Much of the hike back looked completely different with so much more of the sea floor exposed (not to mention I didn’t have to traverse any rock walls this time!). Back at the parking lot, I made myself a coffee and some oatmeal before heading south on my next adventure.

Data scientist, musician, and adventurer with a passion for the environment and outdoors. Recently left Berlin to travel through North America in a fire truck.