Seastacks and Sunsets: Backpacking the North Olympic Coast
Over Memorial Day weekend Alex and I headed to the Olympic Coast to embark upon our first Washington backpacking trip of the season. We had our sights set on Olympic National Park’s North Coast. The campsites along most of the coastline do not have a permit quota which appealed to us since we didn’t want to have to worry about competing with other hikers for a coveted permit. However, campers still have to show up at the ranger station and pick up a permit. We arrived at the ranger station on Saturday and were greeted by hundreds of fellow park-goers who were already in line, patiently waiting for their turn to pick up a permit for the long holiday weekend. We shuffled in behind them and settled in for a long wait. We ended up waiting nearly two hours in that line, but eventually we were able to pick up our permit for a 3 day/2 night hike. Our planned hike would take us north from Rialto Beach to the Chilean Memorial and Cedar Creek backcountry campsites before turning around a retracing our steps on the final day. It’s popular for people to do this as a one way hike and stage cars at both ends of the hike, but this wasn’t a feasible option for us so we opted for the out-and-back.
We arrived at Rialto Beach and the weather was quintessential PNW—thick clouds hung overhead and sporadically released drizzly rain on us. The forecast for the first day was wet and overcast but the next two days were forecast to be clear and sunny, which is one of the things that prompted us to head to the coast! Well, that and the fact that most of the mountainous backpacking trails are still buried under snow at this time of year.
Despite the chilly weather the beach was full of people trying to make the most of their long weekend. The first mile or so of beach walking took us to Hole-in-the-Wall and famous shark fin-like sea stacks. Once past Hole-in-the-Wall the crowds thinned out and we were mostly alone.
While it seems like a coastal beach walk should make for easy hiking, this route is far from easy. There are a few sections of smooth sand, but there are also miles of shoreline covered in rocks that are more akin to a boulder field than a beach. Navigating through these sections proved to be tricky because any one of the rocks we chose to step on had the potential of shifting and sending us catapulting forward. To make it even more treacherous some of the rocks were still wet, having been submerged under the surf not too long prior. But ever so slowly we crept forward, and as we hiked the skies began to clear.
We made it to Chilean Memorial after a few hours of hiking and found the stretch of beach nearly entirely full. Along the coast there are no designated sites, instead the park asks backpackers to set up camp on the beach above the high tide line, or in the trees in established spots. All of the beach spots above high tide were taken. There were a few spots that looked like they may work, but we didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to find out we were mistaken, and our site was being swallowed by the sea. Luckily, we got the last established spot up in the trees. It was on a slight slant so I was rolling down my sleeping pad almost all night, but it was a spot!
By the time the sun began to sink in the sky, enough of the clouds had cleared to allow the remaining clouds to burn. Even though the beach was full of campers Alex and I managed to find a quiet and secluded spot to make dinner and watch the sunset. We stayed at the beach until the last light of day faded and the shadows began to take over, then we headed up to our camp and promptly fell asleep.
For one of the first times in our camping careers, Alex and I decided to sleep through the night instead of attempting night photography. The Chilean Memorial campsite isn’t positioned to allow for optimal night photography; it’s in a cove without a good view either north or south, so we decided to wait until the next night to attempt night photography, when hopefully we would have a more open view.
We slept in quite late by camp standards—until nearly 8am—on the second day! We got a slow start and lazily made coffee and breakfast. Our planned hike for the day was a little under six miles and the tides were in our favor so we were in no rush to hit the trail.
After breakfast we packed up our gear and headed north. The second day of hiking consisted of a few more miles of agonizing boulder fields followed by a few miles of hard-packed sand. To say we rejoiced when we hit the sand would be an understatement. We were elated and our pace nearly doubled with the easy terrain. We made it to camp by mid-afternoon and found the perfect camp spot tucked away in the trees. There were a few campers sprinkled along the shore by Cedar Creek but the zone was mostly empty. We had been worried that the long line at the ranger station would bode poorly for our trip, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that we regularly felt alone.
We had the beach entirely to ourselves for that second sunset and it was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen from the coast. Alex and I were running around trying to capture it as it was painting the sky around us the most stunning shades of deep orange and cotton candy pink. It’s moments like this that make me love spending time in the backcountry. Once again we lingered on the beach until well after sunset before finally making our way back to the tent. This time we had hopes of capturing some night photos, but unfortunately clouds swept in after sunset and our night photography plans were foiled.
We woke up on the third day hoping for another clear day, but were instead greeted by fog and overcast skies. We had a long hike ahead of us—nearly 10 miles back to the car—so we woke up early to start packing. The hike back was relatively uneventful. The highlight was walking past a juvenile eagle feeding on a seal carcass.
The rocky portions of the trail slowed us down again, but we made quick progress. Eventually, we rounded a corner and Hole-in-the-Wall came into view, we were nearly done! From there it was just a beach walk back to the car. I hoped the weather would have improved for our return to Rialto Beach since the first day was so overcast, but it looks like I’ll have to return again to see Rialto in favorable weather!