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Take a walk on the wild (ocean) side

By on June 25, 2019 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Finally easy, quick travel on the sand beaches immediately north of Hoh’s Head.

story and photos

by Andy Dappen

The Enchantment Traverse is one of Washington’s premier hikes. 

Yet, because it’s hard to get an overnight permit for the route, many people have given up on backpacking the traverse. Instead, day hiking and trail running the route has become the rage. So much so that the area is almost crowded and its fragile vegetation is becoming threadbare. 

Now visitors will find anything but a wilderness experience in this neck of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. 

The solution? Give the Enchantments a break and find other enchanting alternatives. 

The South Olympic Coast Traverse between the mouth of the Hoh River and Third Beach in Olympic National Park is such an alternative. 

Over the hill and through the woods to reach the beaches north of Hoh’s Head.

This route is typically spanned as a two- or three-day backpacking trip. However, given that permits must be obtained from the Park Service, permits come with a cost, and food barrels must be carried to keep bears and raccoons from one’s food, it’s now almost easier to day hike this 17-mile route along the Pacific Coast. 

Day trips require no permits, have no associated costs, and the food and equipment needs are simple.

The trick of this and other coastal traverses is contending with the vagaries of the tides. Lower tides are sometimes necessary to round precipitous headlands situated at ocean’s edge. 

Between the various headlands, beaches are strung along the coastline. They too, however, are more easily traveled when the tide is out. Successfully navigating all this without getting stranded by high tides means paying attention to the ocean’s cycles and scooting along efficiently when the tide allows. 

Last summer, I completed a south-to-north traverse of the South Olympic Coast as a day trip. Most of the route was solitary and every bit of the route was as enchanting as our own Enchantment Traverse. 

Here’s how the adventure played out for me:

11:30 a.m. – 1:25 p.m.

With the tide just having peaked and beginning to recede, I leave the end of the Oil City Road and quickly reach the mouth of the Hoh River. Here a junkyard of driftwood logs leads to a tangle of fallen trees bordering the ocean’s shoreline. These must be climbed over or crawled under. 

At the first headland, I time the outgoing waves and sprint around problematic boulders when a few feet of exposed sand materializes between wave sets. 

At a second headland it seems that a 30-minute wait will be needed before the falling tide exposes beach front property the obstruction. 

It’s possible that a small notch in this headland will allow overland passage to the next beach so I scramble upward. The opposite side of the notch is not entirely encouraging — there an exposed scramble leads down a crumbling cliff to the next beach. 

A weathered, rodent-gnawed rope hangs over the worrisome descent. What a choice: Wait and lose low-tide time that may be needed, or risk my neck to loose rock and a mangy rope. 

Mountaineers hate such false protection but I grab the rope, test the anchor, and carefully make the exposed scramble downward, making light use of the rope. Good fortune keeps me from actually hanging on this shabby line.

I break for a 15-minute lunch; then follow boulder, cobble, and sand beaches to Hoh’s Head. 

Foggy forests — one of a hundred scenes that greet a hiker’s progress on the overland trails.

1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. 

Three-and-a-half miles of utterly slow trail leads over Hoh’s Head, a massive buttress jutting into the ocean. 

The trail is rocky, rooty, muddy and boggy. It has ropes, ladders, boardwalks, and balance beams. 

A dozen times it climbs up 100 feet and then dips down nearly the same distance. I want to rush, but to hurry is surely the formula for going slow. You can slip, twist, slam, tweak, dislocate, or break yourself on anything slippery. And everything is slippery. 

Still, the trail is wondrous with its humongous hemlocks, colossal spruces and redwood-sized cedars. 

Chartreuse moss, orange fungi, and purple mushrooms are like neon lights glowing through the green screen of salal, sword ferns, deer’s heart, wood sorrel, and salmon berries. 

Every time I try to hurry, I feel compelled to stop and take a picture. 

“Make time, rush, the tide is going out,” these voices push me along. “Step carefully, don’t slip, take that picture,” these warnings drag me down. 

At the end of this trail, I take stock: I’ve been traveling four hours, yet I’ve barely started.

Shelf fungi (or bracket fungi) like these are part of a group of fungi called polypores. They are important for decomposing wood and recycling forest nutrients.

3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Finally there’s good beach. Gotta move! Jog, walk fast, eat on the go. 

Keep the legs moving and let the eyes absorb the setting: sand, pebbles and cobbles; pearly everlasting, fireweed, and goldenrod, sand pipers, Western gulls and Heermann’s gulls. 

Three sets of footprints flow against me — yes, I saw a group camped a mile back at Mosquito Creek. 

New tracks: one doe with a fawn, several raccoon, ravens, scores of shore birds. Flotsam: orange buoys, blue bottles, green nets, yellow polypropylene rope. Distance finally flies.

What? I’m dead ended. There’s no beach around the cliffs ahead. Did I miss an overland trail? Must have. 

The forest floor is often littered with great ferns.

Retrace. Run. Ha — there’s a rope headed up a steep bank that I simply ran by! Darn: 20 minutes lost. 

4:30 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Without trails over the headlands that stick into the ocean and bar waterfront progress, this traverse would be impossible. 

I start the 1.75-mile trail around the Goodman Creek headland. Spanning this ground would be utter Hell had machetes and chain saws not cleared the way. 

The salal fields and brambles bordering all these overland trails are beyond heinous — they would slow travel down to about two miles per day. 

Currently the tide is completely out. What a waste to be traveling an overland trail now — I hoped to be farther along using the low tide for beach travel.

5:05 p.m. – 6 p.m.

I’m making good time north of Toleak Point. Sand beaches lead past Strawberry Point and the Giant’s Graveyard. 

Sea stacks and waves. Kelp and eel grass. Butter clam and cockle shells. Legs and claws of dead crabs. The breeze is fresh on skin and lungs. Time and distance scroll under rubber soles.

An orange sign tacked to a tree marks another overland trail. I won’t waste time running past this one. I approach a man camped near the sign, “Is this the trail around Taylor Point?” 

He’s confused. He points to the cape northwest of us. “That’s Taylor Point there, so I guess so.” 

Typical marking noting the start of an overland trail around an impassable section of beach.

6 p.m. – 7:40 p.m.

I rush off. After seven or eight minutes, the trail splits. The left fork surely goes to a campsite. I fade right and am soon climbing steeply. 

This seems as it should. Thirty minutes later nothing seems as it should. I should be coming down onto Third Beach, but I’ve walked farther and farther inland. 

My trail merges with a logging road. Eventually a sign indicates this is state land. I pull out my park schematic. This is a pathetic map for real navigation but it reveals that no overland trails come close to state land. I retrace on the run. 

Back at the trail split passed an hour ago, I turn left and quickly find a rope allowing me to batman down slippery slopes leading back to the beach. This overland trail skirted a very small headland.

 Now a short beach walk leads to the Taylor Point Trail I thought I had reached 90 minutes earlier. Relief flows – I was lost, but now I’m found. 

Worry also erupts — it will be a race to finish the route before dark. At darkness the shuttle driver waiting for me at trail’s end will leave.

7:40 p.m. – 8:35 p.m.

The 1.25-mile trail over Taylor Point is heavily used by day hikers who have accessed the coast from the Third Beach Trailhead near the town of La Push. This trail is in far better shape than those traveled earlier in the day. 

Is it the trail condition or adrenaline that seems to be giving me a third wind? The trail gives way quickly to determination; so do the sands of Third Beach. 

At 8:10 p.m., I start up the final 1.5-mile trail connecting Third Beach to the highway marking trip’s end. 

Now I’m pondering the waiting driver’s exact definition of “darkness.” Will that be true blackness, or will it be some gradation of gray? In some incarnation of an Oscar Wilde story, I see myself reaching the road just as the tail lights of my ride disappear down the highway.

The legs go into overdrive. Everything feels heavy — I have not stopped for food or drink in over three hours. I don’t dwell on this but on the disappointment I’ll feel if, after a nine-hour effort, I’m a few minutes too slow. 

The atmosphere below the canopy of the surrounding 250-foot hemlock trees is charcoal — I should don a headlamp to prevent stumbling on a shadowed stone, but the minutes lost will not be regained over the short distance remaining. 

Twenty minutes before true darkness I reach the road. I see my ride and my worries vanish. 

I jog toward the car letting my mind flash over the beauties and the enchantments of the previous hours — what a rush! 

My driver watches my double-time approach. He cocks his head and curiously studies the sweat streaming down my face. “Hey man,” he says nonchalantly, “what’s your hurry?” 

The South Olympic Coast Traverse follows the coastline north from the end of the Oil City Road (near the mouth of the Hoh River) to the Third Beach Trailhead (along Highway 110 a few miles southeast of La Push). Tide tables and a topographic map of the route are highly recommended. Those attempting the route as a day trip should carry some emergency provisions (extra food, water purifier, warm layers, small tarp and fire starter) in case the rising tide brings forward progress to an unplanned halt.

This story also appears on                 Wenatcheeoutdoors.org — the site covers such topics as hiking, biking, climbing, paddling, trail running and skiing.

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