Thursday, February 11, 2016

Shi Shi Beach/Point of the Arches

Point of the Arches sunset
8 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead; $10 Makah Nation Recreation Pass required; for overnight camping, $5/person Olympic National Park permit required and $20 overnight parking in private lots near the trailhead

A wilderness beach is one of the rarer sights in the Lower 48 of the United States: on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there are few places where roads don't provide immediate access to the oceanside. In many ways, Shi Shi Beach, hidden on the far Northwest coast of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, epitomizes the wilderness beach. It's a five hour drive from Seattle, the closest major city, and access requires a few miles of hiking through the rain forest. The beach itself is a gem, a two-mile stretch of soft sand sandwiched between craggy cliffs to the north and ragged rocks to the south. Yet Shi Shi almost certainly does not feel wild- at least not on a summer weekend. The secret of this beautiful beach has long gotten out: stay on a summer night and expect the entire two-mile beachfront to be lined with tents and perhaps as many as a thousand campers. Nevertheless, Shi Shi is a beautiful enough destination to warrant a visit despite its popularity and can still be an enjoyable albeit a non-wild experience. The beach is part of the coastline preserved in Olympic National Park but can only be easily accessed from land belonging to the Makah Nation, which results in a tremendous amount of red tape to cut through to actually legally do the hike.

I camped overnight with three friends from Seattle on the July 4 long weekend. On the 4th itself, a beautifully blue day, we drove out from Seattle, taking the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and crossing the Hood Canal Bridge to connect with US 101 on the Olympic Peninsula. In Port Angeles, we stopped by the Olympic National Park Park Headquarters near Heart o' the Hills on the Hurricane Ridge Road. Here, we picked up overnight camping permits for Shi Shi, which required no reservations but were $5 per person. After the ranger briefly went over camping rules with us, we rented a bear canister from the NPS for $3; all hikers traveling along the Olympic coast are required to store their food and scented items in bear canisters to prevent animals from accessing human food.

From Port Angeles, we followed US 101 west past Lake Crescent to Sappho, where we then took Highway 113 north and then Highway 112 west past Sekiu along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Neah Bay in the Makah Nation. We stopped off at a convenience store in Neah Bay to pick up a $10 Makah Recreation Pass, which allowed for a year's access to recreation sites on Makah Reservation land. At the western end of town, we followed the Cape Flattery Road southwest along a river valley until we hit Hobuck Road; we turned left on Hobuck Road and followed it south. From here on, we stayed on roads that followed the beach closely for the rest of the way south to the trailhead, which was on the right side of the road perhaps 4 miles south of the turn onto Hobuck Road. However, since overnight parking is not encouraged at the trailhead, we doubled back and drove back half a mile to a house on the inland side of the road that provided overnight parking. Parking here was $10/day and an overnight stay counted as parking for two days, so we paid another $20 for parking here.

We set out with our overnight backpacks from the overnight parking area and followed the road about half a mile to the true trailhead. From the actual trailhead, we followed a fairly flat path through the woods. The first two miles of the hike was more or less through a forest, traversing impassable headlands on the inland side. The trail was mostly flat and at times featured sections of boardwalk and bridges. The second half of this forested trail followed an old road and was very muddy in many spots.

Trail through the forest
A little under an hour of flat hiking brought us within earshot of the breaking waves on the Pacific. A short spur to the right of the trail brought us to our first view of the ocean and of the line of sea stacks at Point of the Arches. It was my first sight of the Pacific in Washington State since moving to Seattle.

Pacific Ocean near Shi Shi Beach
A little past this viewpoint, the flat trail ended as we entered Olympic National Park. Here, the trail began a very steep descent down the bluffs bordering the coast down to Shi Shi Beach itself. Ropes aided the descent. While day hikers would likely find the downhill more manageable, backpackers may find it quite unpleasant to go down such a steep slope with heavy packs. Luckily, this is the only challenging section of the hike: after descending about 200 feet, the trail leads past a toilet to the beach.

If it were not so crowded, Shi Shi would be a miracle of a beach. We walked out onto the soft sand and down to where the waves broke as they hit beach. In front of us, we could see the vastness of the Pacific and hear the roar of water slapping the shore; behind us rose evergreen-covered coastal bluffs. At the junction of the land and the sea near the north end of the beach, a number of picturesque sea stacks marched confidently into the ocean.

Shi Shi Beach
We walked south along the beach, intending to camp closer to Point of the Arches. On that holiday weekend, the beach was packed: hundreds of campers were present and tents were set up every hundred feet or so along the length of the beach.

As we walked south towards Point of the Arches, we noticed some signs of wildlife: jellyfish that had washed ashore and a bald eagle that flew across the beach before perching atop the trees on the coastal headlands.

Bald eagle
The sea stacks and arches of Point of the Arches became progressively clearer as we made our way down the beach. We ultimately decided to set up camp about three quarters of the way down the beach, just north of Petroleum Creek and within sight of the arches at the Point.

Shi Shi Beach
By this time, it was quite late in the day; even though it was midsummer and the days were long, we had managed to use all of our daylight on driving to the trailhead and hiking out; it was already 8 PM. We decided to make use of the remaining daylight to watch the sunset at Point of the Arches before returning to cook and eat. Setting off at a brisk pace, we made it to Point of the Arches in about 10 minutes.

We spent the next half hour wandering around the maze of sea stacks at the point. Tidepools, oddly-shaped rock towers, crashing waves, and barnacle-encrusted boulders occupied our attention. The setting sun painted the sky progressively richer hues of pink. From the point, we looked out to the north along the coastline and could see the hills near Cape Flattery and even Vancouver Island in the far distance.

Shi Shi Beach sunset
Shi Shi Beach and the coastline near Cape Flattery
The Pacific Ocean
By dusk, we were back at our tents. We sat on the sand, eating hot dogs and playing Cards Against Humanity until the night was pitch black and a fistful of stars had been splattered across the sky.

The next morning, we woke late to a heavy fog. Once the fog cleared, we found that the blue skies of the day before had turned to an oddly smoky sky. At the time, we were a little annoyed, as the forecast had originally called for beautiful clear skies all weekend; we later learned that the smoke had made its way down to the Olympic Coast all the way from the intense wildfires burning in the Pacific Ranges near Vancouver.

After an oatmeal breakfast, we returned to the Point of the Arches to explore a bit more. Arriving this time at low tide, we explored the tidepools around the sea stacks. Amidst the barnacles and kelp, we found colorful starfish, sea anemones, and hermit crabs.

Starfish at low tide

Sea anemones in a tidepool

Olympic tidepool life
We decided to press on and explore the coast further south. Past the Point of the Arches, we found a secluded, rocky beach. It was incredible how Shi Shi had been so crowded, yet turning the bend and heading to the next beach allowed us nearly complete solitude. We followed the shoreline to a hole-in-the-wall carved into one of the coastal bluffs; from this point we could look south and see more bluffs. As it was already midday, we decided to turn back here and end our beach exploration.

Rocky beach south of Point of the Arches
After a quick lunch and packing up our gear, we retraced our steps to the trailhead. It was surprising how much more quiet the beach had become. The previous night, people were everywhere. The second afternoon, at the end of the weekend, the beach was nearly empty: the long weekend was over and everyone had apparently gone home to Seattle. We went home to Seattle as well and saved ourselves a bit of driving by taking the Bainbridge ferry back into the city.

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