I was only a few feet from the parking lot when I saw a hunched figure nearing the end of his journey. He was carrying a big backpack. It looked big enough to carry all the gear for the trek he had just finished – a 20-mile hike from Ozette to Rialto Beach, on the Olympic Peninsula. But apparently it wasn’t big enough. Schussing across the soft sand behind him was a plastic sled piled high with even more stuff.
That’s when I realized beach hikers are a different breed.
Hikers in the mountains tend to pack light, but their beach walking counterparts haul wine, cheese and chocolate to their camps. They build roaring driftwood fires and have a different version of leave-no-trace ethics. Buoys hanging from tree branches mark choice campsites and driftwood shelters dot the wild Olympic coastline.
Hiking on the beach is a different sport than hiking in mountains and valleys. There are no real hills to climb and it’s hard to get lost. But beach hiking does have its own challenges. If the tide is high, beach walkers move slowly and laboriously through deep sand, and then try to sneak in a few quick paces in on the firmer, darker sand before the next wave comes. That’s what I did on Rialto Beach, and soon my feet were wet and salty.
The scenery changes slower and in a different way on the beach than in the mountains. The ocean sloshing back and forth conceals and reveals colorful tide pools, broad sand bars, and the ripe smell of low-tide. The tide erases campfires, and sand drawings twice a day.
My parents took me and my sisters on annual beach hiking trips when we were growing up. I liked hiking on the beach, but I really fell in love with hiking and backpacking later on when I started doing more of it in the mountains.
I hadn’t been on a long beach hike in years. So late last summer, with my guidebook deadline approaching, I headed for the coast. I was excited to hang out on the beach, but I wasn’t sure if I’d like the hiking as much. Hiking in the mountains keeps me busy. There’s bends to round; knolls, ridges, and peaks to climb and descend; and every twist in the trail yields a different view. On the beach, the ocean stays on one side and North America stays on the other. Sea stacks and rock walls morph when viewed from slightly different angles and distances, but not much else changes.
After a long hike up the Queets River Valley on a Saturday, I steered my red wagon down a winding gravel road and turned north on U.S. 101 late in the afternoon.
The Olympic Peninsula’s wild coastline is mostly untouched by roads. U.S. 101 runs along a bluff above the water for just one stretch– 12 miles of relatively straight asphalt between the Queets and Hoh Rivers. I hit this stretch at sunset and pulled over at the first opportunity. After watching the sun disappear beyond the waves, I called home to change my plans; I needed to stay an extra day on the coast.
I spent Sunday getting a last minute camping permit for Shi Shi Beach, and then I went for a day hike at Rialto Beach, south of Shi Shi. That’s where I saw the hunched sled puller. Back at the Rialto Beach parking lot, I cooked some noodles, brewed some tea, and went to the beach to watch surfers riding waves long after sun set. I slept in my car and then drove north toward Shi Shi. But first I stopped in Forks for last minute supplies – I needed wine, chocolate and cheese.
I finally reached the trailhead after driving state Route 112 along the Strait and through Neah Bay. It was Labor Day, and hordes of people were hiking out on the muddy trail to the beach as I hiked in. I found the ultimate campsite near Point of the Arches, at the end of the beach. Driftwood benches lined my flat patch of dirt. In the middle, a piece of plywood stacked on a spool served as a table. A past beach hiker had even left a candle on the table.
I spent the next 24 hours tidepooling, walking barefoot, reading in the sand, and eating cheese and chocolate. I forgot the wine, but I didn’t have a sled to pull it in anyway.