Olympic Coast Adventure

Written by Matt Hayes
Created Date: Tuesday, 10 June 2014 19:28

On May 17th Matt and Aaron ran and trekked a 53 mile section of the Olympic National Park coast along one of the longest stretches of undeveloped coast in the contiguous United States. The northwest coast of the Olympic Peninsula is a rugged and remote area that is hard to get to, hard to travel, and very beautiful. There are numerous sections of the coast where cliffs and steep terrain drop right into the ocean. Some of these headlands can be passed at low tide and some have overland trails to get around them. Our goal was to complete the trip in a complete low tide cycle (low – high – low) and we would have to time the tides perfectly to avoid getting stuck at any headlands by a high tide.
Our trip started on Friday evening with a long drive to set up a shuttle vehicle at Oil City trailhead. Then we drove back north to our starting point at Shi Shi beach trailhead. After a short night we were on the trail early Saturday morning. Shi Shi beach welcomed us at first light and we were happy to find good conditions – the weather was overcast but not raining and the sand was firm and easy to run and hike. Our plan was to be at Point of the Arches (the first tide restricted point) just after it was passable as the tide lowered and as we passed through one of the arches plenty of beach was showing and had easy traveling. We pushed hard as we traveled south and ran/jogged/shuffled whenever the terrain allowed. We knew the low tide wouldn’t last and we had to cover as much ground as possible when the water was out. The easy travel ended as we passed the Yellow Banks. Two hours of boulder hopping, scrambling, and route finding later we finally passed the Norwegian Memorial and were thankful for another section of firm sand and easy running. The final headland we needed to pass with a low tide was at Hole-in-the-Wall just north of the Quillayute River and we made it with 30 minutes to spare, then stopped for a short lunch break and dried our feet in the warm sand.
The Quillayute River is a major obstacle on the coast – it is wide, too deep to ford, and can run fast at a lowering tide. The nearest bridge is an 8 mile round trip on pavement and our feet were sore and legs tired…. So we inflated our packrafts and had a refreshing paddle across the river. As we climbed up the bank on the south side we were hit with full culture shock. After seeing about 15 people over the previous 35 miles, there were hundreds of big-gas trucks, campers, and fishing boats. A crowded line of boats waited to put in and take out at the small marina. After a quick stop to fill our water and get a cold soda we were happy to head south and get out of town.
The southern portion of the coast has bigger and more dramatic headlands, but also more overland trails to make traveling around them easier. There was one final section that the map showed might require some creativity. A landslide had deposited a 15’ high boulder right on the beach and the map indicated that the tide could be no higher than 4’ to get around it. As we arrived, the tide was around 7’, and sure enough waves were crashing into the boulder and there was no way around on the beach side. The hillside was steep, muddy, and thick with alder and blackberry bushes, but we knew we had to find a way around to keep traveling. Aaron led the way as we climbed up the muddy landslide and found a route through some thick brush. The beach was easy traveling on the far side of our bushwack section and we high fived with new confidence that we could finish that evening.
The southern section of the trek had nice sections of sandy beach split up by overland trails around some big headlands. The overland trails were especially steep, slippery, and several had nearly vertical rope ladders installed to get over cliffs and steep sections. Our final obstacle was just 2.5 miles from the finish, where the map indicated a headland required a 2’ tide to pass. The low tide was predicted to be about 2.5’, so we needed to pass that area directly at low tide. We timed it perfectly, travelled through within ½ hour of low tide, and didn’t even get our feet wet. The Hoh River was a welcome sight after a long day and a short trail led up to the Oil City trailhead.