A seasoned mountaineer finishing their latest stint in the Himalayas and I don’t have much in common, until we start talking about the places we love. There is something strange about loving a place that you can never know or understand, that feels bigger than you can fathom, a place where loved ones can disappear, and yet it calls you to come back. The fact that they are speaking of high peaks and I am talking about the ocean makes little difference; the sentiment feels the same.
I have a complicated relationship with the ocean. It is my livelihood, my childhood, it holds some of my best memories, some of my worst. It has taken people from me, but it also forged me into the person I am now on its swells. I worry about what the ocean will be to me when my career doesn’t revolve around what lies beneath the waves. I am returning to school this fall to pursue data science and while there is the potential to use it in the marine field, it is a step away from spending my days on the water, breathing the salt. Working in the marine science field has defined me for a decade, and I find myself unsure amidst this change.
On our first backpacking trip on the coast and to Toleak Point, my two worlds merged. The ocean I loved, hated, was entirely consumed by, and this burgeoning backpacking hobby in which I finally felt like myself. Returning to Toleak Point seemed like a perfect trip for this Memorial Day, espescially since I was joined by Michael, Meg and Kyle. These three allow me to open the spigot and talk about marine science non-stop for days.
There was a moment on the second day, after I found a particularly awesome sea discovery (see pictures below for more!), that I turned to Meg and said, “I am so relieved to realize that this won’t disappear”. I realized I can stop working as a marine biologist, and it will not undo the experiences and knowledge gained in the past 10 years. It will always be there, ready for an eager ear. Every time I return to the coast to backpack, I will always be the girl who loves the sea.
Day One-Third Beach to Toleak Point
First backpacking trip of 2018 (that isn’t in snow!). Technically I snow-camped at Mt. Rainier in January, but it didn’t feel like a proper backpacking trip, perhaps because we only camped a 0.5 mile walk from the parking lot. There has been a fair bit of snow this year, so our normal list of backpacking trips to do in May were less appealing. As it was a sunny Memorial Day weekend, we knew it would be busy at most of our top choices. The coast would be crowded, but I have always found that it is easy to spread out on the beach, and there is less panic about finding a spot to pitch a tent than in other mountainous or lake regions. When we found a route that would match well with the tides, the coast became the winner for our first 2018 backpacking trip.
We met early on Sunday morning and packed up the car, ran up to Edmonds and jumped on a ferry. Before too long, we made it to Port Angeles to pick up our permits at the Wilderness Information Center. Overnight permits for this region are not limited, so after warning us about the crowds and ensuring we had a bear can, the ranger sent us on our merry way.
After a few more hours of driving along the shore of Crescent Lake, we arrived at the trailhead to find the parking area completely full. People got fairly creative with where they would park their cars and we opted to park a little ways down the street and add a half mile to our journey to ensure we wouldn’t get blocked in.
Finally, finally, we were ready to hit the trail. We somehow managed to arrive at the trailhead a full 2 hours before we expected, so we were excited to take our time and enjoy the beach for longer. Turning onto the wooded, 1.5 mile trail down to the beach was lovely. Abundant spring growth meant that everything was bright green, and the well-established gravel trail made getting to the beach easy and fast.
We stumbled out onto the pile of driftwood separating the beach from the trail, scrambled over the fallen giants and took a deep breath of salty air. After waiting for a full year to visit the coast, I was thrilled to be at the beach. My excitement increased by about ten-fold when we saw a blow in the distance. Whales!
It appeared that there were probably two individuals, and they seemed to be pretty active, waving pectoral fins in the air. Either humpback whales or gray whales, they stuck around for a bit in the shallows before moving along. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I started jumping up and down, which is no easy feat in the sand while wearing a fully-loaded backpack.
Eventually, the whales stopped showing off and we decided to continue on the route. We dodged the waves pushing high onto the beach until we were in sight of the third beach waterfall and in front of the first headland crossing. It seemed the perfect time for lunch and reapplication of sunscreen.
After finishing our lunch, we packed up and prepared to leave the beach and re-enter the woods. If you are not familiar with Olympic National Park coastal routes, the coast has rugged cliffs lining the shore, making many of the headlands impossible even during a low tide. To continue on the trail, hikers need to climb the headland, usually with the aid of a rope or ladder to an overland trail until the headland has been passed. Then the route spits you back on the beach, where you hike until the beach reaches another impassible headland, denoted by a red and black marker. Repeat ad nasuem until you find a place to sleep.
Luckily the first headland entry was short and not terribly steep. After ascending the ropes there was a large ladder in varying states of disrepair, but also an easy climb. A few more steep climbs and the route leveled out to a lovely stroll through the woods; the crashing waves muffled by the branches.
We dropped onto a pebbly beach with the next headland crossing only a couple hundred yards away. It was the first beach with sea stacks right off the shore, and the rugged, rocky coastline a beautiful change from the open, sandy beaches of Third Beach. We made our way up and over the second headland crossing, significantly steeper than the others. Meg and I loved it, as we chose this route for the opportunity to climb headlands. Others seemed less excited, but went up and over nonetheless!
After a little more beach walking, we reached the third and final headland crossing. A quick climb into the woods and then we were deposited onto a sandy beach rimmed by ghost-white dead trees. The sand eroded under the large trees, creating an eerie scene
With all of the headland crossings out of the way, we were ready to finish our hike to Toleak Point to sleep for the night. Cobble, boulders and sand lined the beach and we scuttled across the various terrain. At last we rounded the final bay and could see Toleak Point.
We found a campsite soon after arriving. As soon as we claimed the spot, Meg and Kyle were ready to jump in the water and get a swim in before it was too cold to frolic in the waves. I slowly unpacked, confident that I was too cold to swim and would remain on shore. I wandered down to the shore to take a few pictures and before I knew it I was down to my underpants and in the water. Just to wade, of course, until a giant wave engulfed me entirely and I gave in. There is nothing quite as wonderful as playing in coastal waves on a sunny day. I gave up and crawled out soon after, as there was a lot of debris in the water and my imagination was being overly creative, but Meg continued swimming long after the rest of us finished.
All day we had continued to make up time and arrive earlier than expected. First we caught an earlier ferry than we planned, the WIC stop went pretty quick and we made good time while hiking. So with a 6pm low tide, we expected to arrive at our campsite around 7, make some quick dinner, a campfire and then sleep. Instead, we arrived around 3 and had hours to play and explore. And explore we did. While Meg and Kyle took a post-swim nap, Michael and I ventured to the water source to fill up for the night and do some tidepooling. The tide was perfect for exposing rocky habitats and we saw many anemones, crabs and tidepool sculpin. I could have spent until sunset looking in the every crevice, but was also pretty desperate for a campfire, so we made our way back to the campsite.
But first, dinner! We had ravioli with dehydrated ratatouille and it was delicious (recipe later this week!), some lemon madelines and chocolate. After eating all of our dinner, Meg and Kyle made the half mile trek to the water source while I stayed behind to start a fire.
I missed the pyro experimentation that my peers performed in their teens, I didn’t camp as a kid. Then I became outdoorsy and people assumed I was great at building fires because we spend every weekend in the woods. I have tried but they usually sputter out and I often set myself up for failure. When I realized we would be spending memorial day weekend on the beach, and able to build a campfire, I hit the books. I was determined to make my own fire, that would last as dusk turned to stars.
Sure enough, with a mix of dried seagrass for a starter, small pieces of driftwood for tinder and larger logs I built a roaring fire. We sat by the fire as it turned from sputtering flames, to a roaring fire and hot coals while the sun slowly fell from the sky, turning the clouds a soft peachy color and lighting the horizon. Stars came out, big dipper and possibly Venus. Hours after I first coaxed flames from a tiny pile of wood, we slowly encouraged the fire to give up and left the warm glow to sleep in our sleeping bags.
Day Two- Toleak Point to Third Beach
After a long night listening to the crashing waves, we woke to cloudy skies. The previous night, we arrived at our campsite at a high-ish tide, so we felt fairly confident that we would be able to cross all of the headlands on the way out, and we took our time with breakfast and packing things up. We ate fancy oatmeal, devised from a recipe Meg perfected while biking down the West Coast, including trail mix, ghee and peanut butter added to the oats for a little extra energy. Once we made sure our fire from the previous night had no chance of reigniting, and our campsite returned to its original state, we set out to return to the third beach trailhead.
As we left on a fairly low tide, I kept my beachcombing eyes open. I glimpsed corner of something that looked like bristles under a pile of seaweed and immediately recognized it as baleen. I let out a yelp and called everyone over to look at the marvel. Despite the many hours I have spent on Washington beaches, baleen is something I have never come across. I was so excited to find it and share it with everyone I saw. A whale’s tooth!
Baleen whales are a category of whales that use bristle-lined keratin plates in their mouths for feeding. Baleen whales open their mouths underwater then force the water out of their mouths with their tongues. The bristles act like a sieve, keeping the organisms in their mouth while expelling the water. The whales then swallow whatever is left and repeat the process. This was likely from a gray whale.
The fog moved farther down the valley, and rain began to fall. When we crossed the second headland, the rain came down a little more heavy, but before we knew it we were back in the trees.
Over the last headland, we crossed over a stream and decided to follow it to a nearby cliff. The water tumbled off the 120′ cliff dramatically and we realized we were standing at the top of the waterfall we had seen at the beginning of our trip.
We dropped down off the final headland and by this point we were reaching high tide. Kyle was nearly soaked before jumping on a rock to escape the incoming waves, all a part of the fun for coastal hiking! By the time we arrived at third beach, the rain had mostly stopped, but a fierce wind remained. Luckily, Kyle found a large rock to duck behind for lunch, where someone had recently had a fire. The buried coals were still smoking and Kyle gathered a little wood to revive it. We had a lovely little fire for lunch then spent some time and a lot of water to ensure the fire extinguished properly this time.
And a rather glorious lunch it was. We knew it would be a short trip mileage-wise and chose to splurge on our lunch, bringing heavy things we would skip with a smaller group or more elevation gain. Swiss cheese, hot-smoked Chinook salmon, trail mix, apples and rye whiskey made for a simply wonderful lunch break.
We bid farewell to the coast and turned away from the waves and back to the woods. After a short, 1.5 mile hike we were back to the car and joined the memorial day traffic home.
This route is included in the Backpacking Washington book by Craig Romano. It includes details about mileage, tide information, headland crossings, and campsites.
Traditional Territory of the Quileute and Hoh Tribes
The coastal region near Toleak Point is an important region for the Quileute and Hoh tribes. A treaty established in 1855 restricted tribal access to historic lands supporting the traditional subsistence cycle. The coastlines on this route were used for fishing surf smelt, herring, salmon, marine mammals and tidal species including clams, mussels and octopus. Hoh oral traditions include an origin myth in which K’wati, the shape-shifting “changer” created the Hoh River and headlands, including Toleak Point.
The Olympic National Park was founded in 1938 and coastal additions were added to the park in 1953. The Olympic National Park recognizes eight Olympic Peninsula tribes relationship to the park based on traditional land use, origin, beliefs, mythology, spiritual beliefs and practices.