April in Washington, during a higher than average snow year, left two backpacking options; Eastern Washington and the Olympic National Park coastal regions. So we set our sights to Shi Shi beach. There are few things I love more than coastal Washington in the spring when dark, moody skies abruptly switch to surprise summer afternoons. Exploration abounds when mileage runs out and it is easy to spend hours at the campsite identifying creatures in tidepools or marine mammals frolicking in the surf (sometimes the mammal in the surf is me). This was my fourth coastal backpacking trip and my first backpacking trip since September when a kidney stone cut our last backpack to the coast short. Don’t get kidney stones while backpacking kids, it throws the best plans out the window. Choosing the coast seemed inevitable and we pulled our backpacking gear out of deep storage.
It was our first backpack of the season, so it was filled with comical mistakes and many forgotten items but undeterred, we carried on. I realized my first mistake and felt the “oh no” chill cascade through my body as we pulled away from the ferry terminal and I saw one pair of hiking boots in the trunk. I had left my hiking boots at home. I immediately realized that there was no version of reality in which we could get off the ferry, go home and grab my boots and get back on the ferry while still having enough time to walk in daylight. Luckily, there is a REI in Silverdale which was only 15 minutes out of the way, so after an hour detour, I had a pair of Alta Lone Peak 3.0 Trail-runners. A full gear review will come after I can do a few more backpacking trips in them, but they worked really well, even given the wet and muck of coastal trails. Spoiler, I might be a convert from my beloved but heavy Asolo Fissions.
Our next stop was the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles to pick up our backpacking permits. Securing permits was mostly uneventful, but if you are planning to do the trail know that you will need a bear can and they are available at the WIC. A pack animal event was happening at the WIC and I was thrilled to meet a few of the mules that are part of the trail maintenance crew. I find trail maintenance endlessly fascinating and meeting the stock crew was my version of a celebrity sighting.
As the day progressed what began as a sprinkle of rain turned into a full downpour as we made our way to Neah Bay. We stopped at the general store to pick up our Makah permit and arrived at the trailhead parking (0.6 miles from the trailhead) for overnight parking. After paying the parking fee, we finished putting on our gear and started the road walk.
After hours driving on a windy coastal road, entering the dark, cool forest that marks the beginning of the trail was a relief. The air smelled marvelous, despite the proliferous skunk cabbage and hung-heavy with recent showers as the sun fought its way through the clouds. Strolling on well-constructed boardwalks allowed my mind to wander and settle into the familiar gait and weight of backpacking.
After a mile, the boardwalks give way to muddy trail. A wet spring following a wet winter on the coast makes for some ridiculous mud puddles and I was envious of other hikers wearing rainboots. Attempting to find dry paths through the muck was useless and I resigned myself to wet feet until I could dry them in the sand. After about two miles we reached the turn-off where the Olympic National Park begins and saw the beach below. There is a steep descent aided by ropes and rooty steps. At the bottom of the hill are a few campsites, well-sheltered but lacking in privacy. We continued on and shortly pushed through the trees to the beach in search of a campsite on the sand.
The sun was shining and the water was beautiful. We quickly spotted whale blows beyond the surf and identified the six individuals as gray whales. It is gray whale migration season and we had hoped to see one or two, to see multiple was quite a treat. One whale engaged in feeding behavior and we watched the pectoral fin wave lazily in the air as the whale lay on its side siphoning small shrimp from the mud. I could whale watch all day, (and talk about whales all day, as an unfortunate family on the trail discovered when I wouldn’t let them continue on after they asked about gray whale biology) but given our late start, it was necessary to push on if we wanted a campsite before dark.
The water was running high and swift and we were at the highest tide of the day, making the crossing more than an ankle soaker. Other hikers mentioned a slick log crossing further up the creek, and we opted to attempt that to avoid the chill of fording. The logs were indeed slick and precarious; Michael found his way across the creek by scooting across the logs, providing me with an excellent GIF opportunity.
After watching Michael successfully navigate the crossing, I knew I would end up in the creek, being swept to sea. I returned to the mouth of the creek and decided to ford. Compared the snow-fed streams I usually ford, Petroleum Creek was relatively warm (approximately 51 degrees, balmy!) and the ford was simple.
After reuniting with Michael we continued on the beach, looking for a place to camp. The sand was warm and soft, so I kept my shoes off and backpacked in my bare feet for the rest of the route, whispering to myself this is my happiest place.
We reached Point of the Arches but were unable to round the point with the high tide, so we turned back and looked for campsites. All but one of the established campsites were occupied, and the open campsite was only 30 meters from another tent, so we found a spot tucked among the driftwood. I prefer to sleep on the sand, closer to the water when possible, so I was thrilled.
Dinner was last year’s dehydrated boeuf bourguignon over mashed potatoes with wine in a can. It was fantastic, though likely a little more calorie-dense than necessary given the short, flat approach. We usually save the boeuf for long days with extreme elevation gain, but I have not touched the dehydrator all winter. After finishing dinner the sun began to set and the temperature dropped significantly. We bundled up and watched the sunset from inside the tent
This was my first outdoor night for my new enlightened equipment quilt and it was so cozy and warm. Sleeping without the rainfly was worth it for the glimpse of stars in the middle of the night, but did lead to the sea breeze collecting on the mesh.
In the morning I had a difficult time climbing out of the sleeping bag and into the cold morning, but it was low tide and I cannot say no to tidepooling.
After poking around Point of the Arches and exploring the areas that were underwater the previous night, we returned to our campsite to make breakfast and coffee. We rehydrated powdered eggs mixed with bacon jerky in an attempt to find breakfast options besides oatmeal. It was decent, but the recipe needs some tweaking before I declare it a success. We packed up camp and strapped on our packs, reluctant to make our way back to the trailhead. I nearly pledged to stay on the beach forever after watching a gray whale calf spyhop for twenty minutes. We also saw a few breaches and many more blows. The low tide revealed interesting rock formations that we had missed the previous night.
When we reached Petroleum Creek we both decided to ford and enjoyed the barefoot backapcking until we reached the turn-off into the woods. One short, steep climb up to the main trail and we were back on the muddy slog to the trailhead.
Shi Shi Beach Historical Land Usage
Shi Shi beach is unusual compared to other places on the Olympic coast (such as Toleak Point), because you need two permits for an overnight trip. The route leading to Shi Shi beach is on Makah tribal land, while the beach itself is included as part of the Olympic National Park. This requires one permit to access the trail and another permit to spend the night.
The Makah tribe is centered at Neah Bay, at the northwestern corner of Washington State, inhabiting their ancestral land. Known to themselves as Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx, meaning “the people who live on the cape by the seagulls”, the term Makah was assigned by neighboring tribes and means “generous with food” in the Salish language.
Pre-contact, tribal lands included both Neah Bay, inland territory and south to the lands of the Quileute, and archaeological research suggests the Makah people inhabited the area for at least 4,000 years. In 1855 the Makah tribe signed the Treaty of Neah Bay, ceding much of their traditional lands; lands that eventually became part of the Olympic National Park. The American government attempted to systematically destroy the way of life for Indigenous people across the United States, but the Makah people held onto their cultural tradition. When potlatch celebrations were outlawed, the Makah people continued this cultural practice by holding these gatherings on inaccessible islands off of the coast.
Spending time on Makah land is a privilege granted by the generosity of the Makah people. Consider stopping by the Makah museum when visiting Shi Shi beach to learn more about the tribe and beaches we are so lucky to visit.