February 4, 1999

Hike to Cape Alava an enchanting trek no matter the season


I've hiked to Sand Point and Cape Alava on Olympic National Park's wilderness beach strip in all seasons, in weather ranging from sun to snow, and I never get tired of it.

One of the more memorable trips was a winter visit with Harry Kelsey, a good friend now deceased. The boardwalks that start at the Ozette Ranger Station were icy and there was even a dusting of snow on the offshore sea stacks. Camping in snow on the beach was a surreal experience.

There was no snow on a recent Boy Scout outing led by my husband, John. Showers gave way to blue sky on our way to the trailhead. The Scouts were all faster than I, so I took my time walking the boardwalks, which are notorious for their slippery surfaces.

The park is testing a new section of boardwalk -- made of plastic -- near the beginning of the trail that heads out to Cape Alava. It's not as slippery as the wooden planks, but to me it lacks soul.

The sun was bright by the time I reached Ahlstrom's Prairie and I stopped to turn my face to the sun, famished for light. Lars Ahlstrom was a homesteader who lived there early in the century and was, for a time, the westernmost homesteader in the United States. From the prairie you can hear the solemn roar of the ocean.

At Cape Alava, about a mile farther on, John and the Scouts had taken up residence near the trailhead in one of the large, spacious camps that are always occupied in the summer. We saw lots of deer milling around, looking at us from time to time with bored expressions as if we were a movie they had seen once too often.

Rain was moving in, so we thought it best to set up shelter; tents and a large tarp. After a short squall, we walked the beach toward the Ozette River, passing the Makah Ranger Station and archaeological landmark of Cape Alava, once the site of a large Indian whaling village. The beach nearby reeked of decaying seaweed, but the scent faded once we were past.

Here, archaeologists have excavated dwellings buried by a mudslide 500 years ago. Other buried dwellings date back at least 2,500 years and await further excavation.

Another squall hit us, but then the sun came out and we were rewarded with a rainbow that stretched across the entire sky, ending as a golden haze in the trees. We also saw a couple of dead sea lions washed up on the beach and lots of garbage (plastic jugs and the like), but no glass floats.

It rained hard during the night, but the morning merely brought a light mist. We broke camp, and by the time we reached the parking lot, it was raining hard.

Getting there: Drive U.S. Highway 101 west from Port Angeles. At Sappho, 15 miles past Lake Crescent, turn right on state Route 113, which intersects with and becomes state Route 112. Follow 112 through Clallam Bay and Sekiu about two miles to the Ozette Lake Road. Follow it the 21 miles to the parking area, campground and ranger station.

Trail detail: Both the Cape Alava and Sand Point trails begin as one at the information booth near the parking lot. The trail then splits a few hundred feet after crossing the Ozette River, both equally attractive (though it's rumored that there are more racoons at Sand Point).

The Cape Alava trail begins on an abandoned road and plunges immediately into what feels like Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," with dense greenery consisting of salal and other shrubs. Most of the trail is on boardwalk, which can be a curse or a blessing, depending on the weather. The boardwalk is slippery when wet, but it also keeps your feet out of the black mud that is prevalent much of the year.

At 2 miles, the forest opens to Ahlstrom's Prairie, a bog that was a lake once upon a geologic time (Ahlstrom also cleared some of this area for pasture). The trail then returns to the gloom of the forest, and the roar of the ocean can now be heard. At 3 1/2 miles, the path drops suddenly to the beach and a collection of excellent campsites.

Several islands can be seen from the beach. Tskawayah Island to the north is part of the Ozette Indian Reservation and clambering on it is not allowed. The Ozette River is 1 1/2 miles to the north and Sand Point is 3 miles to the south.

The beach to Sand Point can be hiked easily at anything below high tide. Three-hundred-year-old petroglyphs can be found about a mile to the south of Cape Alava at Wedding Rocks. Makah tribal members ask that you respect their sanctity and not touch them.

From Sand Point, hike the Sand Point trail back to the parking lot to complete the loop.

Trail data: The Cape Alava/ Sand Point loop is 9 1/2 miles. Cape Alava is six miles round trip (elevation gain is about 500 feet). The recommended map is the Custom Correct Ozette Beach Loop, or Green Trails Ozette No. 130S. For information on conditions, how to obtain permits (required beginning May 1) and entry fees, call the Olympic National Park Wilderness Information Center at 360-452-0300.

Special note: The raccoons at Cape Alava and Sand Point are notorious for stealing backpackers' food. They have developed state-of-the-art pilfering abilities and have been known to open zippers and pockets and perform high-wire acts on ropes strung between trees. Food must be hung out of the animals' reach in raccoon-proof containers or carried with you at all times. They will visit you at dusk and watch you with their shining eyes, waiting for you to make a dumb mistake (such as overlooking that candy bar in your backpack


The proportion of "wheel-free" trails in Washington, where bicycles, motorcycles and/or all-terrain vehicles are not allowed, is a figure of considerable dispute between hikers and riders. In the Jan. 28 Getaways book review, an unrealistically low figure was cited.

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