May 23, 1996
Beach Treks
Hikers must heed cycles of nature on the pristine Olympic coastline


There may be no other hike in the contiguous United States in which the hiker must follow the rhythms of nature more closely than backpacking along Olympic National Park's wild and rugged Pacific Ocean shoreline.

You walk when waves allow.

Your route is determined by the tide.

You watch the western sky to see what weather is coming your way.

"The people who get in trouble more often than not are those who don't watch the tides," says Jeff Cravens, park ranger called on often to rescue those who fail to hike on nature's time.

"The biggest thing we stress to people is to get a tide table, make sure you have a watch and plan your trip according to the tide."

Many headlands can be rounded only at low tide; some can't be at all and must be climbed. During the highest tides, the surf comes up into the driftwood, tossing timber like straw in the wind.

The Olympic beach hiker must be pre-pared to slog over muddy headlands, the steeper portions on "sand ladders" made of cable and timbers and equipped with ropes. Other elements that come with the territory: negotiating patches of slippery driftwood, crossing thigh-deep streams, dealing with copious rain and scraping your backside on barnacles while hopping intertidal boulders.

If you tackle the coast on its terms, however, rich will be your rewards.

Dozens of jagged, rock seastacks break the surf and line parts of the coast like giant shark teeth. Bluffs along the beach are topped by knotty, wind-twisted spruce. Long sandy beaches lined with piles of wave-polished logs separate the headlands.

Eagles ride winds blowing over the beach; gray whales and sea otters are sometimes seen just outside the surf, and the whisker-ed snouts of seals are a common sight.

And if skies should clear in the west, the evening sun will sink into the sea as a flaming orange orb.

Olympic National Park's 57 miles of coastline make up the most primitive ocean shoreline in the contiguous 48 states.

"It's phenomenal," says Rich Hanson, the maintenance boss for the park's trails. "I don't know of any other park that has a special coast like it, especially that long."

The very southern portion of the park's coastal strip, around Kalaloch, is managed for day-use only. But three portions provide stunning stretches for backpacking trips -- the 17.3-mile South Coast hike, the 20.8-mile North Coast hike and the 13.4-mile Ozette-to-Shi Shi Beach hike.

None of the three is what you might call a stroll on the beach.

Two stretches in particular are some-what daunting even for the stout of heart -- the 6.1-mile portion from the Hoh River through a boulder field and then up and over steep, muddy Hoh Head to Mosquito Creek, and the three-plus miles over and around a rugged stretch of headlands and boulder fields near Point of Arches.

"We get a lot of folks who come out expecting to be able to get in their 15-mile hike, and they don't realize how difficult it is to hike on the beach," says Cravens, based at the Mora Ranger Station near La Push. "It's definitely a backcountry, wilderness hike."

Cravens says hikers should figure it will take them nearly twice as long as their usual hiking time in the mountains to cover the more rugged portions of the beach hike.

In summertime, park rangers patrol the beach strip daily and are called on to rescue people almost weekly.

"It's generally from people who don't watch their footing and slip on logs or rocks, or try to go around a headlands too quickly and fall," Cravens says. "We tell people just to take their time."

Crossing rain-swollen streams can be dangerous, and there have been instances of people being washed out into the ocean. It is recommended that the larger streams that can be forded -- Mosquito, Goodman, Falls and Ellen creeks as well as the Ozette River -- be crossed during low tide and at moderate or lower flows.

You should bring tennis shoes to wear while crossing and unbuckle your pack straps before wading. Finding a stout stick to use as a wading staff is helpful.

Despite the difficulties, the beach hikes are increasingly popular and campsites are crowded in summer. Camping is already limited via a permit system in easily acces-sible Ozette-area backcountry.

Cravens says the number of "user nights" in the park's Mora subdistrict (the South Coast hike and the southern portion of the North Coast hike) increased from 12,000 in 1984 to 25,000 in 1995.

"The biggest problem we have is sanitation in the summer -- garbage, feces," Cravens says. "It gets worse every year because visitation increases every year. Eventually, I foresee a reservation system covering the whole coastal strip. Maybe not this year or next, but sometime in the future."

Privies are situated near major camping areas, and two new ones are being added this summer. Regulations require that campers use only the privies when they are camping within 1/4-mile of one. When they are not, rangers advise that you dig a 4- to 6-inch "cat hole" at least 100 feet from any water source and bury waste and toilet paper.

Those seeking solitude should plan their trips for off-season months. The coast can be lonesome and wild in April, May and early June, particularly on weekdays. Mid-September through October is also a good time to escape crowds, and the coast can take on a primal ferocity in winter.

"There is actually quite a number of people who like to come out and camp in the most horrible weather conditions possible," Cravens says. "I like to do it myself when there's a good storm. The ocean just gets wild."

It is important anytime when hiking the beach, and especially in winter and spring, that backpackers carry all the necessary survival gear, such as extra food and warm clothing, a good map (Green Trails and Custom Correct topographic maps are best for the coastal strip) and compass, first-aid kit, knife and full rainwear.

Some beach hikers bring a tarp, either light plastic or nylon, to tie over the campsite in the event of rain. If you do, pack it (and all other garbage) out, because nothing mars a natural scene more than an ugly hunk of plastic.

It is also important to hang your food, especially on the northern hikes and particularly at Ozette. Raccoons there are bold and said to be nearly capable of solving a Rubik's Cube, which means your backpack zipper is a piece of cake.

And don't forget to boil, filter or otherwise purify water from streams for drinking. You'll want to stay physically healthy while the rhythms of nature purify your soul.

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