Psst: Take a look at our 2020 version of this list!
Hunt for Treasure
Where it is: South of Grays Harbor on the Olympic Peninsula
Drive time from downtown: 2½ hours
What to bring: The wide, padded shoulder strap and open-entry design of Kavu’s “Climber” bag make it the perfect receptacle for new pet rocks and foraged treasures. kavu.com
Oh, the elusive glass fishing float. Like a shrunken, drunken sailor adrift on the open water and too in love with the sea—or inebriated—to come ashore, it’s a rare and exciting find on Pacific Northwest beaches. You can count yourself lucky these days if you ever spot one swaddled in kelp on a sandy shore (as opposed to on the shelves of a ramshackle beachside trinket shop or on eBay), but your best bet is at Grayland Beach. For whatever reason—the California Current, back swirls from Willapa Bay, top-secret experimental tractor beams installed underwater—the stormy spring season brings an impressive flotilla of flotsam that runs aground on the 13 miles of beach between the Grays Harbor County line and North Cove.
Schedule your walks along the soft, powdery sands at Grayland exclusively for the rainy months, though, and you’ll miss one of the best all-purpose beach experiences along Washington’s coast: Like at Ocean Shores, you’ll find an expansive, mostly flat shoreline that slips smoothly into the cold Pacific waters. But here, instead of the scrubby shrubs that dot the dunes on the other side of Grays Harbor, a line of stoic pine trees guards the beach and fends off the touristy trappings of lesser coastal communities. You can bring a kite, the blueprints for your latest sand-castle creation, or even just a towel for lazy weekend lounging; but if you’re lucky, you may go home with an extra treasure to say you’ve been there.
Explore Tide Pools
Where it is: 20 miles north of Bellingham, west of I-5
Drive time from downtown: 2 hours
What to bring: Wood-framed screen for sorting shells from sand and mud, a camera for photographing your finds, and a bucket—because, let’s face it, you’re going to take a few home.
Let’s get this nonjudgmental, eco-friendly disclaimer out of the way up front: Even if shell-collecting isn’t outlawed at a given beach, Rule Number One in the Good Steward’s Manifesto (“take nothing and leave only footprints”) applies to sand scavengers just the same. Set your conservationist compass accordingly before you arrive in Birch Bay State Park, where the shells are bountiful and the official restrictions are few; once you step onto its organism-rich sands the temptation to stuff a bucket with the booty you’re likely to uncover could overwhelm your otherwise enviro-conscious code of ethics.
It’s not only the empty armor left by legions of critters that draws shell gatherers to this lip of land just south of the BC border; it’s the topography, too. At high tide the publicly accessible mile-and-a-half-long stretch of beach at Birch Bay is your average—if not scenic—mix of sand and gravel. At low tide the shallow, warm waters recede to expose hundreds of yards of tide pools, eelgrass, and sandbars, not to mention all the discarded artistic remains of cockles, moon snails, and mossy chitons you could fit in your pockets…if, that is, you weren’t worried about leaving the beach as you found it.
Cast a Line
Point No Point
Where it is: The northernmost tip of the Kitsap Peninsula
Drive time from downtown: 1½ hours, including ferry from Edmonds to Kingston
What to bring: Fishing pole, bait, and a cooler to keep your catches on ice.
Bad news first: Puget Sound’s coho and chinook salmon runs are down this summer. Good news: More than 5 million pink salmon—the most since 1963—are expected to storm the Sound right about now. And the best place to hook them is Point No Point. Stretching out at the base of a squat, 130-year-old lighthouse, the remarkably white (for Puget Sound) sandy beach at the tip of the Kitsap Peninsula acts as a geological traffic cop, directing some of the salmon that swim in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca down the Hood Canal and some down to the south Sound.
Handfuls of hip wader–wearing fly fishermen gird their loins and slosh out past the sand to stand in the icy waters, but because the beach drops off so precipitously here, you can just as easily tie a shimmery diamond-shaped Buzz Bomb lure to your reel and cast off from the shore. Either way, bring a jacket because even in late summer a nasty wind can whip down out of the Strait and sour the experience if you’re not prepared; they don’t call the sliver of land just west of the Point No Point beach Foulweather Bluff for nothin’.
If you don’t already have one, get your license from fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov And if snagging king salmon out in the open waters is your thing, captain Keith Robbins (206-295-7031; salmonguide.com) will be happy to take you out for a charter fishing tour off the Point No Point coast.
Where it is: On Fidalgo Island
Drive time from downtown: 1½ hours
What to bring: Lightweight, comfortable, and not too long and not too short, Hobie’s “Lanai” kayak makes a sound, all-purpose family sport vessel. $699 at Hobie Cats Northwest, 7777 62nd Ave NE, Greenwood, 206-985-8080; hobiecatsnorthwest.com
Recommending a beach for kayaking is tricky. Pick a safe spot and you risk putting the experienced paddler to sleep; pick a place flush with heart-hammering white caps and jagged rock outcroppings and you risk putting the novice in the hospital. But that’s what makes Bowman Bay perfect: It has a little bit of both.
The beach itself is unexceptional; pebbly sand mixes with cobble, and low tide exposes mudflats and tangles of sea lettuce. But it’s the high-water mark among shoreline portals to the full spectrum of Puget Sound kayaking: Paddle in the placid bay and spot the occasional harbor seal, venture north to Rosario Beach and explore the sea caves, or shoot south into Deception Pass, where currents can reach eight knots. And if none of that floats your boat? Hike the handful of trails that snake around Whidbey Island and cut through the rocky wilderness.
Pay $5 to launch your own kayak; or, for $35 per person ($25 for kids under 12), explore the bay’s calmer corners with Anacortes Kayak Tours (800-992-1801; anacorteskayaktours.com).
Drop Your Kids in the Water
Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park
Where it is: Renton
Drive time from downtown: 20 minutes
What to bring: Sunscreen, a book, and—what the heck?—water noodles.
With all due respect to the part-time city employees who spend their summers wielding leaf skimmers and measuring chlorine levels, public pools are the Seattle swimming equivalent of snarfing a Big Mac in Paris. Why, in a region flooded with natural waterways and blessed with innumerable patches of soft sand, would you let your kids bake on a concrete slab and slap each other with pool noodles in chemically treated water? Why would you not take them to Lake Washington’s southern tip and shoo them toward Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park?
Yes, the water can be cold (even this late in the summer), and yes, this splash-and-be-splashed destination in Renton can get a tad crowded, but the conditions aren’t much different than those at your neighborhood pool—and at least here you don’t have to worry about little Sally’s hair getting sucked into the filter. The fun factor is ample, thanks to a sizable sandy beach, playground, and grassy area. And as at any beach, safety is a priority, so the proper precautions are in place at Gene Coulon to minimize parental freak-outs: The designated swimming area is bordered by a walkway that protects the beach from speed boats and constantly patrolled by lifeguards who won’t let young doggie paddlers leave the shallow water without passing a swimming skills test.
And if that isn’t enough, you can lead your little ones across the walkway to the west of the beach that connects to Bird Island, where—imagine that—they might just spot a few ducks and geese. Fun, chlorine-free, and educational? It’s the kid-friendly aquatic adventure trifecta.
Where it is: West of Everett at the mouth of the Snohomish River
Drive time from downtown: 30 minutes, plus a five-minute ferry ride
What to bring: Shades have a way of disappearing, but when Kavu’s “Broseph” sunglasses fall off your face, the high density foam–filled arms keep them afloat. $75 at Kavu; kavu.com
Like a marine monument to man’s meddling ways Jetty Island rose up out of the northern Puget Sound in the first half of the twentieth century, one barge’s worth of dredged soil at a time. The two-mile sliver of sand (and other geological ingredients) was haphazardly designed to create a protected harbor off the Everett shoreline, but once extremesports junkies discovered its man-made beaches it morphed into one of the happiest recreational accidents in the state. For the past decade steady strong winds that whip down the Saratoga Passage have conspired with warm, shallow waters to lure fans of kiteboarding (think kite-powered surfing) to the island’s western shores.
Non-extremophiles in search of an alternative to the public pool take note: Jetty Island’s shallow waters have also made it one of the few spots in the Sound warm enough for swimming. Just keep your head on a swivel for errant airborne boards.
The island is inaccessible by car, so you’ll need to catch the ferry in Marine Park; just try not to miss the last boat home.
Stop and Look Around
Where it is: Western Kitsap Peninsula
Drive time from downtown: 1½ hours, including ferry ride from Seattle to Bremerton
What to bring: A camera, rugged boots, and a pair of binoculars.
The name is deceptive. To the vacationer corrupted by idealized Travel Channel images of palm trees and pillowy sand, Scenic Beach could sound like a tony patch of balmy Gulf Coast transplanted to Puget Sound; visiting Floridians have even admitted as much to the park’s rangers. But no, at this beaklike point off the Kitsap Peninsula that noses into Hood Canal, there’s no sand to speak of and the only mai tais you’ll drink are the ones you brought with you.
Here, “scenic” refers to the views of everything but the beach. Just beyond the parking lot, a grassy field gradually drops off to 1,500 feet of cobble shoreline that screams, “Roll your ankle here,” but you’ll be doing more gawking than walking. The snow-capped Brothers peaks and Mount Walker loom beyond the Olympic Peninsula shore to the west and the waters of Dabob Bay dominate the frame to the north, but regardless of where you look, you’re guaranteed a view you’d never find in Florida.
Revered former ranger Mike James recognized the park’s propensity for inspiring slack-jawed staring, so even the picnic tables are set up on the bluff to take advantage of the scenery. Because even if your name might fool a few tourists, you stick with your strong suit.
Get Away Without Going Anywhere
Where it is: Just north of Tacoma, in Point Defiance Park
Drive time from downtwon: 1 hour
What to bring: A Frisbee, a book, or a good pair of hiking boots for scrambling around the point.
Owen Beach offers your proverbial fork-in-the-sandy-shoreline experience: Hang a right out of the parking lot at this urban escape in Point Defiance Park and you’ll be weaving in and out of sand castle-building, Frisbee-tossing, dog-walking outdoor enthusiasts along nearly a third of a mile of gravelly waterfront with a view of southern Puget Sound. (Want to enjoy that view without all the weaving? Try the concrete walkway just above the high-tide line.)
Take a left, though, and within half a mile of trekking north on this hitchhiker’s thumb of land outside Tacoma you’ll swear you’ve slipped through a wormhole and ended up on the Olympic Peninsula (almost). Picnic tables and barbecue grills yield the shoreline to bald eagles and harbor seals, the pebbles and gravel of the beach’s southern stretch are replaced by a patchwork path of rock, clay, and sand, and the chattering masses dissolve in the distance, leaving nothing but scenic solitude. At low tide this decidedly more primitive portion of Owen Beach extends miles around the tip of Point Defiance and down to Salmon Beach on the western side, but be careful not to wander too far; the beach all but disappears at high tide, and the steep clay banks near the point offer few escape routes when the water rises. Plan your trip accordingly or bring an inflatable boat.
Do Absolutely Nothing
Marine View Park
Where it is: At the southern end of Normandy Park
Drive time from downtown: 30 minutes, plus a 10-minute hike to the beach
What to bring: Take Pack Tag’s hands-free beach blanket down to the waterfront, then trek the long way back and use it as a picnic mat on the pit-stop lookout benches that dot the return trail. $38 at City People’s Mercantile, 5440 Sand Point Way NE, University District, 206-524-1200; citypeoples.com
Here’s how far the people of Normandy Park went to keep their pristine, natural, and sort-of-hard-to-get-to beach a secret: About 25 years ago, they cut the word “beach” out of its name. Marine View Park (a sneaky synonym for “beach” if there ever was one) was known as Normandy Beach Park until 1987, when the city offered students at Marvista Elementary School a chance to rename the wooded waterfront hideaway just north of the Des Moines marina. Which raises the question, Aren’t school kids supposed to be learning to share?
It’s hard to blame Normandy Park’s peeps for wanting to keep this beach to themselves. At just over 1,000 feet in length, it doesn’t take a deluge of sand seekers to spoil Marine View’s secluded vibe (although the city is snatching up plots of adjacent waterfront that will double the beach’s length by next summer). A steep, half-mile hike from the parking lot might discourage amateur adventurers, but if you’re willing to sweat a tad, you’ll find one of the more intimate picnic spots in Puget Sound. Slip a baguette, a bottle of cabernet, and a wedge of Oregon blue cheese in your backpack (the climb is tricky for cooler toting) and thank the kids at Marvista for keeping this whole “beach” thing on the DL.
Ditch Your Clothes
Denny Blaine Park
Where it is: On Lake Washington in Madrona
Drive time from downtown: 10 minutes
What to bring: When you do decide to cover up, you’ll want to do so in style; try these all-cotton, oversize, striped Lacoste beach towels. macys.com
Privacy, when it comes to skinny dipping, is a mixed bag. And the peace of mind afforded by knowing your naughty bits aren’t on display for pervy prying eyes is almost canceled out by the fact that complete concealment kills the buzz that comes with sunbathing sans clothes. The beach at Denny Blaine Park, though, sports the perfect mix of sight lines and seclusion.
There’s a reason—several, actually—that this park on Lake Washington’s western shore has lured the clothing-optional crowd for years: First, without lifeguards, it’s devoid of hall-monitor types who might chase off suitless swimmers. And then there are the grassy areas and soft sand that make for comfortable lounging. But it’s the location that makes Denny Blaine a standout skinny-dipping refuge. Tucked away at the base of a small hill, behind a stone wall and a stand of trees, it offers just enough cover to keep the rubberneckers at bay.
Public nudity isn’t illegal in the City of Seattle or at city parks, but “indecent exposure” is. In other words, use discretion if you plan to let it all hang out.
Step Back in Time
Where it is: Olympic Peninsula, 30 miles south of Forks
Drive time from downtown: 3½ to 4 hours
What to bring: Let the little ones learn about exploring natural environments with Haba’s crank-powered lantern ($35), navigating watch ($40), and survival tools ($35). Clover, 5335 Ballard Ave NW, Ballard, 206-782-0715; clovertoys.com
Under a sky that you’d swear stretches to the edge of the world, and framed by craggy spires of spruce and western hemlock, blue-green waves slap Volkswagen-size sandstone boulders before landing on a gently sloping beach of caramel-colored sand. And that’s just the view from the parking lot on the cliff above Beach 4 at Kalaloch.
Kalaloch, north of the Quinault Indian Reservation, is technically one contiguous beach on the Pacific coast, but it’s sliced into six segments, based on the six trails that access it from Highway 101 above. Kalaloch Lodge is just four miles south of the fourth trail, but after a few steps down the side of a steep bluff that walls off the shore from modernity you’ll almost forget you’re anywhere near civilization. Turn right at the base of the quarter-mile descent and you’ll run into those massive sandstone outcroppings that loom large over tide pools brimming with briny life. Turn left and an expansive shoreline of pebbly (and rather coarse) sand stretches to the south. It’s as secluded and wild as you’ll find in Washington, all of it largely unchanged in the 200 years since George Vancouver mapped the Washington coast.
It’s almost a four-hour drive from Seattle, so you might want to consider making a day of it and booking a room at Kalaloch Lodge (157151 Hwy 101, Forks, 866-525-2562; visitkalaloch.com).
Dig Your Own Dinner
Where it is: 20 miles north of Ocean Shores
Drive time from downtown: 3 hours
What to bring: Clam gun, shovel, and a bag for each person in your party, plus a shellfish/seaweed license to dig razor clams—and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife strictly enforces its daily bag limit. For more information, visit wdfw.wa.gov/licensing
Is anything more distinctly Northwestern than traipsing along the coast with a three-foot PVC tube over your shoulder, in search of dimples in the sand? Digging for razor clams is the kind of hobby only a scrappy, surf-impervious outdoor adventurer could love, but oh does it promise a tasty culinary payoff.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife calls the state’s five coastal regions “management zones,” but razor clam–diggers call them half-shell heaven. Each year clam gun toters unearth more than 3 million of the meaty, buttery bivalves from Washington’s sandy shores, and for many Mocrocks offers an exceptionally bountiful harvest. Even though the eight-mile stretch of coast between the Moclips and Copalis rivers is among the smallest of the designated zones, seasoned diggers say the clams here are bigger. And size does matter: WDFW limits your haul to 15 clams and prohibits you from throwing any back, no matter what condition they’re in when you drag them out of the sand. (You break ’em, you bag ’em.)
The season doesn’t start until October, but Mocrocks is still worth a visit while foot traffic is low. The beach is impossibly flat and wide, so you’ve got all kinds of room to lay down a towel, spread out, and watch the surf roll in.
Get Your Grub On
Long Beach Peninsula
Where it is: Southwest Washington coast
Drive time from downtown: 3½ hours
What to bring: The maxi dress, fashion’s current favorite fancy, is made for summer nights. This one, in silk by Diane Samandi, channels the Italian fashion house Missoni at a fraction of the price. $195 at Mercer, 2670 NE University Village St, University District, 206-388-0329. 118A Bellevue Square, Bellevue, 425-283-1896; mercerstore.com
If locals prize the Long Beach Peninsula for the raw splendor of its Willapa Bay and rednecks dig it because they can cruise their cars along portions of its 28-mile Pacific coastline, then urbanites come for the food. Because for whatever reason—maybe that its bogs are loaded with cranberries and its beaches with shellfish and its forests with wild mushrooms—this sandy finger of southwest Washington has for years sustained an astounding restaurant scene.
At the moment the big players are Pelicano, which lights up the Ilwaco docks with creative cosmopolitan platings and views of bobbing masts from nearly every table; and about halfway up the peninsula Jimella’s Seafood Market and Café—yeah, that Jimella Lucas, she of the late, great Ark Restaurant—with its delicate pan-fried Willapa Bay oysters and upmarket picnic fare like clam chowder, which you can schlep off to enjoy at one of the beach access roads just across the street.
These are restaurants of real gustatory pretension, but blissfully unconstrained by anything so citified as a dress code. (Unless you count the must-have-sand-between-your-toes requirement.) That means you can spend the day walking the endless expanse of beach at Leadbetter State Park—which, being car-free, feels like the numinous, windswept edge of forever—then motor back down the peninsula to cap the day with a Northwest meal truly worthy of the experience.
Pelicano, 177 Howerton Way SE, Ilwaco, 360-642-4034; pelicanorestaurant.com. Jimella’s Seafood Market and Café, 21712 Pacific Way, Klipsan Beach, 360-665-4847
Where it is: West Seattle
Drive time from downtown: 15 minutes
What to bring: Nothing but a healthy curiosity.
It’s shocking really. Everyone goes to Alki. The minute the mercury climbs north of 60 degrees, West Seattle’s all-purpose sun-swept strip becomes a sandy carnival midway, full of the city’s beautiful freaks: bird-watchers, shell hunters, dog walkers, roller skaters, jocks, and water lovers. But that’s not the shocking part; two and a half miles of public beachfront minutes from a city center is prime property for summer fun. No, the shocking part is that less than two miles south of Alki on Beach Drive sits the no-less-impressive yet completely ignored beach at Me-Kwa-Mooks Park.
Its markedly smaller size and complete lack of commercial diversions are no doubt to blame for the lack of traffic, but they’re also what make it a convenient escape for those who want to venture away from the masses. Leave your beach towel at home, though, because Me-Kwa-Mooks isn’t for your average sun seeker. Instead it’s for those in search of a surprisingly diverse range of sea creatures in a comparatively tiny package. Tide pools hide all sorts of sea stars and sea slugs in plain sight, hermit crabs patrol the beach, and it’s not uncommon to see an osprey diving for fish just off the shoreline. What is uncommon? A full house on a sunny day.
Take a Hike
Lake Ozette Loop Trail
Where it is: Western shore of the Olympic Peninsula, 25 miles west of Clallam Bay on Hoko Ozette Road
Drive time from downtown: 5 hours, including ferry from Edmonds to Kingston
What to bring: REI’s new weatherproof “Taku” shell blocks winds up to 60 miles per hour. $130 at REI, rei.com
Let’s pour a splash of Gatorade on the boardwalk between Lake Ozette and Cape Alava in memory of Lars Ahlstrom. By pounding together three miles of cedar planks to connect the lake to the Pacific, the Swedish-born homesteader who settled near Ozette made possible one of the most striking trails in Olympic National Park.
That wooden walkway—the first leg of the nine-mile Lake Ozette loop trail—curls through Sitka spruce and sword fern and out to a bluff above the ocean. And though technically a walk on the beach, the second leg is no barefoot stroll. (More like a booted scramble over slippery cobble.) It does offer postcard wilderness views, though. Islands crop up out of the water just off the coast, tide pools pockmark the walk, and Native American petroglyphs dot the rocks along the beach. The final three-mile leg, along another boardwalk—from Sand Point back to Lake Ozette—is almost unremarkable by comparison, but after the sensory overload of that beach hike, anything short of seeing a Technicolor Disney character bounding through the tall grass would fail to impress.
Make a reservation for beach camping before you leave (360-565-3100; visit nps.gov/olym).