“SURE, I’LL GO HIKING,” said She Who Does Not Climb Hills. “I’ll even go camping. On two conditions.” One, a bathroom. Two—you guessed it. No climbing, ascending, or otherwise getting on gravity’s bad side.
No sweat, I said. Here’s a route that has everything except elevation. Beaches and bogs. Sea stacks and tide pools. Gloomy glades and sunny prairies. Exotic history and culture. Only thing is, it’s at the end of the world, and it takes a little while to get there. Four hours, to be precise, winding ’round the top of the Olympic Peninsula till you reach the end of the Hoko road, at the mouth of Lake Ozette and the trailhead for the Ozette Loop. It’s a push to do in one day; better to dally as we did, detouring to ogle the Olympic peaks at Hurricane Ridge (and wince at the Olympic-size crowds). Or stroll Dungeness Spit, or soak in the Elwha hot springs, and camp at the lake before setting out.
Time was you could always find a spot in the Park Service’s little lakeside campground, but we arrived to find all 15 sites taken. Luckily, private enterprise has kept Ozette safe for the soft-camping set. Fifteen years ago the Lost Resort opened up the road, offering ample (though sometimes soggy) campsites, three rustic cabins, and bonus amenities: a cafe, beer, espresso, a fireplace for those too lazy or inept to make their own campfires, toilets, and even showers. She Who Does Not was reassured.
The Ozette Loop is a near-perfect equilateral 9.3-mile triangle: two legs through deep woods and the meadows cleared a century ago by homesteading Swedish farmers and a middle leg along the ocean, from Sand Point to Cape Alava. Like most hikers we instinctively set out clockwise, along the trail the homesteaders cut to sledge supplies up from Sand Point. Much of it is boardwalked to protect hikers’ boots and the bogs below from each other. But wood rots fast out here; some sections rocked like a small boat deck on a big sea. Bring poles in autumn or winter, when Olympic drizzle slickens the walkways, and be ready to slide as much as step.
Finally the trail climbed one last coastal ridge (“You lied!” she cried, but she was enjoying the scenery too much to mind) and plunged to the beach. I’ve tramped hundreds of beaches on scores of littorals, but I don’t know any that make for better walking than the Olympic coast. Large-grained sand and ample pebbles assure firm footfalls. Big waves, winter storms, and plate tectonics make the beach a giant sea-wrack art installation, speckled with polycolored pebbles and heaped with drift logs like pick-up sticks. The macro view’s even better: a garden of unendingly varied sea stacks and inshore islands that becomes a thicket as you approach Cape Alava.
With such distractions, it’s easy to ignore your tide tables and forget the choke points where high tides cut the beach route; we had to hop lightly across rising channels at the last point. It’s there, on the dark lava of Wedding Rocks, that native carvers chose to inscribe dozens of expressive petroglyphs of whales, birds, and sun and moon faces, evidently in ritual preparation for the perilous business of whaling. Higher up they carved sailing ships, recording their first European and American contacts, which proved even more perilous.
The Ozette people lived for millennia in shoreside villages till the U.S. authorities forced their children to attend school at Neah Bay and they joined their Makah cousins there. Whales and other marine prey made the living rich at Ozette; mudslides made it dangerous, but also made for archaeological bonanzas.
In 1970 a winter storm uncovered a longhouse buried in a slide some 300 years earlier. Over the next decade archaeologists and the Makah found five more buried houses and recovered 55,000-plus artifacts—an American Pompeii. The excavation is now sealed; a modern longhouse, with mementos left to honor the dead, marks the site.
Ozette’s treasures, like its last residents, were moved to Neah Bay; we followed after finishing the beach loop. The Cape Motel, the most promising-looking lodging in the central village, was still shabby on the outside, and I couldn’t help starting when the proprietor named a not-so-shabby price—$77—for a small room. “Hey,” he said. “You’re at the end of the world here.” But the room was clean, the bed firm, and all well at the Cape Motel.
The next morning we had the Ozette treasures to ourselves as the first and, for an hour, only visitors to the Makah Cultural and Research Center. It’s been called the best tribal museum in the country, but I’d go further: It’s one of the best little museums anywhere. It presents the material culture of a single long-ago people, uncannily preserved in the landslide’s muddy cocoon: canoes and baskets and bentwood boxes, shell knives and cedar hats, toy canoes and shuttlecock paddles, ingeniously lethal harpoons and fishing gear, a dog-hair blanket still fuzzy after hundreds of years. All accentuated by the museum’s winding, womblike design, dramatically dimmed conservationist lighting, and excellent explication.
Perhaps the experience transformed me. We next foraged for lunch—no easy mission. Dining has lately improved on Neah Bay, with at least two joints reputedly serving decent food, but all were closed on this Monday. Finally we spotted the Take Home Fish Co. (“Smoked Salmon, Hot from the Smoker or Vac-Sealed”) in a backyard workshop. Clearly it was time for a picnic.
A crackling salmon skin—the tastiest part—remained from a chunk that smoke master Kimm Brown had cut up for samples. “Could I have that too?” I asked. “Sure,” he said, smiling. “You must be part Indian.”
One more stop remained, at the northwest corner of the res and the nation: Cape Flattery. The half-mile descent from the trailhead ended at a precipitous overlook; luckily its wooden platforms had been sturdily rebuilt from the recreation fees the Makah charge to hike their land. Below were stark basalt cliffs, crashing waves, mysterious sea caves, and thermal-surfing gulls and eagles. To the left, the knifelike Fuca Pillar. Straight ahead, the lighthouse atop Tatoosh Island, the Makahs’ old whaling base. And beyond, the big blue empty.
Surely this was the end of the world. It certainly capped our Olympic loop. We huffed back up one final hill. She forgave me.