If you slip and fall, you probably won’t die. A near-vertical trail rises from Olympic National Park’s Third Beach to the top of the Taylor Point headland, a necessary detour to continue south down the wild coastline. When it gets steeper, there’s a wooden ladder through the lush greenery that borders the beach. But the trail isn’t quite tall enough to cause death—just twisted ankles and bruises on a lot of bums.
The risk is worth it for the Olympic National Park beaches. They’re 73 miles of the state’s Pacific coastline—nearly half—and almost all of the northern, rugged bits. Access to most of those miles demands a hike, a scramble, or even a few days of backpacking, but that only adds to the appeal.
And oh, the reward. Here west of Forks on the so-called Wildcatter Coast—named for long-gone oil prospectors—there are so many obstacles that strategizing forward movement between tides is like jaywalking across Aurora. Sea stacks, or small rocky islands, cluster above tide pools, earning their Giant’s Graveyard nickname, with gnarled trees fighting for life on top. Bald eagles speed from high nests to the tide pools full of food. The coastline scallops into periodic points, so every few hundred yards there’s another corner to round, another beach to discover.
Backpackers construct driftwood shacks in Swiss Family Robinson style at Toleak Point, lovingly adorned with electric orange buoys that wash ashore: Humans just can’t help stamping their mark on the wild beaches. South of Scott Creek, a square of woven fishnet becomes a hand-strung hammock, and campers arrange driftwood logs into makeshift Adirondack loungers in the sand. Either the intrepid national park cleanup rangers or the fierce Pacific winds will eventually disassemble them, not quite as lovingly.
“It’s kind of like Fred Flintstone camping,” says disapproving wilderness ranger Pablo McLoud from his office in Port Angeles. Construction is gently discouraged—“you’re not building a city,” he admonishes—but the human fort-building instinct runs deep. Otherwise, these beaches haven’t changed much in 1,000 years.
Black and red decals mark the official trails, parallel to the waves, that link rugged beaches. But a keen eye can detect thin routes that head straight inland to timber holdings and private forest acres passed down through generations of locals. They’re shortcuts for the lucky few, but they’re not much gentler than the 10-mile up-and-over beach walk the rest of us take.
Since the coast itself is in a national park, it belongs to everyone. Oregon’s coastline is pretty standard—big waves, big dunes, pretty clean, but dotted with hotels and houses. Washington’s waterfront is no one single thing; it ranges from rocky nooks to sandy plateaus, some bits spotless wilderness and others junked-up party sites. The craggy Olympic National Park coast is the best of it, its tide pools and treacherous trails just hidden enough and worth a bruise or two.