For the next leg of our (almost) annual backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest, my friend Eric and I navigated out of Madison separately and met my brother Andrew at his home base in Seattle, Washington. Previous hikes for our trio in Washington state included North Cascades National Park as well as Goat Rocks Wilderness, both scenic, majestic paths at elevation surrounded by hills and mountains. This adventure planned on being a bit different, as we headed toward the coast to get our feet wet (hopefully not soaked) with some hiking along the Pacific Ocean on the South Coast Wilderness trail.
Hopping a ferry in Seattle to Bainbridge Island, we then drove north for a few hours toward Port Angeles. After picking up some last minute supplies and forcing down a makeshift gas station breakfast, we confirmed our reservation and itinerary at the Olympic National Park visitor center. The park ranger reviewed our tidal charts and trail requirements (bear canisters are mandatory), and after taking care of paperwork, we drove my brother’s car to the Third Beach trailhead in La Push with our plan set to head south along the shore toward Oil City.
Day 1 – Getting On the Trail
The South Coast Wilderness trail gets visitors warmed up nicely, with less than a mile and a half of straightforward, level hiking through the Pacific Northwest forest before arriving at Third Beach. It was here we came by our first glance of the ocean waters, and maneuvered over some large pieces of driftwood to reach the sand.
Then, the real fun began. As the beach became impassable at times due to the landscape or high tide, we were forced to make our way back up a headland and into the forest with the aid of various ropes, ladders, and makeshift steps placed for just such an occasion. Each of these routes is marked by round, orange and black signs to hopefully prevent confusion. There were a few occurrences on the trail where these markings weren’t obvious until you’re almost top of them, but eventually they were always discovered and the appropriate way to continue was clear.
After hoisting ourselves up from the beach to the forest, we’d continue on until being required to return to the beach, such as at Taylor Point. Rinse and repeat. These are pretty dang fun.
Below, a few other photos to provide a good idea of that the trail…
There was not a lot of action at the trailhead other than a couple we overtook soon after beginning, and after passing a group traveling south-to-north in the opposite direction, hardly a soul was seen on the first day. This is always a good thing.
Strawberry Point was reached just after 4 PM. It was not a super strenuous first day on the trail at around five and half miles in length, but that section served as a nice introduction to the remainder of the journey. The possibility existed of continuing on to Toleak Peak to camp there, but there was a rather well-constructed campsite at Strawberry Point at the edge of the beach. With more than enough space for three tents, a fire pit, and blockage from the robust winds off the ocean, why would we chance another option? Tents could be staked on the sand just around the point without too much worry of the tide, but if the Strawberry Point campsite is available, it’s worth claiming.
After getting comfortable, additional remodeling of the campsite was performed (new wooden benches), and a smoky, stinky driftwood fire was started. Famished and tired from the prolonged day (mostly the early start and lengthy travel time), we devoured our dehydrated meals, sipped on some spirits, and felt like kings. My black bean and bacon bit burrito certainly hit the spot…exquisite!
While investigating the nearby area and gathering firewood, we stumbled upon a beached gray whale. Unfortunately this is an abnormal year as far as the number of whales being stranded on beaches in Washington state. Pro tip: don’t walk downwind of that dead whale.
After dinner and feeding the fire, we were treated to an exceptional sunset. Having risen at around 4 AM to begin the trip, an early night to bed suited us splendidly.
Day 2 – The Match
Day two began as a chilly morning, which makes sense being just steps from the ocean. After consuming breakfast and tearing down camp, it was necessary to keep our jackets on for the initial part of the cold, early-morning hike along the ocean.
While just getting started for the day and admiring the scores of sea stacks at Toleak Point, we spotted a group of sea lions from a distance hauling-out on some rocks. The photos sans zoom certainly don’t do it justice, but this was a cool sight. Near here we passed numerous tents on the beach from backpackers that had been hiking in the opposite direction, as well as some proper campsites just off the beach marked by colorful buoys. These seemed like decent lodging locations for small groups or solo backpackers, and would be a decent plan if one cannot lay claim to the Strawberry Point campsite.
Mosquito Creek needed to be crossed, but this was fairly easily done by hopping along rocks without soaking one’s shoes. On the other side we filtered water from the creek and took a short lunch break before hauling ourselves back up into the woods. Though our itinerary had us set to spend the night here at the creek, we were making good progress, and decided to continue on toward Jefferson Cove and hopefully set up shop there.
After another 3 miles with some elevation gain, we came across a park ranger doing some work on the trail. He remarked that there were plenty of camping options at Jefferson Cove. Intrigued and hopeful, we continued in the direction of the cove, passing a lone, private campsite in the woods. Getting out of the woods was a bit strenuous, with long stretches working backwards using the rope and trying to maintain balance and footing.
The campsite functioned well enough for three small tents, though there was a lack of easily obtainable wood or space available to start a fire. After covering about 11 1/2 miles since the early morning, our feet and bodies were eager for a break.
Overall, the second day was fairly active on the wildlife front. In addition to the sea lions spotted in the morning, soaring bald eagles were plentiful throughout the day, and we watched some deer on the beach before they skirted into the woods to avoid us. There were also an abundance of slugs along the trail, if we’re keeping track. We again encountered only small pockets of hikers throughout the day, all heading north in the opposite direction, as the trail remained mostly to ourselves.
Day 3 – Battling the Tide and the Clock
On Saturday morning, we took our time to awaken and begin making breakfast and coffee. After packing up camp, we descended down to Jefferson Cove again, timing our arrival onto the beach with the low tide, to ideally pass around the edge of the cove without issue. It was necessary to reach the end of the trail at 10:45 for a hired shuttle to return us back to our car in La Push, so getting delayed due to the tide or other factors could put us in a bind. After watching an otter scurry past us on the beach, we began scrambling along the rocks around the corner of the cove, not sure when we’d reach a flat surface on the other side.
From here, a bit less than a mile of effortless flat, winding trails was all that was between us and the finish line. Able to pick up the pace, the three of us arrived in the parking lot at Oil City about five minutes before the shuttle was due to arrive, passing numerous other backpackers just getting started on the trail.
After milling around waiting for other passengers to arrive, the shuttle was loaded up as we were transported through the small town of Forks and then to the Third Beach trailhead to pick up the car. To our surprise, the trailhead was swarming with hikers, and the lot was completely full, with illegal overflow parking of dozens of cars along the main road. Apparently a lot of folks were doing a Saturday-Monday trek, which must have made for ridiculously cramped bottlenecks along the trail, and a shortage of places to setup a tent. After stopping off at a local pub for a customary post-hike greasy burger and beer, the long drive back to Seattle began as we regularly stopped for caffeinated beverages to keep awake.
Overall, the South Coast Wilderness trail proved a great changeup from various hikes at high elevation in the Pacific Northwest we’ve done previously. The balance, skill, and energy needed to descend and ascend to and from the beach via the ropes and ladders provided a unique challenge. Like any hiking adventure, the “fun factor” is greatly increased by tackling the trails in the low season or in the middle of the week, and at a time when insects are at bay. I think we would have considering bailing on this route had we started on Saturday and arrived to the overflowing parking lot, or at the very least our enjoyment would have been tempered. Gear-wise, the down jacket I purchased for this trip turned out to be highly necessary for maintaining warmth during the cold mornings and evenings at camp, as well as early in the day while hiking on the trail.