South coast route at Olympic National Park beautiful but not easy

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 22, 2014 

Partway through a miserable muddy slog around Hoh Head, the backpacking trip to this part of the coast at Olympic National Park was looking like a bad idea - nevermind the stunning beauty of sandy Third Beach and the blue-green water of Strawberry Bay on the first day of the hike.

Five of us had driven from Bellingham, taken the ferry from Coupeville to Port Townsend, and then driven some more to reach this coastal wilderness on the south coast route, which is a roughly 17-mile hike from the trailhead of Third Beach south to the Hoh River at Oil City.

From La Push Road, we walked 1.4 miles through forest that opened to a sparkling bay and the sound of waves lapping against the shore at sandy Third Beach.

Dazzled, we breathed in the tangy salt air and kept going - past piles of driftwood bleached pale as bone and toward sea stacks off in the distance.

Sea stacks are the harder parts of a sea cliff or headland. They have withstood the pounding force of waves that have worn down the softer parts of the rock until what remains is cut off from land by water.

After nearly a half-mile on the beach, we admired a waterfall as we hit the first overland trail - marked by circular orange-and-black signs - that would take us 1.2 miles around Taylor Point.

Overland routes are used when the tide isn't low enough for hikers to pass a headland or in places where headlands can't be rounded no matter how low the tide. Be prepared to haul yourself up and down these steep and rugged trails with the help of ropes and ladders that have been strung up.

That first day was a combination of sandy beach walk under sunny skies with overland trails through the woods. We "oohed" over the delicate white flowers of Queen Anne's lace, the fiery orange-red blooms of Indian paintbrush, bald eagles gliding in the sky, and sea stacks that resembled a spiny sea monster and a howling wolf.

We kept going until we reached the campsite at Toleak Point, where we set up camp and relaxed as we admired a golden sunset that gave way to a blue dusk and a sliver of a moon.

On the second day and under gray skies that never cleared, we trudged over incredibly muddy sections of trail and pushed through to Jefferson Cove. The 3.5-mile overland route around Hoh Head was particularly difficult - a slog-fest through the kind of boot-sucking mud that would have made a hog happy.

"That 3-1/2 miles will beat you up, guaranteed," Scott Kinghorn, park ranger at the Wilderness Information Center, said in an interview.

The mud made the trail slippery, and it oozed over our shoes and splattered onto our pant legs. But we were there in late May and the first part of June. Might the trails dry out by late summer?

Don't count on it.

"There's still some places with sloppy mud because it's always damp out at the coast," Kinghorn said. "It doesn't change much. It's just the depth of the mud that changes."

Years ago when he first hiked the route, he didn't wear gaiters. "The next time, I did," Kinghorn said.

If the muddy conditions made the second day of hiking misery, there were bright notes because of the beauty of the old-growth trees in the forest, glimpses of beaches and sea stacks below from headland cliffs, and sandy beach walks that provided relief from all the ups and downs of the overland trails.

Still, it was with a sigh of relief when we ended the second day's hike after walking past Jefferson Cove, covering about nine miles total. We pitched our tents above the high-tide line on the beach, rested our tired legs and kicked back for our last night on the coast.

The next morning, we leisurely explored the rocks and beach exposed by low tide before packing up and walking past the mouth of the Hoh River to the Oil City trail and the end of our trip.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

Highlights of a roughly 17-mile backpacking trip along part of the south coast route in Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula include views of eagles, seals sunning on rocks, and sea stacks.

Before you go: Call the Wilderness Information Center for Olympic National Park at 360-565-3100, for route and campsite information. It can be difficult to reach a ranger because this is a busy time of the year, so go to nps.gov/olym. You'll find most of the information you need, including maps of the park and campsite locations.

Permit: Overnight stays in the Olympic National Park backcountry require a wilderness permit - $5 per group as well as $2 per adult per night. An adult is age 16 years or older. Buy the permit at the Wilderness Information Center inside the Olympic National Park Visitor Center, 3002 Mount Angeles Road in Port Angeles.

Camping: Reservations on the south coast route aren't required, but that means campsites are on a first-come, first-serve basis. They fill up quickly during the summer season. Camping on the beach is allowed, as long as it's done above the high-tide line.

Ferry: To get to the Olympic Peninsula from Whatcom County, take the ferry from Coupeville on Whidbey Island to Port Townsend. It's best to reserve a space on the ferry during the busy summer season. Go to wsdot.wa.gov and look at "Ferries" on the right.

Driving and trailheads: From Port Townsend, hook up with U.S. 101 and drive to Port Angeles, where you'll stop in at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center for the most recent information and permits. (The Wilderness Information Center is in the visitor center.) Take the 101 west to the 110 west, which turns into La Push Road. Park your vehicle, and take the trailhead to Third Beach if you are starting your hike on the north end. Or stay on 101 west until you reach Oil City Road, and drive to the road's end. Park and start your hike from the trailhead at Oil City, near the Hoh River, if you're starting your hike from the south end. Either way, you'll need to leave one vehicle on one side and another on the other side or pay for shuttle service.

Shuttle: All Points Charters & Tours shuttles backpackers to and from trailheads. The cost is a maximum of $160 for a group of one to six people. More information is at goallpoints.com, 360-460-7131 or tours@goallpoints.com

Food storage: Bear canisters are required on the wilderness coast for storing all food, garbage and scented items like toothpaste. Hanging food is prohibited. Get canisters at the Wilderness Information Center for a suggested donation of $3 each.

Water: Boil or filter water from area creeks; cryptosporidium and giardia exist in coastal streams. Most coastal water sources have a light tan color that comes from tannin leached from leaves.

Tide table: Don't head out on this route without one. Time your hike to hit low tides to go around the headlands. The crossing near Jefferson Cove, which needs a 2-foot tide, has to be well-timed. Some headlands are impassable no matter how low the tide is, so be prepared to haul yourself up and down steep and rugged overland trails, which are marked by circular orange-and-black signs, on ropes and ladders that can be slippery and rickety in spots.

Topographic trail map: South Olympic Coast, Washington, by Custom Correct, available at the Olympic National Forest Visitor Center.

Pets: Leave them at home. This route is on land designated as wilderness, where pets aren't allowed.

Water shoes: Pack a pair for river crossings.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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