Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Shi Shi Beach

Point of the Arches as seen from Shi Shi Beach
Point of the Arches as seen from Shi Shi Beach,
Olympic National Park
Despite having perhaps our wettest camping trip in 10 years or more this past week, we still had a good time. My kids and I have gone to the same place almost every year since 1996.

Shi Shi Beach is located in the Olympic National Park on Washington State's beautiful Olympic peninsula ocean coast. By some accounts it is the last true wilderness beach in the lower 48 states. It's a bit more than 3 miles of sand fronting coastal forest, and looking out at the iconic Point of the Arches, a string of sea stacks cut into natural stone arches by the ocean's erosive power. Wildlife includes the usual deer, chipmunks, gulls, hawks, and tidepool residents, but I've also seen orcas just 50 yards off shore and peregrine falcons hunting the resident gulls, and bear scat (but no bears.) Like most national parks, there are enforced restrictions at Shi Shi that prohibit pack animals, dogs, weapons, and wheeled conveyances of any kind. If you stay more than a day or two, especially in summer, expect to be visited by park rangers who will check that you have both a permit and a hard-sided bear canister to keep your food away from the wildlife. They can and do issue citations if you're caught without.

It's about 5 hours from Seattle by car. We usually go via the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry, up through Poulsbo to SR-3, over the Hood Canal Bridge to US-101 and west through Sequim and Port Angeles, along Lake Crescent to SR-113 and then SR-112 to Neah Bay. Once in Neah Bay you need either a map or directions, because there is little signage to guide you the rest of the way. This year we got away late and were trapped by the closure of the I-90 floating bridge for the Blue Angels practice on Thursday. So we took the scenic route over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and up SR-3 through Bremerton.

You need two permits--one from the National Park Service to camp at Shi Shi, and a recreation permit from the Makah Nation to park on the reservation overnight. The NPS permit can be obtained at the station in Port Angeles or at Shi Shi itself. The Makah permit is $10 and good for the entire year. We always get ours from Washburn's General Store, which is also well-supplied with whatever you realize during the drive you failed to pack, although you'll have better selection and likely pay less at REI or Home Depot back home.

The trailhead used to be at the end of Tsoo-Yess Road (variously Sooes or other variants on maps and car GPS), but was moved a few years ago to Hatchery Road. The new trail head has parking, but only for day use--no overnight. There are also pit toilets and garbage cans, although neither appears to suffer from frequent service. Because you can't park in this lot for overnight trips we drop all our packs there and one of us drives the car back to an acceptable parking area and hikes back from there.

We've parked for years in the yard of the last house on the left on the road to the trailhead. There's no sign, but almost any day you'll see cars parked in ad hoc rows in the front and side yards. There can be 20 cars or more in summer. Just pull in and park. At the north side of the house is a sturdy metal lock box with envelopes and pens. As the directions there announce, write your arrival and departure days, license plate number and number of days you're parking. I remember when it was $3 per day, but now it's up to $10. They count each partial day as a full day too, so you get to pay $10 for the day you arrive and the day you depart, as well as each day in between. For a trip of 3 nights we paid $40. There is at least one other such makeshift parking lot further back on the road and farther from the trail. It was $8 last I looked so not much savings, if any.

On the way in the trail to the beach was in the best shape I've seen in many years. After two days of marine layer and outright rain, however, it was its usual muddy self on the way out. This is not a trail for running shoes; hiking boots are definitely recommended. You could probably get away with something like garden boots because the tread is mud and muck more than rock. When the trailhead was moved the Makah built some serviceable puncheon and a couple of radically over-engineered bridges on the first part of the trail, but left the last mile to the beach--the sloppy part--unimproved. All that said, I started bringing my kids here when my oldest was 6 and my youngest only 4. They'd been day hiking and car camping before, so this wasn't a big stretch from what they had already done. Each had a day pack with their clothes and a few fun things and we took it slow. The trail is mostly level with only one 200-foot steep part connecting the beach to the trail on Makah land, so it works for little legs.

If you didn't get a NPS permit in Port Angeles you can find triplicate forms in a box where the trail passes from the Makah reservation into the Olympic National Park, about 1.75 or 2 miles from the trailhead. Bring your own pen as there's rarely one in the box. The forms are always damp and writing legibly is almost impossible but they're traditional carbons so the copies come out clearly even if the top copy does not. There once was a decent lockbox into which one deposited the copies but it was ripped out years ago. Nonetheless, the rangers expect you to leave the copies in the box for them, but I never do as it advertises where you live and how long you'll be away from home. When they visit you at your camp on the beach they'll get the copies then (perhaps with a mild scolding...) The permit fee is currently $3 per person per night plus a flat $5. They give you an envelope to mail it in later, which I always do, although I expect others are not so honest.

360 degree view of our campsite north of Petroleum Creek

There are established camp sites just off the sand into the trees, some quite nice, although others without good spots to pitch tents (not level and/or too many hard tree roots sticking up.) We always camp on the sand itself, and most people prefer that as one can smooth the tent site as much as one cares to do. Camping near fresh water is helpful. The main source is Petroleum Creek, nearly 2 miles down the beach. Willoughby Creek at the south end by the Point of the Arches is smaller, but still reliable. Other creeks may or may not be flowing, and some can only be found in the woods, as they flow entirely under the sand once reaching the beach. All the water is discolored from tree tanins but is otherwise fine, provided you treat it. Giardia and other nasties await those who take chances ingesting the water directly. There are 3 pit toilets, although they can be hard to find if you don't know where they are. One is just south of Petroleum Creek and the others are at the far north and south ends. Ask campers already there if (as this year) the markers at the edge of the forest are missing.

Gathering firewood at Shi Shi
Gathering firewood
There's lots to do at the beach. One thing that really appeals to kids is the ability to build campfires, a rarity these days almost everywhere in the back country. The tide pools are endlessly fascinating. There's good surf to splash around in, although the water is quite cold. Beachcombing is fun, and there are almost always colorful buoys, shells and surprises hidden among the seaweed and driftwood. Kite flying is always excellent. We enjoy making our camp comfortable, and hunting for the perfect driftwood and found objects to for tables and benches around the camp kitchen and fire. Always bring a book to read for a break, or if it is raining.

This year it rained pretty hard overnight and the morning of the 3rd day so, when it broke in early afternoon we seized the chance to pack up and move out. I leave a towel and a change of clothes in the car, which is always welcome, especially if it's been wet.

Neah Bay's Cedar Shack Espresso
Yummy ice cream to top off the trip!
Once on the road home we always stop at the Cedar Shack in Neah Bay for an ice cream cone. For years we also stopped at the Hungry Bear east of Sappho on US-101, but gave that up as the food became less agreeable (the greasiest, soggiest french fries you'll ever find.)

Shi Shi Beach remains a really beautiful, special place to go, in part because it is remote, and you can't drive right up to it. It is worth the difficulty, however, and even on a crowded summer weekend, you will find the beauty and natural experience to be near-magical. Like sunsets? They don't come better.

Please post questions in the comments... I could write much more about this, one of my favorite places in the entire world.

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