Liquid Assets: A Water Guide to the Pacific Ocean

From the sand bucket list to beachy foraging feasts, here's how to take full advantage of our state'
Kristen Russell  |   August 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

Though they’re rarely hot and sunny, Washington’s coastal beaches really bring the drama: wild, ever-changing weather, vast stretches of windswept, solitary beaches and fantastic, eerie sea stacks. Sure, shivering in layered fleece isn’t the typical beach dream, but spend a day strolling the rugged, rocky shores, listening to the thunderous surf and watching tattered seagulls straining into the wind, and we’re betting you’ll leave refreshed and invigorated (and with some pretty fierce hair).

Your best bet? The undeveloped 57-mile stretch in Olympic National Park. Just south of La Push, find the trailhead on the Quileute Indian Reservation and hike less than a mile through a spooky stunted forest primeval—the spruce, hemlocks and alders here take the brunt of brutal winter storms blowing in from the Pacific. You’ll wind up first at Second Beach, which is actually second to none; 100-foot-high sea stacks and eroded cliffs dominate the view. Another short hike nearby ends at neighboring and equally dramatic Third Beach, where a seasonal waterfall drops more than 100 feet from cliffs into the oncoming surf. (Nearby First Beach is often crowded; thank God someone stopped the namer of numbered beaches before he got to Shi Shi.)

Want to get the full beach experience? Managing editor Kristen Russell has your beach bucket list right here.

  1. Camping at Shi Shi Beach (pictured above)
    Don’t let the bear warnings deter you: Backpacking to one of our Olympic National Park beaches is serious fun (and the bears don’t want to meet you). It’s an easy two-mile stroll along boardwalk and sand to get to Shi Shi Beach near Neah Bay (good thing—that pack’s getting heavy!). Sure, there could be 200 other campers joining you on a summer weekend (and you’ll need a permit; nps.gov), but train your gaze on that churning surf, fire up that camp stove and settle back in the sand for the quintessential Northwest experience—falling asleep under the stars with the hypnotic sound of pounding waves—and a night you’ll never forget.

  2. Keep a lighthouse on Dungeness Spit
    Proudly announce, “I’m a keeper!” during this weeklong gig, living in a historic lighthouse at the end of Dungeness Spit near Sequim. You’ll mow the lawn, polish the brass and give tours to those intrepid souls who make the five-mile trek along the longest natural sand spit in the U.S. You won’t be paid in cash (in fact, you pay for the privilege), but the gorgeous keeper’s house is packed with amenities (satellite TV, WiFi, comfy beds, books and games), and the solitude—and seal watching—can’t be beat. Must join New Dungeness Lighthouse Association to be a keeper; $35/year. Week’s stay is $275–$350/adult. Book well in advance; newdungenesslighthouse.com

  3. Fly a kite at Long Beach
    Catch some air—literally—on this famous southwest Washington beach, the self-proclaimed “kite capital of the U.S.,” boasting miles of windy shoreline and acres of kite-centric events. Set your little sail soaring solo, or join a mass kite fly-in at the Washington State International Kite Festival on August 15–21. Then, invite a kite inferiority complex with a visit to the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame, packed full of kite history, exhibits and more than 1,500 kites that are sure to fly better than yours. worldkitemuseum.com

  4. Explore tide pools on Rialto Beach
    If you’ve got a soft spot for squishy, tentacled things, follow your bliss to the wild Olympic Coast, where sea stars, urchins and other creatures lounge in colorful splendor. At Rialto Beach, near Forks, you’ll find the only National Marine Sanctuary north of California, where you can happily ooooh (and “ewwww”) over the scuttling, swaying life forms. What’s that purple thing? It’s anenome’s guess! portangeles.org

  5. Watch storms at Cape Disappointment
    For sheer weather drama—roiling surf, menacing thunderheads—it’s hard to beat the view from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, a glass-fronted perch clinging to cliffs 200 feet over the pounding Pacific. Visit in winter when the forecast looks promising; raging storms here can last for weeks (and you may spot a gray whale during its winter migration). The area just south is known as the “graveyard of the Pacific”; here, more than 2,000 vessels have wrecked in the treacherous waters where the Columbia River meets the Pacific. parks.wa.gov

___________________

Balancing act
Surf’s up! Our state ranks third in the most miles of coastline in the U.S., so it shouldn’t surprise you (though it may) that there are great places to surf in our state. One of Washington’s premier surf towns, Westport, boasts three sandy, surfy beaches that are just a two-hour drive from Seattle. Westhaven State Park is a great spot for beginners to catch their first waves—swells range from 3 to 6 feet, summer through early fall. (For lessons, see directory.) Seeking a sicker ride? Scrunch into that wetsuit and check out nearby Half Moon Bay, where the swell is shallow and breaks closer to the shore. Every May, Westport hosts the largest surf competition in the Pacific Northwest, the Clean Water Classic (cleanwaterclassic.com).