Not Exactly Beach Walking: Three Nights on The Wilderness Coast

Toby and I don’t really know each other. We met on the PCT just before Paradise Valley Cafe and I was there when he got his trail name, Applejuice. I thought he was nice then, and we’ve followed each other on social media since, but no, we don’t know each other. Still, when he posted that he would be finishing up his Pacific Northwest Trail section hike on the Olympic Coast and was open to having people join him, I sent him a message to tentatively RSVP. 

I waited until nearly the last minute to say that the timing would work for certain, and in that time also managed to attempt and quickly abort another multi-day backpacking trip with a friend.

“Do I even like backpacking anymore?” I wondered aloud on that trip, our single night backcountry camping after hiking into camp in the dark. I kept scanning our meadow home with my headlamp, looking for the reflection of animal eyes in the dark. “Maybe I should sell my backpacking gear and just accept I don’t do this anymore.” But it didn’t matter either way: my friend’s sleeping pad sprung a leak so we threw out our plans and went car camping (fresh air mattress in tow) instead.

Even after my existential backpacking dread, I decided to try the coast anyway. Toby and I traded messages arranging shuttles, talking about tide charts, and planning for where I could pick him up near Forks, WA. He added me to his permits, assuring me that the campsites were only 8-10 miles apart. It’s supposed to be beautiful and he wanted to savor it, he said. Amazing. Short miles. Beach walk. Even I could do that!

Well.

Day 1: Sand, Tide Pools, and a Hole in the Wall

I pick Toby up in Forks and since we have less than two miles to camp from the trailhead, I give him a tour of Forks. We stop at the post office so he can send mail and then stop by the visitor center and take a selfie with a life-size cardboard cutout of Edward Cullen. And then the tour is over, because there’s not a whole lot to see in town.

Our plan is to hike from Rialto Beach to Cape Alava, the northern section of the Washington coast. At Rialto Beach, we luck out with a parking spot despite the full lot, and after a stop at the toilets start wandering down the beach toward camp. Good news: we get along great. We talk about teaching (he’s a professor), books, distance hiking, and a million other things. We’re laughing a lot. He’s spent the last 31 days with very little human interaction, so despite being introverted, he’s happy to chat. I am chatty, period. This is a good match! We ooh and aah at the beach and talk about how this is such a great way to end his trip, with easy miles in a beautiful place. 

We reach our first camp area past Hole in the Wall and tried to suss out where to stay. Despite the fact that it’s only 1 pm, a lot of campers already seem set up for the night. An older couple had claimed 50–or more—feet of the beach, and as we try to see where we might be able to stay without disturbing them, they keep trying to dissuade us. “We’ll have three tents,” they say. “There will be a three month old!”

We keep looking around and considered a site on the other side of their rock, then the other side of their tree, when the man in the couple comes up to us and says he found a good spot for us. Toby is skeptical but I go look, and it was genuinely cute – tucked behind a big driftwood log and with its own wooden wind chimes.

We set up camp there for the night, and wander around the water and tide pools remarking on anemone and crabs and colors. The sunset is lovely.

I haven’t packed enough water, assuming that of course in the northwest we would have no trouble finding any, but that’s not the case on this stretch. Toby has enough water to give me a liter, so we don’t worry about it.

“I hope we have enough time to get to camp and relax,” he says about the rest of our journey.

I scoff. “We’d have to take psychedelics and lose hours staring at a tide pool to get to camp later than, like, noon,” I say. I’ve done coastal hiking before, just a hundred miles south along the Oregon coast. It’s tedious sometimes, but beautiful, and not much to worry about as long as your tides are OK.

Eventually, we get in our tents. We talked so much our voices got hoarse, but we keep talking until the sun goes down. 

Day 2: Coves, Capes, and Crawling

Toby has been waking up with first light his whole hike, but between our short mileage day ahead and a midday low tide, there’s no point in rushing in the morning. “I feel like I’m cheating by still being in bed,” he says around 8 a.m., and we laugh.

I pull oatmeal out of my bear can and make breakfast. It’s foggy this morning and we can’t even see the next land protrusion we have to cross ahead. I keep looking out and asking, “wait, is it raining?” because the fog is so thick you can see individual particles, like rain, but it’s not exactly falling. The outside of my tent is soaked. It’s not especially fun packing up a wet tent, but we know the forecast told us to expect better weather later. This is just a marine layer, we tell ourselves.

Around 9 am, we start walking. The first stretch ahead of us is beach, and the sand is a little tedious, but we’re in a good, hopeful mood. Quickly, we reach the next headland and start to encounter not sand but big boulders stacked on top of each other, which we much clamber around and over. Our packs are heavy and throw off our balance, and we quickly give up on trekking poles.

“Is this hiking!?” Toby says. Not really. But we don’t have another word for it. Not bouldering. Low-grade scrambling?

Toby demonstrating the “hiking” technique. No photos from this section do justice to the ass-kicker it was.

We’re using our hands and choosing routes and laughing. We’re moving so slow. Each step is a serious consideration on the boulders – what is stable, what leads to a dead end, what is sneakily slippery. Toby keeps checking his phone GPS and seeing that we’re barely inching along. 

Then the boulders end and it’s back to a pebble beach, a large cape ahead. Cape Johnson. We cross paths with another backpacker who’s come from the opposite direction. He has a British – possibly Australian – accent. Toby asks if he has any intel for the trail ahead. “Buckle up,” he says. It took him about an hour and a half to get around the cape. 

An hour and a half? It’s less than a mile of “trail.”

“That means two hours for us,” Toby says after he passes. We’re no mountain goats out here. We assume he means there’s more of those big boulders.

We continue, climbing over and under downed trees (“blowdown!” we joke each time we see them, because Toby encountered so many blowdowns on his PNT hike) and trudging through pebbles and spring-mix colored seaweed that smells like rotting ocean. Another couple of backpackers. One of them is smoking a cigarette. They say they’re doing an out and back, heading out now. They carried a gallon of water. They’d rounded the cape yesterday at high tide. They look beat, but we don’t have a gallon of water in our pack, and we don’t have to cross at high tide, so we don’t take their exhaustion too seriously. We commiserate and then continue. At least it’s not high tide! We think.

In fact, we’ve planned tide perfectly — we head around Cape Johnson at exactly low tide. Despite that, we quickly realize this cape is not fucking around. Yes, it is covered in boulders that you have to climb up, around, sometimes leading to dead-ends or cliff-outs where you have to descend again and reroute. But now, in addition to being big and sometimes unstable, the boulders are slick. Even when you find a stable rock, there is no solid footing.

We are using everything. Our hands and knees. Counter weight. Several times we just sit down in order to descend. My quads are confused. My glutes are on fire. It’s like doing weighted single leg squats on dish soap, I tell Toby later.

But we’re laughing to avoid crying. And Cape Johnson is so long, so big. “It can’t be like this forever,” Toby says. But every time we think it has to be the end, we round the corner to find yet more boulders slick with sea stuff. Toby is experimenting with which seaweed has the best grip. I’ve taken to saying “fuck you, rock!” each time I slip, which is every three steps or so. 

“I’m a pretty positive person on trail,” Toby told me the first day. But by an hour into Cape Johnson, even he is starting to swear. Where is our beach walk? Where is his easy meander to the end of his journey? The views? There aren’t any, it’s too foggy. 

I took hundreds of photos on the trip, and almost zero on Cape Johnson. There wasn’t time for photos. We were just trying to survive. I envisioned slipping and hitting my head against the rocks at least a dozen times.

These are the mildest rocks we saw, which is why I was able to take a photo of them.

Sometimes the only thing to do is slide on your butt.

By the time we can see the end — by which I mean, the end of the slippery slick boulders and into the pebbles— Toby apologizes for having invited me. “I had no idea it would be like this!” he says. 

No, no, I’m having fun! I tell him. Well. I hope I am having fun, like type 2 fun, but I’m not sure yet. 

We pass a group of three backpacking women. “How is it up ahead?” We ask them. They tell us about water sources near our campsites — that they had to do a ten minute scramble for just a trickle of water. Lovely. Instead, they say to look for a better stream a half-mile before camp. We warn them about the cape, and one of the women jokes, “I’m just going to turn around and come back with you.” Honestly? I wouldn’t have blamed her.

Once we get into the pebbles, I make us stop for snacks, which I’ve started to call “emotional support food.” I feel spent both physically and psychically. It felt like being on high alert, watching every single step with no relief. We’ve made almost no progress toward camp—maybe 0.7 miles in two hours. I am feeling raw, scooped out. But lunch helps, and it’s like I can feel the calories squirting hope back into my cells.

Still, there’s more to come. We can see more pebbly beaches that make each step five times slower. More “rock hopping on steroids” as Toby called it.

We pass a couple and trade intel. After saying it’s still slow going ahead for us, we continue on, and just as we start up yet another set of full-body boulders, the man calls out from where we’d last seen him. “There’s a beautiful beach ahead!” We yell back our thanks, but honestly? I’ll believe it when I see it.

After some more rocks, we reach a grey beach with compact sand, and our feet feel like new feet. We’re flying. Camp still feels so far away, but at least we’re moving. Only minutes pass before we get to our next challenge of the trail: our first overland crossing. A thick rope dangles from a 30-foot arm made of dirt and sand, and Toby goes first ascending. At the top, just as I am finding my footing and trying not to let myself panic, Toby yells out, “you’re going to be so happy to get up here!”

At the top, I see why. It’s the beautiful beach walk we’d expected of the whole trip. Lovely yellow sands. Compact lower beach. But first, we have to descend, which Toby does with confidence and I do with… less confidence. “Film me!” I say, thinking it will make a good keepsake. Instead, I stop half-way and start repeating, “I don’t like it!” before deciding to scoot down on my butt with the support of the rope instead of trying to walk down facing the wall.

On solid ground, Toby says, “I am so much happier!” It’s 2:30 pm and the clouds have finally burned off and it’s our own solitary paradise. But again, it’s not long before we reach another overland route. This time the descent is three times as long, roped again, but it leads to yet another lovely beach. 

Better yet: it’s the last major adventure before camp. We keep a lookout for the stream the women told us to collect water from before camp but we don’t see it. Instead, we get to Cedar Creek.

“Oh shit, did we miss the water?” I say. The creek where it empties into the ocean is dry. All I want to do is get to camp and eat and lay down, but I won’t be able to cook without more water. The last stream we passed was before the last overland crossing. We wonder if we’ll have to climb back up the ropes to fill our bottles. Maybe it won’t be so bad without packs? It would still be exhausting.

Before we give up, we check further up the creek where it parallels the beach, and as we step over the low wall of pebbles, a flat, reflective surface comes into view. Success! A large pool of water, stopped by some driftwood. It’s a little brown, but our filters will handle that.

“A ten minute scramble for a trickle of water,” the women had told us. This was a 30-second jaunt up some pebbles to more water than we’ll ever be able to drink. Hikers: sometimes a great source of intel, sometimes mistaken. Or as I kept telling Toby, “Oh god, I’m so glad they were just dumb.”

Then we look for camp, and luck upon the cutest little spot tucked into the trees just above the beach. One campsite over looks the ocean, and just south of it is a a little breakfast nook made out of driftwood, complete with a marine-debris table, all looking out over the water. We’ve made it. We survived Cape Johnson. 

But what the hell was that? After we’ve eaten and set up our camps—I initially set mine up in a separate campsite but then realize I’ll be afraid of bears all night and instead relocate my tent within a foot of Toby’s—Toby looks at his guidebook to see what we missed. But of Cape Johnson, all the guidebook author has to say is, “Hiking through here is likely to be slower than you might estimate.”

The understatement of the century. But that’s our keyword for what may lie ahead, so Toby scans the upcoming section for similarly underwhelming descriptions. One section, where we know we’ll need hustle to get before low tide, says, “a particularly rocky and slower area of the beach.”

Dang. There is more ahead. But at least we know what we’re getting ourselves into now.

Day 3: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes Your Body Hurt

We wake up feeling better. At least we know what we’re in for, Toby says. My body seems to have recovered overnight, and while I’m definitely sore, I’m moving. I have breakfast and tea. I am flying through my food—I’ll have enough, but I did not overpack.

We start out and we have more big boulders to cross. They’re tough—my legs lack any fo the precision they had when they were fresh, and it feels like I’m swinging big tree stumps around—but at least they’re not Cape Johnson. We take to saying this through the whole day. “I mean, it’s no Cape Johnson.”

The next big section we have to navigate, we run into a father and son. The ground beneath us is rocky but flat. “It’s basically this for the next mile and a half,” the dad says. And he’s right. It’s like getting a brutal, rocky foot massage—but hey, it’s no Cape Johnson.

Instead, most of our concern goes to a section we have to navigate later at low tide: Point Five. The guidebook author has noted this as ‘a particularly rocky and slower area of the beach.” On this author’s scale, it could mean slaying a sea dragon for all we know. So we trudge forward. If it’s not a rocky foot massage, it’s pebbles that make us move at super slow speed. Our steps look like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

One stretch of boulder-scurrying is short, but the last section is still flooded with tidal water, and our only option is to wade through shin-deep pools. Our feet are wet, but who cares? It’s no Cape Johnson. We climb over and duck under blowdowns. We meet large caves carved by waves, which I keep calling “coves”—any inward protrusion is a cove, my brain decides, although we learn later that’s not the real definition—and take pictures, feeling small within them.

There’s beach trash and bottles from Japan, there are more buoys than we can count, there are large rusted pieces of ships whose purposes we can’t imagine. We pass a deer munching on the cliffside plants.

Finally, we reach Point Five, and at first it seems to be another treacherous excursion. The beginning of the route around the Point is being splashed with waves, and we hug the rocky sidewall, which is also dripping with springwater. “This is not the safest I’ve felt on the trip,” I say.

Toby tackling the beginning of Point Five

But once we make it past the slippery entrance, things start to get cool. We have to crawl up and through a four-foot diameter hole in the rocks, which leads us to a kind of Tomb Raider landscape with large dark rocks and spires and more “coves” that aren’t coves.

My fully-wet butt going up through the hole in the rock
Photo of Toby from the other side of the hole
Point Five, which is not at all Cape Johnson

Not long after that, we stop for water, and then we find camp. At first, we explore a tree-covered spot where someone had lined a bunch of rocks and branches up to create a kind of grand driveway to the camp spot, but the spot itself is lackluster compared to yesterday’s. There’s a couple of very low benches and enough spot for tents, but Toby isn’t satisfied, so he checks out a couple of other camps while I sit down.

“The other camp is pretty cool,” he says, so we move. And he’s right: a table and benches, and best of all, it has a swing made of marine debris.

It’s only 4 p.m., but we’re starving, so we eat dinner and then relax in our tents for a few hours before getting hungry again. At our second dinner, a young buck comes wandering through camp. Toby’s OK, but I’ve had my fill of deer encounters for the year, so I keep my distance.

Tomorrow is our last day, but we have a problem: one of the coastal points needs a four foot tide to cross, and the lowest tide of the day is 3.3 feet—and just a half an hour before our shuttle leaves. The timing doesn’t work.

Instead, Toby decides that to get to the trail’s terminus we’ll take the Ozette Triangle trail out from Sand Point to Ozette, then take the trail from Ozette to Cape Alava. We won’t get to see the last few miles of the beach, and we’ll have a longer mileage day, but we’ll still get to the end.

Day 4: Smooth Trails and Shuttle Drivers

It’s a quick beach walk to reach the trail after Sand Point, with a little bit of tide pool hopping, but then the trails themselves are breezy: hard packed dirt and boardwalk with minimal elevation change. We cruise along, still chatting as thoroughly as day one. As we approach Cape Alava, we heard what sounds like a rowdy party, and as we get closer we realize it’s not people—it’s sea lions barking on an island off the coast.

We take a lot of pictures at the terminus, the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. There’s no sign, but there is a big rock and beautiful views. We started early and we have more than enough time.

Cape Alava

After eating the last of our food, Toby sees on the map that there’s a campstore with deli sandwiches and pizza a quartermile from the trailhead where our shuttle will pick us up. It’s motivation enough to get us moving.

We reach the trailhead, use the bathrooms, and walk over to the camp store. At the bottom of the camp store’s driveway a couple of guys are waiting for a hitch—they’ve just hiked the whole PNT. Toby talks with them a while—he hasn’t met very many PNT hikers this year—but then we head to the store and eat a truly delicious deli sandwich. Then we head back to the trailhead, where our shuttle driver is waiting.

I wish I’d gotten our shuttle driver’s actual name, but Toby and I later settle on “Chatty Charlie.” Charlie has lived in Forks his whole life, first working for the local prison for 31 years, now driving shuttles and selling commercial chanterelles. He hasn’t hiked the coast since the 5th grade, so he doesn’t seem so interested in our stories about slick rocks and tides. Mostly what Charlie loves is fishing, and everything on the peninsula relates back to it. The buoy where the halibut catch is good, they bay where the silver salmon jump, the watering hole where his daughter nearly caught a 45-pound fish when she was barely 45 pounds herself. We talk about hunting—a buddy of his is going to give him some bear pepperoni, something I’ve never heard of—and the taste of west-side dear versus east-side deer.

It’s the kind of local chatter you can only ever hope to stumble upon, and he tells us where to get milkshakes, so we head there when we get my car. From there, it’s almost four hours of driving back to Seattle.

When I drop Toby off, I feel like I’ve made a very good friend, and that I might be hobbling for the rest of the week. It wasn’t the adventure we expected, but we’ll always have Cape Johnson.

Published by Colleen

Writer, backpacker, fledgling runner. Equally afraid of and thrilled by nature.

4 thoughts on “Not Exactly Beach Walking: Three Nights on The Wilderness Coast

  1. Wow! You are still up for death defying stuff. Nothin’s gonna stop you!
    Great story. I ‘hiked with you and held my breath.

    Like

  2. Great post, Colleen, with wonderful pictures. I might have just mentally added that hike to my to-do list. What’s a good name for what you guys did, the “Wilderness Coast?”

    Like

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