Outdoors writer Greg Johnston names top treks in his “favorite place on the planet.”

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Greg Johnston's recent guide is published by Seattle-based Mountaineers Books.
Greg Johnston’s recent guide is published by Seattle-based Mountaineers Books.

Author’s 5 favorites |

There aren’t many trails — even hidden trails — around Washington that Greg Johnston hasn’t traveled at least once.

He has scrambled Three Fingers Lookout, up the slippery Quest-Alb Glacier and ice moat. He’s hiked Spider Gap and crossed the Lyman Glacier into the heart of the majestic Glacier Peak Wilderness.

But his “favorite place on the planet” remains the Washington coast, accessible almost any time of year. The 62-year old outdoorsman from Kirkland wrote a guide on the Mountaineers Books 2015 roster, “Washington’s Pacific Coast: A Guide to Hiking, Camping, Fishing & Other Adventures” ($24.95).

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A former outdoors writer with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Johnston argues that Oregon’s coast isn’t better than Washington’s, only better known because it’s accessible via U.S. Highway 101.

By comparison, that highway touches only 12 miles of the Washington coast, making Washington’s coastline less accessible to the mainstream, he said.

But Washington’s shore rewards those willing to put on hiking boots and get their fingernails dirty in pure coastal wilderness like you won’t find anywhere else in the contiguous 48 states, Johnston said.

“Oregon doesn’t have truly wild beaches. We have wild beaches, really wild beaches. You see things like sea lions in front of the beach. You see cougar tracks and bear tracks … You can hike 17 miles and see only one or two people. It’s absolutely isolated.”

His favorite time to go may surprise you: winter to early spring, when the storms make for great beachcombing and agate hunting, and lodging rates are cheaper than during the summer.

Here, in no particular order, Johnston lists his five favorite offseason hikes along the Washington coast. Descriptions are his.

Cape Flattery Trail

Makah Reservation, Neah Bay; 1.5 miles round-trip with a gain of about 200 feet. Easy hike. Makah recreation permit required.

A spectacular hike for the family to the very northwest corner of the contiguous 48 states, along a rock spine to an uncanny labyrinth of sea caves and sea stacks where the great Salish Sea spills into the Pacific. It’s a historic spot, overlooking Tatoosh Island and the old Cape Flattery Light at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. British fur trader John Meares stopped his Felice Adventurer here in 1788, encountering the fearsome Makah leader Tatoosh among a fleet of war canoes: “So surly and forbidding a character we had not yet seen,” he wrote. Picture that as you stand on the edge of the continent — and look for marine mammals such as sea lions and perhaps whales.

Rialto Beach/Hole in the Wall

Olympic National Park, north of La Push; 3 miles round-trip with almost no elevation gain; dogs allowed only from Rialto Beach to Ellen Creek, a stretch of less than a mile. Easy hike. Wilderness camping permit required for overnight.

It’s one of the best day hikes or short, family-friendly backpacks on the Washington coast. It’s about a mile from the parking area on the north bank of the Quillayute River (Rialto Beach) to a pair of jagged nearshore sea stacks and the stunning sea arch known as Hole in the Wall. Wander through the hole and see the twisted strata of the reefs in the bay just north and look for agates in the gravel piles on the beach. You need a low tide to walk through the Hole in the Wall.

Third Beach-to-Hoh River backpack

Olympic National Park, south of La Push; 17.1 miles one way, 500 feet of elevation gain; no dogs allowed; bring tide tables, you’ll need to know when the lows will allow you to round certain headlands and Mosquito, Falls and Goodman creeks. Difficult hike. Wilderness camping permit required.

The Hall of Mosses trail in the Hoh River rain forest showcases a mind-boggling proliferation of life upon life in myriad shades of green lushness. (Greg Johnston)
The Hall of Mosses trail in the Hoh River rain forest showcases a mind-boggling proliferation of life upon life in myriad shades of green lushness. (Greg Johnston)

I prefer hiking Olympic National Park’s wondrous wilderness coast in winter and early spring since it’s less busy and feels more wild. All you need is a weather window — and a fallback plan if the storm winds blow (say a cozy cabin at Kalaloch). This is one of the classic backpacks of North America. It combines everything exhilarating about this restless shore: tough slogs over gooey headlands, rocky grottoes and secret pocket beaches, long gravel stretches, stream crossings and the lithic kaleidoscope of the Quillayute Needles and Giants Graveyard. You’ll see a chaotic sea cluttered with sandstone castles, jagged pinnacles, daggers and islets. Look for sea and river otters, dolphins, sea lions and eagles.

Hall of Mosses

Olympic National Park, from Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center; 2 miles round-trip when combined with the connected Spruce Nature Trail; about 100 feet elevation gain. No dogs. Easy hike.

Although separated by a couple dozen miles from the Pacific, you’ll realize these two short trails around the Hoh Ranger Station andvisitor center are linked to that giant body of water when you witness the mind-boggling proliferation of life upon life in myriad shades of green lushness. The Hall of Mosses is the single best, most accessible trail for experiencing the Washington coast’s temperate rain forests. It’s uncanny how the mosses drape and droop and how separate vegetative worlds grow upon the broad, brooding branches of big-leaf maples. You might also see huge Olympic elk, bald eagles, river otters and salmon.

Cape Disappointment Trail

Cape Disappointment State Park, Ilwaco; 2.4 miles round-trip, about 300 feet elevation gain. Dogs allowed on leash. Difficult hike. Discover Pass required.

The basaltic ramparts of 287-foot Cape Disappointment mark the southern end of the Washington coast and provide the best view of the turbulent Columbia River mouth — the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” If skies are clear, hike at sunset to watch the sea swallow that giant, flaming orb. This is a historic spot, marked by the quaint Cape D Light, circa 1856, one of the older functioning lighthouses on the West Coast. Also, here walked Capt. William Clark when he and company first reached the Pacific on their voyage. Check out the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.