A new paved road has made Cape Flattery, the most northwestern point in the contiguous United States, more accessible. With the new road, the Makah hope to see more tourism come to nearby Neah Bay.
The first in an occasional series about our spectacular and often overlooked places.
When Polly DeBari looks at Tatoosh Island, she sees the historic lighthouse, the crumpled old weather station and the crane clinging to the rocky terrain.
In her mind, she also sees the generations of Makah who once paddled out to the tiny coastal island off Cape Flattery for summer halibut and whaling seasons.
“You think about years and years ago, your parents, your great-grandparents, your ancestors were on that island,” she said. “It’s just kind of special to know you could be so close.”
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In the summer, DeBari has a regular perch with a clear vantage of the island. She is a cultural interpreter for the Makah Cultural & Research Center, and spends summer days high above the sea at Cape Flattery, where the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca joust for territory.
She welcomes people to the Makah reservation and the most northwesterly point in the contiguous United States.
The Cape trail’s 300-foot descent begins on packed gravel in quiet woods, where cedars are missing long strips of bark taken by the Makah for baskets and weaving. Visitors hopscotch over tree stumps and past lime-green ferns unfurling alongside salmonberry sprouts, which are plucked and peeled for their fresh, delicate flavor.
Cape Flattery reveals itself as the trail descends and the still air picks up the dull roar of the sea. At the first lookout, a visitor sees columns of rocks called sea stacks with mop tops of green, along with careening black pigeon guillemots, bald eagles and nesting gulls. At another lookout, iridescent cormorants chatter and nest in guano-streaked cliffs. Clustered on the rocky shore are black mussels and white gooseneck barnacles, still gathered by the Makah.
At the final platform five stories above the sea, gusts blow in with the sea’s salty tang. Tufted puffins ride the waves. On a prized sunny day, visitors will feel reluctant to tear themselves away from the brilliance of sky and ocean. But even on overcast days, the sight is a feast for the eyes as rough seas lap at sea lions draped on a rock near Tatoosh and birds dart out of reach.
DeBari can smell when a gray whale is winding its way up the coast. (“It’s a stink; it’s not a good smell.”) She can spot a puffin a half-mile away. She tells visitors the cacophony coming from the caves is not sea lions but cormorants.
At the Cape, she has met a man who walked across America, a man who bicycled across America and a man who played bagpipes across America. For all of them, the Cape was the end of their journey.
“You meet so many interesting people there,” DeBari said. She wonders how they find out about the Cape. “It’s not like Disney World.”
Last year, more than 15,000 people visited Cape Flattery, driving to Neah Bay and then up the grueling, 4 ½-mile final stretch of rutted gravel road. The Makahs paved the road last summer, cutting the driving time to about 10 minutes; the $4.1 million project also included a new parking lot and RV and bus turnaround.
The tribe added a cedar boardwalk and tree stumps in the late 1990s to help navigate the muddy, three-quarter-mile trail. Four lookouts provide vistas of the wave- and wind-lashed coastline. Guides, funded by the cultural center and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, are there seven days a week in summer.
“People love to come to those extremes,” said Janine Bowechop, executive director of the cultural center. “Then they come and realize it’s beautiful.”
DeBari, 52, a registered Makah, grew up in Neah Bay and in the woods on the Cape, where she waited in clearings while her mother gathered berries, flowers and cedar bark.
The mother of six, who wears a gold-and-blue whale tail pendant around her neck, has a sly sense of humor. She will look out at the ocean and say with a straight face: “I’m getting ready to call the whales.”
She had to learn bird names when she became a guide, although she already knew the area’s history. She tells visitors that Tatoosh is named for a Makah chief, and the lighthouse was built in 1857. DeBari also grew familiar with the coyote who showed up on the same grassy knoll every morning. She’s seen cougar tracks in the winter. When she’s working, she carries plastic gloves and a plastic bag — in addition to her emergency radio, first-aid kit, binoculars and telescope — to pick up wet tissue off the trail.
One recent day, the visitors included Jose Mendiola and Joel Steinpreis, who drove the five hours from Seattle. They were hoping to see whales and puffins, but that day had seen two eagles, seagulls and black birds they couldn’t identify.
“We’re definitely out of the city,” Mendiola said.
The new road has also made life easier for locals, who still head up to the woods and craggy shore to gather seafood and bark. Bowechop and DeBari went to a rocky beach nearby for seafood one day and sighted three whales off the coast.
“They were so awesome,” DeBari said.
A new type of tourist
Tourism is starting to grow gradually, with more hikers and sightseers supplementing people who come to fish. Along with the new road, the tribe has also built new cabins, RV parks and a restaurant nearby.
“The goal is to make sure some beautiful spots on the reservation are easy to enjoy and people learn how many wonderful things there are to do,” Bowechop said. “All these projects are connected to seeing what we can do to create a sustainable economy.”
Before the road was paved, as many as 400 people hiked the trail in a day during busy periods like Makah Days, a three-day festival in August celebrating Makah tradition and culture.
Open since September, the road has drawn a new variety of tourist.
John Hewitt, president of the Miata Club Northwest, learned about the road online. Club members drove eight cars to the Cape in mid-June.
The smooth, windy road is perfect for a sports car, he said, and the Cape itself is a beautiful destination.
“Now that we know what the road is like, we’ll come back again and again and again,” he said.
Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or firstname.lastname@example.org