Olympic National Park’s coastal wilderness is even wilder when the crowds thin after September. Just wait for a good weather window.
OZETTE, Clallam County — Alone in the coastal forest of Olympic National Park, I kept hearing footsteps. Who was following me?
I’d stop to listen, hear nothing, then start walking and I’d hear those footsteps again. It took me a while to figure out it was just the sound of my own boots echoing off the boardwalk through the deserted forest along the 3-mile trail to Sand Point.
You don’t expect to be alone on one of the most popular hikes in one of America’s most popular national parks, but when you go in the offseason, that’s likely what will happen. The crowds of hikers who do the 9.4-mile Ozette Loop trail are long gone and the wildest coast in the Lower 48 becomes truly wild again.
For this and many other reasons, fall and winter are great times to do the Ozette Loop. If you can find a nice weather window, the hike takes on a magical quality, where gorgeous beaches, headlands and forests are all yours and the coast looks like it did when it was inhabited by the indigenous people who once called it home.
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“The special thing about the Washington coast is that it’s truly wilderness,” says Greg Johnston, author of “Washington’s Pacific Coast” (Mountaineers Books, 2015). “There’s no Highway 1 along this stretch of coast. You’re really out there.”
Johnston agrees that the offseason is the best time to go.
“I won’t even go between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” he says. “It just seems more wild in the offseason.”
The Ozette Loop is short enough to do as a day hike, but it’s best experienced as a backpacking trip. Looking at it on a map, it’s almost a perfect triangle, starting and ending at Lake Ozette in Olympic National Park, about 29 miles southwest of the closest town, Sekiu, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
It doesn’t matter which direction you go: I decided to travel clockwise, heading first to Sand Point, a rock-topped promontory above a broad beach stretching south.
The first week of October, the weather was sunny and warm as I set up my tent on the point amid 30 empty campsites. The only other backpackers were camped about a half-mile south on the beach. The late-day sun dropped behind Sand Point, casting an orange glow on their tents.
Following a bear
The next day, I followed the tracks of a bear northwest along the coastal portion of the Ozette Loop. I never saw him, but his tracks and mine were the only ones visible along the beach for 3.1 miles to Cape Alava.
The hike follows a rocky coastline that at low tide becomes a network of tidal pools and at high tide is a protected reef. The beach walking is rugged, slippery and fascinating.
About two miles north from Sand Point at an area known as Wedding Rocks is a series of petroglyphs carved into the coastal rock by the Ozette band of the Makah Tribe. I wasn’t able to find the petroglyphs, which are subtle and not marked. Johnston calls them “just exquisite.” Pictures of orcas, seals and faces are carved into the rock “and I swear one of the faces is winking at you,” Johnston says.
“They are speaking to us from 2,000 years ago,” he says. “Their intent was to talk to us.”
To the north is Cape Alava, the other main campsite along the loop, where I spent my second night. Cape Alava is the westernmost point of the Lower 48 states, and also was once the site of a large village inhabited by the Ozettes. The Indians chose it because the many islets that now comprise the Flattery Rocks Wildlife Refuge offshore offered protected waters and good access for hunting whales and sea lions, Johnston says.
If you look around the Cape Alava campsites, you’ll still see signs of middens — piles of seashells left by the Ozettes in their village area.
“You get a real sense of the people who lived there” when you stay at Cape Alava, Johnston says. “This is the best place on the coast to experience their culture.”
Just to the north of Cape Alava, the uninhabited Ozette Indian Reservation stretches about two miles along the beach to the Ozette River, the largest stream along this section of the coast.
More empty campsites
I set up camp at Cape Alava amid 20 sites, only two of which were occupied. Then I explored north to the Ozette River.
The hike only gets wilder the farther you go. The beaches to the north feel rougher and more remote. At high tide, some places require scrambles over headlands until reaching the river, which during some months can be crossed only at low tide. On this sunny 65-degree day, it was a refreshing midcalf ford.
Stretching north were miles of empty beach. I hung out and had a long picnic in the sunshine, soaking in the beauty around me, feeling lucky to be alive.
Back at the Cape Alava camp, the sun set behind the islets and the much bigger Ozette Island offshore. Sea lions barked as my beach fire crackled, the perfect end to an offseason trip to the Olympic Peninsula coast.
“Our coast is much more dramatic than anywhere else on the West Coast,” Johnston says. “When you can throw in this kaleidoscope of rock offshore, it just gets really spectacular at sunset.”
If you go
From the Seattle area, take a cross-Sound ferry and get on U.S. Highway 101 through Sequim and Port Angeles before turning off on Highway 112 toward Neah Bay. Beyond Sekiu, turn south on Hoko Ozette Road and continue 21 miles to the Ozette Ranger Station and the trailhead. National Park pass or $25 park fee required for parking.
An important stop
Stop at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles (360-565-3100) to:
• Make reservations and acquire a wilderness camping permit ($8 per person per night), required to camp at Cape Alava and Sand Point.
• Borrow a bear canister, required for stowage of food and scented items.
• Get detailed directions to the Wedding Rocks petroglyphs. They have been vandalized in the past, so no signs point the way.
Boots vs. shoes
The boardwalk trails leading to Cape Alava and Sand Point are notoriously slippery. Some hikers recommend soft-soled shoes instead of hiking boots on this portion of trail; I wore boots and had no trouble but have slipped and fallen in the past.
Watch the weather
Make sure the forecast is reasonable before setting out. “It’s not really fun to hike in the rain,” says Greg Johnston, author of “Washington’s Pacific Coast.” “It can scream and spit out there.”
On your way home, detour to Neah Bay to see a fascinating collection of 300- to 500-year-old artifacts from an Ozette village, collected in a 1970s archaeological dig on this coast. They are at the Makah Museum; makahmuseum.com.