First, some basics on Washington storm-watching. In Seattle, we experience low-pressure systems bringing rain, wind and clouds. Those same systems push Washington coastal tides higher, in combination wind direction and speed. Wind blowing in a sea-to-land direction is called “onshore wind,” creates storm surges and gales, with deep wave troughs topped by overhanging crests, surrounded by frothy sea. Even strong gusts and wind can make beach walks challenging, break off tree twigs and create other exciting — and difficult — hazards.
King tides occur several times a year — in Washington state, often at precise moments in November, December and January — owing to the gravitational dance between Earth, moon and sun. Some of the highest tides ever recorded soaked the Washington coastline this past January due to king tides.
The best winter storm-watching combines lashing rain, high winds, monstrous whitecaps — and a warm and/or safe place to view the action at a distance. Higher rollers are often spotted during incoming (versus outgoing) tides and are more spectacular when you can watch waves shatter on the rocky coastline. Storm watching peaks between November and March, and you’ll find advance information about upcoming storms on the Northwest Weather Service website.
Long Beach Peninsula
The peninsula benefits from unique topography, including a headland area for safer storm watching and sandy beaches, along with a treacherous confluence area where the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean meet. Indeed, a 3-mile-wide sandbar reaches from the Columbia into the Pacific for six miles, creating a “Graveyard of the Pacific” for more than 2,000 vessels and 700 lives since 1792.
The 2,023-acre rocky outcropping known as Cape Disappointment State Park offers multiple storm-watching vantage points, including iconic cliffside views and Waikiki Beach, with Cape Disappointment headlands and Cape Disappointment lighthouse in the background. Then, warm up inside the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, or enjoy views at the center’s viewing platform. On post-storm days when the skies are blue but seas are still frothy, hike to North Head Lighthouse and along Bell’s View Trail.
Look south from North Head to see the Columbia River collide with the Pacific Ocean, or look north from Bell’s View toward Long Beach’s sandy, 25-mile coastline. Along the 8 1/2 mile Discovery Trail, stand at a safe distance and watch the waves crash over rocks at the beach at Beards Hollow, near Ilwaco. If you love being near the action but not in it, the state park’s cabins and yurts sit protected within the forest.
Northeast of Cape Disappointment, the Port of Ilwaco’s 800-slip marina looks out to Baker Bay and the mouth of the Columbia River. Keep an eye on roiling waters and dark skies from the pubs at Salt Hotel and At the Helm.
The half-mile-long Long Beach Boardwalk provides a good viewing platform for storms rolling in but remains far enough from the surging surf for a little additional protection. For overnight stays in Long Beach, top-floor rooms at Inn at Discovery Coast face the ocean. West-wing suites at Adrift Hotel face the beach, and the Pickled Fish Restaurant on the hotel’s top floor gives diners a view overlooking the ocean. The Breakers Resort Long Beach and Lighthouse Oceanfront Resort sit further back from the water, but top-floor rooms and suites watch out on dunes and sea.
Ocean Shores to Olympic National Forest
Further north along the Washington Coast (about 2-3 hours from Seattle), beachside communities nestle in Grays Harbor, the “Gateway to the Pacific and Olympic Peninsula.” You’ll find more shorelines here, but several exciting viewpoints.
In the “South Beach” of the region, shelter in Grayland Beach State Park’s 75+ year-round RV spots and 16 heated yurts between winter storms, within walking distance of dunes and beach. A few miles south, visit North Cove’s aptly named Washaway Beach to pay your respects to the ocean’s power — the ravenous water here eats away at the surrounding shoreline (and homes) at a rate anywhere between 46 feet and 150 feet per year (read the latter link for fascinating Washaway history).
Further north in Westport, climb the stone steps of Westport Marina Centennial Viewing Tower for panoramic perspectives of the little town, the 550-slip working marina, and crashing surf along the jetty. Then, follow North Bay’s curve to Ocean Shores. Just south of Ocean Shores at the tip of the C-shaped bay, you’ll find Damon Point, a half-mile peninsula famous locally for post-storm agates and red and green jasper. If you decide to stay in Ocean Shores for a storm, look for 3- to 4-story hotels with expansive Pacific views.
As you continue north, the coastline becomes more rugged, isolated and rocky — perfect for a quiet winter seaside escape, even if the wind outside howls. Even the region’s vivid history is a testament to storms and surges, hotels that washed away and fantastical landscapes (such as the Copalis ghost forest resulting from an 18th-century tsunami).
Regional Airbnbs and hotels’ front-row seats to coastal tempests accompany the year’s lowest rates in winter, and easier access to Northwest Washington’s more remote destinations in and around the Olympic National Park. Watch whitecaps from Iron Springs Resort‘s modernized upscale cabins, on a small Copalis bluff. Ocean Crest in Moclips overlooks water from its cliffside perch.
About 60 miles north of Moclips, bluff-dwelling Kalaloch Lodge within the Olympic National Park stay in the quaint main-lodge, cabins, or in a more contemporary hotel with ocean-view private patios and balconies. Popular winter hiking destinations — with proper precautions — can be found at Kalaloch and Ruby Beach, where waves dash against the strange rock formations known as sea stacks.
Another 50 miles north, Quileute Oceanside Resort offers cozy cabins and hotel rooms featuring dramatic vantage points for winter storm watching. A 10-minute drive brings you to Rialto Beach’s fingerlike, rocky shoreline, where sea stacks become pale and gauzy amid a storm.
Further inland, a few locales are closer to Seattle but still provide that winter-storm feeling. Deception Pass State Park features stunning water-meets-rock lookouts, along with overnight, heated cabins for your post-storm sleep. Near Bellingham, Semiahmoo Resort’s Storm Watchers package looks out on Birch Bay and includes a one-night stay in a waterview room so you can watch the clouds roll in, a keepsake blanket, binoculars for use during your visit, and hot cocoa & Baileys Irish Cream kit. In short, everything you need for a cozy, perfect winter night inside, wind and rain howling outside.
Important safety tips: Wear warm, windproof, and waterproof gear, including jackets, pants, sweaters, and boots if you venture outside in a storm. Never turn your back to the surf, which can be dangerously unpredictable, whether on stormy or sunny days. During winter storms, towering surges can roll in unexpectedly, and colossal driftwood logs and other heavy objects are carried in and tossed about, so don’t approach the water or log piles. Obey any safety signage and guard rails, and be extremely careful when walking on slippery surfaces.
Bring binoculars to spot cartwheeling birds and monster waves from the safety of your room, which might be the best option in any case. Large, high-speed waves and heavy winds are especially dangerous for children and pets. Remain inside or undercover during a thunderstorm, which can bring lightning. Winter oceanside storms can be extremely loud, so sensitive sleepers might pack earplugs.
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