by Allen Cox
On the drive west across the Olympic Peninsula, it seems as though I am traveling to the end of the continent. And, in fact, I am. My destination: the tiny town of La Push, on Washington’s wild Pacific Coast. La Push is home to the Quileute Nation, which is tucked between two coastal wilderness sections of Olympic National Park. To say the setting is stunning is to make a gross understatement. Just off the coast, sea stacks and towering rock spires stand as sentinels braced against the restless surf. Evergreen forests blanket the headlands where mist and fog blow in from the sea. A king tide at its peak has commandeered the beach, lifting gigantic driftwood logs as though they were toothpicks. The world here, at least on this early winter day, is painted in watercolor hues of gray and green.
I pull into Quileute Oceanside Resort, my home for a few days; the resort is owned and operated by the Quileute Nation. I check into a one-bedroom deluxe unit, complete with a kitchen, balcony and a panoramic view of the ocean. On the way to La Push I passed through Forks (yes, that Forks: the setting for the “Twilight” series), a town with a full array of services like a supermarket. There, I stocked up on provisions I would need for my stay, since I intended to cook my own meals. (Although, I might slip out to check out a restaurant that I passed at 3 Rivers Resort between Forks and La Push; they’re famous for their “Twilight”-themed menu, and the thought of burying my fangs into a Werewolf burger was making me drool.)
In spite of the chill wind, I open the window to zone out to the rhythm of the surf. I can’t remember when I ever slept so well.
My only plan for my stay is to explore this stretch of coast. To get to Rialto Beach, north across the channel from La Push, I drive inland to cross the confluence of the Sol Duc and Bogachiel Rivers (where they become the Quileute River) and head west again to the Rialto Beach parking lot. The tide had receded since my arrival yesterday, and the long stretch of beach looks decidedly less threatening than it did the day before. Giant driftwood logs lay motionless, securely resting far from the surf. My trek north up the 2-mile stretch of beach and back would allow plenty of time before I’d have to worry about being crushed by a killer log.
I can see all the way up the long crescent beach, and there are no other hikers in sight, although there is another car in the parking lot. The north end of the beach where I am headed has a famous, often-photographed geologic feature called Hole in the Wall. Millenia of wave action eroded the center of a sea stack, creating a window out to the ocean. The clouds sail north in the wind, creating sun breaks that dance on the surf and warm my face in the brisk morning.
About halfway to Hole in the Wall, the mystery of the other car in the parking lot is solved. A scruffy looking dog, tail wagging, runs toward me from a hollow in the woods bordering the beach where I see a young woman seated behind an easel. We exchange waves. I am tempted to approach her and peek at what she’s painting, but I decide to reserve that for the return trip.
Hole in the Wall is not a disappointment. The tide is still far enough out to explore tidepools sheltering an abundant array of red and purple sea stars, anemones and tiny crabs. The sun has finished playing hide and seek, and a misty rain takes its place. Hood up, I return to my car as fast as I can walk. The artist has abandoned her spot and is huddled under the trees with her dog, a tarp stretched over her easel. We exchange waves again, and I march on.
The mist doesn’t let up for the rest of the day, but that doesn’t stop a trio of wet-suit clad surfers I watch from my room that afternoon. The beach at La Push draws surfers year-round, but the winter surf is particularly challenging. They paddle out, riding the roller-coaster waves, waiting for one they can ride back to shore. Success: One of the surfers stands as he catches a wave back but tumbles off his board on the way. They keep at it but seem to be enjoying simply riding the waves on their bellies.
The next day brings another beach to explore. An overnight rainstorm ended before dawn, taking any trace of mist with it. The big patches of blue look promising. The trailhead to Second Beach in Olympic National Park is within walking distance. When I reach it, the trailhead parking lot is half full, and a few other hikers are putting on their rucksacks, preparing to hit the trail. This stretch of coast is wilderness, and wilderness can mean wildlife. Hikers occasionally report elk, deer and black bear sightings here.
The hike to Second Beach is less than a mile but is muddy in spots; I’m glad I brought trekking poles. Once I reach the beach, I can see why it’s so popular. Sea stacks dot the coastline far out from shore, testimony to the vast headland this area once was. Now eroded, the ocean left reminders of the geologic past in the form of these islets and spires. But they are not frozen in time; the sea is still doing its best work, continually eroding them.
I walk south along the wide, sandy beach, the coastal forest with wind-sculpted Sitka spruce on my left and the ocean roiling among the sea stacks on my right. Today, there’s a light, chilly breeze from the south, but no threat of rain as the clouds have retreated far out to sea.
At both Rialto Beach and Second Beach I find my thoughts drifting to what life along this wild coast might have been like for the Coast Salish people before contact with Europeans. I have been to museums with great collections of Northwest Coastal Native artifacts and recreations of longhouses, but ancient civilization along this coast was never as vivid in my imagination as here in this setting. I can imagine ancient voices on the wind, longhouses between the forest and the beach and dugouts pulled up onto the shore.
I walk back to the trailhead and down the road to my room at Quileute Oceanside Resort. I take a seat on my balcony and watch a pair of sea kayakers in wet suits attempt to paddle beyond the surf, which appears to be a challenging endeavor. As a frequent traveler, I look for a sense of place and history wherever I go. Here, in humble La Push, surrounded by nothing but coastal wilderness, a tiny harbor and the unpretentious hospitality of the Quileute People, the sense of place is palpable.
When You Go:
Olympic Peninsula Tourism, olympicpeninsula.org
Olympic National Park, nps.gov/olym
Quileute Nation, quileutenation.org
Quileute Oceanside Resort, quileuteoceanside.com