Bruce, a salty volunteer ranger with a missing finger, comes by to make sure my backcountry camping permits are in order. When I ask what there is to do on the beach, he glances at the pounding white waves and massive stone spirals rising out of the sea, baffled at a question about what to do in paradise.
"Well," he says slowly, as if my tentmate and I are challenged in some way, "you can walk around and make friends. You can drink whiskey and go cuckoo. Or," he adds, squinting toward the south end of the beach, "there's a dead sea lion that washed up."
We ponder our options and stifle our laughter.
Sitting at the northernmost tip of 63 miles of pristine coastline, Shi Shi (pronounced shy-shy) is a true wilderness beach. Huge driftwood logs back the 2-mile stretch; a misty emerald green spruce forest rises steeply up the banks of the headlands. For years, official access to this legendary Olympic National Park beach, a few hours from Seattle, was possible only via a difficult, sometimes dangerous 13-mile trek--several hikers have died over the years. This is the second summer the beach has been open via a new, heavily wooded 3-mile trail through Makah Indian reservation land.
Most visitors camp at least one night to appreciate the rhythms of the beach: rising and receding tides; morning ocean mists floating into the cedars; bright midday sun shining on delicate sea creatures revealed by low tide. It's possible to go swimming, but the surf can be very strong.
A surfer trotting by in a slick black wet suit tells us of a campsite in the woods. But we pitch our tent on the beach. Starting a fire is easy with bone-dry driftwood. With a tent and a fire, the beach becomes more than a place to indulge in trashy bestsellers--it starts to feel like home.
On a moonless night, the beach is nearly pitch black. Fires dot the coastline, revealing the shore's gentle curve. Since the sun has set, low tide has extended the beach at least 50 feet. In the dark, it's hard to tell where land ends and ocean begins. I wander in the blackness, past where the waterline had been earlier that day, moving toward the sound of the surf and feeling as if I were walking into an abyss.
During low tide, the ocean pulls back to reveal slick rocks and sandy shallows teeming with life. At the south end of the beach, rows of shiny blue mussels cover huge boulders. Plump purple starfish congregate, growing fat feeding on mussels, abalone, barnacles, and snails.
After hours of peering into the tide pools and exploring shallow caves (wear waterproof hiking boots or high-quality water shoes), we notice that the tide is rapidly returning. Keep track of the water level to avoid being trapped on a rock formation far out at sea.
I take a last look at the bizarre twisting sea stacks, some topped with a few lonely trees, relics from when the formations were part of the headlands. I pick up an orange and pink streaked curl of a shell as a memento, but when I turn the shell around, a shy crustacean quickly folds itself deeper into his tiny home. Gently, I place it back in the shallow waters. This beach should remain exactly as it is.
The Ins and Outs of Shi Shi Beach
Want to go camping at Shi Shi beach, but don't know how? Well, ask yourself this: "Do I have money?" If your answers is "Yes! Yes I do!" then you can go camping.
For a state-of-the-art experience, stop off at the monster Seattle REI on 22 Yale Ave. N. Get lost in the cedar forest planted outside the store, try out waterproof jackets and pants in a special rain booth, scale the climbing wall, and browse the beef jerky and energy bar selection. Once you take out a second mortgage on your home, the friendly staff is happy to sell you anything you need to camp in style. For those on a budget, REI also rents. Don't worry about the $100 fleeces-once you get back to town, you can wear your fleece everywhere! High fashion in Seattle consists of anything Polartec, jeans, and lugged-sole hiking boots. The citizens must wick moisture away from their bodies at an amazing rate.
Get plenty of trail food for your hike, because you'll want to eat all of it in the car. From Seattle, take the Bremerton or Edmonds-Kingston ferry to the Olympic Peninsula. Drive to Port Angeles and stop at the Olympic National Park Wilderness Information Center (3002 Mount Angles Road) to obtain backcountry camping permits ($5 registration plus $2/person for each night). While you're there, pick up a tide schedule and rent a bear-proof food canister ($3 donation). Canisters should contain all your food item and scented toiletries. Be sure to place it 50 to 100 feet from your camp and wedge it in so bears and raccoons can't bat it out to sea.
Rangers at the WIC will help you plan your trip to Shi Shi and alert you to unusual weather or changes in trail conditions. If you've got the time and the masochistic tendencies, consider the 13-mile coast-and-headland hike from Ozette. For all others, it's about a two-hour drive to Neah Bay and the shorter Shi Shi trail at the Makah Indian Nation reservation. Overnight visitors should park in one of several private Makah homes offering secure parking about a half mile from the trail ($10 for overnight parking). Day-trippers can park at the trailhead.
Although summers are generally warm and dry, be prepared for changeable, wet weather-pack a raincoat and extra clothes, and wear noncotton layers that will keep you warm even if wet. The trail can be very muddy-wear waterproof hiking boots. To impose minimum impact on the environment, camp only on the beach or in established campgrounds. Several freshwater streams flow down to the beach. The water is yellowish from wood tannins but safe to drink if filtered, treated with iodine tablets, or boiled for one minute.
For more information on Olympic National Park, see its website at nps.gov/olym.