July 16-18, 2021.
I’m huge on planning, but I’m not a person who chooses to hike in places that require advance permits. Emily is the opposite, and she is the person who inspired this trip. Based on a previous visit to the Olympic South Coast trail, she was itching to do it again. Backpacking in Olympic National Park requires purchasing permits ahead of time, packing in bear canisters and (in our case) setting up car shuttles. While this usually is not my cup of tea, I decided to go along on this adventure. Now that it’s done, I can say I am really glad I did.
Day 1: Third Beach to Strawberry Point
5.2 mi | 600′ ele. gain | 3:50 hr.
Emily, Renee and I arrived at the already crowded Third Beach trailhead on a Friday morning and shouldered our packs. I noticed how different it was here; we’d just come from the hot, dry high desert of Central Oregon the day before. Now, we stood surrounded by towering trees draped with lichen. A cool mist hung in the air. Ferns, shrubs and ground cover created a thick understory on either side of the trail. I took a deep breath of the moist air and fell in line for the walk down to the beach.
It always takes a mile or two for my body to adjust to carrying an overnight pack. I had the bear canister, packed to the brim with food, as well as all my necessary gear and a liter of wine. I guess that was necessary, too.
At least the beginning of the trek was downhill on a well-groomed trail. This was not a good representative of the remainder of the route. We blissfully descended towards the beach, following the sound of the ocean.
A thick blanket of clouds greeted us when we arrived at Third Beach. Nonetheless, we could see interesting sea stacks in the distance and lots of sea creatures at our feet. I grew up on the East Coast and fondly remember spending all summer on the beach, hopping across rocks and playing in tidepools. Those memories came springing back as I looked at colorful sea stars, sea anemones, barnacles and other critters clinging to life on the water’s edge.
Soon, though, I snapped back to the present day: “There’s the first rope,” someone said. And then I began to understand what we were in for on this trip.
The beach came to an end at an impassable stretch of boulders and cliffs. In order to get back on the headland, we needed to go up. Straight up. A steep sand hill led us back to the forest, and to ascend the hill, we used a knotted rope that someone had tied to a tree above us. It didn’t look terribly official, but it would have to do, so up we went. After that rope, there was a ladder. Then another rope. All these trail accoutrements looked to be marginally maintained, but good enough. The ladders had missing rungs. The ropes seemed to be old marine rope that had washed up on the beach. All part of the adventure, to be sure…
We slowly plodded along the steep, muddy, narrow forest trail. This was nothing like the promenade we started on just a couple hours before. I was happy we got an early start so we had all the time in the world to get to camp.
Next, we dropped onto another beach, then quickly came to a section of big boulders buffering the forested cliffs from the crashing ocean. Huh, I thought, there must be a trail here, but Emily insisted that this was one of the rock crossings. We went for it.
Luckily, this section was short. The ocean pounded into the rocks just feet away from where we were scrambling. We moved as quickly as we could while carrying our heavy, awkward loads. Everything was wet, slippery and dramatic. Once I could see the flat, sandy beach on the other side, my heart rate relaxed a bit. There was not much longer to go.
Our reward: a long stretch of sand and tidepools that led right to camp. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Night 1: Intro to hammock camping
At Strawberry Point, Emily picked out a nice campsite and we dropped our gear there. The ocean air calmed me as I ate my lunch and searched for the best spot to hang my hammock.
I’d never hammock-camped before, but I thought I’d give it a try on this trip. I borrowed a hammock and webbing from a friend, and threw in the footprint from my 3-person backpacking tent to use as a tarp just in case. There was no rain in the forecast, but this was the coast…
All afternoon we lounged around, reading books, napping, exploring tidepools and taking casual walks on the beach. We waited as long as we could to make dinner: dehydrated turkey chili with fresh toppings. Then, we drained the bottle of wine and watched a curious seal head bobbing in the waves for hours. A curious deer wandered into our camp, nibbling on fresh greenery as it went. She was completely unbothered by us; it was her home, after all.
At bedtime, I hopped into the hammock, nestled in and went to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable even though I later learned that I set it up all wrong. The sea breeze kept the bugs at bay. Nailed it, I thought…
At 2 am I woke up to the song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Actually, I woke up to a soaking rain that would make my down sleeping bag useless and put me in a hypothermic state if I didn’t figure out a way to make shelter, and fast. I grabbed my headlamp and pulled my emergency tarp out, then began looking around to improvise a rain cover for my hammock. I’ve been here before, I thought, and it was way more serious then. My mind flashed back to the night I unexpectedly had to bivy on Mt Hood in a sleet storm. Memories of past shenanigans help me remain calm and confident. Knowing I’d survived more heinous conditions reminds me how strong and resilient I am.
From all the years I’ve camped and backpacked, I’ve got a pretty solid and foolproof system down. So, abandoning the known and venturing into the unknown put me back in to beginner mode. But, this is how we develop skills, so I spent a moment reflecting on past experiences before focusing on problem-solving.
As disgusting as all the trash washed ashore was, it sure came in handy. I scavenged large pieces of rope from the marine debris to use for my shelter. I tied a length of rope over the hammock and threw the tarp over top like an upside-down taco shell. Then, I had to stake out the corners to make the tarp taut. I used the long ends of webbing that held my hammock in addition to a thin rope I cut from the large piece and some sturdy fronds of grass (yes, grass). At this point I was wet from being out in the rain, but still reasonably warm. I crawled into my damp sleeping bag and looked for flaws in my system.
“Huh, even though the tarp doesn’t cover the hammock completely, I’m not getting wet.” Scanning up and down the hammock with my headlamp, I wiggled my toes, felt the sleeping bag over my head and noticed my body temperature. I was warm, comfortable, and reasonably dry. I turned off my headlamp, curled up in my sleeping bag, and drifted back off to sleep.
Day 2: Strawberry Point to Mosquito Creek
6.2 mi. | 530′ ele. gain | 4:30 hr.
First off, let me tell you that the statistics for this hike do not in any way tell the story of the character and difficulty of this route. As I look back at the measly elevation gain numbers and short miles, I can hardly believe these data are accurate. That’s how deceptive the Olympic South Coast trail is. You get a big bang for your buck on this one. Now, on to day 2…
In the morning, I hopped out of my dry cocoon and inspected my handiwork. Not too shabby for a rush job. Note the red strap on the bottom right corner, tethered only by a few strands of grass. Bushcraft, I guess.
It was my turn to make breakfast in the morning, so I took my sweet time assembling ingredients and creating a delightful egg scramble with veggies and chicken sausage. Hooray for home dehydrators!
We enjoyed a lazy breakfast on the uncluttered shoreline near our camp, opposite the trash pile. Leave No Trace, eh ocean? Today’s hike seemed much less daunting than the previous day, but since we survived that I felt ready for anything. Bring it on, obstacle trail…
The day began with a mile-long beach walk to Toleak Point, where a number of groups were camping (we were essentially alone last night). There, we stopped to filter water. Out of nowhere, a beautiful young buck trotted along the sandy beach, then sprung straight up into the thick forest. Quite majestic! We continued along the beach for a while before going up into the forest. There was only one forested section on the route today, with no crazy low tide crossings to plan.
But the forest trails involved lots of scrambling, climbing over trees, negotiating tree roots and using hand lines to get up and down the steepest bits. I sure was glad the rain cleared out and the ground was mostly dry. Doing this trek in the rain would potentially bring this into the type 3 fun category.
During our short tromp in the forest, we ran into an endangered species, one I had not expected to find here: a park ranger. We had a pleasant exchange in which he inspected our permit, asked us the standard questions, made some boring small talk and went on his way. Shortly after, we ran into his ranger partner. She sounded like an alien trying its best to disguise itself as a young human woman. I don’t know how much training is required to be a park ranger, but it would seem that communication skills are not so much taught to this group. She was nice enough, and harmless, and we got back to putting one foot in front of the other.
An hour and a half after entering the forest, we followed one last handline down a dirt ramp back to the wide, flat beach. While soaking up that sweet, sweet sunshine, I searched the rock crevasses for critters and dipped my toes in the wet sand. Aaron had just gotten me a pair of Bedrock sandals for my birthday, which I wore through the entire trip. They were bomber on the mud, the rocks, pretty much every surface I had to walk across. And they let my feet dry off in between dipping them in mud puddles or ocean surf.
Once we got to Mosquito Creek, we spread out to scout a good camp for the night. I had hoped to string up my hammock from the big driftwood stumps like I’d seen on trip reports posted online, but no such spot existed here. Instead, we followed a steep sandy path up off the beach into a magical, well-loved campsite. It had multiple rooms for us to lay out gear, set up a cooking station and arrange the tent and hammock. But, it was dark and gloomy in there. We spent much of the afternoon laying on the beach letting our legs rest before the big day. I got into my swimsuit and took one very chilly dip in the Pacific before retiring to my beach towel…
Since we had nothing but time, I carefully crafted a stout hammock fly set-up just in case the weather turned overnight. I made use of the extra tent stakes and cord from Renee’s tent, and practiced incorporating my hiking pole into the rigging. As with all skills, it takes practice in a different kinds of situations with a variety of supplies to become proficient, so I took this opportunity to experiment. I remembered a few useful knots and hitches from my climbing days, but made a mental note to review a few more releasable hitch types and practice them before I take a hammock out again.
We enjoyed a hearty dinner of fresh veggies and mac and cheese, and tried really hard to stay up late enough to watch the sunset.
We didn’t make it.
Day 3: Mosquito Creek to Oil City
6.6 mi. |960′ ele. gain | 7:10 hr. (including 2 long rests)
Anticipating our last major hurdle, a rock crossing that can only be made at low tide, we set an alarm for an early get-up. I woke up 5 minutes before the alarm, freaking out that I’d overslept, then checked the time. Turns out the others did the same.
We scarfed down some oatmeal, packed up, and got moving a half an hour before our projected start time. Knowing that most of the trail would be in the forest, and that our hike pace was particularly slow in the forest, we gave ourselves plenty of time to complete the trail leading up to the rocks.
As we walked from our camp, I gazed at the beautiful, wispy cirrus clouds overhead. I remembered reading about these in the book The Secret World of Weather by Tristan Gooley (highly recommend, by the way). But I could not remember what they meant. Since reading that book, I’ve been obsessed with clouds, and paying attention to them much more than I ever have. I suppose I’ll need to read the book a few more times and start taking notes to really make the information stick. But, step one is just being aware. What information is stored in those clouds…
This day’s stretch of woodland trail felt like the most challenging of them all. It is the longest continuous trail in the forest, with many obstacles to overcome. Ladders and stairs and other built trail features were in sad states of disrepair. We didn’t always love the rope choices, but we had to use what was there. I recall lots of throwing my legs over the top of some downed trees, slithering under the ones that were too gnarly to mount, clambering up “steps” chopped out of logs and stepping over rotten boardwalk pieces. We took several breaks, not only to rest our legs but also to rest our overworking brains. It was tough!
When at last, we could see the beach peeking through the trees, we took a somewhat premature sigh of relief. The trail here dropped nearly straight down, with a broken ladder and a rope to help us make that final descent to the sand.
At last, some easy beach walking. We found a spot about halfway between the forest and the rocks to sit and hunker down for a bit. I used my InReach to contact Emily’s husband, aka our shuttle driver, to coordinate a pickup time. Then, we just saw and waited until our safe crossing time: an hour before low tide.
I wondered if we’d planned it right, because we watched several groups walk by us, continue down the beach, and begin hopping across the rocks. But, we stuck to our plan and were the last group to begin the crossing.
Compared to the hairy scramble from day one, this felt like a piece of cake. It was a much longer section of rocks than we’d done before, but the rock was textured and sticky, there was plenty of dry land between us and the ocean, and the whole scene just felt far less ominous. We were moving so quickly that we caught up to the group ahead of us. And before long, our feet hit dry sand.
At this point, all that was left was a short beach walk followed by a half mile trail in the woods to the parking lot. Instead of waiting for our ride in the parking lot, we decided to chill on the beach and watch the birds for an hour. It was peaceful and relaxing, a fitting end to a difficult day. A pair of bald eagles perched like sentries on the mouth of the Hoh river, while hundreds of gulls alternated between milling about on the beach and flapping furiously into the sky. I worked through a few crossword puzzles to pass the time.
The last little trail walk was more work than I was anticipating, and it’s likely because I mentally switched from work mode to “I’m done” mode. It was a good reminder that it’s not over, til it’s over.
Do not underestimate the South Coast Trail. It will challenge even experienced hikers and backpackers, in one way or another. And the things that challenge you might not be the ones you planned for.
Hammock camping ROCKS. It takes no time at all to set up a hammock (minus the, ahem, fly situation). It’s extremely cozy, even when you do it all wrong (as I learned later, whoops). And it’s a nice place to hang out and read, have a snack, etc when you’re just spending time in camp. The gentle back and forth rocking is rather soothing.
Bedrock sandals are well worth the investment. I normally don’t take a pair of shoes right out of the box and into a 3-day backpacking trip, but these were perfect. They fit my feet well, allowed my toes to breathe, provided excellent grip on challenging surfaces and went from wet to dry without a second thought. Please note that I packed my trail shoes as well, thinking I’d mostly wear those, but they ended up being just camp shoes on this trip.
Hip, hip, hooray for sun shirts! This was another new piece of gear I tested on this trip. I normally don’t like wearing long sleeves because they never fit me quite right and they feel hot. But this sun shirt was buttery soft and comfortable, cool on my skin and saved me a bunch of sunscreen applications throughout the weekend. It didn’t even stink after several days of wear.
Did I change my mind on permits? Nah. I get why they’re used in certain places, but with a half bazillion places to explore in this world, I’ll choose the ones with the least red tape. I’m glad that there are plenty of options for all types of users who want different types of experiences out there. But I will not turn down an invite to a permitted area if someone else is willing to navigate the system.