North Coast Route

Beach and headland navigation along Washington's rugged and remote northern coastline in Olympic National Park.

Hiking Severe

Distance
50 km
Ascent
537 m
Descent
533 m
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
-1 m
High Point
58 m
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
North Coast Route Map

Description

The North Coast Route weaves along some of the most remote shoreline in the Lower 48. Famous Washington spectacles of coastal rainforest, sea stacks, arches, headlands, river mouths, giant driftwood, rocky shores, and sandy beaches are spread along a 30-mile stretch of nearly undeveloped coast in Olympic National Park. The North Coast Route is a partially maintained backcountry trail with designated campsites. It’s called a route rather than a trail because most of the “trail” is simply the beach, but some sections have been cut to cross over headlands. Many of these overland trails are steep and have fixed handlines to aid in climbing (gloves recommended). Hiking the North Coast Route requires some skills in route finding as well as close attention to tides, because certain sections are impassable or significantly more difficult at high tide. Hiking at low tide is always easiest, in fact, because it grants options for either rounding or cutting across headlands, and for where to walk along the beaches. A tide chart is an essential part of the packing list.

The North Coast Route is the section of coastline between Shi Shi Beach in the north and Rialto Beach in the south, with trails from Ozette Lake as the only access point in between. The vicinity of the Ozette River where these trails emerge therefore divides the trail into two sections.

From Shi Shi to Ozette is approximately 15 miles, usually completed in 2-3 days. From Ozette to Rialto is approximately 20 miles, usually completed in 3-4 days. Mileage varies based timing with the tides, and all miles are slow going compared to typical backpacking trails because of uneven and rough beach surfaces. The route is good in either direction, but north to south is generally preferable in order to get the hardest sections over with first, and to have the generally north wind at your back rather than your face.

Shi Shi Beach to Ozette River Starting from Shi Shi Beach Trailhead, the journey begins with a muddy trail to a sandy beach to the photo-famous Point of Arches. There are three backcountry camps along the beach, so you might stay the night, enjoy the scenery and ease into the trip, but these sights are all in high demand. This is also a popular day hike destination, but once rounding the point and leaving the sand for rocky beach, the crowds will also stay behind. This is the first place that tides really come into play. Staying on the beach and rounding the point requires a low tide. Otherwise you must take a rougher overland trail.

More difficult terrain awaits south of Shi Shi. Beyond Point of Arches is a short but rugged section with closely spaced headlands that are impossible to round at high tide, and a couple that should not be rounded even at low tide. Most, but not all of the headlands have obvious overland trails. Hit this section at low tide if at all possible. Next is a long section of rocky beach that can be hiked at any tide level, but high tide is difficult because waves can come nearly to the trees and necessitate walking through large driftwood. One camp, Seafield Creek, is located in the middle of this section.

Next comes the Ozette River, which must be crossed at low tide because there is no bridge and the level can rise to more than chest deep. This is a fresh water source, but only at low tide, and you should still walk as far upstream as you can to avoid saline water. North Ozette and South Ozette Camps are here, on either side of the river. South of the river, a couple more miles of rocky beach and small headlands remain before Cape Alava and the trails to Ozette Lake.

Cape Alava Camp is located near Cape Alava Trail where it accesses the beach. This trail is the first option for heading to Ozette Lake. The second option is the North Sand Point Trail, three miles farther down the beach, past Wedding Rocks and its two backcountry camps. The Wedding Rocks are worth a stop to view intricate petroglyphs on the beachside boulders and picturesque seastacks offshore. Taking one of the two trails to Ozette (each roughly three miles) allows for a resupply or for finishing your hike. The 20-mile section south of Sand Point has no easy access points until Rialto Beach.

Sand Point to Rialto Beach Sand Point is just that--a point that collects nice white sand. Rounding it on dry land is easy, and the next half mile of hiking on sand is quite pleasant. Beyond South Sand Point Camp, the beach becomes rocky once again and there is another headland to navigate. Following is another short stretch of sandy beach beneath gold-tinged cliffs. This is Yellow Banks, where there is one backcountry camp.

The sand of yellow banks is short lived, and next comes a long section of straightforward but rocky beach with one headland before reaching Kayostia Beach. High tide may come very near the trees throughout this section. Kayostia Beach is a stretch of sand surrounded by beautifully sculpted bluffs and seastacks with scenic campsites. Atop the bluffs onshore is the Norwegian Memorial, gravesite of crewmen from a 1903 shipwreck on the rocks here. A creek nearby provides a water source.

After rounding or crossing the next headland, another sandy beach awaits with even more impressive seastacks and tidepools. This is Cedar Creek Beach, which also has campsites. South of here is a series of headlands separated by rocky beach. One of these has no overland route and requires low tide to round. If you need water, look for a freshwater creek entering in this vicinity. The last and largest headland is Cape Johnson, which is very difficult to cross on the overland trail. Just past the cape is the Chilean Memorial, gravesite of a 1920 shipwreck, and campsites facing a rocky cove with stoic seastacks.

More seastacks and pretty coves await south of here, in couple miles before Hole-In-The-Wall. This is a unique headland with a natural arch in the cliff near its far end. At low tide you can walk through the hole to pass the headland, but at high tide you must find the route over. A backcountry camp is tucked away above the beach on the south side. Past Hole-In-The-Wall, it’s only about a mile of easy beach walk among the day-hike crowds to reach Rialto Beach and the end of the journey.

Sources: https://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/north-coast-route.htm https://joebeckerphoto.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/north-olympic-wilderness-coast-a-guide-part-1/ https://roamworthy.com/backpacking-north-coast-olympic-national-park/

Difficulty

Severe

Hiking challenging trails where simple scrambling, with the occasional use of the hands, is a distinct possibility. The trails are often filled with all manner of obstacles both small and large, and the hills are very steep. Obstacles and challenges are often unexpected and can be unpredictable.

Extreme Exposure

4 out of 4

Some trail sections are extremely exposed where falling will almost certainly result in serious injury or death.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

April, May, June, July, August, September, October

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Picturesque
  • Water features