Ahh, Washington beach camping. Critters, sea air, and sand everywhere. What’s not to love?
As mentioned before, Cape Alava/Ozette Triangle is an amazing hike. It’s where I did my first backpackling trip, and one the boyfriendo got me into. I decided to pick for us another coastal gem, a little further south: Toleak Point.
Officially called the South Coast Wilderness Trail, the trail traverses 17 miles of beach and coastal headlands between the Third Beach and Oil City trailheads. People do a thru-hike, key swap in the middle, or just a portion of this trail, with tons of permitted camping options along the way. The portion to Toleak (To-lee-ak) Point is considered the best, and it being early in the season, we thought 7 miles was plenty.
Backpacking here does require a permit and stopping at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles first though (not currently required due to COVID closures), as well as an approved bear canister for food (available to rent from the WIC even during COVID!). Even if you’re not backpacking, be sure to grab a tide chart for that day. There are some places along the coastline that could leave you stranded when the tide comes in–most notably for our route, Scott’s Bluff, which is totally impassable at a greater than 4-foot tide. If continuing south on the trail, there are some portions needing to be 2 feet or less, which can take days sometimes!
Given the timing of the impending tidal restriction, we decided to car camp near Forks the night before our stay to give us a jump on the trip, which really improved my stress about this. Even arriving at the trailhead before 9am on a Saturday, we barely got a spot near the shoulder (I have no clue what options are if the lot is full). You have a little over 1.25 miles in the woods, plummetting down, before you hit Third Beach and begin your coastal walking.
Well, first you have some logs to scramble over. I didn’t love this part, especially with a pack on throwing off my balance, but we made it to the sand, taking in the sea air. We hustled through the soft, dry sand we sunk into to get to damper sand that was easier to walk on before continuing south. We could see Strawberry Falls spilling down to the beach through the haze of the marine layer. All too soon, we saw our first black-and-red headland sign and knew it was time. I had picked this trail specifically for the excitement of the ropes and ladders required in a few spots to get up to the coastal headlands. The boyfriendo and I still dream of doing the West Coast Trail in Canada one day, so this seemed like wonderful practice.
I had heeded advice of others and brought gardening gloves to protect my hands from the rough ropes. Lacking any upper body strength and having a heavy pack on definitely does make this task a greater challenge! I heaved myself up the first rope, knot by knot, noting my pack digging into my armpit fat. Similar to a river crossing, I made sure each foot was stable before moving the other. I didn’t quite have the ‘skating on marbles’ feel, but footing definitely needs to be sure here. Immediately after the rope was our first ladder. While these were making my heart race cardiovascularly, I didn’t have any fear of heights or anything from the ropes or ladders.
The ladder went well enough, minus the broken rungs (they also had a rope here which helped make up for broken rungs). I’d guess keeping the ropes and ladders maintained is a Herculean effort for park rangers, but necessary, as we both don’t think we’d have made it up or down these sections without them. Note for these areas only one person can be using a rope at once, so if there’s any large groups, prepare for traffic jams. The first steep section done, we had a long portion in the moods, with a few more areas of rope assistance. It hadn’t rained at all recently, but if it had, I can only imagine how much harder this would be with mud. There still were little creeks and streams and trickles all over, so despite it being dry we still got pretty muddy.
The wooded portions aren’t too exciting, other than knowing if a tsunami hits there won’t be instant death. There is one spur you can take to view Strawberry Falls from the top, but my fear of erosion and the outlet only being a foot wide made it not too enthralling. Still a worthy stop, but not enough to make the woods nearly as exciting as the beach.
About a half-mile later, you plummet downward to rejoin the beach again. Most of this is stairs, but the very end is one short-but-muddy rope part. The boyfriendo didn’t feel he needed the gross, muddy rope, but the mud had him slip and land knee-first, with me flicking mud all over myself from the rope. Gah!
This beach was rockier, and there were some large sea stack rocks to explore. If the tide is higher than 4.5 feet, you’ll need another coastal headland route, a tiny but mighty one, to traverse. Luckily we did not, so we made our way from the rocks to the sandy area of Scott’s Bluff. We took a lunch break here, looking at Giant’s Graveyard and taking it all in while we rested. We knew we had the toughest section of rope coming up. We also noted from here out, the amount of trash on the beach–nearly all plastic trash–was heart-wrenching. We wondered how hard it would be to pack it all out, but I almost worried it already was packed out frequently. The plastic mounds continued for the rest of the hike.
At the end of the bluff, we had one last big rope climb. It seemed like the tallest one from beginning to end, but at least it was all in one shot. We watched one group go gingerly down, and I realized when descending my pack would be significantly lighter, which cheered me. The down part from this headland was more gradual;, with one last log pile to negotiate. But, from here on out it was nothing but beach! This section, Scott’s Creek, has water sources to leap across and three (permitted) campsites to boot. We decided even with no time crunch to get around the one section just after Scott’s Creek that is impassable at higher tides (4 feet or higher) before breaking for snacks. With our earlier start, we had hours to spare, but if you miss this part before the tide comes in, it is a long wait with Strawberry and Toleak Points taunting you in sight.
From there, we hit Strawberry Point, which was a beautiful point with one obvious permitted campsite. After that, our directions said there were many campsites found with social trails between there and Toleak (and it turns out, tons after Toleak). We were torn, as this was a pretty big stretch of beach. We also had to make a choice of camping on the beach, exposed, or in the woods but with no view. We started traversing, checking a few spots but not being certain. A man resting on a mini-point shy of Toleak warned us there was a big, loud group coming up, and if we wanted a quiet night to not get too much closer to them.
We happily heeded him and picked the next site after him, still well shy of that group. The waves crashing certainly drowned out all noises for us from other campers, but we could tell there was a bald eagle nest overhead. At first glance, the camp sites here were odd–big sites with fire rings and plenty of flat space for tents, with tiny one-tent spaces with no fire ring between the big ones. We took a bigger one and hoped we’d get no new neighbors. The site was perfect–we could see the beach through the trees, and could have the beach fire I wanted, but were sleeping in a protected area.
Tent set up and feeling confident in our spot, we started gathering some nearby driftwood to prepare for our evening fire. Then, the chairs came out and we went to relaxing! It was still grey and dreary out, which I was bummed about. I had listened to the weather and brought sunglasses, sunscreen, and not a ton of warmth, as it was supposed to be mid-60’s. We went past Toleak to the water source in hopes of warming up, only to have the boyfriendo’s filter stop working. GULP. We had <4.5 liters to rehydrate our dinner and breakfast and drink over 7 miles, which was not comforting. The water source was pretty well-flowing, at least.
Shivering, I tried to tough out the afternoon as well as I could, gathering driftwood for our pending fire. The boyfriendo finally took pity on me and got a roaring fire going, which helped immensely. Once warm, the hours flew by, with beer, the sun finally coming out (at 6pm…little later than the weatherman said!), and dinner. The clouds rolled back in just before sunset, meaning I was denied an epic sunset yet again, and also no stargazing. However, body throbbing, bed didn’t seem so bad.
Day two was fairly uneventful. I woke up first, trying to pack quietly and explore low tide and let the boyfriendo sleep a bit. There were some serious tide pools! The large rock outcropping by us had our resident bald eagle frequently perched, with us once seeing it leave victorious with a fish in it’s talons. With the sun and mist briefly gone, I tried my best to capture our national avian symbol.
We had coffee and breakfast and double-checked we had fully extinguished our fire the night before. The boyfriendo noted that with the tide way out and the low hitting soon, we could probably cut some serious distance off by going straight. The morning mist kept us cool as we pounded the miles. While I was sore from the ropes and ladders, my feet and legs were doing okay.
I was most dreading going down the steeper headland from the day prior, even with my significantly lighter pack. We also started not long after a group of 8, so were hoping to avoid any traffic jams at headlands. However, groups and pairs of hikers spread out pretty quickly, as the miles flew by. The only jam was when we were leaving Third Beach and heading for the last leg in the woods, where there was a bit of passing needed. This final section seemed to go on forever! We made it to the car at 5.75 miles, about a mile less than we thought we’d do, but with water to spare. It was definitely the dirtiest I’ve ever been from backpacking, with mud flying from the ropes onto my clothes at every opportunity.
All in all, it was an amazing trail that fully earned it’s place on the ‘100 Classic Hikes in Washington’ list. We both liked it better than the Ozette Triangle, but definitely advocate for doing both. My biggest takeaway was the lack of critters. We heard tons about the seals, otters, whales, and other marine life one could see along the trail, but we saw a couple of seals briefly, and a lot of bald eagles. Sure, nature means you can’t plan on where animals are, but it was a bit of a disappointment (especially with seeing nearly more illegal dogs than seals). As far as bringing kids, I think unless they have any major fears of heights, this would be a challenging trail but still good for any budding adventurer.
Distance: 17 miles one-way for the full trail. To the end of Toleak Point is officially 7.0 miles, but with a low tide letting us cut corners and camping before the true point, we were closer to 5.75 miles.
Elevation: A lot. With the ropes and headlands, the whole trail is over 2000 feet of up and down.
Parking: $30 covers 7 consecutive days of entry into Olympic National Park, or America the Beautiful Pass. If planning on backpacking, you will need a Wilderness Permit ($6 non-refundable fee + $8/person/night) as well.
Bathrooms: Pit toilets at trailhead, NPS says multiple pit toilets along the trail, but we did not verify any.
Food storage: Bear cans required–no hanging!
Fires: Allowed, pending burn bans. You can only use driftwood, no cutting down living trees or branches. There was ample driftwood on the beach for us!