For those planning a backpacking trip in Washington State (or any popular trekking destination, really), I offer you this simple advice: shoulder season.
The Olympic National Park is one of the most touristed areas in the Pacific Northwest. Over 4 million people travel to view and explore the nearly one million acres of wilderness the park has to offer each year. Some drive in with their camper-vans and RVs, others wander around with their tents on their back. Regardless of how you choose to travel, beware of permits, reservations, and seasonal closures. (Oh my!)
Unless you’re a really savvy planner and can organize your life half a year in advance (and are willing to cope with the summer tourist crowds), I recommend getting your backcountry experiences in during the shoulder seasons–that is, go the week immediately before or after the peak season. That way, you avoid needing to book way in advance and paying premium prices.
This is how K and I finagled our way onto the Olympic Coast Trail when every campground was already fully booked for the entire summer. It was late May 2015 when we rocked up at the park’s main visitor center in Port Angeles to get our backcountry permits–one weekend before the summer season was scheduled to begin.
Late spring in Western Washington is undoubtedly unpredictable–a remarkable trait for scaring away the faint of heart tourist and leaving peace-seekers to their lonesome. We were prepared for cold and rainy, but serendipitously it was warm and sunny. Having left Seattle late afternoon on a Friday, it was an hour until sunset by the time we made it to our designated trailhead at Ozette Lake. With permits obtained, we walked easily along the 3-mile boardwalk that connects the parking lot to the peninsula’s magnificent western shore. Within minutes of arriving at the coast we found a campsite and then a perch atop a steep outcrop from which to watch the sun fall behind the horizon.
We followed the trail south the next morning, quickly popping back out onto the beach. The tide was low. Bald eagles, young and old, swooped around us scouring the exposed surface for edibles, while I diligently hunted for unbroken shells and colorful stones.
It was a light half-day jaunt to our next, and soon to be all-time favorite, campsite: Yellow Banks.
Yellow Banks campsite is a hard to spot from the beach, as it is situated behind the high piles of driftwood on top a steeply eroded sand bluff. But a keen eye will notice the buoys that give away its presence. The site is completely secluded and private with an unobstructed, front row ocean view. The campsite is rigged with a driftwood platform for your tent and a buoy tied to a tree for your swinging pleasure. There is also a clearing for a second tent tucked further back into the woods behind this site.
After congratulating ourselves on an impeccable find, we dropped our packs–staking claim of our top-rate real estate–and trolled the area for a source of fresh water. (FYI, there is a small fresh water creek on the south end of this bay).
We stayed two nights in our luxury suite. The day time was spent wandering further south along the coast and exploring the critters left in the saltwater pockets abandoned by the tide, playing bocce and cribbage, and soaking up the unexpected springtime rays. We collected rocks, admired giant starfish, watched in awe as a flock of bald eagles battled for the remains of some mashed up marine carcass.
On our fourth and final day, we said goodbye to Yellow Banks and trekked back toward Ozette Lake. With nothing but work to rush home to, we took our time–wading through the waves for as long as the sand was soft. Returning to the Ozette Loop junction from whence we’d strayed, we continued on to finish the loop toward Cape Alava.
We were bummed when our 9-mile day came to an end, but also relieved. We had made it out just in time. The tide–and the crowds–were just starting to roll in.