Easy Access Backpacking: A Trip to Shi Shi Beach
Contributed by Ryan Shepherd
There’s a thrill that comes from seeing the edge of something – a cliff, a horizon, a coastline. That’s it. That’s where it all ends.
What’s over the edge? You can google it, sure, or you can let your imagination run for a while.
If you’re looking for an all-time edge – a place that really whips the imagination into a frenzy – head to Shi Shi Beach on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Sitting in the upper left corner of the continental United States (yes you can see Canada from the beach), Shi Shi is an accessible backpacking destination ideal for families, novice backpackers and veterans looking to warm up to or unwind from a gnarly season in the backcountry.
My friend and I took off to experience the upper left corner of the Pacific Northwest in early May. My phone predicted fair weather, but the forecast for areas in or near the Olympic Mountains is always unpredictable, to say the least. Prepped with our rain gear and good spirits, we set off on a 5-hour journey from Seattle to the trailhead of Shi Shi. The drive was shortened by our excitement; anytime my friend’s impatience would bubble up (slow drivers, slow grocery store clerks, slow speed limits), I would pacify him with an ice-cold LaCroix from the super cooler. Wooooosaahhh.
Finally, with heavily carbonated intestines and a hankering for some quality time on the trail, we pulled into the parking lot for Shi Shi Beach grinning from ear to ear.
PRO TIP: Shi Shi Beach sits on the Makah Indian Reservation and a permit is required to visit. There is no overnight parking at the trailhead. Stop at the Makah Indian Museum and purchase a permit for $10. Parking in the lot on top of the hill (.6 miles from the trailhead) is $10 per day, cash only.
We dug around the car and eventually fumbled together $30 for our three days of parking, paid the fee, battened down our packs, locked the car and set off down the road for the trailhead.
The distance from the trailhead to the beach is a little over two miles, most of which is flat or slightly downhill. Two miles? No elevation gain? For two headstrong millennials like us, this was an open invitation to cram as many beers into our packs as we could fit. We also carried in a plastic grocery bag full of ice and beer, an inadvisable move for most backcountry pursuits where pack weight and energy are always a concern. For Shi Shi – totally doable!
We weaved around patches of muddy trail, but mostly the path was wide – a superhighway for experienced hikers. The Pacific Ocean glistened through breaks in the trees, teasing us like a sizzling fajita plate being served to a table nearby. Our feast was imminent.
Just before we reached the beach, a set of wooden stairs descended steeply down the high bank, dropping us off at a set of campsites in the trees before leading to a massive sandy crescent-shaped bay, flanked on one side by foaming silver waves and on the other by towering windblown pine trees. We had reached Shi Shi Beach – the edge.
PRO TIP: Don’t camp at the campsites at the bottom of the stairs. There are sites all along the beach with better views and closer proximity to freshwater.
The wetter, firmer sand near the water gave slightly under our boots as we marched south. With each breaking wave, the tension built up from long days in the city unwound a little more from our spinal cords. No LaCroix was needed to pacify our impatience here, just a salty breeze.
Shi Shi beach is two miles long. Half way down, a creek runs out from the forest onto the beach. This is the primary water source. A smaller, scummier creek emerges about three-quarters of the way down the beach.
PRO TIP: Bring a small coffee filter to place over/around your primary water filter. This will keep sand and gunk from quickly clogging your filter. The freshwater sources at Shi Shi, and all along the Olympic coast, are not the cleanest, though are perfectly potable once treated.
At the southern end of the beach is Shi Shi’s main attraction, its pies de resistance, the Point of the Arches – a row of massive rock formations that jut out of the ocean. During the daytime, the pine trees and foliage that top these sea stacks glow green against the blue sky behind them. In the evening they’re silhouetted by the low hanging sun. Among the rock formations are multiple arches, carved into the rock by the ocean (hence the name, “Point of the Arches”).
We made our camp near Point of the Arches, where we tucked our tents back in a grassy nook, just above the beach. In the sand, we upgraded the existing fire pit and assembled our chairs. Home base was established. Beach mode – engaged.
PRO TIP: Always pack an ultralight camp chair for a trip like this. I take mine on easy backpacking trips like Shi Shi, but also haul it along for more grueling trips. There is simply no beating a comfortable seat for resting, lounging, cooking and eating at camp. An ultralight chair also makes a great base in your backpack on top of which to pack the rest of your gear.
Once camp was constructed, we spent the next forty-some odd hours collecting wood, making fire, cooking food, eating food, drinking beer, hiking with boots, getting caught by an incoming tide, drying boots, hiking barefoot, exploring tide pools, imitating David Attenborough while pretending to explain the behavior of sea birds, lounging in camp chairs, commentating on the passing hikers, drinking whisky, taking pictures, conversing, debating, laughing and pondering the mystery of the universe while gazing out at the horizon.
Shi Shi beach is world-class beautiful. It feels like it was constructed by Disney as some sort of camping-themed amusement park. On a weekend, you’re sure to see a photographer or two, sometimes from another state or even another country. Families, couples, and groups of friends all gather here to detach from their daily lives (but not completely, there is cell service) and sit wide-eyed in front of an endless view. Stare at the arches long enough and they start to seem fake. A walk among the tide pools at their base serves as a quick reminder that they’re not projections on a green screen, but in fact, real, natural geological formations, teeming with life. Bring a Frisbee, build a bonfire, test out your new camp gear and relax.
Life on the edge, or on this edge anyway, its hard to look away from, let alone walk away from. But, regrettably, we did. The tension of city life had long since drained from our consciousness by the time we trekked back north, barefoot, up the beach, toward home.
PRO TIP: Hike barefoot until you reach the dirt trail again. It’s delightful.
Finally, back at the car, we found our super cooler still full of ice and cold drinks! We cracked another can of our favorite sparkling beverage, not to pacify our impatience, but to celebrate a successful trip. With the car loaded, we drove off, due east, the thrill of the edge still thrumming in our minds.