Shipwreck Coast/Shi Shi Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Photograph by Taylor S. Kennedy, National Geographic
Photograph by Taylor S. Kennedy, National Geographic

Best For: Pretty much anyone. It’s an easy trip in good weather and an ideal family backpack adventure since the “trail” is beach walking in most places and there are numerous tide pools to poke around in and random surprises in the flotsam and jetsam.

Distance: It’s 20 miles from Rialto Beach to the Lake Ozette Ranger Station. From Lake Ozette, you can tack on another 15 miles from the ranger station to Shi Shi Beach. The whole trip can be completed with a shuttle or as a massive out-and-back 70-mile trek.

America’s Manifest Destiny never reached this far north and west on the continent. The Olympic coastline is as it has been for eons—wind-and-wave-hammered, isolated, and strewn with massive logs and giant strands of kelp. All that makes it one of the most unique backpacking adventures in the lower 48: a wilderness beach hike untrammeled by resort homes and boardwalks.

But it’s not a spot for sunbathing and bodysurfing, either. It has been dubbed the “Shipwreck Coast” for good reason. Hiking up from Rialto Beach, you’ll pass the Norwegian Memorial, erected in honor of the 18 young men who perished and were buried here in the 1903 wreck of the Prince Arthur, and the Chilean Memorial, burial site of a dozen others who perished in the 1920 sinking of the WJ Pirrie.

And yet it’s not all doom and gloom. The beachscape, which is part of the 2,408-nautical-square-mile Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, is full of life and always changing: low tides expose tide pools filled with orange and purple stars, urchins, sea anemones, and other intercoastal life. Black bears and Roosevelt elk sometimes range onto the beach. Sea lions and seals bark from the offshore sea stacks. You can spot whales on the horizon. Those massive marine mammals are an essential part of the culture of the Makah, the native people who still live here north of the park and are in legal negotiations to continue to hunt the whales from cedar canoes. Spend a few days here and you’ll feel as if you’ve traveled to a time before the U.S. coastline was tamed.

When to Go: You can expect bad weather any time here (the annual rainfall averages up to a hundred inches), but, in general, August and September are when high pressure systems make for blue skies.

Shortcut: Simply park at one of the trailheads at Rialto, Ozette, or Shi Shi and take as long or short of a walk as you would like on the beach.

Insider Tip: The raccoons are relentless along the coast. Be sure to hang your food at night.