Seventy-three miles long but just a few miles wide, the ocean beaches of Olympic National Park in Washington have been — miraculously — left wild. There are no fried fish stands, no motels; no one beckons you to parasail or buy a hot dog. You are not to drive your car along the beach as is done with scandalous complacency just 20 miles or so to the south. To get to most of Olympic's beaches, you must be willing to work, to walk in sturdy shoes for some time, and to climb a bluff or two, perhaps pulling yourself along by the fixed ropes provided for your safety. You must pay attention to the changing tides, as the beach may be for hundreds of feet decidedly walkable when you wake up in the morning, the sand seeming to stretch with flat, mirror-like grace to the far retreating surf, only to, by afternoon, disappear under the swirl and toss of water against the base of a bluff. The beach is there, and then it's not.
Visitors flock to Olympic National Park in ever increasing numbers — visitation grew 10 percent this past year over last – but a trip during off-season is a good way to avoid crowds and experience the beach in its wildest state. The hub and I stayed at Kalaloch Lodge over a three-day weekend in late fall, when the lodge had ample vacancy, and we nearly had the beach to ourselves, especially after sunset.
The Quinault word "kalaloch" means "a good place to land," and that utilitarian mindset still characterizes it. Kalaloch Lodge is no high-end resort; nor is it a gem in the national park lodge tradition. Disabuse yourself of any vision that includes a massage, stone fireplace, 300-thread-count sheets, or complimentary cotton robe. The accommodations are old-school and basic. Not rustic – you'll find showers, alarm clocks, and coffee makers in most rooms. But you won't find a TV, phone, or wi-fi. The furnishings and decor are several decades out of date, and that's not such a bad thing.
Kalaloch isn't at all about the lodge itself — it's about the location. The lodge is part of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the islands, water, and marine life where the Olympic National Park boundary ends. The Quinault people know the beach as a good place to land between where the Hoh and Quinault rivers flow into the sea. It's the ideal place to be, especially during a storm.
Saturday night was calm and clear when we arrived, the Milky Way pinpointing the dark skies above in a dazzling band never seen from the city. A (perhaps too bright) light post allows for easy navigation down the bluff steps to the beach, and so we greeted the coast timidly, searching out the edge of surf with our flashlights, listening to the waves break across Kalaloch Rocks, which were faintly visible on the horizon, emerging out of the sea.
We were wakened in the middle of the night by what felt and sounded like a succession of sonic booms. It was thunder, so loud it rattled the windows of our room.
The next day, we spent as much time as we could exploring the beach until the tide came in. This is a serene place without ship traffic. For hours, we saw nothing on the water — not so much as a motor boat — except for gulls and shorebirds. You look out at water that seems to go on forever, and you feel timelessness. The beach is strewn with whole forests of driftwood, some of the logs arriving from as far away as the Columbia River system. They are licked clean of leaves and branches and worn smooth to the touch.
In retrospect, we should have consulted the tide tables when planning our trip, as it was in for most of the afternoon daylight hours. No matter, however, because a short trip north up U.S. 101 brought us to the Hoh Rainforest. A later-season storm closed the Hoh River Road for a time, but it reopened Feb. 14 (the campground remains closed).
A healthy flow of people lingered around the short loop trails just off the parking lot, but on the ranger's suggestion, we took the Hoh River Trail a few miles in and back and found ourselves alone much of the time.
We spotted fresh elk tracks, though not the elks themselves. In Forks on the drive down, there had been a large herd of them grazing at the tiny airport there, many of us pulling to the side of the road to take pictures. The Roosevelt elk is native to the Olympic Peninsula and is the world's largest population of elk still in its native environment. One of the reasons the national park was founded in 1938 was to provide habitat for them. Another herd crossed the road in front of us as we left Hoh. We also braked for a ruffed grouse.
We were drenched at Hoh, but happily so; what else to expect in a rainforest? The rubber boots I'd brought with the beach tide in mind did perfect double-duty navigating Hoh's spectacular puddles.
Back at the beach, the tide was so far out again, we could stand on one of the Kalaloch Rocks with the luscious surf, tinged pink in the setting sun, streaming around us. A woman and her son padded around barefoot despite the wind chill. "Did you lose your boots?" the hub joked, and the woman smiled. "We like to come down here to feel the sand on our feet," she said. An annual visitor to Kalaloch since she was a girl, the woman said she'd never heard booming thunder like we had the night before. They moved on, but we lingered past sunset, long enough to hear salmon jumping in the creek.
On Monday we woke to a power outage, but the in-room heater had kept things so toasty, we missed only the lights. Check-out was a bit of a hassle, however, as staff scrambled to access computer reservations with the help of generator power. But lingering is no problem at all when the awesome surf is putting on a show of its own, tossing giant logs like so many pick-up sticks. The winds that night had reached as high as 123 mph. A downed tree partially blocked U.S. 101; we drove back seeing the aftershocks of wind and rain the whole way to Seattle. Even without the drama of the storm, the drive itself is part of the experience as you wind around stunning Lake Crescent. We saw a rainbow hovering above the surface.
A stop for lunch in the rain shadow
It was already dark by the time we made it to Kalaloch the first night, partly because we couldn't resist stopping at Café Provence (formerly Petals Cafe) in Sequim, Wash. Situated on the grounds of Cedarbrook Herb Farm, this greenhouse-turned-cafe is the perfect place to get your sunshine fix during rainy season. Sequim is in the Olympic rain shadow, the change in climate marked by a shift away from the verdant green of the forests of Kitsap County.
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