on visiting Shi Shi Beach

This is a small section of the map that’s distributed by the National Park Service for visitors to Olympic National Park, for some reason the NPS maps really appeal to the map-geek in me. I collect them for all the parks we visit- I’ve got a shoe box filled with them! From Mt. Rainier to Crater Lake to Zion… on up to various obscure national monuments. For fun I like hand-drawing maps of the places I’ve visited but I’ve had my hands full with the boys so I decided since my tax dollars funded this one it was okay to share it. Last weekend Adam and I day-hiked Shi Shi Beach to Point of the Arches, a little more than eight miles (roundtrip distance). Shi Shi is a classic backpacking destination in ONP, perhaps it really should be experienced in that way. But I did the math in my head and decided Adam and I could have a satisfying day on the beach if I summoned the energy to carry him on my shoulders for the woods-part of the hike. He and I spent Saturday night in Port Angeles and got up early the next morning for the journey to Neah Bay. Turns out, that would give us plenty of time for walking to magnificent rock-studded Point of the Arches.

The past few years, I’ve been lucky to spend a handful of days on this northern part of the coast that has been mysterious to me for so long. Shi Shi, Point of the Arches, Cape Alava, Sand Point, Rialto Beach to Hole in the Wall. I used to get utterly confused by Olympic coast place names: Finally, I’m starting to form a coherent picture in my mind! There’s still a huge gap on this small part of the coast I haven’t explored, between Sand Point south all the way down to Hole-in-the-Wall. At any rate, as you can see- one end of Shi Shi (pronounced shye-shye…..it means “smelt beach”) comprises the northern border of the Olympic National Park’s coastal unit. And to think back in the day it was 4 miles south from Point of the Arches to the ONP border. Shi Shi continues to have the distinction of being one of the last additions (1976) to the National Park.

The pale brown-green on the map consists of a lot of private timber holdings, these are the lowlands and gentler footings of the spectacular wilderness peaks of the Peninsula’s interior. These comparatively gentler footings were graceful forested mountains rolling down to saltwater before they were clearcut and bulldozed and replanted by huge conglomerate paper companies into the shaggy monoculture you see today. I still find the drive after the turnoff from Highway 101- north to Clallam Bay and Sekiu (via 113/112)- intriguing and not just because of the broken down-looking pumper engine (#51) that’s always parked by the side of the highway in front of the marine repair shop in the middle of nowhere. With a little imagination you can visualize a wilderness ecosystem of mountainous ONP flowing intact down to the coast. Well, it might take more than just a little imagination.

I tried to get Adam to sleep when we left Port Angeles in the dark, but he refused and so I had plenty of company on the frosty drive (an icy Highway 101 and 25 degrees by the Hungry Bear Cafe) that had me a little more white-knuckled than usual. Shortly before sunrise, for our last leg of the road we headed west from sleepy Sekiu en route to Neah Bay, which frankly feels even further away than it looks on the map. We passed Hoko-Ozette Road which leads down to the trailhead for Cape Alava, where Adam and I spent the night on the coast in November for his first backpack. Our campsite had a view of where Ozette Village used to be. Past Hoko-Ozette Road, 112 hugs the rugged coast very tight for at least seven miles to the little town of Neah Bay (it’s a raging understatement to say this is not a good road for people with motion sickness). The rising sun was golden at our backs and the surf in this part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca pounded and exploded on endless coves and crescent beaches. We spotted two bald eagles sitting a few hundred feet offshore on a rocky outcropping. Further across the water, we spied two enormous freighters thin as matchsticks from this distance, they were shadow-like under the dense, heavy bar of fog which hid Vancouver Island from view and floated ominously up the Strait all the way to the Puget Sound lowlands. That was the fog headed to Seattle, in a roundabout sort of way.

Before we found the trailhead a few miles south of town, we stopped at a restaurant in Neah Bay to get our Makah Recreational Use Permit. Although Shi Shi is in ONP, getting there requires using the Makah peoples’ land. The Makah are the great whale hunters of the not-too distant past, a proud coastal people whose history is deeply threaded through the landscape like the beautiful woven baskets found buried in the mud and clay on the coast at Ozette Village (Cape Alava is just down the coast from Shi Shi) during a major archaeological dig in the late 1960s. Ozette Village isn’t ancient history, it was still occupied at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was done in as families gradually left for Neah Bay, where children were forced to attend boarding school and submit to cultural genocide. In spite of getting hoodwinked and scammed out of their way of life as they’d known it, the Makah’s rich coastal heritage and culture is still alive. In the late 1990s after some brouhaha, the Makah people even practiced their right (by treaty) to hunt whales for the first time in decades. The year Adam was born there was another whale hunt, but this time there was a major public outcry (the hunt was not sanctioned and groups such as mainstream environmentalists cried foul) and no other hunts have since taken place.

Neah Bay the town is frayed and worn in places, a lot of little trailers and houses don’t look like they could survive winter without springing a half dozen leaks. Some look like they were struck by meteorites and people went on living in them. Homemade-looking street signs dot the town and outskirts with messages like You’re not a punk, don’t drive drunk. Yet it’s also a tidy very lived-in place with pickup trucks and fishing boats, the town is flat and low next to the water with sparkling sunny day views across the water to the rising blue-green mountains of Vancouver Island. The Makah Tribal Museum and the community center greet the visitor immediately upon arrival. A Makah teenager pedaling his bike down the sidewalk waved to us and I was reminded of the bottom of our permit where it says “The Makah Tribe hopes your visit to the Makah Reservation will be pleasant and rewarding. Enjoy your stay.”

Hopefully in a few days I’ll have some time to post a few pictures from our hike.

3 thoughts on “on visiting Shi Shi Beach

  1. Great story and very accurate description of the road to Neah Bay. The hike to Shi Shi is on my bucket list. Even though I spent every summer in the Sekiu/Clallam Bay area as a kid, I haven’t made it out to Shi Shi. When I was a kid there was talk of a rope you had to hold onto while traversing down the steep trial to get to the beach. I’m assuming the trail has been improved since then. Looking forward to seeing your pictures.

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