OUR FIRST VISITS TO POINT OF ARCHES: Looking Back to the Winter of 1991
There are places where experiences are so profound that they draw you back time after time. Olympic National Park’s Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches is such a place for me. The words in this story are from our 1991 field notes of our first visits to this transcendent place, illustrated with new and old photographs presented in a nostalgic style.
January 18-21, 1991
With a weather report of sunny weather for Western Washington through the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we made a quick decision on Thursday to leave Friday for a three-day backpacking trip along the coast at Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches. Little did we know it would be the most spectacular weekend trip of our lives.
We drove to Kalaloch on the Washington coast Friday night and camped in the Olympic National Park campground along the shore. Clear skies, with intense starlight, were followed by a heavy frost the next morning.
Arising early, we drove to Neah Bay and the Makah Indian Reservation. The road between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay hugs the twists and turns of the coast. Along this stretch of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we observed four immature Bald Eagles perched in the trees between the road and the water. Additionally, a male and female Harlequin Duck perched together on a small emergent rock. We also observed loons and scoters offshore, as well as Double-Crested Cormorants.
Neah Bay, the heart of the Makah Reservation, is like a small town on the Newfoundland coast, with scattered houses strung along the shore, a small fishing fleet, and no pretense of being a tourist town. These Indians had a centuries-old tradition of whaling from open canoes.
We followed a convoluted route to the trailhead, through town and along some potholed roads. Along Waatch Creek, we came upon wintering Trumpeter Swans. The brilliant white swans made a wonderful sight as they swam across the peaceful river surface, which reflected the pale blue of the winter sky. Their resonant trumpeting provided a sound track for the experience.
The two-mile hike to Shi Shi Beach was a muddy challenge [much improved in recent years], but the sounds of the roaring surf urged us on.
At our first ocean overlook, we watched waves crashing through the offshore sea stacks. As we started eating lunch, we noticed two mature Bald Eagles majestically perched together atop a high sea stack. Looking through binoculars at the ocean’s expanse, while enjoying a trail lunch of summer sausage and Wheat Thins, I spotted the spouts of three Gray Whales offshore; these were unmistakable columns of mist going straight up from the ocean.
As we shared a chocolate bar, Karen noticed that a “log” rocking on the waves was, in reality, a Sea Otter. Floating on its back, it was holding a Sea Urchin up to its mouth with its front paws. The back paws were stuck up in the air. The otter floated like a cork over crests and troughs of the waves–except when a giant wave toppled toward it–then it would plunge into the wave and emerge on the other side.
Hoisting our packs, we continued down the trail and in a few minutes descended to the beach. We were surprised to see a young man running along the beach and through the surf in shorts, sans top, and barefoot; his girlfriend sat in the sand and watched and shivered at the thought of it.
We decided to set up camp near the Olympic National Park boundary, at a place where a Raccoon-proof cable was strung between two trees [currently ALL overnight visitors are required to bring bear-proof canisters].
Then we hiked north along the beach we had examined from above. From the shells on the shore, it was evident that there were extensive California Mussel beds offshore. We also saw a few Razor Clam and Butter Clam shells; opened and empty, but (like the mussels) the hinges still held the two shell halves together and flexible. A Common Loon dove just offshore, as did a Surf Scoter; we saw the Sea Otter’s head poke up a few times as well. An occasional Bald Eagle sailed overhead.
Karen went around the next small point to the north and saw parts of an old shipwreck. Two large rusted hulks were on the beach, one large section out near a sea stack with a “gun turret” point projecting, and other pieces of metal scattered through the bay. Karen continued north to the beginnings of a cave being formed, and then further to a deeper cave which was still inaccessible because the tide was not low enough. The sun was setting though, so it was time to head back to camp.
When we returned to camp, we discovered that a Raccoon had unzipped Karen’s pack and investigated all its contents. We knew immediately that the culprit had been a Raccoon (and not a person), since Karen’s driver’s license and credit cards lay prominently on top of the pile spread across the ground–the Raccoon apparently didn’t have much use for Master Card. It had chewed up part of a roll of toilet paper, but otherwise no damage was done, since the food was strung safely up on the wire.
We crawled into our sleeping bags at 8:30 pm, and fell asleep shortly after. At midnight, we awoke to the sound of packs being rifled. Lee checked with a flashlight and caught the eye shine of two Raccoons. He crawled and chased them off. Undaunted, they returned a few minutes later, so Lee crawled out again and escalated the conflict by tossing sticks and stones at the creatures. This worked for a time, but they were back again a couple of hours later. This time Lee was running around barefoot in his underwear yelling and throwing stones at the guerrillas.
Lee awoke to the screeching and snarling sounds of a Raccoon squabble a little while later, but soon the action quieted down and the rest of the night was peaceful.
Waking up groggy and grumpy the next morning, Lee had a hard time getting started–as might be expected. After hot instant coffee and cold granola with powdered milk, we started down the beach in the cold gray of dawn. Again, there was frost whitening all the drift logs and grasses on the beach. The sand above the high tide line was frozen.
Shortly we came upon a dead seal washed up during the night’s high tide. The 5-foot long seal appeared freshly dead; one eye had been pecked out by crows or gulls.
Far down the beach we spotted a live Harbor Seal wiggling its way from the high tide line toward the sea. Obviously uncomfortable on land, it moved vigorously with ripples of fat rolling like ocean waves down its body. It would rest briefly, then struggle on. It finally reached the water and prayed for a big wave to carry it off–one of which arrived several waves later. We examined the tracks, which showed the lines where flippers made their marks, perhaps 2 feet apart. One flipper consistently dug in deeper than the other–perhaps indicating an injury that would have made movement more difficult.
The beach was relatively free of human detritus, though there were the usual fishing net floats, lengths of bright polypropylene rope, and tattered net fragments. At the highest wave line, there was a sprinkling of tiny bits of brightly colored plastic–which looked like plastic confetti. This was the first time we’ve seen such plastic bits. The larger pieces break into small pieces from the incessant pounding of the Pacific.
Never still (even on perfectly calm days under an intense high pressure zone like these days) the Pacific shore here always has the hearty roar of the surf as kind of a white noise in the background. Lee remembered talking with Dad on the phone, when he mentioned being at Kalaloch during the 1970s, and turning the car so its headlights struck the ocean, and being astounded and (if I may read something into this midwesterner’s memories) a bit intimidated by the churning, pounding, roaring surf that never ends. His memories of the violent Pacific were vivid, having stood watch in a crow’s nest atop a WWII destroyer during a big storm at sea.
As we stood among the sea stacks, on rocks exposed by low tide, we were awed by the pulsing power of the surf as it crashed into the monoliths and surged into the bays. The rocks absorbed the power and broke up the waves, thank goodness. Note that the big waves came in surges of a half dozen or more high peaks, followed by a period of relative calm. Reading Ricketts and Calvin’s Between Pacific Tides, the authors say that being within 20 vertical feet of the ocean is actually risking one’s life; clearly we need to be prepared for these big wave surges.
As we sat down for lunch, Lee saw a falcon hunched on the beach just above the wave line. It remained for a minute or so, then took off with powerful wing beats and flew past us along the beach. It was a Peregrine Falcon, the Pacific Northwest dark phase of the bird.
We spent the late afternoon on the exposed rocks, watching the scene and photographing the sunset colors playing among the sea stacks.
We waited until dark to start back toward camp, and enjoyed an enchanting 1-1/2 mile walk along the beach by the bright light of a winter moon. The dance of moonlight on waves, the sound of surf, the call of a distant foghorn, the rhythmic ray of the Tatoosh Island lighthouse, and the Milky Way and stars shining intensely overhead all made for a memorable night walk on the hard-packed sand at low tide.
Another dread night of the living Raccoons lay ahead. This time they attacked even before we got in the tent; but Lee savagely counter attacked with driftwood missiles. After a couple of half hearted sorties around the tent, the Raccoons retreated, granting us peace the rest of the night.
Morning dawned with a light mist over land and sea, and we headed down the beach again.
When we got to Point of Arches, we scrambled out on the exposed rocks. Karen discovered that there were indeed a great many starfish, despite the initial feeling that few were there. A few bright orange individuals stood out from their hiding places because of their brilliant color, but most of the sea stars were camouflaged by their subtle red-purple coloration, which perfectly matched the shade of the red algae covering their hiding place. Scores of them were tucked under ledges in shallow pools.
Another sea star was astounding! With 22 legs and an 18″ legspan, the reddish-purple Sunflower Star moved rapidly (for a sea star) over the rocks as it hunted. It had an orange central (or almost central) spot on the top side of the body.
Karen also noted the abundance of Hermit Crabs: when we walked up to a tidepool it would be alive with movement for a moment, but then everything would freeze and the pool would appear lifeless. In reality, nearly all the shells were inhabited. Karen saw two hermit crabs fighting over a rock overhang. Neither were inside shells, but one of them had two small shells on its smaller claws–like boxing gloves–and it really looked funny.
Two Black Oystercatchers perched on a nearby rock, one facing one way, one the other. They often stayed on rocks that the incoming tide surged over, perhaps finding these conditions ideal for feeding.
We then wandered south along the beach while the tide was still low, exploring sea caves and arches along the way. A mature Bald Eagle patrolled the beach overhead. On the next point there were vast, flat exposed tidal areas.
The highlight here was seeing two male Harlequin Ducks in exquisite low-angle sunlight. They were perched on a rock in the middle of a tide pool, both facing the same direction. Lee grabbed some quick pictures, but scared them into the ocean, where they were joined by another male and two females. These birds float over the crashing surf with ease, ducking under a cresting wave when need be.
We decided that there are up to three hours on each side of the low tide mark when it is safe to round the Point of Arches. Next time we want to spend more time exploring the next point south, which has many arches; we walked through one.
There were Deer and Raccoon tacks on the sand, and people occasionally see Black Bears and Cougars on the beach. There were a few exuberant people sharing the beach these couple of days, and I think everyone felt that it was a special time to explore this most wild and glorious of places.
We found a size 3-1/2 women’s Nike tennis shoe with Gooseneck Barnacles inside. Further down the beach, Karen found the mate to the shoe, also with barnacles inside. There was ship that lost a container of Nike shoes off the coast, and they show up occasionally.
The trail guidebook says the total round trip to Point of Arches and back is 7 miles. There were quite a few campsites along Shi Shi Beach, even fairly close to Point of Arches, and water was plentiful. At a dry time of year there would always still be water available at a stream 2/3 of the way toward Point of Arches. Even though it was sunny, it was relatively cold. Saturday Karen wore jeans, but Sunday and Monday it was wool pants, long underwear, and wearing almost all of the layers we brought. In the shade the heavy frost never melted on Sunday and Monday. With our winter-weight sleeping bags we stayed cozy and warm at night.
Lee ran out of film on this trip; he said it will never happen again.
We hiked back to the car, feeling ecstatic about the wildlife and wondrous landscape we had experienced.
February 15-18, 1991
We camped at Kalaloch campground on Friday night, then left at about 8am and headed for Neah Bay. We saw 20 Bald Eagles on the winding road between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay. A River Otter was sprawled atop a low rock on its stomach, eating a sea urchin or sea star. On a tall rock just 5 feet away, an immature eagle was glaring down at the otter. When the otter finished eating it slid into the water and disappeared.
On a rock surrounded by waves we observed Surfbirds for the first time, with Black Turnstones among them. There were lots of cormorants, with their wings spread to dry them; there were also a male and a female Harlequin Duck swimming at the edge of the water.
We watched a raft of about 200 Bufflehead, mixed males and females, just offshore. The raft moved here and there randomly. Individuals within the group would dive and then “pop” up, but there were no group dives. Also in the surf we observed Common Loons, and White-winged and Surf Scoters.
Along the trail to Shi Shi Beach we took a side trail down to a sandy cove located just beyond the first projecting headland. We observed ten Black Oystercatchers together on one rock, with cormorants drying their wings on the top of the rock and oystercatchers below. It was a beautiful small beach, very secluded. A couple of campsites, but on the Makah Reservation. From the beach we spotted our first group of Sea Otters, rafted together. From that vantage point there appeared to be 6 or 7 Sea Otters [Note that this route has since been closed to hikers, and there is now no trespassing allowed].
We took the next side trail, which led to an old concrete military bunker overlooking the ocean towards the south. From high above the secluded cove we had just visited, we watched nine Sea Otters below us. Five of them were rafted together, floating on their backs, with their back feet sticking straight up. Two of them were diving, going after Sea Urchins in the kelp beds. We watched one come up with an urchin, eating it while using its stomach as a dinner plate. The urchin was purplish-red in color, with numerous delicate spines; when it was broken open, the interior was brilliant orange. A Western Gull watched the Sea Otter eat the urchin, hoping for scraps.
The Sea Otters were extremely sociable, with one gray-faced adult swimming around, coming up beneath the others and touching them; a behavior that we also noted with one darker individual. When they were rafted together they were often touching. We watched a mother with its baby, which was probably one-third the length of the mother. The baby often floated beside the mother, in the area next to the mother’s head. A couple of times the young otter climbed on top of the mother’s stomach and rested there for some time.
We saw a seal off of Shi Shi Beach. After hiking 2/3 of the length of the beach, almost to the stream that flows into the ocean, we set up camp in a nice exposed location overlooking the whole beach. The next morning we awoke at 5:30am. Hit the snooze alarm three times, had granola and coffee, then set off down the beach just before sunrise. It rained off and on lightly all day. There were lots of people, including a Boy Scout troop from Tacoma, whose leader said they usually take the boys to the mountains, but can’t at this time of year. Although last month they had snow camped.
As Lee photographed a couple in bright red jackets sitting on a rock in front of the sea stacks, we talked to them briefly. They seemed so sad; this was their last trip to Point of Arches before moving to Iowa the next week for a job opportunity.
We observed River Otter tracks on the beach; one time the otter tracks appeared on a beach that we had walked a few hours before; they hadn’t been there earlier. We saw two Raccoons running around the point ahead of us, then later saw another running along the base of a sea stack toward the ocean. We observed an eagle on the beach eating a fish or other prey. Half a dozen crows gathered around and two other eagles sailed overhead, while the eagle tried to eat its meal in peace. One crow even went so far as to try to sneak up from behind and snatch the prey from between the eagle’s legs. That was the last straw, and the eagle flew up to a tree with its meal clutched in its talons. We watched it tearing off pieces flesh and eating them.
We also watched as a male Peregrine Falcon zoomed up and down the beach, then landed in a tree perhaps 150 feet away from us and 60 feet above the ground. This is the same area along the beach where Lee observed a Peregrine Falcon in January. It was the best view we had ever had of this falcon; we could see the barring across its chest and its distinctive head patterns.
We watched a raft of 4 or 5 Sea Otters in the bay just south of Point of Arches. These were in rougher water than those we had observed on Saturday.
That night we had a sliver of moon overhead, and could see the Big Dipper, North Star, lights of crab boats working far offshore, campfires down the beach, and the light from the Tatoosh Island Lighthouse.
We awoke early again the next morning and headed down the beach. The day was gray, with leaden clouds and a more persistent rain than we had had the day before; but we still enjoyed periods without rain. We hiked to Point of Arches and arrived at low tide; it was a lower tide than we had seen before at Point of Arches.
Then we decided to hike on to the second point, arriving as the tide was coming in. We knew we didn’t have much time, but were fascinated by all of the arches we found; many of them multiple, complicated arches. At the furthest point we scared up a large group of Black Turnstones. They have a beautiful, bold, black and white pattern when they fly, but when they land their camouflage allows them to blend into the rock. We saw hundreds of Ochre Sea Stars (which are actually in vivid shades of orange, ochre, and purple) clinging to the rocks as the waves crashed.
Yes, the waves were crashing and we knew we couldn’t stay long, though it was an exciting spot. We saw a few groups of barnacles and then Lee discovered a Blood Star, small and bright red. Karen convinced him to photograph it, even though it was so dark and he had trouble focusing.
When we packed up to head back we discovered that we had dallied too long, the tide had risen and cut off our return to the beach. It seemed that the tide was rising very fast, so we waded through a thigh-deep channel; getting our boots full of water and our pant legs wet. Walking on the kelp-covered (i.e. slippery) rocks is a challenge with heavy packs, demanding a good sense of balance and careful attention to the placement of each foot.
We continued to be fascinated by the tide pools, which seem alive with hermit crabs scurrying around everywhere in all sizes and shapes of shells. Where are shells with their owners to be found? There are all sorts of kelp too, as well as anemones, mussels, and barnacles.
We hiked back, stopping for lunch at the campsite closest to Point of Arches. This campsite had a large (6′ long) wood sculpture (totem) of a bear or beaver [and is no longer there after the ensuing decades]. Under the trees we were protected from the rain and ate brownies that Lee had baked.
Back at camp we changed into dry socks and Karen put dry pants on; making the hike out a little more comfortable. The hike out was in a steady rain and the route back to the car was long and muddy. Lee discovered that singing helped to shorten the distance and lighten his mood. We were glad to reach the car, though.
We are so thankful for this seaside wilderness!
If you wish to hike to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in 2018 or beyond, you will need to check out the current regulations and permits needed. Here are some links to get you started with obtaining the necessary permits:
Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Camping Permit. You can get this permit and a mandatory bear canister at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center at Port Angeles. The cost is $8 per person for overnight wilderness camping as of 2018.
Makah Nation’s Recreation Permit. As of 2018 this was a $10 per year hangtag for your car.
Parking Permit Bring cash of $10 per day as of June 2018; this link also has great detailed information about the hike.
In addition, you really need to know how to read tide tables, both for safety and to get the most out of a coastal hike. Go to tides.net as a place to start, using the nearby Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery tide charts. We prefer to explore tide pools when the tides are minus tides, such as -2.3 ft. or thereabouts. Read up on tides.
This is one of the premier nature hikes in North America: GO!