An Olympic Coast Getaway
I ran along the gentle singletrack trail. Some sections were long stretches of boardwalk. I cruised along easily, Lisa and her husband Jason were behind me. I could hear the ocean as we got closer. The forest was thick with underbrush and packed with trees, a temperate rainforest along the upper Washington Coast, in the Olympic National Park. Salal, sword ferns, evergreen huckleberries, small hemlocks and other vegetation grew thick alongside the trail. There was a light drizzle. The air was pungent with the smells of the ocean and its shore. The temperature was just about perfect for running in short sleeves and tights. The breeze off the sea was not too cold, as we approached it now, about mid-day.
I had gotten off work about 3:30 on Friday afternoon and headed straight for the Coupeville ferry that crosses over to Pt. Townsend. From there, it would take about 3 ½ hours to reach Ozette Lake, the 3rd largest natural lake in Washington. This is where Lisa and I would begin our Coastal Adventure. We had initially planned on running the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge Coastal Route, designed by Heather “Anish” Anderson for the 2014 UPWC. As we both researched the route, it became clear that November was not a good time to try it, especially since the Super Moon was creating extra high tides and Stormageddon in October had washed out roads throughout the park. Long stretches of muddy trail, high water levels for river and creek crossings, and the times for low tide (4:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.) also made for dicey planning. We decided to meet at Lake Ozette instead, and approach the coast from there. There are two trails that lead to the ocean from Lake Ozette, each of them three miles in length. At low tide, a triangle loop of nine miles can be formed by running to the ocean via either the Cape Alava Trail or the trail to Sandy Point, and then connecting the two of them by running three miles along the beach.
I arrived at Lake Ozette at nearly 11:00 p.m. It was pouring down rain as I pulled up to the campground and parked in the camping space behind Lisa and Jason in their Palomino camper. I would make a spot to sleep in the back of my Suzuki in order to stay warm and dry from the rain. But first, Lisa and I took her dog Lucy on a long midnight walk under umbrellas along the lonely road that runs beside Lake Ozette. It felt so good after a long drive to get out in the rain for a nice walk. The air smelled so fresh. At times, wind gusts came up so strongly that we had to put away the umbrellas. We made our plans for the next day as we hiked along, excited about spending a long day on the trails together.
I slept soundly, then awoke and shared coffee with Lisa and Jason. He would join us for the first part of our run and then spend the rest of the time with Lucy at their camper. Lucy was not allowed on the trails since it was a national park. We decided to first run down to the ocean on the Sandy Point Trail. Lisa and I generally run and ski in the mountains together. This would be our first adventure at the ocean. Lisa and Jason live in the Okanogan Highlands of north central Washington and were spending a two week vacation on the Olympic Peninsula. During the summer, we had planned on running the Coastal Route while they were in this neck of the woods on their vacation. Now, together in the enchanting rainforest, our earlier plans were coming to fruition.
The trail was relaxingly gentle. I had anticipated the boardwalk stretches to be slippery and the going slow, and at first it was. But as I ran peacefully along the smooth singletrack, I transitioned onto the boardwalk stretches with the same gait, using just a bit more caution. It was a lot of fun and the miles cruised by easily. Running at sea level has its advantages. It is much easier to keep a gentle breathing pattern compared to running trails in the higher elevations of the mountainous terrain. I was definitely enjoying this coastal run.
We snacked on evergreen huckleberries that were loaded on bushes alongside the trail and boardwalk. They were delicious and their flavored had a hint of ocean flavoring, almost like seaweed. I had never had this wild berry and it was fun to discover another one of nature’s gifts. I imagined the Makah Indians gathering these berries, one of the mainstays of their diet.
And now, on that singletrack approach to the coast, I felt a tinge of excitement as the sounds of the waves grew louder and the smells of the ocean grew stronger. Before I knew it, I could see sea stacks looming out of the ocean waters. The forested camp that sits just off the shore was a place we could stand for shelter from the wind while Jason, Lisa and I each took in the view. I was brought to tears by what I was seeing and feeling from the power of the ocean. A bright red buoy hung from a broken branch of a fir tree. The wet drizzle shimmered off the bright green, tall sentinels of the shoreline, the coastline heavily forested and rugged. I loved being here, in this moment and I was so thankful that I had all day and into the night to explore as much of this area as I could.
The piled up driftwood had hidden treasures, both natural and man-made. The tide was in and so we would have to wait to run the shoreline. We decided to do a short out and back section that would take us to another spot down the coast and then return to Lake Ozette while the tide receded. We would take the Cape Alava trail to get back to the ocean after eating some Thai Peanut Rice Soup I had made to share, back at our camp at the lake. Jason would stay behind with Lucy while Lisa and I continued our run. The Super Moon would be shining on us past dark and would help light our way.
Lisa and I set out again, this time taking the fork in the trail that led to Cape Alava, north of where we had hit the shore on our earlier outing. The Pacific Northwest Trail ends at Cape Alava. There are nice campsites set back in the forest slightly, all along the shore. During the warm summer months, these campsites are very popular. But now, in mid-November, there was almost no one else around. As Lisa and I made our way along the boardwalk trail out to the coast for the second time that day, we saw a couple of parties of backpackers hiking back to their cars. It was quiet and serene, once we got to the beach.
The tide was out and we were able to hike and run along the shore. It was getting later in the day and the sun would soon start to set. We had to watch for the sign hanging from a tree that would indicate the spot where we took the trail back to Lake Ozette from Sandy Point. It was about three miles from Cape Alava. The scenery was spectacular in every direction. I enjoyed beachcombing, and picked up some pretty sea glass, shells and agates. The receding tide left tidal pools with all kinds of sea life in its wake. I wandered through the huge sea stack formations known as Wedding Rock, and saw the ancient Native American petroglyphs known to be there. As the sun set, Lisa and I took a break on a piece of driftwood. We wanted to savor the moment, looking out to the west where the sun dropped below the horizon, and where the ocean sprawled as far as the eye could see.
We got to the sign indicating the overland route that begins at Sandy Point. We got on the trail here and headed for a primitive four mile out and back trail to a remote spot on Ozette Lake. Once we got to that trail, we could see how primitive and unmaintained it actually was. Lisa and I headed up it for a short distance, realizing that our almost magical time on the beach was much preferred. We turned around and headed back to the coast. We continued south along the shoreline, knowing that the tide would come back in at 10:30 p.m. We would have to watch our time and the incoming tide, and get turned around in time. We needed to be back to that overland trail to Ozette Lake before the high tide was upon us, with it’s dangerous rolling logs and incoming waves.
Paying attention to tides, the boardwalk trails, the evergreen huckleberries and mystical rainforest; there was so much uniqueness to this run. I highly recommend a trip to these coastal trails and time spent on the coastal route itself to all hikers and trail runners. Remaining flexible and being okay with some night time hours on the trail will help make a long day of it possible.
Lisa and I made it back to the trail with time to spare. I did not feel spent like I did after long days on mountain trails. I didn’t even want it to end, although I was ready for some more of that soup and Lisa’s apple bread. It felt almost as if I were floating along as I ran back through the rainforest. I trusted my footing on the boardwalk stretches. I breathed in the fresh, drizzly air. Lisa was behind me as we ran easily along the twisting and turning trail. We pieced together twenty miles of sweet trails and coastline. It had been a blast.
Back at our camp, we set up chairs outside and ate our hot soup in the misty rain. The temperature was perfect for sitting outside in the dark, feeling good after a long day of fun exploring. The camp was quiet, most folks tucked away in their tents or camper vans for the night. The moss draping from the birch trees along the lake’s shore created a mystical back drop to our camp meal scene. Lisa fixed us hot tea to sip on while the moon gave us all the light we needed.