Washington has over 2,400 miles of marine coastline, but only the open Pacific coast beaches are discussed and rated in this book. The southern Washington coast is characterized by broad sandy beaches, dunes, and prolific wetlands. It is amazing to find a 28-mile continuous sandy beach, known as Long Beach, in what is otherwise rugged terrain and bold headlands. Further north on the outer Olympic Peninsula, the beaches are narrow and often rocky, backed by high forested bluffs. The Olympic Peninsula is one of North America's scenic gems, and people looking to commune with nature search out this desolate area.
The marine influence keeps the winters mild and summers moderately cool along the Washington coast. Sunny weather is most likely during July and August. The coast is an outdoor wonderland; activities include sightseeing, clamming, beachcombing, kite flying, fishing, whale watch-ing, hiking, and camping. No Washington oceanic beach is safe for swimming. No matter how inviting the water looks, no one should venture out beyond ankle-deep water. Strong rip currents have pulled even the most experienced swimmers out past their limit. The water is so cold - it can quickly cause hypothermia. Finally, there is the ever-present problem of logs and other wooden debris that can seriously injure or even kill you when propelled by breaking waves.
The Columbia River serves as the southern boundary for the state of Washington. The area, where the broad mouth of the mighty Columbia flows into the Pacific Ocean, is treacherous for ships. Waves as high as 20 to 30-feet break dramatically on the Columbia River bar; the clash between the incoming waves and the river is especially exciting and dangerous when the tide is ebbing or outflowing. Almost 2,000 vessels of all types have been stranded, sunk outright or simply disappeared over the past 300 years in these swirling and confused waters. The U.S. Coast Guard at Cape Disappointment operates the Motor Lifeboat School here in the area nicknamed the "Graveyard of the Pacific." Men and women are taught the art of handling a boat in extremely rough seas by traversing the Columbia River bar. Even these powerful Coast Guard cutters can be overturned by the huge plunging breakers, but the boats are weighted so that they can make a complete 360-degree roll and still upright themselves. This is a dangerous classroom for the students, who must be roped into their positions for safety. I enjoyed watching these surf drills from the land - I am glad that beaches are my passion.
Long Beach is the largest and longest sandy beach in the Northwest. The spectrum of activities runs the gamut on the 28-mile Long Beach peninsula, with some areas almost having a carnival-type atmosphere. There is an assortment of communities and even a natural area (Leadbetter Point State Park) at the spit tip. Activities on the peninsula beaches include a number of festivals and special events, including beach runs on the hard-packed sand, kite flying competitions, fishing derbies, and sandcastle-building contests. There is a fabulous fireworks display on the Fourth of July each year. The strong onshore winds and wide sandy beach make it an ideal area for kite flying, and Long Beach has the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame. Here you will find the best collection of interesting and colorful Japanese kites in this country.
Long Beach is a great place to take a walk, but driving a car is legal on large sections of the beach. For the past two decades the "Battle of the Beach" has been fought between off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts and environmentalists. Now there are location and seasonal restrictions on driving so that the beach can be used by nature lovers without this mechanized intrusion. Leadbetter Point State Park at the northern tip of the Peninsula is a great place to walk and experience nature. Over 100 species of birds live in this diverse environment, but the park is closed during the nesting season of the snowy plovers. For those looking for amenities during their stroll, try the Long Beach Boardwalk. This 2,300-foot wooden structure was built on the landward side of the primary dune, but it provides great views of the ocean without having to struggle with walking in the sand. I personally like to take my shoes off and feel nature, but some people insist on wearing shoes that were never made for sand.
One of the most popular activities on Washington beaches is digging for clams. There are six species of edible clams that inhabit the lower (intertidal) portion of the beach face. The best time for clamming is low tide. Different types of clams can be collected from different intertidal ranges; usually the larger the clam species, the lower it is found on the beach. Geoducks are the world's largest beach clams, and these chunky bivalves have recently become the basis of a significant commercial industry. These huge clams can weight up to 20 pounds; obviously you don't eat them on the half shell.
The Washington coast is storm-battered, and most beaches to the north are little more than small pockets of pebbles and cobbles. Near the larger river systems, sandy beaches can be found for those willing to take a hike. The best wilderness beaches in the contiguous United States are found on the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Because most of these beaches are only accessible by foot, they have become increasingly important for wilderness beach hiking. Three of the most popular areas include Rialto Beach, Ozette Beach, and Shi Shi Beach, all in Clallam County. Access to the last two wilderness beaches involves crossing Indian reservation land that is not always open to the public.
Rialto Beach near La Push provides a great outdoor experience in beach hiking. This sand and gravel beach collects lots of driftwood and huge logs, which can be used to make a fire. The "Hole-in-Wall" rock formation is found three miles up the beach. During your walk, you will encounter myriad types of wildlife. Hawks, eagles, and falcons soar overhead, feeding on the smaller birds and fish. Marine mammals that are commonly seen include harbor seals, elephant seals, and sea lions. Mammals that live along the shore include beavers, raccoons, river otters, and mink; deer and elk inhabit the meadows and forests inland of the shore. You might even encounter a black bear, but they are seldom a problem unless fed. Every step is an adventure in this wilderness area, so remember to come well prepared with food, water, and additional clothing in case of inclement weather.
Some of the most interesting coastal areas with the best weather are found on the eastern side of the Olympic Mountains, which is sheltered from the weather systems moving in from the Pacific Ocean. Killer whales and dolphins are residents in Puget Sound and are often seen around the San Juan Islands. Volcano watching is also the thing to do ever since Mount St. Helens blew its top. This area is well worth the trip for those traveling to this great Northwest coast.