At the furthest northwesternmost point of the continental U.S., the wild, stormy coastline meets the deep, mysterious rainforest. This far-flung, untamed place is the land of the Makah, a Northwest Coastal people who have called the remote headland home for thousands of years.
We first visited Neah Bay and the Makah Reservation a couple of years ago, despite the advice we received from someone who told us, “There’s nothing there worth seeing.” Au contraire. This is exactly the kind of place that captures our interest, and we returned in mid-June for an adventure we missed the first time around.
Hiking to Cape Flattery
Just like last time, we hiked the trail to Cape Flattery, which is as far as you can go and still be in the continental U.S. This is sacred tribal land, and the Makah have declared Cape Flattery a nature sanctuary. A three-quarter mile rugged trail winds through the dense rainforest. At the end of the trail, cedar platforms resembling the prow of a canoe jut above the churning ocean, dramatic headlands, and hidden sea caves.
Hanging over the railing, we scanned the ocean for whales and puffins. No whales or puffins, but a family of sea otters appeared, rolling and playing in the waves, mama holding baby close.
Standing on the tip of Cape Flattery, we could see tiny Tatoosh Island in the distance. Once a fishing camp for the Makah, a lighthouse here has pointed mariners to the entrance of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca since 1857.
Visiting the Museum of the Makah
We also paid a return visit to the Museum of the Makah Indian Nation, one of the most intriguing museums we’ve encountered anywhere in our travels. The artifacts within were discovered in 1970 at Ozette, a Makah village 15 miles south of Neah Bay.
During a storm in 1750, a catastrophic mudslide buried the village in 10 feet of clay, creating an oxygen-free environment that perfectly preserved five longhouses and objects of everyday life. For more than a decade, archaeologists and tribal members worked together to unearth more than 55,000 artifacts. It’s considered to be one of the most significant archaeological finds in North America.
Despite living in a challenging environment, buffeted by wild storms and drenched in 100 inches of rain each year, the Makah shaped a life of rich traditions, comfort, and beauty, creating what they needed from the abundance of the rainforest and ocean surrounding them. The museum is arranged according to the seasonal life of the Makah; thousands of artifacts in pristine condition are engagingly displayed. There’s a replica of a full-size longhouse and four beautiful cedar dugout canoes built by tribal members, and an excellent hour-long film on the Makah and the Ozette site.
Blankets woven of woodpecker feathers, dog hair, and cattail fluff; clothing woven of cedar bark (the inner bark was pounded until soft and pliable); baskets and boxes of red cedar; intricately carved and decorated tools and ceremonial items made of bone, shell, and wood; all survived centuries of burial in mud. It’s a remarkable and beautiful display of a unique culture. I wanted so much to take photos, but the tribe asks that we refrain, and we did.
Hiking to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches
“Generations of Makah people have used this area. If you are patient and respectful, its enduring beauty will enrich and teach you too.”
So reads a sign posted at the trail head to Shi Shi Beach (pronounced Shy-Shy). Located 8.5 miles south of Neah Bay, this remote beach bordering the Makah reservation became part of Olympic National Park in 1976. A two-mile hike through the rainforest (the first mile has partial boardwalk, built by the Makah) leads to the beach.
We hiked this trail two years ago, but only to Shi Shi Beach. We returned this time to hike all the way to Point of Arches, for a total of 8 miles round-trip.
Never in all of our years of hiking have we encountered so much mud. The last time we hiked the trail to Shi Shi Beach it was muddy, but nothing like this. This was an epic mud bath, ankle deep in many places. We bushwhacked, made little bridges of logs, climbed trees, attempted great leaps. There was no way around the mud and the mud puddles. Why did we continue, you ask? Well, the worst of the mud didn’t start until about a mile in, and we kept thinking, “Surely this will improve!” It didn’t.
Finally, after more than an hour of slogging, we reached the bluffs and caught our first glimpse of the beach below. A series of ropes help in navigating the 150-foot drop down to the beach. There, we stepped into the otherworldly landscape of rock spires, sea stacks, caves, and arches that decorate Shi Shi Beach.
We didn’t linger long, because our destination—Point of Arches—was another two miles down the beach. The hike was gorgeous, with exposed rock formations and tide pools all along the way, and views of Point of Arches coming closer as we walked.
The ideal time to visit Point of Arches is at low tide, when the numerous tidepools are exposed. It’s a beautiful, peaceful hike, and the reward is a picturesque seascape of dozens of sea stacks, spires, arches, and caves, with tidepools surrounding it all. Ideally, we would have stayed overnight on the beach, which is what most people seem to do after making the effort to get here. The sunsets are reputed to be spectacular.
(Note that before you hike on this or any trail or beach on the Makah Reservation, you must obtain a $10 annual recreation permit, available in Neah Bay or at Hobuck RV Park.)
About the campground:
Just like last time, we stayed at Hobuck Beach RV Park and Campground. Last time, we stayed in the RV Park, which offers 10 full-hook up RV sites ($40 per night) with a fabulous view of the Pacific and easy access to the beach. This time, we opted for the big open field. It’s a free-for-all. You pay your $20 and stake out your spot anywhere that looks good to you.
We arrived on a Thursday and found a choice location. By Saturday, we were surrounded by tents, VW campers, boats, and surfers. This is apparently a prime fishing and surfing locale. Everyone was well behaved, and we enjoyed our stay. We had speedy Verizon coverage, a place to fill our water tanks, and amazingly, there was a free, almost new shower house with unlimited hot water.
Next Up: A Delightful Week At Salt Creek