We briefly considered his negative review and went anyway. We had wanted to visit Neah Bay and nearby Cape Flattery for years, but the remote location had never fit into our travel plans, until now. Leaving Salt Creek Recreation Area, we drove fifty-seven slow miles on a two-lane winding road along the shores of Clallam Bay. Not quite two hours later, we cruised into the town of Neah Bay, in the far northwestern corner of Washington.
A Rustic Little Town
On our way to the RV park, we passed by a working fishing harbor, carved totems, and trailer homes in various stages of disrepair. If you’re looking for a resort beach town, this isn’t it. There are no fancy tourist shops, no gourmet restaurants, no wine bars. But if you’re looking for a spectacular natural location, fascinating tribal history, welcoming townspeople, and excellent smoked salmon, you’ll love this place. We did.
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This is the home of the Makah, a native northwest tribe who have lived here for eons. Remote, buffeted by fierce winds, and drenched by 100 inches of rain each year, this is not an easy place to live. Nonetheless, more than 1500 members of the Makah nation still call Neah Bay and the surrounding area home. “I left for a year. Moved to Nebraska. Missed home so much I walked five miles one way just to see the river. Came home and never want to leave again,” recollected the Makah guide we met on the trail at nearby Cape Flattery.
We were in Neah Bay for just a couple of days in late September. It stormed off and on the entire time. Snuggled into our spacious site at Hobuck Beach Resort, we had a gorgeous view of the Pacific. One moment, ominous storm clouds rolled by on the horizon and gray-green waves thundered onto the beach. The next, blue sky appeared and the ocean calmed to sparkling aquamarine.
We timed our outings to coincide with breaks in the storm (as best as possible), but mostly just layered on rain gear and headed out. Here, our adventures in and around Neah Bay:
Hiking To Cape Flattery
Just a few miles from Neah Bay is Cape Flattery, which truly is at the end of the earth. Or so it seems. A meandering ¾ mile hobbit-like trail leads through a lush rainforest of cedars, spruce, mosses, and ferns to the furthest northwestern point of the continental U.S. Standing atop a wooden platform just shy of the edge, we surveyed the endless ocean. Here is where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific.
A Dramatic Coastline And Hidden Sea Caves
This is untamed and raw beauty at its most awe-inspiring. The wild Pacific waves and frequent gale-force storms have hewn a rugged coastline of dramatic headlands, sea stacks, deep coves and hidden caves. Far below, shorebirds and sea lions seek refuge on rocks exposed by the tide. If you’re lucky, you might see whales passing by. Or even sea otters in the protected coves.
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This is sacred land to the Makah, and they’ve wisely declared Cape Flattery a nature sanctuary. Makah tribal members improved the trail in the late 90s. They built a series of rugged boardwalks and viewing platforms to keep visitors from slogging through deep mud and plunging off the edge of precarious cliffs. Just offshore of the tip of Cape Flattery is tiny Tatoosh Island, which once served as the summer fishing camp of the Makah. Crowning the island is the lighthouse built in 1857 by the U.S. Coast Guard to mark the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
(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.)
Shi Shi Beach
“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 beginning of the trail 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 forest (part boardwalk built by the Makah, part undeveloped and muddy on a rainy day) leads to the beach. I fretted a bit when a couple of people we met on the trail said, “Oh, wait till you come to the ropes at the bluff!” The ropes were actually a tremendous help in navigating the 150-foot drop down to the beach. I can’t imagine any other way of getting down or up the cliff. Once on the beach, we found an otherworldly landscape of rock spires, sea stacks, caves, arches, and tidepools surrounding a crescent-shaped cove.
Although Shi Shi isn’t easy to get to, it’s apparently a popular spot in the summer, when people backpack to camp on the beach. On a late September day, though, we encountered only a handful of people on the trail. Once on the beach, were alone in the silvery light of the late afternoon. We briefly considered staying until sunset, imagining the unique rock formations in Technicolor. But then we remembered we had a two-mile return hike, which included scaling the bluff and hiking through the deep dark forest.
There are more hiking options at Shi Shi Beach. Had it been earlier in the day, we would have continued on two miles down the beach to Point of Arches, which are said to be even more spectacular rock formations than those we encountered. Next time.
Makah Cultural And Research Center Museum
You wouldn’t expect a world-class museum in little Neah Bay, but there it is. We were drawn in by the fabulous 20-foot-tall carved cedar Makah figures on the grounds of the cultural center. We entered the doors for an immersion in the Makah way of life, long before Europeans entered the picture.
Long-Buried Artifacts Tell The Story Of The Makah
In 1970, a pre-contact village was discovered at Ozette, 15 miles south of the tribe’s present day home in Neah Bay. During a storm in 1750, a mudslide buried the beachfront village in 10-feet of clay. The resulting wet, oxygen-free environment perfectly preserved five longhouses and objects of everyday life in the village. For more than a decade, archaeologists and tribal members worked together to unearth more than 55,000 Makah artifacts. Considered to be one of the most significant archaeological finds in North America, some refer to it as the “Pompeii of North America.”
I can only imagine the tedious work involved in cleaning thick wet mud off of delicate objects like woven baskets and dog hair blankets (yes, they wove blankets out of dog hair). I had a hard enough time washing the mud off of my shoes after our expedition to Shi Shi Beach.
Life was no doubt challenging in this land of wild storms, yet the Makah shaped a life of rich traditions, comfort, and beauty. They created what they needed from the abundance of the forest, shore, and ocean surrounding them. The museum is arranged according to the seasonal life of the Makah and thousands of artifacts in pristine condition are attractively displayed. There’s also a replica of a full-size longhouse, as well as four beautiful cedar dugout canoes. And there’s an excellent hour-long film on the Makah and the Ozette site.
The $5 admission is a minimal charge for this wonderful museum. This is also a convenient place to buy the $10 parking pass required to access the trails and the beaches on the reservation.
About The RV Park
While in Neah Bay, we stayed at Hobuck Beach Resort. They offer 10 full-hook up RV sites ($30 per night) with a fabulous view of the Pacific and easy access to the beach. It was peaceful, quiet, and dark, and the perfect location for our explorations.