My dad and I recently had the opportunity to backpack to Shi Shi Beach in the Olympic National Park. Shi Shi is one of several places in the park where you can backpack to the beach and camp, but we really wanted to go there because of a failed attempt to get to the beach a few years ago. We has our sights set on finally seeing Shi Shi and it did not disappoint.
Shi Shi beach (pronounced “Shy Shy”- not “she she”) is located about 15 minutes south of Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. If you’re coming from Seattle, you can expect about 4 and a half hours of travel split between driving and riding the ferry.
Accessing the beach requires that you get a Makah recreation permit. This permit is required to do any kind of hiking on the Makah reservation. At the time of this writing, the permit costs $20 per vehicle and is valid for the calendar year. We purchased ours the day of our departure at the Makah Marina, but there are several places where you can pick up your permits.
If you are planning on camping on the beach, you will also need a Wilderness Camping Permit from the National Park service. These permits are available on their website and fortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a limit to the number of backpackers allowed the stay on the beach so you won’t have to go deal with any lotteries or access quotas. I was able to buy my permit 3 days before we left without any problems.
After you get your permit, you can either print at home or pick up the permit from the ranger station in Port Angeles. If you need to render a bear canister, you can also rent one at the ranger station.
The Olympic coast is a beautiful, rugged coastline with weather that is equally rugged and beautiful. From September to June, you can expect high winds and lots of rain. It’s generally not a very pleasant place to visit during those months. July, August, and early September, though, are perfect times to visit. The sun will typically be out and conditions will generally be very good. That said, you should always expect rain and high winds when visiting the Olympic coast.
It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with tide charts anytime you are headed to a beach. It is important to know when high and low tides will be and how low or high those tides will come. When hiking on the beach, it is also extremely important to carry a topographic map that has tide markings on the map. These maps will tell you the safe water levels for crossing headlands. You don’t want to cross a headland to find out that you can’t get back because the tide gets too high.
There is no special equipment needed to access to Shi Shi beach other than having an Olympic Park approved bear cannister. I’d recommend hiking poles and gaiters to get past the muddy sections of the trail (info below), but they’re not required. You will want to bring a camera of some kind because the beach is too beautiful to not take any pictures.
Fresh water access on the beach is not great. There is a stream but the water is brackish and not the easiest to filter. Because the hike is short, we just brought all the water we needed for the night we were there.
As mentioned above, it is critical that you have a tide chart and a map with tide markings, especially if you plan on spending the night on the beach. There are lots of interesting tide pools and most of them are only accessible on low tide. You’ll want to know when low tide is and what the water levels will be.
If you are day hiking Shi Shi beach, you may be able to find parking at the official Olympic National Park trailhead parking. However, the lot is somewhat small, so it tends to fill up fast. If the lot is filled, there is a private “parking lot” nearby where you can park for $10 a day. If you are staying overnight, this is where you will need to park. For overnight hikers, the cost will be $10 per day. We stayed one night, so it cost us $20. The price is well worth it, as the money supports the Makah tribe and ensures access to Shi Shi beach in the future.
The trail to Shi Shi beach is not difficult, but the hike is divided into two parts. The first part of the hike is through a really nice forest for about 2 miles. You can hear the waves crashing below you as you meander through the rain soaked forest. There is hardly any elevation gain here, but the trail is notoriously muddy. We were on the trail less than 24 hours after it had rained and there were some very muddy spots (shin deep in some spots). I brough gaiters, so I was able to walk through the mud no problem. Other people were only wearing trail runners so they had to be more creative about how they crossed the muddy spots. Usually, there were “detour trails” that you could take to get past the muddy spots but you still had to cross the mud at some point.
After about 2 miles, the trail suddenly leads you down about 200 feet to the beach itself.
When we arrived at the beach, we were greeted with a wall of fog. I imagine that had we arrived with good visibility, we would have been stunned at the beauty in front of us. This is the reality of hiking in the pacific northwest though: a white wall of fog obscuring everything. Nonetheless, after hitting the beach we immediately headed south to try to find a camp site.
The beach itself is pretty wide open with plenty of sand between the treeline and the water. You have the option to find a campsite in the treeline or in the beach. We wanted to camp on the sand, and the only word of advice we got was to camp near the treeline to guarantee that the rising tide won’t surprise you in the night.
There are plenty of spots to sleep on the beach. Although there aren’t really any officially marked sites, finding a site was fairly easy. There are lots of drift wood “markings” that you can use to find campsites. We opted to stay near where the trail and the beach meet, but it is possible to continue all the way to the south side of the beach near Point of Arches.
Exploring the Beach
There are tons of things to explore here. On the south side of the beach, about 2 miles past where the trail and beach meet, is Point of Arches. To the north are some unnammed (at least to my knowledge) sea stacks. On the way to Point of Arches is a small stream that flows into the Ocean. We saw lots of birds and even a seal by the mouth of the river.
Unfortunately, during our visit low tide was in the middle of the night so we weren’t able to do any tide pooling. I’ve read and heard accounts of people finding all kinds of interesting things- from crabs to octopus. I really wish the tides would’ve been timed better with our visit!
It is very common to see bioluminescence in the waves on Shi Shi beach in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, I didn’t really see anything. My dad was able to see bioluminescence, so it’s probably a matter of having a sharp eye. You should be looking for “pops” of light on the water that will be blue. My dad said that it was as if someone threw a flashlight in the water- bright but short lived. Next time I plan on being more patient in the night.
Bioluminescence isn’t the only thing to see at night in Shi Shi. There is practically no light pollution, so on a new moon night the entire Milky Way is visible. Sticking out your head in the middle of the night and being able to see the Milky Way while the ocean waves crash around you is a truly magical experience!
Sleeping on the Beach
In general, sleeping on the beach wasn’t much different that sleeping on the ground in the mountains. The biggest difference is that sand is actually soft and not completely uncomfortable! I brought two sleeping pads with me, but it wasn’t needed.
Another thing to keep in mind, is that tent stakes are useless. To “stake” the tent down, I took a few rocks and put them in the corners of my tent. This seemed to work well, but I should note that there was no wind during the night.
Deadman anchors also seemed to be effective at keeping the tent in place.
No backpacking trip (or hike for that matter) is complete without visiting some kind of restaurant afterwards. Luckily, Neah Bay has a few options. On our way in, we stopped at BIGGINZ for some burgers and fries, then on the way out we got coffee and breakfast at Native Grounds Espresso Coffee Shop. Not only do they have great coffee, they also have great breakfast burritos. Exactly what we needed after spending the night on the beach.
Calvin’s Crab House and Linda’s Woodfired Kitchen also look like fantastic options, but we weren’t able to go because they were closed.