What do you need to know to plan a backpacking trip on the North Coast Route in Olympic National Park? Complete guide to backpacking the North Coast Route: everything you need to know, gear you need, and insiders’ tips to planning the ultimate backpacking trip.
Why backpack the North Coast Route?
This backpacking trip is a crowd pleaser, and one of the best bangs-for-your-buck anywhere. This is the northern half of what’s generally called the Wilderness Coast. You’ll find amazing scenery, easy route finding, a sense of adventure, and you’ll watch the sun set each night while sitting around a driftwood campfire.
Wildlife viewing is incredible. You’ll see seals, sea lions, deer, bald eagles, otters, maybe even whales. For those looking for a moderate, multi-day backpack, the coastal routes are hard to beat.
Before You Go
Pre-trip planning is important. Logistics are a bit involved for three reasons. First, permit reservations may be require depending on your route. Second, it’s a point-to-point route, so you’ll need to arrange for a shuttle. Third, Olympic National Park is remote. It’s on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, which is only ~100 miles from Seattle, but it takes either a lot of driving, or slightly less driving, and a ferry.
This is a permit area. Some campsites require reservations and are capped at a certain number of users. Reserve permits, see campsite availability, and see a map of all campsites on the Olympic National Park wilderness reservations page. Some sites require reservations, some are self-register, which means you just fill out a little form at the trailhead. Some allow campfires, and some don’t. Choose wisely. We’ll share our route/campsite recommendations later on.
Sleep with Vampires
We recommend you do the route in 4 days, 3 nights. The day before your trip begins, drive to the Northwest logging town of Forks, WA, (setting of the famed Twilight Saga) and grab a motel room. We recommend you stay in the Twilight Room at the Pacific Inn Motel. It is an experience not to be missed, and a must for any vampire geeks out there.
Get a ride on Willie Nelson’s tour bus
Yes, seriously. This trip is point-to-point, not a loop, so you will finish your trip about two hours’ drive away from your car. You’ll either need to have another car waiting for you where you finish, which means you must run a shuttle beforehand, or you’ll need to hire a shuttle for the day you begin. We’ve done it both ways, and we think hiring a shuttle is worth the money.
That’s where our pal Willie Nelson comes in. Willie runs All Points Charters & Tours. Drop your car at your end point, and have Willie pick you up and take you to the starting point. (Pro-tip: make sure you confirm, then re-confirm, then double-secret-triple-confirm with Willie.) Willie will entertain you with entertaining nature facts during the drive.
Itinerary, what route to take, where to camp, what to do
Which direction should I hike?
You can go either direction, South to North, or North to South. We went from North to South, from Ozette trailhead to Rialto Beach trailhead. The northern part of the coast is called the Ozette Triangle. It’s popular with day hikers, and you can extend your trip by adding day trips inland to Ozette Lake. The main consideration is that the campsites at the north end require reservations, so they may be trickier to get on a weekend or holiday.
How long will it take?
Take your time on this 20-23 mile trip (depending on route). We took 4 days, 3 nights, but you can add days if you want to maximize chill-out time along the say, or if you’re in a hurry you could get it done in 2 nights. Keep in mind that tides will dictate when you’re able to travel through certain sections.
Day 1 – 8.3 miles
Begin at Ozette trailhead, hike 3.4 miles through the forest to Cape Alva, the westernmost point on the continental US. From here, the route finding is easy: just keep the water on your right side. Head south along the coast about 4.5 miles to Yellow Banks. Hiking is easy, mostly walking either through forest, or on the beach. Make sure you stop and climb the little bluff at Sand Point. You can cut 2.2 miles off of your first day by
If you can, get a campsite reservation at Yellow Banks. It’s the first campsite you’ll encounter on day 1 that allows campfires. All campsites on Day 1 require reservations, so you may be stuck with what’s available.
Day 2 – 5.1 miles
Day 2 you’ll hike from Yellow Banks to Norwegian Memorial campsite. This section is arguably the most challenging. You’ll spend much of your day walking through boulders and fields of rock. Some in our group thought this “billy-goating” was fun, while others simply muttered a stream of expletives and plodded along. Trekking poles are helpful.
Day 2 also includes a few spots that you can only cross at low tide, and a few headlands. Headlands are places where you must climb up in to the forest and hike on a trail for a while, before dropping back down to the beach. Headlands are well marked, and usually have some sort of rope to help you pull yourself up. Don’t worry, you don’t need any special gear or skills, just a little effort. These headlands are super fun and really make it feel like an adventure.
Once you arrive at Norwegian Memorial, look for a little monument that commemorates the shipwreck and all the lost sailors. It’s a dramatic story, and it’s only a little bit creepy to think that you’ll be camping on an old gravesite. There’s a stream with reliable water a short walk from camp.
Day 3 – 6 miles
We hiked from Norwegian Memorial to Chilean Memorial. (Yes, two memorials, which is part of why this stretch is also called “shipwreck coast”) Expect a mixture of beach walking, headland crossings, and billy-goating. There’s a really cool arch to be found, and some great tidepools that are full of little critters to check out. It’s pretty rugged hiking and slow going, but if you take your time you’ll see all sorts of wildlife.
Day 4 – 3.7 miles
We thought this day was the crowd pleaser, if a little bittersweet because the end of the trip was near. Our crew hiked from Chilean Memorial to our car waiting for us at Rialto Beach.
Hole in the Wall is a must-do passage through a cool rock arch, right before you reach Rialto Beach. But it’s a low-tide only deal. We gambles and lost, and while everyone came out safe, we all got pretty wet. Half an hour later and we could have been in a pretty bad situation. Tides do not play.
That’s the quick breakdown of our route, campsites, and spots not to miss. Now we’ll brief you on the gear you need to backpack the North Coast of Olympic National Park.
Special Gear you need to backpack the North Coast Route
This trip requires some unique gear you may not be used to. Below is a breakdown of the special gear you need to backpack the North Coast Route.
Bear Can – Bear cans are containers that keep animals out of your food. They’re required for overnight camping in the park. Bears aren’t the problem–raccoons and other sneaky little critters are. You can borrow one from the Ranger Station when you pick up your permit, or you can buy your own. Our favorite is the BV500 Bear Resistant Food Canister.
Tide Tables – You’ll be hiking on the beach, and occasionally you’ll reach a zone that you can’t pass if the tide is too high. A tide table is a little calendar that tells you what time high and low tides happen each day, and how high or low they will be. Timing the tides wrong can mean you have to wait around for a few hours before you can pass certain spots. It can be dangerous to be caught in high tide. Get tide info and print your tide tables here. Usually the Ranger Station can also provide them when you pick up your permit.
Maps – Get a topographic map to show you the sections that are hazardous at higher tides. The best map we found was Custom Correct’s North Olympic Coast Map. While you’re at it, pick up the broader Olympic National Park map too.
Wrist watch – In order to time the tides, you need to know what time it is. Carry a watch (they’re like little clocks that go on your wrist), do not rely on your phone. If your phone’s battery dies (and it will on a 4-day trip) you’ll be in trouble.
Good rain gear – Make sure you bring a quality rain jacket AND rain pants. We had great weather, but it can get nasty out there.
NICE TO HAVES
Gloves – You’ll have to climb up some headlands during this hike. They usually have ropes set up to help you pull yourself up and over. The ropes can be rough and muddy, so gloves are nice to have. Gardening gloves work well.
Trekking Poles – These are super handy for the extended stretches of boulder-hopping. We like Leki’s Journey Trekking Poles.
Flip Flops or Sandals – great for keeping boots dry while crossing streams, and also for giving your feed a breather while strolling on the beach after a long day of hiking.
Tarp – This is nice to have to cover your cooking area if it rains. Bring some paracord to string it up. Using driftwood to rig a shelter can be fun, like building a little fort. Because blue tarps can look a little, uh, Whisky-Tango, we like green tarps, which are a little less obnoxious out in the wilderness.
It is the longest stretch of coastal wilderness in the lower 48. It is a real treasure, so take care of it. Follow Leave No Trace backcountry wilderness ethics. There’s a ton of ocean trash washed ashore–we challenge you to carry some out on your last day.
Also, don’t build a bunch of furniture out of the beach trash. People seem to like to “decorate” with buoys and nets and stuff. This is not cool. It compromises the wilderness experience. If we wanted to sit on a couch we’d stay home – we don’t need you to build one out of an old fridge that washed ashore.
Questions? Check out the Olympic National Park’s backcountry reservations and permit page. And we’ll answer any questions in the comments section too. Happy Camping!