Olympic National Park is a backpacker’s dream. There are two popular coastal routes along what is called the Wilderness Coat or the Shipwreck Coast. This is your complete guide to backpacking the South Coast Route.
What is the South Coast? Why should I go?
Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is the wildest stretch of west coast in the lower 48. It’s where you’ll find Olympic National Park, an expansive park with everything from maritime rainforests to glaciated peaks to untouched coastline. For backpackers seeking a true wilderness experience, it’s close to heaven.
There are two popular backpacking routes along the Wilderness Coast in Olympic National Park. This post is about the South Coast, which runs between the towns of La Push and Oil City. (The North Coast runs between Ozette and Rialto Beach. You can see our complete guide to backpacking the North Coast here.)
The South Coast is an excellent 3-day, 2-night backpacking trip. It’s generally moderate, but with a few spots that make it feel like a real adventure (more on that later). We really loved the mix of hiking in and out of rainforest and beach on the same day. Wildlife sighting are abundant, and it’s hard to beat a driftwood campfire while the sun sets.
Know Before You Go
Backpacking in Olympic National Park is awesome, but has its own challenges. Here’s what you need to know before you go:
This park is remote. Leaving from Seattle, plan on most of a day to get out there. You can drive the whole way, or you can take a ferry, then drive the rest of the way. So, it’s not a great weekend trip if you can’t leave until after work on Friday.
You don’t need reservations. There is a nightly fee per person, and you do need to pay this and self-register at the Wilderness Information Center (WIC). If you can’t get to the WIC while they’re open you can mail in your fees after your trip.
You must use a bear can for your food. If you don’t own one, you can usually borrow one from the National Park Wilderness Information Center.
You Need a Shuttle. Because this is a point-to-point route, you need to arrange to have a car waiting for you at the end. If you have two cars, you can park the first car at the trailhead where you’ll end your trip, and then drive the second car to the starting trailhead. You’ll then drive back to get your second car after you’re done with the route. This is how we did it, and it was kind a pain. Instead, we recommend you arrange a shuttle with All Points Charters & Tours.
Tides are a factor. Because this is a coastal hike, the tides will impact when you hike and where you camp. You’ll need to have a watch (NOT your phone) and a tide table to complete this route safely. Some parts of the route are impassable above certain tides.
Planning, when to go, and where to camp
When should I go? Which direction should I take?
This route is open all year, but you’ll have the best weather between late June and early October. This route can be completed in either direction, north-to-south OR south-to-north. Scenery along the northern part may be a bit more dramatic. We tend to think south-to-north might be the preferred way, but either way is great.
How Long Will It Take?
This 17-mile route is best accomplished in 3 days, 2 nights. Or, if you want to really take you time and enjoy it, take 4 days and 3 nights. Plan to spend a night in the town of Forks, WA the night before you begin, so that you can start early on day 1.
Day 1 – 6.8 Miles
We hiked north-to-south. Our trip began at the Third Beach Trailhead, on La Push Road/Hwy 101. You could extend you trip by beginning at First Beach as well, which adds a few miles to your route.
Hike 1.4 miles from Third Beach Trailhead to the beach. You’ll drop down a switchbacking trail from the forest to the beach. It feels like you are dropping in to your adventure. The temperature, humidity, and light changes as you emerge on to the sand. It’s amazing.
From here you’ll head south. It won’t be long before you reach your first headland. Headlands are places where steep cliffs go right up to the ocean, so you can’t walk past on the beach. Look for the big red and black signs that mark the trial. These trails can be really steep, muddy, and slippery. Often there are fixed ropes to help you hoist yourself up, and sometimes even rope ladders to climb.
After 5.4 more miles you’ll reach Toleak Point, pronounced TOE-lee-ack. This is a phenomenal campsite. The site looks out at giant sea stacks where bald eagles hang out and fish, seals sun themselves, and where you’ll find yourself surrounded by incredible tide pools to explore. Set up camp along the shore, gather some driftwood for a fire, and enjoy the sunset.
Note: Campsites fill up quickly here, and you may not get one of the good ones up at the edge of the forest. If you must camp on the beach, be sure to check the night’s high tide. We came a little too close to having our tent flooded in the middle of the night.
Day 2 – 4.6 Miles
This is a nice and short hike to great camping at Mosquito Creek. Day 2’s hiking includes some mileage up in the forest, and this includes one or two small river crossings. Expect lush fern pathways through dense forest, incredible views from high above the ocean, and plenty of mud.
We mis-timed the tide early in day 2. Our crew couldn’t pass a little rock outcropping because the tide was too high. Instead of trying to climb up and around the rock, we decided to stop and wait for the tide to drop. It was a great opportunity to have a little snack and a nap. The mileage was short enough that we weren’t in a hurry.
Your first good opportunity for camping on Day 2 is Mosquito Creek. There’s good water here, and some great camping. This is where we recommend you spend your second night. There is also some camping available between Mosquito Creek and Hoh Head, but this part of the route is up in the forest, which means no campfires. Because we love campfires, we opted to stay down on the beach.
Day 3 – 6.1 miles
The majority of day 3 takes place up in the forest, due to the extremely rugged and rocky nature of the coastline in this section. This is a fun change – it’s wet, muddy, lush, and include the most challenging sections of ropes and ladders. A lot of people recommend you bring some gardening gloves to protect your hands from the sometimes-rough ropes along this stretch of the route.
Gear for Coastal Backpacking in Olympic National Park
There are a few bits of gear you need for this trip that aren’t part of your everyday packing list.
Bear Can – 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 – Get tide info and print your tide tables here. Usually the Ranger Station can also provide them when you pick up your permit.
Maps – The best map we found was Custom Correct’s South Olympic Coast Map. Grab the National Geographic’s Olympic National Park map too. It’s super helpful for navigating the entire Olympic Peninsula.
Wrist watch – To accurately read your tide table, you must know what time it is. Wear a watch. Do not rely on your phone because if your battery dies then you might also. (You probably won’t actually die, but tides can be dangerous so take them seriously)
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. Invest in the good stuff. We’re big fans of Patagonia’s stuff. Check out the Torrentshell Jacket. Outdoor Research is based in the Pacific Northwest and know a thing or two about rain. Check out their Aspire Pants.
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 – Super handy for the river and stream crossings on days 2 and 3. 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.
Hammock – There are just SO MANY places to hang up a hammock out here. And this is a short enough trip that you don’t mind carrying the extra weight. We’ve done some high-quality wilderness napping in our ENO doublenest hammock.
Leave No Trace
This place is a treasure, so treat it like one. Pick up trash, and don’t leave anything behind. Don’t build stuff out of the fishing nets and buoys you find washed up on shore. Don’t carve your name in to anything. Here are the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, in case you’re not already aware.
Questions? Check out the National Park Service’s general info page here. And we’ll answer any questions in the comments section too.