When I picture myself hiking in the Pacific Northwest, I always see myself set amongst a familiar backdrop — tall trees and even taller mountains. Winding forest streams carve their way through deep valleys of lush green foliage. It’s not hiking if there’s no tree roots to snag your boot on nor any hard rocks to break your fall, right? With the number of warm summer days dwindling fast we wanted to take advantage of the sun before it’s gone and we’re forced to get down the rain gear bin from the garage shelf. We’re breaking from our normal hiking routines and taking to the beach in search of some sun and good times. Let’s trade the bug spray for sun block, we’re hiking the Dungeness Spit.
With no major traffic issues, it’s just under a 2-hour drive time from Tacoma via the scenic Kitsap Peninsula and floating Hood Canal Bridge. The Puget Sound is famous for its ferry system and there are multiple routes that can help you get to Dungeness via the water. The Coupeville to Port Townsend route is a short trip from Whidbey Island to the Olympic Peninsula or if you’re coming from downtown Seattle you can skip across the sound to Bainbridge Island and link up with the Hood Canal Bridge heading towards Port Angeles. You can even catch a boat from the southern tip of Canada’s Vancouver Island with a direct route to Port Angeles on the Black Ball Ferry Service.
The spit is the longest naturally occurring sand spit in the country and it continues to grow as swift tidal flows deposit sand and debris funneled in from the Pacific Ocean. Evidence of human activity goes back over 10,000 years. The S’Klallam, or “strong people,” had lived and thrived along these shores for most of that time before European ships began arriving. The spit created sheltered fishing grounds with easy access to shellfish, and the wooded foothills were rich with game, berries and edible plants. All were staple foods in the region’s diet.
In 1792, on his way to charting what he would later call the Puget Sound, Captain George Vancouver remarked that the sandy bar reminded him of the shores of the Dungeness Headlands, on the Kent coast of southern England and so called it, “New Dungeness.”
Part of the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge in Clallam County, the Dungeness Spit is a beautiful example of nature at work. The Refuge was part of a concerted effort started by President Roosevelt in 1903 to preserve the natural landscape of the country before it was too late. In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson added the 636-acre property now known as the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge to that list. Included as part of that refuge, the sand spit was entitled with all the same notorieties and protections that the forest would enjoy. This protection helps to keep the spit a safe and productive nesting site for multiple species of sea life and a beautiful feature of the land for all people to enjoy.
The New Dungeness Lighthouse
As more and more ships started arriving, more and more ships started running aground on the barely visible strip on land. So, in 1857 a lighthouse was constructed at the end of the spit to warn approaching mariners. The Dungeness Lighthouse was just the second commissioned lighthouse in the new Washington Territory behind the Cape Flattery Lighthouse, both designed by the famed federal architect Ammi B. Young. The original tower was a brick and stucco structure perching almost 100 feet above the sea. The onslaught of wind and rain pounding down on the original structure proved to be too much for the original structure. Years of weather systems rolling down the Strait of Juan de Fuca finally took its toll on the tower and it was torn down in 1927 due to structural instability, replaced by the 63-foot tower you see today.
The Coast Guard staffed this windy and isolated outpost from its inception in 1857 up until the transfer of power in 1994 to a Coast Guard Auxiliary group known as the “Watchstanders.” They assumed the roles and responsibilities of the tower until the New Dungeness Light Station Association was formed and took over permanent care of the 8-acre parcel.
Ever wanted to be a lighthouse keeper? Well, you can at the New Dungeness Light Station. The 3-bedroom Keeper’s House is available to book for week long family friendly stays, with one catch. The catch is, you have to be the lighthouse keeper. You’ll be given a list of family friendly chores to help chip in as part of your duties.
Public visitation to the lighthouse grounds, outside of the lighthouse keeper program, is currently closed for distancing. When the lighthouse does resume its public tours of the station, you will be the tour guide, teaching tired beach trekkers all about your new post.
When the crowds go home for the evening and your work is done, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a front row view to the living beauty that is the Salish Sea. You’ll have the entire place to yourself to wander the beach and check out the views. Do some stargazing or just listen to the shore break while the seals grunt, bark and play in your front yard. Bring your binoculars and camera for this one-of-a-kind experience set on the deep blue sea. Reservations can book up to a year out so check it out soon.
Looking to sleep under the stars? Check out the adjoining Dungeness Recreation Area and Campground next door for some seaside campfires and morning coffee with a stroll on the beach.
From the parking lot you’ll walk through the nature preserve on your way to the beach. Close to a mile’s worth of dark, dense coastal forest trails guide you through the cedar groves before breaking out of the trees with some high bank views looking seaward. Catch the path down to the beach and get your feet in the sand. The trail is obviously very exposed to the elements so check ahead for wind and tide reports and bring your sunscreen.
Today was nothing but sunshine mixed with a slight breeze as we started our 11-mile round trip trek out to the lighthouse and back. It was just enough sun to counteract the cooler air. The weather continued to be on our side throughout the day giving us some spectacular views. Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands dotted the blue horizon to the north, the snow-capped summit of Mt. Baker poking up out of a bluish haze to the east and the Dungeness River emptied into the mud and silt of Dungeness Bay to the south, but it’s the Olympic Mountains to the west that steal the show for me. Rising out of the sea and climbing up past the clouds, the jagged peaks and valleys cast long shadows as the sun starts its descent giving some depth to the rough layers.
The beach is full of driftwood. Smooth, sun bleached pieces of timber lay stacked like a Jenga match on the high ground, held in place by flocks of seagulls and Sandpipers basking in the warm sea air. Shorter, more manageable pieces of wood become a valued resource when it comes to beach fort building. There’s plenty of abandoned driftwood shacks to choose from or build your own vacation home on the beach.
Colorful round stones worn smooth by time help to break up the speckled gray tone of the sandy beach as we walk. Tangled heaps of green and amber colored Bull Kelp lay all over the beach. Some stretched out would probably measure 15 feet long or more; the exact ones as kids we’d find and go running around the beach like lion tamers or Indiana Jones cracking a whip at each other.
Eelgrass and kelp gardens play a vital role in the food chain just offshore. Fish, lured in by the swaying kelp beds feed on the nutrient dense plant life and then also utilize its camouflage when evading predators. Seals and other marine mammals feed on those fish which in turn creates waste that goes right back into fertilizing the kelp gardens and on it goes. Whales, sea lions and porpoises are just some of the other big swimmers that frequent these cold waters.
The beach is full of life, big and small as well. Birds, lots of birds, shellfish, crabs, lizards, snakes and countless bugs are all part of this delicate ecosystem clingy to life. For this reason, dogs are not allowed on this hike or anywhere in the refuge. As much as my puppy would love to bark at the birds just for being birds and drag literally every piece of driftwood back to the car, there’s a natural balance to this place and it should be respected.
We took our time getting to the lighthouse. Partly because walking 11 miles in loose sand is tough, like you’ll feel it the next day tough, but mostly because I couldn’t stop stopping just to look around. The entire length of the trail is one long amazing view. It’s as close as you’ll come to walking on water. About three hours after setting out from the trailhead we reached the end. Social distancing restrictions have the lighthouse, keeper’s house and yard closed to all day visitors right now but you can get close enough to shoot some good pictures of the historic landmark.
Make the time to venture out to the lighthouse. The crowds are thinner, if at all and the views are better. Push through to the end, and you will be rewarded with the kind of solitude one can only get standing 5 miles out to sea. Besides the lighthouse keeper minding his own business we were the only other people around while we spent time wondering. I could’ve sat there all night, but the park closes at dusk and it’s a 5.5-mile walk back.
We found a smooth old stump to sit on and watched the tide and time go floating by. The sun was shimmering and reflecting off the glossy white paint of the tower, intensifying the contrast of the blue sky behind it. The white brick and red roof look crisp in the afternoon light. Turning back toward the Olympics I’m always so amazed how different a mountain or mountain range can look from a different angle or perspective.
A steady breeze picked up off the water as we turned back. Up ahead the sun sank toward the horizon. A burnt orange mist of ocean spray rolled across the beach as the wind toppled the fluttering white caps. Flocks of seagulls took the opportunity to hover in the wind, gliding gracefully all around us like a cloud of dust moving on an air current.
Mesmerized by it all we underestimated how long it would take to get back to the car. Visions of having to make that phone call helped us to find that next gear and while I might have been secretly keeping an eye out for a soft spot in the sand and a nice abandoned shelter, I had total faith in my dumb luck over the years to see us through and that it did. Leaving the beach and the sights behind us we backtracked through the forest with minutes to spare and a fun story to tell. I don’t think we were even out of the parking lot yet before we were planning our return trip with the kids.
While it wasn’t that mountainous scramble kind of a hike, I usually prefer, I left with a new appreciation of the beauty locked away in the wild Salish Sea and for the people who lived off its bounty. It turned out to be a rewarding hike in a magical seaside setting, and we had a great time hiking the Dungeness Spit.