The call of the Olympic Mountains is undeniable. Most of the peninsula gets record rainfall, making it a lush fairytale land of mosses, marmots, and mammoth trees. Some of the most iconic Washington State hikes are in the area, like Hurricane Ridge and the Hoh Rainforest. Still, despite all the majestic trails winding through the mountains, I may have found my favorite spot on the Olympic Peninsula. And no, it’s not the view from a summit.
Just 20 minutes west of Port Angeles, curling into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is the aptly named Tongue Point. Located on the S’Klallam tribe’s ancestral land, this spot is the trifecta: an exceptional campground, a park with hiking trails, and a haven for marine life. Here, the rocky shore juts out into the strait, creating a small bay and hundreds of tide pools. For the uninitiated, tide pools are magical, naturally occurring wells on the coast that are most visible during low tide. When the water recedes, the small, rocky pools are revealed and each one is a microcosm unto itself, filled with algae, anemones, and sea creatures. As my husband succinctly put it, tide pools are like “little wildlife dioramas.”
My husband and 3-year-old daughter were in tow for this trip. My child is extra wobbly, so while we had a great visit, it was definitely not safe for her to be scrambling over the rocks on her own. Thankfully, Dad the mule came to the rescue and carried our toddler on his shoulders for most of the visit. If you have a confident kiddo who can climb and keep their balance, I highly recommend bringing the whole family.
Planning Your Visit
The three most important things to know are as follows:
- Come on a clear day. The reflection of an overcast sky in the water actually reduces visibility into the tide pools.
- Check the tide charts and time your visit so that you arrive just before or right at low tide. There’s a limited window before the shore is swallowed up by water again, so arriving 30-45 minutes before the lowest tide point will afford you plenty of time to explore.
- There are four easy staircase access points to the tide pools. If you have the time, consider descending to the tide pools in several spots to get the full experience.
While you could visit almost any time of the year, choosing a cold and rainy day could present some safety challenges. You’re mostly balancing on uneven rocks, which can already be slick even when dry, on account of all of the algae. Also, exploring the craggly coast in winter would be chilly, to put it mildly! Trying to experience this place while wet wind is whipping around would quite literally put a damper on the experience.
About the Marine Life
If you’re not in the know about native coastal anemones and sea creatures, not to worry! Entrances to the tide pools have handy interpretive signage that identify keynote species with large images and interesting tidbits. Most of the native creatures you’ll find in the area were anemones, mollusks, crabs, fish, and urchins. By no stretch am I a biologist or even a marine life hobbyist, but I’ll do my best to ID some of the species mentioned below.
As you approach the coast, you realize that what you thought was the surface of the rock formations are in fact thousands (more like hundreds of thousands) of mollusks embedded into the shore. This is emblematic of the experience as a whole. You think you know what you’re looking at, but it ends up being something else entirely. The longer we looked, the more we realized that the colorful rock we were admiring was in fact a camouflaged fish, or the spiky-looking stick was actually a sea cucumber. Each pool was brimming with alien-like wildlife. Patience is your friend here. It’s tempting to glance down for a moment or two, then move on to the next spot, but it’s not a place to be hasty. The longer you stare, the more you’ll notice.
We saw a small fraction of what the tide pools have to offer and were thrilled with our sampling. It’s worth visiting several of the aforementioned entry points; read on for details.
Staircase Access Point 1 – East Side of Salt Creek Campground
Interestingly, the two main places at Tongue Point where you can visit the tide pools look very different from one another. Quite by accident, we took the path less traveled first. The staircase entry was located next to the RV parking area at Salt Creek Campground. While not officially at Tongue Point proper, there are many tide pools to explore here. This section was characterized by much larger, smoother rocks and carpets of algae. While I’d hesitate to describe the terrain as even, it was a bit flatter than the west part of Tongue Point.
There was certainly an overlap of species between the two areas, but this section had many more Anthopleura elegantissim – basically, small green anemones with pink flanges in the middle. Limpets were hanging out all over the place. The massive rocks were slathered in neon green, red, and even pink algae. Drying up on the exposed rocks were swaths of yellow sea sacs – an algae called Haloscaccion glandiforme. To be honest, I never imagined that I would be so excited about algae, but there I was photographing it like I was paparazzi.
Before heading over to the next area, we posted up on a rock and took a snack break. We were admiring the distant outline of mountains across the Canadian border and much-needed blue skies. Or, at least, I was enjoying the view. My kid only had eyes for her crackers.
Staircase Access Point 3 – West Side of Salt Creek Campground
What cataclysmic geologic event occurred here to make these rock formations, I’ll never understand. Put simply, it looked like a bunch of softball-sized rocks fused together to form a formidable landscape that was both difficult to walk on and beautiful in its austerity.
In this section, the purple sea urchins reigned supreme. They grow in little colonies, bejeweling the rocks with their pincushion-y spikes. I learned that these beauties are harvested commercially for their roe – apparently, they’re considered culinary delicacies. That said, at Tongue Point, no one is allowed to disturb or remove any of the wildlife, as it’s a protected area. According to the sign, disobeying this law will slap you with a whopping $350,000 fine. We did our very best to avoid walking on the mollusks and did not step in the tide pools, despite the temptation to get a closer look. Other visitors showed the same respect and restraint, which is probably what has made this area retain its pristine wildness.
We spotted half a dozen Giant Green Anemones (Anthopleura zanthogrammica), their translucent tentacles undulating in the gentle waves. Clusters of bright white goose barnacles broke up the large areas of steel gray mussels. Crabs were scampering everywhere, but even in movement they’re so camouflaged that they can be difficult to spot. This area was certainly harder to traverse, but it was absurdly colorful and brimming with life.
Calling It a Day
After an hour and a half of exploring, our tired toddler let us know it was time to go in the most rational way she knew how: lots of whining. The grown-ups could have spent another hour or two playing on the coast, but we will definitely be back again in the future. I can confidently say that this was one of the most magical Washington State experiences.
If you’re interested in spending several days in this corner of paradise, check out Salt Creek Recreation Area to reserve a campsite. There’s also plenty more to explore in the area; Crescent Lake is just 30 minutes away and there are dozens of nearby hikes for all skill levels.