By Mary Kay Seales
The Olympic Peninsula is just a 30-minute ferry ride from Seattle, Washington. And yet, it seems like another world altogether.
It’s surprising that many people born and raised in the Pacific Northwest have never ventured out into the wild beauty of those magnificent mountains and beaches.
The Olympic Peninsula is a small wedge jutting out from the northwest tip of the state, covered primarily by rain forest, rivers, misty ocean beaches and fresh freezing-cold lakes.
Away on Cape Flattery
Among the many places one can choose to explore on the Olympic Peninsula, the most “out there” destination is the very tip of the state, Cape Flattery on the Makah Indian Reservation.
Cape Flattery lies at the northwestern-most corner of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. 160 miles from Seattle, but light years away from the city and its worries. It juts out into the Pacific Ocean like a jigsaw puzzle piece, jagged and mysterious, often clouded by fog and mist.
This entire corner of Washington State lies on the Makah Indian Reservation, open to the public but owned and governed by the proud Native American tribe of the Makah Nation. They’ve fought and openly protested to preserve its traditions, heritage, and their rightful ownership of this corner of the country and its natural resources.
Cape Flattery — the English name conferred on it by Captain James Cook in 1778 — has stuck even among the Makah, though it’s certainly not the original name for this rocky outcropping.
The cape is bordered on one side by the wide-open vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and on the other side by the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Visitors can access this point by a well-maintained trail through the forest. The often-rough waters have hewn the shoreline into massive inlets where the water pools into aqua blue.
As one Yelp reviewer said:
Cape Flattery deserves all the flattery it can get, and then some.
Mystical Shi Shi Beach
From Cape Flattery, a three-mile hike through lush rain forest takes you to Shi Shi Beach on the Pacific Coast. The sand is a slate gray, the stark white waves washing over it like lace, the scattered boulders roughly-hewn and barnacled by the sea over centuries.
Tide pools and driftwood and gulls, all wet and cold, and reaching out to forever. Cold, wet sand, rocks, trails, and air. Like breathing in fresh cool water.
It’s a landscape that has inspired poets and hippies, environmentalists and painters. Yet just far enough out of reach to feel alone and actually be alone.
Can you visit the reservation?
Yes, absolutely. You will need to stop for a permit to access the reservation; it’s $10 at the only gas station in town, or you can buy one at the beautiful Makah Museum at the entrance to town.
The only thing to keep in mind is that this is a sovereign Native American nation. This means that they have their own laws, and their own police force.
Not a problem, but just as with any other country, they expect you to follow their rules.
Can you stay overnight on Cape Flattery?
Yes, and since it takes several hours to get there, it’s not exactly a day trip from Seattle. Although some people opt to camp on Shi Shi Beach, carrying their gear on the 3.3-mile hike through the forest to the beach can be rough.
I usually choose to stay in a cabin at nearby Hobuck Beach Resort. For $165 a night you can have a view from your porch of the sunset on Makah Bay near Cape Flattery, sipping a glass of wine (remember to bring your own because there is no alcohol sold on the reservation), and then retiring to your warm bath and comfortable bed.
Getting to the corner of nowhere
The best way to visit the Olympic Peninsula is to drive from Seattle via the Bainbridge Island Ferry, which you can catch from the waterfront in downtown Seattle. From there you drive seven-mile stretch across Bainbridge Island onto the mainland of the Olympic Peninsula, where you can pick up Highway 101 to Port Angeles.
Just past Port Angeles on 101 is the turnoff to Highway 112, a scenic drive along the coast of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a winding two-lane road, sometimes rough, but with spectacular views of the sea and the forest. Highway 112 will take you straight onto the Makah Reservation, into the little town of Neah Bay.
The joy of well-kept secrets
Cape Flattery and Shi Shi Beach are indeed well-kept secrets. Many Washingtonians have yet to discover this amazing wild beauty in their own backyard, but you can.
A rough and wild area with waves crashing, eagles and sea gulls, whale migrations and steelhead salmon. I can imagine seeing it for the first time through the eyes of Captain Cook — beautiful, green, cold, wild, and bountiful.
Although I’ve spent many summer days on the Olympic Peninsula as a child, I did not fully and truly appreciate this natural wonderland until recently while doing research for my book. I was then reminded of T.S. Eliot’s words from the Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.