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Backpacking an Ozette Triangle in Olympic National Park

The Ozette Triangle is a nine-mile loop starting from the Ozette Ranger Station in Olympic National Park. Just past the trailhead, the trail splits with the southern fork leading to Sand Point and the northern fork leading to Cape Alava. These two sections, each roughly three miles long and composed mostly of flat boardwalk leading through coastal forest, form two legs of the triangle with the final leg being the coast itself. While the distance traveled for this backpacking trip is short, the petroglyphs, seas stacks, and vast stretches of beach make for a sublime trip.

For Memorial Day weekend I led a group of backpacking students on a two-night trip along the triangle.

Looking south along the beach from the top of a small hill at Sand Point. The rocky point on the distant right is the headland separating Sand Point from Yellow Banks.

Day 1: Sand Point

From the trailhead, we followed the south leg of the triangle to arrive on the beach just north of Sand Point, aptly named due to the long sandy beach which stretches another two miles to the south. A trail leading to the top of a small hill right on the point itself yielded some amazing views up and down the coast. About a third of a mile south of Sand Point, Wish Creek cuts across the beach and serves as the dividing line between Sand Point and South Sand Point for permitting purposes. Since our first night’s permits were for South Sand Point we continued on and camped just past the next (unnamed) stream crossing the beach, right after the overland trail marker for the trail leading to Lake Ozette.

After pitching our tents and exploring the rest of the beach we were treated to an outstanding sunset later that evening (top photo).

Petroglyphs at Wedding Rocks: A Whale and Two Faces

Day 2: Wedding Rocks and Cape Alava

On our second day we headed north along the coast past Sand Point, trading pleasant sandy beaches for the more gravelly sort. After two miles we set up camp just north of Wedding Rocks and then proceeded another two miles up the beach to explore Cape Alava before returning to camp.

The headland at Wedding Rocks is famous for the petroglyphs which are scattered across the large boulders in the area. The petroglyphs range in age from 300 to 500 years old and frequently feature whales and faces. We spent more than an hour combing the area trying to locate as many as we could but in the end found only about a dozen.

Here’s a map of the route. This is a georeferenced PDF created using Caltopo. You can navigate with it using an app like Avenza (directions here) or just print it out. GeoPDF Map for Backpacking an Ozette Triangle

Cape Alava is the northwestern corner of the Ozette Triangle and features several campsites along a trail just above the beach. There’s also a pit toilet and a reliable water source in the form of a creek flowing under a log bridge.

At the north end of the cape is a spit leading to Tskawahyah Island (also known as Cannonball Island), whose western edge is the westernmost point in the continental United States.

Tskawahyah Island (also known as Cannonball Island), whose western edge is the westernmost point in the continental United States.

Tips and Cautions for Coastal Backpacking

The Olympic coast is one of my favorite backpacking destinations due to the amazing scenery. However, it plays a bit differently than your typical forest or alpine trip. Following are some general notes and cautions for visiting the coast.

The circular red-and-black marker indicates a way off the beach

Tides

The most important thing to be aware of is the tides. Some of the headlands (rocky points) and even some sections of beach are impassible at high tide. Use the NOAA Tide Predictions website or another data source to find out when the high and low tides are during your trip and then cross-reference that with a map that includes the maximum tide at which a given point can be crossed such as those from Custom Correct Maps. Failing to properly plan for tide windows can result in being stuck for hours waiting for water levels to drop. In the past rangers have included a printout of the tide tables along with your permits and tide-aware coastal maps are available for purchase at Olympic National Park ranger stations.

You’ll also need to take reduced travel speed into account. The constantly shifting sand is tiring and some of the more remote stretches will have you scrambling at a snail’s pace over seaweed-slick boulders for what feels like miles.

Keep an eye out for the circular red-and-black overland trail markers which indicate trails that will take you up off of the beach to safety. Often these trails will go through the forest behind headlands and reconnect to the beach, giving you a chance to circumvent them if you miss your tide window. Note that some headlands are completely impassable and can only be crossed by leaving the beach.

A stump stands watch over a small stream as it flows across the beach into the ocean

Water Sources

On the coast, water sources are numerous but typically of poor quality, either due to very low flow or an abundance of sand (or both). On the beach itself, they’re often a just few feet wide and an inch or two deep which makes scooping difficult. Following the water upstream off the beach and into the woods will usually take you to something that more closely resembles a creek. On the more remote parts of the coast, the only water source may be a trickle running down a cliff face.

If you’re using chemical treatment you may want to pre-filter in order to reduce the amount of sand that ends up in your water. Other than that the only thing that you really need is patience.

It’s worth noting that the water flowing into the ocean along the Olympic coast may appear anywhere from light tan to reddish-brown in color due to the presence of tannins. Although the tannins are harmless (and, as far as I can tell, tasteless) they don’t exactly make the water look very appetizing. Unfortunately, the filtration methods typically used by backpackers cannot remove them so consider adding something like Crystal Light packets or Nuun tablets to your drinking water you find the color off-putting. Tannins can also reduce the flow rate of filters, so backflush yours after the trip to restore its flow rate.

My Lunar Solo on the beach at sunset with rocks covering all the stakes. I drove a piece of driftwood into the ground to use as an anchor for one of the side panels.

Camping on the Beach

Many locations along the coast feature established campsites in the trees just off the beach so camping on sand is usually optional. If you do decide to camp on the beach make sure you set up your tent above the high tide line so you don’t end up getting soaked in the middle of the night.

Driving your tent stakes into the sand is a piece of cake but getting them to stay there takes a bit more effort. Unless you want to bring snow stakes (which have a larger surface area and work great in the sand) you can either use rocks to cover the stakes and weigh them down or build deadman anchors if you’re expecting windy conditions.

Permits

All overnight camping along the coast requires a permit and many of those permits are quite limited in the more popular quota areas such as the Ozette Triangle. Fortunately this year Olympic National Park has migrated their permitting system to Recreation.gov which has made trip planning incredibly easy compared to previous years. You can see at a glance exactly how many permits are available at each campsite on each date and change your proposed itinerary with the click of a mouse.

About the author

Michael Montgomery is a Washington State native who has been exploring the wilds of the Pacific Northwest for almost 20 years. He’s a backpacking mentor and trip leader for the Mountaineers who also dabbles in photography, scrambling, kayaking, and caving. His noteworthy international trips include the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu as well as the last third of the Camino de Santiago (because there’s only so much vacation time to go around). He enjoys helping new folks get the most out of their outdoor experiences.
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2 comments

  1. My family spent several days camping on the beach and hiking in the forest in Olympic NP forty one years ago. I said I’d be back but haven’t made it yet. My father has been back there a number of times since. It’s an awesome place. Thank you for the report. Someday…

  2. Heading there in late August for the exact same trip, thanks for the write up!

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