Camping on Shi Shi Beach: The Place I Found Zen

I don’t have the words to adequately describe the breathtaking beauty of Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park. Nor could I have imagined a more perfect first backpacking experience. I will forever look at this hike as the beginning of my love affair with both backcountry camping and the Pacific Northwest.

Locked and Loaded
Our bags were packed and we were ready to hike!

We arrived at the parking area (which is literally someone’s yard, so you get to hike and support small business. It’s a win-win) around dinnertime. It was drizzling and a fog was descending, blanketing the forest in a fine mist. It looked like a fairyland; some magical, enchanted world in another dimension. It was absolutely haunting.

The first mile or so of the trail is primarily a boardwalk and series of bridges that wind through a mystical Sitka spruce forest, working its way to the coast. When the boardwalk ends, the trail becomes almost entirely mud. There are bypasses around the exceptionally muddy areas, but they’re only slightly less muddy. Mud on mud on mud. We were pretty filthy by the time we reached the beach, so be prepared to get dirty, in the most literal sense, if you choose to do this hike—which you absolutely should.

 

 

It was so quiet on the trail. It felt like the fog was holding in all the sound, providing a barrier with the outside world, almost like being underwater. That eerie silence only added to the feeling of isolation as we trekked farther and farther from civilization; the fog growing thicker and thicker with each step. It was the ideal setting for a horror movie or supernatural thriller, so I half expected a bunch of kids to come running out of the forest, screaming about alternate dimensions and a girl with superpowers.  Stranger Things have happened. . . (If you don’t get that reference, you really need to up your Netflix game.)

As we approached the coast we started to hear the distant sound of waves crashing on the beach. The sound got louder until the trees opened up to reveal giant sea stacks jutting out of the ocean on the shoreline below. The fog seemed to extend infinitely, giving everything it touched a muted tone and soft edges. With no man made structures anywhere in sight, this place seemed timeless. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pirate ship appear on the horizon.

Sea Stacks
The view when we arrived at the coast was spectacular.

It’s not until you reach the descent to the beach that you officially enter Olympic National Park, leaving the Makah reservation behind (special thanks going out to the Makah people for sharing their beautiful land with us). There are ropes rigged up between the trees to assist with the climb down, though it wasn’t nearly as difficult or harrowing an experience as I’d expected, which was both a relief and a disappointment at the same time.

 

 

Once at the bottom we emerged from the forest through a small, tunnel-like opening in the trees (total Chronicles of Narnia moment), onto the massive expanse of sun-bleached driftwood covered sand that is Shi Shi Beach. We made it! I love the ocean and, as a Midwesterner, seeing it is always exciting. But coming out of the woods with all my gear on my back and walking towards the Pacific was a moment I’ll not soon forget. I felt strong, confident, and in total awe of the scene before me.

Victory
The ocean seemed to be calling to us when we arrived.

Looking out to the horizon, we couldn’t tell where the ocean stopped and the sky began. We stood in wonder, admiring the rock formations framing the beach on either end, before we set out to find a place to make camp. With only about an hour of light left, we didn’t waste any time. There’s no assigned camp sites on Shi Shi; you just park your tent wherever suits you. We found a spot about 100 yards from where we entered the beach in a small, stone cove tucked in along the treeline. It provided excellent protection from the elements, and privacy from anyone who may camp nearby. It was perfect.

There was enough driftwood scattered around the beach to get us through the night, but it was a project gathering and carrying it all back to camp. Our legs got one hell of a workout trudging through the sand while dragging giant logs behind us.

 

 

Once we got our fire going we set up our stove and made dinner. We each brought a can of soup; nothing fancy, but a hot meal nonetheless. It was our first time using the camp stove and we learned a very quick lesson about its stability. Namely, it didn’t have any. Lindsey’s can of soup toppled over, spilling half its contents onto the sand while we stood there helplessly, realizing we also didn’t have anything to grip the hot can with. Total backpacker fail. She managed to use her shirt sleeve as a hot mitt and salvage what was left of her soup. We’d been feeling like we were the most badass women in the world, so that was a good lesson in humility. After spending several hours in the rain and mist, even the half spilled, somewhat burned soup was a luxury, warming us from the inside out.

We sat around the fire for a while listening to the sound of the waves, huddled up in our rain jackets and long johns; not even talking, just absorbing our surroundings. I think it was the first time we felt truly relaxed on the trip. Kayaking and seeing Seattle had been a blast, but this was true tranquility. Listening to the sound of the ocean is hypnotizing. It has this incredible ability to quiet my mind, slow down my thoughts, and focus them. I hadn’t felt such pure contentedness and peace in a long time. We knew there were other people on the beach, but everyone was spread out enough that we barely noticed we weren’t the only people in the world.

Campfire
The view while sitting fireside at our campsite. Not too shabby.

Lindsey went to bed fairly quickly, but I wasn’t ready for the night to end. I love that time of night, when the world is asleep and everything is still. That’s my time. So I kept the fire going, burning all the wood we’d worked so hard to collect, and relived the day through the pictures I’d taken. I listened to the ocean as the tide rolled in, letting the sound of every wave wash over me. Each one washed away another anxiety, another worry; sweeping every negative thought out to sea with it as it receded. It left me feeling centered, like I now truly understood what it meant to be “zen.”

I never bothered getting out my sleeping mat that night, opting instead to sleep on the sand (inside the tent, of course). It took a minute to carve out the appropriate ditches (boobs, hips, feet—it’s like making a snow angel in your tent, then just not getting up), but once I did and was settled into my beach front, ocean view “room,” with my calm mind and exhausted body, the most wonderful sleep took me over. I drifted to sleep with the sound of the ocean putting me in an almost meditative state, restoring my body to prepare for the trek to Point of the Arches in the morning. It was hard to believe how much we’d already done considering how many adventures were still to come on our Washington Ladycation!

Be sure to check out my guide to camping on Shi Shi Beach for everything you need to know before you hike, and read the next installment: our hike to Point of the Arches!

Thank you so much for stopping by!

~Steph

5 thoughts on “Camping on Shi Shi Beach: The Place I Found Zen

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