backpack: Olympic Coast – Rialto Beach to Chilean Memorial
Washington’s Olympic Coast is a wild coast – with extremely limited access to vast sections of it. About 70 miles of this incredibly scenic coastline is part of the Olympic National Park and accessible to hardy backpackers willing to time their trek at low tide to round headlands, or to use ropes to climb steep slopes to reach overland trails.
- day 1 – Rialto Beach trailhead to campsite after Ellen Creek: 1 mile, 70 ft. gain
- day 2 – Rialto Beach to Chilean Memorial: 3 miles, 200 ft. gain, 195 ft. loss
- day 3 – rainy day at camp
- day 4 – hike out: 4 miles, 270 ft. gain, 200 ft. loss
- best months: May to July
- location: Olympic Peninsula; nearest town: Forks
- land management: Olympic National Park
- trail conditions: Olympics: North Coast Route
- hike description: Washington Trails Association – Chilean Memorial
- permits: required in advance for all backcountry campsites
- trailhead pass: none required
- regulations: dogs are not allowed; bear canisters are required for food storage
- notes: this is not a walk on the beach – there are several headlands that require low tide to hike around; overland routes with ropes are located in some spots to go over headlands; scrambling over large rocks & boulders in some spots
For this trip, we planned to spend one night on Rialto Beach near La Push, Wa., and continue north to the cove at Chilean Memorial for two more nights before hiking back out the same way. The drive from Portland is about 5 hours, and after stopping for lunch and at the Lake Quinault Ranger Station for permits and a bear canister, we hit the trailhead at about 4 pm.
Starting at Rialto Beach, we hiked in one mile (just past the crossing of Ellen Creek) to set up camp for the first night. It was a little misty at times, but it didn’t rain for long. After setting up camp, we filtered water from Ellen Creek, then cooked dinner and watched the sunset before heading to bed.
The next morning, we had breakfast before we broke camp to continue our journey. We needed to hike about 3 more miles along the coastline at the lowest tide of the day in order to get around three headlands to the Chilean Memorial cove. Instead of a hike on a sandy beach, this route would involve getting around a fair amount of rock and tidal flats covered in slippery seaweed.
About half a mile past our camp, we reached Hole in the Wall and were able to walk through the large opening in the rock since it was low tide. There is an overland trail to use when you can’t pass through. We passed another section of beach filled with backpackers before reaching the first headland we needed to get around.
Large boulders and huge chunks of rock spilled down to the bottom of the headland, and we opted to stay high in this section. This required quite a bit of scrambling. For someone with very little experience crawling on rock with a fully loaded backpack, I had a hard time. It’s difficult to get your feet in a spot that will keep you moving forward without risking a fall on the rocks or getting a leg or foot stuck, so it’s very slow going. I needed to use both hands and also had to take off my pack and crawl on my hands and knees a couple of times. Due to this, I didn’t take any photos on this part of the hike. 😉
After rounding another headland and walking on quite a bit of slick seaweed-covered tidal flats, we had one more headland to get around to reach the cove before Chilean Memorial. Hiking this section was easier, with a sandy beach and smaller rocks.
Once we were in Chilean Memorial cove, we hiked past a small rocky island next to the shore and two bald eagles swooped down across the sky in front of us. It was as if they were welcoming us to this wild and scenic location.
However, we had just reached the most difficult part of the hike. We had to get through a treacherous scramble section of large rock and logs. We couldn’t go in front of it since the tide was now starting to come in, with waves hitting the base of the rocks. We got started and it was more and more difficult the farther we went. Then we rounded a small bend and could see that we still had a long way to go. Some of the rocks were large enough that you had to sit on top and try to scoot from one to another, with very limited footholds along the way. Two of us crossed near the top of the rock, while two of my friends decided to cross lower where the rocks were wet and slippery. Neither way was easy, for sure!
In the photo of this section below, check out the tent on the left for scale. This difficult section of rocks started around the bend on the right edge of the photo.
A closer look at the rocky scramble section.
After we finished climbing off the rock, I noticed a rope hanging down from a muddy slope on the hillside. An unmarked overland trail! We decided to check it out during our stay to see if we could avoid the worst of the rock scrambling on the hike out.
We found a great campsite with a rope swing and plenty of space for four tents, so we set up camp. A short walk down the cove led to our water source – a small waterfall coming down the hillside. It made collecting water to filter a bit of fun. I placed a hydration bladder under one of the streams of water tumbling down the rock and it filled up quickly. Water from creeks on the Olympic Coast is full of tannins, and the brownish tint doesn’t come out with filtering. However, it tastes just fine.
We were exhausted from the hike in, so we took it easy the rest of the day and had a small campfire while we made dinner. As we sat there, we watched a bald eagle land in front of us and snack on something in the tide pools. The cloud cover was thick, so there wasn’t much of a sunset that night.
In the morning, it started to mist, turning to drizzle and heavier rain for much of the day. We hung out under a tarp that one of my friends brought to rig up under a tree. We were all so glad she was smart enough to bring it – this allowed us to hang out together while it rained all day and not be relegated to our separate tents to stay dry. It was an easy day, with some of us taking naps while others explored tide pools in the rain.
A large group setup camp nearby overnight. They were part of an outdoor leadership school doing a trip down the entire Olympic Wilderness Coast.
It finally stopped raining at about 8 pm, so I explored the beach near our campsite. One of my friends decided to scout the route to go over the rock scramble section using the rope hanging down the hillside. We were thrilled when she reported back that there was indeed a trail at the top that would take us past the worst part of the scramble section to a short drop down to the beach on the other side. This would save us a lot of time on our route back to the trailhead.
There was so much colorful rock on the beach. I think it was a mix of basalt and jasper.
This piece of wood looks like a topography map with contour lines.
So many types of seaweed! The purple variety was beautifully iridescent.
It started raining again after about an hour and a half, so we went to bed. We were hiking out the next morning and needed to get up early to pack up and hike out at low tide.
In the morning, the sky had more blue in it than it had during all of our trip, which meant that we would have good weather and views on our hike out.
After we packed up, we headed to the rope section to climb up the slope. I was a little nervous about slipping on the mud, but it wasn’t that hard getting to the top. It helped to put my waterproof mittens on so I could get a good grip on the wet rope.
View from the overland route.
Back on the beach, we continued until we were out of the Chilean Memorial cove and rounding the first of several rocky headlands. This time, we stayed in the zones between the tidal flats and boulder sections as much as we could to avoid scrambling.
The hike out was so much easier than the route we took on the way in! Once we reached Hole in the Wall, the remaining two miles were an easy walk on a sandy beach all the way to the trailhead. WE DID IT!
“Scout”, “Sparkles”, “Fire Master”, and me… “Deepdive”
This backpacking trip was more difficult than most that I’ve done, but it was a fantastic and memorable experience shared with amazing and supportive friends. In spite of being pushed well out of my comfort zone quite a few times, I think this trip gave me strength. What doesn’t break us makes us stronger, right?
Backcountry permits are required to camp overnight in the Olympic National Park ($8 per person per night) and bear canisters are required for food storage (available for loan with a permit). For more info, visit the Olympic National Park website.