Story by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Photos by Bret Wirta
Distance: 1/2 mile – Time out: depends
Degree of Difficulty: 0 – Elevation: not much
Pet Friendly: Yes
October 29th 2012
The trail to Cape Flattery is a short walk, but it may take you a while to get back to your car depending on how much time you spend staring at the sea.
My brother Mark traveled from New Hampshire to visit last autumn. Of course it rained the entire week – hard. The deluge soaked us while hiking along Hurricane Ridge, silted up the Bogachiel River and ruined our fishing, and reduced the number of salmon trying to leap upstream at the view area at Sol Duc Falls to a lone fish thrown against the rocks by the roiling, thundering whitewater. But the one thing the rain couldn’t suppress was the awesomeness of Cape Flattery.
We drove to Cape Flattery along the northwest edge of the Olympic Peninsula on Route 112. We passed empty beaches and lonely coastline. We parked at the trailhead. It’s a short trail with many wooden steps and boardwalks sloping down to the sea. The path was wet and slippery so watch your step.
We could hear the pounding surf as we left our car in the parking lot. The sky was a monochrome grey and the branches of the deciduous trees were black and bare, but the trail was a riot of greenery. Sword ferns, salal, grasses and cedar boughs enveloped us along the boggy path. Squat spruce trees, sculptured by the wind, reached right to the edge of the cliff. Far below was the crashing sea.
The trail took us to multiple viewing platforms, each with its own stunning views. From one platform we looked out over a dark-grey sea. Columns of rock stood slightly offshore, at the same height as the cliffs and crowned with the same stunted spruce. These sea-stacks looked like jigsaw puzzle pieces waiting to be fitted back into the mainland. At another platform we looked down on blue-green swells disappearing into caves big enough to explore with a small boat.
You could spend the whole day just watching the waves crash about. When it’s really stormy waves slam into each other off the point, shooting geysers into the air and the cliff shudders as the sea smashes against it.
Finally we walked to the end of the trail and stood on the platform built on the rocky promontory that is the tip of Cape Flattery. We stood as far northwest as you can in the contiguous United Sates. In front of us stood Tatoosh Island and Lighthouse. Past the lighthouse, far over the flat grey horizon were the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, the Bearing Sea and Russia.
In 1778 Captain James Cook sailed past Cape Flattery. He named the cape. Cook was searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. Cook said that he ‘flattered’ himself into thinking that beyond the rocky cape in front of them was an inner harbor. But no – he sailed on to the north, missing the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I looked upon the wide expanse of sea that was the entrance to the Strait. This opening to the Pacific Ocean seemed too big to miss, but who am I to second-guess the veteran explorer.
Cook also missed interacting with the Makah Indian Tribe who have lived in villages on either side of Cape Flattery for thousands of years. The Makah built and maintained the trail and the viewing platforms. (Thank you!) After we left Cape Flattery, Mark and I drove back into Neah Bay and explored the Makah museum. Don’t miss this museum! It has an expansive collection of tribal artifacts and tells of the Makah’s whale hunting adventures. But that’s another story.
To reach the trailhead from the Holiday Inn Express and Conference Center in Sequim:
- Drive West on Route 101 for 23 miles. (past Port Angeles)
- Drive West on Route 112 for 65 miles to Neah Bay.
- At Neah Bay take the Cape Flattery Road for 8 miles to the trailhead.
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