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Washington’s Pacific coast

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Did You Know … ?

  • Gray whales make the longest migration of any mammal —10,000 to 14,000 miles roundtrip yearly.
  • English explorer John Meares gave Cape Disappointment its name after he missed the mouth of the Columbia River (1788).
  • Forks was the setting for Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” books on which movies were based.
  • The wettest place in the contiguous 48 is Aberdeen Reservoir (131 inches yearly) and the wettest town, Forks (120 inches).
  • A million-plus seabirds migrate through Washington’s coastal refuges spring and fall.

Of seabirds and sand

Washington state’s Pacific coast is a study in contrasts. The northern half is rugged with narrow rocky shores while the southern half has wide sandy beaches.

The northern coast, which is the western boundary of the Olympic Peninsula, is lined with federal wildlife refuges that protect millions of seabirds and other animals. Refuge islands and offshore rocks are off limits. The Olympic National Park begins where the refuges end. In other words, this area has seen little development. Small additional portions of the northern coast belong to four Indian reservations, the largest being the 208,000-acre Quinault reservation.

There also are wildlife refuges and another Indian reservation well to the south, and the whole Washington coast can provide similar wildlife experiences because whales and the seabirds cruise the coast from end to end during seasonal migrations.

However, in the southern half of the state, Washington’s beaches are playgrounds, literally, and the area offers a tourism infrastructure with the accommodations, restaurants, shops and travel companies associated with a traditional vacation. The Pacific lures surfers plus anglers who want to fish the deep, but the field for water-based fun extends to bays, rivers and lakes for canoeing, kayaking and still-more fishing. On the sand, popular activities are varied including clam digging, building sandcastles and flying kites. Local communities sponsor festivals built around the sandcastles and kites.

Points of interest are:

  • Moclips and Pacific Beach, beach towns at the halfway point on the Washington coast and just south of the Quinault reservation.
  • Grays Harbor, exit point into the Pacific for the Chehalis River. Its entry is flanked by the beach towns Ocean Shores and Westport.
  • Willapa Bay, exit point for Willapa River plus home to the Willapa Wildlife Refuge. This bay separates the stick-thin Long Island Peninsula from the mainland.
  • Long Beach Peninsula, home to beach and port towns: Oysterville, Ocean Park, Klipsan Beach, Seaview and Ilwaco, plus a town called Long Beach.
  • Cape Disappointment State Park at the southern end of Long Beach Peninsula. Overlooking the Pacific and the mouth of the Columbia River. The park is home to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Take sand-sculpting lessons at the Sand and Sawdust Festival in Ocean Shores. Or, enter one of the sand-sculpting competitions at SandSations in Long Beach. Both are summer festivals.
  • Go surfing at Westport.
  • Retain guides from the Quinault Indian Nation for bear hunting or fishing; both require tribal permits. (The hunting program was created because the burgeoning black bear population causes severe damage to the reservation’s trees and leads to low elk calf survival.)
  • Hike in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, which has several units overlooking Willapa Bay. The 10 miles of repurposed logging roads in the Long Island unit are accessible only by water. Plan to camp here as well.
  • Submit a recipe or enter an eating contest at the Chocolate on the Beach Festival at Pacific Beach, held in winter.
  • Build a short trip plan around glacier-fed Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rain Forest in the Valley of the Giants. Hiking (where wildlife includes bald eagles and Roosevelt elk), fishing and swimming are top draws. Bring rain gear.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Go for the whole coast, after a fashion, by following the 350-mile Pacific Coast Scenic Byway.
  • At Ilwaco at the mouth of the Columbia River, fish for salmon (July to September) and sturgeon. Or, farther north at the mouth of Grays Harbor, at Westport, fish for salmon or halibut.
  • Grab the binoculars to watch seabirds, including puffins, on the islands and offshore rocks that are part of wildlife refuges on the Olympic Peninsula. Viewing points include Cape Alava, Kalaloch, Rialto, Ruby, Second and Shi Shi beaches. Sea otters or whales may turn up in viewing range, too.
  • Dig for clams on the beaches of North Cove and Grayland in the area between Willapa Harbor and Grays Harbor. In fact, there are many clams and crabs to dig or fish for on the southern part of the coast; a license is required.
  • If following the explorers, drive the Lewis and Clark Trail, then head to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Cape Disappointment State Park. Take one of the park’s hikes along routes taken by Captain Clark and his men to explore the beach below.
  • Fly a kite. In summer, Long Beach hosts the Washington State International Kite Festival, setting for competitions and demonstrations. In any season, see the town’s World Kite Museum. Or, time your trip for the late-summer Up Your Wind Kite Festival in Pacific Beach.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Drive the 41-mile Hidden Coast Scenic Byway, which hugs part of the Pacific coast including some mileage in the Quinault Indian Reservation; it offers rich wildlife viewing. Another option, at 48 miles, is aptly named the Cranberry Coast.
  • Look for gray whales from shore in places like Cape Alava, Cape Flattery, Westport and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Or take a cruise from Westport. March through May are the best months.
  • Bury your toes in the sand at North Beach north of Grays Harbor; Grayland’s and Westport’s beaches are south of the harbor. Or, discover the string of beaches on the more southerly Long Beach Peninsula.
  • Come to Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge to watch shorebirds. Come to the refuge for the springtime Shorebird Festival, built around the birds’ spring migration.
  • Celebrate seafood — and other delights — at the Oysters Water Music Festival in Long Beach or the Westport Seafood Festival and Craft Show. Both occur in August. Or, celebrate garlic at Ocean Park’s Garlic Festival in June.
  • In Aberdeen on Grays Harbor, cruise on Washington state’s official tall ship, the Lady Washington.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Washington Tourism Alliance at