A brilliant full moon hangs between the cliffs of Taylor Point and the foreboding shapes of the Giants Graveyard. Streaks of silver moonlight dance on the water. The setting sun purples the sky. It's a compelling scene, made more so by the fact that the moon is rising over the Pacific.
We're camped on Third Beach. In the morning, the tide drains the beach. It's as if a mischievous god has pulled the plug on the sea. We wander among boulders plastered with sea stars, anemones and barnacles. Raccoons scurry about, crunching crabs. Black-tailed deer sample the kelp. The screams of oystercatchers break the stillness. Ghostly Graveyard tombstones tower in the mist.
Third Beach lies in the middle of the longest stretch of untouched coast in the Lower 48, most of it within Olympic National Park. A saw blade of headland and beach, the coast is rugged but accessible. For photographers patient with (and respectful of) tides and weather, it's a prime hunting ground for an astonishing diversity of photographs.
Winter, when storms rule, is a great time to visit; go for ocean waves, storm-bent trees or kamikaze surfers. Alternatively, visit in spring, when the coastline is flush with wildflowers (May is best). Or time a visit during a full (or new) moon between May and August, when you can explore the tidepools on the rocky headlands.
For any coastal visit, you'll need tide tables. Check Saltwatertides.com, pick up a tidal guide locally at a marine store, or stop at Swain's in Port Angeles (605 E. First St.) on the way out. Subtract 30 minutes from the Aberdeen tides to estimate highs and lows. When tidepooling, get to your location two hours before the low, and start back before the tide reverses. Round a headland only on a receding tide. In winter, be wary of waves roaring up the beach; big swells and high winter tides can combine to toss drift logs like toothpicks.
From Cape Flattery to Kalaloch, here is a north-to-south guide to the best beaches, sea stacks and tidepools accessible by car, short hike or overnight backpacking trip.
From several observation platforms, view the thrashing waters of the Juan de Fuca entrance, Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery's coves and cliffs. Winter storm drama plays here often. Look for tufted puffins and common murres diving beneath the cliffs and, in winter, sea otters in the offshore kelp. South of the cape, don't miss Makah Bay and Hobuck Beach, a favorite of surfers in both summer and winter. In May, look for wildflowers blooming beyond the beaches.
For a more intimate cape view, and a chance to see marine mammals like Stellar's sea lions and gray whales (in migration April and May), hire a boat out of Neah Bay from a firm such as Puffin Adventures (888-305-2437).In the Neah Bay harbor, California sea lions often provide opportunities for close-ups when they look for scraps left behind by fishermen.
Point of the Arches
Located on the south end of Shi Shi Beach, Point of the Arches is perhaps the most stunning set of sea stacks on the coast—a complete package of defiant arches, tunnels and amazing tidepools. The upturned sandstone shelf just north of the point, along with the archways, provides outstanding leading lines and frames for your images. Plan an overnight with a good morning minus tide to explore the intertidal zone. It's a moderate 4-mile hike in. Sometime in 2001, a new Makah-built trail to Shi-Shi beach should open. Check with the Makah Tribal Office (360-645-2201) before you go.
At the north end of Shi Shi, a series of pocket beaches and not-too-shabby tidepools hides behind a line of offshore sea stacks. The wrecked troop ship General M.C. Meigs lies in pieces here as well.
From the Ozette ranger station, hike the 3.3-mile trail and boardwalk past the historic Ahlstrom Prairie. At Cape Alava, head north toward the Ozette River mouth for excellent tidepooling and a good chance to see sea otters. Or hike south 1.3 miles to Wedding Rock, which bears petroglyphs of orca whales, Indian masks and ships.
Good for photographing sunlit-morning winter waves as you look south toward James Island. Just beyond Hole-in-the-Wall archway, you'll find tidepool-season scenics and pattern shots. Ocher sea stars and anemones plaster the overhangs. A half-mile beyond is a broad, flat rock shelf with numerous tide pools.
La Push/First Beach
First Beach is home to an annual kayak surf frolic, held the first January weekend after New Year's Day. It offers excellent opportunities for winter wave photography with the teeth-like Quillayute Needles and Quateata Head as a backdrop. The Quillayute fishing village of La Push offers beachside cabins right where the action is, with wood stoves or fireplaces for warmth on long nights (800-487-1267).
A photographer's favorite in any season. Water oozing from sand, complete with inshore stacks, looks especially good when shot toward sunset during a receding tide. In summer, don't stop at trail's end; the beach bends around the corner to the south for another mile or so to reveal more sea stacks—and excellent tidepooling — at the approach to Teahwhit Head.
Third Beach/Toleak Point
Third Beach yields distant views of the impressive Giants Graveyard and good tidepooling along the northern edge. Time an early summer visit just preceding a full moon to take advantage of the aforementioned moonrise over the Pacific.
Farther on, Toleak Point sits on an enormous shelf of rock, near offshore sea stacks. Camp here for stunning sunsets and good tidepooling. Excellent wildlife viewing includes hordes of harbor seals, river otters, sea otters, bald eagles and sea birds such as oystercatchers and scoters.
Ruby Beach/Beach 4
Highway 101 parallels the ocean for 12 miles along this southern beach section of Olympic National Park, allowing easy access to the shore. Ruby Beach tops the list of sites offering photographic opportunities, with Abbey Island and Cedar Creek a picturesque duo. Unobstructed waves batter these beaches relentlessly in winter. Ranger-led intertidal walks are offered several times weekly in summer at Beach 4, in the Kalaloch area.