Cape Flattery, Olympic coast, WA 7–9 June 2019

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Jun 13, 2019.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    Cape Flattery is the northwesternmost point in the Lower 48 contiguous United States. There are points farther north, there are points farther west, but there is no point farther north and west. The cape is most famous for its sea caves, arches, and tunnels, but it is also known for huge waves whenever there are cyclones or high swells. The cape marks the boundary between the Olympic coast to the south and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the east, so it is exposed to rough conditions from many directions.

    I drove up on Friday to find good launching and landing points and to scout the cape on foot to assess conditions for the next morning. I decided to launch at Neah Bay, camp at Hobuck Beach, and paddle back to Neah Bay, thus rounding the cape twice, once in each direction.

    00 Map.jpg
    00 Route map. Simply hug the coast all the way around.

    I thought this route would maximize my time in the sea caves at Cape Flattery, but in retrospect, I would have done better simply to set up camp at Hobuck Beach and launch day trips from there up to the cape and back. The stretch along the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Neah Bay and the cape is nice enough, but the distance from Neah Bay to the cape is eight miles, whereas from Hobuck it’s only five. Day-tripping out of Hobuck would also have spared me the long, unappealing detour around the jetty between Neah Bay and Waadah Island.

    01 Scouting Cape Flattery on foot. There is an observatory at the tip of the cape.

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    02 Barred owl. This adult owl and a juvenile flew across the road in front of me while I was driving between the Cape Flattery trailhead and Hobuck Beach.

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    03 Point of the Arches seen from Hobuck Beach. This stretch of coast is one of the most popular for hiking.

    All of Cape Flattery, including Hobuck Beach and Neah Bay, is part of the Makah Indian Reservation. Camping is $25 per site per night, plus a $10 parking pass that is good for a year. Hobuck Beach and Neah Bay are the only parts of the reservation where camping is allowed, but day use is allowed everywhere else except Tatoosh Island.

    There are no designated campsites at Hobuck Beach. Instead, you park your car and set up your tent anywhere you find room. Unlike every other car-camping facility I’ve ever visited, the guests at Hobuck seemed to prefer camping inland rather than closer to the beach. This was happy news for me. I parked as close to the water as I could to minimize my carrying distance—and so that the surf would drown out the noise of my fellow campers.

    In the morning, an ebb tide helped pull me westwards down the strait, although I found currents to be quite weak regardless of tide. Right away, I began encountering seabirds: mostly rhinoceros auklets and marbled murrelets in the strait, mostly common murres and pelagic cormorants on the open coast, and pigeon guillemots everywhere.

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    04 Waadah Island, Neah Bay. The long jetty between this island and the mainland adds a couple miles to the paddling distance.

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    05 Marbeled murrelets. These beautiful little alcids were numerous in the Strait of Juan de Fuca but almost absent on the open coast.

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    06 Harlequin ducks. Every duck in this photo is a male. I'm sure they're wondering where all the females are.

    Last edited: Jun 13, 2019
  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    The caves at Cape Flattery were utterly astonishing. Some caves were deep, dark holes in which swells would boom unseen off the back walls. Others were long, curvy tunnels in which the light would disappear around the bend. Still other caves had multiple entrances, sometimes three or four, that connected through a maze of passages. I could enter in one bay and pop out in a different one. Some caves had seals in them who snorted at me to get out. Others were home to nesting seabirds, including one in which an entire wall was lined with so many nests of pelagic cormorants that it looked like vegetation was growing out of the walls—an impossibility in an unlit cave.

    07 Beach inside cave. This cave had three entrances, all converging at an underground beach.

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    08 Departing a sea cave. Even a gentle swell was sufficient to create deep, booming echoes.

    09 Arch above a spire. The diversity of rock forms was a constant delight.

    There were also towering arches whose walls were lined with anemones and sea stars. Often, these formed the entrance to hidden grottoes carved out of the sandstone cliffs. I would pass beneath an arch and into a miniature, hidden world with fern-lined walls and a tiny, sandy beach just for me.

    10 Sea anemone inside sea cave. I was surprised how much marine life made its home inside the arches and caves.

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    11 Through a narrow passage. There were over a hundred arches, tunnels, and caves. It would take many visits to find and explore them all.

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    12 Mushroom rock. The sea caves begin about a mile east of here and continue all the way around the cape.

    Tatoosh Island lies half a mile offshore of Cape Flattery and is likewise part of the Makah Reservation. However, unlike the rest of the reservation, landing on Tatoosh is not allowed.

    Tatoosh is known for nesting seabirds, especially the common murre, of which the island ranks among the top three colonies in the state. Unfortunately for the murres, however, there are also a lot of bald eagles and glaucous-winged gulls on Tatoosh Island. Eagles prey on adult murres, and, worse yet, whenever the adult murres flee their nests to escape a marauding eagle, gulls move in to predate their eggs.

    Murres have evolved various strategies to cope with the double threat of eagles plus gulls. On Tatoosh, some murres have moved into sea caves, where they nest on ledges high up on the walls. Eagles are too clumsy to enter the caves, so murres are safe to remain round-the-clock to guard their eggs against gulls.

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    13 Approaching Tatoosh Island. This narrow passage can get rough when the wind is up or the swell is high.

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    14 Tatoosh lighthouse. The island was a coast guard station for many years before the U.S. government turned it over to the Makah in settlement of a claim by the tribe against the U.S. for violation of the treaty.

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    15 Hall of murres. In here, the common murres are quite safe from marauding eagles.

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    16 Murres atop their ledge. Even by seabird standards, murres form unusually dense colonies.

    Besides murres, there were also large numbers of pigeon guillemots and pelagic cormorants nesting on Tatoosh. There were even a handful of puffins, though their numbers here, as elsewhere, have been greatly reduced in recent decades. In addition, there were several dozen Steller sea lions, males and females, hauled out on the reef north of the island.

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    17 Steller sea lion haul-out north of Tatoosh. The males kept up a steady roaring, moaning chorus.

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    18 Fuca Pillar. Dense beds of kelp sometimes created obstacles for me, but they were perfect habitat for sea otters.

    Last edited: Jun 13, 2019
  3. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    From Tatoosh, I returned to the mainland to explore more caves before heading to Hobuck Beach. Hobuck is fully exposed to ocean swells. Indeed, surfers were out on their boards as I approached, and I broached and capsized coming through the last line of breakers. However, a capsize in a drysuit in three feet of water, while embarrassing, was not any cause for concern.

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    18 Approaching Cape Flattery. The observatory sits atop one of these headlines. Kayakers can paddle underneath it.

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    19 Under an arch at the cape. In the crevices between headlands, the most perfect, secret little gardens have sprouted.

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    20 Driftwood log inside a cave. Some of the caves are so twisty and so deep, the light would disappear altogether.

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    21 Rectangular passageway. The headlands are as hollow as Swiss cheese. Whole mazes have formed within them.

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    22 Stone grotto. At higher tides, it is possible to penetrate even deeper into the complex.

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    23 Sea stars. The quantity and diversity of invertebrate life was astonishing.

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    24 View of Tatoosh Island from beneath arch. Some of the caves had dead ends, while others had secret back doors leading out by a different way.

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    25 Fuca Pillar. The many rock formations offshore broke up the swells, making the caves easier to explore.

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    26 Hobuck Beach. This is the northernmost of the many long, sandy beaches of the Olympic coast.

    Last edited: Jun 13, 2019
  4. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    The next morning, I launched as early as I could drag myself out of my sleeping bag. I wanted to get on the water before the tide got too low, because the caves at Cape Flattery are best explored when the tide is at five feet above datum or higher. The lower the water level, the more rocks emerge to block the entrances. A few caves remain accessible even at minus tides, but the majority require several feet of depth.

    (Note to Canadian readers: American tide tables generally use the MLLW datum, whereas Canadian tide tables generally use the LLWLT datum. Thus, minus tides are a routine event in American tables, occurring on almost half the days each month, but a rare event in Canadian tables.)

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    27 Rock formations south of Cape Flattery. These stone sentinels reminded me of the Giants' Graveyard from my trip last month out of La Push.

    DSC_0468 early silhouettes.JPG 28 Rock silhouettes south of Cape Flattery. The early morning is the most beautiful time of day on the coast.

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    29 Fuca Pillar. Like two stone men keeping watch out to sea.

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    30 Secret beach. Some of these little gardens were so well hidden, I almost expected to encounter dinosaurs or sasquatch.

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    31 Inside a cave. A grunting harbor seal inside this cave sounded like some kind of enormous, enraged boar.

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    32 Exiting cave. A pigeon guillemot dropped out of the roof and nearly struck my kayak before it flew off through the entrance.

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    33 Mushroom rock. Its chalky top is testament to its popularity with cormorants and gulls.

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    34 Chain of arches. Some of the passage are so narrow, I had to use my hands instead of my paddle.

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    35 One last cave. This one has a skylight.

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    36 Strait of Juan de Fuca, looking north to Vancouver Island. It's a lovely corner of the world.

    After another fine morning on the water, including an encounter with a small raft of sea otters in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I pulled into Neah Bay and loaded up my car for the long drive home.

    Visiting Cape Flattery was like landing on another planet. Inside the caves, the disorienting echoes and unpredictable pitch of the swells created an environment unlike any other I've encountered on land or sea. Yet for all its strangeness, the cape was an inviting place, not an alarming one. I never felt threatened, even in the deepest, narrowest caves. Instead, I only felt called to explore onward, to see what further wonders awaited around the next corner.

    Last edited: Jun 13, 2019
    benson, JKA, stagger and 1 other person like this.
  5. stagger

    stagger Paddler

    Mar 22, 2015
    Calgary, AB
    Great report and great photos, Alex! Your explorations and explanations of this corner of the world are a delight and a valuable resource. Thanks!
    dvfrggr likes this.
  6. pawsplus

    pawsplus Paddler

    Jan 19, 2015
    Landlocked in Tennessee
    WHAT AN AMAZING TRIP!!! Another place I will have to visit for sure one day! :)