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There’s something special about hiking and camping on an isolated west coast with nothing between you and Japan but the wild Pacific Ocean. Shi Shi Beach in Washington’s Olympic National Park gives you that experience, and it’s a short and easy hike to get there. I’ve made several trips to Shi Shi Beach since the scenery (and sunsets) are worth the trip. Here’s my complete guide to hiking and camping at Shi Shi Beach.
Shi Shi Beach Overview
Shi Shi Beach is a beautiful remote beach at the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The beach is two miles of sand bracketed by huge sea stacks and rocky cliffs at either end. At the south end of the beach you will find the dramatic Point of the Arches, a collection of giant sea stacks riddled with arched openings that you can explore at low tide. The trail to Shi Shi Beach begins on the tribal lands of the Makah Indian Reservation but the beach is in Olympic National Park. Fun fact: it’s pronounced “shy-shy”. I said it wrong for a couple of years before someone told me 🙂
Getting to Shi Shi Beach
The easiest way to get to Shi Shi Beach is in your own vehicle. Clallam County Transit does have limited bus service to Neah Bay. And once you get to Neah Bay the Makah Tribe does have a bus service on the reservation but there isn’t any service that goes all the way to the trailhead 7 miles (11km) away. However, there may be hiker shuttle companies operating in the area – call the Wilderness Information Center at Olympic National Park for more info.
Travel time to the trailhead is time consuming: about 7 hours from Vancouver or about 4.5 hours from Seattle both of which involve a trip on a Washington State ferry. (Click the links for google maps directions.)
Shi Shi Beach Fees, Permits and Reservations
Unlike some of the other popular coastal areas in Olympic National Park, reservations are not required to camp on Shi Shi Beach. (However if you plan to continue your trip past Shi Shi Beach and camp south of Point of the Arches or elsewhere on the North Coast in Olympic National Park you need a reservation May through September.) Since reservations aren’t required the beach can get quite busy with campers on summer weekends so go early to get a good spot.
The beginning of the trail is on the Makah Reservation. To hike on Makah land you need a Makah Recreation permit. You can purchase a permit at most businesses in Neah Bay. The easiest place to buy a permit is at the museum: it is a big building on your left hand side as you drive into town. You can find a complete listing of businesses that sell the Makah Recreation Permit on the Makah Tribal Council website. Permits cost $10 and are good for the duration of your stay. You must display your permit on your dashboard.
If you are day hiking you can park for free at the trailhead parking lot. If you are staying overnight you will need to park at one of two private parking lots located about half a mile (800m) back down the road. Parking is $10 per car per day and must be paid in cash. These parking lots are located in local residents front yards. You can self-register and pay for parking at a box on the porch.
If you are just day hiking to Shi Shi Beach there are no fees or permits required for the National Park portion of your hike. But if you plan to camp on Shi Shi Beach you will be inside the National Park and therefore will need a backcountry permit. Permits cost $5 per person per night. You can pick up a permit at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles. You will also need to rent a bear canister at the WIC (see the food storage section below for more info).
Since you won’t be leaving your car inside the National Park, you don’t need a National Park entrance pass unless you plan to visit other areas of Olympic National Park.
Shi Shi Beach Trail
The trail to Shi Shi Beach is fairly flat and not very long, so it should be easy right? Well it is, except for when it’s muddy and that can really slow you down. And oh it gets muddy. It’s about 4 miles one way from the trailhead to the end of the beach at Point of the Arches.
The first mile of the trail is on a recently constructed trail through thick second growth forest. There are a few bridges and boardwalks but no significant mud. In the second mile the trail meets an old road. You turn right here to follow the road and this is where the mud begins. There are often short trails around the sides of the mud bogs if you don’t want to get your feet wet. However, we found that while there was an inch or two of standing water in the center of the trail, it often wasn’t muddy there, just wet. So if you wear good hiking boots, you can trek through the center of most mud puddles. Just before the 2 mile mark you’ll start to see little side trails that head out towards the cliff edge for views of the ocean.
At about the 2 mile mark the trail heads steeply down a switchbacking trail to the beach. There are ropes along the trail to hang on to. Even though it looks steep and a bit intimidating from above, once you you get on to the slope you’ll realize that the ropes are more there for handrails than for protection and it’s actually not that steep. Once you get to the bottom of the slope you’ll pass through a camping area and on to the beach.
Once you hit the beach, there’s no more trail, just sand. The beach stretches away in a long curve for two miles to your left. At the end of the sand are the spectacular sea stacks of Point of the Arches. You’ll pass three campsites and cross two creeks on your walk down the beach.
Hopefully you’ve timed your hike to reach Point of the Arches at low tide so that you can walk out to them and explore. You can explore the point itself, but give yourself time to walk another half mile around the point to explore the pocket coves, tide pools and off shore rocks that are exposed at low tide. If you are day hiking or camping at Shi Shi Beach, make this your turn around point.
Day Hiking vs. Camping
The hike to Point of the Arches is only 8 miles long and is quite flat so it is a reasonable day hike for most people. However, the drive to the trailhead is quite long so I would only advise you day hike it if you are already in the area. If you are making a special trip to Shi Shi Beach, I think you should camp. If you camp you have more time to enjoy the area (obviously). But you also get to enjoy the sunset and you’ll be on the beach to enjoy some excellent low tide exploring. Since the trail is quite moderate, this a great introductory backpacking trip for kids or beginners.
Shi Shi Beach Campsites
There are three main camping areas on Shi Shi Beach. The first is the area near where the trail first hits the beach. The second is at Petroleum creek about 1 mile (1.5km) down the beach. The last one is near the end of the beach at Willoughby Creek (about 2 miles/ 3.5km down the beach). You can camp anywhere you like along the length of the beach, but most people camp in one of the three previously mentioned places since that’s where you can access drinking water and toilets and easily find sites above the high tide line. Each of the camping areas is marked with a single orange trail marker on a tree that can be seen from the beach. Many of the camping areas also have old fishing floats hanging in the trees as markers.
Forest Trailhead Campsite
When you first descend from the forest to the beach, you will pass right through this campground. There are a few cleared sites in the trees behind the beach and you can camp on the beach itself. A trail runs through the treed campsites, parallel to the beach.
There is a basic toilet along this trail, but it isn’t too private: it’s just a seat with a small privacy barrier on one side – the other three sides are totally open.
The forest trailhead campsite has no water source. There may be a seasonal creek during spring runoff, but at other times of the year you will have to pack water in with you on the trail or hike a mile down the beach to Petroleum Creek to get water.
The forest trailhead campsite is my least favourite of the three campsites as Shi Shi and I have actually never stayed there. I don’t like it because the toilet is not ideal and there is no water and because it is the farthest away from Point of Arches. It also tends to be a bit of a party campsite since it is the closest to the trailhead. Surfers also like this campsite since they don’t have to carry their boards and camping gear all the way down the beach.
Petroleum Creek Campsite
If you want the best view of Point of the Arches, this is the campsite for you. You’ll be about a mile away from the Point but will have great views of the arches and sea stacks. There are a few cleared campsites in the trees on either side of the creek and strung out along the beach for a quarter mile in both directions. You can also camp right on the beach but keep an eye on the high tide line.
There is a toilet with a three sided privacy structure around it located on the south side of the creek. To find it, climb up the bank off the beach into the campground at the orange marker. You might be expecting to find the toilet up a trail straight ahead of you, but no! It’s actually just to your right, practically right in the campground. While it does offer more visual privacy than the Forest Trailhead toilet, you will still be doing your business just feet from someone’s tent.
Water is easy to get at the Petroleum Creek campsite as the creek flows all year round. The water is quite tea coloured, but it is a constant flow.
The Petroleum Creek campsite is a good option if you want easy access to water and incredible views of the arches.
Willoughby Creek campsite
The Willoughby Creek campsite is located at the far end of Shi Shi Beach, almost at the Point of the Arches. It provides a great base for exploring the sea stacks and arches of the point. Since it is the farthest campsite, it also may be a bit less busy.
This campsite has the best toilet on the beach. It is located on the north side of the creek. Climb over the driftwood at the orange marker on a tree. You’ll find a short trail into the bushes that leads to the toilet. It is a basic toilet with a three sided privacy structure but since it is in thick bushes, you get far more privacy.
The water source at this campsite is Willoughby Creek. The water flow of this creek is not as strong as Petroleum Creek so it may not reach the beach all year. To get fresh water at times of lower flow go into the campsite to the north of the creek and follow a short path towards the creek. You may have to walk up the creekbed a little ways to find water before it drains into the sand and gravel.
I have stayed at both the Petroleum Creek and Willoughby Creek campsites and I have to say I prefer Willoughby mostly because it has the better toilet. (But also because it is so close to the arches.)
Food Storage at Shi Shi Beach
Apparently the racoons on the Olympic Coast are particularly intelligent. They have figured out how to eat hiker’s food if it is hung in a tree (which usually works to keep bears out if it). So the National Park’s Coastal Food Storage Policy now requires that all backcountry campers on the entire coast store their food in bear canisters. You can rent canisters from the WIC for $3 each per trip when you pick up your permit. The WIC even has a handy drop slot if you need to return your canister after they have closed for the night.
Travelling with a bear canister requires a bit of advance planning. All of your scented items (toiletries, etc.), garbage and food need to be stored in the canister at night or if you aren’t right next to it. (For example if you are off on a day hike). Plan lightweight and compact meals and bring minimal toiletries. If you pack efficiently you can usually share one canister between two people for a two night trip. (But planning for one canister per person or even two canisters between three people is a bit more prudent.)
Most people choose to put the canister inside their pack as they are difficult (though not impossible) to strap to the outside. In camp, store your canisters away from your tent and kitchen area in a place where they can’t be rolled away (or into the water!) You can find more info about using a bear canister on REI’s site.
I recommend: If you plan to do multiple trips in areas where bear canisters are required or recommended, it’s easier to just buy your own so you don’t have to rely on hitting the visitor centre when they are open to rent one. I own both the Garcia Machine Backpackers Cache and the Bear Vault versions and recommend them both. If I had to pick one, I’d say the Bear Vault since it has straight sides so it’s easier to pack, and it’s clear so you can see whats at the bottom. Buy: MEC | REI.
Water Sources and Water Treatment at Shi Shi Beach
The only water sources on Shi Shi Beach are Petroleum Creek and Willoughby Creek. As mentioned above, Petroleum Creek has stronger flow throughout the year. The water drains coastal swamps and can be quite tea coloured. Some people prefer to add drink powder to their water to disguise the colour. As well, streams in the area have been known to harbour the parasites cryptosporidium and giardia. Iodine is not an effective treatment for parasites so filter or boil your water before drinking.
I recommend: For coastal camping I use the Platypus Gravity Works filter since you can fill up the dirty water reservoir at the creek, carry it back to the campsite, then let gravity do the work of filtering your water. We have the 2L size, but our friends have the 4L size which is great for groups. Buy: MEC | REI.
Tides at Shi Shi Beach
Unlike some of the other popular coastal areas in Olympic National Park, there are no tidal obstacles on Shi Shi Beach. You can walk the length of the beach even at high tide. However, you will want to know the tides for two reasons. First, so that you can be sure your tent is up above the high tide line. And second so that you know when low tide is so that you can explore the sea stacks and arches. You should print out and bring the La Push tide table along with a watch.
Campfires at Shi Shi Beach
Campfires are permitted at Shi Shi Beach. However, you may only collect driftwood and can’t collect wood from the forest. (The driftwood burns better anyway.) The rangers encourage you to build your campfire in an existing fire ring or make one below the high tide line. Make a small fire and don’t burn big driftwood logs so that there is lots of wood left for everyone.
Dogs at Shi Shi Beach
Dogs are not permitted in National Parks, so you can’t bring your dog to Shi Shi Beach.
Car Camping Near Shi Shi Beach
Given the distance and logistics involved in getting to Shi Shi Beach, you may want to car camp the night before you start the trail.
The closest campground to the trailhead is at the Hobuck Beach Resort on the Makah Reservation. It is only 3.5 miles (6km) from the trailhead. It makes sense to stay here if you can pick up your backcountry permit and bear canister at the WIC the day before your hike. You can buy your Makah Recreation Pass at the Hobuck Beach campground rather than buying it in Neah Bay.
If you are arriving too late to go to the WIC the day before, you should camp nearby so you can get there early in the morning. The closest camping is at Olympic National Park’s Heart O’ the Hills Campground just a 10 minute drive up the Hurricane Ridge Road from the WIC. It’s $20 a night, has 102 sites and is first come, first served. Another option is Sequim Bay State Park a 30 min drive from the WIC. It has 45 tent sites that cost $25 to $35 and it is fully reservable. You could also try staying at Clallam County’s Dungeness Recreation Area, but it is a bit of a detour off highway 101 towards the coast. It’s a 30 min drive from the WIC and has 66 sites (half reservable and half first come first served). It’s $23 a night plus a $10 reservation fee.
Further Reading and Maps for Shi Shi Beach
You can find more information about Shi Shi Beach on the Olympic National Park website.
The National Park also has a good overview map of the park with campsites and trails marked.
For actual travel on the trail you should buy the North Olympic Coast topographic map by Custom Correct maps. It has trails, distances, and tidal obstacles marked. Buy: REI. Your permit will also come with a basic hand drawn map of Shi Shi Beach showing campsie and water locations.
Do you have questions about hiking or camping at Shi Shi Beach? Hit me up in the comments.
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