We visited two types of beaches on our trip to the Olympic Peninsula: one along the relatively sheltered coast of the Straights of Juan de Fuca (The Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge), and the other on the western face of the peninsula where it meets the full force of the Pacific Ocean.
The 756 acre Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge includes a rich maritime forest, a long beach and sand spit (with sheltered tidal flats) and a quiet bay with abundant eel grass beds. It is a complex set of habitats that can sustain a wide range of birds, fish, and mammals. Over 250 species of birds have been recorded in the refuge.
We parked in the extensive upper parking area and paid our three dollar group fee to enter the refuge. There are two choices of paths to walk down to the beach: one is broad and paved and cuts straight through the bordering forest while the other is narrow, unpaved, and winds its way through the varying vegetation of the coastal woods. We took the narrow path.
Almost immediately we ran into a woman on the trail who asked us in panicked way if the end of the trail was just ahead. She said that she had been wandering around in the woods on all of the curving trails and felt quite disoriented and lost. We assured her that the trailhead was just 50 feet away and then continued, with a little bit of anxiety, down the path.
After walking this trail, though, I am not sure at all of how that person got “lost” in the woods! There were no cross-trails or critical turns to follow. It was just a continuous (although curving, but not ridiculously so) path that ran for about a mile from one very well marked point to another.
There were beautiful trees along the path and abundant low bushes full of singular, dark berries (currants?). The berries would be a rich food source for birds and also, if there were any about, bears. I wasn’t brave enough to try the berries since I couldn’t identify them with any degree of certainty. Several very large western red cedars highlighted the forest. They were surrounded by variously sized Douglas firs (Pseudosuga menziesi) and numerous broad-leafed trees (mostly red alder (Alnus rubra)) and clusters of tall ferns. Along the edge of the trail a low growing, dark green leafed, almost plastic-looking shrub grew quite abundantly. I should have paid more attention to it, because in just over 48 hours, on the plane heading toward Pittsburgh, I suddenly realized that it was western poison oak (Toxidendron diversilobum). I was the only one in my group wearing shorts on the hike, and I must have brushed against the leaves as I walked along because both of my lower legs exploded in an itchy, delayed hypersensitivity reaction. Thank goodness for prednisone!
We walked down a steep trail to the beach and stood in the shade of the tall, sandy bluffs and watched the waves roll into shore. The waves came in from our left (west) and rolled out to our right (east) as they were pulled along by the rapid, east flowing current of the Straights. This steady west to east push moved the sand eroding from the bluffs behind us and all of the gravel and pebbles ground up from far off mountains inevitably to the east. It stretched the beach out into the five and a half mile long sand pit and kept on extending it, on average, an additional fifteen feet each year.
We could see Vancouver just across the Straights. We could even see Mt. Baker in the Cascades far out to the east floating like a mirage over the distant haze behind the lighthouse at the end of the sand spit. To the west, the buildings and docks of Port Angeles glowed in the bright afternoon sun.
The beach all the way down the long sand spit had a high storm line covered with large, gray, weathered tree trunks. Some of these trees may have fallen from the maritime forest behind us as their underlying sand bluffs eroded, but some may have drifted in via the ocean currents to then be driven high aground during storms.
The rocks on the beach are a riot of colors, textures, and shapes. We play “beach bocce” as we walk down the beach and pick up a few especially smooth “worry stones” for souvenirs.
There are not very many birds out today. The woods had been almost completely silent and still, and the beach had only a few notable inhabitants. Double crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) sunned themselves on the isolated rocks and dried their wing feathers as they stood in their distinctive, upright stances. A medium sized bird swam out in the swells a couple of hundred yards off shore. Its white throat and chest led Marian and I to think that it was a western grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis), but it was hard to get our binoculars focused on him. Several western gulls (Larus occidentalis) swooped around the people playing and picnicking on the shore.
Joe, Marlee and Marian walked well down the sand spit and spotted a group of harbor seals swimming and diving just off-shore. The spit is a perfect habitat for harbor seals to lounge and breed. Over recent years, though, there has been a decline in seal numbers here probably due to increasing human activity on this very popular beach.
The next morning we took a longer drive to the far west coast of the peninsula. We drove through the town of Forks (but, alas, saw no vampires. There were quite a few “Twilight” references around town, though) and took a right turn to Rialto Beach.
It was just past low tide when we arrived. The beach was broad and sandy with great spreads of small, smooth rocks and gravel. The stones are mostly oval in shape and are a riot of colors and textures. Some are even striped with light and dark bands. The waves are much bigger (2 to 3 feet) and more energetic than the ones we saw yesterday. The off-shore swells are large enough to lift a distant fishing boat up into view and then let it drop completely out of sight as it dipped down into the wave troughs.
Large piles of gray driftwood have accumulated high up on the beach. Like we saw yesterday, some of these trees are from the adjacent forest and some of them were driftwood pushed up the beach during storms. Many of the trees still standing in the beach edge of the forest are dead probably from salt spray from the pounding surf. A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sits on top of one of the partially denuded trees keeping an eye on the activities on the beach and surf.
All along the beach are great isolated, building sized rocks called “sea stacks.” Sea stacks form when medium resistance headland rocks (especially limestones) are differentially eroded by the wave pressures pounding on the shore. Fissures and then caves form in the rocks which then fragment and get separated into isolated sea stacks. The tall stacks will eventually erode into flattened stumps, and these stumps will then erode into even more flattened rock islands. These stacks and stumps and islands are extremely important sites for sea bird nesting, and are also great places to find isolated pools with rich arrays of marine creatures especially at low tide.
We run out onto one very accessible rock island. The surface of the rock is gray and broadly cracked. It looked like elephant’s skin! In the trapped pools on the surface of the island we find sea anemones and incredibly dense encrustations of mussels. Sadly, no sea stars or crabs or chitons to play with: maybe next time. The tide is starting to come in, so we retreat from the rock back to the beach and continue on to north.
Curled up on the beach are a number of
very complete specimens of bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana). The name comes from the long, bull whip-like stalk that supports the blades and floats. This kelp dies back in the winter and the dead stalks frequently washes ashore throughout the year.
Western gulls soar in the hard on-shore winds. Double crested cormorants fly from north to south somewhere in between the shore swells and breakers. A mule deer walks past us in the low intertidal zone of firmly packed sand. Is she down to the shore for salt, or is she looking for junk food like her cousins up on Hurricane Ridge?
The beach is spectacular. I always feel so at home when I am near the ocean. I even get to meet a 17 year old border collie (named Isabel) who, according to her owner, is on her last vacation trip to the ocean. Isabel trails her leash behind her as she walks under her own control down the beach. She tolerates a pat on the head, but obviously has things she wants to do. I hope that she is able to come back next year! I will be looking for her!