Greg Johnston says he can’t imagine a place more stunning than the Pacific coast of Washington state.
“We’re at what I call the tectonic edge—where the Juan de Fuca Plate heads east and dives under the continental plate,” Johnston told the Georgia Straight by phone from North Bend, east of Seattle. “That creates, over the eons, friction and wild landscapes. Due also to the stormy nature of our coast and erosion, we have what I call Earth’s bones—these stone sea stacks, islets, islands.”
Johnston is the author of Washington’s Pacific Coast: A Guide to Hiking, Camping, Fishing & Other Adventures (Mountaineers Books), a new guidebook. The 320-page paperback shows the way to over 40 hikes and 30 campgrounds between Cape Flattery and Cape Disappointment, and offers information about the area’s history and wildlife.
A former journalist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Associated Press, and Daily World in Aberdeen, Johnston now lives in Kirkland and works for King County Parks. The lifelong outdoor enthusiast started working on the book after he lost his job as a reporter when the P-I ended its print edition in 2009.
Johnston noted that Olympic National Park protects a sizable chunk of the rocky north coast, including highlights such as the Quillayute Needles and Giants Graveyard.
“It’s absolutely unique in the lower 48 states, because it’s got 70 miles of virtually undeveloped shoreline,” Johnston said. “It’s wilderness beach.”
According to him, to fully experience the coast, you need to backpack its beaches. The book highlights three backpacking trips in Olympic National Park that are longer than 15 miles. He cautioned that they aren’t a walk in the park.
“It’s very rugged,” Johnston said. “We have a lot of headlands that are impassable and have to be climbed over. A lot of them you can go around on really low tides—minus tides or very close to minus tides—but some you just have to climb up and over. Also due to the changing nature of the landscape here due to erosion and tectonics, it changes a lot.”
For someone who only has a day to explore the coast, Johnston recommends a visit to Shi Shi Beach. The book features a nine-mile hike with 200 feet of elevation gain at this popular spot.
“It’s a beautiful beach,” Johnston said. “The south end is a place that some have called the most beautiful part of the entire Washington coast or even the entire West Coast—the Point of Arches, which is this massive conglomeration of rock and arches and sea stacks.”
Another amazing day hike is Rialto Beach to Hole in the Wall, Johnston noted. It’s a three-mile round trip with negligible elevation gain.
“It’s just really stunning scenery,” Johnston said. “You can actually backpack there, so I recommend it if you want to introduce kids [to backpacking].”
As far as campgrounds go, Johnston asserted that Kalaloch is the best on the coast. It’s open year-round, has 170 sites, and requires reservations between June 18 and September 6.
Johnston also mentioned Cape Disappointment State Park, at the south end of the coast, as a superb camping destination with a “really intense history”. He pointed out that the Lewis and Clark expedition made its way there in 1805.
“It’s a former coastal artillery fort, so you have a lot of military ruins there,” Johnston said. “There’s great trails through old-growth spruce forest. We have the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center there, two historic lighthouses.”
According to Johnston, Washington’s Pacific Coast is the first comprehensive guide to the area. Next, he plans to write a similar book covering outdoor recreation on the shores of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the San Juan Islands.
“In the book on the coast, I tried to tie all these hikes to the physical and cultural history of our coast, because to me that really adds depth and texture to these places we visit,” Johnston said. “They can be spectacular in their own right, but when you know the important things that have gone on before and how it came to be the way it is, it enriches the experience.”
Another new guidebook for those interested in the Washington outdoors is Day Hiking: Mount St. Helens (Mountaineers Books) by Craig Romano and Aaron Theisen. It also includes information on backpacking and winter routes.