An Existential Backpack Trip on the Olympic Peninsula

words + photos by Don Mankin

The sun was shining as I passed by the town of Sequim (pronounced “Squim” like some kind of squishy, low tide cephalopod) on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula (OP). I was on my way to Olympic National Park, one of “America’s Ultimate Parks,” according to National Geographic.

Times are tough and money is short; that is why I vacationed last summer in the OP, home to one of the most diverse and accessible wilderness areas in the United States. The Peninsula is just an hour or so drive and a 30 minute ferry ride from Seattle, and its varied attractions -- a rugged coastline, empty beaches, glacier-capped mountains, alpine meadows, pristine lakes, and thick rain forests – are a relatively short drive from each another.

There was another reason for this trip, to see if I, at the advanced age of 67, could still haul a fully loaded backpack into the wilderness and survive a few days on my own. From my 30s to my 50s, I used to do a solo backpacking trip almost every year, several of them on the OP. It was always a deeply satisfying experience – a meditative, reflective, man-alone-with-nature, listening-to-your-inner-voice, getting-in-touch-with-your-primal-self, city-boy-alone-in-the-wild kind of thing. I loved it.

I stopped backpacking altogether, solo or with company, about a dozen years ago as my knees and back started to give me trouble and the goop collecting in my arteries began to remind me of my mortality. But I’ve missed it. So, after getting the go ahead from my cardiologist and my knee surgeon, I decided to give it another try, to see if I could recreate those seminal experiences of my earlier years on the relatively flat, low altitude trails of Olympic National Park.

I started with an easy three day, two night hike into one of the rugged, relatively remote wilderness beaches that run almost continuously along Washington’s Pacific coast. I chose Third Beach, about a two hour drive from Port Angeles.  The trail was less than 1.5 gently sloping miles through a thick, green forest down to the beach and only a little bit further to the more secluded section at the far end. This was, indeed, backpacking for geezers.

At the trail head, I hefted my pack with nervous anticipation. Would it live up to my expectations? Will I get eaten by a black bear? Will I collapse from the effort?

The latter was of particular concern since the pack weighed at least 50 pounds. In my younger days, weight was not an issue. I just packed what I wanted and figured that I could handle it. It soon became clear that those days are long gone. The hike wasn’t a struggle, but it sure was uncomfortable.

It all seemed worthwhile when I reached the beach. Third Beach is about a half mile long, bracketed by a rocky headland at each end. All of the campers on the beach were clustered around a stream -- the only source of fresh water -- at the beginning of the beach. The rest of the beach was deserted, except for a beachcomber or two or the occasional backpacker heading to or from the even more remote beaches to the south.

I found a great campsite on a level bench of sand several feet above the high tide line, with the waves crashing just a few yards away. Big driftwood logs served as my “furniture” – an “easy chair” to lean against, a counter top for my stove, and branches and roots for hanging up my sweaty clothes. I could see a virtual rock garden of sea stacks jutting out of the water off shore in the distance. I had the beach pretty much to myself. 

After I finished setting up camp, I took off my boots and kicked back in my “easy chair” to gaze at the sea. As I sat my obsessive internal chatter slowed down to a gentle murmur, then faded away as I turned my attention to the more immediate tasks of making dinner, keeping track of my gear, and avoiding the annoying bites of mosquitos and more significant bites of hungry bears.

I slept well that night, no bears, and woke to a sparkling bright, sunny morning. After a simple breakfast, I packed lunch, a bottle of water and a shirt and headed to the rope ladder at the end of the beach, the only safe way to get to the top of the bluff overlooking the beach. From there it was a relatively easy hike 1.2 miles across the headland to the next beach.

I worked my way up the 50 foot, 60 degree slope like a commando. It was so much fun, I did it twice. It would have been a different story with a 50 pound pack – very strenuous, a bit scary, and somewhat risky. I was glad that I had decided to camp on Third Beach and explore the more remote beaches on the other side of the headland on a day trip rather than pack in overnight.

The trail across the headland took me through the cool, silent rain forest. Sun light filtered through the thick canopy overhead. The muffled thunder of the distant surf was the only sound I heard other than the thud of my boots on the soft, mossy ground, the clink of my hiking poles against the rocks, and the rhythmic sigh of my breath. The trail ended at another rope ladder leading down to the next beach, which looked out onto a rocky bay filled with the same sea stacks, some topped with trees, that I could see from my camp site.

I spent the next several hours exploring this wonderland, poking around in the tidepools and watching the surf swirl around the sea stacks. I ate lunch as the tide came in, then headed back. The return hike was so quiet that I whistled a good chunk of the Thelonious Monk songbook – even more atonally than he intended -- to scare off any bears hiding in the forest. I hoped they weren’t jazz fans.

I was back at my campsite by mid afternoon. After a short nap in my tent to get out of the hot sun, I sat on the beach and watched a family of deer wander out of the woods a few yards away and the fog envelop the distant sea stacks and descend on the beach. It’s for moments like this that I haven’t yet given up on this solitary exercise.

The hike out the next day was easier than the way in, even though it was now slightly uphill. My pack was lighter – no food and less water – but I am convinced that I was just getting used to carrying the weight. The next trip would be the real test -- a four night, 38 mile round trip hike along the Hoh River through the rain forest. But first I had to find an air-conditioned motel room. It was getting hot, really hot.

The next morning I listened anxiously as the TV weatherman predicted record breaking heat in Seattle, 103 degrees F, shattering the all time record for the “rainy” city. “Oh well,” I thought, “it should be cooler in the rain forest.” Wrong! When I checked in at the ranger station, I listened apprehensively as the ranger warned me about the heat, a predicted 105 degrees in the sun and 95 in the shade!

That didn’t sound like much fun, so I wisely decided to bail on the backpacking trip and went for a nine mile hike instead. With more than a mile left in the hike, I was exhausted and had drained a full Camelback and a 1.5 liter bottle of water. I had obviously made a wise decision.

So the question with which I started this trip – can I still do it? – remains only partially answered. Yes, if it’s an easy trail; maybe, maybe not, if it’s more difficult. But the more important question is “why,” and for that the answer is clear – to experience the beauty and solitude of nature, to disconnect from internal and external chatter, to feel wild and feral and physical in an increasingly tamed, abstract, and technology-mediated world. That is why I will continue to ask the question, “Can I still do it?”


Don Mankin is a travel writer, business author, psychologist, organizational consultant and executive coach. The Wall Street Journal called his latest book, Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler (National Geographic, 2008), “one of the best travel books to cross our desk this year." For more information on Don or Riding the Hulahula, check out his website


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