Our traveling party of two couples recently spent 48 hours out there. It was the weekend after the Fourth of July -- a busy time elsewhere, but every day is downtime in these parts, the westernmost place in the Lower 48.
Here's what we found.
How to get there
The northwest corner is a 4˝-hour drive from Everett. You'll need to hop a ferry to the Olympic Peninsula. If you choose the Coupeville-Port Townsend run, you should make reservations -- for both the outbound and return trips -- on Washington State Ferries' new online reservation system, which works well enough on a standard PC, but would be a lot more useful if it were usable on iPhones and Android smartphones.
The Edmonds-Kingston boat will be more convenient for most Snohomish County residents.
Once on the peninsula, follow the signs to U.S. 101 and head west. If you consult online maps, the promise of a slightly shorter drive might tempt you to exit U.S. 101 at Highway 112, just west of Port Angeles.
Highway 112 was recently named a National Scenic Byway, but our group begs to differ. The two-lane blacktop's a tedious, twisty, carsick-making ordeal through mostly unremarkable countryside.
Instead, continue west on U.S. 101 past Lake Crescent to the junction with Highway 113. Head north on this road and keep driving. Neah Bay's at the end of the road.
Where to eat
Dining options west of Port Angeles are sparse, so you'll probably want to do your own cooking. You can provision at the usual array of supermarkets in Port Angeles, Sequim or Port Townsend. But don't miss the locally owned Sunny Farms Country Store on U.S. 101 just west of Sequim. Resembling a cross between a farmers market and an upscale supermarket, Sunny Farms boasts a terrific meat and seafood counter, produce department and deli, all at attractive prices. We scored fresh crab at $8.99 a pound that clearly was caught that day.
Another good option is the Port Townsend Food Co-Op, a vibrant, well-stocked natural foods store.
Where to stay
If you don't plan to pitch a tent somewhere gorgeous, the best lodgings in the northwest corner can be found at a friendly, mellow place called Chito Beach Resort, just west of the hamlet of Sekiu and about 11.5 miles east of Neah Bay.
Perched on a nugget of land jutting into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the resort consists of six attractive and recently updated cabins, three of which can accommodate two couples. The cabins are closely spaced, yet we never felt privacy-deprived during a recent stay. Our cabin's kitchen was well-equipped, and a charcoal grill sat on the porch. The beds were comfortable, even though one was a futon. The front windows and deck looked northeast toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so the morning sun was glorious. A walkable beach was steps away.
Rates start at $160 a night, double occupancy. Note: The resort does not permit guests younger than 16.
Things to do
Famed for its beauty, Shi Shi Beach was what beckoned us to the northwest corner in the first place. To visit Shi Shi (pronounced "shy shy"), you'll need a $10 permit from the Makah Nation, obtainable at Washburn General Store in Neah Bay.
The permit includes directions to the trailhead, where day hikers can park. Overnight campers need to park for a fee on private property a half-mile north of the trailhead.
The level 1.7-mile trail to the beach begins with an extensive boardwalk system built by the tribe. But about a mile in, the trail becomes increasingly muddy, with some truly epic mudholes the closer you get to the beach.
Our recommendation: Wear decent hiking footwear for the boardwalk part, then switch to midcalf or even knee-high rubber boots for the muddy section. Then, at the national park border, switch back to hiking shoes for a brief but very steep scramble down a bluff to the beach.
Lugging the boots may seem like a hassle, but you'll be glad you brought them.
Once on the beach, you can dispense with shoes altogether for the 2-mile stroll down to Point of Arches, a stunning collection of sea stacks. Try to time your arrival at low tide, which allows you to explore the tidepools and rock formations.
When we were there, perhaps 100 tents were pitched on the beach above the high-tide line, but that didn't detract from the place's unspoiled beauty. There aren't many wilderness beaches left in the Lower 48.
Shi Shi's a great day hike for all ages, and you can trek all the way down Washington's 73-mile stretch of wilderness beaches to Cape Alava if you're so inclined and properly equipped. But leave the dogs at home. They're not allowed, under Olympic National Park rules. Consult the park website for information about overnight camping on the beach.
You'll need all day to properly enjoy Shi Shi. If you don't have that much time, check out the .75-mile walk on a boardwalk trail to Cape Flattery, the westernmost point of land in the Lower 48. This trail's on Makah land, so you'll need the $10 tribal permit. The permits are good for the entire calendar year in which they're purchased.
If you're too footsore to hike, check out the Makah Cultural and Research Center, a well-regarded museum in Neah Bay that has an important history lesson to tell about life before contact with people of European ancestry. It houses thousands of artifacts from a nearby archaeological dig. Admission is a bargain at $5 for adults.
If you go
• Sunny Farms: 261461 Highway 101 W., Sequim.
• Port Townsend Food Co-Op: 414 Kearney St., Port Townsend.
• Chito Beach Resort: 7639 Highway 112, Sekiu; www.chitobeach.com.
• Washburn General Store: 1450 Bayview. Ave., Neah Bay; Neah Bay, 360-645-2211.
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