Extending 5.5 miles into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Dungeness Spit is the world’s longest natural sandspit. It pokes into saltwater just north of Sequim, Washington,* a popular retirement destination because of its proximity to Olympic National Park and its location in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. In contrast to Olympia’s average annual rainfall of 50″ — it felt like a lot more this winter — Sequim gets a paltry 16″, so it’s likely to be dry or at least not drenched.
This one has been on our list for years. After hearing guidebook author Craig Romano sing its praises at our local REI store in late March, we decided to finally check it out.
Since 1915, the spit has been managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service as the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. The bay to its east shelters migratory and resident birds and animals, while waterfowl, seals, and whales swim by in the strait to the west and north. A short walk through coastal forest brought us downhill to the spit. From there, it was five miles of walking on sand and cobble to the Dungeness Lighthouse.
Before we left, I read a few WTA trip reports about hiking the spit and was amused by one that described it as “a bit tedious” because of the out-and-back nature. Although hiking on sand and stone can be hard on the legs, we loved the constantly changing sky and views along the way.
Piles of storm-tossed driftwood surrounded by large waterworn cobbles line the upper part of the beach.
Closer to the waterline, small delights slowed our pace as we stopped to scan for agates and watch flocks of black brants bobbing in the surf. Up to 4,000 black brant winter at Dungeness. They’re gathering there now in preparation for the flight to northern climes in late April or early May.
As we progressed up the beach, we left most of the visitors behind, although even on this lovely early spring day there weren’t hordes of people. Once we rounded a curve, the lighthouse came into view and more seaweed appeared on the beach.
One of my favorite books is Spirited Waters: Soloing South Through the Inside Passage, by Jennifer Hahn. Her rich account of paddling a 16-foot kayak from Ketchikan to her home in Bellingham includes wonderful illustrations of flora and fauna she encountered. I learned a lot about sea vegetables (as well as a memorable recipe for ocean chocolate pudding that uses the natural gelling agents found in seaweed). I’m especially fond of bull kelp, the giant underwater plant that grows into floating forests favored by sea otters and other wildlife. At Dungeness, tangles of bull kelp had washed up onshore, along with sea lettuce, sugar wrack, and other varieties.
Bull kelp and other varieties of seaweed survive in a constantly changing environment. Strong tides are characteristic of this part of the Olympic Peninsula, with millions of tons of cold saltwater rushing into Puget Sound and back out again twice a day. What’s a sea vegetable to do? Hold fast, or more accurately, holdfast. This is the term for the base of the sea plant that clings tenaciously to whatever it can find at the bottom of the sea. From giant bull kelp holdfasts to the much smaller version below, these sticky grippers help maintain ecological balance on the sea floor.
At last, we reached the lighthouse. First lit in December 1857, the New Dungeness Lighthouse has beamed navigational guidance uninterrupted for 160 years. The Coast Guard managed the lighthouse from 1939 to 1994, when the New Dungeness Light Station Association took over staffing and maintenance. Various outbuildings have come and gone, and deterioration of the light tower’s masonry necessitated shortening it from 91′ to its current 63′ height. Today, volunteers staff the lighthouse 24/7 year-round, signing up for week-long stints that include giving tours to visitors and doing some maintenance. Slots fill fast, and it’s easy to see why. On clear days, the views stretch from Vancouver Island to Mount Baker to the Olympic Mountains. During winter storms, one volunteer keeper told us, you can feel the barometric pressure squeezing the walls and windows of the light. I’d love to go for a week in the winter sometime.
As we headed back down the beach, a harbor seal followed us for about two miles, popping up to check us out. Elegant Harlequin ducks, clownish surf scoters, Elvis-channeling red-breasted mergansers, common loons, grebes, and cormorants floated in the calm seas. Both adult and juvenile bald eagles prowled the bay for treats, and seagulls tagged along hoping for their scraps. The sun’s angle played among the clouds, illuminating the water as the sea dragged it back. The hypnotic music of seawater tumbling through rocks at the waterline coaxed me to stop often and soak it in.
Eventually, though, we arrived back at the base of the bluff. With a quick stop to look at now-visible Mount Baker through handy fixed binoculars at a trail viewpoint, we headed back to the car, ready for a hot drink and the drive home.
*If you’ve ever wondered, it’s pronounced “skwim.”