Ultimate Guide To Cape Alava Loop Trail in Washington, 2021

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Lots of people might go for a stroll on the beach, but you’re different and you know you want to “earn” that walk right?  Well the Cape Alava Loop Trail is the hike for you.  Not too difficult of an experience, but not a mild stroll along the coast, the Cape Alava Loop is located up on the northwest corner of the Olympic peninsula right at the very top of Lake Ozette.  The trail meets up with a few side trails so you can turn this into a longer excursion if you like, especially if you’re making this part of an Ozette camp trail.

Out and back the primary Cape Alava Loop is around seven miles so easily a day trip, but if you are looking to make this a longer trip, there is a campsite on the far end as well, so you have plenty of options.  A healthy hike through the forest and then a pleasant exploration of all the Washington coastal beach has to offer and then a return trip through the beautiful woods is a rewarding trip in and of itself, but if you make this into an overnighter, you’ll likely have stories to tell for years to come.

The Cape Alava Loop is a popular hike in Washington’s coastal segment of the Olympic National Park system.  You’ll see plenty of wildlife along the way and likely encounter fellow hikers on the trail.  You’ll climb slightly and then drop down to sea level at the destination/turn around point as you take in that fresh beach air before turning around and hiking back.

To see a further breakdown of the Ozette camp trail, please visit the official page for the Washington Trails Association. Link to the relevant page on wta.org for the hike.

HISTORY OF THE AREA

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On a map, Hawaii may look like the farthest west you can go but it’s actually Alaska that constitutes the westernmost part of the United States.  However if you take these two extreme examples away and look for the westernmost point in the contiguous 48 states, the answer is Cape Alava, Washington. 

At low tide, you can walk out to the far side of Tskawahyah Island, though you should check with local authorities and the National Park Service before you do as the land between the Cape Alava Trail and the island is part of the Ozette Native American Reservation and often closed to public access.

The Cape Alava Loop is the final leg of the Pacific Northwest Trail which begins in Montana’s Continental Divide at Glacier National Park and treks 1200 miles through gorgeous countryside until it ends here at this beautiful beach.  You won’t need to make the 1200 mile commitment to enjoy it, but it is something to think about as some of your fellow hikers may be happy to see the finish line in sight as they approach the final leg of a tremendous journey.  Cape Alava Loop was designated as a National Recreation Trail as early as 1981, but being included in this longer system of hiking trails was assigned in 2009 and will make protecting this scenic trail easier with this designation.

A 1983 film called “Adrift at Sea” tells the true story of Japanese merchants-turned-castaways that washed up on Cape Alava in 1834.  The Japanese film is obscure, and possibly only notable in the United States for the role of Hudson’s Bay Company’s John McLoughlin is played by music icon Johnny Cash.

GETTING TO THE TRAIL

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Cape Alava Loop Trail begins and ends at the very northernmost tip of Ozette Lake, the largest natural lake in the state of Washington.  The trail cuts across the strip of land that separates the lake from the coast in the upper part of the Olympic peninsula.  The Ozette campground is a popular destination for lake shore getaways so getting to the trailhead for Cape Alava Loop should not be difficult to find.

The main entrance comes from the east on Lake Ozette Road.  This road seems to be the best way to get there even if you’re coming from the south even as close as Forks, Washington.  Map programs will show you the alternate route of taking an unnamed winding road off the SR101 and then eventually joining up with Ozette Mnln, but even though this “shortcut” will cut your mileage in half, the time estimate is actually faster to go all the way up to Clallam Bay and coming back down Hoko/Ozette Lake Road.

That unnamed road appears to be open and clear all the way through, but unless you’re up for an adventure taking a single lane dirt road to shave a few miles off the odometer, take the tried and true path into Lake Ozette, the exploration happens once you park and begin upon the Cape Alava Loop Trail, not on the drive to get there.

Once you get to the campground, you’ll see the parking lot and ranger station.  Make entry into the National Park and pack up your gear to embark on the Cape Alava Loop Trail.

PARK FACILITIES AND REGULATIONS

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You’re going to pay your entrance fee for the Olympic National Park, or if you have the National Park System Pass you’ll get in free, but once you make your way to the parking area at Ozette you’ll see the trailhead for Cape Alava Loop.  There is an option for doing the Ozette Triangle Trail which brings you further down the beach, so you have options once you begin the hike, but all trails in the area follow the same rules and regulations.

There are no dogs or pets allowed on these trails.  Once you begin your hike along the Cape Alava Loop you may realize why this rule exists; there is a lot of truly wild, wildlife.  Bears are not uncommon in the area and there are sea lions, elk, deer and plenty of other wildlife along the trail and we are entering their territory here, not the other way around.

Also, the Ozette Native American Reservation the northern boundary of the National Park, so don’t hike out past the Cape Alava camping sites or you’ll be trespassing on their land.  Between the wild animals and the proximity to an off-limits neighbor, it’s out of common respect that we won’t bring our dogs on the Cape Alava Loop Trail.

There are establish camping sites with pit toilets available at Cape Alava.  There is a fresh water source but it will still need to be boiled before drinking.  When camping at the Cape, be sure to store all your food and other attractants in bear canisters, or you may find an unwelcome surprise visitor.

NAVIGATING THE TRAIL

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By hiking standards, the Cape Alava Loop Trail is not very demanding but it offers other general aspects that make it appealing to so many trail hikers.  The trailhead at Ozette is remote enough that getting there and then hiking the Cape Alava Loop is a full day event.  Also, the camping experience at either end of the trail is extraordinary.  Camp at Ozette and enjoy the lake, or hike out to Cape Alava and camp with a beachfront view and spectacular sunset.

Hiking in from Ozette is simple enough.  A short stroll from the ranger station you’ll cross the Ozette River and as you climb that first (and really only) hill, you’ll see the Sand Point Trail split off to your left.  This is the south west leg of the Ozette Triangle hike if you weren’t doing the Cape Alava Loop.  Our trail enters a forested region of the bluff and the trail becomes a boardwalk.  The hike is fairly flat and even but don’t let down your guard, the boardwalk has its own perils you should be cautious about. 

The boardwalk is regularly maintained and in excellent shape most of the time, but it is out in the elements and subject to nature’s wrath.  Wet boards are slippery, frozen in winter, thawing in spring, the wood undergoes a tremendous amount of stress and can warp and decay at alarming rates.  Also, wildlife may take refuge beneath the protective boards.  The boardwalk is a great addition, but keep in mind that you are still outdoors.

Odds are you’ll smell the fresh salt air before you see it and when the trail breaks downhill and the trees give way to a beautiful shoreline, you’ll know you made it to Cape Alava, a beautiful spot to explore the afternoon or spend the evening.  When you’re ready to return, you make the same trek back completing the Cape Alava Loop when you arrive back in Ozette.

FINAL THOUGHTS

With all the wildlife to be seen on the Cape Alava Loop, you’ll want to bring your camera.  Harbor Seals, River Otters, Sea Lions are common and depending on the time in their migration cycle, you’ll occasionally spot Orcas, Humpbacks, and Grey Whales just off shore as they travel back and forth to the Bering Sea.  Bald Eagles nest in overhead trees while bear and elk wander the coastline wary of the new strangers that have entered their world.

The Cape Alava Loop may be a short hike and the elevated boardwalk and minimal elevation change may make it an easy hike, but the hike has its own rewards in exhibiting the beauty of nature and the richness of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem.  Hike up and down the beach and see the aggregation of rocks and boulders that have accumulated over the years, some with petroglyphs marking previous hunter’s and sailor’s exploits.

Take the day trip into Ozette and walk the Cape Alava Loop Trail.  Consider camping overnight at the beach and experience the wonder this small but exciting trail has to offer.  Be sure to bring your camera to capture all the sights you’ll see.  Cape Alava Loop is an easy way to delve deep into the natural world without having to hike days deep into the jungle.

Additional Washington Hikes To Consider