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Untouched beaches line Washington's coast

Some people come to this place on the Olympic Peninsula to see bald eagles, whales, Roosevelt elk.

I watch for slugs.

I have a lurking fondness for the slimy creatures. Those of us who live in this area share Starbucks, Windows 95 and Pearl Jam with the world. But the slugs are ours, all ours.

The Olympic National Park's wilderness forest, on the west side of the peninsula, is slug heaven. It's lushly wet, full of plants to munch on _ and there are no little kids running around with salt shakers.

Like everything else here, the slugs grow big. Some of the banana slugs, as they're called, are a half-foot long. Murky yellow with a few black spots, they look like bruised bananas crawling through the woods.

I doubt you'll ever see a National Geographic TV show on slugs. And I'm not suggesting you plan a slug-spotting vacation.

Yet watching slugs has certain advantages over other wildlife watching. You don't need special gear such as fancy binoculars. You never need to hurry to see them. And you could rapidly become the expert on slugs. There's not a lot of competition.

I did my bit of slug-spotting while exploring the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula on a late-spring trip. Once I left the slugs behind, I walked on down the trail to Second Beach and found it one of the most wildly glorious beaches I've seen in the state.

Washington is loaded with beaches, and there is a beach for all seasons and all sorts of people.

If you like your beach with an urban buzz, go to Ocean Shores or Long Beach, on the southwest coast. There you'll find lots of hotels and condos, lots of shopping and restaurants, golf and go-carts. Plus beach driving: In some areas it's legal to take cars for a spin on the sand.

But if you like your beaches on the wild side, head to the west coast of Olympic National Park. There's no beach driving, no golf, not many people. Just the beach, pure and simple.

The park's coastal strip is a skinny finger of forest and beach, 57 miles long and only about a mile wide for much of the way. It stretches from Kalaloch north to the Makah Indian Reservation at the northwest corner of the peninsula.

Within that strip is some of the most primitive, untouched coastline in the United States, except for Alaska and Hawaii. (Outside the park are miles and miles of heavily logged timberland.)

The beaches, some of them miles long, are empty sweeps of sand and rocks piled with storm-tossed driftwood and edged by wind-twisted forest. Rocky headlands wall off the beaches from one another.

Some beaches can be reached only by hours-long hikes; others are just a few steps from paved roads and parking lots. But all along the park's coast there is hardly anywhere to stay: development is precluded by the park.

The only beachfront accommodations are at Kalaloch, where a decades-old lodge and cabins are run as a national park concession, and at La Push, an Indian reservation surrounded by the park. They're simple places; the real attraction is the beach.

The entertainment is simple, too. Walk the beach. Watch the sun set. Walk in the woods. Watch a slug.

I shared the Second Beach path with a few teenagers and a family with toddlers. The }-mile trail weaved through a forest of towering spruce and cedar. Moss and lichens draped branches and rocks. Skunk cabbage shone so brightly green that it seemed lit from within. We clattered on a boardwalk across a muddy stretch, climbed down a bluff on a wood staircase.

The trail led out of the dimly green forest to the shimmering white light of the beach.

Second Beach stretches for about 1{ miles between rugged, rocky headlands. Just off shore, sea stacks thrust out of the waves. Some are needlelike rock spires, carved by relentless waves and weather; others are hulking apartment-house-size monoliths.

This being the rain coast, a squall came ripping through, dumping sheets of rain for five minutes before the sun came back. One teenager, caught without a rain jacket and soaked to the skin, stripped down to his underwear to dry off in the sun.

Second Beach lies within the park, but the first part of the trail is on the Quileute Indian Reservation. It's one of the smallest reservations in Washington, only about a square mile of land surrounded by the national park and the ocean.

La Push, the reservation's main community, is a few streets of weather-beaten homes huddled where the Quillayute River spills into the ocean. The name La Push is a corruption of the French la bouche, meaning mouth. On a late-spring afternoon, the pounding surf was the biggest action in the sleepy village, slamming against the breakwater that shelters the fishing boats.

In La Push, on the right day, you may see gray whales spouting just off shore. They pause at times off First Beach during their spring and fall migrations between Alaska and Mexico.

First Beach is just a few steps from La Push's main road. Fine as the beach is, it isn't as enchanting as Second Beach, which is reached only by trail. Somehow, getting somewhere on foot makes it more special.

But there were other beaches to explore. . . .

I wasn't looking for big-time solitude on this Olympic coast trip. Those who are, and can carry a heavy backpack, can hike for miles and camp on wild, lonely beaches all along the park's coast.

For those of us who want to walk on a wilderness beach but not make a marathon of it, some park beaches are just footsteps from paved roads.

At the park's Rialto Beach, just north of La Push, there's a parking lot right by the shore. Stroll just 50 feet and sit and watch the waves pound in from the open Pacific. Or walk 1{ miles along the beach to Hole in the Wall, a natural rock arch beside the beach.

Other easy-to-get-to beaches are in a 10-mile stretch around Kalaloch, where Highway 101 hugs the coast. Signs along the road point visitors to a half-dozen beaches. Easy trails _ at most just a few hundred yards long _ lead from roadside parking lots to the beaches.

You won't be alone on these beaches. But if you want solitude, just walk a quarter mile and you'll find it: Most people don't stray far from the base of the trail. At Ruby Beach, a soft curve of sand is nestled into the rock bluff; the sea stacks loom off shore. At Beach 4, the low tide reveals rocky tide pools thick with mussels and sea stars.

Take some time to poke around this coast, to walk on the wild side and find your own favorite beach and trail. Take a picnic, take your camera, always take a rain jacket.

And slow down enough to watch for slugs.

If you go

Here are some tips on exploring the ocean beaches of Olympic National Park.

GETTING THERE

From Seattle, the quickest way to get to Kalaloch on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula is to drive south to Olympia, west to Hoquiam, then north on Highway 101. Allow about 3.5 hours for the 180-mile trip.

A more scenic but longer route is via the northern Olympic Peninsula. Take a ferry from the Seattle area to Bainbridge Island, Bremerton or Kingston, then head north and west through Sequim and Port Angeles on Highway 101 and continue on to the west coast. It takes an extra hour or more, depending on ferry schedules and if you get stuck behind a slow-going RV.

Take the time along this northern route to drive up to 5,200-foot Hurricane Ridge, just south of Port Angeles, in Olympic National Park. There's a visitor center, easy nature trails and views of the rugged peaks at the park's heart. Or stop at Lake Crescent, a lake cradled in the Olympic foothills west of Port Angeles, for a picnic or a two-hour tour aboard a paddlewheeler. Phone Mosquito Fleet at Lake Crescent for information, (360) 452-4520.

For information on accommodations, get the state's free Washington Lodging and Travel Guide by phoning (800) 544-1800.

If you prefer a beach getaway where there's more recreation and a much bigger choice of accommodations, call the Ocean Shores Chamber of Commerce at (360) 289-2451 and Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau at (800) 451-2542.

PARK INFORMATION

Olympic National Park has an map/brochure for visitors that shows roads, trails, beaches and campgrounds. It's available free at park visitor centers and ranger stations, and through the federal Outdoor Information Recreation Center in downtown Seattle at 915 Second Ave., in the Federal Building. Phone (206) 220-7450.

The park's main visitor center is on the southern outskirts of Port Angeles; the national park/forest ranger station about 5 miles north of Forks also has information.

For more information, contact: Superintendent, Olympic National Park, 600 East Park Avenue, Port Angeles, WA 98362. For recorded information on roads, weather and more, phone (360) 452-0329. Or phone the park visitor center, (360) 452-0330.

TOURS AND SEMINARS

The Olympic Park Institute, an educational group, offers tours and seminars in the park, including bird watching, canoeing, backpacking and photography, with stays at its Lake Crescent lodge or camping. Phone (800) 775-3720.

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