Neah Bay in the northwest corner of Washington is famous for more than fishing. If you want to see the farthest western point of land in the contiguous United States, your destination is Cape Flattery.
West of Neah Bay, a newly paved road leads to tall coastal cliffs where the view of Tatoosh Island and a portion of the Flattery Rocks National Wildlife Refuge is breathtaking. The road ends in a paved parking lot near the trailhead.
Most of those who hike the half-mile to the viewpoint are there to see the ocean and Tatoosh Island. They also want to see the coastal views they’ve admired on calendars, postcards and in books and magazines.
On our latest trip, we discovered the best time of the day to view this part of the coast. Some of us make this trek almost annually and our goal is to see the tufted puffins. This is probably the best place in the state for seeing them because they nest on the offshore rocks. It’s also good for viewing rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots and common murres. These members of the Alcid family nest on the rocky northwest coast.
Time of day is important when you are birdwatching and we were getting to the viewing area in late afternoon. Having the sun in our eyes was a concern. The cliff where the viewing area was constructed juts into the ocean so you can look south, west or north. You not only can work around the sun but the views with sunlight glinting off the water are perfect. When looking into the water below the cliffs, the birdwatching couldn’t be better. I’ve never enjoyed better views of coastal puffins than on this trip.
They were still feeding young and this made it possible for us to see them with their mouths full of small fish hanging from both sides of their beaks. How they hold three fish and get a fourth in without losing the others is a mystery.
Not only were they fishing, they were bathing. From high above them we could see their legs and feet paddling wildly as they ducked their heads in the water and then came out of the water to shake their short, rounded wings. The sunshine highlighted them in Technicolor.
The puffins were clearly the hit of the day with the birder-types but another event also had everyone oohing and ahhing. Fog can be a problem at this time of the year and this day was no exception. Tatoosh Island’s foghorn reminded us of this from the start of the trail to the viewing point. It was foggy farther out and the view of the ocean was partially obscured. This was a strange fog and after a short time it began to look different. Parts of the fog bank grew dark and it looked like something was happening to it.
Mysterious shapes started to appear and as the mist grew thin, Tatoosh Island began to take shape. An emerald green island bathed in soft, misty sunshine slipped into view and stopped all conversation. In moments, everyone began exclaiming at once and their cameras tried to capture the magical scene. Puffins, Tatoosh Island and the coast bathed in sunlight - what more could you want when visiting Cape Flattery?
The Makah Tribe has the trail in excellent condition. It is mostly uphill on the way back, but you cover much of it on a boardwalk where the stairs have handrails. Benches for resting are well placed on this beautiful hike through a mature coastal forest. Stop at the tribal museum on your way into town and get a visitor’s parking pass for $10. It’s a great bargain. August and September, in my opinion, are the best months to visit this area – especially if you have visitors.
Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. (Or email email@example.com.)