Washington state is not exactly famous for sunny beaches – it’s more a galoshes-and-rain destination than beach blankets and suntan lotion.
But a long stretch of Pacific coastline and a surplus of inlets and bays means there are, in fact, surprisingly excellent beaches here for swimming, shelling, skimboarding, surfing, tide-pooling, beachcombing – and even sea glass if you know where to look .
From the storm-battered Olympic coast and idyllic San Juan Islands to the epic Long Beach Peninsula and even within Seattle, beaches in Washington offer much more than a place to work on your tan lines.
Long Beach Peninsula
It’s hard to describe Long Beach Peninsula without sounding like you’re dissing it. The place has a distinctly weird vibe – but it’s good weird. After all, family-friendly Long Beach is the home of Jake the Alligator Man, the star attraction at Marsh’s Free Museum – an unabashed tourist trap with a gift shop, penny arcade and curio collection that is worth briefly succumbing to.
The rest of the peninsula may not be as overtly unusual as Marsh’s, but there’s something about it. Maybe it’s the no-rules atmosphere that comes from being allowed to drive right on the beach. Maybe it’s the off-the-tracks location. Who knows? But if you want your beach time to be a little extra, this is a good choice.
There are 28 miles of sandy, secluded beaches here, stretching along both sides of the peninsula. It’s a mecca for seafood lovers – don’t leave without visiting historic Oysterville, or sampling some of the famous bivalves that grow in Willapa Bay. You can charter a salmon fishing boat that also does weddings and burials at sea. You can visit haunted lighthouses, working cranberry farms, and a kite museum. Bicycle the Lewis & Clark-themed Discovery Trail, kayak, ride horseback, or golf. At Leadbetter Point State Park, on the upper peninsula, you’ll find abundant bird life, including the endangered snowy plover, whose chicks hatch in spring.
Or you can just stroll to your heart’s content, with your feet in the sand and the surf in your ears. After all that, nestle in for the night at the character-filled (and also possibly haunted) Shelburne Hotel.
This two-mile stretch of sandy beach in West Seattle is a total mood-changer, especially on a sunny day. The dense, hilly cityscape fades into a faint rumor as you adjust your shades and wander past fish-and-chip joints, beach volleyball courts and a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty. People in denim cutoff shorts and rollerblades whoosh by carrying boomboxes. The air smells like cotton candy and fried things.
Alki Beach has been a draw for Seattleites since around 1902; an electric railway once linked the city to Seattle’s version of New York’s Coney Island theme park, called Luna Park (sadly closed in the 1910s). Alki has plenty of history: as the first place the Denny Party (the settler family who were first to colonize this area) landed in 1851, it is essentially the birthplace of modern-day Seattle. But these days it’s as contemporary as they come, the kind of place where you bring your kids and your floaty toys, a cooler full of Capri Suns, and a juicy novel. Don’t forget sunscreen – you might actually need it.
Olympic Sculpture Park Pocket Beach
On a whirlwind trip to Seattle and don’t think you have time for tidepools? Wrong! Here to remind you of the close connection between surf and turf in Seattle is this adorable “pocket beach” beside the outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park, right along the busy waterfront. At low tide, you (and the kids) can explore tidepools brimming with marine life, from sea stars to chitons, all within view of the Space Needle. Just follow the paved walkway a few steps from the sculpture garden for a miniature beach vacation in the middle of your city break.
Have a little more time? Check out family favorite Madison Park Beach as an alternative. It’s a wildly popular park-like stretch on the coast of Lake Washington, with swimming, diving boards, and kid-friendly play structures within easy walking distance from lots of neighborhood restaurants and coffee shops.
One of the earliest surfing destination beaches in Washington, Westport is also a great spot for clam-digging, crabbing, and strolling the beach in search of agates. You can rent crabbing or clamming equipment and ask for advice at several shops around the marina. For a bigger adventure, charter a deep-sea fishing boat or go on a whale-watching expedition.
Soak up some local history at the Westport Maritime Museum and Gray’s Harbor Lighthouse, the tallest in Washington. And for epic views across the water, you can’t beat the long, skinny jetty or the viewing tower at the marina.
The jetty, at the south end of Westhaven State Park, has sandy beaches and smooth waves that make it a good place for surfing beginners as well as experienced surfers. Also within the park, on the north side of the marina, the area nicknamed “The Groins” is good for those with more advanced surfing skills. The third notable surf spot in Westhaven State Park, Half Moon Bay (also called the Cove), is calm enough for paddleboarders in the summer, but develops challenging waves the rest of the year.
Hobuck and Shi Shi beaches
It takes a while to get all the way out to Hobuck Beach, on the Makah Indian Reservation at the far northwest corner of the state, but it’s well worth the beautiful drive. This section of coastline, stretching from Hobuck Beach south to Shi Shi Beach and beyond, has phenomenal scenery and an otherworldly, remote feeling. Photographers will eat up the fog-softened landscape, but it’s also fantastic for sitting still and watching the sunset, camping on the beach, birdwatching, or strolling along the water’s edge.
There’s good surfing to be had at Hobuck Beach, especially in winter. The day-use area has plenty of parking, restrooms and easy access to the surf. Don’t forget a wetsuit. This water is cold!
To get to Shi Shi Beach, park at the day-use area and walk two miles along a well-maintained trail through coastal rainforest, emerging to have your mind blown by the sight of ocean waves battering sea stacks across a perfect sandy beach. If you have time, try this as an overnight backpacking trip. Adventurous hikers can continue south as far as La Push, camping on beaches along the way. (Overnight trips require bear canisters for storing food, and wilderness permits for staying overnight, both available through the Olympic National Park Service).
To park at any of these sites, you’ll need to pick up a Makah Recreation Permit ($20) at the Makah Marina or General Store in Neah Bay or at Hobuck Beach Resort, which also has camping available.
Watmough Bay, Lopez Island
You really can’t go wrong with any beach (or anywhere) on the San Juan Islands, but this little nook on the southeast corner of Lopez Island is as stunning as they come. A short, easy trail leads you from the parking lot to the pebbly crescent beach, which is sheltered from the wind by sheer cliffs and perfectly tranquil. It’s day-use only, so make the most of your visit. Bring a picnic and a book, dip your feet in the shallow waves, look for seals, and enjoy the feeling of magically being inside a postcard.
The entire Olympic Coast is a wild, windswept driftwood sculpture garden, and Ruby Beach, just south of Forks, is one of the most dramatic places to experience it. It’s ideal for beach hiking. A quarter mile trail leads to the beach from the parking lot. From there, trails lead about three miles in either direction: north toward the Hoh River, and (at low tide) south to views of the Destruction Island lighthouse. Be sure to check a tide table before you set out, to avoid being stranded.
For tide-poolers, there are endless treasures to be found at low tide, including orange and purple sea stars, reclusive hermit crabs, snails, barnacles, and prehistoric-looking chitons.