Mountain trails make you marvel at ancient forces that erupt, fold and lift layers of the Earth. Forest trails provide a sense of celebration about that which gives life to all things terrestrial, plant and animal.
But the ambience of a beach hike is meditative - waves slapping time eternally, longer than any heart ever beat, views over the rippling sea somehow turning thoughts inward."There's the smell in the air, the salt air that kind of clears you out, and the wide-open expanse of water that brings an introspection," says Scott Boyer of Seattle, an avid hiker and trip leader for The Mountaineers club.
"And from a practical standpoint, beach hikes are great because you can do them in almost any kind of weather. Getting outside in winter, it's hard to do that in the mountains. But the beaches have that open expanse that breaks down cabin fever quickly."
Much has been written about the superb hikes along the wild ocean shoreline of Olympic National Park. But the shores of Puget Sound and its related waterways - the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, Admiralty Inlet - provide their own peculiar ambience, decidedly nautical and more mellow, at least when the wind isn't howling.
There are long strolls on bluffs above the beach, perfect for watching the great variety of traffic plying these waters: container-laden cargo ships, crabbers with pot-stacked decks, tug-towed barges, ocean trawlers bound for big water, antennae-spiked Navy vessels of all manner.
There are long sand spits covered with driftwood, ideal for sitting and watching the tide sneak in. There are bluffs that reveal the changing nature of this magical edge where earth meets sea.
"After you walk the beaches for a while, you really see the evidence of the last 10,000 years; the history is all there," says Harvey Manning of Issaquah, a longtime trails activist and guidebook author.
While the walking is usually pleasant, since there is little elevation gain, most beach hikes are in exposed locations and subject to stiff wind and regular rain. Hikers should dress appropriately. Good hiking boots are the best footwear, since many beach hikes are on gravel or loose sand, and traction is not the best.
And check the tide book. If your jaunt is lengthy, plan it for an outgoing tide, so you can walk on the firmer wet sand. Avoid extreme high tides, which can force you up into the tangles of driftwood.
Give the season a proper welcome by trying one of the following beaches, all ideal for deep contemplation.
The classic beach hike of Washington's inland waters, this five-mile natural sand spit - longest in the United States - juts into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and encloses a national wildlife refuge. Critters galore (seals, eagles, waterfowl), stacks of driftwood and a neat old lighthouse at the end contribute to its compelling ambience.
The footing is bad at high tide, and the wind often blows - it almost feels like you're out at sea. On weekends, you can tour the lighthouse, but it's a fairly hardy jaunt.
Entrance fee for the refuge is $3 per family. Just west of Sequim, go north off U.S. Highway 101 onto Kitchen Dick Road and follow the signs.
Ebey's Landing/Fort Ebey
Ask veteran beach hikers for their favorite spot and invariably the first name off their lips is Ebey's Landing. Ebey's Landing National Historic Reserve on the west shore of Whidbey Island is the epicenter of Puget Sound-region beach hiking.
Stretching between Fort Casey and Fort Ebey state parks, Ebey's Landing is at the center of about 10 sublime miles of beach hiking. It offers both on-the-beach walking and trails on the bluff above, perfect for taking in the stunning vista of the Olympic Mountains (on a clear day) and watching the heavy marine traffic on Admiralty Inlet. The bluffs are lined with wind-twisted fir and spruce, and there's a side trail to an intriguing cemetery dating to the 1860s.
There's more: driftwood-filled lagoons, wildflowers in spring and, at the forts, concrete mounts for old artillery, part of a military "triangle of fire" designed to prevent marauding ships from reaching Puget Sound proper.
From the ferry landing in Clinton, drive north on the main island highway (state Route 525 on the south end, becoming Route 20 toward the north end). Three-tenths of a mile past the pedestrian overpass in Coupeville, turn left onto Ebey Road. Find the parking lot in about 1.75 miles.
One of the crown jewels of the state parks system, Deception Pass - at the north end of Whidbey Island - is 3,500 acres of quiet coves, sandy beaches, sheer rock bluffs, swirling currents, sand dunes, eagles, hawks, herons, forests, ferns and flowers.
A recommended walk is the West Beach shore trail, which loops through some of the only sand dunes on the inland waters; a 4.5-mile hike. But also check out the popular, short-but-scenic trail on Pass Island, and the Reservation Head and Rosario Head trails.
Drive Interstate 5 north to Burlington, head west on state Route 20 and follow signs to Deception Pass.
One of the other corners in the "triangle of fire" - Fort Flagler at the north end of Marrowstone Island - provides views back toward the Cascades Mountains. One of the neat things about beach walking here is that you can begin on the "protected side," along Port Townsend Bay, and walk around Marrowstone Point to the more open side on Admiralty Inlet.
Pick a minus tide and you can poke around the flats and spits on the inside and look for crabs and other critters, even dig clams in season (April 1-June 15). There is a lighthouse at Marrowstone Point, old gun emplacements and great beaches. Start at the camping area on the park's west side and follow the north shore around Marrowstone Point and then south to the fishing pier, about 4 miles.
Take the ferry from Edmonds to Kingston and follow the signs to Hood Canal Bridge, crossing it and following state Route 104 west five miles to state Route 19, then going north 1.6 miles and taking a right on Oak Bay Road. In about 10 miles, turn right on Flagler Road, crossing the bridge to Indian Island and then following signs to Fort Flagler State Park, on adjacent Marrowstone Island.
Bywater Bay/Hood Head
This is a sleeper, a little-known spot mostly on undeveloped state parks property whose protected bay and saltwater lagoon with an outer shore of more open water - Hood Canal - make for an intimate setting. Hood Head is almost an island, connected by a narrow spit or tombolo.
We recommend it on a minus tide, when you can wade the channel leading from the lagoon across to the tombolo, North Spit, which links the mainland to Hood Head. The kids may poke around and watch beach crabs scuttling about, blennies and other little fish scurrying hither and yon, and herons on stiltlike legs looking to eat said little fishies. You may dig clams (April 1-May 31) or shuck oysters (April 1-Aug. 15).
Then wade the channel or take the trail around the lagoon, and follow open shoreline to Hood Head.
Just east of Hood Canal Bridge, go north on Paradise Bay Road and shortly take a right on gravel Seven Sisters Road, following it to its end at a parking area.
Information for hikers
"Walks & Hikes on the Beaches Around Puget Sound" by Harvey Manning and Penny Manning (The Mountaineers, 271 pages, $14.95)
State parks information - 800-233-0321
Fort Ebey State Park - 360-678-4636
Deception Pass State Park - 360-675-2417
Fort Flagler State Park - 360-385-1259