Cape Flattery: The Northwesternmost Point of the Contiguous United States
I slept in my truck that night at the Lake Ozette campground and the next morning, Sunday, I woke up and looked at the thermometer: 41 degrees. Yep, it gets cold here on the Washington coast in April. After a quick breakfast, I dumped a quart of cold water over my head and washed up -- but by now it had warmed up to a toasty 42 degrees. I was the first person out of the half-filled campground, leaving at 7:45 a.m. because I had a long day in front of me. Yesterday I’d visited my first extreme compass point in the Lower 48 states, Cape Alava (the westernmost point) and today I hoped to visit three more:
- The Northwesternmost point (Cape Flattery)
- The North-northwesternmost point (about a half-mile north of Cape Flattery but difficult to access)
- The West-northwesternmost point (about a quarter-mile south of Cape Flattery but again, difficult to access)
Above: Heading back down to Portland after my weekend in the Olympics. I visited four extreme compass points during my trip: the westernmost, northwesternmost, north-northwesternmost and west-northwesternmost points of the contiguous United States.
Afterwards I was heading back to Champoeg, south of Portland, where I had a reservation that night again in Cabin #2, which had become my home these last few weeks.
After driving out of the Ozette campground, I retraced my path on the Hoko-Ozette road that I’d taken on Friday. It was a beautiful, though frosty morning and about two hours later, I pulled into the Makah Indian fishing town of Neah Bay. Not only is Neah Bay the northwesternmost town in the contiguous United States but in my opinion, it’s also the westernmost town (see sidebar).
The last time I was in Neah Bay was when I was five years old and, yes, I do remember it -- barely. My family had visited Neah Bay that summer so my brother Don could go fishing for salmon, and my Dad took a picture of me and my brothers on the dock at Neah Bay that foggy morning. Remembering that fishing trip from so many years ago, the first thing I wanted to do after I got to Neah Bay was stop at the marina and take a picture of me on the dock – five decades later. I’ve posted the pictures below, so consider them “before” and “after” shots (before and after what, though, I’m not sure).
After reliving the memories at the marina, I drove a few blocks to Washburn’s General Store and asked the cashier, a kindly woman about my age who I guessed was a Makah Indian, for a Visitor Pass. She explained that the pass costs $10, is good for a year, and allows you to visit the many scenic areas on the coast here on the Makah Reservation. The proceeds are used to maintain the recreational facilities, she said, so I thought it was a good deal and gladly handed her a $10 bill. I mentioned that I hadn’t been to Neah Bay in 50 years and she was stunned that I’d come back after so long, then we had a nice chat for a few minutes before I left.
So Where's the Westernmost Place?
I did a lot of research on geographic extremes before embarking on this road-trip. One of my favorite sites was the Wikipedia page on U.S. Geographic Extremes. In fact, I used a lot of the information on that page to plan my trip. However, I think in one instance, the Wikipedia page is wrong.
In the “Westernmost Points” section of that page, Wikipedia lists the westernmost settlements in the U.S. and states that Ozette, Washington is the “westernmost town.” I strongly disagree. In my opinion, Ozette, which I’d visited the day before, isn’t a town. It’s not even a village and maybe not even a hamlet. Ozette is a rural area with a few scattered farms and only one commercial establishment, a private campground just outside the National Park boundary. In my opinion, a “town” is much more substantial and established.
I believe Neah Bay, which is unincorporated but has a population of 865, qualifies as the westernmost town in the contiguous United States, while there’s no doubt that Port Orford, Oregon is the westernmost incorporated city. Therefore, I would rank the westernmost settlements this way:
Along with my Visitor Pass, she gave me a map of the area, which I used to navigate the winding roads on my way to the Cape Flattery parking lot, located about 20 minutes away. It was mid-morning when I reached the parking lot, nestled in the trees, and there were only a few cars there. From the parking lot, I headed down a trail that led a mile downhill through a beautiful rain forest. After walking for 20 minutes, I started seeing glimpses of the coast through the trees and spotted a few sidetrails that led to spectacular coastal viewpoints, each of which I explored. After hiking a while longer, I reached Cape Flattery at the end of the main trail. The trail ends at an elevated wooden platform, which can accommodate about 20 people, though only two others were there when I arrived: a fellow named Steve and his wife, both from Seattle.
This platform provides one of the most spectacular coastal views that I’ve ever seen in the Pacific Northwest, with craggy shorelines on both sides and Tatoosh Island sitting about a mile offshore, washed by the rugged surf. I’ve seen a lot of impressive vistas on the Oregon and Washington coasts, but this view from Cape Flattery is one of the absolute best, worthy of a panorama picture. Considering how remote this place is, it takes a while to get here, but the amazing view will make the trip well worth it. All these years I’d lived in the Northwest but until today, I’d never seen this spectacular vista, which was a shame.
I spent about 40 minutes soaking in the amazing view from Cape Flattery and talking to visitors, telling some of them about my road trip and my quest to become the first person to visit all 16 extreme compass points in the contiguous U.S., of which Cape Flattery was one. That quest intrigued some of them -- and I think confused others. "Huh? Why are you doing that?" I get that a lot from stay-at-home folks. But then, so did Captain James Cook and Sir Edmund Hillary (but not that I put myself in the same lofty category as them) and probably lots of other travelers who wanted to see what's beyond the horizon. The boring stay-at-homes, as far as I'm concerned, can do just that.
Standing here at Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the contiguous United States, I looked across a craggy inlet about a quarter mile to the south and saw the west-northwesternmost point. Unfortunately, there’s no trail to that point and I could see that the forest there was extremely dense. It was also on the Makah Indian Reservation and during my visit to the Reservation I’d read several requests by the Makah to stay on designated trails, out of respect to the tribe. So wanting to respect their wishes -- and not wanting to break my arm again (like I did in 1997 in the Washington Cascades by hiking through thick underbrush), I decided not to venture out to the west-northwesternmost point of the Lower 48 states. Instead I was content to take picture of it and to know that, for a few moments at least, I was closer to that point than anyone else in the world. Thinking about my previously-broken arm, I decided that, yep, that was good enough for me!
Clinging to the North-Northwesternmost Point
But then, looking over in the other direction, there was the north-northwesternmost point. Studying my GPS while standing on the Cape Flattery platform, I realized the NNW-most point was only a half-mile to the northeast. In fact, I could almost see it around a rocky point. It was so temptingly close. The tricky part, though, would be getting there.
Above: Here's Cape Flattery, along with the north-northwesternmost and west-northwesternmost points on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. (0:43)
On the Makah map that the nice cashier had given me that morning, there was a trail marked to what looked like the NNW-most point. So figuring it was OK to hike on the Makah Reservation here, I headed back up the main trail towards the parking lot, constantly looking off to my left, trying to find this supposed side-trail. At one point, I thought I’d found it but after following it for 50 yards, it petered out, so I headed back to the main trail.
A quarter-mile later, I found another small trail heading off to my left, so once again I followed it. Carrying my heavy daypack and hiking stick, and with my Canon SLR draped around my neck, I clambered over logs and under logs and a few times, almost lost the trail in the underbrush. But despite the dense vegetation, I figured this was definitely a trail, though it was obvious that no one had been here for days (or weeks?) After 10 minutes, the barely-discernable trail had led me to the coast and through the trees I could see the ocean – though it was 20 feet below me down a steep cliff. I took out my GPS and realized that this was, in fact, the north-northwesternmost point of the contiguous United States. Not satisfied, though, I decided to try to go down the cliff to the rocky promontory below. The only problem was that the cliff was at an angle of about 45 degrees.
Above: After an "interesting" hike through the underbrush, I found the north-northwesternmost point of the contiguous United States -- and a rope that was tied to a nearby tree. (0:36)
But then I saw the rope. Someone had tied a rope to a tree next to me, allowing a person to lower themselves down the embankment, so I gave it a go. With my hiking stick in one hand and my daypack on my back, I started lowering myself down the incline until I got halfway down, then I realized the rope didn’t go all the way to the bottom. I figured if I lowered myself down all the way, I might not be able to scramble back up the cliff, which definitely wouldn’t be good, since I was a long way from anyone and no one would notice me gone for days or even weeks. So standing there halfway down the cliff and clinging to the rope, I decided that was far enough.
While still clutching the rope, I reached for my camera to take a selfie. I wanted to take a picture with my cell phone, but my phone was buried deep in my daypack which, at that moment on the cliff was, let’s say, inaccessible. Instead I decided to take a selfie with my big Canon digital SLR, which was slung around my neck. It wasn’t the best selfie I’ve ever taken, but it would do.
After taking a few more pictures, I scrambled back up the cliff with the aid of the rope and found my way back to the main trail, and then on to the Cape Flattery parking lot, which by now was packed with cars. During the previous two hours, I’d visited the northwesternmost point of the contiguous United States (Cape Flattery) as well as the north-northwesternmost point, and I’d come closer to the west-northwesternmost point than anyone else. Along with visiting the westernmost point at Cape Alava the previous day, that made four locations down and just 12 more to go!
A Near-Desert... on the Olympic Peninsula?
I said goodbye to Cape Flattery and drove back through Neah Bay in the early afternoon and got back onto Highway 101 a couple hours later. On my drive down to Portland that afternoon, I wanted to visit two more extreme sites. The first was in the town of Sequim, located near Port Angeles on the top of the Olympic Peninsula. Years ago I’d learned that Sequim (pronounced “Squim” with only one syllable) was the driest city on the west coast of the United States north of Santa Barbara, with both cities receiving about 17 inches of rain a year, and I figured that claim-to-fame was still true.
So why is that? As you may know, it generally gets wetter the farther north you travel on the west coast of America, until you reach the polar areas. For instance, most coastal cities in Oregon receive more than 60” of rain each year compared to 20", 30" or 40" for coastal areas in California. Or putting it another way, it gets drier as you travel south and the closer you get to about 30 degrees latitude (for reference, the California/Mexico border is at 32 degrees north latitude), and then it gets wetter as you travel closer to the equator. In fact, this wet-dry-wet pattern is true anywhere in the world. Most of the world’s great deserts, like the Sahara in Africa, the Atacama in Chile, and the deserts of Australia, are located at about 30 degrees north or south latitude, and generally on the west coasts of their respective continents. The reason for this involves giant circular atmospheric features called Hadley cells.
Above: Here's the end of Highway 101, near Olympia, Washington -- yet another geographic extreme. This iconic highway travels 1,540 miles from downtown Los Angeles, up the Oregon coast, and ends here at Olympia. (0:32)
But why is it so dry here in Sequim, which is located on the soggy Olympic Peninsula and one of the wettest places in America? It’s due to the rain shadow caused by the Olympic Mountains. As moist air masses sweep in from the Pacific Ocean, they dump much of their rain in the Olympic Mountains and by the time the air gets to Sequim, on the leeward side of the Olympics, the air has dried out, like wringing a sponge dry. That’s the reason that Forks, on the windward side and which I’d visited a few days earlier, is the wettest city in the contiguous United States, receiving about 120 inches of rain annually while Sequim, on the other side, gets only 17.
I’m not sure how many Sequimiums (Sequimites?) realize the geographic significance of their little town, but it is definitely something to be proud of. I stopped at the Chevron mini-mart in Sequim, just off 101, and almost felt compelled to explain this climatological situation to the guy standing behind the counter, but I figured he’d think I was nuts. So instead I fueled up Gigi and celebrated this unique site by getting a large Diet Pepsi and another corn dog. As you can tell by now, I celebrate a lot of geographic things by eating corn dogs.
After getting back onto Highway 101 around 5 p.m., I drove down the eastern side of the Olympics until I reached the city of Olympia, which is the capital of Washington. More importantly, though, Olympia also marks the end (or beginning) of Highway 101, the iconic highway of the West Coast. From here, 101 heads north and wraps around the Olympic Peninsula, then travels south down the Oregon Coast, through the redwoods of California, on through San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and ends in downtown Los Angeles, 1,540 miles away. And this noble highway, one of the most prominent north-south routes in all of America, starts right here in Olympia – or ends here, depending on which way you’re traveling.
I took a shot of Milepoint 0 on Highway 101 as I whizzed by at 60 mph, then proceeded down Interstate 5 to Portland, stopping at the Centralia Burger King -- which, by the way, is my favorite restaurant in America because I've stopped here about a million times (or so it seems) while driving between Portland and Bellngham these past 30 years. Late that evening, around 10:30 p.m., I reached Cabin 2 at Champoeg State Park: home at last. It had been a long-but-productive day, with some real cliff-hanger moments. Literally.
The NNW-most Point... And Back to Portland