On the north coast of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, Dungeness Park near Sequim is divided into two sections. (Sequim is pronounced Squim – rhymes with swim.)The recreation area is a county park and has hiking trails and a campground where dogs are welcome and some trails are even open to horses. The wildlife refuge is federal and no dogs are allowed there.
The recreation area comprises of woods and meadows. One of the trails follows along an eroding bluff. It’s about 4 kilometers to walk the perimeter of the park. The wildlife refuge mainly consists of one of the world’s longest sandspits. This sandspit grows about 10-13 feet in length each year from the sand that erodes off the bluffs and debris washed down the nearby Dungeness River. The New Dungeness Lighthouse was built in 1857 at the end of the spit. Now it sits half a mile from the spit’s current end.
Cruise ships heading out of Seattle, or those heading into Seattle without stopping in Victoria pass by close enough to see the lighthouse on the spit. Those heading out from Seattle are near shore on the Washington side of the Straight of Juan de Fuca at that point because they duck in at Port Angeles (which is the next town past Sequim) for the pilot boat to pick up the pilot. When there is more than one ship leaving Seattle on the same day they all leave about the same time and travel relatively close together in a line so the same boat can pick up the pilots from all of them. You can’t visit Dungeness from a cruise ship, but taking a side trip to the peninsula before or after a cruise from Seattle or Vancouver BC is always an option.
It’s free to use the trails in the recreation area, but there is a fee to camp there. Trails through the woods stay pretty much the same from year to year, but the bluff trail is an ever-changing example of nature taking its course. The park gets a bit smaller while the spit grows longer each time sand drops off the bluff. Periodically the bluff trail moves inland and sooner or later where the trail used to be is nothing but air.
The parking lot for spit access sits at the far end of the road into the park, which is called Voice of America Road. There’s a kiosk there with information about the area’s wildlife and history as well as about the spit. You can pass through the kiosk on your way around the perimeter trail for free, but entry to the trail in the wildlife refuge leading to the spit costs $3 per family group, which can include up to 4 adults, with no additional cost for children. Dogs are not allowed beyond the sign that says you have to pay to go any farther.
A wooded trail from the trailhead down to the beach gives two options, the main trail and the primitive trail. The main trail is paved and has interpretive signs along the way with information about the area and its wildlife. The primitive trail is a narrower dirt trail through the woods, which rejoins the main trail near a lookout point above the beach. There are two lookouts, one with telescopes and the other with giant binoculars.
Some areas of the spit are open to the public year-round, some seasonally, and some never. People are allowed to hike the beach side out to the lighthouse year round, though there are times in the winter when tides combined with weather say otherwise. The estuary side by the calm sheltered waters between the spit and mainland is mostly off limits to people giving the wildlife a safe place to live. The section of the estuary side closest to the trail leading to the beach is open to people during the summer.
On low tides there is lots of beach to walk on, but when the tide is very high the open beach vanishes and hikers have to pick their way through the driftwood. Tides never cover the entire spit, but storms bring the waves up high enough to leave everything above the tideline covered in driftwood consisting mainly of very large logs and entire trees.
We set out one sunny winter’s day with nine people, the youngest of which was 5. All of us made it out to the lighthouse and back, the only group to reach the lighthouse that day. In summer and during local school breaks more people will get there most days. The 5 kids in our group were all from Australia, off school for their summer break. Along with their mothers (which includes my daughter) they were some of the farthest away people ever to make the trek out to the lighthouse and sign the guest book there.
Round trip to the lighthouse on the beach is 10 miles with each direction right at 5 miles. Along the way there are mile markers, little brown signs with the number of miles traveled from where the wooded trail meets the beach to that point. The trail through the woods from the parking lot to the beach is about half a mile so the total round trip is around 11 miles. Along the beach it usually feels as if you are traveling in a straight line, but actually the beach bends around quite a large curve.
The lighthouse is sometimes in view and sometimes not on the way there. At first sight it is a distant speck, growing larger the closer you come. When you finally get there a sign points the way off the beach with the trail into the lighthouse area marked as serenity and the way back to the trailhead marked as reality. That’s about as far down the beach as people are allowed to go. The beach from beyond the lighthouse out to the end of the spit is off limits to the public.
There’s actually another marker to an inland trail to the lighthouse that you pass by first while walking along the beach, but it has no words so unless you know what it is and where to look it’s likely to get missed. My sister Linda and I took that trail on the way back when we hiked out to the lighthouse in the summer. It was probably originally the trail to the dock because it ends about even with the pilings that are all that remain of the old dock in the bay on the inland side of the spit. At that point you go back to the main beach.
At the lighthouse several buildings sit within a fenced grassy area. There’s some picnic tables out on the lawn between buildings. One is near the entrance to a public restroom – the only one available beyond the trailhead as there are no facilities of any kind out on the open beach of the spit. The lighthouse keeper’s house is now open for people to book a week’s stay there. These people become lighthouse keepers for the week and while they are there one of their duties is to be tour guides for the folks who make the hike out the spit and want to see the lighthouse.
There is a small museum at the bottom where people can wander about and look at things, but you have to be accompanied by a lighthouse keeper to climb the steep winding stairs up its tower. The small landing at the top provides a 360-degree view. We saw seals swimming near the shore through the window when I went there in the winter. Going again in the summer with my sister we noticed a flat structure full of weeds, which the keeper said was a helipad in case anyone needed to be evacuated in an emergency. It’s nice to bring a few extra dollars to put into the donation jar at the museum. The fee for going out to the spit goes to the wildlife reserve, but money collected at the lighthouse helps with expenses there like upkeep of the buildings.
The lighthouse tower stands at 63 feet high. It was 91 feet high when originally built in 1857, but was lowered to the current height in 1927 due to severe structural cracks that could have caused the top of the tower to fall. In 1993 it was added to the national register of historic places. It was one of the last lighthouses in the USA to have a full time keeper, with the last live-in keeper leaving in 1994.
That same year the United States Lighthouse Society started a New Dungeness chapter. Members of the New Dungeness Lighthouse Station Association have manned it ever since. Bookings to be a lighthouse keeper for a week are open to the public with a minimum age of 6 for families with children. You have to become a member of the lighthouse association to be a keeper. It’s quite popular so reservations usually need to be made well in advance unless you happen to luck into a cancellation. It seems a bit odd to have the word new in the name of a lighthouse that is over 150 years old, but a lot of places in the USA are called new something regardless of how long that place has been there because they were originally named after somewhere else. Captain Vancouver, an early explorer to the area, called the spit New Dungeness in 1792 because it reminded him of Dungeness in England. Both the wildlife refuge and recreation area are just called Dungeness now though, with new only being in the official name of the lighthouse. Dungeness crabs live in the area, but it’s not named for them. Vancouver Island, which is in Canada on the other side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is named after Captain Vancouver. On a clear day you can see Vancouver Island from Dungeness.
There is a small boat landing on the beach on the estuary side so there are some visitors who come by sea on a small boat or kayak rather than by land, though they do have to arrange in advance to come in by boat. Lighthouse keepers are given transport in a 4×4 vehicle at low tide, which is good for them since they have to bring their own food with them as well as clothes and things since there are no stores on the spit. There is an artesian well next to the lighthouse which supplies both the keeper’s house and lighthouse building with water. In the early days before the well water had to be collected when it rained. Lighthouse keeping was hard work, especially on foggy days when keepers had to shovel coal to run a steam powered foghorn. The first light ran on lard oil. Electricity came by underwater cable across the bay in the 1930’s, but the light was not automated until 1976.
The spit has no shade or shelter so a clear winter’s day is good for a hike out there since there are no worries about it getting too hot. Tides are generally lower in the summer though, so hikers usually have more beach to walk on then. In summertime cloudy days are a good choice for a spit hike. Time of day when the lowest tide occurs varies greatly so consulting a tide chart and planning ahead for a trek during low tide means more beach to walk on and less likelihood of having to scramble over logs.
While dogs are not allowed on the spit, coyotes are wildlife and go where they want so there are no restrictions against them. We did not see any actual coyotes, but we did see their tracks in the sand on the winter hike. Several different sizes so more than one had recently passed through leaving dog-like prints with definite claw marks at the ends of the toes. We also saw lots of ducks and seagulls, some diving birds, and some little shorebirds running in and out at the water’s edge to see what each wave brought them to eat. Stu the lighthouse guide said they sometimes see sea otters, but we did not see any during our hike. We didn’t see otters on the summer hike either, but there was a seal and lots of seagulls and other birds. We also heard a baby seal on the estuary side, probably alone on the beach while mom was off foraging for food, but it was not where it could be seen from the areas people are allowed to go.
On the winter hike we had a bit of beach on the way there, but had to scramble over logs on the way back as the tide had covered what little beach there was below the driftwood by then. Summer tides are generally lower and even parts of the kelp beds were high and dry on the way out so we had lots of beach to walk on.
Vehicles are not normally allowed there (except for lighthouse keeper transport), but we followed tire tracks for quite some distance before a little vehicle that looked something like a cross between a quad and a pick-up went by with the park ranger and several people in hard hats that looked like they were a work party on the way back to the park. The tide was on the way in and by the time we went back most of the tire tracks were underwater, though there was still a lot more beach than there had been in the winter at the lowest point of the tide on our hike then.
On the winter’s hike our group of 9 were the only ones to make it out to the lighthouse that day, though we did see a few other people hanging out on the beach on our way back. The summer hike was quite different with several other groups at the lighthouse while we were there as well as seeing people along the way in both directions. On both trips we packed a picnic lunch to eat at the tables by the lighthouse, and visited the museum and went up into the lighthouse. On the winter trip a young seagull begged for our lunch, but perhaps by summer he had learned to find his own food since the lighthouse keepers didn’t want anyone to feed him.
On the summer trip we also walked the extra little trails near the lighthouse. One goes down past the helipad to the boat landing. The other goes out as far as people are allowed to go on the spit, which is just a short distance beyond the lighthouse. Both trails have informative historical signs. On the summer trip we found the inland trail and took that one on the way out. It passed by the old pilings from a dock that was there when the keeper’s access was by boat, back in the days when it was a true lighthouse keeper who lived and worked there. The lighthouse is still in operation. The coast guard maintains the light, but the lighthouse association maintains everything else.
On the trip out with my sister, my Garmin watch lied and said we made it to the lighthouse in under 2 hours when it really took 2 1/2. We were sightseeing, stopping for photos, and not caring about the time. Not wanting my PB (personal best) for that trek to be a lie, I jogged out there alone one October day with favorable tides and weather intending to be faster than the false time and made the trip in less than one hour, and just over an hour for the way back. Where the trail down from the trailhead meets the beach I saw 3 deer walking down the trail and 3 more on the beach on my way back that day. Most people hiking out to the lighthouse for fun would expect to take at least 2 hours each way for the full trip including the woods, but runners have made it there in slightly less than half an hour (beach time only, not counting the woods trail. The beach part of my jog took a hair under 45 minutes.)