Nearby Adventures: South Beach, Washington

Weather on the Washington Coast is unpredictable year round. You can leave the blazing heat of inland to find nothing but cold wet fog draping the trees and dampening your enthusiasm for the outdoors. This weekend the coast opted for best behavior with sunny days in the 60s, a clear blue sky, and mild nights. We could not believe our luck.

South Beach is the local vernacular for the region of coast that stretches from Westport down to the Oregon state line. It’s famous for shellfish, oysters, and cranberry farming. There are a couple of windblown beach towns in varying states of entropy – off season folks are friendly but you’ll have a hard time finding city coffee. The beaches are popular with clam diggers and kite fliers and folks who like an excuse to drive on sand.

McCleary: Our first stop was the Bears Den in McCleary, a tiny logging town just west of Olympia. It’s just road food – burgers, fries, shakes, that sort of thing, but the onion rings are good, the food is fresh, and it’s not just a roadside fast food joint; there are lots of locals hanging out.

Tokeland: There’s a casino out on the highway – we skipped that and headed along the spit that ends at the Tokeland Marina. There are piles of crab pots and rusting sheds and fishing boats and hundreds of birds standing in a perfect crescent on the beach. I talked to a retired gent who was using a homemade contraption to pull sand shrimp out of the beach. “They make great live bait for fishing,” he told me. There’s not much out in Tokeland – a place to buy seafood, the old Tokeland Hotel, and a tiny reservation that’s home to what’s left of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe – but it’s pretty, especially in good weather.

Westport is a busy fishing town – it’s all about the seafood. Growing it, catching it, selling it… there’s an attractive museum that used to house the Coast Guard and you can see whale skeletons in big glass sided display buildings on the lawn. We stood on the pier and watched a fisherman throw big chunks of something from his catch to the sea lions that were swimming in the marina. The seagulls went crazy and the sea lions swam in front of the boat as it motored away, probably hoping for more.

The charter fishing business is alive and well in Westport, but in April, there’s not much else going on. Many of the businesses were shut tight and had sandbags piled out in front. I like tacky seaside towns, the saltwater taffy and kite shops, souvenirs made from seashells and driftwood, the smell of creosote from the pilings mixed with sea air, but Westport is looking a little sad.

Grayland: Because we’d expected the worst in weather, we’d reserved a yurt at Grayland State Park. These little round houses have bunks, light, and heat, even – though if you go, bring folding chairs, you might want extra seating. You’re not allowed to cook or smoke inside the yurt, but there’s a big picnic bench and a fire pit just outside. Our little temporary home was just over the dunes from the ocean – we could hear the surf while lying warm and cozy in bed.

Raymond sits a bend in the road that wraps around Willapa Bay. There’s a cute downtown where not much is happening. We wandered around the second hand/junk/antique stores between the aging fur coats and the salt and pepper shaker collections. Since there were no bark cloth Hawaiian shirts, ukuleles, or tacky sheet music covers calling my name, we left with our wallets intact.

South Bend is the self-proclaimed oyster capital of the US and it’s home to Chester’s, a biker bar famous for their deep fried oysters. We had lunch while the place filled up with sturdy looking people in full leathers and Harley Davidson branded clothes. All is right with the world when you can hang out in a place that sells fried food and plays Lynyrd Skynyrd music. Chester’s was mentioned in the New York Times for the best oysters in the country – the writer goes so far as to suggest you might want to hop a flight and jet out just to eat in South Bend. That’s crazy talk, of course, but the oysters were delish.

[ I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for old school bikers – they know the value of a slow drive to see the land, and they often know where the good grub is. A few years back, in Montana, we’d stopped a small town to eat pie. The couple next to us arrived by Harley – they overheard us cooing about the pastry. “You think this is good,” they interrupted. “You gotta go to [town name since forgotten] – they make a deep fried peach pie that will blow your mind.” Right on.]

In between the small towns there are beautiful views, decaying jetties, tidal flats, grazing lands, cranberry bogs, abandoned trailers and farm worker shacks, and wide stretches of flat gray sand. It’s easy to get to South Beach from Seattle – unlike much of Washington’s coastline – so it makes a great short weekend away.

Pack your camp kitchen and pick up some seafood once you’re out there. Go on, off you go!