Sea Kayaking Washington’s Dungeness Spit

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By Ken Campbell

Every year Dungeness Spit gets a little bigger. This striking landform that extends out into the waters of Washington’s Strait of Juan de Fuca is already the longest sand spit in the country, yet it adds another 15 feet or so annually. Hiking out through the soft sand is a long haul, about five miles each way by the single track on the beach.

That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. So far, I’ve always chosen the water approach, about 6 – 10 miles round-trip, depending on how many tangents I take along the way.

The lighthouse and the other buildings seem to levitate above the water
The lighthouse and the other buildings seem to levitate above the water

Captain George Vancouver was reminded of a place back home when he passed through back in 1792, recycling the name of a similar coastline in Dungeness, England. Its first lighthouse was finished in 1857, and has been in continuous use since then, although it has gone through extensive remodeling and like most of its kin, has been automated since the 1970’s. The Coast Guard turned over control of the property to the nascent New Dungeness Light Station Association in 1994, and volunteer members of the organization keep the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters maintained and staffed throughout the year, giving tours of the light to those who make the effort to get out there and see it up close.

The shoreline of Dungeness Spit is a kind of a driftwood magnet, littered with logs of all sizes that have washed up here for centuries. Behind the wayward wood is prime nesting habitat for a variety of shorebirds, and the beach features multiple haul-out spots for the local seal population. Heron tiptoe through the shallows and bald eagles glide over the flats, each looking for the next meal.

From the launch at Cline Spit, it is a relatively uncomplicated venture to get to the landing zone near the lighthouse. Shortly after putting in, you’ll bear to your right as the point of Graveyard Spit comes across your bow, almost sealing off the inside of the lagoon. The water farther out in Dungeness Bay can be a bit lumpier than at the put-in and the dividing line between the inner and outer bay provides a good opportunity to recheck the weather forecast and reassess your plans. At other times, under less boisterous conditions, the lighthouse and the other buildings on the spit seem to float on the horizon and stand reflected in the placid water of the bay.

A water view of the lighthouse and keeper's quarters
A water view of the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters

The section of beach where landings are permitted is marked by a pair of tall, yellow posts rising from the sand on the bay side, just to the east of the lighthouse itself. There is a path marked out in driftwood that leads from the beach to the lighthouse grounds, and there are a couple picnic tables and benches once you get there that make perfect lunch spots. Take the guided tour up the tower to the light chamber, check out the tiny museum on the second floor, and amble over to the outside of the spit to see what the water looks like out in the straits.

If you do choose to paddle on around the end of the spit and out into the wider water, be on the lookout for rips and standing water that can occur at the tip. And, once you’ve passed the far end, the wind-waves and wake from passing freighters can be troublesome. Don’t underestimate the skill that you may need to navigate here successfully and if you have any doubts, stick to the sheltered water on the inside of the spit. There is nothing wrong with going home dry and happy.

The view from the light out toward the end of the spit
The view from the light out toward the end of the spit

Weather can be a critical factor here, and the wind might turn out to be a consideration, especially in the shoulder seasons. The water of Dungeness Bay is relatively protected, but the wind is always the wild card and accidents involving paddlers not ready for the conditions have occurred here, with tragic results. The current on the inside is not strong, but because of the local topography and the powerful gales that can funnel down from the Olympic mountains and into the region, the shallow waters of the bay can be whipped up, and things can change quickly.

Other than the small beach near the lighthouse, the entire inner shore of Dungeness Spit is off limits to foot travel. You can paddle close to the sand in some areas (check the rules posted on the informational kiosk at the launch before you start), but because of the area’s wildlife refuge status, random landfall is not permitted. Going ashore at the lighthouse may require advance notification. Call (360)457-8451 before your trip to make that connection.

An artesian well provides water for the lighthouse, as well as green lawns and well-tended gardens at the end of this shoestring sand dune
An artesian well provides water for the lighthouse, as well as green lawns and well- tended gardens at the end of this shoestring sand dune

The winter and early spring months may have rougher conditions (or not), but if you are a bird lover, these are the months to visit. Thousands of birds transit the area on their migratory routes or winter here among the fallen forests of sun-bleached logs. It is common to see black brant and guillemot along with the traveling geese and the ubiquitous sandpiper, curlew and plover. Summer brings with it the quieter water, and the promise of a tranquil paddle as the sun sets behind the snow-dappled peaks of the Olympics.

Directions:

Cline Spit County Park: Turn off Highway 101 onto Sequim-Dungeness Way, in the town of Sequim. Continue along for about six miles (the road changes names and becomes Marine Drive), until the spit comes into view to the north. To get to the launch site, turn onto a small side road that drops over the bluff and dead-ends at the park. The put-in is at the boat ramp, and parking and pit toilets are conveniently located nearby.

(By Ken Campbell)

About the Author:

Birdwatching in the protected water to the south of the spit
Birdwatching in the protected water to the south of the spit

Ken Campbell is a paddler and writer living in Tacoma, WA, where he is director of the Ikkatsu Project, a non-profit centered around the issues of single-use plastics and marine debris. Author of several western Washington paddling guidebooks, he is currently working on an updated guide to the South Salish Sea, scheduled to be released in the fall of 2024. Contact him at: ken@ikkatsuproject.org

Nick Hinds
Nick Hindshttps://paddlinglife.com/
Nick Hinds grew up in NC, spending time canoeing and c-1ing around the western part of the state since he was 11 years old. During his 4 years at University of Colorado at Boulder he added whitewater kayaking, so he could earn money teaching at Boulder Outdoor Center. Starting as an intern at Paddler magazine in 2003, Nick began his 20 year career in the Paddlesports Industry. He worked for 4 years with Eugene in Steamboat at Paddler, then 8 years with Canoe & Kayak magazine after moving to Seattle. Spearheading the guidebook for Washington and Oregon, in 2016 he helped publish Paddling Pacific Northwest Whitewater . After 4 years with American Whitewater and 3 with Werner he now handles advertising and marketing partnerships for Paddling Life.

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