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Enjoy a Dungeness Spit Day Trip Adventure

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One word you see over and over again on Ivar’s menus is Dungeness, as in Dungeness crab. Ivar’s chefs find many creative uses for Seattle’s signature shellfish. There is the Dungeness Crab and Goat Cheese Dip appetizer, which is a fan favorite, as well as the Dungeness Crab Cakes. The Dungeness Crab Louie is one of Ivar’s most popular entree salads, and, at the Salmon House, the Dungeness Crab Bisque is served by the steaming bowl - but perhaps none is more popular and downright satisfying than a whole Dungeness Crab, steamed to perfection.

Dungeness crab (Cancer Magister) are found all over the Salish Sea - the 7,000 sq. mile saltwater network that encompasses Seattle - and the western Washington coast but they are named after the Dungeness Spit located on the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, where they are especially plentiful. The community of Dungeness lies between the historic coastal cities of Port Townsend and Port Angeles and it is just outside the city of Sequim (pronounced Skwim). Dungeness has the longest natural sandbar spit in the continental United States. This nearly six-mile arm of land is a thin strip of sand, driftwood, and seagrass, which protects a small bay that is a haven for birds and marine life. The spit and the bay are both a part of the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge and they are open to (and very popular with) hikers, beachcombing families, and day trip adventurers. At the end of the long spit is a little white and red lighthouse that holds the distinction of being the first U.S. lighthouse on the Strait of Juan de Fuca and it has been in continuous operation since 1857.

Getting to Dungeness Bay is a mini-road trip into the Olympic Peninsula, so gas up and get ready to explore the western tip of the lower 48. If you’re coming from Seattle with a car and want to explore Dungeness, take the Bainbridge Island Ferry, which will put you in the best position to start exploring the Olympic Peninsula. Drive onto the ferry and enjoy the 35-minute crossing as you head to the island.

From Bainbridge you head towards Poulsbo and then cross the Hood Canal Bridge and drive along the 104 until it connects to the legendary Highway 101 - the 1,500-mile coastal road that runs from Tumwater, WA to Los Angeles, CA and through some of the prettiest country the west coast can boast. You’re only on the 101 for a little while as it starts to wind its way along the northwest edges of the state, but it’s a beautiful little stretch because now you’re in farm and forest country where the pines and pastures run right up to the salt water and tide flats.

It takes you about 20 minutes to travel 17 miles of gorgeous countryside, in which you’ll cross the Hood Canal Bridge and come to a bend in the road called Discovery Bay. Discovery Bay is where you really start to feel like you’re moving into the Olympic Peninsula. At the bend is Disco Bay Detour (DBD), a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roadside, all-ages music venue that serves local craft beer, cider, and kombucha on tap. DBD is a beloved local institution with intimate jam sessions and musical performances every weekend. The proprietor is a wide-smiling man named Victor who pulls the taps and makes everyone feel at home with his easy familiarity and friendliness. You stop in for a beer and some booch before you mosey on. 

As you continue to meander along the northern flanks of the Olympic National Park, you’re taken by the sudden appearance of tall shaggy evergreens. They are everywhere as you drive by the tiny town of Blyn, which includes the Jamestown S’Klallam Reservation, a tribal community whose ancestors peopled this coast for over 10,000 years.

Soon you roll into the small city of Sequim and you see Hurricane Coffee Co. It is on the corner and you feel magnetically drawn to pull over. The coffee shop is all slanting sunshine and polished wood. You grab a big cup of joe and a lemon blueberry scone from the fully stocked pastry case, then hop back in the car. You are spitting distance from Dungeness, and Sequim is really the only town of note in the immediate area, so it is your last chance to avail yourself of restaurants and amenities before your only options are farm stands, not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, you only need snacks for your exploration of the spit. As you exit Sequim, you begin to see hand-painted signs for Nash’s Farm Stand. You follow the signs to Nash’s.

On the outside, Nash’s is a small grocery store / farm stand however, on the inside, it’s so much more: community gathering place, lending library, seller of bulk natural foods, and central hub for the produce and offerings of the region’s many farms. You buy a kombucha brewed on Bainbridge Island, a handful of honey sticks, and a small box of raspberries from a nearby farm. Back on the road, heading towards the Dungeness County Park (which is your gateway to the spit), you see a big, barn-shaped historic schoolhouse, which looks like a black-and-white photograph brought to life against the natural backdrop.

After you pass the schoolhouse, the sweeping shoreline of Dungeness Bay opens up suddenly to your view. The road swings left, and your passenger window is filled with water and shore and sky.

As you enter Dungeness Bay, you notice all the small, squatty houses seem like well-cared-for relics from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and the place has the somewhat bent, wind-blasted look that is typical of Pacific coastal communities. There isn’t much out here besides these sleepy-looking houses and the big view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca into which the Dungeness Spit protrudes.

The park is an easy-to-find, friendly place and this afternoon the parking lot is half full as two helpful volunteers stand next to the park map and pay station and offer tips and well wishes. Parking is a few bucks, so you have your cash in-hand. Before you get to the spit and the Wildlife Refuge, you take a short walk (less than a mile) through the woods. The trail breaks through the forest and descends, forming a wide path to the water. Before you head down to the beach, there is an observation deck to take in the sweeping vista of the Dungeness Spit.

Down on the sand, you join a spread-out group of adventure seekers. Nearby, a woman and a group of elementary school-aged kids stack round, warm, smooth, grey beach stones into cairns. Farther down the spit, the movement of distant families barely registers to the eye. The steady winds blowing off the Pacific have pushed the clouds inland and the coast is bright, blue, and warm. From the beach, you see that you can walk right, down the spit towards the lighthouse, OR you can go left and walk beside the sheer, weatherworn beach cliffs that rise precipitously from the warm sand.

You snap photos of the thick, serpentine bundles of kelp and the waves and the driftwood logs. Kick off your shoes and let the cool salt water lap against your ankles and feel the wet, firm sand yield beneath you. You take a selfie. The cliffs and beach march on and on for what looks like several miles. In the northern distance, Canada is a rise of green. You start making your way down the spit.

Sandspits are formed when waves move at oblique angles breaking on the shore in a zig-zag pattern. The wind and waves push deposits of sand eventually forming an arm of land. In the case of Dungeness, the sandspit created a small protected bay which, over time, became an important habitat for birds and marine life. 

The birds are a big deal in Dungeness and if you didn’t know this, there are signs to tell you. They read ‘Birds ONLY beyond this sign.’ You have never seen a sign quite like it and they are stationed at regular intervals to keep curious interlopers off the fragile habitat. You leave the birds to their business, walk a good mile or so down the beach, and then sink into the sand, sitting and slipping a few honey sticks from Nash’s out of your backpack. You suck on them as you make notes in your Moleskin.

You’re hungry and frankly, you thought Dungeness, being the namesake of your favorite crab, would have plenty of seafood options but nothing is available in the immediate area, so you jump in the car and head back to Sequim. There are several Sequim restaurants that can satisfy your need to feed. A local favorite is Dockside Grill where you can enjoy some Dungeness Crab Fritters or steamed Manila clams on the banks of Sequim Bay. But today you crave oysters, so you head to Salty Girls - a beloved oyster market and oyster & chowder bar. You can suck down local varieties like Jamestown Sapphires on the half shell, order baked chipotle oysters or perhaps some Oysters Rockefeller…or all three! Salty Girls also serves steamed Dungeness crab (when in season) and boasts a killer cup of clam chowder.

 

You grab a seat at the bar and order a dozen oysters on the half shell, a cup of chowder, and a cider. The place is mostly full; it looks like the beginning of a dinner rush, and you find the pleasant hum of diners relaxing. Take a sip and open your notebook again. The last phrase you scribble before your oysters arrive: ‘Come back to Dungeness SOON.’