This Little-known Season Is Actually the Best Time to Visit the Pacific Northwest

Group Team

 Five inches of rain was due to fall over the Washington coast in the next 48 hours, and I was headed straight into the storm. On my slow-going, three-hour drive from the Seattle airport to Copalis Beach one January night, what started as a light mist turned to heavy rain, and I had to dodge tree debris scattered in the road.

Around 9 p.m., I finally reached Iron Springs Resort. After settling into my cabin, I walked outside on the deck overlooking Boone Creek and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I felt the stinging rain on my face and could hear the crashing waves, but I couldn’t make out the landscape — it was not until morning, when I raised the window shades, that I saw the mammoth waves crashing in the distance and white-tipped pulses of water racing up the creek, propelled by the high tide. I was in no hurry to rush out the door, sitting for hours at the window, watching the infinite rolling of the water.

I’m not alone in my interest in this powerful phenomenon — each year between November and February, when Pacific storms are at their most violent, stormwatching season draws people to the coast to marvel at these tempests. (In November 2020, a video went viral of monster waves pouring over the Westport, Washington, seawall, drenching onlookers.) In Oregon and Washington, lodges built high on oceanside bluffs allow visitors to observe from a safe vantage point, and many of these properties — like Headlands Coastal Lodge & Spa in Pacific City, Oregon — even have “stormwatching packages.”

Further north, the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, British Columbia, was built specifically with stormwatching in mind. As a child, Charles McDiarmid used to observe the waves on Chesterman Beach from his family’s nearby cabin. The experience inspired McDiarmid and his brother to create a stormwatching haven at the inn when they opened it in 1996.

“You’d see 25 to 30-foot waves crashing on the rocks right in front of the cabin, and we all felt very secure in our little nest there amidst the storm,” McDiarmid says. He recalls the distinctive sound of huge driftwood logs smashing into bedrock, making a low-level vibration he likens to the sound of a tuning fork. “It’s a front row seat at the movie theater of Mother Nature, like an extra wide screen in high definition.”

Pacific storms are so intense because of several factors, explains Bridget Trosin, a coastal policy specialist with Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington. She says Pacific storms are barreling off the Pacific with “no land breaks to help break the waves or the storm until it rolls right into the coast.” 

When a powerful Pacific storm occurs during a king tide — the highest tides of the year, generally occuring in the winter months — they can be especially damaging. Like all tides, king tides are based on the positions of the moon, sun, and Earth. In the Pacific Northwest, king tides generally occur during the winter months when they have the potential to coincide with powerful Pacific storms. Just before I traveled to Washington, record high tides caused flooding and damage in a number of locations in the state. 

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There are a few basic, but crucial, rules to safe stormwatching: stay farther back from the water than you think you need to; be aware of “sneaker” or “rogue” waves that come without warning; don’t stand on storm walls or breakwalls since waves can go right over them; obey signage and guard rails; and never, ever turn your back on the ocean.

Of course, if you don’t want to be out in the elements, you can also just enjoy the show from a well-appointed cabin or hotel room with expansive walls of windows, as I did at Iron Springs. In between sessions staring at the gales out my window, I browsed my cozy cabin’s collection of puzzles and books, and leafed through an extensive DVD menu and welcome guide replete with tidbits about the area’s history (I learned that the nearby Copalis Airport is the only one in the state with a sand runway). While other guests were staying in nearby cabins, the rainy days encouraged people to stay cozy inside their own cabins or bundle up and brave the storm, but most didn’t linger outside to chat.

Doug True first visited the resort, which originally only had eight cabins and was built in 1947, when he was 10 years old. Now, he owns it, along with his wife, Janet, and they’ve upgraded to 25 cabins; Doug brings his grandchildren here to enjoy the same annual spectacle he loved in his childhood. “It’s my favorite place to come in the world,” he says. “I’ve heard people say it’s kind of spiritual.”

The next day, the sun finally peeked out, and I drove north to my next destination: Kalaloch Lodge. Located on a bluff in Olympic National Park — which has 73 miles of coastline — Kalaloch provides a spectacular perch from which to observe storms. From my cabin on the bluff’s edge, I heard thunderously loud waves below and saw large hunks of driftwood scattered on the beach. I chatted with a woman painting en plein air on the bluff, capturing the waves with strokes of cerulean, teal, and cobalt. The hotel’s main lodge is home to Creekside Restaurant, where diners can enjoy delicious meals that are largely locally sourced. I savored grilled king salmon with braised garlic mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts — served take-out style since the dining area was closed in January 2021.

Amy Neil, the lodge’s general manager says the ocean’s intensity draws people to the lodge each winter. She says some people come back each year to watch the ocean, often bringing along multiple generations of their family to observe the ocean’s might. One recent storm pummeled the stairs leading to the beach, twisting and tugging on them and threatening to pull them out to sea, Neil told me. “The ocean is just so powerful. It’s in charge.”

These storms also bring life to the national park’s famous Hoh Rain Forest, about an hour inland from Kalaloch. The Hoh receives nearly 12 feet of rain in an average year, but luckily, I was able to take advantage of a sunny day to see the effects of the winter’s recent storms. Setting out on the short Hall of Mosses trail, my boots crunched on ice and snow as I walked beneath maples with shaggy club moss cascading off the trunks and branches, glistening. I navigated massive fallen trees crossing the path, ducking down under one and sidestepping around another, showing the power of winter storms. 

Driving back from the Hoh Rain Forest, I stopped at Ruby Beach to soak up a little bit of sunshine. I marveled at sea birds and exchanged smiles of blue sky jubilation with other beachgoers. It was a perfect juxtaposition to the powerful storm that had just passed, when people largely stayed nestled in their cabins watching sheets of rain come down. After a turbulent few days, everyone was appreciating a sunny lull in the storm.

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