Pysht River originates near Ellis Mountain on the Olympic Peninsula and flows generally northeast for 16 miles (26 km), draining a watershed of 29,632 acres (11,992 ha), to the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Pillar Point, about 31 miles (50 km) west-northwest of Port Angeles and 26 miles (42 km) southeast of Neah Bay, Washington. The small community of Pysht is situated about 1 mile (1.6 km) southwest of the river mouth. The name of the river and village comes from either the Coast Salish language word ‘pəšc’t’ meaning ‘against the wind or current’, or the Chinook jargon name for the stream, ‘pish’ or ‘pysht’, meaning ‘fish’. Two additional tributaries, Reed Creek and Indian Creek join near the mouth of the Pysht River which forms a tidally influenced estuary just south of Pillar Point and north of the Pillar Point County Park. Pillar Point is a descriptive name given by Captain Henry Kellet in 1847 to the massive headland with a summit elevation of 740 feet (226 m). The core rocks of the northern Olympic Peninsula are part of the Crescent terrane that consists of basalt of the Crescent Formation overlain by marine sedimentary rocks of the Pysht Formation and the Clallam Formation. The Crescent Formation has been described as an Early Eocene seamount chain that was accreted to the continental margin when an ancient oceanic plate was subducted under the North American continental plate. The Clallam Formation represents sediments deposited in shallow water during the Late Eocene to Early Miocene on the geological time scale. The rock formation is well exposed along the coastline of the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Slip Point and Pillar Point and consists of poorly sorted sandstone, conglomerate, and minor silty sandstone with two coal seams that were historically mined. The Juan de Fuca trough was scoured by continental ice flowing westward across Georgia Strait that was joined by piedmont ice from the Olympic Mountains and the Coast Range of Vancouver Island during the Fraser and earlier glaciations. The river valley and estuary of the Pysht River are filled with alluvial sediments. The Pillar Point headland creates a change in shoreline direction that results in the sudden dissipation of the west to east longshore current and much of the suspended sediment is deposited forming a submerged sand bar. This submerged bar of sediment allows longshore drift to continue to transport sediment in the direction of the waves breaking in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, forming an above-water spit. The sediment source for the spit is the eroding sea cliffs to the west of Pillar Point and the sediment deposited by the Pysht River.
The archaeological record suggests that as the glaciers receded, people moved into the high country of the Olympic Peninsula where new vegetation attracted game and expanded hunting and gathering opportunities. The remains of stone tool manufacture have been documented in the Olympic Mountains and surrounding foothills. Archaeologists have also uncovered hearth sites, where meals were cooked between 8,000-4,000 years ago near mountain lakes, ridgelines, marshes, and meadows. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Klallam people inhabited the northern Olympic Peninsula from the Hoko River in the west to present-day Port Discovery in the east. Klallam villages were mostly located along the coast and seasonal villages situated inland along rivers, inlets, and large lakes. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe occupied the village of Tse-whit-zen near Port Angeles for more than 2,700 years, from the earliest confirmed settlement around 750 BC until it was abandoned in the 1930s. Europeans first began to explore the Pacific Northwest coast with Juan José Pérez Hernández in 1774, James Cook in 1778, and many others, especially maritime fur traders from the 1780s on. Early explorers did not enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca or make direct contact with the Klallam. In 1787, Charles W. Barkley was the first European known to have entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Robert Gray reached Clallam Bay in 1789. From 1790 to 1792, the Spanish were based at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island and made multiple expeditions into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Manuel Quimper reached Port Discovery in 1790. In 1791, Francisco de Eliza led a small exploring fleet, which for a time based itself at Port Discovery. It is not known which ship first made contact with the Klallam, but it was most likely before 1789 and probably at the village at Clallam Bay or Port Discovery, and involved gifts of knives, buttons, and copper. In the early 1880s, homesteaders claimed land along the fertile deltas of the Pysht River. The forests of the lower Pysht River watershed featured large-diameter stands of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. In 1886, the logging company Merrill & Ring first acquired land rights at Pysht. World War I created a demand for spruce to build airplanes and Merrill & Ring responded to the demand in the Pysht area. The logging boom continued after the war and in the 1920s the Klallam village of Pysht was demolished to build a lumber mill and employee housing. Pysht became an industrial port for the timber-cutting industry, with logging, lumbering, and rail facilities to a log dump in the estuary. Today nearly the entire watershed is subject to repeated logging and most trees are less than thirty years old.
The Pysht River supports nine species of freshwater fish with five salmonid species including Chinook, coho, chum salmon, sea-run coastal cutthroat trout, and steelhead. Historically the salmon runs were robust, but all have declined due to habitat degradation. The river habitat and floodplain have been altered by road and railroad construction, erosion protection, channel relocation, logging, in-channel wood removal, dredging, homesteading, agricultural development, wetland filling, and rural development. The river was channelized to facilitate the transport of logs along the lower river and estuary. Dredging was routinely carried out on the lower river and the dredge spoils were reportedly dumped into the estuary’s tidal wetlands for the purpose of agricultural development. In 2009, North Olympic Land Trust started implementing a plan to conserve portions of the lower 10 miles (16 km) of the Pysht River as intact habitat for native fish and wildlife. As part of this process, two properties were acquired that became the Pysht River Conservation Area located about 9 miles (15 km) from the mouth of the Pysht River and protects 74 acres (30 ha) of land, including 0.75 miles (1.2 km) of the Pysht River, 0.3 miles (0.5 km) of Green Creek, and four wetlands. The Makah Tribe led restoration efforts by removing dilapidated structures, eradicating non-native invasive vegetation, and re-planting over 7,000 native trees with the help of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Further restoration was completed in partnership with the Clallam Conservation District and Merrill & Ring, with another 4,700 native trees and shrubs planted. In 2016, the Pysht River Restoration Support Project began a long-term effort to continue improving salmon habitat. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe constructed 35 engineered logjams, installed 350 feet (107 m) of floodplain fencing, and conducted riparian re-vegetation. Monitoring has shown that these projects have been successful in restoring channel and riparian habitat features favored by salmon for spawning and rearing. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Pysht River and Pillar Point here: