Back to my bread & butter, a travel-tip post on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, home to one of America’s best national parks. I spent a week there in August. I know I know, what took me so long to write about it? I’ve been posting pictures for other posts, but it’s finally time to give my take on this beautiful place. I’ve been there several times, but never as extensively as this one. It is in my opinion the most diverse national park in the country. Where else can you hike among flowers in alpine meadows, see glaciers, walk through a misty rain forest, or along a beach studded with sea stacks and brimming with tide pools? Throw in skipping stones on a beautiful lake and a good soak in a hot spring and you have a pretty special place.
Places to Visit on the Peninsula
The best time to visit the Olympic Peninsula is anytime during the warmer months, mid-May to September. April, even March can be nice, also less crowded. You can have rainy weather at any time, but it is much less common July to mid-September. Here are the spots I think are worth visiting. I’ll start with the two most popular places.
- Hurricane Ridge. This area accessible via a twisting climbing road from Port Angeles is probably the most spectacular place in the park, and the Peninsula as well. The views are astounding. You can see into Canada, over to the Pacific Ocean, and out into the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. The flowers peak in late July to early August. There is a small visitor center and a few short trails. If you drive the gravel road (doable in a 2WD) east to the end of the ridge, you will have more views. And if you hike a mile or two out one of the trails here you can see Puget Sound and the North Cascades: awesome!
- Hoh Rainforest. Although this area on the west side of the Peninsula can get crowded, the trails have people dispersed in a hurry. A few short nature trails give a good feel for the forest, and there is a very long trail that heads up the Hoh River, eventually reaching alpine meadows and views of the Blue Glacier. There is also a good visitor center. Note that you’ll pay an entrance fee (currently $15) to access either Hurricane Ridge or the Hoh, but not for most of the other locations listed below.
- La Push Beaches. The coast near La Push is spectacular. Several short trails head to beaches, which are popular for backpacking. But you can also simply drive to Rialto Beach or First Beach. It’s beautiful. Do yourself a favor and take a couple walks along the beach. Time it for low tide for some superb tide-pooling. Pick up a tide table or jot down times from the internet. Catch a sunset if at all humanly possible!
- Ozette. Actually if you have time do both Ozette and Cape Flattery. The drive out there from Port Angeles is so beautiful. Once at Ozette, which used to be a thriving if isolated community but now is not much more than a trailhead, you can hike out a few miles to Cape Alava. This is the furthest west you can go in the continental United States. It’s spectacular. You can hike south along the beach then turn left and make a loop back. It is about 9 miles for the loop. The lake is a big one, very worth paddling on if you have a canoe or kayak. I camped right on the lake and had some very nice starry skies (see image).
If you go to Cape Flattery and have time for a hike, you can head south along the coast on Hobuck Road. It will give you a feel for how the Makah Native American tribe lives, and you’ll end up at the trailhead for Shi Shi Beach (pronounced shy shy). Also, at Neah Bay, there is a very worthwhile museum focused on the native culture of the Makah and other coastal tribes. Cape Flattery is spectacular, the northwestern-most point of the U.S. (excluding Alaska of course). On the drive out there, make sure and check out the beautiful beach at Salt Creek County Park.
- Lake Quinault. Like many places on the Olympic Peninsula, this beautiful lake lies on American Indian tribal land. It is bordered, however, by Olympic National Park. There is a very nice lodge on the southern shore, plus a beautiful nature trail that winds through enormous trees. The rainforest here is at least as lovely as that in the Hoh Valley. Drive east past the lake for trailheads that strike off into wilderness. There are rustic campsites up here, and BIG trees.
- Lake Crescent. This glacially-carved lake is the most beautiful lake in Washington, if you ask me. Steep mountains rise from a curving lakeshore. Many people just drive right by it on the way from Hurricane Ridge to Hoh Valley. Don’t be one of these people! A small beach at the west end of the beach is a good place for a picnic. Roads head along the far northern shore from either end, and a hiking trail ascends to Pyramid Mountain for even better views of the lake.
- Sol Duc. This valley covered in beautiful forest is additionally blessed with a (developed) hot springs. Though I prefer undeveloped hot springs, this one is nicely done. A short hike takes you to Sol Duc Falls, a beautiful (but popular) cascade. Reach this valley by turning south just west of Lake Crescent.
- Overnight Hikes: The two classic trips are up the Hoh River and along the coast. For the former, start at Hoh Visitor Center and head up to the Blue Glacier. You can turn north at the ranger station to enter a lovely lake basin. Then if you do a shuttle you can exit through the Sol Duc Valley. For the coast, talk with rangers at the park’s wilderness desk for local information. You need to factor in slower hiking times plus tides. There are several possibilities including the hike from Ozette to Rialto Beach, along with Third Beach to Ruby Beach. Many other backpack trips are possible in the park, including some that ascend quickly into great mountains and lakes from the east, Hood Canal side.
- Dungeness Spit. I would be remiss in not mentioning Dungeness Spit near Sequim. A hike along the Spit is a different experience, reaching far out into the sound. And it is flat as a pancake! Sequim is a small town east of Port Angeles. It benefits from a climatic phenomenon called the rain shadow effect. It means the rainfall in Sequim is about 16 inches, while over in the nearby rain forests of the western Olympic Peninsula it exceeds 150 inches. The Olympic Mountains effectively block storms coming in off the Pacific Ocean. The air rises and cools as it hits the mountains. Cool air cannot hold as much water in its vapor form as warm air can, so it rains and snows over the high country. As the weather passes over the peaks and air descends toward Sequim on the Puget Sound, it warms and dries, holding the remaining moisture back – until it hits the Cascades further east.
Onward from the Olympics
You can make your visit even more special by visiting Victoria in Canada. Just take the ferry from Port Angeles and make sure you have your passport with you. There are countless lodging options, but perhaps the nicest are the many beds and breakfasts. You can also stay in one of the hotels lining the truly beautiful harbor. Whale-watching tours are available, but you should also keep watch from the ferry. Orcas are not uncommon.
From there you can take a ferry over to the San Juan Islands, getting a taste of the slower life there before continuing by ferry back to the Washington mainland north of Seattle. Some years back my girlfriend and I took her Westphalia camper from Portland up through the Olympic Peninsula, over to Victoria for a bit of culture, then to San Juan and Orcas Islands for more beauty and nature, then home via I-5. It was a magical trip, perfect for a two week vacation in summertime.
I hope you get to visit this special place some day. Or return for more in depth exploration if you’ve been there before. If you are interested in any of these images just click on them. They are all copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry about that. If you have any questions, please contact me. Thanks for reading and have a great week!