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Exploring Washington’s Olympic Peninsula

Dec 2010 | MCBT Editors 2,113 Comments

This is the first installment from our columnist, Nate Peters, who will be writing about outdoors activities in and around Seattle. Check back for information about local hikes or day trips in the Seattle area!

By Nate Peters

Having just visited the Olympic Peninsula after two years of living in Seattle, there are two thoughts in my mind: I can’t believe that I didn’t make the trip sooner and I can’t wait to return. I do love exploring the Cascades and they are much closer to Seattle, but the Olympic Peninsula truly took my breath away.

From towering coastal rock formations to dripping, moss-covered rainforests to steaming hot springs, the Olympic Peninsula offers a truly unique and scintillating experience to the avid explorer.  If you really want to do the Olympics right, you’re going to need several days for your trip (2+); you really can’t hope to make worthwhile day trip to the peninsula unless you only have one or two points of interest and are a reliable night-driver.

The Olympic National Park lies at the center of the Olympic Peninsula and cannot be crossed via road, so any serious trip will probably involve a loop around the park as you explore.  The park website has a link to a very detailed map of the Olympics, which should get you started.

Where to stay: Camping is possible at numerous locations throughout the park, though you should always be prepared for wet conditions and reservations during the summer are recommended. There are a number of friendly lodges (Port Angeles, Lake Crescent, Kalaloch, Quinault, and Sol Duc) with rooms and/or private cabins for those who desire more plush accommodations.

How long and when to go: Personally, I recommend a 2-night trip with several days of exploring if you really want to feel satisfied with your exploration.  Making the trip with nice weather can be beautiful, but you should also remember that part of the Olympic Peninsula’s grandeur and mystique stems from its substantial moisture.  If you are prepared for wet weather with the right gear and mentality, a rainy day on the Olympic Peninsula can be just as remarkable as a sunny one.

Now let’s talk points of interest.  During my initial foray into the Olympic Peninsula I was only able to visit a few choice spots, but I did get a good idea of the area from locals, and I believe I can make a pretty good list of the best places to visit on the north and west portions of the Olympics.

One option is to take the Bainbridge ferry from Seattle, drive north towards Port Angeles on the 101, and loop down along the coast on the 101 towards Hoquiam before returning to Seattle via Olympia.  On the north end of the Olympic Peninsula, there are a number of key spots to visit as detailed below.

For those interested in pelagic (oceanic) birds, Dungeness Spit is worth a visit, though it is a several mile walk to the end of the spit and the locations to the west offer a much more scenic coastline.  South of Port Angeles, Hurricane Ridge offers beautiful views and trails, especially with nice weather, and probably requires at least half a day.  The Olympic Hot Springs are less developed than the more touristy Sol Duc Hot Springs and are very close to Port Angeles, just west of Hurricane Ridge on a separate road.  As you proceed west on the 101, don’t miss the opportunity to drive along Lake Crescent, where the steep mountain slopes dive straight into beautifully clear water.

For those with more time on their hands or those looking to end out their first day of exploring, the drive out to Neah Bay and Shi Shi Beach is well worth it for the coastal views, but requires you to backtrack to the 101 when you are finished.  Proceeding south along the 101 you will have the option to visit the coastal La Push, which again offers beautiful coastal views from its several accessible beaches.

Your next stop just has to be the Hoh Rainforest, which should be top priority for any first-time visit to the Olympics and is one of the peninsula’s most unique locations.  The delicate hanging mosses and an average yearly rainfall of ~150 inches make the forest simply come alive before you!

As you proceed farther south on the 101, be sure to stop by the very easily accessible Ruby Beach, which is absolutely stunning at sunset and has fascinating tidal pools at the right time of day. Kalaloch offers more beach access (you can actually walk more than 10 miles up the coast to Ruby Beach if the tides are right) and a nice lodge if you need a place to crash for the night, but be sure to make reservations.

As you loop down on the 101 and if you have the time, you may want to stop at Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rainforest, though as far as temperate rainforests go, nothing beats the Hoh.  If you are interested in birdwatching like I am and you are visiting the Olympic Peninsula during migration, you won’t be able to resist a quick visit to Ocean Shores before you return to Seattle (just don’t expect to be blown away by the scenery).

This list of interesting locations by no means covers all the spots that are worth seeing on the Olympic Peninsula, but will give the first-time visitor a good idea of what the area has to offer.

Whether you desire scenic hikes, stunning coastlines, temperate rainforests, or shorebird migration routes, the Olympic Peninsula offers it all.

I haven’t even had a chance to explore backpacking options in the Olympics, so that will have to be a topic for another day.  If you have more specific questions or want opinions for shorter or longer trips, I would be happy to offer my opinion (ncpeters@uw.edu).

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