Washington’s Olympic Peninsuala features a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts one of the few places on earth where you can experience alpine meadows, lush rainforests and sandy beaches all in the space of one day.
We were visiting from British Columbia, so the first stop for us after a short ferry ride from Coupeville was Port Townsend. Known for its beautiful Victorian architecture, this sleepy little town played an important part in the peninsula’s history. Divided by a steep cliff into Uptown and Downtown, the latter’s Water Street near the port was lined with brothels, pubs and bustling industry during the heyday of shipping in Puget Sound. The Jefferson County Historical Museum is well worth a stop to learn more, and we found ourselves spending a good hour looking around here. Today, there are many delightful cafes and restaurants along Water Street, which is the main tourist hub of the city. We also visited the nearby Fort Worden State Park, but with the wind blowing a gale we limited our exploration to a short walk out to Port Wilson Lighthouse before hitting the road towards Port Angeles.
We powered through directly to Port Angeles (roughly 1 hour’s drive), but if you have more time the Dungeness Spit at low-tide is a good spot to stretch the legs. It is the United State’s largest natural sand spit and home to a variety of seabirds. Port Angeles is one of the peninsula’s largest cities and has all the major amenities, but lacks some of the charm of other towns in the area. We tried something a little unique here for accommodation, staying in the harbour on a 15ft yacht for the night through AirBnb. Stargazing from the deck with salty air on the wind and falling asleep to gently rocking waves was an exciting (and cheap!) experience that I’d recommend. For dinner, we grabbed burgers and beers at the local favorite- NextDoor Gastropub.
Located just outside of Port Angeles, Hurricane Ridge offers easily accessible alpine views and ridge-top hiking. A paved road leads right to the small lodge at 5,242 ft/ 1,598 m, depositing visitors right in the middle of stunning mountain scenery. As we were visiting in early April, snow still covered the area but we still managed a short hike up to Hurricane Hill, staying well clear of the cornices near the ridge edge.
Lake Crescent lies further along Highway 101 towards the western coast. It is possible to stay at the water’s edge at Crescent Lake Lodge, one of several accommodations run by the National Park Service within Olympic National Park. We explored some of the short trails near the lodge and were lucky enough to spot several fawns and families of deer in the mossy underbrush. Marymere Falls is another worthwhile nearby hike, culminating at a small cascade.
Sol Duc Hot Springs
The National Parks Service manages these natural hot springs. Several pools of varying temperatures are nestled within a forest setting, with cabin accommodation and restaurant nearby. Many hikes start from this area, following the beautiful Sol Duc River up the valley.
Second Beach, La Push
40 minutes west from Crescent Lake, the 101 winds through the tiny logging town of Forks. In town, turn right on the 110 towards the Quileute Reservation and town of La Push. There are several wild and windy beaches to explore here, with Rialto Beach one of the more well-known. We hiked down to Second Beach, where we explored the shoreline and spotted a waterfall cascading out of the forest straight onto the beach. Being short on time, we again pushed on back to the main highway.
The Hoh Rainforest
It is a long detour to the Hoh Rainforest, but a must-see in my opinion. This is the essence of the Olympics and one of the best examples of the wet, mossy rainforest that sets this region apart from anywhere else in the world. Dripping green moss hangs from every tree here and the lush green of the forest is incredibly vibrant. We were lucky to spot a large bull Roosevelt Elk near the Visitor Centre and a small herd of females further along one of the short hikes. This area is the starting point for the Hoh Trail, a multi-day hikes that brings travellers right to the base of Mt. Olympus.
As Ruby Beach sits right on the Highway 101, it is one of the most visited beaches on the coastline. A freshwater stream runs into the ocean here and off-shore island and remnants of sea stacks dot the water.
If windswept walks along the sand, beach-combing and storm-watching are your cup of tea, you’ll love Kalaloch Lodge. We stayed here as it was the only accommodation for miles around (which is reflected in the price). If you’re visiting the Olympic Peninsula from British Columbia, I would recommend driving to Ruby Beach and turning around after this to return to Port Angeles the same way. If your plan is to instead continue to Seattle or complete the circle of the Peninsula, you can continue south to Quinault Lodge.
Another facility run by the National Parks Service, Quinault Lodge sits on the edge of Quinault Lake. In the summer, kayaking and canoeing are available. As we were visiting in the shoulder season, we spent our time playing board games in the historical lobby area near the huge fireplace and enjoyed the heated indoor pool.