Discover the Wild Lands of Olympic National Park, USA

A waterfall in the Quinault

GUEST ARTICLE: Seattle went to bed one night as a small town, and woke up the next morning having been transformed into a burgeoning city.

We’re not quite comfortable with the arrangement – much like a middle child – but on reflection it’s hard not to appreciate the eclectic mix.

While Microsoft and Boeing beckon with their siren song of jobs and an intolerable commute to the suburbs, all Seattlites pride ourselves on not being as polluted as Los Angeles.

This is an unusual civic pride, but on a clear day, a person can stand in an outdoor park down town, and see glaciated mountains in either direction.

Roughly 100 miles (160 km) away looms a volcanic giant; unlike the rain clouds, at least pollution doesn’t keep us from being able to see our natural treasures.

One of these gifts from the gods is Olympic National Park, complete with its own Mount Olympus. Naturally, the name was borrowed from ancient Greek mythology, given by an English sea captain (John Meares) who “discovered” the Peninsula.

Apart from the landscape itself, European settlers found abundant fishing, timber / logging, farming, and the ability to carve out a pleasant life; all the same reasons the Skokomish, Chehalis, Hoh, Quinault, Quileute, Makah and three S’Klallam tribes had been living here since time immemorial.

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As America saw to its Manifest Destiny of spreading out from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the US Army twice surveyed the Olympic Peninsula to catalog the interior.

These trips led to the land first being designated a US National Park, then, later, a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Preserve. At last count, 95% of the peninsula (by area) is wilderness.

Ironically, while the place is home to one of Planet Earth’s six last biodiversity hot spots, it’s also home to America’s quietest square inch; an area so deeply buried in the rain-forest spread over the foothills that it’s impenetrable to sound pollution from the city.

It should come as no surprise that these pristine and beautiful wild lands attract hikers and lovers of nature with about as much pull as Mecca attracts faithful Muslims.

As promised, the remainder of this article will focus on what to expect if you decide to visit. Seattle is assumed as a start and end point; tourists will be interested to know that SeaTac airport is a 20 minute drive from downtown, allowing this frame of reference.

a map of the journey The Olympic Peninsula

The Journey Begins

There is only one road traversing most of the Olympics; US 101 is typically one lane in each direction.

The drive will be long, and it’ll be generally slow. It will also be fantastically beautiful, so the driving speed generally isn’t an issue.

Travellers should depart the Seattle Ferry Terminal for Bainbridge Island.

The next hour or so will involve a series of well-marked turns: take state highway 305 north after departing the ferry, until you read highway 3; take this north still to highway 104, at the Hood Canal Bridge, and follow that until you eventually reach US 101.

From here, most people make a loop around the peninsula.

Soon you’ll pass through the towns of Sequim (pronounced “skwim”) and then Port Angeles; these are the last major outposts of civilization. There will be the occasional roadside restaurant and even a few hotels along the way, but either of these settlements make a great place to rest and restock.

On a clear day, Port Angeles has a spectacular view of Victoria, British Columbia. It’s also very close to the park, and a popular destination in its own right. Hurricane Ridge Road, probably the most famous region of the park (so much so that it was photographed by Ansel Adams) begins in Port Angeles.

If you’d like to see Neah Bay, the furthest Northwestern point in the continental US, take route 112 heading out of Port Angeles. This is tribal land, and not typically considered part of the Olympic National Park experience, so in this article we’ll continue on the loop. Still, if you have any interest, see the resources below.

You can rejoin 101 at Elwha either by driving through the park (Hurricane Ridge to Whiskey Bend to Olympic Hot Springs roads). Within 20 minutes at normal speed, you’ll reach Crescent Lake. This gem reaches on, seemingly without end. The lake spreads out to the north of the highway, while hiking trails and waterfalls line the southern edge of the road.

A tree in the rainforest - covered in moss it rises up beside a waterfall

A much smaller road circles the far shore, with a national park service hotel (360/928-3211) and visitor centre hidden away in the woods.

Crescent Lake can easily occupy a week in and of itself; you should take some time to enjoy a good hike through the rain forest, views of the mountains rising over the water, and if you can get a reservation at the lodge, a good night’s sleep.

The road leaves the park and heads southwest for a great distance. You’ll pass through a number of very small towns, the largest being Forks.

Interestingly, for every mile west one travels west of Forks, the ground sees another inch (roughly 25 cm) of rain per year.

All of the ferns, the vibrant green moss growing on the sides of trees and boulders, the life teaming through the rain forest is supported by this almost constant bombardment of water from the clouds trying to make their way past the mountains. This is the Hoh Rain Forest.

If you’re brave enough, there are kayak trails through the old growth, along slow moving currents. To preserve the wilderness, the main road does n run through any part of the Hoh itself, so if you plan to see this place – and you should – plan at least an extra day.

Not long after Forks, the road rejoins the national park along the lost Pacific Coast.

Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park

Almost immediately one encounters Ruby Beach. This is a brief (roughly half mile) hike from the trail-head to the ocean front, down a gentle slope. The beach is famous for its driftwood and rock formations.

Finally the road comes back toward the park in the small town of Amanda Park, Washington; another spot weary travellers can get a hot meal. Again, you have the chance to leave the main road and take a roughly 30 mile detour through the Quinault Rain Forest.

The loop is a network of dirt roads that surround Lake Quinault; unfortunately, it’s also closed right now, from a ferocious winter storm that hit on Dec 3, 2007. The state expects it to be open by spring.

After leaving the Quinault, there’s little more natural splendour to be seen. The land still manages to hold onto its mostly wild character, but the road continues south, leaving the mountains and temperate rain forest behind. Soon US 101 reaches Aberdeen, WA (home to Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain), where the traveller should head east on US 12, which rejoins I-5 in Olympia.

From here it’s an hour and a half in moderate traffic back to Seattle, completing a massive 400 mile trip around one of the most spectacular destinations of the Pacific Northwest.

A Final Word of Caution

All hikers know the weather can change quickly in the mountains. A 53 year old skier, Randy Kraxberger, was recently rescued at Hurricane Ridge, after clouds moved in, disorienting him. Mr Kraxberger found a cellular phone signal, called for help, then built a snow cave and spent the night taking shelter inside of it. Most hikers with less experience would have perished, as James Kim did one year ago. Please be careful when you set out on the trail!

Low-hanging fog tends to hug the road, especially west of the mountains. At the same time, people let their dogs wander, and the area is wild enough to see deer walking across the highway. Please drive carefully when visibility is poor.

Further Reading

This travel diary has been written by my friend Forrest Croce who lives in Seattle, Washington and enjoys exploring the Pacific Northwest wilderness of America.

If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution

6 thoughts on “Discover the Wild Lands of Olympic National Park, USA”

  1. I grew up there and used to hike all the time! Hurricane Ridge has a lot of great memories for me. I haven’t been back for about 5 years now, but I am hoping to make it soon.

    It really is a beautiful area and I heartily encourage everyone to visit it.

    EDITOR: thanks for the local info

  2. Great post! I had no idea the Olympic National Park was so large. Thanks for the tip about Neah Bay, I think that would be interesting to visit.

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