Time of Year: September 2022
Temperatures: High 69 Low 42
Season: Dry season
Duration: 4 days
The natural route to hit the highlights of Olympic National Park is by traveling counterclockwise around the outskirts of the Olympic peninsula. Even Google will take you in a counterclockwise route around the park. For most non-natives, you’ll be flying into Sea-Tac International airport, located between downtown Seattle and Tacoma.
We opted to rent a car from the airport. From there you have two options for making your way out to the Olympic Peninsula. You can drive back into Seattle and catch the ferry to Bainbridge or you can drive south through Tacoma before turning back up north towards Port Angeles. Given that we had already experienced the ferry during a short detour to Seattle and in line with our type A personalities, we opted for the control and flexibility that driving afforded.
The drive out to Port Angeles is relatively monotonous. After turning off 5, you’ll end up taking 101 most the way around the entire peninsula. Port Angeles is right off 101 and kind of a gateway to the park. It’s a small town with the main attraction being Hurricane Ridge (more on that below). It’s also home to the official visitor center for Olympic National Park.
After picking up our car around 9am, we set out for the Olympic peninsula. The direct route is 130 miles, about 2.5 hours, but I would highly recommend a stop in Port Townsend. It has a cute well preserved Victorian town along the waterfront with shops, wineries, and restaurants. We were there on a random Sunday and got to see a Wood Boat festival and walk around a local crafts fair.
We grabbed cappuccinos and a quiche at Better Living Through Coffee, which was most notable for its calming view of the water. Don’t be fooled by the uptown and the undertown, the highlight is definitely the downtown. We spent about 1-1.5 hours there tops and then got back on the road towards Port Angeles and Hurricane Ridge.
Travel time from SeaTac Airport to Port Townsend: 102 miles / 1 hr 51 min
Our first stop in Olympic National Park was at Hurricane Ridge, aptly named for the ridgeline it runs along from Hurricane Hill to Maiden Peak. As you climb the winding 17 miles to the ridge cresting at 5,200 feet, you’ll notice the winds pick up and the temperatures begin to drop. Hiking paths feed off in all directions from the visitor center offering views of the surrounding mist-laden mountain ranges in the distance.
We enjoyed a short stroll along the paved Cirque Rim trail, which lead to an easily navigable dirt trail that led up to Sunrise Point. With a little energy left in our tanks, we hiked out another mile towards Klahhane Ridge and then back towards the parking lot along High Ridge Trail.
Total Hike: 2.25 miles / 50 minutes
Travel time from Port Townsend to Hurricane Ridge: 65 miles / 1 hr 32 min
We finished the day in Port Angeles after traveling from Seattle to the Victorian waterfront of Port Townsend then up to Hurricane Ridge. Port Angeles is a small town with a population of about 20,000 people. Located on the north end of the Olympic peninsula, it claims waterfront along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
I’ll be honest, our expectations were low as we pulled back into Port Angeles to check into our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised as we stepped into the lobby of the Olympic Lodge by Ayres, the grand wood-lined lobby offering a cozy retreat from the cold that settled as the sun set.
While the hotel boasts a large continental breakfast selection, you are on your own for dinner. We graciously accepted recommendations from the front desk clerk, who steered us towards downtown, a short strip of shops and restaurants lining the waterfront near the city pier. We opted for the laid back vibes at Next Door Gastropub although the Kokopelli Grill, with steak and seafood classics also came highly recommended.
Travel time from Hurricane Ridge to Port Angeles: 20 miles / 36 min
Total Distance Traveled: 187 miles / 4 hours
Day 2 leads you back out to 101, heading west along the Salish Sea. The road then dips inland as you head towards Lake Crescent, the largest lake in Olympic National Park. The valley was originally carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age and then filled with water over 8,000 years ago when a landslide damned up nearby Indian Creek.
Lake Crescent is worth a stop. If you follow the signs to the Lodge, you’ll find yourself at the edge of picturesque lake positioned perfectly against a backdrop of rolling mountains. We pulled in around 9:00am as the sun was beginning to burn off the cloud layer. We enjoyed a serene view from the dock, as sun rays filtered through the clouds, glistening off the water and highlighting the mountain background beyond.
The Lake Crescent Lodge offers a dining room and gift shop that’s open to visitors of the park. There’s also a boat shop where you can rent paddle boards and kayaks. Personally, we used the facilities and stuck to exploring the trails and nearby waterfall. From the Lodge parking lot, there are a few marked trails that I would recommend taking time to check out.
Marymere Falls Trail is a 2.3 mile out and back hike on a well-groomed footpath that winds between towering moss-covered firs. The last ½ mile follows a steep grade and loops up to offer a few viewpoints of a narrow falls in the distance.
Total Hike: 2.3 miles / 50 minutes
The Moments in Time Hiking Trail is a ½ mile self-guided nature loop that meanders through the forest at the edge of the lake. It offers breathtaking views of the lake from a forested coastline. You can stop periodically to learn about the growth of the forest described on easy-to-read signs.
Total Hike: 0.5 miles / 15 minutes
Travel time from Port Angeles to Lake Crescent: 20 miles / 30 minutes
Sol Duc Valley
Another 10 miles down 101, you’ll see a turn off for Sol Duc Valley, offering another entrance to Olympic National Park. After entering the park, be prepared for what feels like a really long drive. Even the first stop at Aurora Ridge Trail is a few miles into the park, but you’ll want to keep going because the best stop is all the way at the end, about 14 miles in.
Our first stop was the Salmon Cascades, a part of the Sol Duc River where coho salmon begin their upstream swim to their birthplace where they will lay their eggs and die. During late September to early November the Salmon Cascades offers one of the best views of a salmon run. Unfortunately, we were a few weeks early for the upstream migration, but did catch sight of a group of them in one of the downstream pools used as a “staging” area.
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort
One of the main attractions to Sol Duc Valley is the hot springs located at the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, offering 3 mineral hot spring soaking pools and one freshwater pool. According to the website, “the spring water comes from rain and melting snow, which seeps through cracks in the sedimentary rocks where it mingles with gasses, coming from cooling volcanic rock.” The temperatures range from 99 to 104 degrees F.
Currently you can book a 1.5 hour pre-set block of time for $18 (adult) during which you can enjoy the springs. You can bring your own towel or rent one for $5. The reviews online were mediocre at best so we personally chose to skip this attraction, but we were probably in the minority on this one. There was a long line of people purchasing tickets as we stepped into the lodge to get some snacks and head back out to the trails.
Total Time: 5 minutes – 1.5 hours, depends on if you stay for the springs
Sol Duc Falls
Further down, the road dead ends into a parking lot with trailhead facilities and picnic tables. We opted for a pleasant outdoor picnic before dipping into the secluded woods on our way to Sol Duc Falls. The path meanders through the woods, crossing a bubbling stream then gradually climbing to a wooden bridge overlying a gorge carved out by the falls. The sound of the water cascading 48 feet over the rocks sets the scene as you check out the falls from a couple of different viewpoints.
Total Hike: 1.8 miles out and back, 45 minutes
Travel time from Lake Crescent to Sol Duc Valley: 23 miles / 42 minutes
After hitting the highlights of Sol Duc Valley, we turned back onto 101, heading west towards the beaches. From Sol Duc Falls, it’s about a 50-mile drive to La Push, which we were told offered a small, coastal town with restaurants and shops.
Our first stop at the beaches was Second Beach. We pulled into a very full gravel parking lot right off the main road, then ducked between the trees to follow a long, steep path switchbacking through towering trees down to a wide beach. You can wander along the expansive beach while enjoying the waves crashing into sea stacks that dot the coastline.
Total Time: 1 hour
After a short, but steep climb back up to our car, we made the short drive into La Push. It turns out La Push is a small unincorporated community, home to the Quileute tribe, known for its whale watching and natural environment.
We were ready for an early dinner and pulled into the parking lot of the only restaurant in town. River’s Edge Restaurant sits at the mouth of the Quillayute River, with a wall of windows overlooking the water. If you’re looking for clean and timely, this is not your spot, but the food was hearty once it finally came. We even got to pass the time watching river otters playing on the dock outside while we waited for our food to come.
Travel time from Sol Duc Falls to La Push: 55 miles / 1 hr 11 min
After dinner, we were ready for the final drive into Forks, which would serve as our last homestead of the trip. Compared to the Olympic Lodge in Port Angeles, we were less than thrilled with our two-night stay at the Forks Motel. That being said, the town of Forks is situated close to the Hoh Rainforest and would be a good stepping off point for our final days in Olympic National Park.
The Forks Motel is on par with the other hotels in the area and given the limited availability, we were grateful for a place to stay. Forks itself is a small town, best known as the setting of the Twilight series. Prior to the uptick in tourism, the city’s economy relied primarily on the timber industry, the history of which can be learned at the Forks Timber Museum. It also lays claim to being the rainiest town in the contiguous Unites States, with an average rainfall of 120” per year. We were happy to be there during the dry season!
Forks also boasts a small, community hospital with a 6-bed emergency department and 10-bed inpatient wing. Unfortunately, we are now quite familiar with the hospital after a short stint in the ED after my mom broke her foot hiking one of the trails in Kalaloch (more on that later).
Travel time from La Push to Forks: 15 miles / 22 minutes
Total Travel Time: 113 miles / 2 hrs 45 min
Hoh (pronounced “Hoe”) Rainforest
After filling up on coffee and pastries at Mocha Motion, the drive-thru coffee hut near our hotel, we hit the road early for the drive into the Hoh Rainforest. Although the Visitor Center doesn’t officially open until 9am, the park is open 24/7. We’d heard that you should arrive early as there can be long wait times to enter the park if you arrive at 10am. We pulled into the parking lot around 8:30, which was already busy, but there was still plenty of parking near the trailhead.
There are 3 trails that start from the same general area, each with slightly different views of the rainforest and nearby Hoh River. If you have time, I’d highly recommend spending time on each, but if you had to pick one I’d say the Hall of Mosses was my favorite.
The Hall of Mosses trail is a 0.8-mile, well-trafficked loop that dips deep into the Hoh Rainforest, surrounding you in moss-covered firs and maple trees. The colors are magnificent as the sun streaks through the dense shroud of leaves above.
The Spruce Nature trail is a 1.2-mile loop that winds its way through old and new growth forest. Part of the trail breaks out onto a rocky riverbed of the Hoh River and then winds its way back to the parking lot alongside an overgrown moss-laden creek.
For longer hikes you’ll want to check out the Hoh River Trail, which continues for 18.5 miles, ending at the Blue Glacier moraine with a view of Mount Olympus. There are a couple of popular turn-around points along the trail, which I’ve listed below. We found the First River Access was the perfect turn-around point after already hiking 2.5 miles on the other trails. After a short stop along the riverbed to soak up nature, we backtracked along the trail and moved on to explore more of Olympic National Park.
- First River access (0.9 miles one way)
- Mineral Creek Falls (2.7 miles one way)
- Cedar Grove (4.0 miles one way)
- 5 mile Island (5.0 miles one way)
The Big Cedar Tree
The Big Cedar Tree
Probably not worth the very bumpy drive down a poorly maintained, pothole-laden road, we stopped to view the Big Cedar Tree. A wooden fence surrounds a large, decomposing tree that we suspect is the noteworthy viewpoint, although there was no signage to confirm that. A short, well-maintained gravel path skirts around the tree and down a short way to view more large trees.
Travel time from Forks to the Hoh Rainforest: 31 miles / 48 minutes
Kalaloch Lodge and Beaches
Our next stop was Kalaloch Lodge to enjoy some more coastal views, nature trails and to marvel at the Tree of Life. We headed west out of the Hoh Rainforest and then south along 101, hugging the coastline for another 30 minutes or so. The highlight of this short excursion was probably sipping warm pumpkin spiced chai lattes while watching the waves crash along the shoreline.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life was right up there, a marveling sight and one of the natural wonders of Washington. The roots spread wide over the eroding soil, the gap widening daily by a natural stream that flows beneath. While the tree sags and dips, the roots hold steadfast, keeping the weight of the tree hovering above the sand below.
The Kalaloch Creek Nature Trail is a challenge to find and no easier to get to. It requires a short walk along the shoulder of 101 and then a quick crossing of the street as the entrance is right off the main road. After entering through a narrow opening in the trees, you find yourself transported back to the forested views that span Olympic National Park.
Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say about the trail. We made it less than half of the 1.4 mile out and back before my mom snagged her foot on a root resulting in a hard fall to the ground. Luckily, she was able to walk the short distance back to the lodge where the bartender graciously provided a bag of ice for her rapidly swelling foot.
The folks at the nearby ranger station were equally as nice, but had limited first aid skills and resources. I was able to use my limited translational skills as an anesthesiologist to clean and bandage a cut on her knee and wrap her ankle. I learned that Forks had a hospital with an emergency room and since we headed back there for the night anyways, it was an easy stop once back in town. Three hours later she was cleared to leave with a negative head CT and ankle boot for a small avulsion fracture of the 5th metatarsal. Luckily most of the hiking was behind us anyways.
Total time from Hoh Rainforest to Kalaloch Lodge: 39 miles / 57 minutes
Total time from Kalaloch Lodge to Forks: 35 miles / 41 minutes
Total Travel Time: 105 miles / 2 hr 16 min
We said goodbye to the tiny town of Forks and headed south again towards Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rainforest. The first stop after you turn off 101 and onto the South Shore loop is the Quinault Rainforest. From here there are miles of interconnected trails to choose from.
Since my mom was sitting this one out, I chose the Quinault Rainforest Nature Loop, a short 0.5-mile, interpretive loop that passes a crashing creek under a canopy of green vegetation. By this time, I could confirm that it was more of what we’d already seen, so my mom wasn’t missing out on too much.
Further up, the road dips down to hug the shores of Lake Quinault, an expansive, glacier-carved lake on the southern edge of Olympic National Park. The Lake Quinault Lodge offers a serene view from a window-paned dining space where we had our first tableclothed dining experience.
While in this area, it’s worth driving a short way up the road to see the World’s Largest Spruce Tree, a Sitka Spruce measuring 191 feet tall and over 58 inches in circumference. The tree is over 1000 years old. The trail is just a 0.4 mile out and back that leads to a meadow along the lake with a view of the tree.
The last stop we made was at Merriman Falls, just a few more miles up the road. You can hear it as you pass by if the passenger window is rolled down, which is probably one of the reasons we didn’t drive right by. It offered a nice final view before we hit the road on our way back to Seattle.