A World of Wows on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula
Story & photos by Julie Snyder
We looked up in awe, craning our necks to glimpse the towering treetop, partly shrouded in a silvery mist. We stretched our arms around the massive trunk, speculating how many other tree huggers with outstretched limbs would be required to embrace its girth. We ran our hands over its scaly bark, weathered by centuries of exposure to the brutal Pacific Northwest elements.
We were agog over the world’s largest Sitka spruce—191 feet tall with a circumference of 58 feet, 11 inches and a birthday somewhere around 1000 AD, about the time that Leif Ericson and his Viking horde reputedly became the first Europeans to set foot in North America. We stood at its feet with a reverence reserved for miracles of nature.
The Olympic Peninsula—the northwesternmost thumb of the U.S.—is big on miracles of nature. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and Hood Canal, the peninsula packs 3,600 square miles with glacier-covered mountains, old-growth temperate rain forests, over 70 miles of wild coastline and a collection of small communities, some charming, some quirky. Nearly 70 percent of its lands are protected as Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest.
My husband, Joe, and I were on a road trip. We planned to trace the Washington coastline and all its nooks and crannies up to Lake Quinault Lodge and from there explore Olympic National Park and the nearby shore. Since moving to Portland nearly four years ago, we’d become smitten with the riches of the Oregon coast and wondered if they were rivaled north of the Columbia.
Crossing the mighty Columbia River from Oregon to Washington on the Astoria-Megler Bridge, we bypassed (but first-time visitors shouldn’t) the turnoff to Long Beach, the only coastal town we’d already explored. Big draws in this cozy community are its Razor Clam Festival, World Kite Museum, Lewis and Clark Discovery Trail and 28-mile-long beach, most of which is open to vehicle traffic for at least part of the year. (Call me old-fashioned but I’ll take the sand between my toes, not my tires.)
Instead we moseyed north to Raymond, a faded logging town reinvitalized as a harbor for marijuana entrepreneurs after retail cannabis sales became legal in the state in 2014. The area’s pre-pot heritage is depicted in a three-mile parade through town of 200 rusted Corten steel sculptures—loggers, Native Americans elk, deer, bear, birds, even a team of oxen pulling logs—all created by local artists. A few miles down the road we passed through Tokeland, a seaside hamlet named not for the area’s pot purveyors but for a 19th-century Indian, Chief Toke.
A bit further on we passed the Furford Cranberry Museum, our first clue to nearby bogs and a respectable state harvest that ranks Washington fifth in the nation among cranberry-producing states. Just south of the mouth of Grays Harbor is Westport, a fishing village with traveler enticements—superb surfing, the tallest (107 ft.) lighthouse in the state, the Westport Maritime Museum housed in an old Coast Guard lifeboat station, and the annual World Class Crab Races & Crab Feed.
In Ocean Shores, on the north shore of Grays Harbor, a string of hotels, condominium complexes and a casino make the most the of a six-mile stretch of dunes and beach. And here, like Long Beach, one needs to mind the traffic—the beach is considered part of the state highway system. If you want to plan around an event, Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival draws birdwatchers from far and near at the end of every April.
We stopped for a cup of chowder in Aberdeen, a once-powerful logging mecca that’s turned to tourism, with attractions like the tall ship Lady Washington of “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie fame, now at home in the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, and all things Kurt Cobain—the Nirvana lead singer was born here and a local park bears his name and a giant sculpted concrete guitar.
Arriving in Seabrook, we thought that perhaps we’d stumbled on a Cape Cod movie set, so post-card perfect is this New-England-inspired beach town. Founded in 2004, the pedestrian-friendly village with 300+ homes—available both for purchase and vacation rental—was sustainably constructed from the ground up and is amenity-laden with cafes, shops, a spa, and sports court. Just don’t go barefoot on the crushed oyster shell walking paths!
At Moclips we headed inland, driving along the forested southern boundary of the Quinault Reservation, home to a handful of the native tribes with a centuries-old history in the region, until we reached Lake Quinault Lodge. The Olympic Peninsula’s woodland bounty had already been designated as the Olympic Forest Reserve by President Grover Cleveland when the historic lodge was constructed on the South shore of its namesake lake in 1926. Eleven years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt lunched there during a whirlwind peninsula tour and within nine months had signed legislation creating Olympic National Park.
No strangers to national park lodges—the notion of sleeping in a national park is irresistible to us for some odd reason—we continue to seek them out, warts and all. Lake Quinault Lodge was predictable in its amenities: a cluster of cozy couches in front of an enormous lobby fireplace, Adirondack chairs on the deck to take in the stunning setting, hiking paths just out the door (I recommend the Quinault Loop Trail for an early-morning leg stretcher), vintage lodge rooms (and in this case, vintage radiators), and a dining room where the service was friendly, the views gorgeous and the food overpriced and just okay.
Lake Quinault Lodge did have a feature we’d never seen before—a rain gauge on its lakefront deck that measures precipitation in feet, not inches—handy when the average annual rainfall is almost 12 feet! The Pacific Ocean’s moisture-rich air opens the flood gates when it plows into the Olympic Mountains and results are breathtaking. Lush temperate rain forest where the trees—both conifers and leaf-droppers—are often old growth, where nurse logs give rise to new trees, where mats of moss flourish beneath forests of ferns, and lichen festoons tree limbs and trunks, and where the country’s largest populations of Roosevelt Elk (named for Theodore Roosevelt who lead the charge to preserve their habitat when extinction threatened the species) browse and shape their forest home. We dodged the raindrops for several days, but top-to-toe raingear is essential to enjoyment of this region.
Since we were traveling early in the season and mid-week, we headed for Hoh Rain Forest without concern about discovering a swarm of other hikers. A sign at the trailhead warned us that cow elk in the area had newborn calves and not to approach, with the caveat “if you are chased, run and keep running.” We saw what I thought were two young deer but my husband insisted were young elk—though clearly not the animals in question, we still kept our distance.
We hiked several of the shorter paths in the Hoh Rain Forest, taking in deep lungfuls of pungent air and not minding the occasional shower from towering Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock when a breeze ruffled their damp limbs. Was this primeval forest? Indeed it was old growth—a forest that had been immune from major unnatural changes (read logging) for at least 100 years. At one point on our hike, I spotted a trail sign for the Hoh River Trail—34.8 miles roundtrip with a 3,700-foot gain in elevation and views of 7,965-foot Mount Olympus and Blue Glacier. “Next time,” I said. “Next life time,” responded Joe.
We ventured as far north as Forks to learn some local history its logging museum, clueless that we were entering the Twilight zone until we came face-to-face with full-size cutouts of Bella, Edward and Jacob in the visitor center. Though the popular series took place in Forks, it wasn’t filmed there. That didn’t stop fans from flooding into the remote community by the thousands during the series’ heyday. When the Twilight Saga ended in 2012, the community wrote the next chapter of Twilight tourism by launching the annual Forever Twilight Festival, a September weekend fête for the Twilight faithful.
We whiled away one afternoon on the coast, hoping to stroll Ruby Beach where the sand is laced with sparkly garnet fragments and sea stacks stand guard. But bleached drift logs—like giant pick-up-sticks—blocked our path and we decided it wasn’t worth the risk of life and limb to clamber over them. Instead we settled in to read in front of Kalaloch Lodge’s welcoming lobby fireplace. When tempted by the wildness just out the door, I wandered by the clutch of cabins arranged along the clifftop and down the stairs to the beach, this time accessible without impediment.
Our last morning found us in the peninsula’s Valley of Rainforest Giants beneath that ancient Sitka Spruce, and not far from a record-breaking Douglas fir and Mountain hemlock. One last lungful of pine-scented air and we were on our way inland to Interstate 5 for the drive south to Portland. How did the Olympic Peninsula measure up to our beloved Oregon coast? Fortunately, we don’t have to choose. With its wealth of wonders, the Olympic Peninsula is a multi-course meal–and we live near enough to drop in for appetizers.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.