Every now and again you make some regrettable travel decisions and we made 2 biggies on this trip. We'd opted to drive down the coast from Forks, exploring beaches along the way, and spend a night in Ocean Shores; outside of the park. We wanted to spend at least one night in an ocean-side room but Kalaloch accommodations were pricey and we could swing one at the Quality Inn there for a little over $100.
Mistake #1: after the magnificent, wild beaches of Olympic, the bare stretch of sand at Ocean Shores was littered, not particularly interesting, and our room turned out to be a LONG way from the water. The town was also far from pedestrian friendly, largely under major road construction, and generally didn't have much to offer. Our room was basic but large, clean and quiet - no issue there - but we wished we'd have spent the extra to stay in the park for cleaner, quieter, vehicle-free beach. Ocean Shores did have one section of beach that had starfish at low tide, and we found a nice Irish pub with a small garden patio so it wasn't complete loss but...
The next day we thought we'd ramble back towards Seattle SeaTac through Olympia and Tacoma, staying near the airport overnight for an early morning flight.
Mistake #2: We didn't spend enough time in Olympia; nice capitol city with fun shops, pretty marina and an alternative vibe. Tacoma is probably not a place I'd recommend until they revitalize downtown; it looked sadly depressed and abandoned. The SeaTac area of Seattle is an uninteresting stretch of malls, budget hotels and convenience stores - but OK if you have a very early flight to catch.
Hindsight? Should have skipped Ocean Shores, Tacoma and the night near the airport and used the time to see more of Olympia and the park. Live and learn...
To me, one of the most beautiful places in Washington State is the Olympic Peninsula. Most of the peninsula is taken up by Olympic National Park. Olympic National Park pretty much has it all, mountains, lakes, rivers, rain forests, even beaches on the Pacific Ocean. Start your visit at one of the visitors centers where you can get maps of the park and information to help you plan your visit. If you can, try to visit the three main parts of the park: The mountains; the rain forests; and the beaches.
Fondest memory: Ruby Beach and hiking the rain forest.
A few years ago Stephenie Meyer penned a romance called "Twilight" about a young girl, named Bella, and a vampire, named Edward, and struck gold. So did the little down-on-its-luck logging town of Forks, Washington. Ms. Meyer needed a dark, spooky and very wet location for her story and upon discovering that Forks gets an average of 121 inches of rain a year, she found her spot.
The first book expanded into several more and onto block-busting films as well. And with the release of every new volume and movie, more and more curious fans trickled into Forks to see where these fictional characters "lived".
The trickle quickly become a flood and the locals, while at once amused and bewildered, have been quick to capitalize on their good fortune. The hordes of giddy females that descend on this tiny town can take Twilight tours, buy Twilight chocolate bars, munch a Twilight sammie at Subway, and shop for Twilight tchotchkes at the local "Dazzled by Twilight" store. They can also stay in Bella suites at local motels, gorge on Bellaburgers, Bellasagna and Bellaberry pie at local restaurants, and finish it all off with Bella creme candies.
Needless to say, the friendly folks of Forks are grateful for all the attention but it's still an unassuming small town with one stoplight. There aren't a lot of places to eat - a few cafes and pizza joints - and only one bar, that we could find. There are a handful of B&BS and motels, and shopping, other than the Twilight store, is virtually non-existant. If not a fan of bloodsuckers, you come here because it's within spittin' distance of one of the few remaining rain forests in the US and some of most wild and beautiful beaches on the pacific coast.
So here are some websites for more info:
Restaurant/bars we stopped into were:
In Place Restaurant
320 S Forks Ave
Forks Coffee Shop
241 S Forks Ave
Mill Creek Bar and Grill
1222 South Forks Avenue
The first two were fine for breakfast or a sandwich but service can be slow. The last one is where you go for a cold pint. Avoid a place called The Smokehouse at all costs - unfriendly, depressing atmosphere, seriously overworked waitstaff and sky-high prices. We lasted 15 minutes and fled for the basic but cheerful diners listed above.
I'm crazy about our national parks but not necessarily their accommodations.
On the plus side: they are usually in beautiful locations, can offer spectacular views, are convenient to some trailheads for starting very early hikes, eliminate long drives to remote locations when visiting over several days (such as Grand Canyon north rim), offer parking near your hotel where day-trippers may have to take shuttles, and are convenient for interesting evening ranger programs.
On the downside: they are almost always expensive, great views are not a given, many are seriously worn around the edges, most are lacking in amenities such as TVs or mini-fridges, and you're somewhat locked into crowded, on-site restaurants (at remote lodge locations) than can be expensive and mediocre.
Obviously, you're not there to spend a lot of time in a room so lacking certain amenities isn't a big deal - unless you're stuck in a bare-bones cabin with a sick child over 3 days of hard rain. You can get around restaurant issues by bringing picnics and finding gorgeous spots to dine al fresco if willing to haul all the stuff with you. You can go off-season when prices drop or just bite the bullet, save your $$ and pay the going rate. Or you can stay in nearby non-park facilities where available.
There's no right or wrong - it's what you can afford and personal preferences for what your accommodations must have for you and your family to be comfortable and happy.
We chose to stay in small area towns on this trip as we simply couldn't swing the park rates without crimping our budget for other upcoming adventures. That said, the park has 5 lodges/resorts at various locations, with various types of cabins and rooms, throughout the peninsula. Four of them - Lake Crescent Lodge, Sol Duc Resort, Lake Quinault Lodge and Kalaloch Lodge - are operated by Aramark, and one other - Log Cabin Resort at Lake Crescent - currently appears to be managed by a different group. See the websites for seasons, rates and other info. Also check Trip Advisor, Yelp, etc. for reviews and candid pictures.
I was up early and had forewarned my wife that I would hike further into the basin alone. Despite a ranger explaining it was easy, we had not been able to connect the hike from the previous day back into the basin area “backdoor” as she called it.
I was soon on the trail enjoying the cold crisp air. It was clear and still and every body of water I passed was a mirror, most with large patches of ice still in place. I kept telling myself I would turn around in another ten minutes but soon I was at the end of the valley, trying to sort out a route to the ridge before me. It had to be the ridge we had been on the day before and curiosity as to how it linked to where I now stood was too overwhelming to turn back.
I made my way up, leaving small markers for my return journey and though it was all uphill, I climbed quickly. At the top, I peered through trees to see an opening. The Blue Glacier was once again in my sights with dense cloud below. The Hoh River Valley was now engulfed. I raced back to tell my wife all about it. It was still very early and only a bit more than an hour had elapsed since leaving her behind, alone. Alone with the grunts I now thought, feeling guilty. The approach to the campsite was from below so now I climbed back up to wake her, full of excitement, to tell her all things truly were possible. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
Though the hike to Deer Lake was all uphill, it went surprisingly quickly. I guess all the sugar from the ice cream fueled us on but a late start meant a late arrival and after dining appropriately enough with a deer at our campsite, we passed out early in the tent. A dawn morning mirror on Deer Lake awakened us but we were soon off on a grueling six hour trudge to Lunch Lake. The sight of the seven lakes basin as we dropped down to the camp area made the effort worthwhile.
No rest for the weary, with only one night in the area, we set off to explore sans packs, traipsing through corridors of wildflowers, marching across snowy patches of trail not yet thawed completely, and even spotting a huge herd of Roosevelt Elk cooling off on the same. Trails went off into what seemed infinity and there was no time to walk down them all. The walk back to camp was full of regret for not reserving more nights in such a beautiful part of our planet. If possible, the drop down into the basin looked even more spectacular the second time around. Lunch Lake had calmed considerably and now provided a mirror of the peaks that penned it in. We dined with yet another curious deer which set the stage for less than a peaceful night.
Hours later while in our bags, we heard strange grunts around the tent. At first, we wrote it off to imagination. Surely, the steps we heard now were our deer friend come back to feed on the vegetation surrounding us. But the grunts persisted and as most campers do in bear country, we assumed the worst. We had no food in the tent and had been clean in our dinner preparation. Everything with a scent now hung from a bear wire many yards away. The sounds faded as did we back to a sleepy slumber. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
That's when I saw my polar bear. Right in front of me. Adrenaline coursed through me and then I realized what the grunting was the night before. It was this beautiful mountain goat. Strong, white and furry. I tip-toed over to wake my wife, still soundly asleep in her bag and soon we were admiring him as he paraded proudly around the camp. It was obviously his and he made no doubt that we were the intruders. Even though I had rushed to ready my camera, I soon realized there was no need. He posed repeatedly and when I saw a small pound offering a reflection I had only to wish he would go there. He did. A perfect reflection shot of a mountain goat.
We had to pack up at some point and there was breakfast to be made and eaten. The whole time I kept thinking about that polar bear. But I didn't want to wish too hard. It seemed that anything was possible and even for a reflection shot, I didn't want to take my chances.
We knew which treks we wanted to do and unlike at Rainier where our efforts were thwarted by late season lingering snow, Olympic was just thawing out. Our visit to the backcountry ranger station proved fruitful, scoring three nights on the Hoh River and two on the High Divide. We booked them all at once to save time as well as the $5 per trip fee. Even though these were entirely different treks on opposite sides of the park, the wilderness trip was considered one as there was no day in between them. There is a per trip fee of $5 plus $2 per person per night. It sounded great before we started but we later questioned our sanity in not alloting at least one day of rest between them. All we knew was we had secured the two treks we wanted and we now had five nights accommodation for $25. Talk about helping out the old budget.
The Hoh River trek started easily enough, walking through a relatively flat dense temperate rain forest though not an easy 10 miles with full packs. The second day was much tougher and found us at the Blue Glacier for only long enough to catch our breaths before having to return to camp for the night. The third day was perhaps the most enjoyable of the trek stopping just five miles short of the trail head.
Normally, that would have been the end of what was an amazing if tougher than expected trip. But with our back-to-back treks planned, we went into town to grab showers and to the grocery store to stuff our faces on non-backpacking delights. After huge sandwiches of salami, we downed an entire half gallon of Tillamook ice cream before driving over to the High Divide trail head on the other side of the park. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Olympic is a great park for its variety of terrains and while you can enjoy all of them casually, the only way to immerse yourself in the diversity is to backpack into it. You can see them change from one to the other up close and slowly as they do, not at the quick pace of your car. With so many trails going deeply into the park, there are many choices and no way to see them without doing a multi-day hike.
Fondest memory: Dense white fur, humped shoulder. Big. Under normal circumstances I would never imagine a polar bear stood before me. I was just thankful it was facing the other way. It was the kind of morning where it seemed anything was possible. It was the kind of week where every wish came true. Polar bear? Washington State? Sure.
Olympic National Park escapes the spotlight cast on the big name parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Aside from lacking an iconic symbol, it has just about everything else a park could have. Where else can you walk from a tide pool teeming with starfish through a lush temperate rain forest up through craggy peaks to behold a glistening glacier? That's all in one contiguous park and you don't need to be a marathon man to accomplish this trek in as little as three days. And the whole damn thing is only four hours from Seattle to boot.
I discovered this park in 1994 as part of my first extended trip around the US National Park system. It was here that while doing one very long day hike that I saw a tent set up in a particularly scenic spot in the wilderness. It was a grueling day even for someone whose legs never-said-die and I decided right there that one day I would camp in a place like that. I wanted to backpack.
In the interim, I had done just that, from Alaska to Peru. In the months leading up to Olympic, my wife and I had backpacked into the Grand Canyon and the climb of Half Dome in Yosemite along with some shorter trips in parks like Zion, White Sands, and Mount Rainier. But Olympic was special in that it was the first place I had been exposed to the idea. It was also the first of four parks on our immediate horizon where backpacking would be the focal point of the visits. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Kalaloch is located near the beaches. Here you will find a lodge and resort which consists of a series of cabins which appeared similar to the ones we stayed in at Sol Duc, a campground and general store. I believe the lodge has a restaurant as well. This area is a good base of operation if you're plannning to explore the Hoh and Quinalt rain forests or if you plan to do a loop around the Olympic Peninsula.
Since it was cold and cloudy, we didn't stay here too long. But we found some excellent smoked salmon in the camp store which made for a nice treat on the drive back to Sol Duc.
The Hoh rain forest is the most unusual area of the park, and a beautiful place to visit, even briefly. Its about a two and a half hour drive from Port Angeles to the rain forest. From highway 101, take the Upper Hoh Road for about 19 miles to the visitor's center. Here you will find a couple of short trails that lead through the moss covered towering spruce and hemlock that grow in abundance here, sustained by the abundant rainfall this area receives in all but a couple months of the year. The trees reminded me of the giant California redwoods and sequoias in their height and taking photographs of them is pretty difficult.
The best part about this area is that it has options for everyone. The short trails of less than a mile pass through some incredible forest areas. This is a must see for nature lovers as it is the only temperate rain forest in the United States and, if I remember correctly, only one of three in the world. There is a longer trail of, I believe 18 miles one way to Glacier Point, the base of Mount Olympus. Its not the best dayhiking area as there is no scenic stopping point along this trail that would make a 4 or 6 or 8 mile hike worthwhile. Its either a short stroll or an overnight or two of hiking.
I'm listing the trails and activities in this area in greater detail in the "Things to Do" section. For more information, see the tips listed under the heading "Hoh Rain Forest".
Storm King is less than an hour's drive from Port Angeles. Here you will find Lake Crescent, the Lake Crescent Lodge and some great trails. The Marymere Falls Trail (see "Things to Do" Tips) is a pretty popular short hike to a very nice waterfall. Storm King is a short but challenging uphill slog. Or you can relax along the water's edge and watch the kayaks and canoes drift past.
The Lake Crescent Lodge, one of the more expensive park lodging options, is located here. There is also very small visitor center at Storm King which is open only part of the year, as well as a campground.
Hurricane Ridge was one of my favorite areas in the park. Unless you're headed to the backcountry, this is the only place where you'll see grand sweeping views of the mountains. You won't get this close to Mount Olympus anywhere else in the park unless you take a pretty long hike. There are plenty of great viewpoints from the road and some excellent short hikes here as well. You'll likely spot a grazing deer or a mountain goat wandering along the ridge.
Hurricane Ridge is only a short drive from Port Angeles. There are no NPS lodging facilities in this area, although there is a campground and Port Angeles has plenty of hotels. There is a visitor center at the end of Hurricane Ridge road.
Favorite thing: The main park visitor's center is located near Port Angeles. Here you will find some exhibits on the various sections of the park. This is a great place to familiarize yourself with the park and to calculate distances between the sections, if you haven't already done so. There is a short trail out back which leads through the forest (see "Things to do" tips). Also on display is this renovated pioneer cabin.
When I first saw Lake Crescent while driving west on highway 101, I must have stopped about a dozen times and the various pullouts. Part of the reason for this was to allow the California drivers speed past a the breakneck pace that everyone from California must do whenever they are on a road deemed a highway, oblivious to the gift provided in this clear sky day and the beautiful views. The deep azure lake, maintained by snowmelt, is a striking sight. Its color is even more sharpened by the contrast with the scores of Douglas firs that fill the ridges behind it and consume the tiny atolls scattered throughout the lake.
In addition to gazing at, picnicking beside (see "Restaurant Tips") and dodging high speed vehicles, the lake is a prime recreation area. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent at the Lake Crescent lodge.