Olympic National Park
Walk on the wild side of Washington State
The remote and rugged Olympic Peninsula juts into the Pacific from the western flank of Washington State, its moat-like isolation allowing for the development of a natural and human history all of its own. At the centre of the peninsula is 1,400-square-mile Olympic National Park, a preserve of rare, primordial ecosystems that has bestowed on the park the rare dual designation of World Heritage Park and International Biosphere Reserve.
A quick visit to the park is nearly impossible: this is a vast and subtle area, suffused with a mystical spirit. Only one road, Highway 101, rings the park, and few penetrate the interior, which means that many of the best and most spectacular sights are reserved for long-distance walkers who trek across the mountainous interior or coastal trails.
The northern entrances to the park are the most popular. Beginning at sea level at Port Angeles, the 17-mile Hurricane Ridge Road climbs 5,000 feet into the Olympic peaks, where trails wind through extensive wildflower meadows, and vistas open to the rugged crags and glaciers of 7,965-foot Mount Olympus, the park’s highest peak. Also easily reached from the north is Lake Crescent, a deep blue, fjord-like lake popular for boating, swimming, fishing and picnicking. Cedar-sided Lake Crescent Lodge, built in 1915, is a much-loved family destination with rustic lodge rooms, cottages and an atmospheric dining room.
The western slopes of the park receive the full brunt of Pacific storms—annual rainfall here is measured in yards. This heavy precipitation, coupled with mild temperatures and dense summer fog, provides perfect conditions for temperate rain forests (unique in the contiguous U.S.), such as the primeval moss-bearded woodlands in the Hoh River valley.
The longest wilderness coastline in the Lower 48, the 57-mile Olympic Coastal Strip is accessed by roads at only a few points. Otherwise this expanse of rock and sand belongs to hardy backpackers, who negotiate the tides, beaches and treacherous headlands on foot. This is some of the most rugged and picturesque coastline anywhere; sea stacks and islands parade out into the pounding surf, often capped by miniature forests.
At the southern edge of the Olympic Coastal Strip, Highway 101 briefly joins the shoreline. Above a rocky, wave-dashed cove sits the Kalaloch Lodge (CLAY-lock). From the back of the impressive lodge, a staircase leads from a gazebo (good for whale-watching) down the cliffs to a protected, pristine beach. With its fine-dining restaurant, comfortable lodgings and dramatic setting, the Kalaloch Lodge is easily the most civilised point along this wilderness coast.
Although only the northern shore of Lake Quinault is in the park (the lake itself is administered by the Quinault tribe), the misty spirits of the Olympic forests make themselves felt in this steep mountain valley, with towering trees and totem poles alike. The lake’s quiet isolation is perfectly captured by the 1926-built Lake Quinault Lodge, which has a spacious wood-panelled lobby, massive fireplace and comfortable old-fashioned rooms.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.