An Olympic National Park road trip has been on my Washington to do list since we landed in America.
It has to be one of the most diverse national parks on the planet. Stretching over nearly a million acres on Washington’s west coast, its beauty encompasses wild beaches, rugged coastlines, wet dense rainforest, epic mountain ranges, waterfalls and alpine lakes.
Last March I visited the famous Hurricane Ridge for my first snowshoeing adventure. And now, over a year later, I seized the opportunity to explore more of the park’s corners.
Early spring was the perfect time to go: the worst of the winter weather had now passed, roads into Hoh Rainforest and and Sol Duc had reopened, and the summer crowds were still months away.
With just two days available Tom and I knew our itinerary would be tight, but we were determined to see and do as much as we could in a weekend.
Here’s the highlights of our Olympic National Park road trip.
We kicked off Friday afternoon with our drive from Anacortes. Eager to bypass the madness of Seattle traffic, we took the ferry from Coupeville to Port Townsend, then drove the nearly three hours along Highway 101 to the Olympic Coast.
Kalaloch Beach sunsets and the stunning Kalaloch Lodge
Our first stop on the Olympic National Park road trip was our destination of the evening: Kalaloch Lodge.
Kalaloch Lodge is a beautiful property located right on the Pacific Coast. It was originally built with lumber milled from driftwood logs that washed up on the beaches nearby, and as such blends seamlessly with its environment.
Despite booking our stay that very morning, we scored a room with an ocean view. While the property bills itself as rustic, I loved the thoughtful touches of binoculars, wooden hiking sticks and yoga mats in each room. This place knows its audience.
But now onto the real reason we came here: the views.
As I buried my toes into the sand and cautiously tested the freezing ocean water, I realised how long it had been since I visited a coastline with huge swells. I’ve become so accustomed to the protected bays and coves of the Puget Sound region, but this reminded me of big surf days in Australia.
Kalaloch Beach quickly lived up to its ‘wild’ reputation. Not long after arriving, beers in hand and enjoying sunset, we were caught in an epic hailstorm.
Those storm clouds I’d been oohing and aahing over? Turns out it was indicative of a massive storm rolling in (duh, right?). Within seconds our epic sunset turned to torrential rain, and we were being pelted with sharp hailstones and fierce winds. I’m pretty sure everyone in the restaurant above was laughing as we ran like fools half a mile back up the beach to cover. Luckily I was laughing the hardest.
This area receives an average 12 feet annual rainfall, and I felt like I’d been hit with it all at once.
A change of clothes later, we made our way to dinner at the onsite Creekside Restaurant. This is not your typical hotel restaurant either – it serves fresh, healthy dishes made from locally sourced produce and the dining room has killer views of Kalaloch Creek and the beach. I give it 5 stars for its craft beer lineup too. I also appreciated that I could start my weekend without having to cook or search for dining options in a very remote area.
The food was so delicious that we went back for breakfast the next morning. The pull of buckwheat-walnut pancakes was too much to compete with the granola bar I had waiting.
Well-fed and well rested, it was time to explore more of Olympic National Park.
Note: rooms at Kalaloch Lodge do not have telephones, WiFi or TVs. A stay here is all about nature, as it should be! Larger groups or those seeking seclusion can book self-contained cabins on the bluff instead of the main lodge. While we lucked out on a last minute reservation, peak periods usually require booking months ahead.
Finding the Tree of Life
One of the most famous spots along the Olympic Coast is the Tree of Life – or Kalaloch Tree. This old sitka spruce hangs precariously over a creek on the beach front, withstanding erosion, rains and wild coastal storms. And while it looks as though it may topple at any moment, the tree stands strong. What a cool natural monument of resilience!
We rushed here early on Saturday morning (post-pancakes, because priorities) to catch a glimpse before high tide.
To find the tree park at Kalaloch Campground, take the path to the beach and walk about 30 metres north. Time your tides as you can’t make it here at high tide.
Washington’s wild coastline can be enjoyed by all, even if you can’t score a room or campsite right on it.
There are numerous pullout and lookouts stretching up the coast, and we pulled into as many as time would allow. I’d love to return to hike up the beach someday.
A visit to the Big Cedar Tree
I’m a sucker for signage, and quickly detoured off the 101 when we saw a sign pointing to a ‘Big Cedar’. Vague, but intriguing.
What did we find? A big cedar!
If you’ve seen California’s giant sequoias this doesn’t exactly match up in size, but it’s still impressive. We had a quick walk around, and I loved seeing new growth spill out sides of the tree.
Ruby Beach is one of the most photographed parts of Washington’s coast line. It’s famous for its sea stacks, tide pools and the huge driftwood that washes up here.
On a quiet weekend in Olympic National Park, this was certainly the busiest spot we visited.
Unfortunately the timing of tides wasn’t in our favour this particular weekend, so there wasn’t as much ‘beach’ to discover. But a break in the clouds and brief blue sky made our time exploring the sea stacks so beautiful.
Our next stop on the Olympic National Park road trip was inland to a place dripping in green: Hoh Rainforest.
The Hoh Rainforest is officially the wettest place in the Lower 48, receiving an average of 14ft of rain annually. It’s also incredibly easy to explore in a day as most hiking trails depart from the visitors centre.
First we wanted to check out the most popular trail: Hall of Mosses. It’s just under a mile long and the flat path makes it very family friendly. Even as avid hikers we were entertained – this trail really showcases the beauty of the area.
But we were keen to explore a little further, so we then set off along the Hoh River Trail for a few hours. In March this is a much quieter trail, though it was incredibly muddy and definitely required waterproof hiking boots. Perfect for those who don’t mind getting a little dirty!
It was here that we found true peace and quiet within the beautiful virgin rainforest, and scored solo views of the raging river along the way.
One day I will return for a backpacking trip along this trail, and hike the entire 17 mile route to Blue Glacier.
Elk! We saw Elk!
Shortly after leaving Hoh Rainforest we came across dozens of elk grazing in the fields.
This might not be exciting to some of you, but over the past two years I’ve become borderline obsessive about trying to spot elk in the wild. Despite frequently visiting highly populated elk areas here in Washington (and even visiting an Elk Prairie on our southern road trip last year) these mysterious creatures had evaded me until now!
Weird Twilight vibes in Forks
We were pretty beat after a full day of hiking and exploring, and headed to our rest stop for the night: Forks.
This tiny (I mean very tiny) town in Washington is predominantly a crash pad for tourists exploring the national park, but in recent years it has risen to fame thanks to Teen Vampire fiction.
Yes, this is apparently Twilight town. And even if you’re not a fan, or like me reside in #TeamWhoGivesAF@!* – you will notice it straight away.
The signs around town advertising Twilight Tours. The ‘Twilight Firewood’ sales (go figure). Twilight themed coffee drinks at the cafe. The local diner is “the home of the Bella Burger”. It’s kind of inescapable. And confusing – especially once I found out that the movie wasn’t even filmed here anyway.
While searching for accommodation online I discovered a lovely B&B in town, but quickly changed my mind once I saw the dining room had – I kid you not – a life size cardboard cut out of Taylor Lautner in it. Sweet Muppity Christ no thank you. I ended up booking a room in a standard motel which worked out fine. But even THAT place had Twilight themed rooms.
Perhaps there is something of interest to Twilight fans here. I shouldn’t judge. We all have our vices after all. I still firmly believe Grease 2 is not just the best Grease movie, but potentially the best musical movie in existence. So glass houses, stones, and all that.
For us mere mortals, Forks is simply a place to rest on your Olympic National Park road trip and offers little else. Grab burgers and beers at Blakeslees Bar and Grille, get a good night’s sleep and head off early the next morning to discover more of what you came for: the epic beauty of the national park.
Tip: The local supermarket is a good spot to stock up on any supplies and snacks you might need for the trip (and one of the only supermarkets on the peninsula outside Port Angeles).
Rialto beach and La Push
We awoke Sunday to some serious rainfall and a jam packed itinerary, though neither of these things were a shock.
Keen to make the most of the final day of our Olympic National Park road trip, we grabbed some food supplies and breakfast-on-the-go from the supermarket.
Rialto Beach was our first stop. Another of Washington’s most popular and photographed beaches, many come to hike to the hole-in-the-wall, though the weather had kept all but a few away. We had the place to ourselves!
Again, high tides made hiking a little trickier, but this is such a beautiful stretch of beach to walk. I stopped every now and then to snap photos, climb driftwood and admire the brightly coloured stones hidden among the rocky shore.
Next we headed slightly south to the windy beaches of La Push. We’d initially planned to hike out to Second or Third Beach, but the weather was making things tricky so we settled for First Beach instead – a stop that was more accessible with a car park rather than hike-in viewpoint.
This area is definitely worth exploring more if you have the opportunity!
Just a quick stop on our trip north, but we thought Pleasant Lake was pretty pleasant!
If this is your first time on the Olympic Peninsula, I’d skip this stop and plan to spend time at the bigger Crescent Lake instead (we’d visited there previously).
Sol Duc Falls
Our final major stop on the Olympic National Park road trip was on its north side: Sol Duc.
There’s a fancy seasonal resort here complete with hot springs, but we were headed for something different: the waterfalls.
Sol Duc Falls is said to be one of the prettiest waterfalls in the national park, and we had just enough time in our schedule to squeeze in a short hike.
The hike to Sol Duc Falls is very easy. It’s an out-and-back trail, and just under a mile each way. Our late March visit meant the trail was still slightly snow packed and a little slippery, but that added a little adventure to an otherwise piece-of-cake walk in the woods.
The trail leads through green, mossy old growth forest, and past a few creeks. I could hear Sol Duc Falls long before I saw it, not that it spoiled the view at all – beautiful tumbling falls beneath a wooden footbridge.
It’s hard to believe scenery this spectacular is so accessible. You really don’t need to be a fit hiker to get here.
Spring has to be the best time to visit as the melting winter snow makes the water rage!
As Washington’s iconic Victorian seaport, Port Townsend is a weekend destination in its own right – and one I’m yet to do justice.
Thus far all my visits to Port Townsend have been fleeting, and ferry related, as was this one. Usually to grab a quick coffee before a journey or sip a beer at Sirens or Port Townsend Brewery while waiting for a ferry back to Whidbey Island.
I always love strolling down the main street lined with Victorian era buildings, subterranean stores and boutiques. A stop at Better Living Through Coffee is a must for yummy pour over offerings, delicious snacks and views straight out onto the bay.
Orcas! We saw orcas!
Regular readers will know I’m a little orca-obsessed, and have eagerly tried to spot these beautiful wild creatures since I moved to the Pacific Northwest.
Low-and-behold, all my Free Willy dreams came true on the ferry ride home! Ferry staff mentioned orcas had been spotted earlier that day, but I was sure we wouldn’t be so lucky as to catch a sighting. Oh how I love to be proven wrong (at least, in this instance). Tom’s eagle eye came in handy as he spotted a pod feeding – and we even managed to snap some photos!
Of course, two days is never enough to see it all – but our Olympic National Park road trip was a great introduction to the vast and varied beauty of the area. A park this size would take a lifetime to explore properly, but I’m grateful for our brief encounter.
If you want a wild adventure, plenty of outdoors time and don’t mind getting a little wet, this is the perfect weekend road trip for you!
The Olympics has officially won gold in my heart!
What would be your favourite part of an Olympic National Park road trip?
Read more from the blog: Snowshoeing in Olympic National Park, Hiking and camping in North Cascades National Park, 8 sweet spring weekend escapes in Washington State, A weekend in Olympia: Washington’s funky capital.
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