Autumn Drives – The Olympic Peninsula Loop
There is nothing like Autumn driving in Western Washington. The mosaic of turning leaves, and the return of misty rains are a welcome addition to the beauty that awaits us – out there on the roads of the Pacific Northwest. It is perhaps the best time to fuel up your Jaguar or Land Rover and take advantage of the season to bask in the all encompassing splendor that is…
THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA LOOP
This scenic drive in western Washington explores the diverse eco-systems of the Olympic Peninsula. Aside from jaw-dropping beauty at every turn, what makes this drive so unique, is that within a few hours, you can explore lowland and sub-alpine forest, rivers and lakes, the glacier-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains, temperate rainforests, and the rugged beauty of the Pacific Ocean. The route circles the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest that encompass nearly one million acres. Recreation abounds for every ability, and many of the best sights can be easily viewed.
There is so much to do and see, we highly recommend a few days to truly appreciate the region. The drive intersects other scenic drives in the area, so feel free to customize your adventure.
We describe the drive as a counter-clockwise loop, beginning and ending in Olympia, but of course you can do it in the opposite direction. Olympia is the State Capitol and the domed Washington State Legislative Building (A6) built between 1922-1928 is open for free guided tours seven days a week.
Olympia is accessible via exit 104 off I-5. Our drive heads north on US-101 towards Shelton. After six miles, you leave the city behind and are soon surrounded by trees and the scent of saltwater. The drive continues through forest and farmland, a carpet of green in all directions.
In Potlatch, US-101 follows Hood Canal, the longest fjord in the United States. Hood Canal is known for its oysters and clams, and they are a specialty in the many local restaurants. The Potlatch State Park and Campground (W6) offers beach access, perfect for beachcombing, fishing, or harvesting oysters and clam digging when the tide is low. A license is required. Wooded campsites for tents and RV’s make this a great overnight stop. Note that all Washington State Parks require a day use fee or Discovery Pass.
As you approach Hoodsport in two miles, consider a side trip by turning onto WA-119 and visiting Lake Cushman State Park (H11). Lake Cushman is a hub for water-based recreation such as fishing, sailing, scuba diving, kite-surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boards, water-skiing, and swimming. From here, you can head straight into the Olympic National Park. The easy 4-mile round trip Staircase Rapids Trail (H18), offers stunning views with little elevation gain. There is a fee to enter the Olympic National Park which is valid for seven consecutive days, or use your America the Beautiful Pass. There are other must-see points of interest along this drive, and you can use the same entrance fee.
Our drive continues north on US-101. If the briny air has you hankering for oysters and clams that you don’t have to dig for, stop at the Hama Hama Oyster Co. (A5). They don’t get fresher, and you can gaze upon the oyster beds as you dine, watch the crew at work, or take some to go. In spring, Open Farm Days offer U-Dig opportunities. Check the website for schedule.
In 24 miles is Dosewallips State Park (H12) unique for the saltwater of Hood Canal and the freshwater of the Dosewallips River which runs through the park. You’ll find the gamut of water-based recreation and camping opportunities. The park is also a draw for shellfish hunting and in fall, mushroom foraging. In town, outfitters have all the gear you need.
A few miles north is another side trip. Turn on the gravel Forest Road 2730 to the summit of Mount Walker (H4) for spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountain Range, and more, depending on how clear it is. You can also hike 2-miles to the summit. The trailhead is about a quarter mile after the turn onto Forest Road 2730. Stop at the nearby Quilcene Ranger Station (I4)for local information.
After Quilcene, the US-101 offers two opportunities to leave the byway to other points of interest. You can take WA-104, which heads to the Hood Canal Bridge and Port Gamble. The inviting, small town of Port Gamble features antique shops, galleries, museum and picturesque turn-of-the-century New England style buildings. Or take WA-20, which heads to Port Townsend, one of the top 8 cities in the United States, according to MSN City Guides. The pedestrian-friendly downtown core features art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, wineries, and the second largest collection of Victorian homes in the United States (San Francisco is the first). In Port Townsend, there is a ferry that will bring you to Whidbey Island.
Our drive continues on US-101. In 29 miles you will reach Sequim (pronounced skwim), a quaint town that receives about half the rainfall of anywhere in the Puget Sound area and is renowned for it’s lavender farms. From Sequim, we highly recommend a short side trip on Sequim-Dungeness Way, to the extraordinary Dungeness Wildlife Refuge and Dungeness Spit (H3). A half-mile walk through a forest of fascinating trees leads to the spit overlook. Then head down to the world’s longest natural sand spit. The 5.5 mile long Dungeness Spit juts between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Dungeness Harbor. The surrounding water and tide flats are rich in marine life, waterfowl, visiting harbor seals, and eel grass beds for young salmon and steelhead. If you walk to the end (an 11-mile round trip) you’ll find the Dungeness Lighthouse which was built in 1857 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Of course you don’t have to walk far to take in the natural beauty. Just relax on a driftwood log and watch the mesmerizing waves. On a clear day, you can see Victoria B.C. in the distance. A day use fee is charged or use your America the Beautiful Pass.
Port Angeles is fifteen miles from Sequim and is a great base for exploring the Olympic National Park. The 17-mile drive up Hurricane Ridge Road (reach it, via Race Street S.) delivers awe-inspiring views with every turn, as it winds it’s way to Hurricane Ridge (H1) at an elevation of 5,242 feet. The road is open 24 hours a day from mid-May to October. In winter, it is open primarily on weekends and we recommend checking for conditions before heading out. Along the way up is Heart O’ Hills Campground which is open year-round. At Hurricane Ridge, trails for every level explore this picture perfect sub-alpine landscape of snow-capped mountains, rich forest and brilliant wildflower meadows. Many are paved and accessible for wheelchair and strollers, such as the 1-mile round trip paved Cirque Rim or Big Meadow Trails. For a more of a workout, take the 3.2-mile round trip Hurricane Hill which gains 700-feet of elevation and delivers expansive views. Stop in the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center for hiking and regional information, ranger-led events, exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the Olympic Mountains, bookstore, snack bar and gift shop. You can easily spend the whole day here, so plan accordingly.
Our drive continues on US-101 to Lake Crescent. If you have already explored this area, consider yet another side trip on WA-112 which follows a section of our Strait of Juan de Fuca drive. If time allows, drive all the way to Cape Flattery, the most northwestern part of the continental United States. Otherwise, head south on WA-113 and you will rejoin US-101.
Lake Crescent (W1) was carved by glaciers and gleams with pristine, blue-green water. There are several turnouts for enjoying views and picnics. Among the many trails here is the .9-mile one way hike through old-growth forest to the 90-foot-high Marymere Falls (H10). Amenities around the lake include swimming at East Beach, boat rentals, and fishing for two particular species of rainbow trout (Beardslee) and coastal cutthroat (Crescenti) that are only found here. Stay overnight at Lake Crescent Lodge, Log Cabin Resort, or camping.
To the south of Lake Crescent is Sol Duc (H17). A 0.8-mile one way hike leads to Sol Duc Falls, nestled in a lush, green moss-draped landscape. The cascade splits into three channels and can be thunderous in spring. There are other trails here as well, including the Lover’s Lane Trail and High Divide Loop/7 Lakes Basin Trail which requires a Wilderness Permit. The Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort offers lodging and three mineral pools and a freshwater pool for soaking. There is a fee for the resort and pools.
Our drive continues on US-101. Just before Forks, another detour can be had by taking WA-110 (La Push Road) to a few Pacific Ocean beaches: First Beach (W8), Second Beach (W10) and Third Beach. Or take Mora Road for Rialto Beach (W7) or Hole in the Wall. Note that even in summer, these captivating beaches can be breezy and cold. Keep a jacket handy. Skirting the coastline is a section of the Pacific Northwest Trail which travels 1200 miles from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park Montana to the Pacific Ocean near Cape Alava in Washington State.
The drive continues on US-101 through dense forest, before arriving in Forks, the heart of the Olympic Peninsula and the rainiest town in the contiguous United States. Forks is now infamous as the setting for the popular Twilight book series, and you will find many related activities and tours. At the Forks Timber Museum (M2) learn about the logging history and homesteading of the region with exhibits, photographs, artifacts and antique logging equipment. On Wednesdays at 9:00 am from May-September, embark on the free Logging and Mill Tour (M4) which leaves from the Forks Visitor Center to learn about modern forest practice and management. TheWilderness Information Center in Forks (I3) is a great resource for regional information. Note that services are limited as you continue from here, so we recommend you have a full tank of gas before leaving.
About 14 miles from Forks is Upper Hoh Road. From here, a scenic 19-mile drive leads to the magical landscape of the Hoh Rainforest (H2). An annual rainfall of 140-170 inches creates a lush, verdant landscape of hanging moss, ferns, vine maple, fir, spruce and hemlock trees, fungi and more. Breathe in the fresh air deeply and enjoy the solitude and unique surrounds. From the visitor Center, walk the Hall of Mosses Trail, an easy three-quarter of a mile loop that gives you a taste of the rainforest, the 1.2-mile Spruce Nature Trail, or explore the Hoh River Trail which travels approximately 18-miles to Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus. No need to hike the whole way. Keep an eye out for the Pacific tree frogs, banana slugs, and Roosevelt elk and prepare for the weather. No umbrellas necessary, take it like a native and wear a hooded raincoat and boots. The 88-site campground is open year-round.
Back on US-101, you cross the Hoh River and follow it west to the Pacific shore, and Ruby Beach (W2). The dramatic beach is rocky, with several sea stacks, and a myriad of shore birds, sea stars, urchins, mussels, and hermit crabs. The Pacific coastline is very natural; please do your part in keeping it clean by carrying everything out that you bring in, and leaving shells and driftwood in place.
About 9 miles south, is the popular Kalaloch Beach (W5). Enjoy coastal birds and soaring eagles, examine tide pools, and keep an eye out for gray whales, sea otters, and elephant seals. Enjoy camping or stay at the classic Kalaloch Lodge.
The town of Quinault is accessible via South Shore Road on the left. Beautiful Lake Quinault (W11) can be enjoyed with a walk along the shore, swimming and boating, or drive the 30-mile Quinault Rainforest Loop Road that circles the lake. Discover the temperate rainforest on the Quinault Rainforest Nature Trail (H9) that is accessible with some assistance. Visit the Wilderness Information Center in Quinault (I2) for information on the region and other trails, including some that explore record-breaking giant conifers. There are campsites, Lake Quinault Lodge and other accommodations nearby.
Just after Quinault, consider taking the Moclips Highway to Moclips and continuing on the Hoquiam to North Beach drive, though from here, in reverse.
The next town is Hoquiam. If you’re already missing the Pacific coastline and regret not taking the Moclips Highway, turn onto WA-109 towards Ocean Shores. Ocean Shores features expansive sandy beaches, 23 miles of interconnecting fresh-water lakes and canals perfect for canoe or kayak excursions, fishing, wildlife watching and more. You’ll also find a range of lodging options, restaurants and a bevy of seasonal events.
For a few weeks beginning in May, Bowerman Basin, part of Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge (A1) is aflutter with up to a million shorebirds stopping to feed and rest during their spring migration. Be sure to bring your waterproof boots and binoculars to observe western sandpiper, dunlin, short billed and long billed dowitchers, the semi-palmated plover, and peregrine falcons and other raptors that are drawn by the birds.
In Aberdeen, visit the Polson Museum (M3), a mansion once owned by Arnold Polson that now is home to exhibits on logging, shipping and artifacts relating to the history of Grays Harbor. At Grays Harbor Historical Seaport (A4) explore a replica of the Lady Washington, the first American vessel to make landfall on the west coast, as well as other ships, and tours that feature demonstrations of tall ship handling, and more. There is a fee. Aberdeen is also famous as the hometown of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana who lived at 1210 E 1st St.
From Aberdeen, follow the signs for US-12 and continue heading east. This will become WA-8 and then US-101. Our drive officially ends back in Olympia.
Mileage: 329 miles
Duration: About 8 hours
Seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter
Roadways: US Highways 101 and 12, and Washington Highway 8
Forest Pass: Pacific Northwest Forest Pass, and America the Beautiful Annual Pass
Directions? Please click HERE