Last week I wrote about our wonderful spring break get away along the gorgeous Oregon coast. The trip reminded me of how special the region is. Now that the weather is finally getting warmer and the days lighter, I am anxious to shake off the cabin fever we tend to develop here in the Pacific Northwest and explore our area. Like many of us locals here, we know our region is blessed with magnificent scenery, but we tend to go elsewhere for vacation. Maybe that is because you take for granted what is most familiar. For me, when summer comes, I want to stay here and enjoy what nature has created on the Olympic Peninsula.
The Olympic Peninsula is the most northwest part of Washington State. Many visitors do not realize that Seattle is not the farthest west you can go in our state. Across Puget Sound is another land that is more remote and wild where nature’s power is clearly evident.
The Olympic Peninsula is rich in geologic history stemming from an amazing past of powerful tectonic forces shaping this unique land for more than a billion years and continuing today. Young mountain ranges clad in dense forests and topped with icy glaciers, like the Olympics, impressively tower over the landscape as they majestically rise up from sea level. Countless streams melodiously flow down to combine into massive rivers that swiftly wind their way to Puget Sound, which, in turn, runs into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and eventually out into the Pacific Ocean. This awe-inspiring land of big mountains, big trees, big rivers, and big ocean boldly demonstrates nature’s creative power. The land has an appearance of permanence. Everywhere, however, are underlying forces at work changing and shaping the terrain in a never-ending process.
The Spanish were the first to explore the area. In 1774, the Spanish explorer Juan Perez sailed his ship along the coast of the Olympic Peninsula seeking to claim the new land for Spain. Other Spanish ships arrived in the area after explorers reported favorable conditions. Captain Bruno de Hezeta of Spain was the first European to make contact with indigenous peoples in the Northwest, the Quinault, in 1775. Later, the English also explored the coast and moved into the interior. The legendary British sea captain and explorer James Cook commanding the H.M.S. Discovery and the H.M.S. Resolute mapped the Olympic coast in 1778. Ten years later, in 1788, another English sea captain, John Meares commanding the merchant ship Felice, sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and beheld the mighty peninsula mountain range for the first time. He named its tallest peak Mount Olympus in reverence to the Greek mythological home of the gods because he was awed by its size and stature.
Realizing that this area was in many ways special, several people strove to gain some type of protection for the natural beauty of the peninsula. A United States Army officer by the name of Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil in 1885 and 1890 led two separate expeditions into the interior of the peninsula. He was the first European to venture up into the Olympic Mountain Range and he mapped a trail to the top of present day Hurricane Ridge near Port Angeles. Upon returning, he passionately lobbied to protect the area and preserve its vital resources.
Although several attempts were made and failed, finally conservationists’ efforts prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to designate the area Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909. Finally, in 1937 the dream of creating a new national park in the Pacific Northwest was realized as President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill that established Olympic National Park. He had personally visited the area previously and was so awe struck that he felt obligated to act.
The area reached several important milestones in its recent history. In 1976, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization named Olympic National Park an “International Biosphere Reserve because of the outstanding scenic and scientific values of its virgin temperate rainforests, the largest and best example in the Western Hemisphere, and for the large, un-manipulated ecosystem preserved within the park.” In addition, in 1981, the Olympic National Park was recognized as a “World Heritage Park, a designation that honors parks for their outstanding natural and cultural values.” Most recently, in 1988, 95 percent of the Olympic National Park was officially designated a wilderness area by the federal government. Today, the park boasts 922, 651 acres of protected land. In addition, in 1994 the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary was created protecting 3,300 square miles of fragile coastal habitat.
The Olympic Peninsula is truly a unique place. If you have not had the opportunity to explore it, I highly recommend you plan a trip. Driving is the best way. You can get to the peninsula by either driving around the southern end of Puget Sound or taking a ferry across the sound from Seattle. Once on the peninsula, you can start your drive from the beginning of legendary Highway 101 and head south (or counter-clockwise) around the area.
The first stop is Port Townsend. This quaint old Victorian sea port was once slotted to be the capital of Washington. Thanks to the railroad company deciding to build the line along the other side of the sound, Olympia became to capital instead. The city has been lovingly restored to much of its former beauty. There are several neat shops and restaurants. The city is also home to the Northwest Maritime Center and Wooden Boat Festival (every Labor Day weekend). You can also visit Fort Worden State Park. You may notice some familiar sites here. Officer and a Gentleman and The Ring were both filmed at the park. The park is free and has a nice beach, hiking trails, historic sites, marine science and natural history center, and light house.
Heading around the peninsula, the next neat city is Sequim. This small town is in the middle of what locals call “the blue hole.” What this means is that it is in the rain shadow of the mountains, so clouds are diverted around the area. Consequently, Sequim gets more than 300 days of sun a year! You can visit the famous lavender farms. An area specialty is lavender coffee. I recommend stopping in at Discovery Bay for one.
Next on the stop is Port Angeles. President Abraham Lincoln designated the town of Port Angeles a military outpost in 1861 and had a garrison, lighthouse, and customs house built there in the name of the federal government. His plan was that if the union lost the Civil War, Port Angels would become the new capital of a new union. Today, the small city is struggling to recover from declining logging and fishing. It still, however, has a rustic charm. You can drive or walk out on the Ediz Hook to get a spectacular panoramic view of the Olympic Mountains. I highly recommend driving up to Hurricane Ridge at 8,600 feet. Once at the ridge, you can look north all the way to the Canadian Rockies with the cities of Vancouver and Victoria and then turn around south and gaze into Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus. Almost always there are dear peacefully grazing in the meadow.
Just west of Port Angeles on the 101 is beautiful Lake Crescent and Marymere Falls. The lake is glacier fed, so the water is cold and clear. You can see more than 60 feet down. The falls are a sort ½ mile hike/walk from the main parking lot. You can climb to their top amid the dense fir trees. On the western edge of the lake are the Sol Doc Hot Springs. These natural geothermal springs offer a relaxing hot mineral bath, a shocking contrast after a lake swim. You can usually Roosevelt Elk grazing in the meadows as you drive to the springs.
If you are really adventurous and have the time, you can drive all the way out to the most northwestern point in the continental United States, Cape Flattery. The cape is located on the Makah Indian Reservation, which is open to the public provided you stop by the visitor center and purchase a permit. From the point, you can see Tatoosh Island with its light house.
You can also take a side trip to the Hoh Rainforest. This is the only temperate rainforest in the United States. Due to the intense rain, 140 inches per year, everything is covered in a thick green layer of moss. Walking through the Hall of Mosses is un-worldly. I did not think that there were that many shades of green on the planet. It is the only color you see.
Cut out of the dense forest is the small logging town of Forks. No, there are not vampires and werewolves everywhere. However, the locals have cashed in on the hit books and movies. You can sit in Bella’s seat at the diner, have you picture taken in her truck, park in Dr. Collins’ spot at the hospital clinic, stroll along the black sand beach at La Push, and take pictures in front of Forks High School. At the tourist center, you even can get a free map of all the places from the books.
Leaving the trees for the sand, the next stop is the picturesque sea side town of Ocean Shores. Here you can play in the surf (even though it averages 42° F). There is ample space to fly a kite or build a sand castle. Every restaurant and crab shack serves fresh local caught seafood!
The last stop is Cape Disappointment State Park. This is where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark of the legendary Corps of Discover in 1805 first beheld the Pacific Ocean. The visitor center and museum provides a great historical experience of their expedition. In the park you can tend, RV or rent a yurt on the beach. It is a beautiful place to relax at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River.
You can drive the entire Olympic Peninsula loop in one day without stops. However, I highly recommend taking a week (at least) and really enjoying one of the most amazing places on Earth. I am very happy to call it my backyard. As much as we travel, we always come back home here. This time of year I remember why.
At the risk of self-promotion, I wrote a book about the area with its indigenous peoples that you can find in ‘Publications’ on the top menu.