The Olympic Peninsula. Home to Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest, 24 State Parks, 73 miles of protected primitive Pacific Coastline, amazing beaches, and the most northwestern point in the lower 48. That’s over a million square miles of mountains, coast, and rain forests! Yeah, I sound like an infomercial, but it’s really that awesome.
It seems like you could never stop exploring the Olympic Peninsula. We only scratched the surface in the 8 days we were there. Our most common reaction to the Olympic Peninsula was, “We lived 4 hours away from this for 11 years and it’s our first time here! WTF?” I feel like we need to start a second “bucket list” of all the places we missed. Needless to say, we are going back some day and definitely recommend this area to anyone.
A Rocky Start
Well, we might as well get this out of the way so it’s not the last thing you remember about this post. Our first day in the park contained an unplanned adventure. As we were driving down a dirt road looking for dispersed camping in Olympic National Forest I backed off the road into the ditch when turning around. Stan—being the low rider he is—got stuck. Not seeing the wheel was positioned directly on a rock when I spun the tires it shaved two inches of tread off. Great. Luckily it wasn’t one of the tires we bought two weeks ago.
After an hour of trying to dig Stan out, a couple riding a motorcycle stopped to help. They proclaimed to be experts at getting out of the ditch because they’ve done it a thousand times. However, while they were finding rocks and logs to put under the tires and building a lever to pry Stan from his shallow grave we began to have some reservations. Luckily, a few minutes later some guys in a 4×4 stopped and pulled us out.
Not my best driving moment, but believe it or not, not my worst either 😉 Here is a shout out to random human kindness! It is still alive and well in Washington State. Thank you! Fast forward 90 minutes and Stan is once again at Les Schwab getting 2 new rear tires. So now we have 4 new tires to tour the rest of the western leg of our journey on. “Safety first” is what I say (as I cringe at the bill).
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is truly one of the most geographically diverse parks. It is filled with glacier-capped mountains, old growth temperate rain forests, and 73 miles of Pacific coastline. Most parks are founded for having just 1 of those 3 things!
While there is a lot you can get to from your vehicle, most of the park is designated back country. This means if you can’t or won’t hike you’ll miss about 95% of the park. Elwha, Hurricane Ridge and the Hoh Rainforest offer very popular day hiking as well as trailheads to the back country. However you want to explore, Olympic’s got it!
45 minutes (17 miles and 5,000 feet) from Port Angeles will get you to the Hurricane Ridge visitor center. This is a very popular area in the northern side of the park and offers plenty of parking and ranger led programs. From the center you can take a number of short hikes with amazing views of the Olympic range.
If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge with a payoff, drive another mile to the Hurricane Ridge trailhead. It’s a semi-strenuous 1.5 mile (one-way) trail with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain (and no shade), but worth the 360 degree view of the Olympic Range and Vancouver Island.
We took a little break from the park to attend a vanlife gathering near Neah Bay. We stayed at the Hobuck Beach Resort on the Makah Reservation. Hobuck seems to be a “best kept secret” of the peninsula for a lot of surfers and paddle boarders. Some frequent visitors of the bay said the vanlife gathering was the most people they’d ever seen at Hobuck.
The event was hosted by Where’s My Office Now and Vanlife Diaries. The latter was filming a documentary on the nomadic lifestyle. This event was a great opportunity for us to see how other people were making their vanlife work. We saw vans of many different shapes and sizes. Westies, Sprinters, some new, and some old. Stan fit right in.
The event had a community potluck that gave us some great one-pot food ideas for the road. Morning yoga, surfing, basketry, and other activities. A personal favorite part of the weekend was the indigenous dinner put on by Makah Cultural and Research Center. Over 200 people dined outside on halibut soup and biscuits while tribal members discussed traditional cooking of the Makah people.
Another “must see” in this area is Cape Flattery, the most northwestern point of the contiguous United States. Only a 15 minute drive from Neah Bay and a 10 minute hike down a well maintained trail, Cape Flattery is where the Strait of San Juan de Fuca joins the Pacific Ocean. Vancouver Island, Canada, about 10 miles away can be seen across the straight lurking in the mist.
Backpack on the Olympic Coast
After the vanlife event we readied our backpacks and left Stan the Tan Van for 24 hours to camp on the Olympic National Park coastline. We chose the Rialto Beach area to begin our journey. Our plan was to hike about 5 to 7 miles on the coast and find a camp site on the way. Within an hour we found home. Just on the edge of the beach and treeline, previous campers built a wind shelter, kitchen area (driftwood tables), seats, rakes, clothes pins, and stacked up firewood for the next residents (us). A carved driftwood sign read: Luxury Suite. Even though we had only hiked about a mile, when you stumble across a vacant luxury suite you stay, right? The luxury suite also had a toilet made from a few logs of driftwood, but we decided not to use.
We set up camp and continued to explore the beach. After passing through the “Hole in the Wall,” a massive ocean-carved arch, most other hikers turned back. So we enjoyed a day of scrambling over rocks and empty beaches, before returning to camp and enjoying a stunning sunset.
Beach Camping Tips at Olympic
All campers must have a bear container to store food and scented items. These containers look like a small barrel that has two locks and require a coin or key to open. Bears are not the specific reason for these canisters. The ranger told us it’s more because of their Raccoon problem. As crafty as a raccoon is, it can’t open a properly secured container. If you don’t have an approved container the park will provide one to you when you get your back country permit.
When camping and hiking in this area know the tides. While you may not have great service on the coast you can stop into the ranger station and snap a picture of the tide charts. Some areas are only passable during lower tides and DO NOT attempt during high tide. The ranger said in some spots where tides must be lower than 4 feet to get around, groups have been stranded for an entire day before they could hike back.
Hoh Rain Forest
The Hoh Rain Forest on the western side of the park is 30 minutes off Highway 101. It’s one of the best remaining examples of the temperate rain forests in the Pacific Northwest. Green canopies of Douglas fir, cedar, and western hemlock tower overhead. Moss, shrubs, smaller trees, and ferns create a lush understory. A few hikes around the visitor center will give you a great glimpse of an ecosystem that once stretched from Alaska to California.
While having lunch our last day we ran into a couple we met at the vanlife gathering. They just started volunteering as campground hosts and invited us to camp at their site. After we parked Stan, we had dinner and hung out by the campfire sharing stories of our nomadic travels.
We did have some other uninvited campground guests as well. Roosevelt elk frequent the area and campground. If you stay, one might come into your site to see what’s up.
Visiting the Peninsula
Even our little driving mishap the first day could not diminish the impressiveness of the Olympic Peninsula. I’m convinced it isn’t a place you can visit one time and say “I’m good.” It really has it all. Beaches, Mountains, coastal towns, rain forests, and history. Your only problem may be having enough time to do everything you want to do.
Have you ever found an awesome place close to home and wondered, “How could I have never been here before?”