Take a circuitous route to see some of Washington’s most dramatic sights and cities.
By Stan and Kathleen Taylor, F182964
The Olympic Peninsula forms the northwest corner of Washington, with Puget Sound and Seattle to its east, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. That may be its geographical description, but after you experience it, you’ll want to describe it with another word: diversity.
An amazingly different array of trees, wildflowers, weather, and land elevations all exist together here. Within a 100-mile radius, one can explore seaports, waterways, islands, wide beaches under towering sea stacks, rock formations, dense forests, spectacular mountains, and a rain forest. Take a drive along U.S. 101, which nearly circumnavigates the entire Olympic Peninsula, and you will be immersed in diversity.
The most popular time to visit this region is in summer, especially if you plan to explore the mountainous, damp regions of Olympic National Park. However, the park is open year-round, and springtime and fall visitors will find that most spots are less crowded.
You can begin your tour by traveling to Port Townsend, in the peninsula’s northeast corner. This is a popular tourist town because of its numerous Victorian mansions and abundance of history. Port Townsend is located within the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Mountains, so it does not receive an extreme amount of rain “” only 16 to 18 inches of precipitation falls each year.
The city, which serves as a port at the entrance to Puget Sound, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has a fascinating maritime history. Port Townsend was honored in 2000 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation with a Great American Main Street Award in recognition of its revitalization efforts. The 124-foot clock tower at the Jefferson County Courthouse, established in 1892, has served as a mariner’s landmark for more than a century.
Nearby Fort Worden was built more than 100 years ago to defend the entrance to Puget Sound. It is now preserved as part of the Fort Worden State Park Conference Center. The park includes the fort’s restored officers’ row houses, which were used as a setting in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman. The commanding officer’s quarters are open daily, as is the Coast Artillery Museum. The latter includes photos, artifacts, guns, and other reminders of the fort’s active military years. The Marine Science Center, also at the park, offers exhibits that visitors can touch and explore. The Port Wilson Lighthouse, established in 1879, is located at the northeast tip of the park.
Fort Worden accommodates RVers at two campgrounds; one has full hookups and the other offers water and electrical hookups. The campgrounds are popular (they are open year-round), and reservations are encouraged. (Reservations are not taken by phone but may be placed by mail, e-mail, fax, or in person.) For more information, contact the park office at (360) 344-4400 or visit www.olympus.net/ftworden/camping.html.
Port Townsend offers a number of festivals each year. The Rhododendron Festival in May and the Wooden Boat Festival in September are among the bigger events, but the list includes many more. The arts are an important part of life in Port Townsend with its galleries, museums, theater, and historic architecture. In addition, a passenger ferry offers service from Port Townsend to the scenic San Juan Islands. More information about Port Townsend is available at www.ptguide.com; via e-mail at [email protected]; or by calling (888) 365-6978.
Thirty miles west of Port Townsend via State Route 20 and U.S. 101 is the town of Sequim (pronounced Skwim), which, like Port Townsend, enjoys the optimal benefit of the rain shadow effect “” in other words, plenty of sunshine. Travel a few miles north of there to the oceanside Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge and its 5½-mile-long Dungeness Spit, the largest natural sand hook in the United States. The sand spit is growing at a rate of 15 feet per year, formed by a combination of wind and tides. Energetic lighthouse enthusiasts can hike out to the end of the spit to visit the 146-year-old New Dungeness Lighthouse, which contains a small museum. The keeper offers brief tours to those who make the trek.
As you continue westward, you’ll reach Port Angeles, the largest city on the peninsula. Ferries depart from this city to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where the province’s capital city of Victoria “” as well as a number of renowned attractions “” is located. Port Angeles also serves as the gateway to Olympic National Park.
Known for its biological diversity, the 1,400-square-mile park is host to several ecosystems, including a protected Pacific coastal area, snow-capped mountains, an old-growth forest, and the largest example of a temperate rain forest in the Western Hemisphere. The park’s visitors center in Port Angeles offers a basic orientation, exhibits, and an introductory slide program.
Allow at least one very full day to experience it all “” and even more, if you can spare the time. Drive first to Hurricane Ridge, 17 miles from Port Angeles, to savor dramatic mountain views. The Olympic Mountain Range was formed over millions of years as a result of volcanic forces and tectonic shifts. Glacial ice carved out the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, and eventually isolated the Olympic Mountains on this peninsula. As a result, the peninsula harbors a very distinct array of creatures and plants. Eight kinds of plants and 15 types of animals are found here, but nowhere else on earth. The Olympic marmot, the Olympic chipmunk, and the Olympic snow mole are a few, as are Beardslee and Crescenti trout.
Hurricane Ridge is chilly even in the early fall and late spring, and snow may make it inaccessible in winter, so check at the visitors center for weather and road conditions before making the trip there.
A three-hour drive west of Hurricane Ridge will take you to the Hoh Rain Forest. Along the way (approximately 30 miles west of Hurricane Ridge), a road leads to Sol Duc Hot Springs. The springs were used for hundreds of years and first commercialized as a resort in 1912. An elaborate hotel at the resort burned down in 1916, and a more modest one now stands in its place. The resort offers a restaurant, a gift shop, a pool, mineral water pools, and massages. Camping is available at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort in sites located near hot springs and waterfalls. The resort and campground are open from late March through late October; phone the resort at (360) 327-3583 or visit www.northolympic.com/solduc for more information.
Starting as trickles of snowmelt at an elevation of 5,000 feet, tiny streams merge to become the Sol Duc River. Along its path to the sea, the river’s waters plunge over the Sol Duc Falls, one of the largest and most dramatic waterfalls in Olympic National Park. An easy hike of less than a mile on a wide, level trail leads through an old-growth forest to the falls. Some of the firs and hemlocks are centuries old.
At the western edge of the park and within 15 miles of the Pacific coast is the entrance to the Hoh Rain Forest. The Hoh is the largest stand of coniferous forest in the continental United States. The rain forest is accessible by several easy treks, including the 3/4-mile Hall of Mosses Trail and the 1¼-mile Spruce Nature Trail. A visit to the rain forest gives one the sense of being in an outdoor cathedral. The sense of solemnity is amplified by light filtering through moss-draped trees. Light, moisture, and airborne nutrients nourish the moss and various plants growing above. Ancient Sitka spruce and western hemlock, some as high as 300 feet, can be seen.
Among the peninsula’s anomalies are nurse logs. The floor of the rain forest is a tangle of vegetation, not bare ground. When a large tree eventually dies and falls, it becomes a host to spruce and hemlock seeds. The seedlings find moisture and nutrients from the fallen tree. As they grow, their roots encircle the nurse log. When the old trunk eventually rots away, the young trees appear to stand on stilts in a colonnade along the line where the old tree once lay.
Not surprisingly, this part of the Olympic Peninsula is very wet. Precipitation in the rain forest region ranges from 12 to 14 feet each year. Temperatures seldom drop below freezing and rarely get above 80 degrees in summer.
A journey across the peninsula wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Pacific coast. A number of scenic beaches are easily accessible from U.S. 101. The surf, tidal pools, and sea stacks create a dramatic effect. Beachcombers are warned to monitor the tide tables, however, so as not to be trapped on the beach by the rapidly incoming tide.
Diversity is the theme of the Olympic Peninsula. It is a delightful sensory experience.
North Olympic Peninsula Visitor and Convention Bureau
338 W. First St., Suite 104
P.O. Box 670
Port Angeles, WA 98362
E-mail: [email protected]
Olympic Peninsula Travel Association
P.O. Box 1021
Port Hadlock, WA 98339
Phone/fax: (360) 379-8800
Olympic National Park
600 E. Park Ave.
Port Angeles, WA 98362-6798
E-mail: [email protected]