The Olympic Peninsula
The first leg of our road-trip through the USA was meant to be a slow meandering sweep along the Olympic Peninsula, starting in the town of Olympia and moving anti clockwise around the top of Washington. Unfortunately mechanical issues plagued us at the start of our van build (the van we are currently living and travelling in) this ended up putting our rough timeline back by about a week. And with prior commitments already booked in we had little choice but to abandon the north east side of the peninsula and focus solely on the west coast. While this was a little disheartening at the start, the west coast provided some epic landscapes and soon the mechanical troubles were forgotten as we found ourselves surrounded by the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula and National Park.
The Olympic National Park sits on the US north-west coast in Washington (commonly referred to as the PNW; Pacific North West) and spans across several different ecosystems, including rainforest, swampland, rivers and mountains from inland all the way to the coast where the beaches are just amazing to sit and watch. It is a great place for hikers and backpackers to explore different natural features within close proximity to one another and has varying terrain for all experience levels.
Rialto Beach / La Push – Rialto beach is one of those locations which is just as spectacular as its pictures and was is a definite highlight of the region. Situated within the State Park itself the beach stretches for several kilometres and is home to some of the largest drift wood I have ever seen! But perhaps the stand out and main attraction of the beach are the huge sea stacks which appear as a chain of islands only metres from the most southern tip of the beach. You can stroll down the beach towards the islands but as you get closer the only way to keep going is to make your way through the huge driftwood. This isn’t really a problem as long as you take your time and like a little bit of jumping and climbing over things. If you make it to the end you can even cross to the islands at low tide however unfortunately as they are quite steep to actually stand on top of one you would probably require climbing equipment.
Stay for sunset if you get the chance! If the conditions are right the sea stacks can light up with sunset colours during the golden hour and if they don’t the sunset can provide some moody tones for great pictures along the beach. To get to the beach is pretty easy, all you have to do is follow the signs to the National Park from the 101 just north of Forks. Once you enter the Park the drive through to the beach is beautiful, the road winds through lush forest which opens up to an estuary on the left and eventually the beach car park. Unfortunately the park is only open dawn until dusk and there is no overnight camping/parking allowed unless you are camping within the Park away from the beach on a permit ($8US pp/night when we visited), camping on the beach is strictly prohibited.
Situated on the southern side of Rialto across a small river sits a harbour town called La Push, not accessible directly from Rialto (unless you want to take a dip) but if you leave the National Park and make your way south it’s very easy to find. Follow the road through town and turn left at the harbour and you will find yourself in a gravel parking lot directly facing the sea stacks and the river. We spend a number of hours just watching the stacks and the marine life in the nearby harbour. Seals, walruses, ospreys and bald eagles played in the sheltered waters of the harbour to our right and to our left the sea stacks stood as a constant unmoving reminder of the beautiful landscape around us.
Ruby Beach – located halfway between Forks and Quinault along Highway 101 is another beach with an awesome looking sea stack. Unlike Rialto which is pebble based Ruby has soft fine yellow-grey sand. To access the beach once you’ve walked down the trail from the car park you’ll have to clamber over some of the large driftwood which sits directly in front of the car park trail. Be careful when doing this as the wood can move underfoot making for some precarious navigation. After scaling the driftwood barrier however the beach opens up and you are free to explore. There are a few small rock formations along the beach but the largest is located on the northern side and as the beach is not a very big one it only takes a few minutes to walk up to.
Quinault River – Just south of Ruby beach and sitting within arms distance of the Olympic National Park this river and lake provides yet another change in ecosystems and places to explore. The lake area is a popular fishing and hunting area, with the Sockeye Salmon run in November and December being a popular time to visit. During the summer months the lake becomes home to kayaks, stand up paddle boards and canoes as people lap up the amazing views of the national park from the water.
Olympic National Park – The Park covers an enormous area and encompasses many different hiking routes. Since we were concentrated in the south end of the Park we took Lake Quinault south shore loop and the Quinault rainforest and the Kestner homestead trails. The south shore loop makes its way around the lake and gives you glimpses of the forest beside but it’s not until you walk through the Quinault rainforest trail that you get to see a lot more of the forest. Here giant spruce trees, douglas firs and red cedars fight to reach the top of the canopy with some reaching dizzying heights of 281ft (85m). Along the way aside from the enormous trees you will also be able to see a number a lovely streams and waterfalls. My favourite and even though it was the shortest was the Kestner homestead trail which took you through what looked like a very unused trail through lush rainforests where ferns and streams lead you to an old abandoned homestead complete with rusted trucks and machinery. When visiting the area be sure to drop into the ranger station located on the south shore of Quinault Lake. Chat with a ranger about trail conditions and things you should know before you go, particularly if you are planning on camping along the trail, not overly necessary for the shorter hikes around the lake.
Accommodation – During our stay in the Olympic peninsula we spent the majority of our time based at the Quinault River Inn ( quinaultriverinn.com ). The Inn provided everything we needed for our stay; clean comfortable rooms, fast Wi-Fi, a fire pit 5m from the river and the best location possible to explore the National Park and coastline. The owner Pete and his managers were so lovely and helpful in giving us some info on the local area and really made our stay that much nicer. Also home to a number of hummingbirds the Inn’s veranda provides the perfect spot to sit by the river and watch as the hummingbirds fly from one bird feeder to another.
If you are interested more in the ocean and boating part of the Olympic coast La Push and Forks provide many an RV park for you to stop at with varying prices. Alternatively most National Parks also provide camp grounds which you can book prior to arrival and some you can drop in. The best thing is to book in advance online if you can at www.nps.gov
What to bring – We were incredibly lucky in that we had gorgeous sunshine for most of our stay, this is not overly common however especially any months outside summer and so just in case I would recommend bringing a good rain jacket and some waterproof shoes. While there are numerous restaurants and diners situated around if you were hoping to cook for yourself I would recommend stocking up in Forks or if you were coming from the south-east Aberdeen as these towns have larger supermarkets which will be cheaper and have more variety than the smaller mercantiles in the Quinault and La Push areas.
General Info – Forks and La Push are the literary home of the Twilight books by Stephanie Meyer, both towns are included as the setting for the book series. Unaware of this we were a bit puzzled to see werewolf and vampire related signs dotted around the area until we entered the Three Rivers Diner along La Push Road. The diner has a number of twilight paraphernalia including a warewolf hamburger and a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the stars from the movie. While admiring the numerous twilight movie posters grab one of their shakes they’re much thicker than blood, you’ll love it.