The Olympic Peninsula in Three Days
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
Well, in two and a half days, really. You can’t do it justice at all in that time - there’s just so much to see and explore, and (probably the biggest factor) the Olympic Peninsula is huge. It sprawls over such a large area that you could easily spend days just crawling up the coastline. There are likely hundreds of trails as well - it’s a giant national park, after all. Even so, it’s worth a visit if you’ve got the time, and we had two and a half days. You have to start somewhere, right?
Labor Day weekend is the last long weekend of the summer, so to me it feels like a waste to not take the opportunity to travel. That was the main thought I had when I began planning this trip two months ago. (In hindsight, I didn’t realize how tired I’d be from the travels I’ve had until now, but even so, if given the choice again I’d still go. I’d just, maybe...take more naps in preparation.)
There were a few destination contenders; we could have done Vancouver or Portland - I’d been meaning to go back for a while now - but I felt like I wanted something more... green. Mount Rainier instantly came to mind - it is one of my favorite long weekend trips to date, and one of the most iconic that Jacob and I went on. We’d done it only two years ago, though I yearn to go back (Wellspring Spa is an oasis in an outstandingly verdant natural haven). However, that trip is still fresh in my mind (and Wellspring was booked solid) whereas the Peninsula was new uncharted territory for us - exciting!
Most places in the actual Olympic National Park were already booked as well (including Sol Duc Hot Springs - bummer!) but we found a few that were still available. We invited my sister Anna along as well, and thus our adventure began!
Day 1: Saturday, Sept 2nd
Kirkland to (La Waffletz & Macaron Station) Tacoma - 40 miles, about 1 hr
Onwards to Lake Quinault Lodge - 118 miles, 2.5 hrs
Total: 158 miles, 3.5 hrs
We set out on Saturday after a late start (my first clue that I was already tired - it was so hard waking up!) and made our merry way to the first pit-stop: La Waffletz & Macaron Station in Tacoma. I’d seen it on a random facebook video a few weeks ago (“Hey, that’s on our way! Starring it on Google maps.”) and was very excited to try the macarons. The background of the shop is interesting as well - the owner/chef, Roger, trained as a Pastry Chef in France and operated a waffle store in Belgium early in his career. He traveled and dabbled in different trades after that, and finally settled in Tacoma to open his French macaron and authentic Belgian waffle store where he would be able to interact with his customers daily. Also, as a side note, these are the cheapest macarons I’ve ever seen advertized, at $1.75 each - I had to see if the hype was real.
The store itself is actually inside a long building - The Freighthouse Square right across from the Tacoma Dome Station. It’s an eclectic place with things like old traffic signals used as decor around what is essentially a long food court. I went to buy a water bottle from an empty-looking fish and chips stand and ended up paying an old man at the table behind me who hinted he was the owner (?) on lunch break with a friend, and insisted it was ok - it’s that kind of place. (Nobody ran after us - so I guess it was ok.)
We found La Waffletz quickly enough - it was small and unassuming, with the wonderful smell of waffles casting a very inviting trail around the place. Roger was there front and center (though a bit tired looking as well). I ordered one of each macaron (there were only three types and a mini-pack with some 6 more bite-sized ones) and Jacob and Anna got a Belgian waffle (banana and nutella) to share. He brought the order out to us within minutes and we feasted on our sugary treats with relish - true to reviews, they were delicious. I took a bite of the waffle and was transported to chocolaty waffly Bruges. Roger came by as we left to make sure we were happy and we chatted briefly about the meal - he was a personal, friendly guy. I was honestly pretty satisfied with this stop (though I should have bought a few extra nutella macarons for later - they were amazingly good and you can’t beat that price).
On the way out we stopped by an intricately adorned English-style tea shop and used their decked-out bathrooms (Anna and I even sprayed our wrists with a conveniently-placed eau de toilette and smelled like vintage roses the rest of the day - this is our sisterly bonding process). I wanted to have tea-time as well, but we were so stuffed from the sweets that we had to pass this time. It’ll be something to look forward to on the next trip!
We hit the road, and after getting into my first ever car crash on the highway* and an hour of driving through winding forested back-roads past barns and cows and sprawling fields we suddenly found ourselves at Lake Quinault. The Lodge stood huge and inviting in front of us, adorned in wooden shingles and large windows. As we walked to the entrance we heard Pink Floyd in the breeze - turns out out a live band was playing classics by the lake, and would continue for a good hour after we arrived. It was sunny and warm and beautiful, with many families and a surprising number of pets out on the lawn listening to the band or swimming in the lake.
I wish I could say we immediately headed out and explored the area - we should’ve - but we were pretty knackered by then. We made a dinner reservation for 8pm and spent the remaining two hours checking out the indoor heated pool (so heated that the room was stifling hot and unbearable, to my disappointment), trying to beat Jacob at ping pong, and telling stories outside on some lawn chairs while the band played on. We dined in the Roosevelt Room just as the sun was setting through the trees, and then headed back to our room (a lakeview in a separate adjoining building) to plan for the next day.
Day 2: Sunday, Sept 3rd
Lake Quinault to World’s largest Spruce Tree - 1 mile
To Ruby Beach (including detour at “Big Cedar Tree”) - 42 miles, 50 minutes
Ruby Beach to Forks - 27 miles, about 35 minutes
Forks to Cape Flattery - 57 miles, about 1.5 hrs
Cape Flattery to Red Lion Hotel, Port Angeles - 78 miles, 2 hours
Total: 205 miles, 5 hours
We woke early on Sunday - we had a lot of driving and sightseeing to pack into one day! We’d gone to sleep fairly early but even so it was a chore to drag ourselves out of bed. The breakfast in the Roosevelt Room helped get us on track, though. They had so many great options - we chose eggs benedict, sweet potato pancakes and a berry parfait and it was truly delicious.
And then we were off, with the first stop being only a mile down the road. Turns out, Lake Quinault is situated in the “Valley of the Rainforest Giants”, named for the 6 trees scattered in there that are the largest specimens of their species in the world. We wouldn’t have time to see all of them, but we wanted to see at least one, and the largest Stika Spruce was practically next door.
We parked my little Mini Cooper S, Gus, and headed down a short trail and out of the trees to see a massive evergreen across the bridge from us. According to a handy sign, this Spruce is over 1000 years old, about 191 feet tall, has a 58 ft, 11 inch circumference, and is Washington’s 3rd largest tree. It was amazing to see. We snapped a few pics and marveled at its sheer size, and then let the other families have a turn while we headed back to Gus.
We drove towards Ruby Beach - our next planned stop - with windows down, GPS signal constantly breaking, and the road whooshing by, but just a few miles from our destination we saw an inconspicuous wooden sign that simply read “Big Cedar Tree” with an arrow pointing right, so we took a hard turn and headed down the dirt road instead.
We parked Gus in the shadow of a colossal broken conifer. A large portion of the tree remained intact, but another part had fallen (from a storm in 2014, we found out later) and the substantial remains of the broken trunk lay resting next to the living remnants. Anna and Jacob immediately clambered on, like many others were doing, and we spent a good while exploring the trunk and taking pictures. We researched the tree later, and found out it is the largest Western Red Cedar in the world and also holds the distinction of being the largest tree in Washington and the largest in the world outside of California (and man, I’d love to see some of those!) Even severed in half, it was astounding to see - and was still very much alive, with new branches growing near the top.
We’d unexpectedly seen two of the six giants, and we were pretty happy with ourselves. On we went to Ruby beach - the northernmost of the beaches in the Kalaloch area. We chose it mostly on a whim - it seemed easily accessible and the best ‘bang for your buck’ for the limited time we had. If we go back, especially for a longer period, I’d love to go to some of the other beaches in the area and the associated hikes. For a quick trip like this one, Ruby was perfect. We found a parking spot right next to the trail and hiked the short way down to the beach.
Immediately on exiting the trail you’re faced with hundreds of bleached logs - almost like a tree graveyard. Apparently these were dead trees swept in from the ocean and - now that the tide was out - deposited in heaps around the tide pools. We clambered over them to reach the beach and spent time trying (and mostly failing) to skip rocks and wandering around. By the logs and tide pools the beach is made up of many big flat rocks (perfect for skipping) but once you make it past the logs, Ruby opens up to a wavy ocean and shimmering dark gray sand (supposedly, on occasion there is red sand as well, but we didn’t see any this time). Giant rocks jut out of the banks to form small islands, and a few people were fishing amidst the waves, though for the most part everyone just walked around or stuck to the tide pools.
We made our own stacks of rocks to join the others already standing, took a long walk on the beach, watching the shimmering sand blow away with the breeze. Near the water we found many weird transparent orbs - turns out they’re filter-feeding organisms called salps (very much alive!) and have one of the most efficient jet propulsion systems in the animal kingdom. They’re commonly referred to as jellyfish eggs just from appearance, though there’s no relation between the two (one of the main reasons being that for at least part of their life salps grow spinal cords and have nervous systems, unlike jellyfish. It’s amazing to think of!) They also stick to each other when they’re placed together - on Jacob’s hand, say - and start asexual reproduction that way by forming long interlocked chains. (Jacob did not appreciate that fact; the salps found themselves in the water again shortly after.)
We were pulled away by growing hunger after an hour, so we headed back to Gus and journeyed on to Forks, home of timber museums, sparkly vampires, and really random items in grocery stores (favorite finds: a mushroom-lion figurine and a “BELIEVE” Sasquatch magnet. No boxers with Edward’s face on the crotch this time, sadly). We finally got cellphone reception again and searched up a few late-lunch spots, eventually settling on The In Place, a fairly generic diner with decent cheap food. A pomegranate lemonade and crab-and-shrimp melt later and we were ready to keep going (though not before a selfie with the Forks town sign, of course.)
The next stop of the day - and the main reason I wanted to come to the peninsula - was Cape Flattery, the northwestern-most point of the continental United States. It’s a short one and a half mile hike roundtrip, but it involved driving about an hour out of our way (and back) through very curvy low-speed mountain roads to reach it, so we had to hustle to get there before it got too late; we still had the long drive to Port Angeles afterwards.
We headed north and then followed the coast west the rest of the way, with the salty fishy smell of the ocean permeating the air. Anna and Jacob napped the whole drive, leaving me alone to enjoy the luscious green road while listening to their crescendo of snores. It was around 6pm when we arrived - still early - but already the forest was darkening. We hustled down the trail (and I do mean down, the entire way - for some reason this really surprised me) and got to the main checkpoint in about 10 minutes.
It was blinding. I guess we didn’t quite pick the best time to come (photo-wise, at the very least) because the sun was directly in front of us and made it very hard to look around, especially since it was reflected off the water as well. It was gorgeous though (from the bits I did see) - this first stop is the one you find in all the google image searches, with the two rock islands coming out of the water surrounded by forested cliffs on either side with the ocean behind. It’s a cool sight, even with the blazing sun as a backdrop.
We continued another 10 minutes or so - spurred on by the bark of a sea lion every few minutes - and got to the other checkpoints on the trail. One was a view of the mountainside with a ton of black birds nesting in the rocks. Apparently puffins are also a common sight here, though we didn’t see any; perhaps it’s not the right season. The last stop was on a rocky outcrop at the very tip of the cliff - here there’s a platform set up where you can see in every direction (barring some trees) and a bit of land below as well to stand on. Looking out you could see the rock islands behind and to your left and a larger island with a lighthouse on it straight ahead. To the right was a mass of seaweed and the cliffside where the birds nested, and, a bit farther out, Vancouver Island. It almost felt like we were at the tip of the world - instead, we were at the tip of America.
The sea lions had stopped barking - apparently we’d just missed them - though we saw them swimming in the water below about half an hour later. The true wonder of this spot was seeing the whales. Every few minutes one would breach the water, and we would briefly glimpse a back fin or a tail disappear in a ripple of water. They were a fair distance away so we didn’t make out many details, unfortunately, and could only guess at what types they were, but it was still glorious.
It was about 7pm at this point; sunset was sometime around 8 and I wanted to stick around to see it - it would be directly in front of us, literally the coolest sight! - but sadly we still had two hours of driving to do and no flashlights (I didn’t much fancy having to hike back up the trail in the dark) so we headed back through the dim forest. It was a short hike going directly up, and it very much made me realize how out of shape I am. But hey, I made it, and I only stopped twice for a breather!
The final car ride of the day was filled with truly horrendous karaoke as we drove with a huge almost-full moon in front of us and a beautiful pink sky behind until it got truly dark, and then we switched to sharing translated Romanian fables with Jacob and avoiding deer.
We rolled into a giant sprawling motel (though the sign technically read Red Lion Hotel) around 9pm and finished the night off with pizza delivered directly to our room while we played around with lateral thinking puzzles (where a tiny portion of the story is offered and players have to piece together the remainder by asking yes or no questions). We went to bed shortly after and slept like the dead until morning.
Day 3 (2.5): Monday Sept 4th
Red Lion to Chestnut Cottage - 1 mile, 5 mins
To Port Townsend - 47 miles, 1 hr
Home - 118 miles, 2.5 hours
Total: 166 miles, 3.5 hours
We didn’t see much of Port Angeles this trip besides the incredibly wide one-way streets and low buildings that seemed to circumvent the whole city. However, it wasn’t a totally pointless stop, because we got to start Labor day right by heading to an awesome brunch spot - the Chestnut Cottage. It was a cute little brick-and-stone house inhabiting its own corner of the block. The inside was all decorated on theme without being too overbearing; older furniture, decorative wallpaper, wooden columns and arches. As my sister put it: “Wow, this would be such a nice place to take grandparents to brunch.” That’s a bit of the vibe it gives - though really, it works for all ages. And what can I say, grandparents or no, we made the right decision going there. Their blueberry lemonade was by far the best lemonade I’ve ever tasted and their omelettes came with delicious baked goods on the side - warm, as if straight from the oven. Everything seemed to be made from scratch, with good ingredients; all in all it was an excellent meal.
We headed out around noon and headed towards Port Townsend - one of my favorite getaway spots in Washington - because, let’s face it, we’re never too full for ice cream and Elevated Ice Cream is the best, well-deserving of the extra drive. Parking was a bitch so we stopped by the antique shop first, and spent a good hour finding crazy souvenirs and falling in love with a new local artist. After we’d finished scouring every inch of the place we got the courage up to re-park dear Gus, and we finally got our ice cream. Lavender white chocolate and orange Belgian chocolate, I love you. You were the perfect end for our weekend.
And that’s how it went. We spent the last two hours of the road trip making up an improvised interactive story involving saving a village from a volcanic explosion (it’s an RPG of sorts, except we just make it up as we go, no dice needed; one person narrates and the other two play characters in the story and make all the decisions. Anna started the trend because she’s hella imaginative like that.) We got home, picked up our two cats - who had apparently been inconsolable in our absence and required a massive amount of cuddles for forgiveness - and finally, the weekend was done.
So, the question is, would I do it again?
I think so. It was not my best planned trip, and it is very drive-heavy without as much reward. Now that we’ve seen the main things we wanted to see (or at least, gotten a glimpse of the many variances the Peninsula has to offer), I’d be happy to go back for a weekend and sit in one spot rather than switching every night - that way, you see a lot more of your chosen area and you don’t feel like the driving to and from hotels are a waste. That’s one of the main things that bugs me in trips, and it held true especially for Port Angeles this time because we didn’t really plan to see any of the town while we were there and that’s a missed opportunity; it was just a stopover - albeit with really good brunch - for us on the way back.
However, if I wanted to recreate this trip with the same stops (which is definitely something up my alley - I love introducing people to places I like and this trip gives a decent overview of the Peninsula if you’re strapped for time) I think a better plan would be to swap the order. Drive to Port Townsend the first day; spend time there - hell, spend the night if you want (there’s lots of awesome haunted hotels to choose from, after all.) The following day, do Cape Flattery earlier so you’re not blinded by the sun and you get amazing pictures, and finally head down the coast in the afternoon so you catch the sunset at the beaches. Kalaloch Lodge would be my choice for the night rather than Lake Quinault, since it’s right on the beach and offers more opportunities for exploration there. Plus, you won’t have to worry about driving in the dark because the sunset over the water is right there and it’s sure to be a glorious sight. Then again, if the forest is calling your name, by all means head over to Lake Quinault or one of the other properties immersed in the trees (I would try Sol Duc next trip if I had the chance). Finally, on the last day, you can leisurely head back through the forest, doing some hikes or stopping at giant trees as you wish. It sounds like a good plan; a better one, perhaps, than my first - maybe one of these long weekends I’ll put it to the test.
Until then, I’ve got reality to get back to; Tuesday morning brought us smoke from the East and South - a large portion of Northwest America is on fire now, in part thanks to some teenagers with fireworks in dry forests. The gloom lasted for the remainder of the week, blocking out my much-needed sunlight and putting me in a nostalgic and restless mood (as a bonus, these moods without fail end in me picking up random new hobbies, like learning to knit scarves for my cats. I hear you laugh at me through your screens, but hark; it’s not completely useless since the photos involving my stylishly scarved cats are going into a charity cat calendar for a local nonprofit! Take that, you jokers; my random hobbies do sometimes have purpose).
It’s finally clearing up now, and it’s beautiful - time to enjoy the last 9 days of summer before Autumn in all its wonderful glory begins.
* It was a very minor crash and everyone is fine, mom, don’t worry; I did not kill your favorite daughter. Anna freaked out, Jacob talked really fast, and I was cool as a cucumber, not to fret. Nary a scratch on either car, anyways. So there we go.
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