If you enjoy the splendid experience of driving through a corridor of towering trees or of hiking down to beaches splintered with jagged rock formations, you will love Olympic National Park. The drive around the peninsula that contains the park takes hours and winds past beaches and through forests. My husband, two kids and I never minded a moment of the drive with so much incredible beauty to enjoy just through the car windows.
On our four-hour drive from the airport, we meandered along, passing rumbling logging trucks until we reached our first destination, which was recommended by my kid’s 4th grade teacher: Beach 4. We parked our car in the empty lot at the trailhead and cold air flowed in as soon as the car doors opened, wind pulling my hair and rain beginning to splatter against my cheeks. I dug through the back to find our rain ponchos, still in the packaging after years of dragging them back and forth to summer camp. Outfitted in warm sweaters and hooded from the rain, we were practically singing just to be out of the car. The air felt bright, clean and fresh. Both kids ran down the switchbacks in front of us. Along the trail, giant logs lay partially disintegrated into the earth with other trees growing up from the nourishment of their fallen ancestors. Water flowed next to the trail, tracing a path to the ocean. Life is everywhere here. The humidity and dripping rain bless the soil, rich and covered in ferns, moss and all manner of greenery. The trail was lined with lush, shiny leaves. The sound of the ocean and the stream flowing along the trail cascaded together like a soundtrack of relaxation.
We got the full view of the ocean, churning white, peaked waves as the tide came in. Rock shelves were turned on their sides like open books, easy to climb up and look down and out into the sea. The sandstone was full of little holes in a Swiss cheese pattern, which we found out later are made by piddock clams burrowing into the rock. We crossed a bridge made of driftwood, looking very much like something from a fantasy novel with curly, accented banisters. To get down to the beach, you have to hold onto a rope with knots tied in it and walk down backwards. During low tide, this is a wonderful place to explore tide pools and catch sight of sea anemones and urchins and maybe to spot a starfish. We ran along the beach, dodging the frothing cold of the water and admiring the stark contrast of forest behind us.
Our day in the park felt short. The peninsula is absolutely massive. There was no way, with our one day’s worth of time, to hit everything, so we had to leave every spot before we were quite ready. The climb back to the top of the hill and to our car was a quick one; the whole hike was less than a mile. We couldn’t help reaching out to pat the moss on the way back up. The delightfully tactile surface of the ground was like a quilt stitched of every shade of emerald.
Our next stop was blessedly only five minutes away. Ruby Beach was not as empty as Beach 4. The parking lot was busy and marked with deep potholes full of water. The view from the parking lot was a sandy expanse covered in tangled driftwood logs, seeming artfully strewn across the sand. The ocean and a river came together in a primal convergence with the salty waves crashing back into the mouth of the freshwater. Towering rock monoliths spiked up from the sand along the ocean with jagged spaces to climb and peer through. In the distance, the steep tree covered cliffs
of an island are tantalizing, like a promise of a wild adventure you can’t quite reach. I stood on the beach and tried to absorb the landscape, brimming with raw, outrageous, gorgeous nature and felt deep gratitude to be there with the cool wind blowing in from the ocean and my children running wildly and climbing up driftwood mountains.
The drive from Ruby Beach to our next stop was a little over an hour, yet we might as well have arrived in an entirely different world. We drove away from the coast and more inland to the center of the park to visit the Hoh Rainforest. There are four temperate rainforests on the Olympic peninsula, and the Hoh Rainforest gets upwards of 12 feet of rain annually. Driving down the road to get to the entrance, the trees disappear beneath a thick covering of moss, encircling trunks and wrapping around branches. The feeling was one of fairytale wonder, the already incredibly tall trees now coated in a green monochromatic fuzz. The covering became more pronounced the closer we got to the entrance of the rainforest.
Side note: Did you know that a program called Every Kid Outdoors through the National Park Foundations provides fourth-graders with a pass to access all the National Parks in the country? The pass is good through their school year ending Aug. 31. We were so lucky to be traveling with one of these elite fourth-graders, and she was super excited to hand over her completed form to the park ranger at the entrance and use her recently acquired cursive to sign her official pass.
We arrived in the late afternoon and chose the shorter .8 mile loop, The Hall of Mosses, as our hike in the Hoh. The main Hoh River Trail is an out-and-back hike that’s 17.3 miles long with turnaround points ranging in distance. Everyone we passed on the trail was so quiet, voices lowered as though in reverence to the massive forest of trees, all covered thickly in moss. Vibrant, growing plants were everywhere, flourishing as a steady drip of rain whispered against the ground and marked a drumbeat on our ponchos. If a fairy were to choose a home in our world, I think the Hoh is a strong contender. A more magical place I have never seen with strange, massive fungi, giant ferns with tightly hooked leaf buds and the pure scale of the trees themselves. We turned a corner and found the trail blocked by a grouping of bushy brown Roosevelt Elk, the largest elk in the world. They were entirely unbothered by our brightly colored group of rain jackets huddling and whispering with cameras out. I was reminded of the illustrations in a book of Swedish fairytales I had as a kid, of a princess riding through an enchanted forest on the back of an elk.
My husband is a plant guy. He loves his aquariums and he cultivates underwater plants. He kept saying that being in the forest reminded him of being in an aquarium scene with everything flourishing and verdant. The atmosphere was serene and calm, a remarkable environment to experience. Kids and adults both spent half the time frozen on the path, gazing up and around in astonished wonderment.
Eventually, though, we were pulled by hunger and exhaustion to end our time in the rainforest. We had been traveling since 3 a.m. that morning, so the drive to the lodge was an unusually quiet one.
We circled the shores of Lake Crescent on a narrow road, the lake a deep, dark indigo, cold even to behold. The trees thickly lined the shores. Our lodge was a welcome sight, a cozy collection of buildings and cottages tucked against the lake with chairs dotting the shore. A light rain had begun to fall again and walking into the warm lobby with a fire sparkling in the large stone fireplace was a welcome respite.
Both kids sat down on wicker chairs in a glassed-in sun porch and promptly fell fast asleep to the point of snoring despite the bustle of other visitors all around. I was able to stretch out, gaze out on the lake and read a book while we waited for fish and chips. Our room, when we finally made it, looked out onto the lake, the trees and the mountains beyond. Furnished with log beds and no television or no phone, the hotel had a cozy tranquility. The May evening was still light out at 9 p.m. and I took one last look out the window before surrendering to sleep.
Olympic National Park is enormous and we barely saw a fraction. We just started a multiday trip through Washington, Montana and Oregon, but I struggle to imagine we will see anything more amazing and remarkable as the forest and beaches of the peninsula. My husband says the Hoh Rainforest is his favorite place he’s ever visited. It was an exceptional day from the drive to every stop.