Real Road Trips: A Weekend Jaunt to the Olympic Peninsula

Three days, two raincoats and a giant spruce
road trip ideas from seattle magazine
The path is lovely, dark and deep in the Quinault Rain Forest

Day 1: Peninsula Bound
From time to time, even the most true-blue Seattleite will weary of the ceaseless lowering clouds and head for sunny climes—but that’s just not us. Seeking stormy beaches for a weekend getaway, my boyfriend and I headed out for weekend sulk in Olympic National Park (ONP). Heavy rain was in the forecast, but never mind; we were deliberately heading to a rain forest, after all, and had slickers and hiking boots in tow.

Bombing out to the peninsula on a late Friday afternoon, we took the direct route to Lake Quinault—well, it would have been direct, if we hadn’t been using Apple Maps. Three and a half hours later, after multiple wrong turns on a baffling series of rural two-lane highways (Wynoochee-Wishkah Road, Hoquiam-Wishkah Road and plain old Wishkah Road?), we arrived in the dark at the glowing jewel box that is the historic (1926) Lake Quinault Lodge (345 South Shore Road, Quinault; 360.288.2900; olympicnationalparks.com). Seated window-side in the lodge’s Roosevelt Dining Room, we ate a meal that refuted my contention that lodge food caters to a captive audience (a just-right grilled rib-eye, a tasty seared Pacific salmon). This was a very good dinner. Our room—one of the newly remodeled fireplace rooms—fronted the lovely sprawling lawn that abuts the lake. It featured several strange misfires (the constant tick-tick-tick of the timer on the fireplace; the cheap cardboard cups and wire coat hangers in a room marked up to about $330/night for the holiday weekend), but it was large and very comfortable, with a welcoming private deck. Map by John S. Dykes


Travelers: Writer Kristen Russell and her boyfriend John Goff (left the four teenagers at home)
Purpose:  Wallow in the wild beauty of the Olympic Peninsula
Days on the road: 3
Vehicle: Kia Optima (reliable, great mileage, waterproof)
Navigational aid: Apple Maps essential road-trip gear: Awesome audiobooks (such as The Black Tower by Louis Bayard, read by Simon Vance)
Best detour: Side trip to see the “world’s largest” Sitka spruce
Rookie error: See “navigational aid” above
Big takeaway: Bring more than one raincoat; this rain is serious.

Day 2: Soaked to the skin
The next morning dawned overcast but not yet raining, so we headed out for an extensive ramble through the Quinault Rain Forest, conveniently located across the street. The Quinault is one of four temperate rain forest areas in the Western Hemisphere; the other three—the Hoh, the Queets and the Bogachiel—are also in the ONP. With towering old-growth trees, a dramatic forestscape of blown-down and uprooted timber, and hanging curtains of moss, it was lush and broody; the perfect foil for our mood. Yes, we were loving us some rain forest…that is, until the rain came.

Lake Quinault Lodge

Torrential rain, and sudden; and soon, these veteran Northwest hikers—smugly outfitted in our Seattle-hiker best—were soaked to the skin. Rain-forest rain is not like Seattle rain. It permeates; it blurs the distinction between air and water. This place gets about 150 inches of rain per year (Seattle gets an amateurish 36); I think I squeezed about 6 inches out of my socks. But it was easy enough to shake off the sopping wet, back in the dining room, a coffee nudge and cup of excellent tomato soup within reach. A young bald eagle swept past our window, then traced a graceful arch out over the misty lake. Refreshed, we headed back into the rainy wilds, this time to hike a third of a mile to see the world’s largest Sitka spruce, a nearly 200-foot-tall, 1,000-year-old tree of staggering majesty.

Finally treed out, we headed back for a cozy evening in our room—and a mad dash for the dining room when the lights started flickering. A serious storm was under way—wind and torrential rain—and we were damned if we were going to eat in the dark. Thankfully, the lights held, and the storm abated. The next morning, we checked out and began our clockwise circumnavigation of the peninsula, wending our way up the aptly named Pacific Coast Scenic Byway to arrive at one of the Washington coast’s real gems.

Day 3: Ruby Beach
For dramatic windswept beaches, it’s hard to beat Ruby Beach (about 50 miles up Highway 101 from Lake Quinault). A national wildlife refuge and part of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, this stretch of coast is pure heaven for beachcombers, tide-poolers and bird-watchers (puffins!). Gazing at the churning surf, the wheeling gulls and those primordial-looking sea stacks, we lingered a long, breathless while, then let the wind blow us back up the quarter-mile trail to the comfort of the car and the quest for a latte. Photo by Christopher Wright: Ruby Beach in the Olympic National Park

Twilight drive
Another half an hour or so north, and we’re in Forks, the otherwise unremarkable timber town that shot to fame as the setting of the Twilight series. Here, we found our latte—and plenty of Twilight-themed stores, tours and tourist messages (“Welcome, Twihards!”). We easily located the old, red pickup truck that’s a copy of the one driven by Twilight’s depressed (and now I get why) heroine, Bella. The pickup is parked at the Visitors Center (1411 S Forks Ave., Forks; 360.374.2531; forkswa.com). I was eager to continue our loop east; our next stop was Lake Crescent, a lake reputed to be transcendently beautiful; it is. About 45 minutes along, we began to skirt the lake, spectacular vistas at every turn. Here, snowcapped peaks rise up beyond an impossibly pristine-looking lake; the multiple roadside turnouts were packed with awestruck road-trippers maxing out their memory cards. We soon arrived at the Lake Crescent Lodge with its snug lakeside cottages and lovely main lodge, quaint rooms packed with original antiques (416 Lake Crescent Road; 360.928.3211; lakecrescentlodge.com). If there’s a more perfect writerly retreat, I haven’t seen it.

Day 4: Port Townsend
Late morning, the rain was beginning again in earnest, and we were thinking about a nice meal and a little shopping in Port Townsend, on the northeast tip of the peninsula, less than two hours away. On most Sundays, this adorable Victorian town teems with shoppers and sippers of all stripes, and parking takes persistence. Lucky us: On this day of sideways rain, shoppers were scarce and the parking plentiful. Our plan was to stroll until we found a likely spot for an early dinner (wine bar? Alehouse?); it took about five minutes to abandon that plan and fetch up in the first dry doorway we found, which turned out to be that of a little ray of sunshine called the Silverwater Cafe (237 Taylor St., Port Townsend; 360.385.6448; silverwatercafe.com). At our cozy corner table, we were in no hurry to finish our fine meal (chunky house-made soups, mushroom strudel, and a salad with strawberries and chèvre). By now, a third theme of our trip was emerging (in addition to trees and rain): truly stellar food.
With the weather so dramatic, it seemed a bad day for a boat ride, so we skipped the ferry in favor of the much longer drive down and around the Sound—this was a road trip, after all! Though we spent an extra hour in the car, we were treated to mile after mile of gloriously melancholy Hood Canal vistas before rejoining I-5 for our final stretch back home. Photo courtesy of Kristen Russell: Victorian eye candy in Port Townsend

Want more road trip ideas? Go back to our main story: Five Real Road Trips that will Inspire You to Pack Up the Car and Go

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