Day trip on the Olympic Peninsula
TL;DR: drove many kilometres on very nice roads, took lots of pictures, saw sunshine and fog and clouds, an angry ocean and a calm one, a quiet lake and lots and lots of trees: a very well spent day. Pictures at http://photos.k1024.org/Daytrips/Olympic-Peninsula-2014/.
Sometimes I travel to the US on business, and as such I’ve been a few times in the Seattle area. Until this summer, when I had my last trip there, I was content to spend any extra days (weekend or such) just visiting Seattle itself, or shopping (I can spend hours in the REI store!), or working on my laptop in the hotel.
This summer though, I thought - I should do something a bit different. Not too much, but still - no sense in wasting both days of the weekend. So I thought maybe driving to Mount Rainier, or something like that.
On the Wednesday of my first week in Kirkland, as I was preparing my drive to the mountain, I made the mistake of scrolling the map westwards, and I saw for the first time the Olympic Peninsula; furthermore, I was zoomed in enough that I saw there was a small road right up to the north-west corner. Intrigued, I zoomed further and learned about Cape Flattery (“the northwestern-most point of the contiguous United States!”), so after spending a bit time reading about it, I was determined to go there.
Easier said than done - from Kirkland, it’s a 4h 40m drive (according to Google Maps), so it would be a full day on the road. I was thinking of maybe spending the night somewhere on the peninsula then, in order to actually explore the area a bit, but from Wednesday to Saturday it was a too short notice - all hotels that seemed OK-ish were fully booked. I spent some time trying to find something, even not directly on my way, but I failed to find any room.
What I did manage to do though, is to learn a bit about the area, and to realise that there’s a nice loop around the whole peninsula - the 104 from Kirkland up to where it meets the 101N on the eastern side, then take the 101 all the way to Port Angeles, Lake Crescent, near Lake Pleasant, then south toward Forks, crossing the Hoh river, down to Ruby Beach, down along the coast, crossing the Queets River, east toward Lake Quinault, south toward Aberdeen, then east towards Olympia and back out of the wilderness, into the highway network and back to Kirkland. This looked like an awesome road trip, but it is as long as it sounds - around 8 hours (continuous) drive, though skipping Cape Flattery. Well, I said to myself, something to keep in mind for a future trip to this area, with a night in between. I was still planning to go just to Cape Flattery and back, without realising at that point that this trip was actually longer (as you drive on smaller, lower-speed roads).
Preparing my route, I read about the queues at the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, so I was planning to wake up early on the weekend, go to Cape Flattery, and go right back (maybe stop by Lake Crescent).
Saturday comes, I - of course - sleep longer than my trip schedule said, and start the day in a somewhat cloudy weather, driving north from my hotel on Simonds Road, which was quite nicer than the usual East-West or North-South roads in this area. The weather was becoming nicer, however as I was nearing the ferry terminal and the traffic was getting denser, I started suspecting that I’ll spend a quite a bit of time waiting to board the ferry.
And unfortunately so it was (photo altered to hide some personal information):
The weather at least was nice, so I tried to enjoy it and simply observe the crowd - people were looking forward to a weekend relaxing, so nobody seemed annoyed by the wait. After almost half an hour, time to get on the ferry - my first time on a ferry in US, yay! But it was quite the same as in Europe, just that the ship was much larger.
Once I secured the car, I went up deck, and was very surprised to be treated with some excellent views:
The crossing was not very short, but it seemed so, because of the view, the sun, the water and the wind. Soon we were nearing the other shore; also, see how well panorama software deals with waves :P!
And I was finally on the “real” part of the trip.
The road was quite interesting. Taking the 104 North, crossing the “Hood Canal Floating Bridge” (my, what a boring name), then finally joining the 101 North. The environment was quite varied, from bare plains and hills, to wooded areas, to quite dense forests, then into inhabited areas - quite a long stretch of human presence, from the Sequim Bay to Port Angeles.
Port Angeles surprised me: it had nice views of the ocean, and an interesting port (a few big ships), but it was much smaller than I expected. The 101 crosses it, and in less than 10 minutes or so it was already over. I expected something nicer, based on the name, but… Anyway, onwards!
Soon I was at a crossroads and had to decide: I could either follow the 101, crossing the Elwha River and then to Lake Crescent, then go north on the 113/112, or go right off 101 onto 112, and follow it until close to my goal. I took the 112, because on the map it looked “nicer”, and closer to the shore.
Well, the road itself was nice, but quite narrow and twisty here and there, and there was some annoying traffic, so I didn’t enjoy this segment very much. At least it had the very interesting property (to me) that whenever I got closer to the ocean, the sun suddenly disappeared, and I was finding myself in the fog:
So my plan to drive nicely along the coast failed. At one point, there was even heavy smoke (not fog!), and I wondered for a moment how safe was to drive out there in the wilderness (there were other cars though, so I was not alone).
Only quite a bit later, close to Neah Bay, did I finally see the ocean: I saw a small parking spot, stopped, and crossing a small line of trees I found myself in a small cove? bay? In any case, I had the impression I stepped out of the daily life in the city and out into the far far wilderness:
There was a couple, sitting on chairs, just enjoying the view. I felt very much intruding, behaving like I did as a tourist: running in, taking pictures, etc., so I tried at least to be quiet ☺. I then quickly moved on, since I still had some road ahead of me.
Soon I entered Neah Bay, and was surprised to see once more blue, and even more blue. I’m a sucker for blue, whether sky blue or sea blue ☺, so I took a few more pictures (watch out for the evil fog in the second one):
Well, the town had some event, and there were lots of people, so I just drove on, now on the last stretch towards the cape. The road here was also very interesting, yet another environment - I was driving on Cape Flattery Road, which cuts across the tip of the peninsula (quite narrow here) along the Waatch River and through its flooding plains (at least this is how it looked to me). Then it finally starts going up through the dense forest, until it reaches the parking lot, and from there, one goes on foot towards the cape. It’s a very easy and nice walk (not a hike), and the sun was shining very nicely through the trees:
But as I reached the peak of the walk, and started descending towards the coast, I was surprised, yet again, by fog:
I realised that probably this means the cape is fully in fog, so I won’t have any chance to enjoy the view.
Boy, was I wrong! There are three viewpoints on the cape, and at each one I was just “wow” and “aah” at the view. Even thought it was not a sunny summer view, and there was no blue in sight, the combination between the fog (which was hiding the horizon and even the closer islands), the angry ocean which was throwing wave after wave at the shore, making a loud noise, and the fact that even this seemingly inhospitable area was just teeming with life, was both unexpected and awesome. I took here waay to many pictures, here are just a couple inlined:
I spent around half an hour here, just enjoying the rawness of nature. It was so amazing to see life encroaching on each bit of land, even though it was not what I would consider a nice place. Ah, how we see everything through our own eyes!
The walk back was through fog again, and at one point it switched over back to sunny. Driving back on the same road was quite different, knowing what lies at its end. On this side, the road had some parking spots, so I managed to stop and take a picture - even though this area was much less wild, it still has that “outdoors” flavour, at least for me:
Back in Neah Bay, I stopped to eat. I had a place in mind from TripAdvisor, and indeed - I was able to get a custom order pizza at “Linda’s Woodfired Kitchen”. Quite good, and I ate without hurry, looking at the people walking outside, as they were coming back from the fair or event that was taking place.
While eating, a somewhat disturbing thought was going through my mind. It was still early, around two to half past two, so if I went straight back to Kirkland I would be early at the hotel. But it was also early enough that I could - in theory at least - still do the “big round-trip”. I was still rummaging the thought as I left…
On the drive back I passed once more near Sekiu, Washington, which is a very small place but the map tells me it even has an airport! Fun, and the view was quite nice (a bit of blue before the sea is swallowed by the fog):
After passing Sekiu and Clallam Bay, the 112 curves inland and goes on a bit until you are at the crossroads: to the left the 112 continues, back the same way I came; to the right, it’s the 113, going south until it meets the 101. I looked left - remembering the not-so-nice road back, I looked south - where a very appealing, early afternoon sun was beckoning - so I said, let’s take the long way home!
It’s just a short stretch on the 113, and then you’re on the 101. The 101 is a very nice road, wide enough, and it goes through very very nice areas. Here, west to south-west of the Olympic Mountains, it’s a very different atmosphere from the 112/101 that I drove on in the morning; much warmer colours, a bit different tree types (I think), and more flat. I soon passed through Forks, which is one of the places I looked at when searching for hotels. I did so without any knowledge of the town itself (its wikipedia page is quite drab), so imagine my surprise when a month later I learned from a colleague that this is actually a very important place for vampire-book fans. Oh my, and I didn’t even stop! This town also had some event, so I just drove on, enjoying the (mostly empty) road.
My next planned waypoint was Ruby Beach, and I was looking forward to relaxing a bit under the warm sun - the drive was excellent, weather perfect, so I was watching the distance countdown on my Garmin. At two miles out, the “Near waypoint Ruby Beach” message appeared, and two seconds later the sun went out. What the… I was hoping this is something temporary, but as I slowly drove the remaining mile I couldn’t believe my eyes that I was, yet again, finding myself in the fog…
I park the car, thinking that asking for a refund would at least allow me to feel better - but it was I who planned the trip! So I resigned myself, thinking that possibly this beach is another special location that is always in the fog. However, getting near the beach it was clear that it was not so - some people were still in their bathing suits, just getting dressed, so… it seems I was just unlucky with regards to timing. However, I the beach itself was nice, even in the fog (I later saw online sunny pictures, and it is quite beautiful), the the lush trees reach almost to the shore, and the way the rocks are “sitting” on the beach:
Since the weather was not that nice, I took a few more pictures, then headed back and started driving again. I was soo happy that the weather didn’t clear at the 2 mile mark (it was not just Ruby Beach!), but alas - it cleared as soon as the 101 turns left and leaves the shore, as it crosses the Queets river. Driving towards my next planned stop was again a nice drive in the afternoon sun, so I think it simply was not a sunny day on the Pacific shore. Maybe seas and oceans have something to do with fog and clouds ☺! In Switzerland, I’m very happy when I see fog, since it’s a somewhat rare event (and seeing mountains disappearing in the fog is nice, since it gives the impression of a wider space). After this day, I was a bit fed up with fog for a while ☺…
Along the 101 one reaches Lake Quinault, which seemed pretty nice on the map, and driving a bit along the lake - a local symbol, the “World’s largest spruce tree”. I don’t know what a spruce tree is, but I like trees, so I was planning to go there, weather allowing. And the weather did cooperate, except that the tree was not so imposing as I thought! In any case, I was glad to stretch my legs a bit:
However, the most interesting thing here in Quinault was not this tree, but rather - the quiet little town and the view on the lake, in the late afternoon sun:
The entire town was very very quiet, and the sun shining down on the lake gave an even stronger sense of tranquillity. No wind, not many noises that tell of human presence, just a few, and an overall sense of peace. It was quite the opposite of the Cape Flattery… and a very nice way to end the trip.
Well, almost end - I still had a bit of driving ahead. Starting from Quinault, driving back and entering the 101, driving down to Aberdeen:
then turning east towards Olympia, and back onto the highways.
As to Aberdeen and Olympia, I just drove through, so I couldn’t make any impression of them. The old harbour and the rusted things in Aberdeen were a bit interesting, but the day was late so I didn’t stop.
And since the day shouldn’t end without any surprises, during the last profile change between walking and driving in Quinault, my GPS decided to reset its active maps list and I ended up with all maps activated. This usually is not a problem, at least if you follow a pre-calculated route, but I did trigger recalculation as I restarted my driving, so the Montana was trying to decide on which map to route me - between the Garmin North America map and the Open StreeMap one, the result was that it never understood which road I was on. It always said “Drive to I5”, even though I was on I5. Anyway, thanks to road signs, and no thanks to “just this evening ramp closures”, I was able to arrive safely at my hotel.
Overall, a very successful, if long trip: around 725 kilometres, 10h:30m moving, 13h:30m total:
There were many individual good parts, but the overall think about this road trip was that I was able to experience lots of different environments of the peninsula on the same day, and that overall it’s a very very nice area.
The downside was that I was in a rush, without being able to actually stop and enjoy the locations I visited. And there’s still so much to see! A two nights trip sound just about right, with some long hikes in the rain forest, and afternoons spent on a lake somewhere.
Another not so optimal part was that I only had my “travel” camera (a Nikon 1 series camera, with a small sensor), which was a bit overwhelmed here and there by the situation. It was fortunate that the light was more or less good, but looking back at the pictures, how I wish that I had my “serious” DSLR…
So, that means I have two reasons to go back! Not too soon though, since Mount Rainier is also a good location to visit ☺.
If the pictures didn’t bore you yet, the entire gallery is on my smugmug site. In any case, thanks for reading!