You don't have to go all the way to Central America to experience a rain forest. While much of the PNW (Pacific Northwest) contains rain forest acreage, the largest concentration lies on Washington's west coast.
Born and raised in Oregon until I was 18, I rarely crossed into our northern neighbor to explore. But now that we live in Phoenix, I crave green, mountains, waterfalls, and the ocean.
Although our original road trip plans before and after our Grand Teton adventure fell through, we still wanted to take advantage of the time we'd allotted.
So after a long but fun drive through Idaho, lunch with friends, and "home" to Keizer for a day, it was time to check off the next national park.
Olympic National Park makes up the majority of the Olympic Peninsula, just west of Seattle as the crow flies. Here, the park boasts 1 million acres, 95 percent of which is complete wilderness. Within those acres are four concentrated rain forests, too!
This park has been on my bucket list for years and I was so excited to experience its natural wonder. While we could have easily spent 5 days meandering through pine-shaded trails, we were satisfied with a perfect weekend in Olympic National Park, over my birthday, no less!
How to Get There
If you're coming to Olympic National Park from the south, like the Portland area, it's a straight shot up I-5 to hang left onto Highway 101, just outside of Olympia.
If you're coming from Seattle you could technically take the ferry from Edmonds to Kingston, or Seattle to Bainbridge Island, then connect to the peninsula via the Hood Canal Floating Bridge.
Otherwise you're guaranteed a long, traffic-clustered ride down through Tacoma just to go back up north on Highway 16, to Highway 3, to the 104, and finally to 101 which takes you to Port Angeles.
Your third option is to do what we did. On a Friday morning, we drove from my hometown in Oregon to meet a friend at Anacortes, the northernmost town on Fidalgo Island.
We enjoyed a beautiful day riding the ferry through the San Juan Islands, window shopping and eating seafood at Friday Harbor, then camping under the stars just a few miles from Deception Pass State Park.
The next morning, we took our time enjoying the area. We spotted all kinds of wildlife, including a rare elephant seal resting on the beach!
Highway 20 took us south to Whidbey Island, where we enjoyed fresh coffee, took a walk through an outdoor art gallery, then caught our ferry from Coupeville to Port Townsend.
We paid a whopping $30 (including the reservation fee) to take our truck over to the Olympic Peninsula. The ride was only about 30 minutes, and it was another gorgeous day on the water.
All that to say, if you happen to be coming from the north or eastern part of Canada and Washington, or are up for a 4 hour road trip, I highly recommend this route!
Where to Stay
Regardless where you decide to hit the hay for the night, expect to drive a lot during your perfect weekend in Olympic National Park.
Like I said, the park is humongous.
If you're feeling adventurous, want to backpack in the wilderness, or simply need a budget friendly option, you might want to consider camping in the park. There are several campgrounds and all looked like well-preserved areas. However, only a few allow for online reservations at Reservations.gov.
Pronounced without the "e," Sequim is 30-40 minutes from the northern park attractions.
While Sequim isn't as an ideal spot to stay as Port Angeles, which is 20 minutes closer, it is generally a more budget friendly option.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at this backyard bungalow our first night. After camping under the pines the night before and hiking in humidity, we were both ecstatic for a shower!
Not only was the space well-decorated and clean, it was stocked above-and-beyond with kitchen amenities, including snacks and coffee. Oh, and they supplied us with a Doterra essential oil diffuser!
Like I said, we didn't stay here due to limited availability, and cost. But if you're planning your weekend in Olympic way in advance, you could snag a worthy AirBnB in Port Angeles.
Otherwise known as the gateway to Olympic, this town is humble but has everything a tourist needs.
If you're headed to Hurricane Hill visitor center for a dramatic view or a grand hike, you'll head south on Race Street, which turns into Hurricane Ridge road.
We really wanted to try Frugals in town since it looked like the equivalent to Andrew's favorite chain back east. The drive thru line trailed all the way out to the traffic stop when we passed it on our first day.
Alas, they weren't open early when we drove through on our 2nd day, headed southwest.
The only reason I would ever recommend a stay in Forks is purely for necessity.
Don't get me wrong, we loved where we stayed! Our adorable little cabin next to the river outside Forks was the best night stay.
However, there were record high temperatures the weekend we visited, and no one was prepared! We were so grateful our hosts offered a fan, and that the breeze from the river eventually cooled the air down.
They were even gracious enough to share a fresh, boiled crab with us they'd caught earlier that day!
Honestly, we loved this spot. But Forks, on the other hand, is totally different than we expected. I'll expound later.
All I can say is, if you plan on seeing the western and southern parts of Olympic, try to stay near Forks, but not necessarily in.
This is the day we took the ferry from Whidbey to the peninsula, so it didn't really get started in the park. However, when you remember you have daylight until 10 PM, you realize you can fit in quite a bit in just a half day.
Pictures do not do this place justice.
Also, if heights freak you out, you might want to let someone else drive. The 17-mile road up to Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center is curvy, steep, and scenic.
The Olympic mountain range is just shy of 8,000 feet at their highest points, and are covered in snow year round.
This visitor center and hiking area is popular for wildlife, challenging trails, and sweeping views of mountains and, on a super clear day like the one we experienced, the British Columbia isles!
Maybe we missed something, but getting to Marymere Falls wasn't clearly laid out. For one, there is no parking on the south side of the highway, where the falls are actually located.
Just to get to the trailhead, you'll need to make a separate hike from wherever you can find parking around the Lake Crescent pull off. Then, you'll pass through an underground tunnel and pop out under the highway, where you can finally start your trek to the falls.
Not that we were complaining. The entire area is lush. Ancient, overgrown trees lined the path and kept us protected from the 90 degree heat.
The falls were pretty, of course. But in this case, the journey was the real joy.
The 1.7 mile trail is graded as easy on AllTrails, but due to the humidity and some steep parts, kids and elderly may need to take extra time here. Thankfully, there are handrails on these parts, so just be considerate.
During the summer months and weekends, Olympic National Park can be overcrowded in midday hours. The Storm King Ranger Station here was completely full when we showed up around 3 PM. But by the time we left around 5, hardly any cars remained in the surrounding lots.
Dinner in Port Angeles
Eat a hardy meal somewhere along the wharf. Keep in mind, most places are slammed during the summer hours and many are still struggling to keep staff employed after COVID.
If you can make reservations, do it! We walked into Downrigger's and were the second to last people the hostess allowed to wait (for about 45 minutes). Everyone else after us were turned away.
Of course, we both opted for seafood. When in Rome!
My grilled northwest salmon was cooked perfectly and tasty with the garlic parmesan butter. Andrew loved his chicken oscar, paired nicely with a local (non-alcoholic) ginger beer.
When our waitress told us there was only one blackberry cobbler left, I couldn't resist. And it was every bit as delicious as it was gigantic. At least we got our money's worth. No picture because I devoured it while sitting in my PJ's in our AirBnB.
I couldn't imagine a better way to spend my birthday than out in nature.
After checking out from our Sequim stay, we headed west on the 101 again toward some more secluded, deep forest trails.
Everything to be explored in Olympic is more or less accessible by the one main coastal highway 101. This can be both a good and bad thing.
Generally, people start at the top and work their way to the southwest, which means you'll find way more visitors in the regions closer to town. Whereas areas like Lake Quinalt are less likely to get overcrowded.
Like every road trip we set our hearts on, I wanted to soak in as much as possible on this one. With the long daylight hours of sweet summertime, we at least had time on our side.
Madison Falls Trail
To get to Madison Falls, you have to make a sharp turn from the main highway onto the Olympic Hot Springs Road.
In case you miss it, know that it's right near the Elwha River Observation Area. You can see this same river at the parking area by the trailhead down the road.
We arrived mid-morning and I expected the falls to be overrun with visitors, but we mostly had the place to ourselves. What we loved is there wasn't a guard rail holding us back from going right down to the water.
The walk in is really just a walk, not a hike like Marymere. Perfect way to just wake your body up!
Sol Duc Falls Trail
Once we got our limbs loosened, it was time for a longer walk to an even bigger waterfall.
To get to the trailhead, take the Sol Duc Hot Springs Rd from Highway 101 for about 26 minutes, or 14 miles. To be honest, this is one of the prettiest drives in the park.
Towering trees line the road, so thick in some spots with moss, limbs, and brush that you can't see more than a few feet into the forest. There are several pull-offs along the way, including a nature walk trailhead called Ancient Groves.
Sol Duc trail is rated appropriately as easy. There isn't much incline or elevation gain, and the path is well-marked. Just watch for roots, rocks, and spider webs. That's what husbands are for ;)
Apparently the bridge over the falls is a newer installation, and a smart one. We were able to capture these powerful waters from several angles on this platform as well as down next to the river before it cascaded over the rocks.
I know it doesn't look as impressive in these photos, but I promise these 48 foot falls cause a roaring splash as they plummet into the narrow wall below.
Rialto Beach & Hole-in-the-Wall
To be fair, the weekend we visited was uncharacteristically hot. We also happened to pull into Rialto Beach parking when the tide was still high. Which meant no "hole-in-the-wall" views for us.
Also, most people think sand when they hear the word "beach." Here, the sand is more like silt, and on top of that silt are lots and lots of rocks. Beautiful, smooth, even colorful rocks. But, still rocks.
Needless to say, our experience here was anticlimactic. But not all was lost.
We spotted a curious seal just inside the tide break, possibly looking for a spot to sunbathe. And once we got used to the sinking rocks beneath us, we eventually enjoyed our walk.
Just don't show up thinking you'll take off your shoes and walk over soft sand. While there is some wet earth, you need to cross over rocks to get there.
No weekend in Olympic National Park is complete without a visit to the Hoh Rainforest.
This is one of those places where you truly feel like you're the guest, an observer. Nature is in complete control, doing its own thing, and you don't have a say in it.
From the trees that overlap and share roots to the maple grove draped in delicate moss, it's clear to see the circle of life within the forest, and how it really doesn't include us.
If you see nothing else, I suggest the Hall of Mosses trail. The Spruce Nature Trail is also stunning.
I know, you're thinking, "how many old, huge trees can I see before I get bored?" You won't. Your kids might, but you won't.
Dinner at Pacific Pizza
We didn't dine in on this birthday night, and I wouldn't have wanted to.
The poor people of Forks did not know what to do with 90 degree weather. Many homes in the PNW still don't have, or need, AC.
When I asked the cashier if their AC had broke, he told us only the kitchen had it for safety reasons. He also said he'd changed his shirt three times that day.
We were grateful our little cabin sat next to a river where we could dine-out, so to speak.
Unfortunately, they were out of pesto sauce, and all desserts. But they offered gluten free crusts, on which we ordered a BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger and Ranch Chicken Special.
Honestly, it's probably the best meal you're gonna find in Forks! Never can go wrong with pizza. And somehow it paired nicely with fresh caught crab. Go figure.
Day 3 (if applicable)
We left on a Monday and took our time driving down the coast.
If you do stay in or around Forks, there are a few small attractions I can give a nod to. And no, I'm not referring to the "Twilight" spots.
Fans of the series will be disappointed to know the films were mostly set in Oregon. You won't see too many familiar landmarks in the real life Forks.
As someone who is not a fan, I believe the town clearly missed out on an opportunity for fan-fiction tourism. I'm not saying it's an ugly place, but it's definitely lacking. Anyway...
Just before you enter town, headed south, you'll see a tiny display on your right called Gnomeville. It's a quick stop, and it's free. Someone has some creative genius, and we thoroughly appreciated it.
Following that same pull-off will take you to John's Beachcombing Museum. Basically, a guy has collected debris from nearby beaches and turned it into various art sculptures.
We wanted to check it out, however, we were on the road earlier than opening (10 AM).
But first, coffee. Mocha Motion serves Fidalgo Coffee, locally roasted on Fidalgo Island. We were more than satisfied with our lavender latte and Mexi-mochas. I also couldn't pass up the blueberry stuffed pancakes!
Next, we climbed driftwood to explore the Tree of Life, located near the Kalaloch Campground. This phenomenon is suspended between the cliffs, roots entangled and reaching despite the lack of soil beneath it.
Further down the 1010, we took the Lake Quinalt turnoff to see the World's Largest Spruce Tree. There's a parking area across the street, then it's only a short jaunt to see old Sprucey.
Andrew and I caught our tongues midsentence saying we doubted we'd be impressed after all the large trees we just saw in Olympic. We rounded the corner to see this giant towering above us and had to laugh at ourselves.
Before leaving the area, we stopped off the side of the road to get our feet wet at Merriman Falls.
From there, we put distance on the tires, crossing the famous Astoria-Megler Bridge connecting Washington and Oregon, stopping briefly at Hug Point State Rec area, and finally arriving to our summer home to snuggle our puppies.
Olympic National Park - Tips & Suggestions
Of course, there are so many more things to see and do in the park than what we accomplished.
If you have extra time, or are looking for more variety, these attractions were high on my list as well:
- Cape Flattery - located on the very northern tip of Olympic Peninsula, this point is a solid 2 hours from Port Angeles and 1 1/2 hours from Forks. I had a hard time justifying that much more time on the road during our short trip. But I'm sure if you can make it you wouldn't regret it!
- Ruby Beach - unfortunately, this site was closed during our perfect weekend in Olympic National Park. I would have loved exploring the tide pools under those dark, spire-shaped rock formations.
- Sol Duc Springs Resort - I've heard mixed reviews about this place. But I'm also always up for a dip in some hot springs. Definitely seems like it would be a nice place to relax after a long hike!
- Lake Crescent - although we drove by it and marveled at its sparkling glacier waters, it wasn't the same as taking a kayak out or diving in to cool off.
Since most of Olympic is untouched, don't expect great cell service, or even great WI-FI if you stay in town. Download the national park map for offline use with the NPS app. Or, bust out an actual map, if you prefer.
Try to pack some patience on your perfect weekend in Olympic National Park. Remember that most people are there on vacation, enjoying the scenery, possibly even a bit lost.
Also, many visitors have no idea how to drive coastal roads (or read speed limit signs, apparently). As frustrating as it is, try not to let it ruin your time in the park.
While you can never entirely plan on weather, you can generally expect summer to be sunnier than other months. Spring and fall bring heavy rain. Snow is common in winter but does not shut down the park.
To be honest, we were actually hoping for misty, foggy mornings. We had our rain jackets just in case. Instead, we brought the Phoenix heat with us. Work with what you get!
If you do plan on backpacking at all, pick up permits and check-in at the visitor centers or ranger station in town.
Follow the leave no trace motto - be a good human and pack in what you pack out.
If you do start a fire, be prepared to put it out completely before you nestle in for the night.
I hope you get to experience your own perfect weekend in Olympic National Park someday!