US National Parks, West Coast US

The Remnants of Winter – Olympic National Park, Washington (part I)

Summer of 2008 was different. It was the start of something new, something better, something wonderful. Following my parents’ split, my mom, sister, and I were now facing a challenge: planning and executing our annual summer vacation with just the three of us. It’s been seven years now, and despite all the great places I’d been before, our best vacations have definitely been the more recent ones. We’ve ventured farther, hiked longer, and seen more than we ever had before.

In retrospect, this is when my love of vacation planning began. I still don’t always love logisticalizing (Is that a word? Let’s pretend it is), but the list of campgrounds and hikes and mileages between destinations on my laptop is proof of my tendency to plan vacations when I’m procrastinating, bored, or trying to ignore the fact that winters in New England are miserable.

So while my mom went about acquiring all the camping gear we’d need, I pulled up a map and started doing some planning. Since I was out in Washington and didn’t have my own car, we decided that my mom and sister would pack up the car, come pick me up, and we’d head out to Olympic National Park for a week. For those not familiar with the area, the Olympic Peninsula is the fat part of northern Washington that sticks out into the ocean and forms the western coast of the Puget Sound. It can be reached with or without taking a ferry; since we started north of Seattle, the ferry from Fort Casey to Port Townsend was the faster option.

Olympic National Park encompasses the majority of the Olympic Peninsula; it’s encircled by Highway 101, with park entrances located throughout. We began making our way counterclockwise around the park, stopping first at Hurricane Ridge and Heart O’the Hills. Hurricane Ridge is high up in the Olympic Mountains and unfortunately, as it was only mid-June, summer hadn’t quite reached this area. The road was open only up to the visitor center, beyond which there were still feet of snow blocking our way. However, the parking lot afforded views of the mountains in three directions and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north.

Strait of Juan de Fuca
Hurricane Ridge

Heart O’the Hills was equally reeling from the effects of the season. A large windstorm had passed through in the spring, wreaking havoc on the campground. They were still in the process of cleaning up, so one entire loop was closed to camping. We took a stroll through it that evening to see exactly how much damage falling trees could do to a campground. Quite a bit, as it turns out.


The next day, we headed back out to Highway 101 and continued across the northern stretch of the peninsula. The road into Elwha was not yet open for the summer, so our next stop was Lake Crescent. Lake Crescent is somewhat of a headquarters for the northern portion of the park; there are picnic areas, a campground, a boat launch, lodges, and amenities. The main road hugs the southern shore of the lake, while unpaved roads allow access to portions of the north shore. At the time, there was a lone picnic table on a dock at East Beach – arguably the best picnic spot in the park!

Lake Crescent

Past Lake Crescent, Highway 101 continues out of the park for a stretch, while the Sol Duc road heads inland, following the Sol Duc River to the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. We didn’t stay at the resort, but we did walk the 0.5-mile (0.8 km) Ancient Groves loop through old-growth rainforest and the 1.5-mile (2.4 km) round trip trail to Sol Duc Falls, which happens to be at the world’s most awkward angle and, therefore, very difficult to photograph. I was not successful in this endeavor.

Last was Marymere Falls, viewed by a quick 1 mile (1.6 km) trail across from the Crescent Lake ranger station.

Next stop: the beach! Stay tuned…

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: from the north or west, take a ferry across Puget Sound from Seattle, Lynnwood, or Port Casey; follow US Highway 101 around the perimeter of the park
  • Fees & passes: $25 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
  • Camping: Heart O’the Hills Campground, $20 per night, sites available on a first-come first-serve basis only
  • Hiking: many trails depart from the Heart O’the Hills, Hurricane Ridge, Elwha, and Lake Crescent sections of the park
  • Other: Hurricane Ridge is the highest section of the park and receives a lot of snow – July-September are the best times to visit this area

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