Access to Olympic Hot Springs has reopened, and you can look for autumn beauty at Hurricane Ridge and the Quinault Valley.
OLYMPIC PENINSULA — Every hiker has a to-do excursion list, and Olympic Hot Springs had long been on mine. But I’ve been thwarted for years, as rivers and rainstorms kept washing out the road to the trailhead and bridges along the trail.
After years of fits and starts, both the trail and the road reopened in mid-August, just in time for a fall hike. Which is perfect timing, because the Olympic Peninsula is one of my favorite destinations once summer ends.
Thinner national-park crowds and cooler weather combine with an abundance of well-maintained trails, many at low elevation. Fall offers other highlights: This is prime mushroom-gathering time (if you know what you’re doing), and it’s easy to spot wildlife as critters move out of the highlands to gorge themselves for winter.
If you go
A national-parks pass or proof of park entry payment is required at trailheads within the national park. The multiagency America the Beautiful pass is good at both national parks and national forests.
• Pets are not allowed on trails in the national park.
• Bring waterproof footwear, since water can run across trails, especially near hot springs and after rain. Watch forecasts and always go prepared for changing weather in autumn, including rain or early snow.
• Don’t approach wild animals. If you see mountain goats, rangers recommend waving, yelling and throwing rocks to encourage them to avoid humans.
• The Washington Trails Association website includes trail descriptions and recent trail reports: wta.org
• Olympic National Park website: nps.gov/olym
Here are three hiking destinations for autumn:
Olympic Hot Springs
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The hike to the springs, on a wide trail, is pleasant and generally easy. On a recent sunny September weekday, it wasn’t very crowded, either. Two or three people occupied each of a half dozen or so hiker-made pools on a tree-covered slope. To get there, we’d crossed a new log bridge over Boulder Creek that replaced a knocked-out suspension bridge whose off-kilter anchors still cling to the hillsides.
One of my fellow foot-soakers was Bob Stohler, who’s seen plenty of human activity — both positive and negative — over many visits from his home on the Kitsap Peninsula. “I’ve been coming up here for 30 years. It’s changed a lot, but the soak is still good, and the hike in is still good,” he said.
Many of those changes are results of careless human trampling. Leave the place better than you found it: Pack out everything you bring in with you and avoid disturbing the area around the pools. National park officials warn that the water quality is not monitored and may contain bacteria (if you need a bathroom, there’s a privy at the nearby campground). Also, some visitors consider the springs clothing-optional.
Because the access road is paved all the way to the trailhead, albeit occasionally rough or very narrow, the trail is popular throughout the year. For a low-elevation alternative, stick to trails at the bottom of Olympic Hot Springs Road, such as the Smokey Bottom trail. It travels 3.8 miles (round trip) along the edge of former West Lake Mills, now an ongoing restoration experiment.
Visit the Glines Canyon Spillway Overlook, where exhibits describe the dam removal there. Part of the old spillway still hangs eerily over the canyon.
You don’t want to be there during a windstorm, but on quiet autumn days, Hurricane Ridge can be an island of peace. On a recent visit, I saw mother deer and their fawns traipsing across golden hillsides, rabbits diving into the bushes, and innumerable birds. Despite a few clouds, views from observation points stretched all the way to Vancouver Island, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on one side and to glaciers of the Olympic peaks on the other.
One bonus the ridge offers: Many trails leaving the main parking areas are paved, which means they’re still in good shape during or after rain.
I drove west from the main parking area to the Hurricane Hill trailhead and climbed across the flank of the namesake hill on the 3.2-mile (round trip) paved trail, enjoying expansive and ever-changing views of tree-decorated grassy slopes and valleys all the way, thinking how nice it was to walk all the way on such a good surface.
The on-site visitor center (open 9 a.m. — 5:30 p.m.) has information and toilets, though the snack bar there is open only through Oct. 15. Once the snow flies, usually at the end of October, the road closes until the winter season begins in December, when it’s open on weekends and holidays for snow sports.
Although this part of the park gets plenty of rain in the fall, it’s a verdant time of year, and well-maintained low-elevation trails make a hike possible any time. Mushrooms abound here in the fall. You might get lucky and see Roosevelt elk, or at least hear bugling as they gather in the river valleys to find mates and gorge themselves.
Many short hikes leave the Lake Quinault Lodge area on the lake’s south side, including one to the world’s largest Sitka spruce. One of my favorite longer trails, the Pony Bridge trail, heads up into the hills along the Quinault River. Hike gradually uphill for 2.5 miles, crossing three charming log bridges en route. Admire the view at the final bridge and then turn around (or keep going as far as you feel). In fall, you may see salmon struggling upriver to their spawning grounds. Kids might find giant banana slugs just as fascinating. The trailhead (Graves Creek) is at the end of a gravel road that’s usually in decent condition.
After you hike, eat where President Franklin Roosevelt did in 1937, in the lodge dining room (open for breakfast, lunch and dinner year-round).