When things feel far from “normal,” as they have for so much of the last two years, there is comfort in familiar places and faces. This winter, I reconnected with the people and nature that feel like home on two trips to Washington’s mystical Olympic Peninsula. 

On both excursions, as soon as our car left Seattle city limits, I eased into the muscle memory of these weekends — the promise of adventure with the people I love most. Of course we currently crave such connection, after a pandemic and ensuing life events — sick parents, jobs in health care, anxiety over uncertain futures — turned distances into chasms. I found it comforting to discover that, when you’re ready, it feels easy to fall back into the rejuvenating rhythms of travel and togetherness.

A return to Forks with friends 

On a soggy late-January weekend, five friends and I resumed our annual tradition of a winter pilgrimage to Forks, Clallam County. Built on the lumber trade and known later as the setting for “Twilight,” Forks claims to be the rainiest town in the contiguous United States. The pandemic had forced our group into a two-year hiatus, which made this year’s reunion even sweeter. 

I started breathing easier as our Bainbridge-bound ferry pulled away from downtown Seattle, the morning sun bouncing off distant snowy peaks and the city skyline shrinking in our wake. We made familiar stops along the way, at Sluys Poulsbo Bakery for flaky treats and the Port Angeles Safeway for provisions. 

The Olympic Peninsula, anchored by the Olympic Mountains, is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal. Olympic National Park protects the land’s many ecosystems, from glacier-capped mountains and old-growth temperate rainforests to 73 miles of rugged coastline. Today, eight Olympic Peninsula Native tribes recognize a relationship to the park: the Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Skokomish, Quinault, Hoh, Quileute and Makah.

Some common threads on our Olympic weekends: a simple Airbnb booked near Forks, a loose itinerary consisting of beach hikes and divvied-up meals, plus celebratory Rialto Beach bubbly, enjoyed at sunset after we’ve arrived. Some of the weekend’s prime moments are typically spent indoors, fireside. We cherish long chats over pots of morning coffee, plus nighttime musings and charades (literally, sometimes) accompanied by wine and favorite songs. These are weekends of cozy hoodies and woolly socks, deep breaths and deeper belly laughs.

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Rain or shine, Day 2 is for hiking, with routes ranging from the Ozette Loop and Second and Third beaches to a Rialto Beach stroll north to Hole-in-the-Wall, an impressive sea-carved arch. Then there’s a newfound, off-the-beaten-path trek (the location of which won’t be disclosed in print). The group votes on the hike, typically over breakfast burritos. 

Hikers should always read recent trail reports (see alltrails.com/lists/olympic-peninsula) and carefully study tidal charts (noaa.gov). At low tide, you can walk down the Olympic Peninsula’s beaches, peering out at the Pacific, safely rounding some headlands and exploring tidal pools alive with creatures like giant green anemones, ochre sea stars and spiky sea urchins. On some beaches, ropes lead you up overland cut-throughs for when the tide has come in too far. Overnight hikers need a wilderness camping permit (recreation.gov), and it’s advised to brush up on leave-no-trace principles, requirements like bear canisters and potential fire bans in hotter months. 

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This year, our “hidden” hike took us to the rumble of the churning sea. Within moments of landing on the soft sand, climbing over logs scattered like pick-up sticks, we heard the screech of an eagle overhead. Seabirds circulated among the dramatic sea stacks, alighting atop slanted trees. We spied a mellow seal, lounging on its rock island, body curled in a “C.” A low-hanging mist set the mood, and for a few blissful hours, it was just us — alone with the waves and the winds in this vast, beautiful world.

Whenever these weekends end, we sling muddied goods into trunks and reverse the drive, reliving weekend highlights as we go. There’s one last stop — at Lake Crescent, a glacially carved lake west of Port Angeles. The Lake Crescent Lodge and Log Cabin Resort are typically closed when we pass through, but we go for the views and tradition. There is often talk of a lake dunk, but we usually stick to a spirited photo shoot on the slippery dock instead. For a few final moments — for this visit — we drink in this sacred beauty and camaraderie. 

A family trip to Seabrook

In mid-March, I returned to the coast, now for a pampered oceanside weekend with my parents. On a sunny Thursday, we trekked south down Interstate 5, veering west toward the ocean at Olympia. Driving my parents through the peninsula’s small towns helped them link together puzzle pieces of my Pacific Northwest experience. 

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It took about three hours to reach our destination, Seabrook, Grays Harbor County, where we were greeted by salty ocean air and that easeful vibe of a vacation town. Though I’d been to the planned community before, it felt special bringing my East Coast parents to the peninsula for their first time, and extra special in light of the pandemic. 

We ditched the car and crunched our way across the oyster-shell sidewalks and fire-pit-dotted courtyards of this highly walkable, self-contained world. (Seabrook touts its New Urbanism design techniques, which aim to connect people as they move around town.) Our first stop, a seven-minute stroll away: a late lunch among the “downtown” hub of merchants. At welcoming Koko’s Restaurant and Tequila Bar, I enjoyed fresh guacamole, a cucumber-cilantro margarita and a “Mexican poke bowl” featuring ahi tuna, edamame and mango.

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Afterward, we settled into our cozy rental house, flicking on the gas fireplace and sinking into light-filled spaces marked by muted grays, browns and sea foam green. Our retreat was curated with faux succulents, sea-glass trinkets and hardcover books, plus woven baskets with seashells and starfish. Immediate draws: a backyard hot tub, two long, wooden tables — one outside beneath a string of twinkle lights — and a dreamy clawfoot tub. Though prices shift with the seasons, a three-bedroom rental home like ours starts at a nightly rate of $500 in May; smaller cottages start at $300 per night.

Of the 500 homes in Seabrook, 275 are in the rental program, like the one we rented, and 75 have year-round residents. The others are private homes. The town says that, since the pandemic began, sales are up 132%. 

Seabrook’s location along the Hidden Coast Scenic Byway makes it a prime jumping-off spot for other peninsula adventures. Westport, a hub for surfing, fishing and razor clamming, is 50 miles south. Looking north, there’s Pacific Beach (1.5 miles), Lake Quinault (31 miles) and Olympic National Park (33 miles). There’s no shortage of nearby activities, from mountain biking and hiking to paddling and mushroom foraging. In town, Buck’s Northwest is the spot for rentals and lessons. There’s also Seabrook’s outdoor summer concerts and free yoga classes, one of which I tried. 

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Places like Seabrook allow you to move as much or little as you’d like. Our trio relished many hours reading, curled up fireside as rain drummed against our home. Twice I strolled around the property’s eight micro-neighborhoods to gawk at charming houses with cliché, sea-related names (“Slow MOcean,” “Dune Our Thing”); one nostalgia-tinged afternoon, my dad and I shot hoops together for the first time in decades. Every morning began with fluffy pastries from Vista Bakeshop, and we enjoyed another standout meal at family-friendly Rising Tide Tavern — both operated by Canlis alumni. The eatery’s seafood comes from Quinault Pride, the fishing business of the Quinault Indian Nation.

One morning, my plans for a swim were thwarted by a packed indoor pool. Instead, I wandered the community’s wooded trails, finding whimsical gnomes tucked into stumps and gnarled root systems. Seabrook is a surreal escape on many levels, and some residents have joked about living on the set of “The Truman Show.” There are elements of this, surely, and also charming moments that make you scratch your head and smile. 

12 great road trips to take from the Seattle area, from the Olympics to Idaho

Yet I felt most at peace while leisurely hunting for sand dollars with my parents along wide coastal stretches peppered with exuberant dogs and bright kites. We admired moody, backlit clouds, softly glowing as Northwest skies do. We even spied a faint rainbow arching across the beach, barely there but present enough to offer hope.

One morning we paused to marvel at hundreds of seabirds taking flight. The swarm landed on the reflective sand and lifted off again, wings wildly flapping in tandem. As their movements painted swirly, mesmerizing patterns against a gray March canvas, I wondered who was leading the pack, and how they knew where to go. I was in awe of how they stuck together and the mysterious beauty in their collective strokes. 

These recent Olympic trips with family, natural and chosen, reminded me that even and especially when the world feels off-kilter, there is balance in community and nature — in taking a beat to slow down, look up and delight in the people and places you love most.