This road trip moves in a counterclockwise direction along US-101 through quaint towns, past spectacular seashores and mountain ranges, and through temperate rainforest. While summer is one of the most popular times to visit the Olympic Peninsula, you’ll likely be battling with out-of-state visitors for space on the roads and in hotels. Autumn affords more space, quiet, and a misty, moody atmosphere well-suited to the shifting color landscape.
After an early-morning start that passes Port Townsend, stop for breakfast at Sequim’s Oak Table, a beloved breakfast spot with creative sweet treats such as bacon pancakes, peach waffles (served with ice cream), and strawberry fruit blintzes. Sequim, sheltered by the rain shadow effect, has led to more than a half-dozen lavender farms in the vicinity. Stop for a u-cut purple bouquet to freshen the car on the drive.
Continue on US-101 west to Port Angeles, a town worth a browse. Visit the mural trail, and near the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, explore metal, stone and wood figures amid the foliage at the Webster’s Woods Sculpture Park. Downtown Port Angeles is chock-a-block with funky arts and home-supply stores, bookstores, and clothing boutiques.
The town will host a CrabFest in October (including a Crab Chowder Cook-Off), but has plenty of restaurants to choose from otherwise, as well. Pick up a picnic lunch in town for the upcoming drive. Country Aire Natural Foods has a well-stocked grab ‘n’ go section; Toga’s Soup House offers sandwiches, salads and a selection of five warming autumn soups; and Granny’s Cafe is an adorable roadside stop en route to Lake Crescent.
Just 16 miles west of Port Angeles, the Salt Creek Recreation Area hosts a bay perfect for searching skies for birds and the horizon for gray whales and orcas. Within the recreation area, the Tongue Point is a designated Marine Sanctuary and “some of the best tide pool habitat in Washington State,” according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Use the colorful Olympic Coast National Marine Life Sanctuary guide if you can’t tell a limpet from a clam. Camping is available if you just can’t bear to leave.
Olympic National Park
Port Angeles provides entree to Hurricane Ridge and the Olympic National Park. Stop at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center to get tips on hiking trails, take the kids to the Discovery Room, or browse the bookstore. ONP was first established to protect ancient forests with trees dating up to 1,000 years old, and firs up to 281 feet tall. As a result, the Olympic National Park has the longest undeveloped coastline in the contiguous U.S. and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Then proceed (weather and road permitting) up a winding, steep road to Hurricane Ridge, where up-to-75 MPH winds inspired the “hurricane” moniker. The peak provides astounding views of the surrounding mountains and nearby Vancouver Island, another visitor center (five in total throughout the 922,651-acre park), and numerous hikes.
Leaf-peeping in autumn is spectacular en route to Hurricane Ridge, as is the drive along Lake Crescent, 21 miles further west on US-101. Warm-hued leaves offset the various shades of year-round green, in the form of bigleaf maples, vine maples, red alders and black cottonwood.
Visitors also flock to the park’s lakes, waterfalls and hot springs. Those who enjoy the latter may want to dip into the three natural mineral hot spring soaking pools, with temperatures ranging from 99 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort (note: currently only open to overnight guests, no day visitors).
Moving westward, you’ll start to thread your way south, near the coastline. Several often-photographed beaches are more noted for their rugged isolation than sunbathing stops, and are spectacular when fall and winter storms roll in. Just mind the tide when visiting the tide pools. Rialto Beach mixes hiking, funky granite architecture, and sea stacks (Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rocks is another readily recognizable sea stack).
About a two-hour drive southwest from Port Angeles, the Hoh Rain Forest gleams like an Endor-like emerald year-round due to the average 140 inches of precipitation. Sword ferns sprout across the forest floor, and nurse logs provide homes to insects, animals, and new plant life. The recently restored Hall of Mosses Trail loops through maples swathed with club moss.
Back on 101 and moving south, Ruby Beach’s driftwood-strewn beach sparkles with tiny red garnets and black-hued minerals, and Kalaloch is prized for bird-watching due to colonies of offshore birds.
As 101 heads inland, you’ll encounter Lake Quinault. The humble town offers a museum with recreations of historic rooms, several hikes, and a handful of restaurants. Lake Quinault Lodge is the largest of the four in-park accommodations, with 91 rooms. Built in 1926, the lodge offers various overnight options, including character-rich rooms, more contemporary lodging, and family-friendly suites. There is also a game room, pool, boat rentals, and tours by boat and land.
Other sleep options include bed and breakfasts and Airbnb stays, including cabins, RVs and A-frame hideaways. Camping is available within the Olympic National Park, although tent campers should be mindful that it tends to rain in a rainforest. Quite a lot.
To return home, keep heading south along 101 until you join up with US-12 and I-5 — or decide to stay one more night.
Notes: With the surge of the Delta COVID-19 variant, pay close attention to openings and closures, and any local requests for vaccination and masks. The Olympic National Park entrance fee is $30 for a private, noncommercial vehicle and is good for seven consecutive days. Masks are mandated within the park, at present. You can get a free print or digital Olympic Peninsula Travel Planner.
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