Zig-zig Your Way Through This Amazing Peninsula
Native History, A National Park, Rainforests, and Pacific Ocean Beaches
Native people have made their home in the desolate beauty of the Olympic Peninsula for nearly four thousand years. Once you experience the magic of this place, you’ll understand why. Get ready for a ride back in time.
To ease into the journey, you’ll begin your trip with a ferry ride from downtown Seattle to Bainbridge Island. Over the next week, you’ll make a loop of the stunning Olympic Peninsula and explore mountain lakes, rainforests, and some of the Pacific’s most remote beaches before returning (all too soon) back to Seattle.
Not ready to come back? Hoping for a way to extend the magic? Pair this Olympic Peninsula loop with the Oregon Coast Trip and continue down the coast. You’ll experience even more ocean beaches and great surf towns.
All photographs for the Olympic Peninsula trip are courtesy of Catherine Abegg.
Day 1: Seattle to Dungeness County Park (90 miles, 3 hours, including 30 minutes on the ferry)
Your journey starts with a quick drive from Peace Vans Rentals to the downtown ferry landing to load onto the Bainbridge Island ferry. Check the schedule in advance, and plan to be at the dock 30 minutes to an hour before the sailing time. No need to stock up on groceries - there are plenty of spots to shop on Bainbridge. The pace there is a little slower too, which makes navigating parking lots and the like a bit more relaxed. So no need to spend time on a downtown provisioning run, just head from Peace Vans straight on your trip. (While taking your van to Pike Place Market seems enchanting, we really don’t recommend it - parking is challenging and break-ins are frequent.)
The 30-minute crossing from Seattle to Bainbridge can be great from the comfort of your van, or from the top deck of the ferry for views. There is an iconic panorama of the Seattle skyline as the ferry pulls away from the dock, so have your camera ready.
Once docked on the island, you’ll find that downtown Bainbridge is just around the corner. There is a full-service grocery store (Town and Country) and lots of little fun shops to explore, including a candy store and a record shop. Don’t dally though - attend to your errands and get back on the road, because more adventure awaits today! If you are running late or want to get to you campsite for the first night, maybe just skip through Bainbridge and continue onto Poulsbo where the wonderful Central Market is right off the highway and has EVERYTHING you might need for the entire week.
Next up is the quaint Victorian town of Port Townsend. On the way there, make a quick stop-off at Sluy's Bakery in Poulsbo for their world-famous doughnuts. Indulge in one (or two?) for the road, but buy extras - they will be the perfect breakfast for tomorrow!
In Port Townsend, stop on Water Street and check out the shops. There are many art galleries, lots of neat home and gift stores, and plenty of places to stock up on sweet treats. While in town, you may also want to visit Fort Worden State Park. This former military base has expansive views of Puget Sound and old barracks and decommissioned artillery to explore, making it a super fun place for kids to explore!
Camp your first night at Dungeness County Park, less than an hour’s drive from Port Townsend. Walk out on the 5-mile spit and watch the water on both sides. Assuming it’s clear enough, you’ll be able to see all the way across to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, BC - that right, all the way to Canada!
One alternative option for camping on the first night is Fay Bainbridge State Park. It's only 20 minutes off the ferry, so if you think you are going to be rushed or aren't picking up your van until late in the day, it's a good first night (particularly if you have flown with kiddos and they are super tired). This park now takes reservations and it's pretty important to grab one. This is also a great last night stop on the way back to Seattle if you need to get to Peace Vans on the earlier side. It's a beautiful spot, but you can see the city lights from across the Puget Sound, so it's not as remote as the rest of your trip is likely to be.
Day 2: Dungeness County Park to Lake Crescent (75 miles, 2 hours)
Enjoy those doughnuts you picked up yesterday and set off to the west toward the coastal town of Port Angeles. But, before you leave, make sure to leave sometime to walk out to the Dungeness Spit - assuming you spent the night at Dungeness County Park or nearby.
Just before you reach downtown, turn left on Race Street, which becomes Hurricane Ridge Road. The 17-mile drive up to Hurricane Ridge is a busy one, and for good reason, it’s hands-down one of the best accessible mountain drives you could ever hope to get your 2-wheel drive vehicle on. Stop at the Visitor’s Center to get oriented and pick out a hiking trail - there’s something for everyone.
After your adventure on Hurricane Ridge, continue west along Highway 101 to Lake Crescent. Along the way, admire the Elwha River, home to one of the most publicized dam removal projects in our country. It’s truly inspiring to see the river now and imagine its journey through time.
Lake Crescent is a glacier-fed lake known for its pristine beauty. It is freezing cold, and as clear as the blue sky reflecting into it. Find a camping spot, either in one of the campgrounds, or somewhere along the lake. If you’re feeling adventurous, go on the short hike to Marymere Falls.
Detour! If you still have energy after exploring the lake, head to Sol Duc Hot Springs. From the resort, enjoy a short hike to Sol Duc Falls. If your legs are tired, stop for a soak in the Sol Duc Hot Springs. The resort is somewhat commercialized, but $14 will get you access to the mineral pools with a variety of temperatures. This is always a nice treat when you’re camping!
Day 2: ALTERNATE Option with A Special Camping Opportunity
There's so much to do on the Olympic Peninsula, we have a hard time limiting ourselves to one route. So, we are offering some choices and this is a special one. For Day 2, might we suggest detouring along the very northern route of the Olympic Peninsula. After getting yourself through Port Angeles (PA) and possibly after scooting up and back to Hurricane Ridge, instead of continuing on HWY 101, take the road less traveled and head out on HWY 112. If it's getting late and you need a place to rest your head, be sure to check out Salt Creek Campground. If there's no room there, just continue over to the very next beach and the very rustic private campground at Crescent Beach. It's worth calling ahead to make reservations there just to be sure.
However, if you're ready to try something different, we have a Peace Vans special for you. A bit further up HWY 112 lies Olympic Wilderness River Camp. This is a privately owned 20 acre parcel of land with a small home and a handful of camping spots. We have worked with the owner and have an exclusive camping site reserved for Peace Vans all year long. This is a very off the grid, rustic camp site. But if you are OK with being out of the public campgrounds and can do without cell service or Wi-Fi, it's a pretty magic spot just waiting for you and it's FREE. There might be a few other tent campers on the 20 acres and there might be someone staying at the house, but it's gorgeous property and our site comes with a large fire pit, benches around the pit, parking for a few vans (you might run into another Peace Van renter), hammocks and few other surprises. The site is 100 yard walk to the West Twin River and about 1/2 miles hike to the beach across the highway. You're welcome to stay as many nights as you want - day trip from there or just drop into some deep relaxation. Contact us to get the details on access and more for this exclusive camp site.
After you leave your spot for the night, pick up this itinerary a few different ways.
Day 3: Lake Crescent to Cape Flattery (75 miles, 2 hours)
Prepare yourself... today you step foot on the northwestern most point of the United States.
Point your van west and drive hour and a half to Neah Bay on the Makah Reservation. As you near Neah Bay, stop off at the Makah museum to learn about the Makah tribe, who have inhabited this area for almost 4,000 years. Nearby there's a small but interesting gallery, Raven's Corner, that has some beautiful wood carvings.
While you’re in town, stock up on supplies at the Washburn’s General Store. Be sure to pick up your Makah Recreation Pass there - you’ll need this to access Cape Flattery and various beaches.
Next, make the trek out to Cape Flattery for some epic scenery and some soul searching. Park your van and walk the 20 minutes out to the northwestern-most point in the continental United States.
Tonight, you’ll be heading to the Hobuck Beach Resort, and camp in their meadow. You’re likely to meet some fellow road warriors around the fire, along with surfers and hippies and everyone who makes the world go ‘round. A night at Hobuck should not be missed.
Day 4: Cape Flattery to Ozette Lake (42 miles, 2.5 hours)
Today you’ll head inland from Hobuck and then back out to the coast. You definitely must not miss Shi Shi Beach! From the parking area, it’s an adventurous (but totally worth it!) 2-mile hike to the ocean. You can either a hike down a trail or a climb down a pretty sturdy rope system. Once there, you’ll find one of the most pristine and seemingly untouched beaches you could ever hope for.
Soak in the serenity of the sand at Shi Shi Beach, and then head to Ozette Lake to grab a camping spot for the night. Peruse the tide table and see if you can swing the Ozette Triangle loop hike. It’s 9 miles, but it’s relatively flat, and provides an amazing opportunity to hike along the lake, in the forest, on the beach, and explore ancient petroglyphs. You’ll want at least 6 hours to complete the hike, and if the tides aren’t cooperating with your timing, you can still do most of the hike as an out-and-back.
Day 5: Ozette Lake to Rialto Beach (90 miles, 2.5 hours)
Today is all about the beaches, but you’ll have to earn it with some driving first. Head for the town of Forks. If you look at a map, you’ll notice this roundabout route seems a bit...indirect. Indeed it is - there aren’t always point A to point B roads on the Peninsula! Forks is a great place to stock up on provisions for the rest of your trip. You might notice a lot of references to vampires and werewolves while in town, but don’t be scared... Forks was the setting for the popular Twilight series.
Just west of Forks, take your time and explore Second Beach (a short hike down, but well worth it), La Push Beach/First Beach, and Rialto Beach. These beaches are arguably the most beautiful stretches of land on the whole coast.
When it’s time to get cozy for the night, find a spot to camp at Mora Campground, just about 2 miles from the coast near Rialto Beach.
Day 6: Rialto Beach to Kalaloch (85 miles, 2 hours)
It’s time to trade beach for rain forest. Start the day with a drive, heading back through Forks and on to the Hoh Rain forest. Stretch your legs with a hike through the Hall of Mosses Trail. While they call it a ‘rain forest’ for a reason, if you’re lucky enough have a sunny day, this will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before - a hidden world with the sun shining through curtains of moss in a show of heavenly green. On a rainy or overcast day, it is just as magical - it’s so deep and dense that you feel ‘within’ the forest. You can’t lose!
Onward! Point your van west one last time and head toward Ruby Beach, yet another awe-inspiring Pacific coast beach. While in the area, treat yourself to lunch at the Creekside Restaurant in the Kalaloch Lodge. It has an unbeatable view of the wild Pacific Ocean and friendly servers to boot.
If you planned ahead and were lucky enough to grab a camping reservation at Kalaloch, you’re in luck! If not, you have a bit more driving ahead of you - head inland toward Lake Quinault and the Quinault rain forest. Look for a first-come, first-served spot at either the North Fork or Graves Creek campgrounds, or anywhere along Lake Quinault that looks like a good spot to spend the night.
Day 7: Kalaloch to Peace Vans (190 miles, 3.5 hours)
If you camped at Kalaloch, head to the rain forest for the morning. Cruise Rain Forest Drive and ogle at some of the world’s largest trees, including Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western red cedar, and Western hemlock. There’s even one Sitka spruce that is 1,000 years old and almost 200 feet tall.
Now it’s time to complete the loop that you started when leaving Peace Vans. Head east toward the city and watch the rolling terrain pass by your window; it makes for the perfect opportunity to reflect on all of the amazing things you did this week.
If you’re hungry, stop over at Elma’s cute burger stand, Smitty's In & Out (no relation to the California chain, but the burgers are still darn good!). Then return to Peace Vans and drop off your beloved van for the next set of happy travelers.