Underrated Adventure Gems of the Olympic Peninsula
Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula is an adventurer’s dreamland. Traveling around the Olympic Peninsula requires a drive on the famous Highway 101, passing by world-renowned destinations in Olympic National Park and Forest. Highlighted by the can’t-miss destinations like the dense greens of the Hoh Rainforest, the windswept ridges of Hurricane Ridge, and the rocky wild coastline of Kalaloch and Ruby Beaches, it is little wonder why millions make this region their road trip destination each year. Impressive and iconic, these locations are just the start of the incredible wilderness found around the region.
The highlights of the Olympic Peninsula should not be skipped or passed over. They are world famous for a reason and serve as an introduction to the wilderness beauty of the region. If you haven’t caught a sunrise over Lake Crescent or walked the Hoh on a misty day, one could say that you haven’t really experienced life. Embrace the well-known and explore them, but leave time for a trip to the more hidden gems of the Olympics.
The Olympic Peninsula is a seemingly endless series of rich natural beauty, made even more incredible the further off the beaten path you go. Like your camper van, the Olympics are full of underrated experiences that make your adventure even more incredible. As unique as your retrofitted ride, there are a handful of destinations that are overlooked by the masses. Here, you’ll have a better chance at finding that elusive slice of solitude and adventure that every road trip needs.
Located on the southern stretches of the Olympic Peninsula, the Wynoochee region is almost completely overlooked by the millions who explore the area. Ninety minutes from Aberdeen, but only 46 miles, the long travel time to the middle of nowhere is something that few are willing to do. Yet, those who do make the drive to Wynoochee are rewarded with fantastic second growth forests, stunning waterfalls, empty hiking trails and wildlife sightings. To best experience the Olympic Peninsula’s Wynoochee area, start out by exploring around the Coho Campground along Wynoochee Lake. Here, you’ll have great camping options, as well as access to a long trail around the lake created by the dam. From Coho, take the short trip to see Wynoochee Falls or in the summer months, drive up Forest Road 2270 to hike up to Wynoochee Pass and Lake Sundown in Olympic National Park. If you are looking for a place that sees more locals than tourists, and more animals on trails than people, Wynoochee will be perfect. Just keep an eye out for Sasquatch, as the Wynoochee is known for having some of the highest rate of sightings in the country.
The Queets Rainforest
While the Hoh Rainforest gets most of the press, the Queets Rainforest is largely ignored. The Queets Rainforest is found along the Queets River, sandwiched between the much more popular Hoh River to the north and the Quinault River to the south. It is here, stuck in the middle, that solitude and wilderness bliss can be found all year long. After refueling and filling up on supplies at the town of Queets or nearby Amanda Park, following Forest Service Road 21 leads you to the Upper Queets Road. Camping at the Queets campground in Olympic National Park is a must when visiting here, as you’ll hear owls all night, see deer and elk during the day and maybe even get a glimpse of a bear. Hiking options are here are limited until late summer, as hiking up the Queets requires a ford of the river from the campground. While that may dissuade some, the Sam’s River Trail is a classic, family-friendly trek near the campground that gives river views, weaving in and out of old-growth timber.
South and North Fork Skokomish
Out on the eastern side of the Peninsula, next to Washington State’s fjord known as Hood Canal, the Skokomish River holds adventures for all ages of explorers. Along the Skokomish, you have two options of exploration. You can drive to Olympic National Park’s Staircase entrance and explore the trails all around the North Fork of the river, or you can head into Olympic National Forest and explore the South Fork. The North Fork is great for those looking for picturesque hiking trails in dense forests, highlighted by the Staircase Loop Trail. There are also numerous mountains to hike and climb in the area, making this a great recreation destination. Along the South Fork, you’ll find less crowds and a ton of adventure. Whether you explore the High Steel Bridge, travel around on the miles of Forest Service Roads to hidden lakes, or trek up the South Fork Skokomish Trail, you’ll find something awesome. While all your amenity needs can be picked up in nearby Shelton, the small town of Hoodsport is a must-stop for a tank of gas, a bottle of wine, a cup of coffee or some ice cream.
The Coast at Oil City
The Olympic Coast is a special place for all who visit. Wild, rugged and beautiful, the stretches of sandy shores along the Pacific Ocean are the ultimate spot for a getaway. Incredible destinations like Kalaloch and LaPush get the glory, as do Shi Shi Beach and the Ozette Triangle, yet one region is overlooked by the millions who come to the area. Located on the north side of the Hoh River, Oil City is a perfect place to experience coastal solitude any month of the year. Here, you’ll find remote camping, a mile trail along the Hoh River, and access to some of the most wild stretch of beach in the contiguous United States. You don’t have to hike the 15 miles north to LaPush to enjoy the coastline, as hiking just a few miles here will have you in awe at the wondrous power of the Pacific. While this is fine for families of all ages, keep in mind that this place is truly wild. Stock up on supplies at Forks or Kalaloch, as there are no amenities out here.
The Bogachiel Rainforest might be one of Olympic’s best kept secrets. Overlooked by the masses who head to the nearby mosses of the Hoh, the Bogachiel is located mere miles from the town of Forks, making this a great stop along your Olympic adventure. The Bogachiel River valley is home to iconic rainforest trails and access to a remote corner of Olympic National Park, as well as a chance to hike along the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. For families looking for a fun and easy walk, the Rainforest Trail needs to be explored. This is a two mile out and back trek that meanders through a forest that was logged out in the 1940s for WWII. Today, the region has returned to a state of natural beauty, following creeks and passing along the Bogachiel River. After two miles, the trail reaches the Olympic National Park boundary, where hiking trails for more dedicated hikers can reach the multi-day destinations of Seven Lakes Basin and the Sol Duc region. With the Bogachiel being so close to Forks and just a mile off of Highway 101, don’t skip this spot.
The Wilds of the Upper Dungeness
Accessed just southeast of the picturesque town of Sequim, the Upper Dungeness River is another wild and wonderful region of the Olympics that doesn’t get much attention. Full of stunning forests, wild rivers and incredible hiking and camping, nearly all who come to this region fall in love with it. Your best bets for adventure are found up Forest Road 2870, where you’ll enjoy pristine trails and great views. A few can’t-miss hiking locations found along this road are the trail to Upper Royal Basin, and the route up to Mount Townsend. Both of these hikes are for those used to elevation gains and rugged conditions, so this may not be ideal for younger families. Those who do explore this region will find dispersed camping all along the road in Olympic National Forest, giving you a chance to really experience the solitude of the eastern Olympic Mountains.
South Fork of the Hoh Rainforest
No trip to the Olympic Peninsula is complete without seeing the Hoh Rainforest. You need to go see the Hall of Mosses and walk along the river. However, once you have checked that off your list, those looking for a bit more solitude should head to the South Fork of the Hoh. Found halfway between the beaches at Kalaloch and the town of Forks, the South Fork of the Hoh will have you deep in the wilds of the rainforest without the visitor center or paved parking lots. Perfect for anyone looking to get away from everything, the South Fork of the Hoh offers a few miles of hiking, incredible views and access to the beauty of the rainforest. If you love old-growth forests, mosses and ferns, mountain views and wildlife, this is the spot for you.
Upriver on the Elwha
A few years ago, the Elwha region of the Olympics was the can’t-miss destinations. In the early 2010s, the Elwha River was freed from two dams, able to run wild and free once again. While this meant a return to salmon habitats and wilderness, the river returned to its unpredictable state. The river wildly shifted course, washing out campgrounds and trails, roads and easy access to the area’s pristine backcountry. Because of this, the popularity of the Elwha has diminished in recent years. While access may be slightly harder to fully explore the Elwha, those who do make the short drive from Port Angeles are rewarded with numerous hiking trails and scenic wonders. Despite the washout, you can still access the Whiskey Bend Trailhead via a long hike or hike and bike, giving you a chance to have an entire river valley to yourself. This is a long trek, but if you can do it, you really should. It is one of the more picturesque areas in Olympic. If the 24 mile round trip to the iconic Dodger Point Bridge is too much, you can still easily access Madison Falls and a few other fun, family-friendly hikes.