This spring, we planned to do a road trip of the Pacific Coast Highway. We had 9 days off and thought that would be the perfect time to make it out to the west coast. After a little research, it quickly became evident that there was too much to do in just Washington, let alone adding in all of Oregon and California to the mix. So we altered our plans and spent nine days between Portland and Seattle, with 4 days dedicated to Olympic National Park. It was the most consecutive days we’d spent in a national park and it still wasn’t enough for this wonderful place.
Olympic National Park has the best of everything you’d want from a National Park – glaciers, rainforests, rivers, sandy beaches, and rocky coastline. With more than 600 miles of trails, we certainly didn’t see everything the park has to offer, but we did experience some not-to-miss hikes for the first time visitor. We’ve indicated our perceived difficulty level of each hike and included them in order of our favorite (though it was hard to pick, since at every turn I’d look at Henry and say, “No, THIS spot is my favorite.” Every. Single. Time.)
1. Goblin Gates at the Elwha River (Difficulty: Moderate)
Wow. That’s all we could say when we finally came across the bend in the river known as Goblin Gates. The crystal clear waters of the Elwha River took on the most beautiful teal color as the water rushed through the rocky canyon below. This hike, while relatively short – just under 2 miles each direction – loses elevation quickly on the way to the river meaning you have you climb uphill on the way back to the parking lot. To get to the viewing point, take the Whiskey Bend Trail to the Rica Canyon Trail to the right. The path narrows, starts going downhill, and can get very muddy – hiking boots are recommended for their sturdiness and grip.
Getting to the Whiskey Bend parking lot can be a little tricky. From the Little River Road, turn left onto Whiskey Bend Rd. It’s a single lane, dirt road the winds up the mountain side. In the wet season (which is when we were there – snow was melting and it was raining) the road gets very muddy. Pull-offs are narrow, but fortunately we only saw one car on the way down the mountain and none on the way up. Our rental car – a VW Jetta – made the trip just fine, though Henry and I both had white knuckles on the way up. The 4 mile drive took about 20-25 minutes to complete, so be sure to plan time for the journey. Because of the relatively low profile of this spot in Olympic National Park, we recommend visiting the NPS website for trail maps and information.
2. Second Beach
When traveling on Highway 101, there are several beaches just off of the road. The National Park Service has included good signage and trail head maps at each spot and we stopped at several beaches along the way. My absolute favorite, though, was Second Beach. Near La Push, getting to Second Beach requires a 1 mile hike through the forest. The beach is everything you want in a Pacific Northwest beach – rainy, moody, lush, with rock formations coming out of the water, washed up logs, and tide pools at low tide. When we visited, there were hundreds of logs that had washed up right at the entrance to the beach, so some climbing abilities are required to enter the beach.
3. Sol Duc Falls
The hike to Sol Duc Falls is pretty easy and includes several smaller waterfalls along the way. You’ll want to stop and take pictures of them all, but save some space on your camera for the main attraction, which is really quite spectacular. The trail is dirt, but wide enough to walk side-by-side with another person. It’s well maintained and clearly one of the more frequented trails in the park.
While the large, gushing of Sol Duc Falls is what brings people to this part of the park, we’d encourage you to follow Lovers Lane Trail just beyond the falls, on the right after you cross the bridge. It takes you along the other side of the river where you can peer down at the rocky cliffs that form a canyon with the river. It eventually ends at the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. It was our favorite part of the hike.
4. Hoh Rain Forest Hall of Mosses
The Hoh Rain Forest was what we were looking forward to most on this trip. This temperate rain forest gets between 12 and 14 feet of rain each year. There are several trails throughout the forest. The easiest and most accessible is the Hall of Mosses, a very easy and well kept trail that starts at the Hoh visitor’s center. The Hoh Rain Forest has a diverse array of flora and fauna and is one of the last remaining parts of the temperate rainforests that once stretched from Alaska to Oregon.
5. Lake Crescent
The only non-hike on this list, a drive around Lake Crescent is a must during a trip to Olympic National Park. Olympic Highway spans the southern portion of the lake and includes many pull-off points where you can take pictures. The lake’s blue waters and surrounding green hills are a beautiful setting. In fact, if staying in the area, find an Airbnb or VRBO that overlooks the lake. That’s how we explored the lake and surrounding area. In the summer, many houses have docks that can be used as the jumping off point for a variety of water sports. The National Park Service operates a hotel on the lake that is open in the summer.
6. BONUS: Salt Creek County Park
While not technically part of Olympic National Park, Salt Creek County Park is a little-known gem outside of Port Angeles. Access to the park is through a campground (which has RV plug-ins and facilities). We felt out of place when first entering the park, but as you follow the road there are places for non-camping visitors to park for the day. The term trail should be used loosely, as it’s just a path that offers some great viewing points. Families were fishing off of the rocks around the water and at low tide you can explore the tide pools. While we weren’t so lucky, signs in the park tell travelers that whales and seals can be spotted in the area.