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Travel Guide: Olympic National Park & the San Juan Islands

April 13, 2016
Travel Guide: Olympic National Park & the San Juan Islands

I understand now. I get it. Why people are so devoted, so loyal to the Pacific coast. I never knew its magic until I visited Olympic National Park. Long beaches that feel like another world. Lush rain forests that seem to hold hundreds of thousands of years of secrets. A place that will keep living, thriving, day in and day out, with your visit just the briefest speck in its passage of time.

Olympic National Park, followed by a day in the San Juan Islands, was the second installment of a trip out west. You can catch up on part one here. Olympic National Park is enormous, and my husband and barely scraped the surface on our visit. Find out where we stayed, where to explore, and where to go whale-watching nearby.

My husband and I stocked up on supplies in Seattle, after we picked up our Zipcar. Fun traveling fact: sometimes taking Zipcar on a multi-day trip can be cheaper than a rental car because Zipcar covers the gas for you. We drove our trusty Zipcar over 500 miles, and I swear this post isn’t one long Zipcar advertisement. We also stopped by the REI store to pick up a few additional camping essentials. It was indeed the flagship REI store, complete with an entire rock climbing wall. It was a small miracle that I even got my husband to leave the REI, but eventually we were on our way.

First we made a stopover in Tacoma, at the Museum of Glass (apparently we were into glass-making on this journey). This included a large workshop area, where you could sit in the stands and watch the glassmakers forming the glass. It was completely mesmerizing: before our eyes a glowing blob became a canoe paddle. It gave me a new appreciation for the craft. (But if I’m being truly honest, if I’d known how spectacular the Olympic coast is, I wouldn’t have spent time in Tacoma.)


We finally hit the road for an uneventful 3.5-hour drive. And then, what seemed like all at once, we were dwarfed by giant trees and lush undergrowth. It’s quite obvious when you enter the Olympic National Park area. We had reached the southern end, and the difference in scenery was stunning. Both of our spirits perked up as we looked forward to spending the next few days in the tall rain forest. With so many activities available to us.


Seriously, all the activities you could ask for, according to the above sign. Another 45 minutes and we arrived to our campground. I cannot recommend Kalaloch Campground enough. As we drove up, the sunlight was filtering through the tall trees and campfire smoke. We found our site, and then wasted no time in running down to the beach, a few hundred yards away through the trees. Some of the campsites are even set up on a small bluff with a direct view of the ocean. (Next time we’d try to get sites D35 OR D33, but you have to book those far ahead of time.)

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The spray of salt water and the fresh breeze were completely intoxicating after being in the city. The only sound was the waves – which we could even hear from our campsite. That night, after dinner over our own campfire, we got to watch the sun slowly dip beyond the horizon in a cloudless sky, and the Pacific completely won me over, already. Watching the colors of the light and the water change was indescribable, something that you really must go see for yourself.


On day two, we packed a lunch and decided to drive up to La Push (thanks to a friend’s recommendation) about an hour away from the campground. Yes, this meant that we drove through the now-famous Forks, Washington, where the Twilight series is set. No, we did not stop. Yes, there are a ridiculous amount of tourist traps there.

We continued to follow vague signs to La Push, eventually arriving to the incredibly inadequately named ‘Second Beach’ parking lot. It was a short, slightly steep hike through mossy woods to reach a stunning opening in the trees. You hear the surf before you see it. A long beach is laid out in front of you, with giant rocks emerging from the earth, topped with trees. Also, oh yes, there in the foreground, a trove of photographers with tripods taking some kind of class. Luckily they left within about half an hour of our arrival, and we mostly had the beach the ourselves for an entire day. Miles of beach.


Dramatic bluffs frame the edges of the beach, cutting if off from the surrounding coastline. We spent the entire day there, on a carefree adventure, attached to the feeling that we had come to a remote end of the earth. We even would have camped had we known ahead of time that it was available (it is – there is even a fire pit set up on the beach, off the to left of the beach entry, but you have to be careful about the tide heights). The beauty of the landscape left me speechless; it was unlike any beach I had seen before.


Second Beach hosts hundreds of small tide pools ready for exploring, full of starfish and mussels. There are also strange, strange barnacles that move slightly when you watch them. They creeped me out. We made sure to check the tide timetables before we got to the beach, so we arrived at low tide.


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We made use of one of the many washed-up logs to sit and enjoy our lunch. As we soaked in the sun and fresh air, the tide started to makes its way in, a tiny bit at a time, wetting the sand and retreating again. We walked down the beach as far as we could, happily forgetting everything else for an afternoon. We made it back to the campground right before sunset. We walked over to the bluffs with a growing crowd and watched the sun sink down below the horizon to end our second day.

The next day we planned an actual hike, versus simply beach meandering. On a day that was cooler and overcast, our first stop was Ruby Beach. The beach was similar to La Push in that it also had rock formations, but we could casually climb on these ones. The beach itself was a little more rocky and clothed in mist, eerie and magical at the same time.


After briefly stopping by Ruby Beach, we drove into the Hoh Rain Forest. We stopped at a pull-off near the gatehouse, where sat a 500 year-old spruce tree. If you ever want to feel like a small teeny tiny ant, go hug a massive spruce tree. (I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it when I did, because last year a storm brought the tree down.) This was only our introduction to the tall, overgrown forest.

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Our hike followed a path along the Hoh River, which is clear crystal blue thanks to the glacier that feeds it. The official Hoh River Trail goes on to Glacier Meadows (sounds appealing, no?) but that option was 17.5 miles. On our shortened 6-mile version, we took our time, snapping photos inside of giant trees, exploring the bright green moss that seemed to drip from every surface. The lush, thick canopy was shady and cool. I felt like I had entered into a world where time stood still. And oh the slugs. I don’t know if I’ve seen a proper slug before this trip, but they showed up often. I think we even passed one on our way into the forest, and saw the same one on the way back out.

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At the end of our hike, we had a long drive back to Seattle. The weather had been unpredictable, but it suited the feeling of the place – it does what it wants, and you are just an observer. I could’ve stayed another week, with more time to explore the rain forest, lakes, meadows, and mountains. We didn’t even get to the northern edge of the gigantic park, and I look forward to returning. But we had an early date the next day to visit some whales, so we headed back to the city.

Our next destination was the San Juan Islands. These are a group of small islands off the coast of Washington known for their whale-watching. We started the morning in Seattle, and once again relied on Car2Go to take us down to Pier 69, to board the Victoria Clipper III ferry. It was a bit too windy and misty on the top deck so we went down to the second tier. By pure happenstance there was a naturalist on our level, happy to announce the birds and seals that were spotted along the way. The ferry went under Deception Pass Bridge and then made its way to Friday Harbor, our port on San Juan Island, as the skies cleared up and the sun came out.

We had about two hours to spend before our whale-watching tour. Our first priority was food, since no one wants to deal with a hangry sightseer. We found The Market Chef, which was so cozy and delicious that I wanted to take it home with me. Yes, the whole restaurant. We ordered from their deli-like counter and sat outside in the sunshine. Salmon, crabcakes, snap peas, and pasta salad for me; an (amazing!) curry egg salad sandwich and tomato mozzarella plate for Nico. We had two hours on the island, and one was spent right there enjoying our meal with a view of the harbor. Mainly I remember the feeling of contentment. And planning out my vacation home on the island. There are plenty of stores and restaurants available for perusing as well, and even a Whale Museum.


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At the appointed time, we boarded the same ferry boat for the whale sightseeing tour. Note: you are going to want a jacket or windbreaker, because the best spot is on the top deck, out in the open. Also, the boat might have to drive for awhile – looking for the hot spot of the day – and we eventually got into Canadian waters. The first sign that there were whales about was a cluster of similar boats. All of the boats didn’t take away from the experience though; once we pulled closer we got to watch an entire family of orcas – the T2s (actual name) a set of two sisters and their offspring. I was incredibly impressed with the guide aboard the ship who identified the orcas, although she could have made all of it up and I still would’ve drank it in. We were glad to have brought binoculars, but even without them you could see the spray. Watching the orcas in their natural habitat was incredible. No jumps or tricks here, it is their domain. Next time I would even go on one of the little rifts so I could feel the spray and see them up close.


I could have followed the fishies all day, but we eventually headed back to Friday Harbor pick up more people for the return trip to Seattle. I had the Free Willy song in my head the entire way home. As the Seattle horizon grew closer, we became slowly surrounded by sailing boats, and it turns out we drove straight through a sailing race. With the setting sun, it was quite the sight to end our time in Washington.



Next, it was onto the last frontier – Alaska.

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