We first visited Olympic National Park two years ago in the fall, and immediately promised ourselves that we would return. With tidepools filled with colorful sea creatures, mysterious rainforests, snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes, beautiful lodges, and a rich history of native culture, this is a diverse and enchanting park.
Although it’s possible to do a driving tour and get a quick peek at some of the splendors, Olympic National Park is not easy to corral into a day trip. No roads go through the park, travel is slow, and many of the treasures lie off the beaten path. We started our explorations this time with four days at the southwestern corner of the park, camped high on a bluff overlooking the mighty Pacific Ocean.
At first glance, South Beach Campground doesn’t look all that appealing—it’s a primitive campground within the national park and the sites are staked out in the open. But the expansive views of the Pacific and our sightings of gray whales spouting offshore and sea otters frolicking in the waves far outweighed the lack of water, electricity, or privacy.
The campground is just 10 miles from Ruby Beach, which we were told has extraordinary tidepools. It lived up to its reputation, with dozens of pools filled to bursting with sea stars and anemones. We were thrilled to see hundreds of orange and purple ochre sea stars—they’re making a healthy comeback after a devastating virus several years ago. There’s something mesmerizing about tidepools, offering a glimpse into the lives of creatures that endure the radical extremes of changing tides twice a day. The anemones look so delicate, but they’re obviously resilient.
During our stay at South Beach, we made two trips into the rainforest. Olympic National Park contains four temperate rainforests, defined by moderate temperatures and a staggering amount of rainfall—somewhere around 14 feet per year. The result is a primeval world of ancient giant trees draped with curtains of lichen, and a landscape lushly upholstered with ferns and mosses.
Given that the Hoh Rain Forest is an iconic feature of the park, of course we needed to see it for ourselves. In the heart of Olympic National Park and almost 40 miles from our campground, it was a long and winding drive. Once there, we endured hordes of tourists at the visitor center focused more on snapping selfies than admiring the wonders of the rainforest. But stepping onto the trails, we left the crowds behind. We looped together the Hall of Mosses Trail with the Spruce Trail for three miles of mossy splendor—it felt as though we were hiking in a forest cathedral.
On our second foray into the rainforest, we drove 30 miles south to Lake Quinault on a misty day. Built in 1926, Lake Quinault Lodge is the quintessential national park lodge, with a cozy seating area, crackling fireplace, and stuffed elk decor. The grounds are lovely, with gently sloping lawns dotted with Adirondack chairs, a tranquil view of the lake, and a chimney adorned with a totem-pole rain gauge that measures rainfall in feet. We hiked from the lodge to the Gatton Creek Trail, picking up the Quinault Loop Trail for a six-mile hike. We finished out our day with a cup of tea in the lodge, followed by a drive on the 31-mile scenic road that loops around Lake Quinault and along the Quinault River. The scenic drive passes by several beautiful waterfalls, no hiking required.
About the campground:
We loved our stay at South Beach Campground. The views are unsurpassed, even if you don’t score a front-row seat. We had to juggle sites to find one that we could get level in, but then life was grand (even on the day it rained non-stop for 24 hours). First-come, first-served, no hook-ups, bathroom with flush toilets but no potable water. Fresh water and a dump station are available at Kalaloch Campground, 3 miles up the road. Surprisingly, there was excellent Verizon coverage. $15 night/$7.50 for seniors.
Next Up: Revisiting The Edge Of The World: Neah Bay, WA