The Olympic Peninsula: almost paradise in the PNW
We’re big on camping. Roughing it doesn’t scare us…because we are car-campers and only go where there are actual bathrooms and running water. Well, we’ve taken our oldest, Oliver, camping many times and he loves it. He’s such a trooper and could play in the dirt for days. We’re prepping to go on a big camping trip to Wyoming and Montana though and we needed to practice a bit before we ventured out. Also, our newest addition, Elliott, hadn’t spent a night in a tent yet, so there was a bit of a fear factor there.We did it. We took the boys out to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State and camped.
Our fear was that Koala wasn’t going to be able to sleep outside. You know, there’s the sound of random birds, other people talking, kids screaming somewhere, pots and pans at a neighboring campsite. The list of what could wake a baby is endless. Despite the cacophony of the night, both kids slept like rocks. And I don’t mean that they slept until 4:30 am and then got up with the sun, but slept until 7:15 and we actually got rest.
Beyond conquering sleep, there were other adventures to try out as a family of four, such as hiking, whale watching, swimming in the ocean, playing in the creek, tide-pooling… Of all of the things we did on the OP, here’s our list of the most enjoyable activities with both an infant and toddler.
Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula
The perfect start to an adventurous weekend on the Olympic Peninsula is with a day in PT. Established in the 1800s as the primary seaport for the Puget Sound (prior to the railroads declaring Seattle as such), the town was built to be beautiful and have all of the features of a keystone city: Victorian downtown, mansions uptown, amazing courthouse complete with looming bell tower…and a castle. Today, it’s got everything that a tourist could want. Local beer (PTBrewing), local wine (Fairwinds Winery) and cider (Alpenfire) are available throughout the town. The NorthwestMaritime Center is right on the water and ready to pull you into wooden boat culture. Fort Worden has beach, woods and WWII bunkers for exploring, as well as the Point Wilson lighthouse and the most amazing field for flying kites. I didn’t get into all of the shops in the downtown, because that’s its own day, but hit up what I just mentioned and kids and adults are set for fun.
Tip: there is a ferry that goes to PT from Whidbey Island. It’s a tiny boat and it gets full very quickly. The best route is to ferry from Seattle or Edmonds and then drive across the Hood Canal Bridge.
We live by a beach, but we are really far into the Puget Sound, so there’s not actual ocean waves. Also there’s not a ton of sand. Cue the Olympic Peninsula… Such cool beaches: enormous drift wood at LaPush, the softest sand ever at Salt Creek, tide pools on the Strait of Juan de Fuca (see below). What makes the beaches here so different and fun is that they are playable. The sand isn’t dry and blasting your eyes with from the wind. The shore is gradual, so there’s lots of sandy space. The waves aren’t the size of tsunamis straight from Japan so you can actually play in them when it’s warm.
Also, when you go to the beach with an infant, chances are that there’s going to be a lot of time for one parent and the baby to just sit on the beach and play ON A BLANKET. These beaches are both great for that due to the beautiful views and flat surface.
Tip 2: a baby at the beach will be sandy no matter how hard you try. Be okay with it in the moment, but be swift in addressing it when you leave the beach. Sand stuck in tiny baby fat rolls can be painful and wear at their skin. Bathe/shower them immediately for the happiest results.
Tip 3: remember back to when you were little and how tired you were after a day in the sun and sand. Know that kids will be worn out after this. Plan for tired kids and parents directly following exodus of said beach.
Tidepools on the Olympic Peninsula
I’m a bit obsessed with the ocean and not actually being a merman I have to enjoy it in ways other than living underwater. Luckily, our oldest son is the same way. He loves to play in the water and sand, but now he’s been exposed to something even better: tide pools! Tide pools, for those who don’t know, are the low spot in rock outcroppings that are full of water after the tide goes out. This means that there is an environment that can hold life even at low tide. For a child who loves the sea, this is the perfect spot to see all of the tiny friends that normally are out in the water. We saw hermit crabs, anemones, sculpin (fish), chitons, huge barnacles feeding… Also, the rocks are home to many pelagic seabirds, so it’s great for birdwatching. The tide pools on the Strait are really fantastic. They are easy to traverse as an adult, toddler or parent wearing a baby in a pack. Also, the rocks go far enough out that the danger of being caught in a wave is truly minimal.
Tip: the best shoes for tide pooling are sandal-type shoes with a little traction. They’ll provide good footing on the rocks and then dry fast.
Tip 2: if the Olympic Peninsula isn’t close enough when you’re visiting Seattle or Portland, check out Whidbey Island’s tide pools, or if you’re south, the Oregon Coast has a plethora of opportunities for them.
RULE: do not take anything from a tide pool. Example: an empty snail shell might actually be a hermit crab’s home. Would you want somebody to take yours?
Hiking on the OP
The Olympic Peninsula is where the mountains literally meet the sea. What this means is that you can either hike hike or walk hike. For hardcore folks they can traverse the Olympic Mountains from all sides, climbing Mt. Rose or heading up out of Staircase by Lake Cushman. For those of us with kids, we’ve got some other options. The Hoh Rainforest is one of my favorite places because it makes me feel like I’m walking with gnomes. I know, silly, but when you’ve got a 3 year old to entertain along the way, it’s nice to be able to look for gnomes.
The Hoh is so dense with moss and fallen trees that it’s almost like another planet. The streams are so fully of algae and other plants, the look like alien rivers. Other easy hiking includes heading to the beach areas for walks in the sand or if you’ve got the time and energy, trekking all of the way out to the Dungeness Spit lighthouse. There’s such a variety and with something different to see at each stop, you can’t go wrong. Hurricane Ridge is also a great day hiking spot, with views going all the way to Victoria, BC and Seattle. **beware of mountain goats at Hurricane Ridge. They’re not indigenous and are still angry about it, so they’re not friendly.
Tip: despite being called a temperate rainforest, the Hoh can actually be rather hot and dry. Be prepared with lots of water and the energy to carry little people, as the mugginess can be draining.
Tip 2: for younger kids, having an actual hiking pack is very helpful and will make you all feel much better about your adventure when you realize how much more comfortable it is than just a standard baby pack.
Whale Watching on the Salish Sea
There are a few approaches to whale watching. 1.) Set up a chair on a bluff or beach and wait for the whales to swim by, hoping to catch a glimpse. 2.) Hire a random guide in a marina in Sequim or Port Angeles to take you out on a small boat and hope that they are whale-wise and responsible. 3.) Spend the extra money to go on a whale watching expedition with a company that guarantees sightings.
It sounds weird that they can guarantee sightings, but here’s why: the reputable companies all work together to share whale locations, thus making for quicker sighting and more positive guest experiences, thus building their businesses and awareness of whales and their plight. It’s all a rather good set up. Since the tour companies are regulated and the Fish and Wildlife chaps are out in their boats monitoring, the whales are treated well and given wide berth for going their own way. The experience is great and there’s nothing like seeing the wonder in your child’s eyes when an orca jumps out of the water in front of them.
Tip: you can book whale watching either from the Olympic Peninsula or the mainland (Seattle/Everett). Excursions are typically 4-5 hours, but it’s worth the time to be on the water and see such beauty.
Tip 2: there’s no shame in being prepared with a little entertainment for younger kids, as boat travel isn’t always the most exciting part of the day.
There is, of course, far more to do and see on the Olympic Peninsula. Native American culture thrives in several areas, so watch for totem poles. The Twilight Saga was filmed on the OP and going out of Port Angeles and Forks, you can go on Twilight themed tours. There are some beautiful National Park lodges to visit or stay at, Lake Quinault, Kalaloch or Lake Crescent. Seriously, you could do a two week vacation here easily, and everybody in the family will have an amazing time.
To see more photos of Olympic National Park, the Salt Creek area, or other spots on the Olympic Peninsula, peek at other posts we’ve done! And to check out another great town, Port Ludlow, read our Behind the Picture post about this wonderful port town.
Here’s a quick sunset on the Strait of Juan de Fuca to leave you with: