The Olympic Peninsula of Washington: visiting the Pacific Northwest’s playground
The Olympic Peninsula is known around the world for its beautiful mountains, its beaches and the Twilight Saga. Well, there’s more to it than that. We’ve spent countless days exploring the OP and not just visiting our old favorite haunts we’ve known all our lives, but also exploring places that are new to all of us. That’s the joy of the Olympic Peninsula and why we’ve got a handy guide to get you familiar with our favorite region of the Pacific Northwest.
So, why visit the Olympic Peninsula over the Oregon Coast or the Eastern Seaboard? Well, quite simply there are fewer tourists here and more opportunities to be in the middle of nature with nobody around. The quietest place in the USA is on the Olympic Peninsula. The original metropolitan center of the Puget Sound area is on the OP. The largest successful dam removal project in the USA is on the Peninsula. So many reasons to visit!
What you'll find...
Locale of the Olympic Peninsula
You can drive to or take a ferry to the Olympic Peninsula depending on your starting point. If you’re visiting Seattle and want to explore the OP you can hop a ferry from either downtown Seattle or from Edmonds. You’ll have to drive about a half hour to cross the Hood Canal Bridge and from there either head south along Hood Canal towards Lake Cushman and the Pacific Ocean or head north to loop around the Olympic Mountains on Highway 101. The other option from Seattle is to drive around through Tacoma, but that takes forever with Tacoma’s awful traffic.
If you’re coming from the north, such as Victoria or Vancouver BC, you’ll also need to take a boat. From Victoria BC, you can drive onto the Blackball Coho Ferry for an hour boat ride into Port Angeles. From Vancouver BC you’ll need to cross the border into the US up near Blaine/Bellingham and then drive south towards Whidbey Island. Head through Anacortes and across Whidbey to the Port Townsend ferry. Boom! You’re on the Olympic Peninsula!
Tip: for either the Coho (Victoria) or WSF boat (Whidbey Island) you can make reservations for your preferred sailing. We highly recommend reservations for either otherwise you’re at the mercy of every other traveler.
Port Townsend: a Victorian Seaport
The perfect start to an adventurous visit to the Olympic Peninsula is with a day in Port Townsend. 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. Eventually Fort Worden was built and then eventually decommissioned… but then became the backdrop for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman.
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: if you can set aside two days for the Port Townsend area you’ll be good to go. It’s the perfect seaside town for relaxing and exploring, and weekends really are best.
Beaches of the Olympic Peninsula
We live by a beach, but we are really far into the Puget Sound, so there aren’t actual ocean waves. Also there’s not a ton of sand. Cue the Olympic Peninsula…
Such cool beaches: enormous drift wood at LaPush or the Dungeness Spit, the softest sand ever at Salt Creek, tide pools on the Strait of Juan de Fuca or at Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park. What makes the beaches here so different and fun is that they are playable with kids. 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.
The beaches of the Olympic Peninsula are great for spotting wildlife too. We get a lot of seals all around the Puget Sound area, and the sheltered beaches on the Peninsula are prime places for raising young seal pups. Also, we’ve seen grey and humpback whales just from the shore on several occasions; you just have to keep a look out.
Tip: bring binoculars year round to watch for passing grey, humpback and orca whales. We’ve been able to see whales with the naked eye in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and off the beaches of Olympic National Park.
Tidepools on the Olympic Peninsula
We’re a bit obsessed with the ocean and not actually being a mer-family we have to enjoy it in ways other than living underwater. Luckily, our kids are just like us dads. They love to play in the water and sand, but now they’ve 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 often see hermit crabs, anemones, sculpin (fish), chitons, huge barnacles feeding. limpets, mussels… Also, the rocks are home to many pelagic seabirds, so it’s great for bird watching at low and high tides. The tide pools on the Strait of Juan de Fuca are really fantastic. They are easy to traverse as an adult or child, or as a parent wearing a baby in a pack (with caution).
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.
Alternative plan: 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?
The two best tidepool areas we’ve found on the Olympic Peninsula are Salt Creek Recreation Area and Ruby Beach at Olympic National Park.
Hiking on the Olympic Peninsula
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 our favorite places because it makes us feel like we’re walking with gnomes. I know, silly, but when you’ve got little kids 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 full of algae and other plants; they look like alien rivers. Sol Duc Falls is also absolutely incredible for the lush forests and totally PNW experience in Olympic National Park.
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 just outside of Port Angeles 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.
And another thought if you want to go hiking with toddlers and younger: for younger kids, having an actual hiking child-carrier 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, such as a Bjorn or Ergo. Kelty Kids and REI both make great child-carrier hiking packs if you need to invest in one.
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 as they’re spotted, 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: excursions are typically 4-5 hours, but it’s worth the time to be on the water and see such beauty, regarding the sealife and sights. And 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 from Lake Quinault or Kalaloch up to Lake Crescent. And camping! Everywhere! Seriously, you could do a two week vacation here easily and everybody in the family will have an amazing time.
We have all kinds of other ideas for visiting the Olympic Peninsula including more hiking recommendations and options for where to stay. If we were to break down the must-see sights for a tight vacation schedule, here’s what we’d say to do:
Port Townsend – Victorian charm, great food, local beers
Hurricane Ridge – hiking and epic views across the mountains
Sol Duc Falls – the most lush waterfall trail on the Olympic Peninsula
Cape Flattery – the Northwesternmost point of the continental USA, incredibly beautiful
Ruby Beach – sea stack, tidepools, beaches, driftwood, eagles…
So are you totally ready to explore the Olympic Peninsula? If you ever have any questions, we know our way around the OP really well and have tons more to share. Send us a note if you need hiking, kayaking, lodging, dining, or just relaxing recommendations. We’ve got you covered!
Go ahead and save that nifty infographic above or something from below so you don’t miss the must-see sights when you come for a visit. And feel free to pin this for later too!