Olympic Peninsula Bucket List: all the best things to do and see on Washington’s OP
The Olympic Peninsula is amazing. I think it should be considered one of the seven wonders of the world even though it’s such a big region and not just one Wonder. This is our bucket list of the 13 most epic sites or activities on the Olympic Peninsula Washington.
As you’re planning your own time on the Olympic Peninsula, feel free to reorder these however make sense for you. There are of course more than 13 epic sites on the Olympic Peninsula bucket list but these take the cake and it cannot be missed when you travel the OP.
What you'll find...
- How to get to the Olympic Peninsula
- Explore the rainforest in Olympic National Park
- Hike to the Dungeness spit lighthouse
- Hear Roosevelt elk bugle in fall
- Relax behind a waterfall deep in the forest
- Drown in Dahlias in September
- Have an afternoon picnic at Deadman’s Cove
- Hike to the end of the world at Cape Flattery
- Jump into emerald waters at Staircase Rapids
- Search for purple clams in Ocean shores
- Witness major environmental recovery at the Elwha
- Catch a sunset in the company of a lighthouse
- Relax on the prettiest beach in Washington: Ruby Beach
- Live on the edge with the Tree of Life
How to get to the Olympic Peninsula
I read an article that said there are two ways to get to the Olympic Peninsula. I laughed out loud for a long time because it was so incorrect. There are twelve different ways to get to the Olympic Peninsula, so whoever said there are only two ways was extremely wrong.
Olympic Peninsula by boat
You can take five different ferries to the Olympic Peninsula, and depending on your itinerary and starting point, any may be the right option for you. The five Washington State Ferry routes that sail to the OP are:
- Seattle -> Bremerton
- Seattle -> Bainbridge Island
- West Seattle -> Southworth
- Edmonds -> Kingston
- Whidbey Island -> Port Townsend
There are two more ways to get to the Olympic Peninsula by boat. The first is to take the MV Coho Blackball Ferry from Victoria, British Columbia. This crossing is about 90 minutes and sails twice daily from Victoria, BC and returns twice daily from Port Angeles. This is the easiest way to get to the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island or mainland BC.
The last option by boat is to arrive via a private charter or personal boat. There are many marinas around the Olympic Peninsula and moorage is much less expensive that docking in Anacortes or Seattle. If you’re a sailor or looking to make a sailing plan with friends who have a boat, there are lots of port towns you can visit, and several are actually on our Olympic Peninsula bucket list.
For your listening pleasure: check out our podcast episode all about Getting to Victoria BC (including Olympic Peninsula info)
Driving to the Olympic Peninsula
There are also three routes onto the Olympic Peninsula if you’re driving. Check out which is right for you:
- You can drive across Highway 16 and the Narrows Bridge from Tacoma
- You can head north on Highway 101 out of Olympia, the state capitol, on the eastern side of the OP
- Drive north from Astoria, Oregon along Highway 101 on the western loop of the OP
Flying to the Olympic Peninsula
This is the most unlikely way to get to the Olympic Peninsula, but it’s an option. From Seattle, you can take a seaplane to a variety of locations, including Port Ludlow and Port Townsend. This is not a cost efficient option, but the experience is memorable and it offers a beautiful view. There are also three regional airports you could potentially fly into on private charters: Bremerton National (Kitsap County), Fairchild International (Port Angeles) or Jefferson County International Airport (Port Townsend).
Olympic Peninsula Bucket List for all Seasons
Each of these suggestions captures the heart and wonder of the Olympic Peninsula. These activities and sights are unique to the OP and make for the best Pacific Northwest experiences that you’ll never forget. Find all of the sites and extra choices on this Google Map.
Explore the rainforest in Olympic National Park
We’re going to start with exploring the rainforest of Olympic National Park because there are several places you can do it and it really is epic. Like right out of Lord of the Rings epic.
The best places to visit the rainforest of Olympic National Park are at the ho, at the Quinault rain forest, Queets rainforest (way off the beaten path) and at staircase. And Sol Duc too. Due to the rain shadow effect, the rainforest around forks Washington is some of the most dense old growth forest in the United States. It’s a favorite with kids and out-of-town visitors, no matter which part of the forest we visit.
Note: each of the rainforest areas is open year-round, but is weather dependent.
Hoh Rainforest – map here
Quinault Rainforest – map here
Queets Rainforst – map here
Sol Duc Rainforest – map here
Hike to the Dungeness spit lighthouse
This activity is still on my bucket list because I haven’t made it all the way. Of our epic activities on the Olympic Peninsula bucket list, this is going to be the most challenging. Imagine walking seven and a half miles in the sand to a lighthouse. The Dungeness spit lighthouse in Sequim is still in operation and is manned in partnership with the u.s. Coast guard. Visitors can hike seven and a half miles in the sand to visit the lighthouse. That means they also have to hike 7 1/2 miles back. most people who do this are actually going as part of a lighthouse keeper program and stay at the Dungeness spit lighthouse for a week.
Tip: For more information about being a lighthouse keeper as part of your Olympic Peninsula bucket list visit the website here: Lighthouse Keeper Program
If you don’t want to do the complete hike but still visit the Dungeness Spit, we recommend a stay at Domaine Madeliene in Port Angeles.
The New Dungeness Lighthouse is located within the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge in Sequim, WA. Google map link here.
Hear Roosevelt elk bugle in fall
Until you have heard a bull elk bugle you haven’t had a true Pacific Northwest wilderness experience. Herds of Roosevelt elk are found all around the Olympic Peninsula. When you drive into Sequim that is what the welcome sign is: a silhouette of a bull elk.
There are several places where you are nearly guaranteed to see herds of elk. the first is the foothills of the Olympic mountains at Sequim. The next is near the airstrip just outside the town of Forks. They’re always there. Next, is along the Hoh River near the entrance to Olympic National Park. Another common place that we’ve seen elk and heard them bugle in the fall is at lake Cushman, where the Skokomish River turns into the lake.
The best times to hear elk bugle on the Olympic Peninsula are from late September to mid November. The rut sometimes lasts that long and sometimes is quite short. Keep your ears open whenever visiting though, as bugling can happen year-round.
Staircase area of Olympic National Park – map to viewing area here
Hoh River Valley – map to road here
Relax behind a waterfall deep in the forest
Before we tell you where this is all we can say is safety First. a little-known spot on the Olympic Peninsula that is really remarkable is Murhut Falls. near the town of Brinnon, Falls is located in Olympic National Forest. It’s not within the national park but is off of forest service road up in the foothills.
The fairly easy hike at just over two miles round-trip, Murhut Falls goes along steep valley walls into a small box canyon. Here you can scale down to the lower splash pool in climb up to the upper splash pool. Since it’s a double waterfall it’s extra beautiful and a little more complicated. Check out these great kid-friendly hiking recommendations around Western Washington.
Depending on water level, you can cross the rocks and logs to access the cave behind upper Murhut Falls. It’s loud and quiet at the same time and the dripping Moss is magical. The whole experience is quite remarkable and why it is on our 10 epic activities list for the Olympic Peninsula.
Map to Murhut Falls trailhead here
Drown in Dahlias in September
Both Sequim and Port Gamble have remarkable dahlia gardens. If you’re not familiar, dahlias are the brights and most interesting flower that blooms in fall. They vary from knee-high to full grown man height and can range in color from pure white to striped blossoms. The flowers can be as small as an Oreo cookie or as large as a dinner plate. Mid-September to early fall is when they bloom.
The Olympic Peninsula is an amazing place to experience these remarkable flowers. In Port Gamble, both in front of and behind the Port Gamble theater you’ll find the Dahlia Society’s gardens. In Sequim, at Carrie Blake Park, you’ll see a terraced garden near the amphitheater. It’s the perfect backdrop for a fall picnic when the dahlias are in bloom.
Port Gamble Dahlia Society gardens – map here
Dahlia Garden at Carrie Blake Park in Sequim – map here
Have an afternoon picnic at Deadman’s Cove
Deading down to the southernmost part of the territory we cover here at Travel Olympic Peninsula, Cape Disappointment State Park in Ilwaco is in a class of its own. Bike pads, incredible views across the ocean, and two lighthouses make it a unique place. It’s also technically part of Lewis and Clark National Park.
On the hike to Cape Disappointment lighthouse, if you’re paying attention you will see a cove down below the hiking trail to the West. That cove is called Deadman’s Cove and is accessible if you watch for the path. A beautiful sandy beach, turquoise water, and quiet calm from being sheltered from the wind, make it the perfect place for an afternoon picnic. It is perfectly Pacific Northwest.
Note: when you look online it states that Deadman’s Cove is “closed to the public” but it is actually open to hikers. There are guidelines regarding access and staying on the trail, but it is open to the public (as of August 2019)
Deadman’s Cove location – map here
Hike to the end of the world at Cape Flattery
Speaking of turquoise Waters, our next epic site on the Olympic Peninsula is Cape flattery. This is the northwestern most part of the state of Washington and is really out there. Driving along the northernmost road and going through Neah Bay, you will come to the Cape Flattery trail head. The windswept Forest is Erie but the views at the end of the trail are one of a kind.
Watch for whales, puffins, and sea lions why you sit and stare off towards Japan. There are picnic tables and benches so if you plan it right, you could even go enjoy sunset as you listen to the waves crash against the far-off island of the Cape flattery lighthouse.
Cape Flattery Trailhead – map here
Jump into emerald waters at Staircase Rapids
I debated including this on our list of epic sites on the Olympic Peninsula because it is so special and few people visit. Staircase is the part of Olympic National Park just near the town of Hoodsport. Driving up from Hood Canal, about a half an hour into the mountains you’ll come to the Sstaircase Rapids trail head. There are many beautiful natural sights along the way but the reason you’re here is for some epic mountain river swimming.
On the south side of the Skokomish river along the Staircase Rapids trail you will find an access point to some enormous boulders in the river. Climbing out to the boulders you can look down into the purest emerald water you’ll ever find. Warning, that water is so beautiful because it is so cold being fed by glaciers. Jumping in is exhilarating and when you take in the scenery you almost don’t realize how cold the water is.
Note: be very mindful of water levels and the current. Even though this spot is much more calm than other parts of the river you need to be responsible for yourself.
Staircase Trail Head – map here
Search for purple clams in Ocean shores
Yes, there are a few beaches in Washington where you might find purple clams, but the spit extending into Grays Harbor is the best place to hunt for them. Purple clams have a brown extreme and vibrant inner shell. At medium to low tide, walk the inner beach (map link here) and find some really colorful, unique ocean treasures.
Oyhut Wildlife Recreation area – map here
Witness major environmental recovery at the Elwha
The Elwha River flows out of Olympic National Park and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It used to have two dams on it but starting in 2011 they were removed, allowing the Elwha River to flow its original course. Since then, the river valley has seen forests start to return, elk herds move in, and even long lost salmon runs start again. The Elwha is an incredible example of environmental recovery and what’s possible with planning and active, caring communities.
Access to Glines Canyon dam viewpoint and interpretive site – map here
Catch a sunset in the company of a lighthouse
Port Townsend is home to more than picturesque Victorian buildings. Down at Fort Worden State Park is the Point Wilson Lighthouse. A long stretch of beach, a few bunkers, and windswept trees make it an ideal spit for catching a Pacific Northwest sunset. The view from Point Wilson is of Whidbey Island’s yellow and white cliffs. As the sun goes down the cliffs turn pink and the clouds glow all the way to Canada.
Another wonderful lighthouse to visit for sunset is the Point No Point Light on the Kitsap portion of the OP. With two easily accessible lighthouses, this is a must for your Olympic Peninsula bucket list. Olympic Peninsula sunsets are breathtaking.
Point Wilson Lighthouse – map here
Point No Point Lighthouse – map here
Relax on the prettiest beach in Washington: Ruby Beach
So many of the things to do on the Olympic Peninsula are a part of Olympic National Park, and that includes Ruby Beach. South of the Hoh Rainforest you’ll find stretches of beach similar to the Oregon Coast’s famous sea stacks, but the best of these is Ruby Beach. The sea stacks are small, but the sand, driftwood, sea star nursery and tide pools make this the most beautiful beach on the Olympic Peninsula.
Parking area for Ruby Beach – map here
Live on the edge with the Tree of Life
You’ll see it called by a variety of names, including the Tree of Life, the Hanging Tree, the Cave Tree, and others. Accessible from the Kalaloch Campground of Olympic National Park, the Tree of Life is a very old Sitka spruce that is suspended above the beach by its roots, still stuck in the remaining soil as the rest of the bluff below it has eroded away. Going into the tree cave isn’t recommended, but appreciating the delicate nature of the Olympic Peninsula from the beach is perfect.
Kalaloch Tree parking area – map here
This list should give you a good start for planning the sorts of experiences you want to enjoy and help you make your Olympic Peninsula bucket list. We love our home and with memories like these you will too.