The Rainforests & the Coast
If the rainforests are your destination, your best bet is to drive west and north from Olympia (or, if you're coming from Seattle on a ferry, west and south from Port Angeles or Port Townsend) along the western side of the peninsula. The first opportunity to see a bit of the rainforest is near the north shore of Lake Quinault, at the southern end of the main part of the park. If you plan to stay the night, this area has a number of lodges, motels, and campgrounds. From the ranger station on the south shore, there are several interpretive hikes along the lake; those who want to delve into the rainforest should start on the north side of the lake. The view of the mountains from Lake Quinault is quite spectacular on a sunny day, but the area serves as a good hors d'oeuvre more than anything else.
Drive north on U.S. 101. You should be able to get to the Queets River Valley if the road is open (it washes out frequently); the valley is home to some of the most beautiful (and remote) rainforests on the peninsula. Or you can keep driving northwest on U.S. 101 to the Kalaloch Information Station, where you can enjoy views of the Pacific from Kalaloch to Ruby Beach. Of the two options, it's a tough call. You might get to see elk in some of the former homestead meadows in the early morning or late afternoon on the 3-mile Sams River Loop Trail in the Queets, but understand that it's the least accessible of the rainforests. Watch for seasonal closures during the winter and late fall.
After leaving the coastal area at Ruby Beach, continue your northward drive on U.S. 101 to the turnoff for the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center. It's a 19-mile drive from U.S. 101 to the center, with excellent views of the Hoh River along the way. You could also spend a long day hiking the 9 miles (one-way) from the Hoh Visitor Center parking lot up to the Olympus Guard Station. In just a few hours, this hike goes from temperate rainforest to alpine meadows with stunning views of Mount Olympus. If you're not feeling so ambitious, take the short Hall of Mosses or Spruce Nature trail, and get ready to head north again, to Sol Duc.
The last leg of our excursion takes you to one of the most commercially developed areas in the park, Sol Duc and the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. It might be a nice idea, before you head back down the coast to Olympia, or to sleep in your campsite or hotel room, to have a dip in these famous hot springs (open from late spring to early fall). The hot springs experience costs $12 to enter ($9.25 for kids); packages, including a sauna and a massage, are available. You also have your choice of comfort levels, anywhere from 70° to 158°F (21°-70°C). But be forewarned: There's a resort here, and the springs can be crowded. Still, if you're into a relaxing soak after a long day of hiking, it may be just the thing.
The area has more than hot springs. Try taking the 1.5-mile round-trip hike from the springs through some wonderfully dense forest to Sol Duc Falls. Or take the Mink Lake Trail through 2.5 miles of uphill grade and forest to get a look at one of the many higher-altitude lakes that dot the Sol Duc region.
The East Side of the Park
Seen the rainforests? You could do a lot worse than spending a day seeing the glaciers and the alpine meadows of the east side of the park. This time, the jumping-off point is probably Port Angeles. First, visit the Olympic National Park Visitor Center, to get acquainted with what you're about to see.
As in the rainforest tour, this trip starts with a choice: Head back through Port Angeles for the Elwha/Altair area, or from the visitor center to Hurricane Ridge. Either way, you're in for a variety of Olympic experiences.
The Elwha area has a small ranger station and, farther up the road, the site of Lake Mills, which is undergoing dam removal (the largest in U.S. history) until at least 2013, likely interfering with travel until the project is completed. Several trails will be closed for the duration of the project.
Along the way to Hurricane Ridge from Port Angeles, pass the Heart O' the Hills Campground. At Hurricane Ridge, one of the most popular spots in the park, there are a number of short interpretive trails, very good for seeing wildflowers during times of big blooms. Many larger trails intersect here as well. The visitor center has numerous interpretive exhibits and a snack bar.
Leaving Hurricane Ridge, Port Angeles, or the Elwha area, drive a little farther southeast. Off a turnoff from U.S. 101 is the less crowded Deer Park Ranger Station, where you get the same sort of views as at Hurricane Ridge without jostling for position. The road to Deer Park is steep and graveled. It's not suitable for RVs and trailers, and be prepared to deal with steep inclines, turns, and potholes. The road is closed in winter.
Outside Olympic National Park, consider visiting other locations along U.S. 101, such as the community of Dungeness and Sequim Bay State Park on the northeastern tip of the peninsula, with their beautiful shorelines and views of the strait. As you travel farther south, the Hood Canal will appear on your left. There are numerous places here to see seals on the rocks, especially at Seal Point.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.