How to Get the Most Out of an Olympic Peninsula Camping Trip

The U.S. Highway 101 loop around the Olympic Peninsula is one of the best drives in the United States.

To make the most of it, consider camping as you travel 475 miles around Washington’s coastal handle, taking in the seafood-rich Hood Canal region, the scenic Strait of Juan de Fuca, the lush rainforest and the wild western coastline.

You can do it any time of year. We were lucky enough to hit the weather right for a winter camping trip, done comfortably in a 1987 VW Westfalia camper provided by Peace Vans of Seattle. For three nights of winter camping, it worked amazingly well.

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Filling up at Olympia’s Artesian Well.

Oly — It’s the Water

Starting in the state capital of Olympia, take a few minutes and head downtown to the Artesian Well and Commons, a small city park at 415 4th Ave. SE. There, you’ll find a quintessential Olympia scene.

Hippies hanging out. Kids shooting baskets. A constant flow of people from all walks of life. Why? They come to fill up jugs of water from the city’s artesian well.

The pipe from this well spews some of the tastiest water you’ll find anywhere. It’s free, and many people in Olympia use it as their primary source of drinking water.

It also makes great camping water. Bring a few jugs yourself and fill ’em up.

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Hama Hama Oyster Saloon is an essential stop along Hood Canal.

Hood Canal and Dungeness Spit

Continuing west on U.S. 101, take the right turn for Shelton and you’re on the way up scenic Hood Canal, the western-most lobe of Puget Sound. Besides being pretty, Hood Canal also is home of many of Washington’s best commercial oyster operations.

If you make one stop, it should be at the Hama Hama Oyster Saloon. You can sit around and have them in the lively outdoor saloon, or you can do what we did and put them on ice and shuck them later. You’ll need an oyster knife, some lemon, a little hot sauce and that’s about it for a taste of seafood heaven.

From Hama Hama, it’s about 1.5 hours to Dungeness Recreation Area, a fantastic campground and natural area that takes in Dungenss Spit near the town of Sequim. At 6.8 miles long, it is the longest sand spit in the United States.

You’ll see lots of birdlife, seals, sea lions, the occasional orca, and billions of board feet of driftwood on the wild and secluded beach. It’s a long hike to the lighthouse on the end, but you can get the flavor of the spit by hiking out a mile or so.

Make sure to reserve your campsite ahead of time: This place fills up on weekends in the high season.

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Our campsite at Dungeness Recreation area.
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Dungeness Spit juts 6.8 miles into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Onward to the Coast

From the town of Sequim it’s about two hours to Forks, home to the vampires and werewolves of “Twilight” fame, but really just a rough logging town still trying to cash in on the books and movies.

First, consider a few stops along the way. Port Angeles is the biggest city on the peninsula and a great place to gas up and grab provisions. If you visit in summer, an essential side trip is Hurricane Ridge inside Olympic National Park, one of the visited national parks in the United States. Camp at Heart of the Hills and do a hike off of Hurricane Ridge. On a sunny day, the views of the Olympic Mountains and the ocean far below are gorgeous.

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Lake Crescent is a highlight the northern section of the U.S. 101 loop.

Past Port Angeles, you should consider a stop at Lake Crescent, a picture-perfect lake amid the Olympic Mountains. The historic lodge makes a fine place for a lunch pit stop.

When you get to Forks, you have a choice for camping locations. Drive west on State Route 110. At the main intersection at the Riverview RV Park, you can go right to Olympic National Park’s Mora Campground, or stay left and go to La Push, a small fishing town on the Quileute Indian Reservation.

Both locations have advantages. The Mora Campground is not on the ocean — Rialto Beach is three miles away. The rough and rugged Rialto is an amazing place, suitable for a great three-mile day hike along a wilderness beach to a headlands called Hole in the Wall.

If you go to La Push, your camping option is at the Quileute Oceanside Resort. The camp sites are just OK, but the beach setting is gorgeous. La Push has become one of the most popular surfing locations in Washington, and the break in front of the resort attracts a hardy group of wetsuit-wearing shredders all year long.

From La Push, two wilderness beaches are within a short distance. Second Beach and Third Beach offer nice day-hiking options within bordering Olympic National Park.

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The break at La Push attracts a hardy group of shredders.
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Hikers along Third Beach near the town of La Push.

Kalaloch

Just about an hour south from La Push is the beach camping mecca of Kalaloch. If you can snag a spot, Kalaloch offers some of the very best camping along the Washington coast. Be forewarned that you should get a reservation, or at the very least get there early.

If you’re as lucky as we were, grab a spot along the bluff overlooking the beach. You won’t forget it.

The beach itself is long, flat and beautiful, but doesn’t feel as wild as the beaches to the north near La Push. That said, the campsites along the bluff are amazing.

You have a commanding view of the beach and ocean, where you can watch sea birds, the occasional beach walker or just gaze at the clouds rolling by. There’s not a better place on the coast to just hang out and soak in the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula.

It’s a great trip-ender. From here, it’s about two hours back to Olympia — or you can hit the reset button and do it all over again.

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The view from our campsite at Kalaloch out the back of our Peace Van.
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The beach at Kalaloch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our Grand Tour Started in the 1980s

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Colorado, 1983.

She says: It’s both thrilling and a little painful to look back on the decades Johnny and I have been together, adventuring. Painful because — damn — it goes way too fast. Cliche as hell, but true.

Celebrating Some Really Big Numbers

Next month, we’ll celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary, and we were coupled five years before that. So, basically we’ve been together a looooooonnnnng time. Sometimes, the journey has been bumpy, but never boring.

Confessions of a Couch Potato

My life would be completely different had I not hooked up with Mr. Nelson, and I’m forever grateful he pushed me out of my super chill habits (OK, I’m lazy) onto steep hiking trails, biking paths, ski slopes around the world — even when I crashed on double diamond runs I had no business attempting. When we were young and broke, we camped for fun, often “pitching out” in random spots around Colorado. In our 20s, we quit our jobs at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and spent four months traveling on the cheap in Europe (photo below is from Paris, circa 1984). There have been tons of trips since and still have a long list of places we long to visit. Iceland, we’re coming for you, soon, we hope!!

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Paris, 1984.

Dream About to Get Realized

I still cannot quite believe that we’re on the same page — mostly — about our plan to hit the road, two Boomers on a grand tour, living the Van Life. In search for who knows what? TBD, y’all. There are still a lot of details that need to fall into the place, but I feel so fortunate to have my best friend/life partner on board for this upcoming wild ride. Got suggestions on where we should roll? Leave ’em in the comments, pretty please.

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Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree, 2017.

 

Explore: Hike the Bluffs and Beaches of Whidbey Island

Obviously, Joseph Whidbey was onto something.

It was springtime 1792 when Whidbey, a member of the Vancouver Expedition, sailed around the largest island in Puget Sound, rocketing through the currents of Deception Pass. Capt. George Vancouver was ecstatic, naming the island after his intrepid crewman.

Just like old Joe, you should take your own spin around Whidbey Island.

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The arching bridge at Deception Pass.

Explore these Whidbey Island parks

Whidbey Island is home to several excellent parks, each offering fine hiking opportunities. Deception Pass State Park at the north end of the island is a must-visit location to see the wild currents and historic bridge arching 180 feet above the water.

Deception Pass sprawls across more than 4,000 acres and offers camping, hiking and seasonal kayak rentals. This is Washington’s most visited state park for a reason: Aside from the recreation opportunities, the beaches offer great views of the pass and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west.

Two other fantastic state parks are located just south. Fort Casey and Fort Ebey state parks were originally constructed as coastal defense locations on the west coast of the island. Their gun emplacements are still there, an invitation to explore on the bluffs overlooking Admiralty Inlet.

But it’s not all about the armaments. Each park offers camping and excellent hiking opportunities along their headlands and beaches.

One of the best day hikes in Washington state starts at the Prairie Overlook Trailhead in

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A blockhouse on the prairie at Ebey’s Landing Historical Reserve.

Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve just west of Coupeville, traveling onto a bluff high above the water. At six miles roundtrip, it offers a lesson in history about the Ebey family, the first white settlers on the island, stunning views of Admiralty Inlet and the opportunity to walk the wildest beaches on Whidbey Island.

Other worthy parks for visits include Joseph Whidbey State Park, South Whidbey State Park and Double Bluff Beach, a county park that offers access to a dog-friendly strand near the town of Freeland.

Coupeville and Langley

Tourism is centered in Coupeville and Langley, both cute-as-a-button historic towns that have restaurants and shopping options for visitors. Coupeville, on Penn Cove, is the mussel capital of Washington state — try them at Toby’s Tavern or the Front Street Grill.

Langley on the southern end of the island is just an hour away from Seattle (including the ferry ride), but it feels much farther, with picturesque waterfront shops and restaurants and a small marina. An excellent seafood restaurant, Saltwater Fish House and Oyster Bar, is a handsome stop for lunch or dinner.

You’ll want to skip Oak Harbor at the north end of the island. The mostly charmless commercial center is also home to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

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Coupeville’s historic waterfront.
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The waterfront in Langley.

Why visit Whidbey?

Whidbey Island is just a short drive and ferry ride (Mukilteo to Clinton) from Seattle, making it equally appealing as a day trip or overnight destination. A lively arts scene, a welcoming hippie vibe and two attractive tourist towns are worthy of your attention.

But the best part of the island is its beauty, best explored from a number of excellent parks.

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The bluff trail at Ebey’s Landing overlooks Admiralty Inlet.

How I Survived My Lewis and Clark Story

Exploring the explorers sounded like a great idea. That was before the 20-degree first night of camping.

Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery traveled across Washington state in 1805, and John was lucky enough to score an assignment from 1889 Magazine to follow their path and write about it.

How’d he get through it? Lots of whiskey and a very warm sleeping bag helped immensely.

Read the story here: Following the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

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Looking down on the Palouse River in the Snake River Country.
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A dawn visit to the Listening Circle at Chief Timothy Park near Clarkston.
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A train travels over the Snake River on a high trestle.
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SkiZer checks out a dugout canoe at Sacajawea State Park in Pasco.
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SkiZer walks the hills high above the Columbia near The Dalles, Ore.
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The Stonehenge World War I Memorial at Maryhill.
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Hiking at Beacon Rock State Park in the Columbia Gorge.
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Finally — on the Pacific Coast at Cape Disappointment State Park.
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Checking out “Clark’s Tree” on the Long Beach Peninsula.

With the Clock Ticking, A Quick Run to Rainier

SkiZer usually makes it up to Mount Rainier several times a year.

Not this year. No hikes at Sunrise, one of the SkiZer’s favorite places on Earth. Not Mowich either, which is now closed after tons of snow fell last weekend. The SkiZer gazed longingly at the big mountain, wondering if he’d miss out completely.

Then, after some lovely fall weather returned to Puget Sound, SkiZer decided to go for it.

The road to White River Campground remains open, but will close any day now. SkiZer gunned the engine out of Seattle and two hours later hit the trail for one last quick romp to Glacier Basin.

The hike is a straightforward 6.2 miles roundtrip into a beautiful alpine basin. With temps warming up into the 50s and lots of sun, it was a fantastic day — one last chance to see Mount Rainier’s dramatic northeast side before the roads close for good.

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Little Tahoma looms above the lower Glacier Basin trail.
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About 18 inches of snow was on the trail at Glacier Basin.
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Lunch break overlooking the Inter Fork River at Glacier Basin.
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Lots of snow and warm temperatures brought some energy back to the creeks on Mount Rainier.

What’s With the Name? Cape Disappointment Delivers

SkiZer hit the beach in October and found some nice surprises.

It was perfect timing to visit the Long Beach Peninsula in Southwest Washington. The hiking and cycling proved to be excellent and the early October weather was warm and friendly.

Now, for the surprises.

Camping — yes, you can camp year-round at Cape Disappointment State Park —  is fantastic. Within the park, you’ll find miles of hiking trails, several gorgeous beaches and two scenic lighthouses.

The SkiZer explored the North Jetty in the park, which juts out into the Pacific at the mouth of the Columbia River. The jetty is used by fishermen — this time of year, they were going for crab — but it’s also a great place to see wildlife. As the SkiZer stood there thinking deep thoughts and gazing at the water, a humpback whale surfaced nearby.

The scenic Discovery Trail is surely one of the best recreation paths in the state. It winds from the cape into the dunes of the Long Beach Peninsula and offers some fantastic riding for cyclists.

At the tip of the peninsula, Leadbetter Point State Park was another surprise: The mile-long hike thinned crowds and offered views from a remote and wild beach.

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The Discovery Trail dips and winds through the dunes.
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Views from the jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River. Moments later, a whale surfaced.
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A fisherman hauls in a crab from the jetty.
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The scenic Cape Disappointment Lighthouse stands above the Columbia River.
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A short hike delivers hikers to a remote beach at Leadbetter Point State Park.
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Rainforest-like surroundings are part of the hike at Leadbetter Point State Park.
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Walkers take in North Head Lighthouse from Benson Beach at Cape Disappointment State Park.

With Great Fall Weather, Let’s Keep Hiking

Early October and the weather was fine. The SkiZer said to himself, “Why not squeeze in one more backpacking trip?”

Great decision. Six hours later, the SkiZer hit the Ozette Triangle trail to the Washington Coast. The 9-mile loop is popular in summer, but in fall, it’s empty. The wilderness coast once again becomes truly wild.

Streams start flowing again. The rainforest comes back to life after the dry days of summer. Seals outnumber hikers by at least 20 to one.

It was an incredible trip. SkiZer even squeezed in a day hike north to the Ozette River, where things feel even more remote. Not a soul was to be seen on a stunning beach that felt warm and friendly in 65-degree sun.

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The boardwalk trail to Sandpoint.
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On the coast north of Sandpoint.
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Sunset, first day, at Sandpoint.
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Fording the Ozette River north of Cape Alava.
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Campsite at Cape Alava.
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The sun sets behind Ozette Island off the Washington Coast.

It’s Looking a Lot Like Fall in the North Cascades

Easy Pass in the North Cascades is an amazing fall hike.

Fall colors are just starting, and there’s a refreshing nip in the air. Best of all, most people pass by this trailhead, at milepost 151.5 on the North Cascades Highway.  The SkiZer saw only one person on his 7.4-mile round-trip.

They’re missing a stellar hike. The hills are golden, red and orange, and the larch trees are just beginning to turn. The gorgeous Fisher Basin, visible from the pass at 6,500 feet, is one of many payoffs.

Put it on your list for this fall before the snow flies.

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Still mountain blueberries to be found on the red bushes.
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The trailside brush is looking red and golden.
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Cool nights and warm days are turning the hillsides golden at Easy Pass.
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Fisher Basin is one of the payoffs from the top of Easy Pass.

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