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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.