A Winter Weekend on the Olympic Peninsula

Where in the country can you drive through a blizzard and end up on a sunny beach, see dozens of bald eagles fishing for their dinner, hike through the rainforest and retire to a private, cozy, lakeside cabin all in a single weekend? All these and more are possible on Washington’s remote Olympic Peninsula.

During the winter months the entire Pacific Northwest tends to hunker down as rain and mist blanket the horizon in dreary shades of gray. But just a few hours from Seattle lies a lush and diverse landscape of temperate rainforests, coastal beaches and jagged mountains, all within the nearly 1 million acres of the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest. Pick a winter weekend, pack a raincoat and gumboots and bundle up for your Olympic Peninsula getaway.

To begin your trip from Seattle, take the ferry to Bainbridge Island and head north, following signs for Port Angeles. Cross the Hood Canal Bridge and head west to Highway 101 toward Sequim, renowned in the warmer months for its myriad lavender fields and farms. When you reach Port Angeles, consider picking up some provisions for the weekend at Country Aire Natural Foods or grabbing a cup of Stumptown coffee from the Blackbird Coffee House.

From Port Angeles you have a choice—either continue west on 101 past Lake Crescent and on to the coast or take a detour and head north on Highway 112 to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point in the contiguous U.S.

If you opt for the latter, you’ll be in for a patriotic treat. Bald eagles frequent this coastline, spending their winters fishing along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Drive slowly and keep an eye on the trees lining the road; if you’re lucky, you’ll see several juvenile and adult bald eagles. Highway 112—the Strait of Juan de Fuca Scenic Byway—follows the north coast of the peninsula as far as it can go, ending in Neah Bay.

At Neah Bay, pick up a recreation pass from the Makah Tribe and continue to Cape Flattery, where a short hike takes you along a boardwalk to a view of the Pacific Ocean where dramatic waves crash against sea stacks. Before you leave Neah Bay, take time to stop at the Makah Museum to view the impressive collection of historical tribal artifacts. Then head south to rejoin Highway 101 and continue the loop drive.

If you would rather not venture north along Highway 112, stay on Highway 101 out of Port Angeles. This route also leads to the western coast, and will take you past scenic Lake Crescent along the way. In the winter, the lake and the surrounding forest are often shrouded in mist and fog, but if you arrive after a winter storm you’ll get to experience Washington’s very own Narnia. After a snowfall, the air is frosty and still. Massive evergreens droop under the weight of fresh snow, and icicles line the peaked roofs of the historic Lake Crescent Lodge, the next stop on the weekend peninsula tour.

Reserve far in advance to spend the night in one of the Lodge’s iconic Roosevelt Fireplace Cabins named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responsible for the creation of the Olympic National Park in 1938. More than 100 years old, these cabins on the shores of Lake Crescent are comfortable and warm, offering stone fireplaces and stunning views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Light a fire, wrap yourself in a blanket, and enjoy a cozy evening as snow falls quietly outside. Note that these cabins (equipped with a fridge and a microwave, but not kitchens) are the only facilities open during the winter months, so plan accordingly and bring your own food. If time allows in the morning, explore one of the hikes in the area such as the one-mile walk to Marymere Falls. Otherwise, get back on the road and head west to the ocean.

Both routes converge before the town of Forks, the rainiest place in the continental U.S. and the setting of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Follow Highway 101 onto Highway 110. You’ll smell the sea air as you approach the village of La Push and the Pacific Coast. Marvel at the geology of the Rialto Beach sea stacks and Hole-In-The-Wall, or search for starfish at Second Beach. Spend an afternoon or even an entire day exploring the tidepools, coves and rugged landscape of Washington’s beaches.

If you choose to spend a night at the coast, book a room at the Quileute Oceanside Resort, offering ocean view cabins and the opportunity to build a campfire on the beach.

Back on Highway 101, drive through Forks and then head east on Upper Hoh Road to the Hoh Rainforest. This is where your waterproof attire will really come in handy—the rainforest sees more than 150 inches of rain annually, and most of it falls during the winter months.

Several hiking trails leave from the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center, each offering a taste of the lush rainforest in the heart of the peninsula. The Spruce Nature Trail at 1.2 miles and the Hall of Mosses Trail at less than one mile both offer a brief but beautiful walk through the trees with dripping mosses and the opportunity to see some of the park’s diverse wildlife, such as the humble banana slug or the mighty Roosevelt elk.

From the rainforest, head south down 101 to Lake Quinault. Spend the last night of your trip at the historic Lake Quinault Lodge and treat yourself to a meal in the Roosevelt Dining Room before retiring for the night. Wake to the trickle of rain against your window, and revel in the fact that you’re in the center of the country’s largest temperate rainforest. Enjoy a lazy morning at the Lodge or on the surrounding trails and then buckle up for the drive home.

From Lake Quinault, it’s around a 3-hour drive south and then east back to Seattle, completing the Olympic Peninsula loop. Even if the majestic Olympic Mountains remained hidden above low-lying clouds during your tour, know that their presence on the peninsula created the lush rainforest ecosystem you just visited.