Road trips with drives as dazzling as the destinations
Take the scenic route through a 922,650-acre national treasure
Reason to Rev
Thrusting up, almost violently, directly from the sea, it seems impossible that the sharp-toothed Olympic Mountains tick only 7,900 feet. What seems more likely, as explorer John Meares first noted when he named Mount Olympus in 1788, is that these majestic, glacier-capped peaks house some kind of deity. In fact, by official standards, the breathtaking landscape is sacred indeed: the cluster of eight major summits, surrounding rain forest, and 62 miles of undeveloped beach have been protected as a national park since 1938. Even better, Olympic National Park is just about three hours’ drive from Portland, making a fall pilgrimage (when the park’s lodge rates drop) easy. So load up the car, adjust your mirrors, and head for park-looping Highway 101, where soul-stirring experiences may be far closer than they appear.
»Carved by a glacier and fed by them, too, Lake Quinault sits in the middle of the Quinault Valley, which holds one of the park’s three temperate coniferous rain forests. Watch the god rays filter through the firs and spy on Roosevelt elk, black-tailed deer, and woodpeckers on one of the south side’s moderate trails. If some of the valley’s 12 feet of annual precipitation dampens your hiking plans, drive the 31-mile loop around the lake, pausing to admire roadside cascades like Merriman and Bunch Falls, and the world’s largest red cedar and Sitka spruce trees.
»Stationed 20 miles down a partly gravel road, Lake Ozette isn’t arrived at by accident. And yet the 7,787-acre lake continues to be one of the most frequented camping spots in Olympic National Park, no doubt owing to the unique Cape Alava trail, a 3.1-mile stroll on a raised boardwalk through coastal woods and prairie to the edge of the ocean.
»Just down the road from Cape Flattery, the northwesterly-?most tip of the contiguous United States, Shi Shi beach is well worth the extra road miles required to reach it. It’s an easy, albeit sometimes mucky, two-mile trek through Sitka spruce to the bluff above Shi Shi, where a steep descent lands you at two miles of pristine beach, protected at the southern end by a photogenic mile-long string of sea stacks. Reach them with an easy amble along the surf, transfixed, perhaps, by the lapping of the incoming sea whispering across the sands to the thick curtain of trees.
»You can see as far as 60 feet into Lake Crescent’s 600-foot depths in some places, and you might even catch sight of the protected, only-found-here Beardslee and Crescenti trout. Or, thanks to the wall of shore-facing windows in Lake Crescent Lodge’s (from $105) sunroom, you can enjoy the splendor of the mountain-lined lake while sipping a glass of Lake Crescent’s reserve chardonnay.
»One of the best views on all of the Olympic Peninsula requires hardly any legwork at all, except pushing the accelerator. Just outside of Port Angeles, the overlook at Hurricane Ridge offers a mile-high perspective on the Olympics’ rocky, snowcapped spine. Camera setting: panorama. —KC
Facing the peak-rimmed shoreline, Lake Quinault Lodge’s (olympic?nationalparks.com; from $79) dining room and the Adirondack chairs on the immaculately manicured lawn are prime places to savor cedar-planked salmon and watercolor skies as you watch the sun sink below the Olympics.
The rock fireplaces in the period-perfect 1926 cabins at Lochaerie Resort (from $145), on Lake Quinault’s northern shore, provide a welcome antidote to autumn’s evening chill. The Lost Resort’s (from $65) three small cabins are the only noncamping option at Lake Ozette.
A seashell’s throw from Whidbey Island, Port Townsend’s quaint Victorian streetscape invites an afternoon of exploration—one best capped with a walk along the waterfront, relishing a coneful of homemade ice cream from Water Street’s Elevated Ice Cream.—KC