Olympic National Park is vast, giant, and remote. Located way up on the tippy-top corner of western Washington, this park is not one you can fully explore in a weekend (or even a week or two). With three distinct ecosystems and a lot of road between them, seeing it all is nearly impossible for most people on vacation, and even more difficult for those of us who combine work and travel. Add in the fact that a large portion of the park is only accessible via multi-day backpacking trails and you have the kind of national park that one could conceivably visit over and over again and still only see a tiny fraction.
The first time we visited Olympic National Park in the fall of 2012, we made a whirlwind loop around the park with a just a few days each in the mountains and on the beach along with a day trip to the rainforest. These days, Tim’s work schedule (along with the wisdom that comes from doing the whole full-time travel thing for a while) means we no longer take whirlwind tours of anything. This time around, instead of trying to see it all, we chose a few places to call home for a week at a time and set out to explore from there.
Our home base for our first week in the park was the Minnie Peterson Campground. This very small road-side campground is operated by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. The overnight camping fee is either $10/day or free with a Washington Discover Pass ($30 annual fee). The Discover Pass gets you into Washington state parks for free and is required for parking at many trailheads, making it a good investment for anyone exploring the state. After visiting two different state parks and spending seven nights at Minnie Peterson, our pass has already paid for itself three times over.
The nine sites at this campground are tucked into a dense forest alongside the access road for the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center. Considering the fact that the road ends at the visitor center, it was very busy with near constant traffic during the day. Aside from the road noise (which virtually disappeared at night), this was a pleasant place to spend the week.
The sites vary in size but I think with some creative parking we could have fit in any of them. We choose one of the larger sites, number 3, in hopes that we could get some sun for our solar panels. No such luck. A bit of dappled sun lite up the far corner of our site, but never touched our rooftop panels. After one day of moving the portable panel every 30 minutes to capture the shifting patches of sun, Tim gave up and pulled out the generator. It only gets used about once a year, but it’s still worth hauling it around as we could have never stayed here for a week without it.
Fortunately, as is the case with most campgrounds near national parks, virtually all the campers left to explore during the day meaning we could run our generator for a few hours in the afternoon without bothering others. I absolutely loathe the sound of other people’s generators which makes me hyper-aware of any noise pollution we might be inflicting on others.
The cell service at Minnie Peterson was great with both Verizon and AT&T rocking some fast speeds. The signal dropped off only a mile or two past the campground making it the better choice over the campground inside the national park. I went over there one afternoon to fill a jug of water and drop off the trash (Minnie Peterson has neither a dumpster or a water spigot). It’s a pretty nice campground and all the sites are first-come, first-serve which means you might actually have a chance of getting a site without reserving a year ahead. When I visited on a Friday I was surprised to see two open sites.
Back at Minnie Peterson, we had a few down days due to the fact that there is really nothing to do near the campground without getting in the car and driving. We tried crossing the street and accessing the Hoh River but were immediately thwarted by a thick line of trees and steep bank. We also tried walking alongside the road which worked out okay, especially when we found the masses of wild blackberry bushes, but there is zero shoulder and the speed limit is on the high side so it wasn’t an ideal situation.
With few options for exploring outside our door, we got in the truck a couple times and drove down to the park for some hiking. First up was a portion of the Hoh River Trail. This 17- mile backcountry trail travels all the way to the base of Mount Olympus. Most people, us included, only ever see the first few miles. We ended up hiking roughly 3-miles to Tom’s Creek to see the waterfall before turning around. The trail is absolutely gorgeous with moss-draped trees and giant ferns making you feel like you are walking through the set of Jurrasic Park (minus the people eating dinos).
Another day, we hiked on the Hoh-Bogachiel Trail. The trailhead is located inside the park boundary but before the entrance station and miles from the visitor center. It doesn’t show up on the park’s trail map, and as a result, we had it completely to ourselves.
This trail is no joke as it climbs a LOT of elevation in a short distance. After weeks of nothing but flat walking on the beach, we picked this route in an effort to get some real exercise. With no sweeping vistas and nothing but forest to look at, we figured it might be boring, but it would at least be good for us. Turns out we were right about the exercise part (so steep) but very wrong about the boring part. This is no ordinary forest.
On our final day, we left Airstream behind and took a trip to the coast for a day of beach walking. Not just any beach walking though — this was a full-body workout hike. The Wilderness Coast Trail travels along the coast of the Olympic Peninsula for over 70 miles. Our intention was to hike the 6 miles between Third Beach and Toleak Point. As we found out when we tried to park near the trailhead, this is a very, very popular hiking and backpacking route. After parking semi-legally along the road about a half-mile from the actual parking lot, we made our way to the trail that would take us to Third beach.
It’s a little more than a mile of walking through the forest before you start to hear the ocean. Suddenly, the trees open up and from a vantage point high on a cliff, and you can see the vast Pacific Ocean stretching out in front of you.
We scrambled down the steep trail, climbed over a tangle of massive driftwood logs, and walked through the sand to the water’s edge. Despite the number of cars jammed into the trailhead parking lot, we were still surprised by how many people were on the beach. Lots of tents as well. There are a number of designated camping areas along the beach and as it was fairly early in the morning, most campers were still hanging out in or around their tents.
The reason for our early start was because this hike is best done at low tide. Not only does hiking the trail at low tide open up some really cool opportunities for exploring the tide pools, but it also means the difference between wet and dry feet (or in extreme cases not making it through at all) on some sections of the trail.
No matter what the status of the tide, there are a few areas where the beach is impassable and the only way around is climbing up and over. These headland trails, as they are called, require you to climb up a steep bank to the top of the cliff, hike through the forest, and then climb back down to the beach. The extreme slope from the beach to headland means you have to haul yourself up the bank using ropes as a climbing aid. In other words, so much fun!
Ther first headland trail was long. Maybe even a few miles long. After the initial rope-aided climb, we had to make our way up a couple more steep sections with ropes, including a really cool floating ladder type thing.
At the top, we were treated to a view of the ocean below. Well…a view of some sort. The fog made it a little hard to see.
The way down the other side was easier with a real set of wooden stairs leading down directly in front of giant sea stack. As much as I am so done with the persistent clouds, fog, smoke & drizzle around these parts, I am also totally in awe of this wild and rugged coastline.
The second headland trail climb was even steeper than the first. While the rope was a helpful aid on the first climb, it was an absolute necessity on the second. You basically had to pull yourself up hand over hand while trying not to let the rope tangle between your legs.
The beach walking portion of this hike was easy peasy with lots of hard packed sand to walk on. We kept going for six miles until we reached Toleak Point. After finding a suitable piece of driftwood for lunch, we explored the tide pools and then slowly made our way back up the beach.