Olympic National Park, WA State, USA
Dates: Too many to count but mostly in Summer and Fall.
Route: Drove from Seattle using ferry from Edmonds to Kingston. Stayed in Forks.
~3.5 hours from our home in Seattle lies one of the most beautiful parts of the planet and among the top of all we have seen in our travels so far. The first glimpse of the ocean with massive sea stacks (rocks) strewn about is akin to a passionate kiss from nature herself. The rainforests, glaciated mountains, lush trails, and one of the longest stretch of undisturbed coastlines in the US mainland will leave you wanting more and forever in love. In every visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site you will discover new parts of the coast, see spectacular sunsets, or watch the moon rise over an otherworldly beach. This unique and relatively underrated place will fill you with wonder and amazement of the beauty of nature. Since there is no better place in the world than the US Pacific Northwest in the summer, think long days (17+ hours of light) and mild weather, we tend to stay local for all of it. And much of that time is spent camping and exploring this beautiful place.
For photographers, it is critical you plan your visit during a day when it is going to be mostly sunny. Partially sunny days in Forks (the closest town to report weather) almost assures a cloudy day on the beach as there is a marine layer to contend with. Of all the times we have been, there has only been a handful of days, all in the summer, where we got the sun needed for the photos you enjoy here. That being said, rain and wintertime offer nature’s version of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and great for monochrome photography. Even in the summer, the temperature drops very quickly after sunset, so make sure to bring a warm jacket and shoes. You can swim in the water but it is very cold and we only recommend it on a warm, sunny day. Finally, camping is the best way to experience and feel what the park has to offer. Besides campsites that are inland and offer basic facilities, beach camping is also very popular and an experience that is amazing given the scenery on offer. There are things you should be aware of (keeping food away from bears for example) and you can plan your entire stay here. If camping is not your thing, we recommend the Dew Drop Inn in Forks which is a good base for exploring the region. Finally, note that most beaches and campsites do not have any cellular signal so plan around that. For us, this is just the icing on the cake of what an Olympic experience is all about.
Our second favorite place, this beach is also very close to where we usually camp. Rialto offers a long, easy walk that showcases all the best of what beaches here offer. With the backdrop of a cluster of rocks known as Little James Island, one can see the much-photographed driftwood, tide pools, colored beach rocks, and spot seals, otters, and even a whale. The 2 mile walk culminates in the infamous Hole in the Wall which is a spectacular natural rock arch that serves as a gateway to an adjacent beach. The beach itself is flat and very easy to walk on, but bring sandals as it is rocky. Make sure to check tidal tables as the Hole (and adjacent beach) is only accessible during low tides. Make sure you also come back in time before high tide cuts off your path back. Besides Little James Island and the massive driftwood, there are a cluster of rocks before the Hole that also offer many scenic shots.
While the right side of the beach from where you enter is part of the national park, the left side belongs to the Quileute Tribe. There is a long breakwater that runs from the beach entry area to just in front of Little James Island. This is a great place to walk down to just in front of the island at low tide. Note that this is a man-made breakwater and you will be jumping over huge rocks. We do not recommend doing this after dark so make sure you come back in time. After Ruby, this is the next best place to watch the sunset. We almost always used to camp at the Mora campground which is on Mora Road. But, two years ago we discovered the ‘Biker Camp’ which is just down the road and run by two “hippies”, Billy and Bob, who have become our friends. They offer a very unique experience where you can camp on their large property along with a communal fire pit that is lively at night. The camp is based on the 70s concept of love and sharing and the experience reflects it. We have met many interesting people here and made some friends along the way. Unless you really want your own campsite and fire (Mora), we highly recommend this place. And in the same spirit, the cost is also whatever you want to donate. If you do go, tell them you are our friends.
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La Push, Second and Third Beaches
An alternate view of Little James Island and also it’s big brother, James Island, can be seen by driving down to the Quileute town of La Push. While you can’t access Rialto beach from here, the beach-side parking lot offers a spectacular view between the two islands. This is also where we took the moon rise picture in the gallery below. There is also a nice beach on the southern side that is owned by the tribe and allows for overnight camping. Along La Push road also lie two interesting beaches, Second and Third. Both offer similar views within secluded beaches of rock stacks, crashing waves, tidal pools and the usual beach creatures. More rugged than Rialto, the hike to Second Beach is about 2 miles long and goes through forest and some muddy areas. We also saw swarms of birds here which made for some good photographs. The hike to neighboring Third beach is a bit shorter but harder, though nothing the average person could not overcome. Third Beach also offers a view of a waterfall plunging directly into the Ocean. Parking for both is off La Push road.
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Cape Flattery and Neah Bay
Located at the northwestern most part of the contiguous US, Neah Bay is the last “city” before Canada. Home to the Makah Indian Nation, the town itself is unremarkable and fairly maritime industrial. The town is known for the Makah Cultural and Research Center Museum which showcases the Makah culture, the region’s animals, places to see on the reservation, and the skeleton of a grey whale as the tribes believes in and practices whaling. It is also where you have to get a permit to use Makah land to go to Shi Shi, for example. We only passed through on our way to Cape Flattery, which is the actual northwestern most point. This point is isolated but reachable via a relatively easy ~1 mile trial which weaves through a coastal forest on a wooden boardwalk and sometimes muddy trail. This eventually ends on a platform that offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and a churning forest of kelp and seaweed below. There is also a view of Tatoosh Island which is technically the northwestern most land mass of the US. There is a beautiful lighthouse on this island which is in the video we have posted. Though we did not go to the island, Pinot was able to do it just fine and also managed to get a video of sea lions on the way back. The area is also teeming with eagles, shorebirds, otters, seals and whales, all of which can be seen from this platform. We also did a small side hike to see a hidden cave with emerald green waters, the path to which can be found just to the right before reaching the main platform.
Finally, we also wanted to mention that there are many lovely, secluded beaches on the way to Neah Bay. You will see them off to your right as you drive down Highway 112 and most can be walked down to off the road. One town worthy of mention along the way is Sekiu which has a large, protected harbour and many RV camping sites.
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Lake Ozette and the Ozette Triangle
Lake Ozette is the largest natural lake in WA state and access to it is very limited. The single Ozette Lake Road provides access to Ozettle Ranger Station from where one can explore the area. The lake itself can be seen from the Ozette Campground which is a short walk from the parking lot. It’s beauty lies in its isolation and utter lack of human pollution but there is nothing remarkable about it. But, from here one can embark on the Ozette Triangle, which is a ~9 mile hike that is anchored by Cape Alava to the north and Sand Point to the south. The hike itself leads through a dense forest along an elevated boardwalk. You can read all about this hike here. We only hiked to Cape Alava as the tide was low and the beach was teeming with flies and rotting kelp. It was actually bad enough that we went back for a total of 6.2 miles vs. going south to Sand Point and then back to the Ozette Ranger Station. We do want to go back and see Wedding Rocks which contain ancient petroglyphs of the Makah.
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Hoh Rain Forest
A yearly total of 140-170 inches of rain creates a lush, green canopy of trees, ferns, moss, and a myriad of other flora that all combine to form one of the best remaining examples of temperate rainforest in the US. The entrance to the forest lies about an hour drive south of Forks off Highway 101. There are two short trails just off the Visitor Center that showcase all that the forest has to offer. For the really adventurous (and fit), there is a 17 mile hike to a glacier at Glacier Meadows which also requires overnight camping. We did both of the short trails and have not braved the other one yet.