Start Your Olympic Peninsula Auto Tour in Olympia
Olympia, Washington’s seat of government since the territory was created in 1853, enjoys a dramatic setting on the wooded shores of Budd Inlet, the southernmost reach of Puget Sound. To the east rises the snowy dome of Mount Rainier. The craggy profile of the Olympic Mountains marks the northwestern horizon.
Head West Toward the Coast
At the south end of Olympia, head west on U.S. 101. This is the beginning of the Pacific Coast Highway, which circles the peninsula and heads south along the West Coast, ending in Los Angeles. Just west of Olympia we cross Mud Bay, an inlet of Puget Sound. Low tides expose a fringe of mud flats, which inspire its name. Oyster harvesting along these inlets dates back centuries. U.S. 101 swings north to Shelton and Hood Canal (this will be our itinerary on the return leg). Continue west on state Route 8, which climbs over the Black Hills, cloaked in second-growth forest.
McCleary and Elma
Twenty miles west of Olympia and a mile north of the highway stands McCleary, a lumber town with rows of company-built frame houses and the historic Old McCleary Hotel, built in 1912. The town is named for Henry McCleary, who established a sawmill in 1898. The door factory here was once the largest in the world.
State Route 8 continues west, entering the Chehalis River Valley, a lush landscape of dairy farms. At Elma we join U.S. 12. Named for pioneer settler Elma Austin, the town first prospered as a logging center; today it trades with valley farmers. Elma hosts the Grays Harbor County Fair each August. The huge concrete structures on the south side of the valley are the cooling towers of the never-completed Satsop nuclear power plant.
Montesano, seat of Grays Harbor County, is the birthplace of commercial forestry’s tree farm system. The Clemons Tree Farm, established in 1941, extends over vast areas north and south of town. Settlement here started in the early 1850s. Pleasant residential neighborhoods extend north and west of the downtown area, guarded on the north by the impressive 1912 Grays Harbor County Courthouse and its historical murals inside. The Vidette, a local weekly, has been publishing continuously since 1883, making it Washington’s oldest newspaper still in business. Rhododendrons add brilliant splashes of color throughout the town in May. A former church now houses the Chehalis Valley Historical Museum. Lake Sylvia State Park, a mile north of town on the site of the area’s first sawmill, features a 2-mile forest management interpretive trail.
Multi-lane U.S. 12 continues west through lush pasturelands to the Aberdeen-Hoquiam area, the largest population center on the Washington coast. Historically these were major lumber processing and shipping ports, although the timber-based economy is in decline. The sprawling waterfront mills and sorting and storage yards are considerably less active these days.
Aberdeen spreads across the flats on the north side of the bay at the point where the Wishkah and Chehalis rivers empty into Grays Harbor. Although the first settlers arrived in the late 1860s, the town wasn’t platted until 1883. First called Wishkah (from woos-kla, a Native American phrase loosely meaning “stinking water”), it was changed in 1884 to honor the Aberdeen Packing Co. in Ilwaco, which was in turn named for Aberdeen, Scotland.
From the start, the region’s great timber wealth was the city’s economic mainstay. In the early 1900s, Aberdeen became one of the West’s great timber ports and milling centers. Following a disastrous fire in 1903, the central business district was rebuilt with substantial brick structures, many of which remain. By 1910, dozens of lumber and shingle mills lined the waterfront and Aberdeen’s population rose to 17,000. The bars and bawdy houses of the waterfront district gave Aberdeen a reputation as a wide-open town. The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed the city’s growth, but employment surged during World War II and Aberdeen’s population peaked at 24,000 in the 1940s. Changing economies have left the city with a careworn visage, especially in the boarded-up storefronts and empty lots in its central core.
Wooded hills frame Aberdeen’s northern flank where pleasant neighborhoods such as Bel Aire command sweeping views of the city and harbor. Here the city’s entrepreneurs and elite built substantial homes designed by eastern architects in the Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Mission Revival and Prairie styles. Giant rhododendrons add brilliant splashes of color at their peak in May. At Sam Benn Park, paths lead through landscaped, rolling hills to a formal rose garden. This was part of pioneer Samuel Benn’s estate, acquired by the city in 1929.
Grays Harbor Historical Seaport is developing a maritime attraction on the South Aberdeen waterfront known as The Landing. Tours are available of the Lady Washington tall ship when it is in port. This full-scale replica of Captain Robert Gray’s 18th-century sailing brig starred as the HMS Interceptor in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.
Aberdeen is the birthplace of Kurt Cobain, the late lead singer and songwriter for 1990s grunge juggernaut Nirvana. Cobain spent his childhood here and met band co-founder Krist Novoselic in the mid 1980s. The two joined forces with drummer Dave Grohl (now of Foo Fighters fame) to launch the Seattle sound into the mainstream in the early ‘90s, but Nirvana’s meteoric rise ended after Cobain’s death in 1994. In Aberdeen, Cobain is memorialized on the city’s welcome sign, which invites visitors to “Come As You Are.” A large guitar sculpture marks Kurt Cobain Park near the Young Street Bridge, where the musician used to hang out.
Hoquiam borders Aberdeen on the west, straddling its namesake river. Hoquiam is a Chehalis word meaning hungry for wood, appropriate in view of its role as a forest products processor and exporter. The first European settlers arrived in the 1850s, grazing cattle in lush pastures beside the tide flats. By the late 1860s the settlement boasted a post office; the first school opened in 1873. California lumberman Asa Simpson opened a sawmill at the mouth of the Hoquiam River in 1882. After the arrival of railroads in the late 1880s and early 1890s, the lumber boom brought prosperity to the new city. Originally 4 miles apart, Hoquiam and Aberdeen have grown together — the boundary runs down the middle of Myrtle Street.
Downtown Hoquiam’s compact business district hugs the west bank of the Hoquiam River. As in Aberdeen, a large number of shops and buildings are boarded up. Built in 1927-28, the 7th Street Theatre was the first in the state to show talking motion pictures — today it hosts concerts and plays. At the foot of 8th and 9th streets a walkway leads along the Hoquiam River. The Port of Grays Harbor Centennial Viewing Tower at the foot of 28th Street (south of U.S. 101 in the eastern part of Hoquiam) overlooks the industrial harbor, where logs are sorted and loaded onto cargo vessels. Most of the cargo is bound for the Far East. On the opposite bank along Riverside Avenue is the Grays Harbor Farmers Market and Craft Fair, open year-round.
Several historic homes, former abodes of the city’s timber barons, are worth a look. Hoquiam’s Castle is a 20-room turreted Victorian gem, built in 1897 as the home of Robert Lytle. This former bed-and-breakfast is now a private residence, so please respect their privacy. The hilly neighborhood north of here features other substantial residences set amid lush landscaping.
The Polson Museum on the east bank of the Hoquiam River was the home of lumber heir F. Arnold Polson. The 6,500-square-foot, Craftsman-style mansion was built in 1924. Note the floorboards made of western hemlock — they run knot-free from wall to wall and are indicative of the high-quality timber of the region’s original virgin forest. The 26-room home’s interior contains historical displays of the Grays Harbor area. The surrounding park contains a rose garden (the site of the original mansion) and many exotic trees. The museum has opened a Railroad Camp to house its large collection of heavy machinery from the logging industry, including a Baldwin locomotive.
West of Hoquiam, the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge protects an expanse of tide flats and marsh grass, prime habitat for migratory birds that gather in great flocks during spring and fall. Peak birding occurs in April and early May, when hundreds of thousands of birds congregate to feed. Prime viewing is from two hours before and after high tide. The site is open daily during daylight hours.
–Written by John King. Last updated in July 2022.
–Top Image of Chehalis River near Montesano by John Callery/Getty Images.