The Scenic Route to Olympia
U.S. Route 101 traverses the eastern portion of the Olympic Peninsula 83 miles from Discovery Bay to Olympia. The highway leads south from the head of the bay, following Snow Creek. State Route 104 branches east, leading to the Hood Canal Bridge and the Kitsap Peninsula. U.S. 101 continues south, passing two lakes: Crocker and Leland, the latter fringed with summer homes.
The easternmost ramparts of the Olympics rise west and south of Quilcene. The town nestles between the Big and Little Quilcene rivers near the head of its namesake bay, an arm of Hood Canal. The original townsite on the bay dates back to the 1860s — here you’ll see an oyster farm and the Herb Beck Marina. Collecting salal, huckleberry and sword fern for the commercial flower market has become an important cottage industry.
Quilcene is renowned for its namesake oysters, a delicacy on tables throughout the West. There are several oyster hatcheries and the state’s Point Whitney Shellfish Laboratory on Quilcene Bay. The Quilcene Historical Museum has displays about the town’s early industries.
South of Quilcene, U.S. 101 enters Olympic National Forest and swings around the base of Mount Walker. A narrow, 4-mile gravel road (dusty in summer and subject to closure in winter) encircles the peak, climbing up to its 2,800-foot summit. Short trails lead to two viewpoints where panoramas encompass a vast territory from the Olympics eastward across the Puget Lowlands to the distant Cascades. A steep, 2-mile trail also ascends Walker’s southwest flank to the summit. Grades on the trail reach 25%.
Blossoms add color to the lowland woods during the months of May and June. Look for the bright pink of western rhododendron (Washington’s state flower) and the creamy white of Pacific dogwood and madrona. The latter tree is easy to recognize with its glossy evergreen leaves, reddish-orange peeling bark and clusters of small orange fruit in late summer. Its name comes from the Spanish — madroño — meaning “strawberry tree,” a related species found in southern Europe. Canadians know the madrona as arbutus.
Continuing south, the highway drops to the shore of Hood Canal, an 80-mile-long inlet separating the Olympic Peninsula from the Kitsap Peninsula. Capt. Vancouver named this feature for a lord of the British Admiralty in 1792. U.S. 101 hugs its western shore for 30 scenic miles. Seal Rock, a U.S. Forest Service recreation area with shellfishing and camping, is the only place in Washington where national forestland touches saltwater shoreline. The quarter-mile Shell Midden Trail has signs explaining the natural and human history of the site. If you’re lucky, you may see a harbor seal. This is Hood Canal’s widest point, at 6 miles to the opposite shore. The main channel bends east around the Toandos Peninsula, while broad Dabob Bay extends to the north.
Brinnon is named for pioneer Elwell Brinnon, who homesteaded here in 1860. Dosewallips State Park on the north side of Brinnon includes a mile of shoreline at the mouth of the Dosewallips River, named after Doswailopsh, a mythical Twana chief who was transformed into a mountain. The canal’s tideflats beckon amateur naturalists. A magnificent view extends westward up the valley of the Dosewallips, framed by a backdrop of rugged Olympic peaks. Brinnon hosts an annual Shrimpfest in May. Just north of the river is Whitney Gardens & Nursery, noted for their azaleas and rhododendrons, some planted in the 1950s. Blossom season extends from February through May.
Forest Road 2610 follows the Dosewallips River west 15 miles into the eastern part of Olympic National Park. Three miles up the road, a short, unmarked trail leads north to Rocky Brook Falls. This little-known gem, spilling 125 feet down a stone escarpment, is at its best in winter, spring and early summer. The road beyond is washed out and closed to vehicle traffic, but hikers can still use the Dosewallips Campground, flanked by 7,000-foot peaks with trails leading up the valley into wilderness.
South of Brinnon, U.S. 101 skirts the small bay of Pleasant Harbor with a marina and state park at the end of Black Point. A mile further south, the Duckabush River empties into the canal. The origin of its name is unclear: either Doheabos (“reddish face,” the name of a Twana village at its mouth) or Duckaboos, chief of the mythical Salmon People.
The narrow Duckabush River Road (Forest Road 2510) branches 7 miles west into the Olympic National Forest, where a trail continues deep into the Olympics. Four miles up the road, the historic Interrorem Cabin (circa 1907) is the oldest building in this national forest and can be rented year-round. Beyond Collins Campground, a trail leads into The Brothers Wilderness and Olympic National Park.
Triton Cove State Park offers access to Hood Canal, a boat launch and a few picnic tables. South on U.S. 101, Forest Road 25 (Hamma Hamma Road) branches west following the Hamma Hamma River into Olympic National Forest. A Twana village called Hab Hab (meaning “reeds”) that formerly stood at its mouth gives the river its name. Three miles south is Eldon, another shoreside community that started out as a logging camp in the early 1900s.
U.S. 101 parallels Hood Canal for 9 miles to Lilliwaup, a community of summer homes on a small bay. Its name is derived from an American Indian word meaning “inlet.” Settlers arrived in the 1850s, although the town was not platted until 1890. That June, the O’Neal expedition set out from Lilliwaup to explore the unknown interior of the Olympic Peninsula. Members of the party reached Hoquiam in October, having made the first recorded transect of the rugged peninsula. O’Neal concluded in an 1896 report to Congress that the Olympic interior was too rugged for anything except a national park.
Settlement of Hoodsport, a string of cottages along the shore, started in the early 1880s. The foothills of the Olympics west of town hold small deposits of copper and manganese. Sporadic mining continued into the 1940s. Hoodsport Winery on U.S. 101 offers tastings of wines from vineyards around Washington. (Please remember to designate a driver). Hoodsport’s Hood Canal Visitor Information Center, a block west of U.S. 101 on state Route 119, offers information on recreation on the nearby national forest and park lands.
From Hoodsport, state Route 119 leads northwest 16 miles to Staircase in Olympic National Park. The road passes Lake Cushman, a reservoir set in a deep forested valley. The original lake was inundated by the reservoir in the early 1920s, submerging the elegant Antlers Hotel.
Skokomish Park at Lake Cushman (formerly Lake Cushman State Park) offers swimming, boating, camping, picnic sites and miles of trails. Mountain biking and mushroom collecting are also popular. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of human occupation in this area dating back at least 6,000 years.
Beyond the state park, state Route 119 re-enters Olympic National Forest, becoming Forest Road 24. It follows the north shore of the lake for several miles, then the North Fork Skokomish River into the southeast corner of Olympic National Park. The road may be gated at the park boundary during inclement weather. The road ends at Staircase (elevation 875 feet), a summer season ranger station and campground.
This area was explored in 1890 by the Joseph O’Neal expedition. Its name derives from The Devil’s Staircase, a particularly difficult sector encountered by the trekkers. Snowclad heights — their lower slopes cloaked in thick forest of giant Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar — tower more than 5,000 feet above the valley. This is one of the lesser visited parts of the park. Trails follow the North Fork Skokomish into the park’s interior. The easy, 2-mile Staircase Rapids Loop leads through old growth forest along the river to the rapids.
Retrace the route back to Hoodsport. U.S. 101 continues south to the village of Potlatch, established as a lumber company town in 1900. The large concrete structure just west of the highway is a hydroelectric facility that generates electricity for Tacoma.
Potlatch State Park overlooks The Great Bend where Hood Canal curves off to the east. Local tribes set up winter villages on these shores and the park’s name recalls their traditional gift-giving ceremonies. The highway runs through the Skokomish Reservation, established by the Point No Point Treaty in 1855. The tribe’s Lucky Dog Casino beckons with slot machines and games of chance. U.S. 101 crosses the Skokomish River with the snowcapped Olympics as a backdrop on the northern horizon.
Located on Oakland Bay, an inlet of Puget Sound, Shelton is a forest products town dominated by the sprawling waterfront mill. Simpson Timber Co., the mill’s original owner, operated one of the country’s last logging railroads until 2015. The 31-mile line linked the mill with timberlands west of the city. Specialty tree farms in the area lend Shelton its nickname: Washington’s Christmas Tree Capital.
The Mason County Historical Museum is in a former library built in 1914. A block east stands a 90-ton Shay locomotive that hauled log flatcars to the mill from 1924 until 1958. The Shelton-Mason County Chamber’s Visitor Information Center is housed in the caboose. Oysters are an important local delicacy and Shelton celebrates OysterFest in October.
From downtown, Washington State Route 3 heads south and rejoins four-lane U.S. 101, which continues to Kamilche, site of the Squaxin Tribe’s Little Creek Casino Resort. A mile east on Old Olympic Highway is the Squaxin Island Museum Library and Research Center, filled with tribal artifacts. Inlets at the southernmost reach of Puget Sound such as Skookum, Totten and Eld are renowned for their oyster beds.
U.S. 101 curves east, enters the western suburbs of Olympia and meets Interstate 5, completing our Olympic Peninsula auto tour.
– Written by John King. Last updated in July 2022.
– Top Image of a Hood Canal pier by Jaime Pharr/Getty Images.