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Southwest Olympic Peninsula

Wild Coastal Beaches and Lush Rainforests of Olympic National Park

From Hoquiam, U.S. Route 101 strikes north, crossing a wooded lowland coursed by dozens of streams. Fish hatcheries near Humptulips and Neilton, tiny communities almost lost in the woods, are open to visitors (check state and federal websites before you go). North of Humptulips (its name means “chilly region”) a Forest Service road runs 24 miles east to the site of Grisdale, once a bustling lumber camp. The foothills north of here receive some of the highest rainfall totals in the 48 contiguous states. Wynoochee Lake, just north of Grisdale, records upwards of 150 inches per year.

Fall colors near Lake Quinault
Fall colors near Lake Quinault. Photo by iStock.

Lake Quinault

U.S. 101 reaches Lake Quinault, bracketed between two forested ridges at the southwest corner of Olympic National Park. The lake’s north shore is part of the park, while the south shore is under Forest Service administration. The lake itself is under tribal jurisdiction. The South Shore Road leads along the lake, passing several campgrounds and the scattered community of Quinault. Lake Quinault Lodge, built in 1926 and designed by Seattle architect Robert Reamer (who also designed Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn) is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its Roosevelt Dining Room recalls President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 visit to the lodge. Nearby, the small Lake Quinault Museum, located in the former post office, has historical displays.

Near Willaby Campground, nature trails lead through groves of ancient trees in an area known as the Valley of the Rainforest Giants. Farther east, a short trail leads to the world’s largest Sitka spruce, a 191-foot specimen more than 1,000 years old. The gravel road continues 17 miles along the Quinault River to Graves Creek in the southern part of the park. From road’s end, a trail continues into the wilderness heart of the park.

The North Shore Road runs through National Park Service land along the lake 6 miles to the Quinault Rainforest Ranger Station. The road continues (becoming gravel) another 9 miles, where a side road crosses the Quinault River to connect with the South Shore Road forming a pleasant loop drive. A gravel road continues a further 3 miles along the North Fork Quinault River to North Fork Campground where another trail follows the river deep into the wilderness high country.

At Lake Quinault, U.S. 101 strikes west, traversing the northern part of the Quinault Indian Reservation. Eleven miles west of the lake, Forest Road 21 winds a further 11 miles north to the strip of national park land that extends along the Queets River. Watch for logging trucks on this road. The glacial-carved upper reach of the valley is one of the park’s least-visited areas, a temperate rainforest of towering Sitka spruce and moss-draped bigleaf maple. The more direct Lower Queets Valley Road was severed by a 2005 landslide.

U.S 101 Along the Pacific Ocean

After crossing the Queets River, U.S. 101 reaches the Pacific Ocean at the village of Queets. The highway runs north along the beach for a dozen miles. This is the only point in Washington where U.S. 101 fronts the Pacific. This coastal strip, stretching north to beyond Cape Alava, was added to Olympic National Park in 1953. At the village of Kalaloch there is a lodge set on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Kalaloch Lodge is the only oceanfront national park hotel in the United States. A roadside pullout offers views of Destruction Island several miles offshore. Spanish explorers named it Isla de los Dolores (Island of Sorrows), recalling the death of several of the crew. Sea lions and seals crowd its rocky shore. Ruby Beach, a mile north, takes its name from tiny crystals of red garnet that give the sands a pinkish hue. It’s an easy stroll along the wide beach to the mouth of the Hoh River. Take care when crossing the driftwood piles that line the upper part of the beach. The highway turns inland following the Hoh River.

Hoh Rainforest
Hoh Rainforest. Photo by Pawel Gaul/Getty Images.

Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rainforest

Turn east on the Upper Hoh Road to the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center, 6 miles inside the boundary of Olympic National Park. This must-see area is one of the iconic habitats of the park, one of the finest remaining examples of temperate rainforest in the United States.

Here and in other west-facing valleys of the Olympics, moist Pacific air systems dump upwards of 200 inches of rain a year. The mild, damp climate nourishes lush vegetation. The tallest trees, some exceeding 200 feet, are Sitka spruce and Western hemlock. Beneath this canopy grow bigleaf maple. The forest floor is a tangle of vine maple and sword fern. Moss carpets the ground, coats tree trunks and drapes from branches. The scattered clearings are created by the browsing habits of the indigenous Roosevelt elk.

Trails in the Hoh area include the 0.8-mile Hall of Mosses, 1.2-mile Spruce Nature Trail and a short, paved Mini-Trail (ADA accessible). For the very energetic, the Hoh River Trail leads 18 miles to Blue Glacier.

Forks

U.S. 101 continues north. Bogachiel State Park offers hiking trails, fishing and camping beside its namesake stream. Just up the road is the bustling logging town of Forks. Lumbering has been an important industry in this area since the late 1800s. During World War I, the area’s vast stands of Sitka spruce — a major component in aircraft of the time — fostered a lumber boom. Freshwater fishing attracts anglers from throughout the continent. Area rivers support spectacular runs of steelhead during summer and winter. Professional guides offer their services. River rafting is also popular on the nearby Sol Duc, Bogachiel, Calawah and Hoh rivers.

The Forks Timber Museum on U.S. 101 at the south end of town showcases the development of logging and the town’s pioneer settlement. At the north end of town, Tillicum Park has Old No. 10, a Shay locomotive that hauled log trains on the former Rayonier railroad between Forks and Port Angeles.

Forks’ sluggish economy was given a boost by the “Twilight” novels and films set in the Forks area. Fans can visit sites like Forks High School, the Police Department and the Cullen House. Though reluctant at first, the town has embraced the phenomenon with themed shops and menu items. (Factoid: The movies were filmed in Oregon and British Columbia, not Forks.)

Second Beach
Second Beach. Photo by Tashka/Getty Images.

La Push

Two miles north of Forks, Washington State Route 110 branches 14 miles west to La Push, a Quileute Indian settlement overlooking the Pacific at the mouth of the Quillayute River (note the spelling difference). Its name is a Native American interpretation of the French la bouche, meaning “mouth.” The town’s relatively contemporary appearance belies its antiquity. Quileute peoples have been living here since the 12th century. The reservation was established in 1889. The Quileute Tribal Council building has displays of tribal artifacts.

The weatherworn town has a commercial and sport fishing fleet and is the access point to the spectacular wilderness beaches stretching north to Cape Alava and south to the mouth of the Hoh. The rugged coastline of isolated beaches and rocky headlands — part of Olympic National Park — is accessible by hiking trails. South of La Push, easy trails lead from S.R. 110 to secluded Second Beach and Third Beach. The Quillayute Needles, a group of sharp, rocky sea stacks, tower above the waves off Second Beach. In the spring and fall you might see gray whales offshore on their annual migration between Baja California and the Bering Sea. The beaches are popular with surfers, kayakers and winter storm watchers, who gather to view the crash of giant waves.

Across the Quillayute River from La Push, forest-rimmed Rialto Beach extends 4 miles north (This area is accessible by Washington State Route 110 Spur, which branches off S.R. 110 about 6 miles east of La Push). Tidepools dot the shore and tall sea stacks pierce the surf. The tunnel-like erosional feature known as Hole-in-the-Wall is about a 3-hour (one-way) hike north along the beach.

Beaver

Return to U.S. 101, which follows the Sol Duc Valley to the former logging camp town of Beaver. Located at the southern end of 500-acre Lake Pleasant, the town was originally called Tyee. On the west shore, Lake Pleasant County Park has a beach, picnic area and boat launch. Four miles up U.S. 101 is the hamlet of Sappho, named for the ancient poetess by a Greek resident. Until the 1960s, this was the site of the logging railway’s switching yard. The small Sol Duc Hatchery Interpretive Center, 1.5 miles east, depicts the life cycle of the salmon.

– Written by John King. Updated by Updated by Jim Hammerand in December 2020
– Top Image of Hoh Rainforest by Getty Images.

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