Wild Waters in Olympic National Park
At Sappho, U.S. 101 turns eastward across the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula, running through the Sol Duc Valley framed by high, forested ridges.
The Sol Duc Valley
A side road branches a dozen miles southeast to Sol Duc Hot Springs (elevation 1,643 feet), one of Washington’s few hot springs resorts. Michael Earles, an early lumber entrepreneur, built a four-story, 165-room hotel here in 1912. It offered every spa service and a wide range of recreational activities including golf and tennis. The hotel burned in 1916. Today’s resort offers cabins, a restaurant and gift shop. Mineral water bubbles from the earth at 128 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s piped into a swimming pool and three mineral water pools ranging in temperature from 99 to 105 degrees.
Olympic National Park’s Sol Duc Campground lies beside the Sol Duc River. There are several hiking trails in the area and at Salmon Cascades Overlook, 5 miles north of the resort, visitors can watch determined coho salmon negotiate the falls on their journey to upstream spawning grounds (late October to early November).
Return to U.S. 101. Shortly after re-entering the national park, the highway reaches the west end of Lake Crescent, a sparkling jewel set amidst high, forested mountains. The lake is 10 miles long and up to 624 feet deep (its bottom is below sea level). At the west end of the lake, the hamlet of Fairholm has a store, boat launch and campground.
U.S. 101 winds along the south shore to the park community of Lake Crescent, located on Barnes Point, a wooded peninsula at the edge of the lake. Nestled amid towering Douglas fir and western hemlock is the historic Lake Crescent Lodge. The original part of the lodge, known as Singer’s Lake Crescent Tavern, was built in 1915 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The complex also includes a variety of cabins and cottages.
The nearby Storm King Visitor Center provides information on fishing, hiking and other area activities. The center is named for Mount Storm King, which towers 4,000 feet above the eastern end of the lake. A mile-long trail leads to 90-foot Marymere Falls. The Spruce Railroad Trail (up to 10 miles there-and-back) follows the former railroad right-of-way hugging the north shore (one trailhead is at the north end of the lake off East Beach Road). East of the lake, U.S. 101 exits the park and skirts Lake Sutherland, fringed by vacation homes.
The Elwha River Valley
Just east of the hamlet of Elwha, the highway crosses the Elwha River, site of the country’s largest dam removal project to date. Starting in September 2011, two disused dams built in the early 20th century — one north of the highway and one south — were dismantled and their reservoirs drained in a landmark effort to restore the river’s once rich salmon run. The second and larger of the two dams was breached in fall 2014 and the Elwha River has resumed its free flow through the valley.
East of the Elwha River Bridge, the paved Olympic Hot Springs Road leads south into the park along the narrow Elwha River Valley. River flooding after the dam removal washed out the road, which is closed to vehicles beyond the Madison Falls parking lot.
The road is open to pedestrians and bicyclists, and gradually climbs for about 3.5 miles to the site of the former Glines Canyon Dam, where an overlook has been built on the remaining west stub of the dam. The view includes the river flowing across the bed of the former reservoir (Lake Mills). A tangle of alder is rapidly colonizing this newly exposed lake bed. At the end of the overlook you can peer down into the 200-foot-deep rocky canyon. Six interpretive panels describe the history of the dam, the dam removal project and the return of the salmon. Look for the restored salmon run from late July to early September.
The Olympic Hot Springs Road — still closed to vehicles, but popular with backpackers and bicyclists — continues through the forest, turning west to follow Boulder Creek. At the end of the road, a trail leads 2.5 miles to the primitive Olympic Hot Springs. Bathe at your own risk: The Park Service advises that the water quality of the hot springs is not monitored.
Back on U.S. 101, the highway follows the former east shore of Lake Aldwell. Take state Route 112 (the Juan de Fuca National Scenic Byway) to Camp Hayden Road and Salt Creek Recreation Area, located on beautiful Crescent Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The site was used during World War II as a harbor defense military base called Camp Hayden. The county park is notable for the Tongue Point Marine Life Sanctuary and its tide pools.
– Written by John King, last updated in October 2022.
– Top Image of kayaking Lake Crescent courtesy of Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau.