Explore the Rugged Beauty of Port Angeles Blessed by the Olympic Rain Shadow
Framed by the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Port Angeles is wildly scenic and much more than just a handy place to stock up and refuel before heading to Olympic National Park or taking the ferry to Victoria, B.C.
There are more sunny, dry winter days in Port Angeles than Seattle because of the rain shadow from the Olympics, which block some of the Pacific Ocean moisture that drenches the outer coast and the moss-swaddled Hoh and Quinault rainforests. Although nearby Sequim is drier and sunnier than Port Angeles — and gets a lot more attention for its lavender fields and mild, sunny, winter weather as a result — Port Angeles even gets more summer sun than Seattle.
Linger in the Olympic Rain Shadow and learn about native tribal history, search for local marine life, enjoy the harbor’s expansive water and mountain views, and plan time to take in sights on the many scenic routes to Port Angeles.
Life on the Water
The native Klallam people have lived in this region for at least 2,700 years and were here when European settlers founded Port Angeles in 1862. A 1750 Klallam Tribal village and 1889 European settler colony are depicted on the Ennis Creek Mural (pictured), one of the many artworks on the city’s mural trail.
Since the founding of the modern city, this deep water harbor has been used for lumber, pulp and paper mills. One of those mills was built over the site of a former Klallam village, Tse-whit-zen (pronounced ch-WHEET-son) at the base of Ediz Hook, the curving, 3-mile long spit that extends from Port Angeles harbor into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Tse-whit-zen means inner harbor, says Jamie Valadez, a tribal member who teaches Klallam language and history (the Klallam language is seen on street signs downtown) at Port Angeles High School. “There was lots of seafood, lots of resources, which allowed for very rich development of culture.”
The village was inadvertently unearthed during construction work in 2003 after being buried for more than 100 years. Today, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe displays cultural and historical artifacts from the village at the Carnegie Museum downtown. The tribe has contributed to a host of environmental improvements to the harbor, working to remove industrial contaminants, improving salmon habitat, and cleaning up and restoring more than a mile of Ediz Hook’s interior shoreline, making it prime habitat for wildlife and a pleasure to visit.
The hook can be hiked, biked, paddled or driven from the Sail & Paddle Park out to Harborview Park near the Coast Guard station at the end of the hook. Ships and whales pass through year-round, and watch for seal pups on the beaches from June into September, giving them a wide berth and keeping dogs leashed at all times.
From the waterfront, the 130-mile Olympic Discovery Trail crosses the North Olympic Peninsula with paved trails for bikers from Port Townsend to the Elwha River and a mix of paved and dirt trails beyond to the Olympic Coast. Adventure awaits even on a short walk east from Port Angeles: Keep your eyes peeled for river otter families frolicking near the trail, on the rocky shoreline or in the water.
Touch tanks and an eelgrass bed at the Feiro Marine Life Center replicate Olympic Peninsula marine habitats and offer visitors a chance to see some of the thousands of creatures that live in the region’s world-class tidepools, even when it’s too dark and rainy to see them in the wild or when the tide is too high. Because the lowest low tides are at night in winter, Feiro is your best bet for off-season tidepooling.
The catch of the day at Port Angeles restaurants is usually fresh off a local boat, whose hauls are the main event at the annual Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival in October. Dates and rules vary for recreational crabbing and fishing; Make sure you have the right license before you go.
Port Angeles is the gateway to Olympic National Park for most visitors. The closest gem is Hurricane Ridge, which offers incredible vistas on and off the road and year-round opportunities to explore — if you’re prepared.
Days and hours for winter visits are limited and road closures are common when the weather gets wild, but there’s plenty of fun when Hurricane Ridge is blanketed in snow: skiing, tubing and snowshoeing, ranger-led walks, and snow sports concessions at the visitor center. Check for road and weather alerts.
The road opens 24 hours in summer (roughly May through September). This is the most popular time of year, so come early to beat crowds.
Lovely hikes with panoramic views of snowy peaks abound, from a short trail on pavement near the visitor center to the longer, steeper 3.2-mile (round-trip) Hurricane Hill hike into the habitat of the endearing, housecat-sized Olympic marmots that live in these alpine meadows above 4,000 feet. You’ll also see deer and spectacular wildflowers during much of the summer.
Olympic National Park’s Elwha River once teemed with five species of native salmon. Since the removal of two dams as part of an immense National Park Service restoration project that’s still in progress, salmon have fresh access to their natal stream, protected from anglers until at least July 2021. The river meets the strait at Freshwater Bay, where sea stacks, rocky cliffs, marine life and both rocky intertidal and sandy shoreline surround the paddle-friendly, sheltered waters of Freshwater Bay County Park.
More shoreline fun is at Clallam County’s Salt Creek Recreation Area, with a sand beach, tidepools, access to hiking trails and the remains of a World War II bunker to explore.
For a wilder, more remote beach experience, head about 37 miles west of Salt Creek on Highway 112 to Clallam Bay Spit and Clallam Bay West, two county parks where you can look for seabirds, sea lions and seals and spot gray whales feeding in spring.
From the mouth of the Elwha River, look south to the Olympics for the shape of the Sleeping Lady of the Mountains, who will awaken with an earthquake if the region’s inhabitants can’t live in balance with their surroundings, the Klallam story goes.
“She is a constant reminder to always take care of the land,” Valadez says.
Scenic Drives to Port Angeles
Leave plenty of time for the journey to Port Angeles for views, historic sites, fascinating towns and options for dallying all along the way.
Taking the ferry from Edmonds to Kingston allows a detour to the beach and views at Point No Point Lighthouse & Park, as well as a slow drive through the tiny town of Port Gamble, a quaint sawmill village established in 1853 and preserved as a national historic district.
A ferry ride from Seattle offers the opportunity to stop in charming downtown Bainbridge Island or visit the saltwater shoreline and decommissioned World War II structures of Fort Ward Park. Farther on is Poulsbo, where the town’s Norwegian heritage is reflected in its decorative architecture and cuisine.
From Tacoma, the drive is faster if you skip the scenic ferry routes, but what’s the rush? (When returning from Port Angeles and the Olympic Peninsula on Sundays, check ferry wait times to see if the Bainbridge ferry has less traffic than the Kingston ferry.)
All of these routes to Port Angeles will take you across the Hood Canal Floating Bridge, unless you decide to indulge in a Hood Canal side trip, which also means you won’t risk waiting for the bridge to reopen while a ship or submarine passes through. Hood Canal Floating Bridge closure alerts by text message are available from the Washington State Department of Transportation.
From there you’ve arrived at the North Olympic Peninsula, where you can explore more of the rain shadow, including the hilly, Victorian-studded maritime city of Port Townsend and the meadowy farm community of Sequim, where Roosevelt elk and retirees roam. Dungeness Spit offers a longer (at about 10 miles), wilder version of Ediz Hook but blessed by the same rain shadow that shines on Port Angeles.
–Written by Maria Dolan, last updated in September 2022.
–Top Photo of Hurricane Ridge by Visit Port Angeles/Adam-McKibben
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.