Olympic National Park: Planning

In January, my cousin Kathrin visited Chicago. She is looking to move on from our native Michigan, and while Chicago is on her list of potentially livable cities, so are Seattle and Portland. Kathrin suggested that Sean and I travel with her to both cities at the end of April. She and Sean had been to Seattle, but not Portland. I had never been farther north on the West Coast than Napa Valley. Sean and I were game for the trip, and soon we had our dates set.

That there are three National Parks within two or three hours of Seattle was not at all lost on me. And once we decided to fly in and out of Seattle and drive a rental car to and from Portland, it became obvious that we should stop at Mount Rainier National Park on the way. Rainier seemed an easy choice because it’s between the two cities, not out on the peninsula like Olympic or two and a half hours northeast of Seattle (the opposite direction from Portland) like North Cascades.

But soon the realities of just how snowy Rainier would still be settled on us, and I proposed Olympic as an alternative. Even if the parks’ mountains were still snowbound, the beaches and rain forests would be accessible.

Why not visit a rain forest in spring?

A late April trip to either Rainier or North Cascades would have involved driving as far into the park as weather would allow, seeing some nice scenery, and driving out. Olympic, on the other hand, was three hours from Portland at its southern end (we’d determined to do the park at our trip’s midpoint on the way back up to Seattle) and two hours from Seattle on its northern end. I figured it would take a couple more hours to drive around and through the park (not counting spur roads into things we wanted to see). It would be a full day, but not unlike Sean’s and my 24-hour visit to Joshua Tree.

I finished Tim McNulty’s Olympic National Park, a Natural History on the flight to Seattle, and I had already printed out most of the park’s various brochures and stowed them in my backpack.

There are no roads through the Olympic Mountains, and the various Pacific coast areas of the park are separated by state, federal, tribal, and private lands from the core mountain and forest areas. Our plan was to drive north from Portland on I-5, then west to Aberdeen, Washington, and finally north on US 101, which circumnavigates the Olympic Peninsula on the west, north, and east. We would visit Quinault Rain Forest, continue to some of the southern coastal beaches including Ruby Beach, and then drive into Hoh Rain Forest. After Hoh, we’d figure out how much time we had left and whether we should try and go back to the coast at La Push or head partway into the mountains in the Sol Duc Valley. We’d see Lake Crescent by default because 101 hugs its southern shores before reaching Port Angeles.

That was the plan at 10:30pm on the last Wednesday in April when we met Kathrin in the terminal at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Her flight from Detroit had landed about forty-five minutes before ours. We headed to the glamorous Red Roof Inn Sea-Tac to get some sleep before the morning’s drive to Portland.

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