The snow-topped peaks of the Olympics are a mercurial sight from Seattle, vanishing in fog and rain only to reappear again when the skies clear. First explored by non-natives only in 1890, when a Seattle newspaper sent an expedition across Puget Sound to do so, the Olympics and their peninsula of 3,600 square miles (9,324 square kilometers) are still surprisingly, romantically wild. Even now no roads traverse the interior, which remains a redoubt of elk and old-growth forest, protected by Olympic National Park and the rugged, saw-toothed peaks of the Olympic Range.
Enter the loop highway, 101, at its junction with 104, then follow it for 330 miles (531 kilometers) around the peninsula counterclockwise via Port Angeles to Aberdeen; take Highway 12 inland to just west of Olympia, then follow 101 north to complete the loop along the Hood Canal.
Start in Seattle
Cross the Hood Canal Bridge to reach the Olympic Peninsula, connect with 101, then quickly turn right on Highway 20 for a quick detour to Port Townsend. It's "the most sophisticated place west of Seattle," known for its Victorian architecture, art galleries, and wine bars, says one resident. Back on 101, proceed toward Sequim. As you approach this small town surrounded by lavender farms and clusters of retirees' RVs, you'll come inside the peninsula's rain shadow—in which the mountains to the west drain the Pacific storms, leaving clear skies. Watch for views of the peaks, an alpine watercolor framed by your windshield. Stop for a bite at Sawadee Thai Cuisine (271 S. 7th St., Sequim; tel. 1 360 683 8188), which bustles with locals hungering for fresh curries.
The Dungeness Spit
Beyond Sequim, turn north to see the Dungeness Spit, one of the world's longest natural sand spits. The area was declared a national wildlife refuge in 1915 because of the abundance of bird species—over 250—that you find here, making it a bird-watcher's paradise.
A bit father along 101, as you continue moving counterclockwise around the northeast corner of the peninsula, you reach Port Angeles. This coastal logging town at the doorstep of Olympic National Park offers a possible side trip: From here you can catch the ferry over to the wonderfully British city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. But there's plenty to see on this side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca as well. Stay overnight and enjoy the gourmet breakfast at the Domaine Madeleine (146 Wildflower La., Port Angeles; tel. 1 888 811 8376; www.domainemadeleine.com), an elegant B&B. Take a day trip out to Hurricane Ridge, which offers a panoramic view of snowy peaks, probably the best views of the park available by road. "We like being at the ends of the Earth here," says one Port Angeles resident. "Where else in the world do you have this beautiful coastline, mountains, and glaciers?"
Soon the road forks. If you bear right and take Highway 112, you'll end up at Neah Bay, the westernmost point reachable by car in Washington state. Here the Makah Indian tribe (www.makah.com) has a cultural center and gift shop. And you can camp, hike, or fish in the vicinity.
If you bear left at the fork, and stay on Highway 101, you'll soon be along the shores of Lake Crescent, "the most beautiful lake in the United States," boasts one local. Each bend opens another vista more transcendent than the last. The road traces the southern shore of the lake, dipping inside the park boundary. The views rival anything in the Alps. Spend the night at the rustic Lake Crescent Lodge (416 Lake Crescent Rd.; tel. 1 360 928 3211; www.lakecrescentlodge.com); ask for a lakeside cottage with fireplace.
Sol Duc Hot Springs
Another classic resort in the park is Sol Duc Hot Springs (tel. 1 866 476 5382; www.visitsolduc.com), offering cool hikes in misty forests and hot soaks in heated pools.
As Highway 101 rounds the corner and turns south, watch for the turnoff to 110, leading to La Push, a town surrounded by the coastal section of Olympic National Park and just outside the Quileute Indian Reservation. For views of the Pacific surf and nearby sea stacks, stay at Oceanside Resort (320 Ocean Dr.; tel. 1 360 374 5267; www.quileutenation.org), owned and run by the tribe.
Forks Timber Museum
Back on 101, heading south, you're soon in the logging town of Forks. Stop at the Forks Timber Museum (1421 S. Forks Ave.; tel. 1 360 374 9663), built by the town's high schoolers back in 1990 as an homage to the local timber industry. The museum has displays of equipment and artifacts dating back to the 1870s.
Hoh Rain Forest
One of the real highlights of the drive is a hike in the Hoh Rain Forest in the heart of the national park. Here Sitka spruce and western hemlock reach heights of up to 300 feet (91 meters), the moss-covered giants thriving on some 150 inches (381 centimeters) of rainfall a year. The Hoh is like Tolkien's Middle-earth, a supernatural world of fantastic shapes. Like laser beams, shafts of sunlight pierce the wet air, causing steam to rise wherever they strike the soggy forest floor. Enjoy a visitors center (Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, tel. 1 360 374 6925; www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/visting-the-hoh.htm), campground, picnic area, and self-guided trail.
Quinault Rain Forest
As wonderful as the Hoh is, some locals prefer the Quinault Rain Forest (www.quinaultrainforest.com), which is farther south along the loop. "In the summer it sees fewer tourists," says one. Enjoy a lake, river, and hiking trails. Drive the 30-mile (48-kilometer) loop around Lake Quinault for great views of forests and mountains. Stay at the romantic Lake Quinault Lodge (tel. 1 888 896 3827; www.visitlakequinault), a favorite for weddings, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Drive on to Grays Harbor on the peninsula's southern end, where you pick up Highway 12. Stop in Hoquiam to see the national wildlife refuge (www.fws.gov/graysharbor), a habitat for shorebirds, and the Polson Museum (www.polsonmuseum.org), a local history museum housed in a former private mansion dating to 1924.
Closing the Loop
Rounding the southern end of the loop and heading back north on 101, stop in Shelton, home of Nita's Restaurant and Gallery (325 W. Railroad Ave.; tel. 1 360 426 6143), known for its good diner fare, including berry milk shakes. Continue up 101 as it follows the Hood Canal. As you close out the loop, there are a number of state parks where you can stop along the way to stretch your legs or camp overnight. Before rejoining 104, take a detour drive—about five miles south of the town of Quilcene—to the summit of Mount Walker. The four-mile (six-kilometer) gravel road is narrow and steep but okay for passenger cars. The payoff at the top are broad views of Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, and Seattle.
Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau (tel. 1 800 942 4042, www.olympicpeninsula.org); Port Townsend guide (http://www.cityofpt.us/); Port Angeles guide (www.portangeles.org), Olympic National Park (Port Angeles; tel. 1 360 565 3130, www.nps.gov/olym).
—Text by Andrew Nelson