We’re just six days into fall, but it’s taking a little while for things to cool down here in New York City. As a fall-loving person, I often spend much of summer wishing that a few clouds would make an appearance and that the burning heat and humidity would give way to crisp wind, blue and purple skies, and the smell of turning leaves. The simple fact of the matter is that the wait for fall can be really long and full of anticipation. But this year, Sarah, our cousin Kim, and I were lucky enough to get a sneak preview of fall with a late summer escape to the Pacific Northwest––specifically, Olympic National Park.
We’ve become somewhat known for our outdoorsy escapes–our regular pilgrimages to hug trees, nearly break our necks on narrow trails, catch our dinner, and revel in psychedelic Joshua tree forests. It’s only natural that once we touch down from our vacations, it’s not long before we’re planning our next trip.
As with our other cross-country camping trips, we packed two big suitcases of gear and hopped on a plane to Seattle. After a little meal planning, we grabbed our Trader Joe’s provisions and headed out on the long drive to Olympic National Park. (Word to the wise, if you are planning a trip to Olympic National Park, it is BIG. Plan out your trip and your routes beforehand to save time!)
(So, did you notice “ʔənʔá č’ə́yəxʷ Olympic National Park.” on the sign? That foreign string of characters is actually the word “welcome” in Klallam, the language of local indigenous people on the Olympic Peninsula!)
On the drive up, the warm summer sun gave way to cool breezes and mountain views. We managed to get to the Olympic National Park visitor’s center an hour before it closed, where, like the bright-eyed bushy-tailed campers we were, we inquired about the best trails and where we could sleep for the night.
We knew we were taking a gamble with the first-come, first-served campgrounds, but we also failed to account for the fact that it was Labor Day weekend. Apparently, the park was experiencing “record visitation.”
After a long and winding conversation about campsite options, the logistics of bear can piñatas, the shortage of said bear cans, and some less than politically-correct phrasing about the quality of life in overly crowded campgrounds, our trusty, lovable, no-nonsense park ranger, Charlie, advised us to camp off a forest service road for the night.
We headed out into the darkening night in search of said sketchy forest service road, following some pretty cryptic driving directions from Charlie.
After a few back and forths along the main road (“Did we pass it? I think we passed it.”), we managed to find a forest service road (Was it the one Charlie was trying to direct us to? We’ll never know). It was getting dark, and it was good enough for us!
Lo and behold, we found a pretty cozy spot to spend the night in, which we lovingly referred to as, “the ditch.”
But in all seriousness, we weren’t about to let this little blip ruin the first night of our trip in Olympic National Park.
And what did we do to make ourselves feel better after a long day of travel? We done cooked ourselves some spaghetti carbonara!
Maybe we had to MacGyver a stove stand with some sooty rocks and make a makeshift table out of dusty logs, but the need for a little ingenuity in the outdoors makes for half of the adventure.
After a long day of traveling and driving–IT WAS DELICIOUS.
Needless to say, the next morning, we were pretty eager to get out of home sweet
home ditch, and we took off in search of more pleasant environs on Lake Crescent––mostly for a bathroom, a utility sink to wash our dishes in, and maybe a nice picnic area to make breakfast.
We found our refuge in Fairholme Campground. We parked the car right outside the bathroom at 5:30 AM (because we’re classy like that), and managed to wash up. Looking to get breakfast together, we decided to follow signs for a picnic area a few miles up the road.
Of course, we never expected said picnic area to be this GLORIOUS secluded dock on the lake:
Because it had barely reached 6:00 AM by that point, we had the place to ourselves, with panoramic views of the glassy, crystal clear lake, the surrounding tree-covered mountains, and the sun just beginning to come up.
We were giddy over our good fortune (the universe totally made up for the fact that we’d slept on the side of a dirt road the night before), and, we set about whipping up a breakfast of tea, pancakes, sausage, and eggs.
I mean, did you ever think pancakes could be THIS atmospheric?!! Lucky doesn’t even really begin to describe how awesome it was cooking breakfast in this spot.
We sat down to eat as the sun rose over the hills surrounding the turquoise, glacially carved lake. It was the kind of moment where everything just fell into place.
From there, we finally managed to grab a campsite at Fairholme (by then, some early risers had packed up and left) and headed to Lake Crescent Lodge, complete with giant fireplace and stately deer head. If there’s no deer head, is it even a lodge?
(The resounding answer is no, it’s not.)
More importantly, lodge = kayak rentals, and we criss-crossed the lake for a couple of hours, exploring the shorelines and soaking up the sun.
From there, we headed on a quick hike to Marymere Falls–our first taste of the old growth forests.
At this point, we’ve kayaked, we’ve hiked, we’ve slept in a ditch. When we emerged from the Marymere Falls trailhead, a dip in the lake was in order.
Because it seemed like a fun idea, yes. But also because, when it’s been approximately 2 days since you last showered and your next chance at getting clean is as of yet undetermined, a swim in the lake is less about fun, and more about personal hygiene.
The chilly glacial water did the trick! Rocks may have been used for exfoliation. Jokingly! But also…not really?
We went back to the campground refreshed and ready for dinner, an early bedtime, and a battery of alarms set for dawn…
At 4:30 AM the next morning, we shook off sleep, packed up camp, and headed to Hurricane Ridge. We had been told by our informative Ranger back at the Olympic National Park visitor center to get up at the crack of dawn for this hike, lest we be subject to traffic delays and huge crowds, and we took his advice very seriously.
We were on the road by 5:30.
The morning light was just coming up over the horizon when we pulled into the parking lot and took to the trail.
Seeing the Olympic Mountains when dawn was breaking was spectacular.
We pretty much had the trail to ourselves, with the exceptions of a few chirping marmots (one in particular that was adorably white-haired around the face, floofy, and very chubby) and the occasional passing mountain chipmunk. Crisp, tiny, delicate mountain flowers dotted the trail.
(Spot the marmot, guys.)
The trek up to the ridge and a steady cool breeze helped us quickly shake off the groggy morning. The whole time, we couldn’t believe just how worth it our 4:30 AM alarms were. With the sun rising ahead of us, there were lots of surreal moments captured on the horizon line.
When we got to the top of Hurricane Ridge, the views couldn’t have been better, and it was only 7:30!
We could see Canada! Perhaps not the same as seeing Russia from your house, but we could see it!
Feeling accomplished, we hiked back down the hill…
…and headed to Sol Duc Falls and more of the epic mossy old growth forests that make Olympic National Park so amazing.
Thousands of years of growth, life turning over, and the convening of critters made for a pretty surreal walk. The air in the Olympic forests was thicker and more distinctive than others–it just feels old.
Giant banana slugs dig the forest, too. I threw my hand in the photo for scale.
From there, we finished off the day in Hoh Rain Forest. The rainforest was like nothing we’d ever seen–the trees dripped with moss, and there were huge towering Sitka spruce and Douglas Fir trees everywhere. Fallen “nurse logs” gave rise to new trees, with roots that wrapped around the fallen trunk, growing in neat rows.
The rainforest was damp, heavy, and lush. When the trail wound out along a river, we took the chance to take big gulps of cooling fresh air.
Also, I’m going to alienate a lot of people when I say this, but we were deep in Twilight country––just miles from the town of Forks, Washington, and yes, we drove through town and took kitschy pictures of ourselves with Twilight themed signage. Because yolo, dangit!
Needless to say, it was one of the most fun days of the trip, but at this point, we had been windswept, misted by waterfalls, and poked at by rainforest critters. It was time for a shower.
Enter the Hard Rain Cafe and Mercantile, where the kindly owner very politely informed us that one of us would have to wait to shower while the other two used the only two bathrooms. I, in turn, kindly informed him that we’d probably survive, given that it had already been three days.
Post-shower, we were ready and excited to start the coastal portion of our trip, so we jumped in the car to get to our next stop: Kalaloch Beach. At this point, we’ve passed through a decent number of campsites, but this one was, by far, the most spectacular.
The campground was quite literally on top of the beach–just over a low hedge was the sound of crashing waves and the drop to the wild, beautiful Washington coastline. A quick walk down a driftwood staircase brought you right onto the sand.
As we prepared a dinner of campfire beef stew (recipe here!), I had the distinct feeling that I could live there for more than a while and be totally content–listening to the sound of the waves, relaxing by the campfire, and routinely getting sand between my toes. Heck, maybe I’d even throw my phone into the ocean like some rom-com, epiphany-ed heroine and never look back! (But that would be littering.)
We spent the rest of the evening lounging around the campfire, with the inevitable discussions about the universe, artificial intelligence, destiny, and everything in between over the embers.
Early the next morning, we woke up to catch some life in the tidepools–one of my favorite activities, because if you go to the beach and miss out on the limpets and mussels clinging to rocks and the teeny anemones in the little pools of water along the crags, did you actually even go to the beach?!
As much as we wanted to stay put in Kalaloch, we packed up our camp and took off for more beach sight-seeing at a couple of the most popular beaches along the coast: Ruby Beach and Rialto Beach.
On the drive out, we passed by a sign for “Big Cedar Tree.” On the long and winding roads between sites in Washington, it’s easy to write off such things to save time, but let me tell you, if you see a sign for “Big Cedar Tree,” you had better stop, because this tree was HUGE––mother-of-the-forest, mother-of-TIME huge. Big-enough-for-two-people-to-climb-up-it-and-build-a-condo huge. Big. Cedar. Tree. Indeed.
Finally, we hit the beaches, climbing over sea stacks and winding through the edge of the treeline and the huge piles of driftwood, stripped by the ocean and bleached by the sun.
Someone had even built a very elaborate driftwood hut where visitors had scribbled initials, love letters, jokes, quotes, cryptic messages, and doodles over the weeks, months, years(?).
When it came time to leave Washington, I was struck by the quiet and steady beauty of the state–the wait for the amazing view at the end of the trail, the sight of a big cedar tree rising up above the canopy of the forest, the waterfall around the bend, the fire burning down to crackling coals to cook a meal on.
The best parts of the trip––and really of any camping trip––is the reveal of going around the bend and seeing what you’ve never seen.
In fact, next time we head out to Washington, I may decide never to leave. But until then, onto the next park!