500 mile loop around the Olympic Peninsula, over 100 miles off-pavement
For anyone who has explored the Olympic Peninsula, you know full well that it’s impossible to see everything in a 3-day weekend, but we did our best. The mission was simple…a loop around the Peninsula, checking off as many of the major elements as possible:
- Iconic Landmarks
- Huge Trees
- Rain Forests
We managed to check them all off, but there’s SO MUCH more to see for each of them and I’m already planning a trip back. With some knowledge of the areas and locations, I’d be comfortable leading a group next time. Anyway, back to the story…
On top of being a new area for me to explore, the mode of transportation for this weekend was a change up as well. We decided to take our small 15’ Jayco trailer that we like to use when we have the full crew (Wife, 3 boys and Dog) and aren’t doing any “serious” offroading, but we usually muscle it along with the Jeep JKU. The Jeep does ok pulling the 2400lb (empty) trailer, but it’s near its limits with our full load-out which I’m sure is at or over 3000lb (not to mention the Jeep itself is on 37’s). So…I recently picked up a 2016 RAM EcoDiesel CrewCab. The truck has a 4” lift with Open Country M/T’s and as you can imagine yawns at towing a 3000lb trailer. I was excited to see how it tows, and more importantly, how it handles off-road.
We loaded up Thursday evening and finished final prep on Friday morning and headed out around noon. Traffic leaving Seattle on a holiday weekend was of course an absolute DISASTER as expected, and after contemplating taking the Edmonds > Kingston Ferry we decided to save the $90 for gas…uhhh, I mean Fuel…and just slog our way down to Tacoma instead. We crossed the Narrows Bridge, hung a left on HWY 3 and after winding our way along the water and through some farm land we finally made it to the FS23 turn off around 5pm. Finally, off the pavement! Luckily we had snagged a last-minute campground reservation for Friday night, so the anxiety of looking for a camp spot for the evening was removed and we could take our time exploring landmarks off FS23, namely the High Steel Bridge. The Vance Creek Viaduct was also on our list, but due to “Extreme Fire Danger” the area was closed to the public, which was a bummer. These old steam engine bridges are pretty cool. After a couple hours bombing along FS23 we finally made it to Coho Campground at Lake Wynoochee, sometime between 7 and 8pm. I’m not a huge fan of campgrounds, but we had a great spot that was relatively secluded. Not hunting around for a camp spot with hungry kids (and a hungry wife) was nice.
High Steel Bridge
Saturday morning was spent exploring the Wynoochee Lake and Dam area around the campground before we loaded up and headed West.
From Wynoochee Lake, we hung a right onto FS22, a 22-mile mostly gravel road that
intersects HWY 101. We ran up HWY 101 to the Lake Quinault area to stop and make lunch, and let my wife use the Internet Café to knock out some work real quick. After a failed half-hearted attempt to find the “Big Cedar Tree” trail on the West side of the lake (the tree blew down in 2016 and they took the sign down for the trail, so unless you know where it is it’s hard to find…we didn’t try very hard either, it was nearly 4pm at this point), we headed for the coast. First stop along the coast was to pull off and see the MASSIVE Cedar trees in Kalaloch. Wow, what a sight.
From there we headed up to Ruby beach to join the masses for an evening on the beach.
After an hour or so of letting the kids play, we loaded up and headed north to find camp for the night, which consisted of a couple options on the Hoh River. We pulled into Allen’s Bar first, since it was closest and WOW is this place popular…there were easily 50 rigs from cars to RV Busses packed into the bar area. Not my kind of scene, so we pulled a U-turn and headed for the next option, located around the corner and up the Oil City road. When we arrived at this spot (see Aaron’s Hoh River Boondoggle writeup for more info), there was literally not a sole around. Just cows, running water and a clear sunny sky. This site is a little tricky as it requires a small river crossing, something I would not have even slowed down to look at in the Jeep, but with the new truck and the trailer in tow, I decided to change into my shorts and walk it. The walk across revealed a nicely packed rock bottom that was about 2-1/2 ft. deep with an entry point that is a little muddy and drops a couple feet into the water. Next step, I unhooked the trailer and drove the truck through with absolutely no issues. Final step…hook the trailer back up and go for it. Oh wait, I forgot a step…with the wife not used to river crossings, looking at my shorts soaked up to my crotch, she wasn’t so sure about this. We’re in a new vehicle, travelling alone, with no winch (not that there’s anything to hook onto), trying to cross a river at 8pm…I’m not sure what the holdup is here, sounds fine to me. All kidding aside, we had a serious decision to make. I had my TREDs with me in case we got stuck, but it’s getting very late at this point, and I’m a little concerned about the tail of the trailer getting hung up on the bank of the river. The last thing I need is to be stuck in the middle of a river, at 8pm, by ourselves. I can’t imagine the ‘I told you so’ conversation that would follow this situation. So, I did what every man-of-the-house would do…and listened to my wife. We hooked up the trailer and headed back down Oil City Rd to scope out a few other turn-offs we’d passed on the way up. Most of this area is clearly marked as private land by the timber company, so options are limited. We finally found a road through a clearcut area that was outside the “restricted” area of the timber signs that led down to this cool cutout turnaround. This is very likely still private land, but at this time of night we had little choice (and we paid our karma dues by picking up a bunch of trash around the area). We quickly set up camp and threw some burgers on the grill in the cold evening air.
Sunday morning was crisp and clear again. After a quick breakfast we packed up and headed inland toward the Hoh River Visitor Center in the Olympic National Park to hike the rainforest and take in the sights. We arrived there around 10:30am, and had no problems finding an RV parking spot (there are about 15 available). We spent a couple hours hiking the trails through the rainforest and down to the Hoh River and having lunch in the park.
We packed up around 1:30pm and headed back down the Hoh road with plans to head East, somewhere. When we got back down to the Entry station, we were thanking our lucky stars that we arrived early because there were hundreds of cars in line to enter the park…I mean HUNDREDS…and more coming up the road still. Miles of cars. We rolled into Forks to fuel up for the first time and then headed NE to scope out a couple potential dispersed camp spots that I scoped on the satellite images. At this point we’re not sure if we are going to camp again tonight, or just head for Kingston and beat the mobs home for the weekend. We turned off the Highway onto FS2918 just before Sol Duc. Initially the road is narrow and paved, but turns to gravel a couple miles up. After passing a couple mediocre camp options, and a couple nice ones that were taken, we decided to run the full 10-15 miles up the gravel to a spot up near Sore Thumb that I heard about (side note: about 5 miles up on the West side of the road there’s a big gravel area that is an OHV play area, would be super fun to drive around all the hills, and trails). The road is narrow in spots, and up top is a little rocky, but I had no problems pulling the trailer up there. After running into a nicely outfitted Xterra and chatting for a minute a couple miles from the top, I decided to drop the trailer and scout the last 2 miles. The trail was getting slightly rougher, and I didn’t want to get stuck up on a narrow road without the ability to turn around. The Xterra advised that it’s a sharp right hand turn then up a steep (but short) hill to get into the open spot, and he’s wasn’t super confident I could make it. Upon arriving at the top of the hill, it was undoubtable that we had to camp here for the night. Views for miles, and not a sole around. I had no issues making the turn and was sure I could drag the trailer up the little incline without much fanfare. I ran back down the trail and hooked the trailer up. We ripped up the last 2 miles of the road and as expected, made the turn…with the truck in 4LO I walked right up the little hill and we were set. Nightfall brought cold temps, awesome views and crazy cloud formations that rolled in off the coast. We had views of a beautiful starry night sky including spotting Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn to the South and Southwest. A campsite well worth the sacrifice of beating the crowds home for the weekend.
Monday morning was cold up on the ridge, so a warm breakfast and fire from the propane fire pit was well received. We finished up breakfast and loaded up and headed back down the 10+ miles of trail back to the highway. The remainder of the day was spent cruising East to Kingston, to wait in the ferry line with the hundreds of other travelers drudging home from a fantastic Holiday weekend.
Many, MANY things still on the list to see, I will be back. I can’t believe I’ve lived in Washington my whole life and never spent time exploring the Olympic Peninsula. Next time I'll leave the trailer at home.