August 30, 2016
By Douglas Scott, Carolyn Price and Kris Parfitt
Photo at right: The Olympic Discovery Trail crosses Devil’s Punchbowl along the Spruce Railroad Trail on the north shore of Lake Crescent. Photo by Douglas Scott
Stretching across one of the most beautiful swaths of land in America, the Olympic Discovery Trail is quickly captivating the wanderlust spirit of the Pacific Northwest.
With 85 miles completed of the proposed 134-mile route, the ODT is the ideal way to see the highlights of the north Olympic Peninsula by foot, bike or hoof and is a great introduction to the overwhelming beauty of the region. Once this trail is completed it will be one of the longest non-motorized trail-systems in the U.S.
Skirting the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Highway 101, the mostly paved Trail leads through the majestic beauty of Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest and the habituated lands of the region. Linking over 70 percent abandoned railroad corridors, the ODT is as rich in history and culture as it is in jaw-dropping views.
Port Townsend to Blyn
The ODT unofficially starts just beyond the boatyard in the historic and picturesque town of Port Townsend. The town’s unique Victorian-era homes and magnificent coastal views of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound, make this part of the trek unforgettable.
Upon its inception as a city in 1851, Port Townsend was dubbed the “City of Dreams,” highlighting lofty goals of local residents and investors that it would become the largest port city on the West Coast. While that goal was not achieved, the ambitious spirit lives on.
This entry town to the Olympic Peninsula is buzzing with artists and dreamers, blue collar workers and outdoor enthusiasts. Port Townsend has dozens of shops, museums and natural areas to explore. The highlight for most who visit Port Townsend is the 434-acre Fort Worden State Park.
Located on the edge of town, Fort Worden is part of the Triangle of Fire which was a system of forts built in the early 1900s to protect Puget Sound from a foreign naval invasion. The other two forts are also state parks and include Fort Casey on Whidbey Island and Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island, southeast of Port Townsend.
Fort Worden offers camping, hiking, beach-combing, historical buildings that are open for lodging, WWI-era bunkers to explore, a marine discovery center and two miles of salt-water shoreline, making it a unique destination on the Olympic Peninsula.
The 25-mile section of the ODT leaves Port Townsend and follows along State Route 20 to meet Highway 101 at Discovery Bay and runs parallel to the meandering coastline near and along the highway. The Trail utilizes miles of Old Gardiner Road, a lightly traveled road paralleling Highway 101, starting on the west side of Discovery Bay.
Near the end of this section, the Trail meets the small town of Blyn. Located at the southern end of Sequim Bay this tribal village proudly displays dozens of totem poles from the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. With its rich history, Blyn is quickly becoming one of the premiere destinations to experience tribal history at the scenic Sequim Bay Trailhead and Rest Area.
Sequim to Port Angeles
Pushing further west, the ODT heads into the true rain shadow region of the Olympic Peninsula in Sequim, which receives between 10 –18 inches of precipitation a year. Riders can reach the current east end of the Trail near Sequim Bay and enjoy the traffic-separated trail for the next 34 miles to the Elwha River west of Port Angeles.
Sequim has a rich agricultural history and is noted for its multiple lavender farms. Wildlife is never far away and resident elk roam the valley just east of town.
The highlight of the ODT through Sequim has to be the 750-foot long Railroad Bridge trestle spanning the Dungeness River which offers stunning views up and down America’s second steepest river. (Fun fact: The Dungeness River drops 7,300 feet in 32 miles!)
The Dungeness Spit, a short jaunt north from the Trail, is an attraction unto itself. Spanning 5.5 miles, it is the world’s longest naturally-occurring sand-spit. The area is also a National Wildlife Refuge with a stunning beach. At the end, a historic lighthouse awaits motivated explorers, offering tours and sweeping views of the entire region.
From Sequim, the ODT crosses the Dungeness Valley prairie and farmland before arriving along a stretch of scenic shoreline of the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Port Angeles. Named the second-best outdoor town in America by USA Today in 2015, Port Angeles is as rich in history as it is in natural wonder.
Designated by Abraham Lincoln to be the nation’s capital if the north lost the Civil War, Port Angeles now serves as the unofficial entrance to Olympic National Park and is an international hub for visitors from Victoria, British Columbia.
Elwha River to Lake Crescent
Quite possibly the most-scenic stretch of the Olympic Discovery Trail, the west-central region has been sacred to Native Americans since civilization began in the area.
From the western end of Port Angeles five miles of paved trail brings riders to the Elwha River, home of the Elwha S’Klallam Tribe. Here the Trail crosses clear bluish-green waters on a unique trail deck suspended below the Elwha River Bridge along Highway 101.
The Elwha River is home to America’s largest dam removal project. For a century, the Elwha was dammed, stopping the river from its natural flow and ending a historic salmon run at the concrete barrier of the first dam. Today, the Elwha River runs wild and free.
From mountain climbing and waterfall hikes, to an incredible trail along the banks of Washington State’s second deepest lake (624 feet), Lake Crescent is the most visited section of the park and is worthy of the popularity.
On the north shore, the ODT follows the Spruce Railroad Trail, highlighted by the stunning view from the Devil’s Punchbowl Bridge and the Pyramid Peak Trail. On the other side of the lake, Lake Crescent Lodge is the perfect jumping off point for kayak and canoe trips or stunning day hikes to Marymere Falls and Mount Storm King.
Fairholme to the Pacific Coast
The current Fairholme Campground, on the western bank of the 12-mile long Lake Crescent and on the north side of Highway 101, was at one time the ferry dock for a boat that carried passengers and cars from the east end of Lake Crescent to the west end.
The road along the south shore of Lake Crescent was completed in 1922 and renamed Highway 101 in 1937. It continues to be the main roadway between Port Angeles and the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula.
Weaving along country roads, regrowth forests and various lengths of Highway 101, the ODT heads southwest until the junction of State Route 110, just north of the town of Forks.
After passing westward through coastal forests and river estuaries along SR 110, the tribal village of La Push grants access to some of the most stunning and breathtaking coastal vistas in the world.
La Push has three beaches that are accessible for most hikers and day trekkers. The easiest to visit is First Beach and can be found on the Quileute Indian reservation. A wide, paved section of the Olympic Discovery Trail was built by the Quileute Tribe and runs along the left side of the main road from the reservation entrance to La Push.
Visitors will fall in love with the wild coastline of Second Beach and Third Beach, both found on National Park land and accessible by hiking trails. Along the wilderness coast, giant trees and chunks of driftwood lay along the shoreline, dwarfed among the sea stacks, tide pools and the Pacific Ocean.
The timeless beauty of the coast is the perfect ending to the Olympic Discovery Trail. From charming Port Townsend on the east to the crashing waves on the west, this trail inspires wanderlust and soothes the soul with each and every mile.
Douglas Scott is a nationally recognized writer covering Olympic National Park. Founder of Exotic Hikes and the Outdoor Society, he has written four guidebooks on the Olympic region and is most often found hiking high above Hood Canal.
Map courtesy of InsideOut Solutions. Numbered sidebar stories below by Carolyn Price and Kris Parfitt
1. Port Townsend’s Maritime Heritage
Located on Admiralty Inlet along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Port Townsend is the northern gateway to Puget Sound. A thriving Victorian seaport in the 1880s, it was thought to become the San Francisco of the North. However,the railroad intended for Port Townsend was instead diverted to Seattle.
Undeterred, Port Townsend has embraced its maritime heritage. Fort Worden on the north end of town is a former military installation and popular state park for hiking, biking and water sports. Visitors can overnight in former officer’s quarters, classic cottages or a small castle overlooking the Strait. Forest and beach-side tenting and RV hook-ups are also available inside the Fort’s 433 acres.
Updated Victorian-style bed and breakfasts complement the town’s waterfront which is designated as a National Landmark Historic District.
The town’s hub is the Northwest Maritime Center. Come here to watch boat-building or learn to sail. Grab some coffee at Velocity Coffee House and step outside to fill your lungs with the fresh sea air.
Attend the 40th Wooden Boat Festival in early September or join the hoopla at the start of the annual 750-mile wind-powered Race to Alaska in late June where the first team to reach Ketchikan wins $10,000 and the second place team a set of steak knives.
Port Townsend is also home to Pygmy Boats, the leader in pre-cut do-it-yourself kayak building, and the family-operated Puget Sound Express for whale-watching and birding tours. Film, art and music festivals abound year-round.
Quench your thirst at the brand new Propolis for herb-infused craft beers, or take a short drive to downtown Chimacum to visit award-winning Finnriver Cidery which is leading the Pacific Northwest hard-cider revival.
And don’t forget your bike. Wend your way through the Port Townsend Boatyard to the Larry Scott Memorial Trailhead, a 7.3-mile fairly flat trail which serves as the western start of the Olympic Discovery Trail.
2. Port Ludlow Trails
Need some biking or hiking action? Just west of the Hood Canal Bridge is the Resort at Port Ludlow that offers 26 miles of varied hiking, walking and biking trails in its backyard. There are flat routes, loops, scenic water trails, and others with substantial elevation gains of varying distances.
3. Sequim’s “Blue Hole” Yields Plenty of Sunny Skies
It is hard to believe that the green and luscious expanse around Sequim used to be a brown, parched prairie. But that’s exactly true!
Due to the vision of four pioneers in the late 1890s who figured out how to irrigate water—uphill—from the nearby Dungeness River to the fledgling town, the region flourished.
Not only that, but the Sequim Irrigation Festival, which was held May 1, 1896, in celebration of the area’s first irrigated waters, today celebrates its legacy of being the oldest continuous running festival in Washington state.
Sequim offers two other festivals you should definitely put on your bucket list: the Sequim Lavender Festival in mid-July is one of the largest of its kind in the country; and the Air Affaire in May at Sequim Valley Airport includes hot air balloons, smoke planes, wing walkers, sky divers and a classic airplane fly-in.
Bicycling is huge in Sequim with the Olympic Discovery Trail meandering nearby. Ben’s Bikes and All Around Bikes are just off the trail and offer free maps, parts, sales and quick flat-tire fixes.
In the shadow of the Olympic Rainforest, Sequim’s famous “Blue Hole” yields 132 days of sun a year—and you can’t go wrong with that.
4. Become a Lighthouse Keeper!
The New Dungeness Lighthouse near Sequim can be your home away from home for a week through their Keeper Program. You’ll be the envy of your friends in this deluxe three bedroom, fully furnished tower overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Give tours and do light chores during your visit. Up to nine people can stay in this lighthouse that was named one of the 23 most awe-inspiring lighthouses around the world.
5. Endless recreation in Port Angeles
An 18.6-mile bike ride isn’t so bad for many people, but include over 5,000-feet of elevation gain at an average grade of 5 percent, and you’ve got yourself a doozy of a ride!
The annual Ride the Hurricane bike ride in late August inside Olympic National Park is one of Port Angeles’ biggest bike draws of the year and ranks as one of the most scenic in the country. As dramatic as the Hurricane ride is, however, it is only the tip of the iceberg for outdoor recreation choices in the water-side town of Port Angeles. Endless hiking, camping, biking, birding and water sports opportunities are to be enjoyed. Spotting bald eagles is a regular occurrence.
Tucked neatly along the shoreline of the Strait of Juan De Fuca and at the base of the Olympic Mountains, Port Angeles is home to about 20,000 year-round residents. Visitors and residents alike enjoy views north to Canada, and a drive (or bike ride!) up to the Olympics Visitors Center on Hurricane Ridge will take you straight into the heart of hiking nirvana.
Port Angeles is also a port-of-call for American Cruise Lines’ eight-day adventure along Puget Sound’s northern waterways and the MV Coho runs a daily round trip ferry to Victoria, B.C. A variety of restaurants are within walking distance of the downtown waterfront.
Enjoy a two-for-one outing with Adventures Through Kayaking and Harbinger Winery just west of town on Highway 101. AT Kayaking owner and guide Tammi Hinkle will take you kayaking, mountain biking or standup paddle boarding. Upon your return, unwind next door at Harbinger for a complimentary wine-tasting with owner Sara Gagnon, whose artisan winery focuses on hard-to-find Washington state varietals.
If you arrive in Port Angeles and are stuck for ideas for adventure (guided whale trips, anyone?), visit the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce for a huge collection of maps, brochures and other resources.
6. Local Historian Leads Peninsula Tours
Catch a ride on Willie Nelson’s All Points Charters and Tours bus that leaves from the waterfront in downtown Port Angeles and you’ll learn more about the Olympic Peninsula than you ever thought possible. Just don’t expect to listen to country music!
This is the legendary Port Angeles Willie Nelson, not the legendary country singer.
Nelson, 70, has been leading tours on the Peninsula since 2005. A trained wildlife biologist, his passion for the Peninsula manifested as a child in the early 1950s when his family regularly vacationed in the area.
The local historian says his most popular tours are the half-, or full-day excursions to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics and out to Lake Crescent, the state’s second deepest lake (624 feet). This tour features a one-mile dirt-trail hike through old-growth forest to the popular 90-foot Marymere Falls.
Popular custom excursions include wine and cider tours and trips out to the Hoh Rain Forest with a picnic lunch in Forks. Another tour heads 71 miles east along Highway 112 with scenic views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Makah Cultural and Research Center.
“Drop-dead gorgeous” is how Nelson describes this tour’s featured one-mile hike on the Cape Flattery Trail—the northwestern most point of the U.S.—overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Expect to see a variety of birds and wildlife on those treks to the Washington Coast, including Tufted Puffins and Brown Pelicans and various species of whales which oftentimes feed close to the shoreline.
“The best part of my job is helping people see and enjoy things they couldn’t do on their own,” says Nelson, “and introducing them to the wilderness up close to nature.”
7. Dam Debris on the Elwha
Four years ago when Morgan Colonel took over as the new owner of Olympic Raft and Kayak, he was filled with hopes and dreams of pursuing his water-sports passion on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park and sharing it with others.
His purchase of the company, located about 10 miles west of Port Angeles, also came with idyllic living quarters on seven wooded acres along Indian Creek which fed into the Elwha River.
Three short years later in 2015, Colonel’s dreams were dashed when he halted his whitewater guiding service in the Park after spotting massive rusted debris throughout the river left over from the Elwha River dam removal project.
The debris, revealed from the lower waters, included rusted and twisted metal rods, rebar, large chunks of pipe and tugboat-size towing chains. Several pieces are now scattered around Colonel’s backyard, hauled out of the Elwha himself.
For now, officials with Olympic National Park have installed warning signs for boaters along the river. And, when river flows are lower over the next two summers, it is expected the Army Corps of Engineers will begin removing the remaining dam foundation and debris.
Ever the optimist, Colonel says it’s only a matter of time until the Elwha is again healthy for fishing, riverside camping, boating and other forms of recreation. Until then, his kayaking trips and camps in nearby waters are filling up fast as water enthusiasts continue to flock to his company deep in the heart of Elwha country!
8. ODT’s Adventure Route
A fun, scenic and physically challenging adjunct route to the Olympic Discovery Trail is the 25-mile single- and double-track Adventure Route that is perfect for active mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians.
Built by Clallam County volunteers, trail access is from two points near Lake Crescent.
The east end access begins on Highway 112, 0.3 miles northwest of the Elwha Bridge on Highway 101. On the west end, at milepost 25, the second access point is located near the trailhead for the Spruce Railroad Trail roughly half-a-mile west of the junction of Joyce-Piedmont Road and East Beach Road.
This 3-feet wide Adventure Route is well-constructed and maintained and adventure seekers will enjoy the hilly and forested terrain.
9. A well-connected string of roads west of Lake Crescent
The ODT from the west end of Lake Crescent to the Pacific Coast is not yet completed, but it is a well-connected string of country roads and highways. From Fairholme Hill on the west end of LakeCrescent off Highway 101 cyclists can use the wide shoulders of the highways for two miles to reach Mount Muller Trailhead. From here cyclists can ride for over 16 scenic miles on connecting country roads to where Highway 101 meets the small settlement of Sappho.
West of Sappho to the Quileute tribal community of La Push and out to the Olympic Coast, the Trail can be explored more easily by motorized vehicles and by bicyclists who are comfortable riding on the narrow-to-non-existent shoulders along sections of Highway 101 and State Route 110.
10. John’s Beachcombing Museum in Forks
By Kris Parfitt
To retired plumber and beachcomber-extraordinaire, John Anderson, 61, of Forks, Washington, debris found on the beach is but a trace of history.
“It’s not just garbage,” he says, in a documentary about Japanese tsunami debris, called Lost and Found. “Each piece tells a story. These are remnants of people’s lives.”
It started innocently enough: beachcombing for glass floats with a friend in 1976. However, Anderson soon became a beachcombing hobbyist and began bringing home more than just glass floats. In 2015, his collection transitioned into a public museum of beach detritus.
John’s Beachcombing Museum is just that—a hanger-like warehouse on his property that stands as a monument to flotsam, a literal vault of beach treasures stuffed to the gill-nets with everything imaginable.
Over 25,000 buoys from as close as the La Push Marina to as far away as coastal China, hulls of boats, too-many-to-count Nike shoes salvaged from a container spill somewhere in the Pacific, Raggedy-Ann doll heads (from another container spill), a Boeing 727 engine spinner cone, a grey whale skull and a mammoth tooth adorn the walls and shelves of the two-story museum. And, without surprise, there are countless items from the 2011 Japanese tsunami that washed ashore on Washington’s beaches.
John’s Beachcombing Museum is open daily from June to August and by appointment the rest of the year.
John’s Beachcombing Museum
143 Andersonville Avenue, Forks, Washington, 98331