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GIRLFRIEND GETAWAYS

Pine needles vs. Space Needle: These Seattle-bound travelers took a detour

We opted for a trip around the Olympic Peninsula while a COVID surge gripped the city. We’re so glad we did.

Ruby Beach, fronting the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, is one of the most-photographed beaches on the West Coast. Stop at any of the beaches on this string — they’re all eerily beautiful.
Ruby Beach, fronting the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, is one of the most-photographed beaches on the West Coast. Stop at any of the beaches on this string — they’re all eerily beautiful.Diane Bair

This was meant to be a girlfriend’s getaway to Seattle. But as the flight grew near (our first post-vaccination flight), enthusiasm waned. Seattle was experiencing a COVID surge and enacting restrictions — an ominous sign — and did we really want to spend our precious, long-awaited vacation days dodging crowds in an unfamiliar city?

So, to use a word that has become all too familiar, we pivoted. We flew to Seattle, all right. But once we got there, we pointed our rental car to Olympic National Park, trading city hotels for park lodges, and swapping out a city of 3 million souls for nearly a million acres of lush green wilderness. Perhaps it was meant to be.

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Located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle, Olympic National Park is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. It encompasses 922,651 acres of preserved rain forest, mountains, and coastline, dotted with elk and marmots. Much of the park is encircled by Highway 101, which loops around the peninsula, making it easy for greenhorns like us to navigate. Our first stop, Lake Quinault Lodge, was about 2 hours and 45 minutes from Sea-Tac International Airport.

“I want to see too many trees and eat too much salmon!” our companion said, and that became the theme of the trip. We were excited about staying in national park lodges (we made our Barbie Dream House out of Lincoln Logs, and park lodges have been our fantasy dwelling ever since). Plus, we were incredibly psyched about visiting the only temperate rain forest in North America. A rain forest! How vacation-y.

If your Dream House looks more like a national park lodge than Barbie’s pink palace, you’ll appreciate the Lake Quinault Lodge. It’s a classic, and set on a lakefront with a backdrop of mountains.
If your Dream House looks more like a national park lodge than Barbie’s pink palace, you’ll appreciate the Lake Quinault Lodge. It’s a classic, and set on a lakefront with a backdrop of mountains.Diane Bair

Classic digs, ginormous trees

Barbie and her entourage would heartily approve of fabulously classic Lake Quinault Lodge. Built on the shores of 3.8-mile-long Lake Quinault, with a backdrop of mountains, the 91-room (plus one suite) lodge features soaring beams, a crackling fireplace, and chesterfield leather chairs and couches. On the National Register of Historic Places, the lodge was built in 1926 in the style of an original 1880s lodge that burned down. Guest rooms — simple but comfortable — are spread between the main lodge and more modern lakeside buildings. A totem pole acts as a rain gauge. And it’s a tall one: the average rainfall in Lake Quinault is 12 feet, compared to 43 puny inches in Massachusetts.

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The lodge’s Roosevelt Dining Room (it hosted FDR back in the day) is open, but not currently offering table service. We ordered our meals at the hostess stand, and ate at a picnic table overlooking the lake. The menu is short, but packed with good stuff. The King salmon with lemon beurre blanc, black rice, and bok choy was so good, we ordered it two nights in a row.

The sculptural trees in the rain forest of the Pacific Northwest are like nothing we’ve ever seen in the East. Get ready to fill up your phone with photos.
The sculptural trees in the rain forest of the Pacific Northwest are like nothing we’ve ever seen in the East. Get ready to fill up your phone with photos.Diane Bair

Come summertime, the lakefront will be action central, with families swimming, jumping from rafts, and plying the lake with canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards. Scenic boat tours and land tours, focusing on natural history and the Quinault Indian Nation, will also resume. But for now, it’s all about hiking.

We wanted to be blown away by nature’s beauty and grandeur — to replace “worry” with “wonder.” This park definitely delivers. The Quinault Valley, the southwest gateway to the national park, is a stunning introduction to its glories. Even the easiest hiking trails are dazzling, revealing majestic trees, cedar bogs, cascades, and (if you’re lucky), kiddie hikers who say things like, “Look, Milo, it’s a mouse house!”

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The humpy, droopy greenery, covered in furry moss, might’ve been drawn by Dr. Seuss. But the towering giants will stop you in your tracks. Quinault Valley is home to six champion conifer trees, recognized by the National Forestry Association as the largest living specimens of their species. One of these, the largest Douglas fir in the world, is 302 feet tall, while the largest Sitka spruce is nearly 18 feet in diameter. This behemoth is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old; the average age of these trees is 450. Even the trees that die and fall don’t really disappear; they serve as nurse logs, a base for new trees to grow, and host abundant life.

We saw unusual plant life in the trails near Lake Quinault. A fellow hiker said, “I’ve never seen anything like this — and I’m from Tacoma.” (Not far away!)
We saw unusual plant life in the trails near Lake Quinault. A fellow hiker said, “I’ve never seen anything like this — and I’m from Tacoma.” (Not far away!)Diane Bair

You could make it a Tour de Tree and see every giant; all are located near the Lake Quinault Lodge or a few miles away in the aptly-named Enchanted Valley area. Channeling Seattle native Sir-Mix-a-Lot, we bopped along the trail, singing, “I like big trunks and I cannot lie!” (Sorry, fellow hikers.)

We hiked for hours each day, enveloped by the velvet greenness and air so scented with pine, it was like stepping inside a Christmas tree. Creamy Western trillium offer contrast to the fifty shades of green. Olympic National Park is laced with more than 900 miles of hiking trails, and we’d happily hike them all.

Hot pools and sea stacks

But we were moving on, heading north to Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Along the way, we’d hit more of the park’s premier beauty spots, including Ruby Beach and the Hoh Rain Forest.

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We have plenty of beaches in New England, but these wild Pacific coast beaches are a different beast. Fronting the 3,310 square-mile Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, the pebbly strands are decorated with giant drift logs and sea stacks (vertical columns of rocks created by wave erosion). We stopped at Ruby Beach, one of the most-photographed beaches on the entire West coast, but the truth is, they’re all pretty similar. “Third Beach is just as nice, but with a less-sexy name,” a local told us. (A hazard here that we don’t have at home: every year, a few swimmers get crushed to death by massive, surf-tossed logs. Yikes.)

On the National Register of Historic Places, the Lake Quinault Lodge was built in 1926, to resemble the original 1880s lodge that burned down.
On the National Register of Historic Places, the Lake Quinault Lodge was built in 1926, to resemble the original 1880s lodge that burned down.Diane Bair

Next up: The Hoh Rain Forest. More trees! A short trail called the Hall of Mosses is a perfect way to discover this verdant zone, fed by up to 16 feet of annual rainfall. The glacier-fed Hoh River supports elk, eagles, otters, and other wildlife. Longer trails venture deeper toward the glaciers and alpine meadows at the park’s interior.

Back on Highway 101, we passed Forks, the setting for Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series (a gallery displays costumes and props from the movies). Forks celebrates heroine Bella Swan’s birthday with an annual fan festival. This quirky burg is also home to John’s Beachcombing Museum, a treasure trove of items that owner John Anderson has collected from the sea for nearly 50 years. And, if that wasn’t enough, it’s the rainiest town in the contiguous United States.

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We didn’t linger, though; we wanted to get to Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort in time for a soak in the hot pools. Surrounded by old growth forest, this national park lodge is famous for its three spring-fed mineral soaking pools. There’s also a freshwater swimming pool. The steamy, slightly sulfurous water (ranging from 99 to 104 degrees) felt great on our overused feet. Guests sleep in cabins clustered alongside the lodge and pools. They’re not fancy, but the beds are good and the bathrooms are private. (No TV, phone, or Wi-Fi.) We got elk burgers for dinner at the on-site restaurant, but felt bad about that later, when we saw yearling elks along a hiking trail. There are several hikes in this part of the park; a popular one winds through ancient forest to Sol Duc Falls. Gorgeous!

Eight tribes have traditional associations to lands now in Olympic National Park: Makah, Quileute, Hoh, Quinault, Skokomish, Port Gamble S'Klallam, Jamestown S'Klallam, and Lower Elwha Klallam, according to the National Park Service.
Eight tribes have traditional associations to lands now in Olympic National Park: Makah, Quileute, Hoh, Quinault, Skokomish, Port Gamble S'Klallam, Jamestown S'Klallam, and Lower Elwha Klallam, according to the National Park Service.Diane Bair

Bring on the creature comforts

Ready to re-enter civilization (as in, Wi-Fi), we headed out of the park toward Port Ludlow, and the 37-room boutique resort of the same name (www.portludlowresort.com). En route, we stopped at a lively town called Sequim (pronounced “Skwim”) with two claims to fame: it’s one of the least-rainy towns in the region, and it is home to 10 lavender farms. The climate is similar to the Mediterranean, says Paul Schiefen, owner of Jardin du Soleil Lavender Farm (and its menagerie of chickens and goats) with his wife, Jordan (www.jardindusoleil.com).

Park lodge mavens though we are, the Resort at Port Ludlow won us over. Amenities include newly-updated rooms with fireplaces and jetted tubs, plus waterfront dining (with an outdoor patio) with excellent food. (Chef Dan Ratigan’s Neah Bay King salmon with mustard butter sauce is a wonderful taste of the Pacific Northwest.) The inn is set within a village of colorful homes, reminiscent of New Seabury in Mashpee. Pleasure boats bob in their boat slips on Puget Sound, adding to the Instagram-worthy ambience. There’s golf, too.

But the national park beckoned. How could we come all this way and not pay our respects to the still-snowy mountains — even if it meant a twisty, fog-shrouded 17-mile drive up to 5,242-foot Hurricane Ridge? Surrounded by the Olympic Mountains, we took selfies in the snow, and admired far-away glaciers. On a clear day, visitors can see all the way to Victoria, B.C.

Finally, it was time to swap out the hiking boots for sneakers; we were heading back to Seattle, and then home. You can drive back, or take the Bainbridge Island Ferry, but the ferry is definitely more fun. The 35-minute crossing brings you (and your car) directly to the port of Seattle, with views of skyscrapers and the iconic Space Needle. It looked nice, but … no regrets! Too many trees and too much salmon were exactly what we needed this time around. We like big trunks. No lie.

If you go: To avoid crowds, visit in September or October, and explore parts of the park that get fewer visitors, such as the Quinault area or the Hood Canal area along the east side of the Peninsula, advises Marsha Massey of the Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau. “There’s plenty of room for people to spread out here,” she adds. For trip planning advice, go to www.OlympicPeninsula.org and www.nps.gov/olym. For lodgings in the park, visit www.olympicnationalparks.com.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com