Distance: 160 miles one way
Total time: 4.5-5 hours one way.
Route: Seattle, WA –> Dungeness Spit, WA –> Cape Flattery, WA
Neither can you explore Olympic National Park (ONP) in a single trip, nor can I write about it in a single post. I’ve been there like 4 times now, and every time I have explored a different region. I hate calling Olympics ONP, but then, I hate shortening my long name and my even longer last name to an abridged version that takes away the essence of the name. Anyway, I digress here.
ONP is one of the three national parks in the state of Washington (the other two being Mount Rainier National Park and North Cadcades National Park). Now I would consider ONP a unique place to visit, and I don’t want to state reasons I have already read elsewhere. My reasons are based on things I have seen for myself. Every time I have been to ONP, I have explored something different. It has the Olympic chain of mountains (not volcanic, unlike Mount Rainier or North Cascades), it has beautiful coasts, it has temperate rainforests, and lakes, and waterfalls, and much more. This particular day trip was restricted to visiting the Dungeness Spit and the Neah Bay. It was a special trip because it was going to be my first long trip as a driver ever since I had learnt to drive a month and a half ago.
Exploring places took new meaning when I learnt to drive. Not immediately, because although I had the legal permission to drive, I was scared to venture on my own, or control anything that moved at a speed of more than 5 mph. Driving for more than 20 minutes at a stretch gave me a backache. Whenever I was with friends, I handed them my car keys with the pleading look on my face.
My college friend was visiting me after 3 years. Her visit was a brilliant opportunity for me to drive and explore all the places around Seattle. It’s a different story that merely driving her from the SeaTac airport back to Seattle proved to be more arduous than anticipated. I missed the exit twice and the third time I drove into the paid parking lot, pleading with the lady on duty that it was a mistake. I had to bottle up my excitement of meeting her because I was scared I’d miss another exit the fourth time.
Something that really intimidated me about driving was traffic. So I decided to start at 6 am (on a wintry October Seattle morning) and take the 7 am ferry from Edmonds to Kingston. The previous night, after missing a couple of exits and having a 4 course dinner, I was sure neither of us would be able to wake up and catch the 7 am ferry. I was half right. My friend woke up on time, woke me up, made sure I did not go back to sleep again, and before 6 am, we were on our way to take the ferry. It was dark and traffic was light. The excitement of making my first long driving trip was immense, and so was the worry lest something go wrong. But any idea what excited me the most? The thought of driving my car into the belly of the ferry. I had never done it before on my own.
You see, Seattle is the only place where I have experienced this. You drive your car into the belly of a waiting ferry. The ferry takes you to an island. You either spend your time inside the ferry, or simply wait inside your car in the ferry. Then you start your car, and drive from the ferry into the island. You do the same on your way back. It’s an awesome experience (as long as you haven’t missed the last ferry and are stranded in the island for the night).
Link to the ferry schedule from Edmonds to Kingston to Edmonds
(On a same note about ferries, I am planning a trip to Italy in 2 weeks. While traveling from Rome to Sicily, I was considering taking a flight. Then I researched a bit and found that the train that you took from Rome actually boarded a ferry near Sicily while still on rails (Sicily being an island) and once when the ferry reached Sicily, the train un-boarded the ferry and got back to the rails again. I have seen cars and people and cattle boarding ferries, but just the idea of a train boarding a ferry excited me so much that I canceled my plans of flying to Sicily and bought train tickets instead right away.)
The early morning ferry ride was awesome. We saw the sun rise in the heavily moonlit sky while still in the ferry.
It was cold and breezy as hell, but we needed to step out of the lounge and feel the breeze on our faces (which thankfully woke me up fully). ONP is westbound from Seattle, located at the northwest corner of Washington and of the continental US (further west is the group of islands of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific ocean, also a part of US).
We unloaded the ferry in Kingston (Most Washington ferries are named after Seattle chiefs I’m told). From Kingston, we drove all the way to the Dungeness Spit. We reached there on a Sunday morning before 8 am. There was barely anyone at that time, though this is a very popular place for visitors. We walked on the sand bar for quite a while, talking about old times, admiring Mount Baker (another volcanic mountain) at a distance, and chomping on our breakfast of bread and oranges. We admired the fall colors that were beginning to appear, the mountains, the different shades of blue of the Pacific Ocean, taking in the beauty of all.
Dungeness Spit is a 5.5 miles long sand spit which is the longest natural sand spit in the US (Look for images of “Dungeness Spit” for an awesome aerial view). You can walk/hike the whole length of the spit, with the Pacific ocean surrounding you on both sides.
As you walk, you will see amazing views of the ocean, mountains, pebbles, logs, and seaweeds. There is practically no elevation gain during the hike and at the end of it, you reach a lighthouse. Hiking is possible all year. Round trip to the lighthouse is 11 miles. I was so engrossed in the amazing sights, taking pictures and all, that I didn’t make it beyond the first 2 miles or so of the hike.
Approximate distance from Seattle to Dungeness Spit: 80 miles
Approximate time to drive (excluding ferry waiting time): 2 hrs 30 minutes
There is always a lot of rush and long waiting queues for the ferry during weekends/holidays. If you are traveling on a weekend/holiday and don’t start early, you can easily add about 60-90 minutes as ferry waiting time. So START EARLY.
From Dungeness Spit, we had to make a decision. We could either drive to Hurricane Ridge via Port Angeles, or drive all the way to the north westernmost tip of the continental US- Neah Bay/Cape Flattery. I’d been to Hurricane Ridge 2 months ago, but had never been to Neah Bay. My friend had never been to either. So our choices were clear. However, it was going to be a long drive with me being the sole driver. I had never driven in the mountains before. I decided to do it anyway.
After a couple hours of driving and stopping in between to admire the views, we finally reached Neah Bay. We got our passes and then some more driving later, we reached the trailhead for Cape Flattery. It was quite a curvy ride, done best in daylight and on a sunny/non-rainy day. The navigator on the right can have amazing views of the Pacific ocean, but as a driver, it is advisable to not get carried away by the views.
Neah Bay is the home of the Makah Indian Reservation and you need permission/pass to display before you can drive further westward to Cape Flattery. There is also a museum which we didn’t visit.
At Cape Flattery, we parked our cars and hiked for some 30 minutes (fairly easy, 0.75 mile hike) before we reached the lookout point with some breathtaking views of the ocean, the caves, rocks, seagulls, even a sea lion. I had finally made it to the north westernmost tip of the country (yaay !!). From the lookout point, we could also see the Tatoosh Island at a distance, and the totally unmanned Cape Flattery Lighthouse.
We did not do the very beautiful and relatively unknown or unexplored Shi Shi beach this time. Shi Shi beach is mainly a camping trip that cannot be done in a day.
We were done with the 2nd hike of the day. I already had more than a hundred miles worth driving experience under my belt. It was past 3 pm and I got greedy and wanted to squeeze in Hurricane Ridge too. We would have made it perhaps, but for the fact that the my GPS totally misled me into an unpaved narrow road for 5-6 miles that led to nowhere. It was scary, being lost in the jungles during the first road trip, on an unpaved track with mountains on one side and the deep chasm on the other side, fearing every moment that a pebble might hit my car and damage the tires. By the time we found the forest ranger to help us find directions, it was too late to venture to Hurricane Ridge. A couple hours of driving in the dark later, we missed the ferry and spent another hour waiting for it.
And that was when I had the most amazing view of the moon, it’s light being reflected in the water.
In summary, it was an amazing trip, but I’d suggest you spread it over two days (and more if you are exploring other things at ONP). I had work the next day and hence had to be satisfied with whatever I could explore in a day. However the long curvy mountain drive, the 2 hikes (although very beautiful), and the physical stress totally had me worn out. We started at 5:30 am and by the time we got back, it must have been past 1 pm.
More than 350 miles and 10-11 hours of driving later, after taking the ferry and all the hiking and getting lost in the forest, I was glad to drive back home.
We feasted on the tandoori chicken and the prawns I’d cooked the previous day. The idea of going to office the next day suddenly seemed a welcome respite from all the driving.
Approximate distance of Cape Flattery from Dungeness Spit: 110 miles
Approximate time to drive from Dungeness Spit to Cape Flatter: 2 hours 30 minutes
Other places of interest in ONP (will post about them later): The Pacific coast beaches, Hurricane Ridge, Lake Crescent, Sol Duc falls, Hoh Rainforest.