On the shore of serene Lake Crescent. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel
For a recent family trip, I packed pool noodles and swim trunks for my kids — but also snow bibs and mittens. You’d think we were traveling to some far-off extreme climate with that kind of luggage, but nope — we just hopped in the car and drove two hours from Seattle to Sequim.
We picked Sequim, a small city on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, as our base for exploring Olympic National Park. We chose it for one main reason: its selection of mid-range chain hotels with swimming pools.
Truth: The hotel pool is 99.9 percent of the reason to go on a vacation, as far as my kids are concerned. Hence, the pool noodles. And in case you forgot something, Sequim's shopping choices include a Safeway, a QFC, a Walmart and a Costco, all conveniently stationed along the main road through town. (Pro tip: If you're a new arrival, don't say "See-quim" — it's pronounced "Skwim.")
The Olympic Peninsula is huge
Many people try to visit Olympic National Park by traveling one giant counter-clockwise loop from Seattle. But the park, and the peninsula of the same name, are humongous. Transplants tend to underestimate how big and spread out things are here.
Our family decided a do-able weekend excursion meant exploring just the north side of the park. (We visited the southern part of the park on a trip earlier this year.)
Before you head into Olympic National Park to visit Hurricane Ridge, it's a good idea to call the roads and weather hotline (360-565-3131) for a daily recorded message about what’s open and what’s not. One day we tried to go up to Hurricane Ridge, we were turned away due to lack of staffing. (The park is open year-round but subject to conditions.)
At the Heart O' the Hills entrance station, we handed the park ranger my fourth grader’s Every Kid Outdoors National Parks pass, which saved us $30. The winding Hurricane Ridge Road led us up 5,242 feet above sea level to the visitor center and parking lot. Only the restroom in the visitor center is open; the exhibits, snack bar and gift shop remain closed. (There's also a ski area up here.)
The 360-degree views of snow-capped mountains are glorious, but kids don’t care about the scenery, they want to play. Specifically, late-season snow play. Hurricane Ridge is often snow-covered well into May. I was prepared with snow gear for the kids, but I was unprepared for being blinded by the sun bouncing off the snow field. Hot tip: Bring UV-protection sunglasses.
There’s an overlook mid-way down the mountain that’s well worth a stop. You can see the literal rain shadow cast by the mountains. Winds off the Pacific Ocean dump out their moisture as they hit the mountain slopes. Sequim is the sunniest place in Western Washington, and then 40 miles west is a dense rainforest.
A popular attraction on the peninsula is Sequim's Olympic Game Farm. It's a privately-owned drive-through wildlife exhibit with llamas, yaks, elk, bison and deer that walk right up to your car. You can buy bread ($3 a loaf) to feed animals out of your car windows.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this place. My kids loved seeing the animals along the 3-mile route. It was absolutely the highlight of their day. The llamas were tall enough to poke their heads right into our SUV, and the deer and yak eagerly lapped at our windows with their long tongues.
We didn’t stop for the bison — it was a little alarming to see a 2,000-lb animal sidle up to your car — but we saw other visitors stick their arms out their windows to have bison literally eating out of their hands.
But. But. But. You have to feel bad for these animals. We saw a lion, a tiger and bobcat each inside tiny little pens. Several Kodiak brown bears shared a small fenced field. I cringed at the way giant elk ambled up to cars, begging for a handout.
I felt even more queasy afterward, reading about repeated animal welfare violations. The farm says the animals are former pets, former movie actors, or were born there. You decide if this place is for you.
I had no reservations about visiting Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, however. Four miles west of the Olympic Game Farm, the refuge is a haven for wild seabirds and waterfowl and the spit is a remarkable geological feature.
For the ambitious sort, there’s an 11-mile out-and-back hike to visit the lighthouse at the end of the spit. But you don't have to hike very far to have fun digging in the sand and climbing on driftwood. And even if you've gone a little ways, the lighthouse looks sooooo far in the distance.
My hiking-averse children made it about 11 steps past the trailhead, to the overlook where we could see a tantalizing glimpse of Victoria, B.C., across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
We visited beautiful Lake Quinault on our last trip to Olympic National Park; this time, we set out to explore Lake Crescent. The Lake Crescent Lodge wasn't yet open on our recent visit (it opens May 7) which meant we had the lakeshore mostly to ourselves. Us, a pair of ducks and a bald eagle.
Give my kids a big blue lake and unlimited pebbles to throw and we have the makings of a pleasant afternoon.
There are two family-friendly trails in the Lake Crescent area: Moments in Time and Marymere Falls. The Moments in Time trail is a flat, 0.7-mile loop that’s easy enough for small children or even a jogging stroller. The path takes you through a forest, meadow and the lake shore, with informational signs along the way.
The Marymere Falls trail takes a tiny bit more commitment, but with a sweet payoff: It leads you through old-growth forest to a 90-foot waterfall. The 1.8-mile round-trip path is mostly flat, except for a short but steep climb right at the waterfall. Another highlight was the narrow bridge hewn from one very big log. Although if you ask my kids, they’ll say their favorite part was throwing rocks into the creek. (What is it with boys and throwing rocks?)
On the way back to Seattle, we wanted to stretch the vacation vibe just a liiiiittle longer, so we popped by Owen’s Playground on Bainbridge Island. This amazing, amazing play area is an inclusive playground designed for kids of all abilities. There’s a double-seater swing (so an older sibling can ride with a toddler), a seesaw that seats four and slides built into the hill. The coolest feature is a water fountain that you crank to make your own rivers and lakes in a sandy pit. My kids loved it.
We’ve taken the ferry tons of times, most often as walk-on passengers. My kids were tickled at the idea of taking our car on the boat, and the ferry ride from Bainbridge was the perfect ending to a fun trip.
If you go...
Info for destinations on this trip
Add-on destination ideas
A short stop in Suquamish, on the way to the Bainbridge ferry terminal, allows you to visit the grave of Chief Seattle, learn about the Native people who first lived — and still live — in this region, and play at an amazing new playground.
With lots more time, take your travels west of Sequim. Book a stay at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort to enjoy the hot spring pools. (A word of warning: They're kind of stinky like sulphur.)
If you do want to do the whole Olympic Peninsula loop, plan on about 8 hours of driving time, plus ferry wait time, and not including any side trips, for example to Hurricane Ridge. Continuing west beyond the road to Hurricane Ridge (and the road to Sol Duc), you eventually come to the town of Forks. A must-visit stop is at the Hoh River area of Olympic National Park, south of Forks. Then there's the legendary Kalaloch Lodge and incredible beaches. The next stop is Lake Quinault. (Read all the details from our trip to the southern part of the park.)
We visited the north Olympic Peninsula during the gap between winter and spring seasons, so most outdoor places weren’t crowded and nearly everyone wore masks. The hotel did sign-ups for pool time and we didn’t eat in any restaurants. Check for current conditions at the time you're considering a trip.