When things seem far from “normal,” as they have been for much of the past two years, there is solace in familiar places and faces. This winter, I reconnected with the people and nature that call them home on two trips to Washington’s mystical Olympic Peninsula.
On both excursions, as soon as our car left the Seattle city limits, I sank into the muscle memory of those weekends—the promise of adventure with the people I love most. Of course, we yearn for such a connection right now, after a pandemic and subsequent life events – sick parents, healthcare jobs, anxiety about an uncertain future – have turned distances into chasms. I found it comforting to find that when you’re ready, it’s easy to slip back into the rejuvenating rhythms of travel and togetherness.
A return to Forks with friends
On a soggy weekend in late January, five friends and I resumed our annual tradition of a winter pilgrimage to Forks, Clallam County. Built on the lumber trade and later known as the setting of “Twilight”, Forks claims to be the rainiest city in the contiguous United States. The pandemic had forced our group into a two-year hiatus, which made this year’s reunion even sweeter.
I began to breathe easier as our ferry to Bainbridge pulled away from downtown Seattle, the morning sun bouncing off the distant snow-capped peaks and the city skyline shrinking in our wake. We made familiar stops along the way, at Sluys Poulsbo Bakery for flaky treats and the Port Angeles Safeway for groceries.
The Olympic Peninsula, anchored in the Olympic Mountains, is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Hood Canal. Olympic National Park protects the land’s many ecosystems, from glacier-capped mountains and ancient temperate rainforests to 73 miles of rugged coastline. Today, eight indigenous tribes on the Olympic Peninsula acknowledge a relationship with the park: the Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Skokomish, Quinault, Hoh, Quileute and Makah.
A few commonalities to our Olympic weekends: a simple Airbnb booked near Forks, a self-guided itinerary of beach hikes and potlucks, and party bubbles on Rialto Beach, enjoyed at sunset after our arrival. Some of the best times of the weekend are usually spent indoors by the fire. We cherish long conversations over morning pots of coffee, as well as nighttime reveries and charades (literally, sometimes) accompanied by wine and favorite songs. These are weekends of comfy hoodies and woolen socks, deep breaths and deeper belly laughs.
Rain or shine, Day 2 is all about hiking, with routes ranging from the Ozette Loop and Second and Third Beaches to a walk on Rialto Beach north to Hole-in-the- Wall, an impressive sea-carved arch. Then there’s a new off-the-beaten-track hike (the location of which won’t be disclosed in the press). The group votes on the hike, usually over breakfast burritos.
Hikers should always read recent trail reports (see alltrails.com/lists/olympic-peninsula) and carefully study tide charts (noaa.gov). At low tide, you can stroll the beaches of the Olympic Peninsula, gaze out at the Pacific, safely circumnavigate certain headlands, and explore tidal pools alive with creatures like giant green anemones, ocher starfish, and sea urchins. thorny. On some beaches, ropes lead you to land crossings when the tide is too strong. Night hikers need a wild camping permit (recreation.gov), and it’s a good idea to review no-trace principles, requirements like bear canisters, and potential fire bans during the busier months. hot.
This year our “hidden” trek took us to the roar of the churning sea. Moments after landing on the soft sand, clambering over scattered logs like pick-up sticks, we heard the cry of an eagle above us. Seabirds circled among the spectacular sea stacks, landing atop leaning trees. We saw a fluffy seal, lying on its rocky island, its body curled up in a “C” shape. A low-rise mist set the mood and for a few blissful hours we were just us – alone with the waves and winds in this vast and beautiful world.
Every time those weekends come to an end, we toss muddy cargo into chests and reverse the ride, reliving the weekend’s highlights as we go. There’s one last stop – at Lake Crescent, a glacier-carved lake west of Port Angeles. The Lake Crescent Lodge and Log Cabin Resort are usually closed when we pass, but we opt for the view and the tradition. We often talk about a dunk from the lake, but we usually stick to a photo op on the slippery dock. For a few final moments – for this visit – we drink in this sacred beauty and camaraderie.
A family trip to Seabrook
In mid-March I returned to the coast, now for a pampered weekend by the ocean with my parents. On a sunny Thursday, we walked south on Interstate 5, veering west towards the ocean at Olympia. Driving my parents through the small towns of the peninsula helped them connect the puzzle pieces of my Pacific Northwest experience.
It took us about three hours to reach our destination, Seabrook, Grays Harbor County, where we were greeted by salty ocean air and a laid-back vacation town vibe. Although I had been in the planned community before, it was special to bring my parents from the East Coast to the peninsula for the first time, and in addition special in light of the pandemic.
We ditched the car and explored the oyster-shell sidewalks and fire pit-strewn courtyards of this self-contained, highly walkable world. (Seabrook touts its New Urbanism design techniques, which aim to connect people as they move through the city.) Our first stop, a seven-minute walk away: a late lunch among the “downtown” merchant hub. “. At Koko’s Restaurant and Tequila Bar, I enjoyed fresh guacamole, a cucumber-cilantro margarita and a “Mexican poke bowl” made with ahi tuna, edamame and mango.
Afterwards, we settled into our cozy rental home, lighting the gas fireplace and stepping into bright spaces marked by grays, browns and sea-foam green. Our retreat was set up with faux succulents, trinkets sea glass and hardcover books, plus woven baskets with seashells and starfish. Immediate designs: a hot tub in the garden, two long wooden tables – one outside under a garland twinkling lights – and a dreamy clawfoot tub. Although prices change with the seasons, a three-bedroom rental home like ours starts at a rate of $500 per night in May; smaller cabins start at $300 per night.
Of Seabrook’s 500 homes, 275 are on the rental program, like the one we rented, and 75 have year-round residents. The others are private residences. The city says that since the start of the pandemic, sales have increased by 132%.
Seabrook’s location along the Hidden Coast Scenic Byway makes it a great jumping off point for other peninsula adventures. Westport, a hub of surfing, fishing and razor clams, is 80km to the south. Looking north there is Pacific Beach (1.5 miles), Lake Quinault (31 miles) and Olympic National Park (33 miles). Nearby activities abound, from mountain biking and hiking to paddling and mushroom picking. In town, Buck’s Northwest is the place for rentals and lessons, and Pacific Coast Wonders offers guided experiences throughout the Quinault Indian Reservation. In town there are also Seabrook’s outdoor summer concerts and free yoga classes, one of which I tried.
Places like Seabrook allow you to move as much or as little as you want. Our trio enjoyed many hours of reading, curled up by the fire as the rain drummed against our house. Twice, I strolled through the property’s eight micro-neighborhoods to admire charming homes with clichéd sea-related names (“Slow MOcean,” “Dune Our Thing”); One nostalgia-tinged afternoon, my dad and I shot together for the first time in decades. Each morning started with fluffy pastries from Vista Bakeshop, and we enjoyed another outstanding meal at Rising Tide Tavern, a family-run tavern, both run by Canlis alumni. The restaurant’s seafood comes from Quinault Pride, the fishing company of the Quinault Indian Nation.
One morning, my swimming plans were thwarted by a crowded indoor pool. Instead, I roamed the community’s woodland trails, finding whimsical gnomes nestled in gnarled stumps and root systems. Seabrook is a surreal escape on many levels, and some residents have joked about living on the set of “The Truman Show.” There are elements of that, sure, and also charming moments that make you scratch your head and smile.
Yet I felt most at peace quietly chasing sand dollars with my parents along vast stretches of coastline dotted with exuberant dogs and shiny kites. We admired moody, backlit clouds, which glow softly like the northwest skies do. We even spotted a faint rainbow arching over the beach, barely there but present enough to offer hope.
One morning we stopped to marvel at hundreds of seabirds taking flight. The swarm landed on the reflective sand and took off again, wildly flapping its wings in tandem. As their movements painted swirling, mesmerizing patterns on a gray March canvas, I wondered who was leading the pack and how they knew where to go. I was in awe of the way they stuck together and the mysterious beauty of their collective blows.
These recent Olympic family trips, natural and chosen, have reminded me that even and particularly when the world feels off, there’s a balance between community and nature – taking a pace to slow down, look up, and rejoice in the people and places you love most.