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Must-visit spots beyond Washington’s Olympic National Park

Cape Flattery is northwest of Olympic National Park near the Canadian border. Photo by Istockphoto/Getty Images

In Olympic National Park, moss and ferns blanket the temperate rainforest and clouds roll off the Pacific, gilding peaks with snow. No roads pierce the rugged wilderness, so travelers orbit Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula on Highway 101. But too many visitors race to the Hoh Rain Forest and miss out on the many sights and communities that surround the park.

Check out these spots where you can explore Native culture and bask in grunge nostalgia—and even night-kayak in waters sparkling with bioluminescence.

East of the park

Port Gamble won National Historic Landmark status for its charming coastal Victorian district, and it’s now popular for ghost tours. But another kind of outing inspires awe in visitors: After dusk, especially between mid-June and early October, take a bioluminescent kayak tour to see marine micro-organisms create a spectacular neon-blue glow in the bay.

Before leaving town, gourmands should stock up at Butcher & Baker Provisions for bragworthy cheese and charcuterie, among other specialties.

Port Gamble Bay connects with the Hood Canal, a 68-mile-long fishhook-shaped fjord that’s popular among divers, paddlers, and beachcombers. Foodies shouldn’t miss the blueberry blend at Hoodsport Winery in Hoodsport and the roasted oysters at Hama Hama Oyster Saloon in Lilliwaup.

Then turn up the accommodation elegance with the recently renovated Alderbrook Resort & Spa, overlooking the sheltered, serene waterway. Rates start at $209, plus a $25 daily resort fee.

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South of the park

Olympia capitol building.

The State Capitol in Olympia. Photo by Amanda Castleman

The Hoh Rain Forest commands the spotlight, but it’s just one of 4 rainforests on the peninsula. The Quinault Valley straddles the border of the park and the Olympic National Forest. Lake Quinault boasts a museum, a grande dame lodge, and other amenities. Snap a roadside photo at Merriman Falls, or stretch your legs on the 3.9-mile Quinault Loop  Trail through one of America’s most-protected old-growth conifer forests.

Rainy Day Record Co. storefront exterior.

Rainy Day Record Co. in Olympia has been in business since 1973. Photo by Amanda Castleman

Or shift gears and soak up some culture in and around the state’s capitol, Olympia, home to the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. Once a hotbed for the grunge music scene—Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain reportedly wrote many of the band’s songs here—the city keeps the flame alive through Rainy Day Record Co., operating since 1973.

Music buffs also shouldn’t miss the Capitol Theater, which has hosted bands such as local legends Sleater-Kinney—and don’t miss the mezzanine wallpapered in old concert posters. The 1924 landmark now serves up a mix of screenings, live music, and special events.

Stay fueled up with baked goods and foam-soft quiche from Left Bank Pastry, named one of the Pacific Northwest’s best patisseries by Food & Wine. Its owner, Le Cordon Bleu–trained Gary Potter, specializes in kouign-amann, the happy marriage of croissant dough, salted butter, and a chewy, caramelized-sugar top.

And for dinner, turn to Chicory, a casual fine-dining spot that blends Cajun and Pacific Northwest flavors in dishes like Dungeness crab fried dirty rice.

Save time to explore creative hot spots nearby. Tumwater, about 3 miles south of Olympia, launched a Craft District in 2018, anchored by a marketplace of independent vendors, Heritage Distilling Company’s tasting room, and an amphitheater.

1776 Tenino Bar seating area.

The decor at 1776 Tenino Bar in Tenino pays tribute to American history. Photo by Amanda Castleman

Meanwhile, another 13 miles south, Tenino is building on its legacy as a sandstone quarry town with a new carvers’ guild and showroom (“The Shed”). Toast this infusion of fresh energy at 1776 Tenino Bar, whose decor salutes American history from the founders to the likes of Marilyn Monroe.

About 20 miles southeast of Tumwater, Yelm also mixes small-city charm with a close-knit, innovative community. Nowhere exemplifies this more than the arts hub InGenius! Local Artisan Gallery & Boutique, a lively space that offers workshops.

You may also like: A Seattle sampler: an insiders' guide to sights, restaurants, and more

Northwest Olympic Peninsula

Olympic Peninsula map.

The northwest tip of the contiguous United States lies in Makah territory at Cape Flattery. Here, the Pacific Ocean slams into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which divides the U.S. and Canada, and occasionally, in winter, even whips up 25-foot waves.

But in more mellow seasons, the area attracts tide-poolers, surfers, and sea kayakers, especially at sandy Hobuck Beach, 3.5 miles southwest of Neah Bay. The town also has a trail for land-based whale watching, as well as a museum and an ethnobotanical garden that celebrate the local Native culture.

Hikers should purchase the tribe’s annual recreation permit in town ($20 per vehicle) before hitting Cape Flattery’s 1.5-mile round-trip trail to a cliffside viewpoint. (Savvy travelers download maps, as cell and GPS signals on the peninsula can be spotty.)

Open year-round, this kid-friendly trail also welcomes dogs. Rustic boardwalks wind through fern-fletched woods and between lookout points, which can reveal double-crested cormorants and bald eagles among the rocky sea stacks. Keep an eye out for chocolate-brown California sea lions sunning and squabbling on the rocks of Tatoosh Island.

Once the site of a summer village where tribe members dried fish and launched whaling canoes, this tiny island later housed the Cape Flattery Lighthouse and weather station, which was used to eavesdrop on Japanese transmissions during World War II.

Offshore, Flattery Rocks National Wildlife Refuge protects nesting sea birds, including tufted puffins, and kelp beds where voracious sea otters hunt for food. The refuge is closed to the public.

Backpackers and photographers gravitate to another route, too: the 8-mile round-trip hike to Shi Shi Beach and a stunning array of sea stacks at Point of Arches. This route passes into Olympic National Park, so make sure to bring a wilderness permit, as well as the tribe’s recreation pass.

Northeast Olympic Peninsula

Sequim lavender farm.

A lavender farm in Sequim. Photo by Blueenayim/istockphoto/Getty Images

The Olympic Mountains wring water from damp ocean breezes, nourishing rainforests to the west and creating drier climates to the northeast. Nowhere benefits from this more than Sequim (Skwim). The sunny waterfront town gets just 16 inches of rain annually, compared with more than 200 at higher elevations to the west.

Lavender fields thrive in this mild maritime climate, blooming near Dungeness, a national wildlife refuge and home to one of the world’s longest sand spits, the Dungeness Spit. Stroll its flat 5-mile trail (one-way) to the 1857 New Dungeness Lighthouse, which welcomes volunteer keepers for weeklong stays (adult rates start at $490 per week).

Finally, if you loved Port Gamble’s Victorian vibe, consider visiting Port Townsend—on the tip of its own northeastern peninsula—for art galleries, shopping, and a vibrant dining scene.

Amanda Castleman is a Seattle-based freelance writer and photographer.

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