2021 Pacific Northwest Road Trip: Part I – North to Olympic National Park

With COVID-19 keeping travel to a minimum since early 2020, it wasn’t until the beginning of 2021 that we started seriously considering that we might actually be able to go somewhere this year. Cruises were obviously out, and I wasn’t about to get on an airplane either. So, a road trip it would be. We usually like to travel in the spring before school lets out, but with COVID’s unpredictability we opted for an August/September trip. We hoped that the plague would be a thing of the past by then and things would be pretty much back to normal, almost exactly two long years since our last trip. (Of course it wasn’t back to normal, and masks were still required at all indoor areas.)

Planning

Now that we knew how and when we were going, it was time to decide where we were going. A road trip basically left us with three options: The Southwest, Colorado and the Badlands of South Dakota if we were ambitious, or the Pacific Northwest. We’d been to the deserts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico a few times, so immediately ruled that out. After much discussion, we decided that Colorado (and especially going up to the Badlands) was indeed too ambitious and best left for when we could fly to Denver or Salt Lake City. We had been talking about visiting Olympic National Park for a few years and we actually had to cancel a trip to the Columbia River Gorge in 2018 because Northern California was on fire, so Oregon and Washington it would be.

We made our lodging reservations and by July had all our nights lined up with about one night camping for every two nights with a solid roof over our heads. We would start with a drive to San Jose after work where we would spend the night at my mom’s condo before our first “official” day out. Our first night was going to be camping in Redwood National Park, but as we thought about it over the next few days and looked at our daily travel time decided that would be another case of ambition overtaking practicality. We dropped the Redwoods and opted to power up to Grant’s Pass, Oregon, on that first day instead. Must-see destinations were Olympic National Park and the Columbia River Gorge. Seattle’s Museum of Flight was another must-see if we were going to be in that part of the country, and North Cascades National Park made it on the list early on as well. I’d never been to eastern Oregon, and so I wanted to drive on US395 just to see what was there. Google Maps helped us find points of interest along the way: Mount Rainier and Crater Lake National Parks were no-brainers, and the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum came highly recommended and would be along our path. I wanted to see John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, but it was out of the way and got dropped off the list. A couple of last minute finds were Silver Falls State Park near Portland, and right on the route was Newberry National Volcanic Monument near Bend.

Redneck Rear Seat Delete Kit

We would be bringing almost all of our food with us as well as camping supplies, clothing, and, of course, our cameras. So, how do you fit camping gear, 50lbs of camera equipment, and two weeks worth of food and clothes in a 2016 Ford Mustang? Why, the Redneck Rear-Seat-Delete Kit™, of course! This highly specialized kit involved removing the back seat and replacing it with pieces of plywood acquired from the crates my work receives materials in from overseas. After careful measurements, we hacked away with a jigsaw until it fit relatively tightly. With the convertible top, we had a veritable pickup truck! An enormous Rubbermaid bin would occupy most of the space, and water, a cooler, and other items we wanted easy access to would ride behind us. The rest got packed into the car’s rather generously sized trunk.

We left on the evening of Friday, August 20th, for the short drive to San Jose. I never count this as the first day of a road trip – San Jose is just too regular a destination for me to think of as the start of a vacation. It was the next morning that the trip really started.

On the Road

Buona Sera Inn
Buona Sera Inn

Starting out early on Saturday morning, we headed up I-680, across the Benicia-Martinez Bridge, and onward to I-5 for the long trip to our reserved room in Grant’s Pass, Oregon. When we checked in, we were greeted with: “Just the two of you and a pup?” No. No pup. We picked our room when we made our reservation weeks before – one of the no pets allowed rooms – because of allergies. The desk clerk had been commenting on how busy it was and that all the motels were booked, but now due to plumbing problems the only rooms available here were pet rooms. Here we were in Grants Pass, Oregon, with no place to stay except the dog house. The desk clerk offered to help us find another motel, but this was just minutes after he had commented that there were no other vacancies in town. This would not do. After some conversations between the manager and the desk clerk, they decided they could provide us with a pet-free room that was a bit of an upgrade at no extra cost. The room did turn out rather pleasant, away from the street and it was nicely decorated. Tragedy averted.

SILVER FALLS STATE PARK

The next day we traveled to the first destination on our itinerary: Silver Falls State Park, among the best known of Oregon’s parks and often called the Crown Jewel of the Oregon State Parks System. The seven-mile Trail of Ten Falls loops past – you guessed it – ten of the park’s waterfalls, and there are other trails to several more waterfalls. We knew that we had packed a lot in on this trip, and wanted to arrive at our motels or campgrounds in the late afternoon while it was still light. We wouldn’t have time to do everything there was to do on many of our stops, so at Silver Falls we only stopped to see two of the waterfalls; South Falls near the main park day use area and North Falls from both a distant overlook and from the trail that passed behind the falls.

"The Forest Beyond the Falls" [North Falls in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon]

THE GLOCKENSPIEL

Leaving Silver Falls State Park, our trip took us through Mt. Angel, Oregon. We turned off the main highway to see if there was anything to photograph in this town, and came across the Glockenspiel. Playing four times each day, we happened upon it just before it’s 4pm show. Inspired by the glockenspiel in Munich, Germany, the Mt. Angel Glockenspiel features the local heritage. The display begins with a representation of a Native American, representing those who came to the area to communicate with the Great Spirit. As the show continues figure rotate to showcase some of the town’s historical figures.

We left the Glockenspiel and continued on to Oregon’s Champoeg (pronounced “Shampooee”) State Heritage Area campground for the trip’s first night in a tent.

EVERGREEN AVIATION AND SPACE MUSEUM

Breaking camp on Monday the 23rd, our first stop for that day was the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, about 35 miles southwest of Portland. It’s big claim-to-fame is that it’s home to Howard Hughes’ Hercules H-4 Flying Boat, or as it’s more famously known, the Spruce Goose. It also houses many other historical aircraft, spacecraft, and other artifacts.

Photographing in a museum is always challenging. Pictures of entire aircraft are interesting, but they are rarely isolated enough from other artifacts and guests to make for good photos. Hence, most of my images from museums are close-ups like these photos of one of the Spruce Goose’s engines and the Wright Twin Cyclone engine from the Second World War.

"American Ingenuity" [Spruce Goose Engine in Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, Oregon]
"Twin Cyclone" [Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone Engine in Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, Oregon]

LEWIS AND CLARK NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK and the COLUMBIA RIVER CROSSING

After leaving the Evergreen Museum, our route took us to the Pacific Coast. As we approached Astoria, Oregon, we saw a roadsign pointing the way to the Lewis and Clark National Park. Not ones to let such a sign go unheeded, we took the detour to see what we would find. It turned out that the sign was slightly over representing the destination – it was actually Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. This park is on the Lewis and Clark River just south of Astoria. We took a quick tour of the replica of Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the winter of 1805-1806, and continued on our way north.

We got our first view of the Columbia River when crossing the Astoria-Megier Bridge. The bridge is an impressive four-miles long. It stands almost 200 feet above the water on the Oregon side to allow for the many ships traveling up the Columbia River to pass underneath, and drops relatively close to the river’s surface for the remaining 2/3rds or so of it’s length. Six minutes after getting on the bridge in Astoria, we were across the river and in the State of Washington.

THE PITCHWOOD INN

We had explored several options when looking for places to stay between the Evergreen Museum and our cabin on the Olympic Peninsula. It was a Goldilocks situation – we didn’t want to find a place that was too close to the cabin, but we didn’t want to drive too far the next day and not have time to make a leisurely trip along the west side of Olympic National Park. Raymond, Washington, seemed just right.

We arrived at the Pitchwood Inn at about 5:15pm. We selected the Pitchwood because it came highly rated on many of the travel websites we consulted, with guests commenting that it was a quiet place to stay. It also had rooms with full kitchens, which we wanted on at least some of our stays. The inn was located behind the Pitchwood Alehouse and we were to check in at the bar. I parked on the street, walked around to the alehouse’s entrance, and was greeted with a sign announcing that it was closed due to being short-staffed. Was this really how our trip was going to go? I walked around the building but didn’t see any signs of the staff. Returning to the front door, I pulled on it and found it was open. Within a few minutes we were checked in and unloading our luggage.

The Pitchwood Inn

We had opted for the “St8 Room,” a king room with a kitchen and tub. It was nicely decorated in a semi-nautical theme with lots of wood, brass fixtures, and a really cool octopus shower curtain. The innkeeper let us know when we checked in that the previous guest broke the knobs on the stove and they’d be over in a few minutes with brand new replacements. When they arrived and the knobs were installed, they didn’t work. After a bit of investigating I discovered that they weren’t the right ones for the stove. It was an easy mistake so I didn’t hold it against them, and I found that I could get it to work with a pair of pliers. I opted for that solution instead of having the maintenance man spend half the evening trying to make the wrong knobs work.

The Pitchwood Inn

So, did the Pitchwood Inn live up to the reviews? Mostly yes. It was nicely decorated, clean, and the bed was comfortable. The aforementioned octopus shower curtain was a small but nice detail, and the kitchen had modern appliances and everything worked well (once I figured out a workaround to the knob issue.) The room was indeed quiet – until the Weyerhaeuser plant across the street started moving logs around a bit at 3am and really started operations at 7am. Depending on your sensitivity, some might sleep right through without noticing and others would be awakened in the night.

THE WESTERN OLYMPIC PENINSULA

The next day we drove onto the Olympic Peninsula. We planned to skirt the west side of Olympic National Park on the way north from Raymond with stops to see Merriman Falls in the Quinault Valley and perhaps see the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park.

As we turned onto South Shore Road on the way into the the Quinault Valley and Olympic National Forest, our surroundings got even greener and more lush than they had already been. We had traveled through dense evergreen forest on our way here, but the rain forest was something special. Ferns covered the forest floor and moss clung to big leaf maple trunks. Everything seemed to have something growing on it.

Merriman Falls

We stopped at Merriman Falls for a bit then continued to complete the loop around to exit on the north side of the valley, but when the road turned to gravel decided to turn around and explore the north shore from the west entrance. It was a pretty drive on North Shore Road, but with no destination in mind, we turned around after about three miles and continued north on US101 toward the Hoh Rain Forest.

When we arrived at the road leading to the Hoh Rainforest, a sign alerted us to expect 30 minute delays due to construction. My desire to explore got the better of me so we kept going, and luck seemed to be with us as there was only a few minutes wait at the construction site. Then we hit the second construction site and had a bit longer wait. Finally, we passed a sign indicating that we were approaching the entrance station. Cars were backed up, and drivers in the line ahead of us were turning around. That’s when we saw the sign: “Wait time from this point: 45 minutes.” I turned the car around after driving nearly thirteen miles. After another thirteen miles and an hour after leaving 101, we were back on it. Hoh Rain Forest would have to wait.

We had reserved a cabin for the next two nights. That would give us one full day to explore the northwestern part of Olympic National Park, and another day to see the north side before camping nearby on our third night. We arrived at just shy of 5pm. It was early, but it had been a long day.

THE CABINS AT BEAVER CREEK

The Cabins at Beaver Creek

The Cabins at Beaver Creek are a group of five cabins on a lovely property in Beaver Creek, Washington. We were met at check-in by Michelle, the owner, who showed us around the grounds, introduced us to some of her various farm animals, and advised us on where the Cabins’ extensive video library was located. She was everything one could want in a host: friendly and informative, but not overbearing.

While not one of the cabins, her home does deserve a mention. Known as the Westlands Homestead, the historic house was built in 1916 as the company headquarters for the Clallam Lumber Company. In around 2004, an author was doing research for a new book and found a real estate listing online for a house that would be just right for her main characters’ home. Although she never visited the property, the information in the listing allowed Stephanie Myers describe the house’s interior in her book, “Twilight.”

We stayed in Cabin 1, a single-level studio style cabin with a log-framed queen bed and full kitchen. It was nicely decorated and very clean, but the best feature was the 6-foot bathtub! The large covered porch had a charcoal bar-be-que and two chairs overlooking the large grass area and woods separating the cabin from the Sol Duc River. The property around the cabins was stunning. Forests covered in moss and vines surrounded the grass field where the cabins were located. Behind them were paddocks for the livestock, and chickens roamed free with their chicks. The Sol Duc River bordered the property to the south, and Beaver Creek to the west. Adirondack chairs and picnic tables were scattered around the property, but none so close to another where you’d be too near your neighbor. A fire pit was available where the more social could usually gather with other guests. There were no fires during our stay because of a burn ban due to drought, which was very odd to me because my home in California wouldn’t be this wet in the rainiest of years.

The road from US101 to the cabins is the old highway alignment which dead-ends on the property just past the cabins. Beyond a log barricade, the old roadbed continues covered in the grasses, moss, and leaves from years of abandonment. The highway bridge still crosses Beaver Creek at the end of the old road. The moss-covered structure is left over from when the Olympic Loop Highway was constructed in 1931, and is a fascinating artifact for guests of the cabins to explore.

The Cabins at Beaver Creek were a highlight of our Pacific Northwest trip.

"Road's End" [Abandoned US 101 Highway in Beaver, Washington]
"The Old Road" [Abandoned US 101 Bridge in Beaver, Washington]
"The Bridge at Beaver Creek" [Abandoned US 101 Bridge in Beaver, Washington]
"Abandoned to Time" [Old US 101 Highway Bridge in Beaver, Washington]

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK

At 7:45am on Wednesday the 25th we started back to the Hoh Rain Forest. It was foggy as we drove down US101 and into the National Park, eventually clearing at around 8:30 as we drove into the Hoh Rain Forest. There was only about ten minutes of construction delays and no traffic backed up to get into the park – much better than our previous attempt.

All was not rosy, however. Well, my toe was. Coming out of the shower the previous night, I managed to slam it into one of the fancy wooden posts holding up the bed and to this day there are discussions about whether it was broken or just a bad bruise. I tried to walk on my heel and keep my toes in the air, determined not to let this injury wreck the day no matter how hard it tried. And boy did it try, on every step on the three-quarter mile Hall of Mosses trail. It was slow going, but I managed.

"Headbanger" [Pileated Woodpecker in Olympic National Park, Washington]

Hobbling through the Hoh Rain Forest, I heard the sound of a distant machine gun. I stopped and scanned the trees, looking for the source of the sound. It took a minute or two, but I eventually spotted this Pileated Woodpecker high up in a distant tree, banging his head against the trunk. It was clinging to the tree in just the right spot, where a break in the canopy let a beam of light through. It was one of the few times on the trip where my 600mm lens came in handy.

By the end of the trail, I’d about had enough. I tried starting down a second trail, but I only made it about a few yards before giving up. We came to the decision to get back in the car and continue on to the park’s north side. After stopping for groceries in Forks and dropping those off at the cabin, we continued east on US101 and drove up to Hurricane Ridge.

Hurricane Ridge

A windy 18 miles of scenic road lead to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. Even in bad light, the view of the Olympic Mountain Range from the 5,242-foot high vantage point was magnificent. We spent about an hour and a half taking in the scenery, enjoying lunch on a picnic table overlooking the mountains, and shopping for a t-shirt for my collection, before heading back down the mountain.

The drive down the mountain was even more scenic than the drive up. Being on the outside lane and going downhill, the distant scenery was much more visible than on the drive up. It was only about 3:30 when we left, but my toe insisted that we walk less and drive more, so we took the scenic route back to our cabin and called it a day.

50-minute video of the drive up and down Hurricane Ridge Road.
(No time to watch now? Click “Watch later” and enjoy at your convenience.)

Come back next month for Part II of our Pacific Northwest Road Trip: North Cascades, Seattle, and more!

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