I get it. Winter in the Pacific Northwest isn’t for everyone. If you’re just not a winter person, or the least bit outdoorsy, or if you melt at the first drop of rain, or freeze if the temperature drops below 50, then you and the Pacific Northwest during the winter just aren’t going to mix. And that’s fine. We here on the Olympic Peninsula will be ready for you year-round: gentle spring, busy summer and colorful fall.
But you shouldn’t stay away because you think you’ll be subjected to arctic temperatures and buffeted by blizzard force winds. With average temperatures in the high 30’s and 40’s (thanks to our extensive coastline), and the majority of precipitation blocked by the Olympic Mountains (the “rain shadow”) winters on the Olympic Peninsula, particularly Port Angeles and Sequim, are uniquely mild. But we also benefit from being so close to the mountains which can get a considerable amount of snow, making stunning views of white-capped alpine peaks inescapable.
Nor should you stay away because you think there’s nothing to do in the winter, or that Olympic National Park shutters its windows and locks its doors between Thanksgiving and Easter. Not true. November through March is a time for alternating between outdoor adventures in peaceful communion with nature and cozying up by the fire with some hot cocoa. So if you think that just maybe you’d enjoy a little time on the peninsula this winter, here are a few ideas to help motivate you to come on out.
The first awesome winter activity you should work into your visit is taking a ski lesson while taking in the view at Hurricane Ridge. Many people (including locals) don’t even know that you can ski at Hurricane Ridge. In fact, it is the furthest west ski area in the contiguous United States and one of only three ski areas in the country located in a National Park. Cool huh? You can downhill ski, cross-country ski, snow shoe, snowboard, or go tubing. And all of this with the glistening Olympic Mountain Range as your backdrop. Don’t worry if you’ve never skied before, you can take a lesson at the ski school located near the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.
Although Olympic National Park is open 24 hours a day year-round, some roads and visitor facilities may be closed or have reduced hours at different times of the year. In winter, Hurricane Ridge Road is usually only accessible on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so you should plan accordingly. Full details can be found at http://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/hurricane-ridge-in-winter.htm.
The second awesome winter activity is actually more of a day trip made up of several smaller activities. Let’s call it “See the Salmon Spawning Sites, Visit a Swollen Waterfall, Marvel at the Elwha River & Stroll the Ancient Groves.” Catchy, right?
Part 1 – see the salmon spawning sites. From Domaine Madeleine, take Old Olympic Highway west to U.S. Highway 101 and continue west for about 2.7 miles. There is a historic cabin with parking on north side of the highway. Morse Creek lies just behind the cabin. This is the spawning site for 2 species of wild salmon as well as wild trout in the winter months. Expect to see Coho salmon and chum salmon in November and December, and sea-run cutthroat trout from January through April.
Part 2 – visit a swollen waterfall. Continue west on Hwy 101 for about 12.7 miles and turn left onto Olympic Hot Springs Rd. After 2 miles will be parking on the left for Madison Creek Falls Trail. An easy 5 minute walk will bring you to the falls. Runoff from the snowy Olympics floods creeks and fills waterfalls to impressive capacities.
Part 3 – marvel at the Elwha River. A short way further down Olympic Hot Springs Road is the Glines Canyon Spillway Overlook. In 2011, the National Park Service began the Elwha River Restoration with the removal of the Elwha and Glines dams, the largest dam removal in history. This overlook gives visitors a view of the wide valley that formerly held the Lake Mills reservoir. From here, you can look down and see the Elwha flow through the 200 foot deep Glines Canyon. Interpretive exhibits tell the story of the dams and the factors that led up to their removal and ecosystem restoration.
Part 4 – stroll the ancient groves. This requires a little caveat. The Hoh Rainforest is magnificent, unique, and memorable. It can also be quite a trek to get to. The “official” entrance to the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center and Hall of Mosses trail is about 90 miles and 2 hours from downtown Port Angeles. If you’re absolutely set on this destination, then absolutely, go for it. But there is an alternative that can more than cut that time and distance in half.
From the Glines Canyon Spillway Overlook, return back up Olympic Hot Springs Road to Hwy 101 and turn left. Continue west for 20 miles, passing scenic Lake Crescent to Sol Duc Hot Springs Road and turn left. Pick up the Ancient Groves Nature Trail trail about 9 miles down the road on the left – before you reach the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort.
This is a sort of Reader’s Digest version at the very north edge of the rainforest. The half-mile trail wanders through an old-growth forest bursting with spongy mosses, lush ferns, and has views from high bluffs above the Sol Duc River. And if it does happen to rain, what could be more appropriate than walking through a rainforest?
And that concludes your second awesome winter activity.
Our third awesome winter activity is also made up a few activities combined into a day trip.
We’ll call this one “Storm-watching along the Pacific Beaches and Cape Flattery plus a visit to the Makah Museum”.
The Olympic Peninsula has 73 miles of wilderness coastline, making it the most rugged and wild coastal area in the contiguous United States. In winter huge storms slam the Pacific coast, capable of producing winds up to 60 miles an hour and dumping several feet of rain over a weekend, and opportunities to storm watch are plentiful.
We suggest taking the 101 west to the 113 north to the 112 west into Neah Bay, about 2 hours from Domaine Madeleine. This is the Makah Tribe Reservation, and home of your first stop, the Makah Cultural and Research Center, a.k.a. the Makah Museum at 1880 Bayview Ave. Here you will find artifacts from the Ozette Indian Village Archeological Site, a Makah village partly buried by a mudslide around 1750, providing a snapshot of pre-contact tribal life. The museum includes a replica long house as well as canoes, basketry, whaling and fishing gear.
After fortifying yourself at the museum, continue west on Bayview Ave and turn left on Fort St. Then take a right onto 3rd St. and a left onto Cape Flattery / Cape Loop Road to the trailhead. A half mile hike along a partially wood-planked trail take you to the observation deck at the most northwest point of the contiguous United States. A short ways out in the water you will see Tatoosh Island and the Cape Flattery Lighthouse. The view is stunning no matter what the weather.
If you’re still looking to watch more storms, head back to Cape Loop Road and head south until it becomes Cape Flattery Road. Take a right onto Hobuck Road and another right onto the Makah Passage. This will bring you to Hobuck Beach, a perfect spot to storm watch – you can even take in the view from the comfort of your vehicle.
Whether you engage in any, all, or none of these awesome winter activities, you can always end your day with a mug of hot cocoa, snuggling by the fire or watching a movie in one of our luxurious suites.
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