Across Puget Sound and west of Seattle lies the Olympic Peninsula, home to Olympic National Park. At a size of 1,442 square miles and more than 600 miles of hiking trails, it is essentially a vast wilderness area and was declared as such in 1988 and is a designated World Heritage Site. High amounts of precipitation enable temperate rainforests to thrive on the peninsula’s western side. The Olympic Mountain Range in the center displays several massive glaciers, dominated by Mount Olympus at 7,965 feet (2,428 m). Along its sixty miles of coastline, native communities of the Makah, Quileute, and Hoh tribes are located.
The Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) spans 130 miles from Port Townsend in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. Despite it not being continuous, with some sections riding on roads and a major highway, it seemed ideal for exploring this part of Washington. The promise of a 26 mile stretch in the middle of the route on a dirt trail running through the forest seemed especially intriguing. After coercing my partner into giving me a ride to the starting point, I was good to go.
After a four-hour driving from the suburbs of Seattle, I got dropped off just outside La Push, the largest community within the Quileute Indian Reservation, home to the Quileute Tribe. I would encounter several more references to the Native American/First Nation history of this area over the coming days, from place names to indigenous art. I very much looked forward to starting my ride from La Push Beach, pioneer-like forging my way east after a dip of my tires into the water. Yet, the whole area had been closed to outside visitors due to the pandemic for months. We were instructed to turn our car around by a friendly woman at a control gate on the only road leading into town. At a pull-out a stones-throw away from the blockade, I attached my bikepacking bikes, chowed down a Clif bar, and finally started heading east, in overcast and gloomy conditions, but with plenty of tailwind. The clouds would subside shortly after that, and the wind stayed in my back for the rest of my journey.
I followed the reasonably quiet country road, surrounded by greenery and forest, for about 23 miles until I hit the junction with Hwy 101. Turning south would have meant heading further down the western part of the peninsula, eventually reaching highlights such as the Hoh Rainforest. My route, however, asked for a left turn and a northern bearing. Cars zoomed by at sixty-plus miles per hour, but I felt reasonably safe on the wide shoulder. The pedal routine was interrupted by two road work sections with one-lane traffic for roughly half a mile each. After the second construction zone, I just about had enough riding on a highway when I saw the sign for the Olympic Discovery Trail on the side of the road. It directed me off the main artery and onto a paved side road. Apart from two cars, I meandered through the forest on this secondary road all by myself. Lines of trees stretched on for miles on both sides, occasionally interrupted by gated gravel forest roads I was only too curious to explore.
Sticking with the plan, I eventually took a turn off the country road onto a perfectly paved six-foot wide paved ribbon, cutting a path through the dense vegetation. It was the western end of the Olympic Discovery Trail. It was smooth riding on solid terrain, with the occasional crunching of my tires rolling over carpets of pine needles. Thick moss covered many of the tree bark and turned them into almost fairy-tale-like structures. Down the bank to my left and visible between the trees, the Sol Duc River snaked its way back and forth through the landscape.
Close to Lake Crescent, the second deepest in Washington at 624 feet, the trail crossed over to the north side of Hwy 101. Shortly after, I reached the beginning of the gently graded Spruce Railroad Trail. Cycling this marvel of a trail, however, had to wait until the next day. It was already late afternoon, and after some unnecessary detouring due to lack of proper signage, I reached Fairholme Campground, my stop for the night. It is scenically located on the lake’s western shore.
The campground was completely full, or so I was told when asking around. The perfect weather, as well as the fact that it was Father’s Day weekend, had prompted many locals to flock to this place of the outdoors. Luckily new acquaintances I made came to the rescue. Mike and Dawn, semi-retired and avid tourers, were on a cycling tour from Portland, going to San Francisco via the Olympic Peninsula. They had arrived at the campground a bit earlier, occupying a picnic table by the edge of the lake. The camp host had informed them that they could camp on a patch of grass close to the general store and highway, in the most southwestern corner of the campground, but right by the lake. We shared some cycling stories, had our dinner together, and eventually set up our tents in the area sanctioned by the camp host.
Despite all 88 sites at the campground being occupied, the area settled into peaceful tranquility once nighttime approached. Even the handful of kayakers performing late-night shenanigans close to the shore eventually packed up their things. After a whole day of cycling, I found some reasonably restful sleep inside my tent.
The morning routine of preparing breakfast and packing was relaxed and interspersed with more chats with my new friends. We left the campground and parted ways around 8am, them continuing west and me retracing my steps back to the trail from the previous day. I cruised along the slight downhill grade of Spruce Railroad, enjoying not having to focus on effort first thing in the morning. Originally envisioned as a support line for WWI construction efforts, the Railroad was only completed in 1919, after the war had ended. In many places, the ODT follows the route established during the Spruce Railroad construction.
The trail skirted the edge of the lake until I found the sign that indicated the off-road fun would begin shortly. I turned onto a dirt 4WD road, the start of the Adventure Route of the ODT, an alternative path through the forests carpeting the hill range that separates Lake Crescent from the ocean to the north. The route asked for a right turn up a steep incline before being directed on a single-track trail. This would be my highway through the forest for the rest of the day. Although “highway” was an exaggeration. Because the path was shared with hikers and equestrians and relatively narrow, any fast progress was impossible if I wanted to not crash into either a tree or a fellow trail user. I weaved through long sections of single track through dense forest scenery, interspersed by short segments of open meadows with views of the peninsula’s northern coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Giant ferns covered the floor, so much so that the solid ground was sometimes barely visible.
While I felt comfortable with my pacing and progress the first half of the day, the second half required a bit more grit and clenched jaws. The trail seemed to be continuously rolling uphill, which felt very unsettling with no respite from a long downhill section. It did not help that I missed a trail marker once and erroneously and uselessly labored up a logging road with a maximum gradient of 16%. My GPS device constantly told me that I was “off course”. I eventually turned back around and found the very much non-obvious marker, and continued on. A continuous downhill took me to the end of the Adventure Route at long last. I cruised on local roads into Port Angeles for my second overnight spot.
Perfect weather conditions continued as I pedaled out of Port Angeles on the now once again paved ODT along the water. The last day of the trip saw a handful of moderate climbs and a few rolling sections, but it was otherwise a pleasant cruise through smaller towns like Agnew, Carlsborg, and Sequim. Plenty of other folks enjoyed the conditions and the trail alongside me, be it walking or on all different kinds of bikes.
At the southern tip of Sequim Bay, I took an extended break in Blyn, home to the government offices of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. I was intrigued by the indigenous craftsmanship on display: totem poles, decorative wooden wall pieces, and other types of art in the gift shop adjacent to the tribal community center. From there, it took one last push over the hill, with a downhill on the other side on the shoulder of now heavy-trafficked Hwy 101. I found my finish line in the form of a dual-patty burger at Fat Smitty’s, a roadside joint in an area with not much else.
Rarely does gauging oneself on fast food with a portion of fries and a soda feel so good as after a long day of riding. What an appropriate conclusion to three days of bikepacking on the Olympic Peninsula.
I followed the route of the official ODT route from west to east, starting in La Push. After reading about the rather sketchy and unpleasant riding experiences of others who rode all the way to Port Townsend on a busy highway with little to no shoulder, I decided to make Discovery Bay my end point.
The route is also availabe on Komoot.
I was lucky enough to get a ride to the starting point, as well as a pick up from Discovery Bay. I did not look into public transport options, but my hunch is they are limited.
From La Push to Fairholme Campground, water is less readily available. You could make use of the river water, however, be sure to treat it thoroughly before consumption. I made sure to carry enough water for the full day as to not have to rely on external sources.
Be sure to again fill up on water to sustain you for a full day at the campground, since there are no services along the Adventure Route.
From Port Angeles onwards, food and water options are abundant.
- Bike: Trek Checkpoint ALR5
- Tires: WTB Riddler 700×45, Panaracer GravelKing SK Plus, 700×43, both tubeless
A gravel bike seems overall the right choice, given there is plenty of tarmac riding on the first and last day of this tour. Day 2 on the Adventure Route is non-technical singletrack riding on a well-groomed and compact trail surface.
- Official site of the ODT
- Bikepacking.com: The Olympic Adventure Route. Route description of the Adventure Route portion of the ride.
- NPS: Olympic Nat’l Park – Campground Status
- Official site of the ODT
- Route on MTB Project. Full route with the extension all the way to Port Townsend.
- Bikepacking across the Olympic Peninsula. Ride report on Salsa Cycles.
- Bikepacking around the Olympic Peninsula. Six day loop around the peninsula on tarmac.