Wilderness envelops most of the Olympic Peninsula, an unrefined and enchanting place that promises craggy, snowcapped peaks, pristine evergreen forests, and driftwood-covered coastlines. This is a wonderland where the scent of saltwater and pine hang in the air and the horizon sometimes seems to make the entire world appear to be shades of blue and green. Historic lighthouses, seaports, and tidal pools trim its shores and a majestic mountain range rises up from its heart.
The Olympic Mountains form the core of the peninsula, skirted by saltwater on three sides. The area’s highest point, Mt. Olympus, stands nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. It’s safeguarded in the 922,000-acre Olympic National Park , along with much of the extraordinary interior landscape. Several thousand acres more are protected in the Olympic National Forest. The peninsula also encompasses seven Native American reservations, five wilderness areas, five national wildlife refuges, the world’s largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk, and some of the wettest and driest areas in the coastal Pacific Northwest. The mountains catch penetrating Pacific storms, bringing an average annual rainfall of about 140 inches to the lush western river valleys and rain forests. The drier northeastern slopes of the peninsula’s rain shadow see about 16 inches of precipitation per year, creating an ideal climate for the lavender that's grown commercially here.
Most residents live on the edges of the peninsula, anchored at its southwestern corner by Grays Harbor, named for Captain Robert Gray—in 1792, he became the first European American to enter the harbor. From there, the coast extends north to Cape Flattery and Neah Bay on the Makah Indian Reservation, then stretches to the Victorian seaport of Port Townsend, on the tip of the Quimper Peninsula, a narrow, crooked elbow of land at the northeastern end of the larger land mass. Rugged terrain and few roads limit interior accessibility to backpackers and climbers. But the 330-mile outer loop of U.S. 101 offers breathtaking forest, ocean, and mountain vistas as well as rest stops at a variety of colorful outposts along the way.