As Seattle residents for nearly a decade, we've spent many weekends in the Cascade Mountain ranges. It makes sense, given that the Cascades are very close to Seattle and thus easy to access. But more and more, we've become disillusioned by the throngs of other outdoor enthusiasts that jam pack the trails and vistas of the Cascades every weekend.
Seeking a new experience, we decided to spend a weekend exploring the Olympic Peninsula instead. Although the Olympics are also relatively close to Seattle, accessing them takes long enough that most won't visit the area on a quick day trip. Instead, it's best to spend at least a long weekend here to make the most of your time. Enter, Peace Vans!
What's a Peace Van?
Here in the Pacific Northwest, Subaru vehicles are among the most popular, given their ability to trek through the various ocean and mountain terrains in the area. We own a Subaru ourselves, thanks to our business in Belize. Another popular yet more niche vehicle is the Volkswagen Vanagon. We've long been intrigued by the idea of trekking around the West Coast in a VW Vanagon, and we leapt at the chance to take one out for the weekend.
This is all thanks to Peace Vans, a local Seattle company that restores and rents out VW camper vans, namely classic Vanagons, modern Eurovans, and even iconic VW buses. Simply reserve a van online, and then visit the shop in SoDo for a quick orientation and to pick up your van. All vans come equipped with quite a few accessories, such as cookware, kindling for fires, headlamps, and more. Pretty much all you have to bring are sleeping bags, clothing, food, and toiletries.
We picked up our van on a Thursday afternoon in sunny Seattle and were heading out to the Hood Canal by Friday afternoon.
Where is the Hood Canal?
Located west of Seattle, the Hood Canal is a natural waterway that separates the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas. The world's third longest floating bridge (and the only one constructed on saltwater), the Hood Canal Bridge, spans the whole canal.
Given Hood Canal's proximity to the Olympic National Forest and Park, this area is wildly popular during the summer. Popular recreational activities in the area include hiking, camping, fishing, boating, swimming, and shellfish (oyster, clam) gathering.
See the map above here.
Hood Canal Weekend Road Trip Itinerary
1. Seattle to Bainbridge via Ferry
The adventure begins in downtown Seattle at the ferry terminal. This (relatively) easy to access ferry makes trips every hour to Bainbridge Island. Ferries are large and can accommodate walk-on passengers, vehicles, or bicycles. Our Subaru Impreza rides the ferry regularly, and Elwha fit right in. The ferry ride lasts about 35 minutes and drops you off in the heart of Bainbridge Island. Check out the Bainbridge Island ferry schedule and fares here.
2. Drive to Dosewallips State Park
From the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal, it's a straight shot to the Hood Canal. Or if you need sustenance, we highly recommend dropping by our favorite eateries on Bainbridge: Bruciato for wood-fired pizza, Hitchcock Deli for sandwiches to go, or Hitchcock Restaurant for a nice sit-down dinner (full disclosure: these are food photography clients of ours, but the food truly is delicious and worth a ferry ride!).
In our case, we beelined straight for the Hood Canal driving an hour and 15 minutes (51.6 miles) to Dosewallips State Park. There are many camping sites in Hood Canal, but most were closed in mid-March. Our only option was at Dosewallips, which ended up being a great base. The campsite allows for tent or vehicle camping for just $20 a night. There are also small cabins that can be rented (advance reservations required). Bathroom facilities were also spacious and clean, offering flushing toilets and paid shower options.
3. Daytime Activity Ideas
There are many small towns located along the Hood Canal's western shore. But the main draw here is outdoor recreation. State parks on the Hood Canal shores include Belfair, Potlatch, Triton Cove, Scenic Beach, Kitsap Memorial, and Dosewallips.
We spent most of our time in the Dosewallips State Park, near our campsite. The state park is so large it includes lush forests with hiking trails and a long strip of beach where we found many shellfish gatherers.
One of the best parts about beaches in the Pacific Northwest is the ample amount of edible shellfish that can be gathered. Dosewallips State Park beach, in particular, offers year-round clam and oyster gathering. Shellfish found on this beach include Manila littleneck clams, butter clams, horse clams, cockles, and even geoducks. Be sure to bring buckets, towels, shovels, and rubber boots. Also, check out any signage on the beach to ensure that shellfish gathering is allowed and safe to do in the area.
Rocky Brook Falls
This is probably the easiest and most rewarding "hike" we've ever done. Upon stopping on the side of the road to photograph a stunning rainbow, we met local photographers Klaass Images who told us we absolutely had to visit Rocky Brook Falls. This stunning waterfall sits just off of the Dosewallips Road, just past the Rocky Brook Bridge. From here, it's a short 200-yard walk inland to the stunning waterfall.
When we visited, there were absolutely no signs indicating that there was a waterfall in the area, as we show in our vlog. But there were some signs warning us not to tamper with the electric facility that's also nearby. If you see warning signs, don't be dissuaded as you can still legally access the waterfall. However, do take note of the water levels and don't enter if it seems like they are higher than usual.
Lower Big Quilcene River Hiking Trail #833
There's no shortage of hiking trails in the Hood Canal. We ended up choosing the Lower Big Quilcene River trail. It's a relatively easy, low-country valley hike with several alternatives. We took the medium-length hike to Bark Shanty Camp (2.5 miles one-way). A longer option would be all the way to Camp Jolley (5.1 miles one-way). This hiking trail was nicely maintained and offered many waterfall views along the way.
4. Where to Eat at the Hood Canal
Half Way House Restaurant
After spending the night in our Westfalia camper van, we awoke the next morning and enjoyed a hot breakfast at the Half Way House Restaurant. Located just around the corner from the campsite, this cute diner serves classic all-American food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We ended up eating breakfast here twice and absolutely loved the chicken fried steak, oyster omelet, and freshly baked pies.
Hama Hama Oyster Saloon
If you're familiar with the Seattle food scene, you'll know that the city's restaurants and farmers markets are full of fresh oysters. Many of these tasty shellfish come from the Lillwaup area of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. One such oyster farm is Hama Hama, a fifth generation family-run shellfish farm located on the Hood Canal. We made a point to visit the Hama Hama Oyster Saloon, located just off of Us Highway 101. The lovely outdoor environment had heaters, a campfire, and a menu full of tasty shellfish. While raw oysters were definitely a crowd favorite, we decided to try something new, opting for a half dozen roasted oysters served with various sauces, pimento cheese roasted oysters, and a crab cake, all guzzled down with mulled wine. The food was fresh and delicious!
Adjacent to the saloon is a grab and go shop where you can buy fresh clams and oysters to take home or eat as part of your own outdoor picnic. This is a very fun Pacific Northwest experience that we did one summer up north at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Bow-Edison. Just be sure to bring your own oyster knife and condiments!
Hoodsport Coffee Company
As we drove around Hood Canal, we marveled at the fact that we didn't see a single Starbucks in the area. In a way, this made the trip more special since we could patronize small, local businesses instead. One of our favorites was Hoodsport Coffee Company. This full-service espresso cafe is where we got our mid-day caffeine boost in the form of their delicious Nitro Cold Brew. They also serve baked goods, soups, salads, sandwiches, and even Olympic Mountain Ice Cream.
At your own campsite
If you choose to "rough it" with your meals, we highly recommend picking up a small propane burner, cookware, and Mountain House adventure food. We took this compact cooking setup on our overnight backpacking trip to the Enchantments and were pleasantly surprised by how delicious the Breakfast Skillet and Beef Stroganoff were. Not bad for a "just add water" pouch of food!
5. Drive to Olympia, Tacoma, or back to Seattle
Once your Hood Canal adventure is complete, you have several options depending on where you want to go next. You could drive back to Bainbridge Island and take the ferry back to downtown Seattle. Or you can continue driving south on Highway 101 to Olympia. From there, you can hop onto I-5 North and drive to Tacoma, Sea-Tac Airport, or all the way back to Seattle. We opted for the latter, driving about an hour and a half (96 miles) back to Seattle via US-101 S and I-5 N.
If you're seeking a weekend road trip or get away from Seattle and want to avoid most of the crowds, head to the Hood Canal. Full of charming small towns, plenty of campsites, and lots of outdoor recreation activities, there's plenty of places to explore.
Have you visited the Hood Canal? What are your must-visit places in the area? Let us know in the comments below!