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The North Side

Port Angeles is the headquarters for the park, and here you'll find the Olympic National Park Visitor Center, 3002 Mount Angeles Rd. (tel. 360/565-3130; www.nps.gov/olym). Mount Angeles Road is on the south edge of town and leads up to Hurricane Ridge. The center has lots of information, maps, and books about the park, as well as exhibits on the park's flora and fauna and old-growth forests. It's open throughout the year with hours varying with the seasons.

From the main visitor center, continue another 17 miles up Mount Angeles Road to Hurricane Ridge, which on clear days offers the most breathtaking views in the park. In summer the surrounding subalpine meadows are carpeted with wildflowers, and you're likely to see deer grazing and marmots lounging on rocks or nibbling flowers. (Marmots are large members of the squirrel family; if you get too close to one, it's likely to let out a piercing whistle.)

Several trails lead into the park from here, and several day hikes are possible. The 3-mile Hurricane Hill Trail and the 1-mile Meadow Loop Trail are the most scenic. Stop by the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center to see its exhibits on plants and wildlife; this is a good place to learn about the fragile nature of this beautiful alpine landscape.

In winter Hurricane Ridge is a popular cross-country skiing area and also has two rope tows and a Poma lift for downhill skiing. However, because the ski area is so small and the conditions so unpredictable, it is used almost exclusively by local families. For more information, contact the Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club (tel. 360/457-2879, or 360/565-3131 for road conditions; www.hurricaneridge.net). The Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center has exhibits on alpine plants and wildlife. In summer, deer graze in the meadows and marmots -- relatives of squirrels -- lounge on rocks or nibble on flowers.

A few miles east of Port Angeles, another road heads south into the park to an area called Deer Park. This narrow, winding gravel road is a real test of nerves and consequently is not nearly as popular a route as the road to Hurricane Ridge. However, the scenery once you reach the end of the road is just as breathtaking as that from Hurricane Ridge. As the name implies, deer are common in this area. For the best easily accessible mountaintop view on the Olympic Peninsula, continue driving uphill from the Deer Park Campground to the end of the road. Here you'll find the 1/2-mile Rainshadow Trail, a loop that leads through meadows to the summit of 6,007-foot Blue Mountain. The views of the Olympic Mountains and expanses of the Strait of Juan de Fuca are breathtaking. For a longer hike, follow Grand Ridge Trail toward Obstruction Peak. To reach Deer Park, turn south at the Deer Park movie theater.

West of Port Angeles a few miles, up the Elwha River, you'll find the short trail (actually an abandoned road) that leads to Olympic Hot Springs. These natural hot pools are in a forest setting and are extremely popular and often crowded, especially on weekends. For more developed hot springs soaking, head to Sol Duc Resort, west of Lake Crescent.

Also west of Port Angeles, on U.S. 101, is Lake Crescent, a glacier-carved lake surrounded by steep forested mountains that give the lake the feel of a fjord. This is one of the most beautiful lakes in the state and has long been a popular summer getaway. Near the east end of the lake, you'll find both the 1-mile trail to 90-foot-high Marymere Falls and the Storm King Ranger Station (tel. 360/928-3380), which is usually open in the summer and at other seasons when a ranger is in the station. From the Marymere Falls Trail, you can hike the steep 2 miles up Mount Storm King to a viewpoint overlooking Lake Crescent (climbing above the viewpoint is not recommended). On the north side of the lake, the Spruce Railroad Trail, one of the only trails in the park open to mountain bikes, parallels the shore of the lake and crosses a picturesque little bridge. As the name implies, this was once the route of a railroad built to haul spruce out of these forests during World War I. Spruce was the ideal wood for building biplanes because of its strength and light weight. By the time the railroad was completed, the war was over and the demand for spruce had dwindled.

You can rent various types of small boats during the warmer months at several places on the lake. Lake Crescent Lodge has rowboats for rent ($9 per hour), while the Fairholm General Store (tel. 360/928-3020), at the lake's west end, has kayaks (and sometimes canoes, rowboats, and motorboats) available between May and October. Kayaks rent for $9 per hour.

Continuing west from Lake Crescent, watch for the turnoff to Sol Duc Hot Springs (tel. 866/4-SOLDUC; www.visitsolduc.com). For 14 miles the road follows the Soleduck River, passing the Salmon Cascades along the way. Sol Duc Hot Springs were for centuries considered healing waters by local Native Americans, and after white settlers arrived in the area, the springs became a popular resort. In addition to the hot swimming pool and soaking tubs, you'll find cabins, a campground, a restaurant, and a snack bar. The springs are open daily from late March through October; admission is $11 for adults, $8 for seniors and children ages 4 to 12. A 4.5-mile loop trail leads from the hot springs to Sol Duc Falls, which are among the most photographed falls in the park. Alternatively, you can drive to the end of the Sol Duc Road and make this an easy 1.5-mile hike. Along this same road, you can hike the .5-mile Ancient Groves Nature Trail. Note that Sol Duc Road is one of the roads on which you have to pay an Olympic National Park entry fee.

Exploring the Peninsula's Northwest Corner

Continuing west on U.S. 101 from the junction with the road to Sol Duc Hot Springs brings you to the crossroads of Sappho. Heading north at Sappho will bring you to Wash. 112, an alternate route from Port Angeles. It's 40 miles from this road junction to the town of Neah Bay on the Makah Indian Reservation.

Between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay, the road runs right alongside the water and there are opportunities to spot sea birds and marine mammals, including gray, orca, humpback, and pilot whales. Between February and April, keep an eye out for the dozens of bald eagles that gather along this stretch of coast. In Clallam Bay, at the county day-use park, you can hunt for agates and explore tidepools. Near Slip Point Lighthouse, there are fossil beds that are exposed at low tides.

Neah Bay is a busy commercial and sportfishing port, and is also home to the impressive Makah Cultural and Research Center, Bayview Avenue (tel. 360/645-2711; www.makah.com), which displays artifacts from a Native American village that was inundated by a mudslide 500 years ago. This is the most perfectly preserved collection of Native American artifacts in the Northwest; part of the exhibit includes reproductions of canoes the Makah once used for hunting whales. There's also a longhouse that shows the traditional lifestyle of the Makah people. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm; admission is $5 for adults, $4 for students and seniors, and free for children 5 and under.

The reservation land includes Cape Flattery, which is the northwesternmost point of land in the contiguous United States. Just off the cape lies Tatoosh Island, site of one of the oldest lighthouses in Washington. Cape Flattery is one of the most dramatic stretches of Pacific coastline in the Northwest, and is a popular spot for hiking and ocean viewing. The 1.5-mile round-trip trail to the tip of the cape is one of my favorite hikes in the entire state and includes not only great views but also boardwalks, stairs, and viewing platforms atop the cliffs overlooking Tatoosh Island. Keep an eye out for whales and sea otters. Bird-watchers will definitely want to visit Cape Flattery, which is on the Pacific Fly Way. More than 250 species of birds have been spotted here, and in the spring, raptors gather here before crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Before heading out to Cape Flattery, stop by the Makah Museum for directions and to get a $10 Recreational Use Permit that will allow you to park at the Cape Flattery trailhead. Permits can also be purchased at the Makah Marina, Washburn's General Store, the Makah Tribal Center, Neah Bay Charter & Tackle, Makah Fuel Co. and the Makah Smoke shop. Note: Be aware that car break-ins are not uncommon here, so take your valuables with you.

A turnoff 16 miles east of Neah Bay leads south to Ozette Lake, where there are boat ramps, a campground, and, stretching north and south, miles of beaches only accessible on foot. A 3.25-mile trail on a raised boardwalk leads from the Ozette Lake trailhead to Cape Alava, one of two places claiming to be the westernmost point in the contiguous United States (the other is Cape Blanco, on the Oregon coast). The large rocks offshore are known as haystack rocks or sea stacks and are common along the rocky western coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Aside from five coastal Indian reservations, almost all this rugged northern coastline is preserved as part of the national park.