Welcoming towns and natural attractions await for families and visitors with mobility impairments
On a map, if Washington State looks like a hand, then the Olympic Peninsula is the thumb. This uppermost corner of the Lower 48 US states is where over 1442 square miles, an area 1.5 times the size of Rhode Island, is a National Park. For years we had not budged this enthralling area off our to-visit list—until our RVing family of four set off to pursue the answer to a question: Is Olympic Peninsula accessible?
We want to thank the Olympic Peninsula Tourism Commission for sponsoring our visit. However, this article reflects our own personal opinions and experiences. Check out the condensed 2-part version of this article at OlympicPeninsula.org!
Plan your visit today
For more info, free trip planning assistance, and more, visit OlympicPeninsula.org or contact them at 360-452-8552.
About the Olympic Peninsula
Today, eight recognized Indigenous tribes call this area home, as do thousands of folks in towns and rural areas scattered along the outer edges of the Olympic. Home to the rugged Olympic Mountains, much of the interior is designated wilderness and inside one of America’s most popular public lands, Olympic National Park. The main towns are Port Townsend and Port Angeles, with smaller Forks in the upper northwest corner as you approach the Hoh Rain Forest.
Visitors often start from Port Townsend, either driving over on the highway, or coming down on the ferry from Whidbey Island. From Port Townsend, we made our way to Olympic National Park, and around the entire peninsula, to the western side’s rugged forests and beaches, over the course of five days, all the way driving a 25-foot Class C RV.
Hours, seasons, and availability of attractions, services, and businesses vary, and (of course) are subject to change, especially outside of the summer high tourist season. Check hours online or call before you head over.
Olympic Peninsula travel considerations for visitors with mobility impairments
The accessibility question is very much a real-world consideration for our family of four (Anthony, Jodie, 11-yo Connor, and 8-yo Aster). Jodie is an above-the-knee amputee who augments her mobility with a prosthetic left leg and a trekking pole. When we travel, mobility and accessibility considerations are first and foremost in our planning and prioritizing.
Efforts to improve accessibility and overall access to attractions and destinations in the Olympic Peninsula are ongoing. There are areas that might or might not work for someone who uses a wheelchair, pushes a baby in a stroller, has a bad knee, or navigates other mobility impairments or considerations. Each person has different conclusions about what is and is not a good fit for their mobility and travel plans in this far corner of the USA.
However, in our experience, what works for Jodie’s mobility, as well as that of our children, can help others make the right decision for their accessible travels. Here are some of the highlights, and our own observations, about accessible travel and family travel in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
The Port Townsend area
Whether arriving via vehicle from the mainland or catching the ferry from Coupeville on nearby Whidbey Island, downtown Port Townsend is waiting for you. Nestled between high cliffs and the waterfront, Victorian-era buildings line wide streets. Shop and eateries beckon, and we loved hanging out in the welcoming waterfront plaza.
Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT)
Don’t let the unassuming, humble trailhead between the beach and an industrial lot fool you: The ODT runs from Port Townsend, much of it along a former railroad line. The first 7.5 miles are accessible, and the accessibility picks up again—for 26 miles, from Blyn all the way to Port Angeles.
Relaxing in wooden lounge chairs. Playing games on the grass. Waiting for more of those chocolate-packed buckwheat cookies (yum!), and raising a glass of cider made right there.
When Finnriver Cidery talks about being a place of, for, and by community, they mean it. The community made Finnriver happen, through word of mouth, support, and even direct investment, all in the Chimacum area, just outside of Port Townsend.
The former dairy farm space now houses food carts, and what was once a long cattle trough was transformed into long wooden tables for groups small and large to come together. People bring their kids here, for a safe space where the children can romp in the fresh air, while the adults join them—or perhaps have another cookie and glass while enjoying those chairs and a view of the hills.
We seek spaces made with so much heart and love, you can feel it the moment you arrive. Finnriver was such a place.
Fort Worden Historical State Park
Inside the Marine Science Center, an orca skeleton hangs from the ceiling, and surrounding interactive exhibits offer an environmental whodunit. At the end of the pier across the street, exhibits showcase real creatures from different parts of the Salish Sea—along with a juvenile octopus.
The 500-acre park’s spacious campground offers paved paths and roads, plus ADA bathrooms and showers. Short, sandy paths lead over a small dune. If your mobility includes walking with or without assistance, it could be a good path to the beach and views of the headlands and beyond. (Hint: Battery Way is the park’s most accessible trail, fully paved, though with some slope on the eastern stretch.)
Bit by bit, Fort Worden Historical State Park is making the former military facility’s expansive grounds and historic buildings more accessible. Some buildings have ADA bathrooms, ramps, first-floor accommodation, and elevators. A beach-capable wheelchair is also available.
One of the most mobility friendly aspects of the park? “The people’s backyard” is not only a huge public space, it’s inside town limits.
One of the hardest things about any trip is knowing you can’t get to every place you’d like to go. Located on Highway 101 between Port Townsend and Port Angeles, Sequim is known for its sunshine. While Forks on the western side of the peninsula is one of the rainiest parts of the country, Sequim falls in a rain shadow. This “blue hole” gives the area the most sunny days per year for all of western Washington.
The area’s climate is similar to the south of France, making Sequim the home of lavender farms, excellent kayaking and paddle board locations, and even hot air balloon flights. All things, coincidentally, that will be on our list the next time we steer our RV this way.
Outside the playground entrance, a carved wood sculpture features an eagle, a bear, a dragon, and a caterpillar with a human face, along with the words “Dream big. Be strong. Be proud.”
This cornerstone Port Angeles local park doesn’t just feature a new, all-ages playground that’s accessible to kids with walking mobility, plus some play areas for children who use wheelchairs. The broader park is also home to a bicycle pump track, skate park, tennis court, and outdoor fitness center.
As a woman in a wheelchair moved around the park, she said the layout and terrain made it much easier for her to navigate the space. Now she and her husband visit as much as possible with their romping granddaughter.
Port Angeles Wharf and City Pier
Murals around town note the area’s history and industry, and Port Angeles is working on more renovation and revitalization. At the downtown waterfront, the wharf area makes for ideal seal, whale, and ferry watching.
Olympic National Park Visitor Center
Visitor centers for National Parks are ideal ways to set your plans. However, it’s rare that you can get to a visitor center while in town. Stop by for the latest on conditions, suggestions on activities, and Junior Ranger activity booklets.
Barhop Brewing and Artisan Pizza? Nuff said for a stop-off where you can snag fresh-made pizzas and local beer. The New Day Eatery’s Smoky Mushroom Salad and the Brisket Salad elevate, one with the chew and savory flavor of area mushrooms, the other with a hearty serving of smoky brisket. Nearby, Welly’s Real Fruit New Zealand-Style Ice Cream offers a fun take on one of America’s favorite treats.
Inside Olympic National Park and only about a half-hour drive from Port Angeles, the approach to Lake Crescent offers some wonderful stop-offs along the way.
Elwha River Interpretive Center
Illustrated signs inside the open-air, roofed interpretative display guide you on a path of history and river ecology, from how the Elwha River used to be, what it was like when the river was dammed, why and how it was removed, and what the waters and surrounding area are like now.
This delightful, quick tangent from the main drive is a wonderful way to learn about the area and its history, and have a quick stop. There’s ample parking, and the paved, level displays are overall spacious and navigable for a range of mobilities.
It’s not often that a waterfall hike has a short trail, an overall accessible approach, and a payoff that comes in less than a quarter of a mile’s hike, but Madison Falls has exactly that.
The scenery begins in the long, broad gravel parking lot, which also offers expansive views of the broad Elwha River. The short hike itself is a there-and-back that’s about a half-mile in total, with some slope and a couple of tighter turns along the way.
An overlook with a bench awaits you at the end, along with the beautiful falls. Look up high for the short top tier and small plunge pool before the main cascade. (Check out more area waterfalls via the Olympic Peninsula Waterfall Trail.)
Spruce Railroad Trail
Not far from Lake Crescent Lodge, there’s a turnoff from Highway 101 to E. Beach Road. Three miles down that, you’ll find the Spruce Railroad Trail. This section of the Olympic Discovery Trail runs along the lake’s shoreline, and recent renovations focused on broader accessibility.
Lake Crescent Lodge
Built in 1915, the Lake Crescent Lodge, cabins, and grounds root you in history while giving you an iconic spot to admire one of the prettiest glacial lakes in the country.
Talk with the lodge about accessible lodging options; for example, the Singer Cabins typically are accessed by going up two steps, but the floor level of the lodge, including the lounge and the breakfast, lunch, and dinner restaurant, is navigable without steps.
A long pebble beach comes complete with wooden chairs and a dock. Our kids loved sitting by the water, gathering pebbles or laughing at the ducks who came on shore.
Moments in Time Trail
Easily accessed from near the lodge, the half-mile Moments in Time loop trail brought us alongside the lake and through a green, vibrant forest of firs and hemlocks. The flat, natural surface trail comes out at small beaches, where we could marvel at the blue waters and surrounding hills from many vantage points. Interpretative signs gave us context on the region’s peopled and natural history.
Among the trees, we stopped to examine nurse logs and the tall trees growing from them, not to mention massive trees that survived being hollowed out by fire. Then we stopped: Nearby, two deer nibbled in the forest. We watched them until they bounded away into the late morning sunlight.
Forks and the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park
Forks Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center
The helpful folks here can clue you in on where to go in the area. Forks also gained renown as the setting of the Twilight series, and the center is a source for Twilight merch and a scavenger hunt about the series.
Behind the visitor center, a short nature trail runs through the woods. The natural surface and narrow (sometimes muddy) path are not accessible, but if it’s a fit for your mobility, it’s a lovely quick forest walk.
Forks Timber Museum
Full of quirk, history, and fun, the Forks Timber Museum was a highlight for our entire family. An all-ages scavenger hunt has you paying attention upstairs and downstairs for items to observe, count, and mark off. There’s also a replica of a historic fire lookout tower. We loved this insight into the area’s logging and settler history. How many chainsaws do you think you’ll be able to find?
Hard Rain Cafe and Campground, and Hard Rain Cabins
Just a few miles before the visitor center at the Hoh Rain Forest area of Olympic National Park, the Hard Rain Cafe bills itself as your last chance to stop for a meal. The cafe serves up comfort foods, and the small campground is quiet and can accommodate a range of RVs, with electric and water hookups (renovations were underway on the septic system; call to inquire about sewer hookups). For folks seeking non-camping lodging, check out the Hard Rain Cabins next door.
Hoh Rain Forest: Hall of Mosses Trail
We’re going to let you in on a dirty little secret: Hiking trail distances can be a bit understated.
With its large, level parking lot, the Visitor Center has restrooms, but also weekend-only hours outside of summer. It’s the starting point for trails such as the Spruce Nature Trail (1.2 miles through new and old-growth forest, following both Hoh River and Taft Creek) and the Hall of Mosses Trail. There’s also a short interpretative loop behind the center.
While the Hall of Mosses trail is listed as about 3/4-mile long, we suggest adding about a half mile to this and other listed trail distances. Access paths to reach the trailheads start here, and they add on to the walking it takes to reach each respective trail.
The approach to the Hall of Mosses, and some parts of the trail, have elevation gain and rough ground, and are best suited for people with walking mobility. For Jodie, we took breaks—and a sit at the occasional bench or log—to help her get the most out of our time on the trail.
With over 12 feet of rain per year, the Hoh is famous for being almost constantly cloudy and wet. Yet our own visit coincided with a clear, sunny, warm afternoon that felt almost like summer. Golden sunlight brought out additional vibrancy from the greens of the long, thick trailing mosses that covered the trees—making every bit of the hike worthwhile to all four of us.
Western Olympic Peninsula
The stunning Ruby Beach overlook at the parking area offers excellent views of the stunning stack rocks and dramatic surf. While the parking lot and overlook are accessible, walking mobility is best for the quarter-mile trail to the stone beach below. However, thick, maze-like rows of driftwood form a long, broad barrier, and getting around can be difficult beyond the end of the trail.
Kalaloch Beach and Tree of Life
Past Ruby Beach, Highway 101 is dotted with green signs for beach access to different parts of the overall Kalaloch Beach area. Steep, narrow trails lead down from roadside stop offs to the beach itself. We skipped these, and instead paused at the Creekside Restaurant at Kalaloch Lodge to inquire about trail access to the iconic Tree of Life, an old spruce where erosion has completely exposed its root system.
Normally it’s a short, easy walk. Unfortunately seasonal washouts meant access wasn’t going to work this time around. It was a reminder that while a traveler can have many options for visiting attractions throughout the Olympic Peninsula, it helps to ask folks on the ground what the reality is for that given day.
Lake Quinault Lodge
The President was here.
When we checked in for our stay at the Lake Quinault Lodge, one of the first things we saw was a newspaper front page. The Oct. 3, 1937, edition of the Grays Harbor Washingtonian spoke of President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrapping up his extensive visit to the Olympic Peninsula, including the very lodge where we would stay the night.
One of the outcomes of FDR’s visit? He supported the idea of a National Park being established on the Olympic Peninsula… except he decided the current proposed park was too small, hence the larger park we know today.
We adults sat in Adirondack chairs and watched lake waves lap at the shore, while Connor tried to roll as much driftwood as possible into the water.
On the vast lawn between the lake and the lodge, we threw horseshoes, rolled bowls, and laughed while Aster and Anthony chased each other around the grass. An indoor pool invited a leisurely swim, or we could soak in the heat from the separate men’s and women’s wood-lined saunas. Tables, squashy chairs and sofas surrounded the lobby’s massive fireplace—along with bookcases, board games, and historical photos, letters, and artifacts at every turn.
Trail maps help you decide which area trails are the right fit for your plans and hiking preferences. The immediate area is home to eight miles of interconnected trails, not to mention habitats for over 300 species of birds. (During the summer, the lodge also offers guests a 3-hour Rainforest Tour.)
The lodge itself both commands attention while seeming to have grown out of the land itself. Turns out that’s not a surprise. Lake Quinault Lodge was designed by Robert Reamer. Also on his resume? The lodge at Yellowstone National Park.
World’s Largest Spruce Tree
Just down from the Lake Quinault Lodge, a short hike along a broad trail—watch out for occasional muddy areas—takes you to the base of the World’s Largest Spruce Tree.
The overall trail is easy to navigate. After the insular feeling of the small woods along the trail, the clear expanses in front of the tree surprised us with awe and joy, as we looked up, and up—and up some more, at a tree that’s over a thousand years old, and stands nearly 18 feet in diameter and 191 feet tall.
Hint: For photos of the full tree, try using your phone’s panorama mode, and turn your phone so you can go from bottom to top.
You can find your accessible trip to the Olympic Peninsula
It took us years to make our family’s Olympic Peninsula trip a reality, and we are so glad we finally did.
Is Olympic Peninsula accessible? Like many places, the answer is yes and no. A car is needed, and some areas, such as the wilderness, were not areas we were looking to tackle. But from the towns to the trees, we found destinations and activities that suited not only our children, but Jodie and her mobility needs as an amputee.
Visitors with varying mobility impairments or considerations can make their own trip of a lifetime to this beautiful, rugged corner of the USA. We hope you make your trip a reality sooner than we did. Don’t be surprised if you leave ready to come back to the Olympic Peninsula as soon as you can.
Plan your visit today
For more info, free trip planning assistance, and more, visit OlympicPeninsula.org or contact them at 360-452-8552.