Experience Six of Washington’s Best Waterfalls With This Olympic Peninsula Road Trip

Summer’s (almost) here and that means it’s time to explore. I don’t live in the Pacific Northwest anymore, but I still like writing about all the ways you can escape your urban environment and embrace the rugged landscape of the PNW. This article was originally written for a travel magazine, but didn’t end up making it into the summer edition. If you’re in Washington state or are planning a trip there at some point, read on for a guide to a few of the must-see waterfalls in the western part of the state. *Note all photos in this post were taken by Brandon Bretz.

Madison Falls

The Pacific Northwest is known for its lush foliage, iconic landscape and waterfalls. Western Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula is one of the best places in the US to view incredible waterfalls. Nothing says summer like a road trip and thanks to mountain snow melt, summer is a great time to find waterfalls at their peak. Explore hiking trails, take in breathtaking scenery, and scenic highway 101 on this trip. As a bonus, this road trip isn’t too long, making it perfect to tackle over a couple of days or a long weekend. 

Start your trip in the state capital of Olympia at Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls. The falls are the culmination of the Deschutes River’s journey from the Cascade Mountain range. The rushing water tumbles over 80 feet into nearby Capitol Lake, and eventually into Puget Sound. The walking trails in Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls are highlighted by cascading waterfalls, reflective pools and massive rocks. The park is 15 acres nestled in an urban setting, but there’s no shortage of picturesque beauty to spot while walking along the paved walking trails throughout the park. If you have time, also consider visiting nearby Capitol Lake. While there’s no waterfalls, the walking path around the 260 acre lake provides an Instagrammable moment, with the lake in the foreground and the dome of the capitol building in the background. Since this is the only stop on the trip in a city, take advantage and visit one of the many restaurants, breweries, and coffee shops within walking distance. 

Next, head north on US 101 to Hoodsport until you reach Hamma Hamma Falls located within the southern portion of Olympic National Park. Hamma Hamma Falls is located near the Mildred Lakes Trailhead and are best viewed from the bridge. You’ll hear the falls, but from the Mildred Lakes Trailhead walk across the high concrete bridge at the end of the road, and peer over the concrete railing to take in the awesome sights and sounds of this two-tiered 80 foot waterfall. There’s also ample hiking opportunities near the falls. If you choose to hike the Mildred Lakes trail, know that it’s not maintained, but is well established to Huckleberry Creek and after that it becomes steep and difficult to follow.  

The next must-see waterfall is Madison Falls, on the Elwha River near Port Angeles. To get there, take US 101 about two hours north to another part of the Olympic National Park, until you reach Olympic Hot Springs Road. The trail leading to the falls is short, accessible for most hikers and offers mossy-covered tree views. The trailhead starts right after you enter the park, just follow a trail that bends around the trees, and stop at the wooden rail to view the creek, then continue to the falls. There are benches at the end of the short trail if you want to watch the spray and there’s also ample space to take a selfie at the base of the falls.

Lake Crescent

From Madison Falls, take a 20 minute drive south on Olympic Hot Springs Road to Whiskey Bend Road until you arrive at Goblin’s Gate, located near the Whiskey Bend Trailhead. Goblin’s Gate is named for the ghoulish-looking rocks in this gorge located on the Elwha River. This area offers hikes, as well as stunning views. Hike to a rocky gorge where the Elwha River speeds over a series of rapids. Follow the Elwha River Trail thorough a mature forest followed by younger trees. When you pass Elk Overlook pause for a view of the Elwha 500 feet below. If you choose to keep hiking, just past a mile, head right on the Rica Canyon Trail and descend to the river bottom. Then follow a short spur to Goblins Gate, where you can admire the rocky narrow chasm and the swift-moving Elwha.

From Goblin’s Gate head west on US 101 to Marymere Falls, near Lake Crescent. These falls offer amazing views and are accessible by a half-mile hike through an old-growth forest and ferns. The trail crosses Barnes Creek and then Falls Creek before ascending 200 feet, where the trail forms a loop and offers two viewpoints of the 90 foot waterfall. The viewpoint on the hillside looks down on the falls, which occur as Falls Creek plunges through a notch in the cliff. The lower platform gives a view directly opposite the base of the falls. If you take the path that follows Barnes Creek, you’ll find yourself downstream near the Lake Crescent Lodge. This route passes through more old-growth forest and is an easy walk. The Moments in Time Trail begins near the Storm King Ranger Station and wanders through the woods, passes along the shores of Lake Crescent and offers views of the lake and Pyramid Peak.

Marymere Falls

The final stop on the road trip is Strawberry Bay Falls on Third Beach along the Pacific Coast. Also known as Third Beach Falls, this waterfall cascades over 100 feet and empties into the Pacific Ocean, and is accessible by Third Beach Trail. To get there from Marymere Falls, follow US 101 west for approximately 34 miles and then turn right on WA 110/La Push Road for 11 miles. Once there, hike Third Beach Trail to witness a stunning waterfall tumbling straight into the surf. The trail climbs through a forest of evergreen trees that slowly descends to the one mile stretch of rocky beach. The beach sits on Strawberry Bay and is bookended by two headlands, Teahwhit Head and Taylor Point. Hike south for a half mile on the beach until you reach the waterfall plunging into the pounding waves.

A word about weather and being prepared. Even though it’s summer, depending on when you’ll take the trip, the weather may have a mind of its own. Although the first day of summer may be June 22 on the calendar, officially, drier summer weather begins in Western Washington after July fourth. That said, it’s always a good idea to dress in layers, carry a packable raincoat and wear waterproof hiking shoes with moisture wicking socks. And, of course, pack water, snacks, as well as a hiking map and compass, especially if you’ll be exploring other trails not mentioned in this article.