Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam Circumspice
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
"If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you."
The motto of my home state of Michigan seems very apt in describing a peninsula that's much closer to where I currently live in Seattle. The Olympic Peninsula lies west of the city on native land of the Klallam, Chimacum, Makah, Quileute, Hoh, and Quinault people. These people still inhabit the land on reservations and much of the colonized landscape references their names.
Perhaps best known for its lush rainforest and eponymous National Park, the peninsula is home to a vast variety of landscapes and microclimates. Nowhere else in the lower 48 can you go from oceanside beach to rainforest to the tundra and glaciers in just a few miles. Some of my favorite climbing trips have been out on the Peninsula with its notoriously friable rock.
I got into biking in a big way the past few years and had been itching to do some sort of longer trip on wheels. Until this point I had done just one overnight bike camping trip and not much in the way of long-distance cycling. I was familiar with camping through climbing and backpacking but applying it to a long-distance cycling trip was new territory for me. Luckily my friend Ian who joined me for this trip had more experience and was able to help coach me through some packing uncertainty. My unfamiliarity with bikepacking, along with wanting to stay cautious because of COVID, made me decide to plan a trip close to home where help was only a phone call and short car drive away.
Planning this route was made immensely easy by the two well-maintained trail systems on the Peninsula. The Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) runs from Port Townsend to La Push in four sections and follows paved trails, low-use roads, the occasional highway shoulder, and a smattering of gravel. The Olympic Adventure Trail (OAT) branches off the ODT and winds through the Olympic foothills on lovely singletrack.
As per usual, I created a CalTopo map with several trail options and alternates in case our adventure took us a different direction.
Day 1 started with a "oh shit, what did I forget?" morning of pushing back starting from 7am to 7:30 to 8 to 8:30. I had made a few changes to my bike the day before - new bars (Salsa Cowchipper), new tape, new disc rotors, and a new cassette (shoutout to Shimano for having two different size HG drivers!) so I wanted to make doubly sure nothing would come undone on this trip. Packing was also a novel challenge - loading up a bikepacking rig is far different than throwing everything in a backpack. I tried to get the weight as low and centered as possible but ended up having to use some fork mounts for my tent and sleeping bag.
I met up with Ian at his house and after he said goodbye to his cats, we were off! Our ride took us up the Burke-Gilman until Lake Forest Park, then on side roads through Lynnwood until we reached the first ferry at Mukilteo. Bombing down the hill to the ferry was a delightful reward for some pretty blah road riding. Unfortunately we arrived just after a ferry had departed and had to spend an hour sipping lattes at the Red Cup Cafe nearby.
The ferry dropped us off at Whidbey Island and we hopped on the 525 heading toward Coupeville. We stopped at the Bagel Factory out of curiosity and were treated to some very strange but ultimately pleasant gooey bagel sandwiches. After a while, we opted for some hillier side roads to get a better look at the bay.
We nearly made it to Coupeville without incident when just a mile before the ferry terminal I heard some undue squishy sounds from my rear tire. After spending some time trying to diagnose the issue, we unseated the tire and found some torn rim tape underneath. Sacré bleu! These were the first wheels I had built up tubeless and I must've over-torqued the valve stem which twisted the tape nearby. These wheels had over 200mi on them at this point so I was surprised they'd fail in this manner but luckily Ian had reminded me to bring a spare tube for just this sort of emergency. We popped the spare on, made it to the ferry on time, and planned to stop at the next open bike shop.
This ferry dropped us off in the heart of Port Townsend, a scenic artsy community. Tired and hungry after nearly 70mi of riding, we made a beeline to our planned campsite at Fort Worden State Park. Upon arriving, we were told that all sites including hiker-biker ones were full for the night. Thankfully we were able to cajole two friendly bike tourists into letting us join them at their site. It turns out they spent most of their lives up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan right by where my brother went to college. They hooked us up with a helpful paper map of the area and made sure we knew about some trail closures due to construction and a recent forest fire. Thanks, Wendy and Ray!
Day 2 started with sore knees but no hurry since we needed to wait for the bike shop to open. Ian and I killed some time at Cafe Tenby nearby - don't miss their breakfast burrito! Once The Broken Spoke opened, they were able to quickly fix my botched tape job and get everything sealed up. We made a few wrong turns and missed the official start of the ODT but were overjoyed to find it eventually!
We rode around Discovery Bay and through the lovely town of Sequim (pronounced "skwim") before stopping for too much Mexican food at Las Palomas. Bloated on nachos and enchiladas, we eked out a few more miles to a scenic campsite at Dungeness County Park. This camp spot wasn't well publicized, but there were a ton of hiker-biker sites tucked away in the woods!
Skipping dinner, Ian and I took a long walk out to Dungeness Spit to watch the sunset and eat M&Ms. The spit goes on for miles and curves in a way that it feels like you're always just around the corner from the end.
Day 3 presented a tantalizing option for our trip - the Olympic Hot Springs were a relatively quick ride from Port Angeles and seemed pretty appealing given that all but the last two miles are bike-able. Fueled by a hearty diner breakfast at Priscilla's Cruise In Cafe, we departed the ODT and grunted out the grueling climb up to the Hot Springs trailhead.
The climb up to the hot springs is beautiful enough to take your mind off the sensation of burning thighs. The road washed out several years ago and a pedestrian path leads where cars can't follow. A tip we learned on the way out is that a lower trail around the washout is much easier for cyclists although it is eroded out in parts and labeled as "unstable".
After locking up our bikes at the trailhead, we hiked out to the hotsprings with a ragtag backpacking set-up consisting of drybags lashed to daypacks and carrying our food bags by hand. Not a glamorous look but I knew it would be worth it! My last time at the hot springs was several years ago on my first backpacking trip ever. There was still snow on the ground and it rained the whole time. I had assumed that my backpack was waterproof and it... was very not. I shivered my way through the night and swore I'd come back and have a good time!
Indeed the hot springs were worth the awkward trek in. We stayed out late soaking our feet and getting slightly drunk off of one wine cooler each. I slept well that night, back in my happy place of backcountry camping.
Day 4 began with a short hike out and then a delightful coast downhill from the hot springs. Ian and I made our way north on 101 and 112 until we made it to the start of the Olympic Adventure Trail. I didn't really know what to expect in terms of gnarliness on this trail - I had heard it described as "pleasant singletrack" but my mountain biking experience was limited to riding full-squish trail bikes so I was nervous how my fully-loaded steel road bike would perform.
I need not have worried because the OAT was absolutely phenomenal! I loved riding trails with the upright geometry of a road bike and the Cowchipper bars were fantastic to have on the descents. The biggest tech hurdle was the anti-dirtbike gates at all the road intersections. You have to coast through with one pedal raised and it was an exercise in total concentration each time I passed through.
We wound our way through the forest stopping for snacks and grinning ear-to-ear. This was by far the best riding of our trip and I can't wait to come back and ride this trail again.
Unfortunately we weren't able to finish the entire OAT as it ends on the north side of Lake Crescent where a tunnel closure on one side and a forest fire on the other blocked our path. We made a detour north via a forest road to the 112 and started looking for a place to camp. Lyre River Campground, our first choice, was regrettably full so we opted to scout out the National Forest land south of Twin. We took West Twin River Rd until we found a wide flat spot on the shoulder and set up camp. This had been another big day so we wasted no time getting our tents pitched and food cooking.
Day 5 saw us continuing down the winding gravel of West Twin River Rd until it met up with 101. We filtered some water along the way at a lush waterfall slab and chugged some electrolytes for good measure. While on 101, we passed the Hungry Bear Cafe and learned the hard way that they moved their hours back due to COVID. We opted to continue to Forks instead of waiting there.
In Forks, we stopped at In Place for burgers and then Thriftway to re-up our dinner supply. From there, we headed off to the ocean! Our original destination of La Push along the ODT was closed by request of the Makah tribe so we headed toward Rialto Beach a little further north. On the way to the beach, we passed a group of three bikepackers heading the opposite direction who we had yo-yo'd with at the beginning of our trip. We excitedly yelled at each other but never managed to catch their names.
We made it to the ocean and did a celebratory dipping of the tires followed by an eating of the ceremonial apple turnovers. I went through a small crisis of ego after remembering that the destination is an arbitrary place along the journey and there was in fact no inherent meaning in its achievement. Once this was out of the way, I felt much more free to enjoy our trip back.
Winding back through Forks, we headed south on 101 to Bogachiel State Park to stay for the night. It ended up raining pretty heavily there and my tent stakes popped out in the middle of the night causing my tent to collapse on me. A fun way to wake up to say the least! I sorted it out and went back to a fitful night of sleep.
Day 6 brought sunnier weather and a return to the ODT as it parallels 101. This time we caught Hungry Bear Cafe when they were open and were treated to the most enormous pile of french fries I've ever seen in my life.
We had been warned by several people, maps, and written guides that an unusually bad stretch of the 101 follows the southern side of Lake Crescent for about 10 miles. There's barely any shoulder and the speed limit isn't entirely respected by logging trucks or RVs. As a consolation, there is a single flashing light that can be activated by cyclists to alert cars that there may be a bicycle somewhere in the next ten miles. It's better than nothing?
I liken riding in traffic to exposure to objective hazards in alpine climbing. Sometimes you just have to steel yourself to fate and know that you've done everything in your power to minimize risk but that there are factors completely out of your hands. In climbing, this would be rockfall or hanging seracs while for cycling it's distracted or oblivious drivers.
Needless to say we made it through that stretch of highway unharmed and many jelly beans were consumed in jubilation. We continued on 101 (with a generous 6' shoulder!) for a bit before jogging off to the left to a series of gravel roads. During this trip, I learned that one of the best ways of navigating unfamiliar forest roads is using Strava's heatmap layer. Every other mapping app has its limitations but the heatmap shows where people actually bike. Up until this point, it had never let me down.
We climbed higher and higher on an unnamed forest road until a junction with the innocuous-sounding "Eden Valley Road." We passed a forestry gate and didn't think much of it, but then came upon a No Trespassing sign further on. Not wanting to backtrack and seeing that the road did in fact connect to the OAT, we decided to push on and risk getting caught.
Not too far into the ostensibly private road we found ourselves on the backside of a large gate with security cameras, a wood carving of a rat, several no trespassing signs, and a large inscription "RATHOLE USA."
It seems like we're not the first to stumble errantly upon this pleasant chunk of land. I can attest that it did look like a compound of sorts and didn't seem to be inhabited by friendly folk. Although the shortcut along Eden Valley saved several miles, I'm not sure if I could recommend it as worthwhile. But we were back on the OAT and soon forgot all our woes as we dipped and dove on flowy trails.
We rounded out this eventful day with a stay at the Ranger Creek Campground, a small farm-side affair with only three spots. It was idyllic and exactly what we needed to unwind.
Day 7 saw us retracing our path along the ODT through Port Angeles, along the Juan de Fuca coastline, and down through Sequim. We were happy to have a light day of only 30 miles to rest our knees and have some time to read and catch up at camp.
The highlight of the day was almost certainly the "trail pizza" (tortilla + sauce + cheese) we made with fresh veggies we got earlier that day. A messy meal for sure, but we were starving for non-preserved food at that point.
Day 8 meant that our trip was almost over. Ian and I said our farewells to the ODT and headed south on 101 to 104 toward Port Gamble. Dull road riding was broken up by some scenic bridges along the way.
We took a bit of a detour along Big Valley Rd NE to get off the highway for bit and got some wind in our sails from the rolling hills along the way. I was also motivated by the macchiato I saw in my future at the Poulsbohemian Coffeehouse.
Although we could've just headed back to Seattle, we wanted to get the full value out of our 9-day trip and set up camp at Fay Bainbridge Park which has the closest hiker-biker sites to Seattle as far as I'm aware.
Day 9 had us waking up early, unused to the morning sun not being occluded by trees. We roused ourselves and wiped the morning dew off our tents before packing up a final time and heading to one last diner before returning to Seattle.
The ferry back was bittersweet as we reminisced about our adventure and started scheming some new ones. We talked about gear we'd change, what we wouldn't bring next time, and what worked out well.
Overall this trip was an amazing experience and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I couldn't have asked for a better travel companion and friend in Ian and the places we got to experience together were unforgettable. The Peninsula Trails Coalition has done an amazing job with the ODT and OAT, they're certainly world-class trails and I feel grateful to have them both in my backyard.
I figured it's worth adding a section about COVID and the precautions we took since this trip took place during one of the upswings of the pandemic.
Ian and I both started out with small "bubbles" of our own - I had my partner, one friend, and two coworkers; Ian had his three housemates. We both started the trip asymptomatic but were unable to schedule a test to confirm negative status in time for our departure.
We both had tightly woven polyester buffs that we kept around our necks while in areas with other people (basically anywhere but the side of the highway). We'd cover our mouth and nose when within sight of another person.
When dining out, we opted to sit outside whenever possible and had our masks up whenever not eating or drinking. There were a few places without outdoor seating but social distance was observed for the most part. The In Place diner in Forks had several people walking around and talking unmasked which made us hurry up and skedaddle once we realized people weren't taking it seriously.
All the grocery stores we went into enforced social distancing and mask wearing.
In general, folks on the Peninsula seemed more lax than Seattleites in terms of mask wearing. There are certainly fewer confirmed cases out there, but also a prevailing conservative opinion that runs counter to our state's recommendations. We encountered a few people who were vocally skeptical of our wearing masks in public but nobody was terribly rude about it.
Frame & fork - Brother Kepler Disc 56cm
Wheels - homemade Velocity Cliffhanger 650b laced to Shimano XT hubs, front is dynamo
Tires - Panaracer Gravelking 650b x 1.9" (48mm)
Drivetrain - Shimano 105 w/ Ultegra 11-34t cassette
Brakes - Shimano RS-785 calipers w/ Ultegra rotors
Saddle - Brooks B17
Lights - B&M Luxos U (front) + Secula (rear)
Helmet - Bontrager Wavecel
Bars - Salsa Cowchipper 46cm
Bar tape - Supacaz fade
Frame bag - Revelate Designs Ripio (M)
Top tube bag - Revelate Designs Gas Tank
Saddle bag - Revelate Designs Terrapin
Fork mount - Salsa Anything Cage HD (x2)
Fork bags - Sea to Summit Big River 5L dry bags (x2)
Bar bag - Salsa EXP Anything Cradle + bag
Backpack - Camelbak LUXE
Tent - SMD Lunar Solo + MSR Mini Groundhogs + Exped compact trekking pole
Sleeping bag - Wilsa 5ºC bag
Sleeping pad - Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xtherm
Stove - MSR XGK EX
Pot - MSR 1.5L
Fuel - MSR 591mL white gas
Bowl - generic plastic
Spork - generic titanium
Knife - Leatherman Skeletool
Aeropress + filters
2x biking socks
Big wool socks
Tools + Misc
Small Kryptonite lock
First aid kit (tape, wound care, pills, blister care)
Disc brake pads
2L water bladder
Katadyn water filter
Opsak food bag
(Ian carried most of the spare tools)
This system worked great and for my first time bikepacking I was astounded at feeling like I didn't royally screw up packing in any meaningful way. There were a few things that could have been lighter or more compact, mostly the stove but that was driven by a shortage of isobutane canisters. I also didn't need as much clothing as a brought but that was expected. The Aeropress and thermos were great to have on cool mornings but I could certainly live without them next time. My tent required tension between guy lines to pitch which really limited my camping options, while Ian's free-standing tent could go just about anywhere. The fork cages were attached only by one bolt which seemed risky but ended up working out pretty perfectly. I imagine with any more weight on them that would be a bad idea.