The Essential Olympic
Olympic National Park
* The anchor of Washington State's peninsula, Olympic is perhaps the most multi-faceted park in the entire system. From its beach-front campgrounds to its high, glacier-coated alpine backcountry, this park offers three distinct personalities that can making packing for a vacation here most challenging. Do you head to Olympic to enjoy the cobble- and log-strewn shoreline with its towering sea stacks, seals, and tide pools? Or do you come to explore the emerald Hoh Rain Forest with its dense Sitka spruce and Western Hemlock forests draped in mosses and epiphytes? Maybe you prefer to sling pack onto your back and head to the high country.
* Weather-wise, July and August are the best times to visit if you like dry, warm weather with a reasonable amount of sunshine. September's not too bad, but the rainy season is approaching. If you're after winter mountaineering, December and January typically bring the heaviest snows.
* Time for just one hike? The head to the Hoh Rain Forest and patch together the three-quarter-mile-long Hall of Mosses and 1.25-mile-long Spruce Nature Trail. Together these paths lead you through some of the densest temperate rain forest in the continental U.S. and along the Hoh River, which runs milky thanks to the glacial flour it carries down from the high country.
* Best Adventure? An overnight trek along the three-legged Cape Alva-Sand Point Loop trail on the park's northwestern corner. This 9.25-mile-long trip leads you through rain forest and along the Pacific Coast, past petroglyphs and to the western-most point on the Lower 48, Cape Alva.
* For kids, little is more fun and interesting than an afternoon spent in the Hoh Rain Forest. Unless, of course, you spend an afternoon at Rialto Beach searching the cobble beach for wave-pounded and polished agates or looking for tide pools swarming with marine life.
* To flee crowds, either head inland along one of the park's many trails, or try one of the six beaches along the coast between Ruby Beach and South Beach.
* Best dinner? I found it at Lake Crescent Lodge, where the chef has created an eclectic menu built heavily upon fresh seafood, game such as elk and duck, and beef.
* Best breakfast. That also can be found at the Crescent Lake Lodge, with its omelets, grill items, fresh fruit and array of cereals.
* Best lodging, price not an option? A Roosevelt Cabin at Lake Crescent. Located on the lakeshore, these cabins have gorgeous log walls, plank flooring, and rock fireplaces. There are only four, though, and they can book up years in advance.
* Best bargain lodging? The cabins at Kalaloch Lodge overlooking the Pacific. They can accommodate up to seven, have woodstoves and a small kitchen area, and allow you to fall asleep to the crash of the surf.