The blue depths of Lake Crescent cleanse the soul. The lake that formed millions of years ago as glaciers sliced through the terrain continues to inspire freedom to wander — in mind body and spirit. Fir trees cascade from steep peaks all the way to the gravely banks that welcome the slow laps of pristine glacial melt off. The 12 mile long lake is perhaps the flagship welcome mark to vast and majestic Olympic National Park, located in the northwestern corner of Washington State. The entire lake is technically inside the park, even though there are not gates dividing up the meandering Highway 101. Just as free as the spirit, the lake is accessible year-round without requiring park fees.
A nub of land juts out into the otherwise curve of the water and creates a perfect landing to host all kinds of recreation services — Nature Bridge camp, Storm King Ranger Station, boat launches, beaches, walking trails and serene Lake Crescent Lodge. A stay at this WPA (Works Project Administration — a Great Depression era project to get people working) camp takes a wandering soul back in time — trading out tv, internet and social media with translucent water seeming to prop up lazy summer sunsets.
The drive to this magical, rustic hamlet offers the first ‘ooos and ahs’, as picturesque Highway 101 hugs the side of the lake — completely running along the southern bank. Either approach (from the east or west) is spectacular and allows a building up of anticipation for that magic to come. The sign directing travelers to the lodge seems to beckon visitors toward a series of deep forest paths turned roads and soon enough your vehicle is surrounded by towering age-old fir trees and fern fronds as high as the deer munching in the meadow that opens to up to the lodge encampment.
This is definitely a camp feeling, like the Catskills resort portrayed in the hit 80’s movie Dirty Dancing. There are no corners to put baby because everything faces out to a vast body of water perfectly framed by fir-covered mountains with endless textures and shades of blue and green. Every hour of the day seems to command a new palette of color and the lodge and surrounding system of dwellings achieves the delicate balance between humble summer camp whimsy and unobtrusive members of the cast of thousands of plants and animals joining together to support and frame the lake.
The lodge is open in the summer and makes a great day trip destination from Port Angeles area or stop along a more in-depth loop of the Olympic Peninsula. I wrote about a three-day loop taken in the winter months that passed by the iconic lake. While the day-trip option still soothes the soul, a night or two (or a week) of fresh lake air does a body good. The following information aims to provide the best framing of a perfect nature getaway.
Olympic National Park lodges
The Olympic National Park was officially established June 29, 1938, a year after Franklin Roosevelt’s famous visit to the temperate rainforest area. The president and assorted influencers met at now Lake Crescent Lodge (it was called Singer’s Tavern back then) to iron out the details of what was a controversial proposal to establish a large national park on the Olympic Peninsula. Over time, the park grew to include several unique lodges that remain great options for overnight adventure on the Olympic Peninsula. Click on the dots to find more information about the other locations as well.
Olympic National Park Lodges
Weather and planning in the Pacific Northwest
If living anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, you know that the weather can always be wet west of the Cascade Mountains any time of year. This is an even more important consideration when exploring the Olympic Peninsula — an area that gets record amounts of precipitation. Take layers, especially because early mornings any time of year can be cool, opening up to warmer afternoons and evenings. Once the sun sets the usual is back to hoodie conditions. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t present with obvious heat and beach-like conditions, but the sun still has power, especially in the summer around the lake. Be mindful of the rays and be sure to wear sunscreen and take plenty of water if planning longer hikes.
It might also be a good idea to have a cooler bag along to store snacks and drinks for picnic areas, in addition to water, cups and extra hand sanitizer. Although at the time of this writing Clallam County (where Lake Crescent is located) is open to limited in-restaurant seating, most options feel like glorified take-out. Picnics seem to be the best option for those with pets or intent to properly social distance.
As for fees, the Olympic National Park is $30 for a day pass (per car) that is valid for a seven day period. An annual park pass (only valid for Olympic National Park for 12 month period) is $55 and an all-National-Parks annual pass $80. Keep in mind that there are no park fees in the area around Lake Crescent but places like Hurricane Ridge and Sol Duc Springs require entrance fees.
There are other state and county parks in the vicinity so, in general I try to have small amounts of cash available, preferably in $5 increments, to pay parking fees if/when they arise.
The best rooms at Lake Crescent Lodge
Aramark handles the National Park contract for several of the lodges in the Olympic National Park. Their site isn’t super friendly, especially since it’s required to submit a request which is then processed for confirmation a few hours, or, days later. While Expedia and other booking platforms technically query this lodge, I’ve never seen it available to book. For best results call the National Parks reservations line. Checking out the official lodge site can provide further details, but here is the skinny on the different room types.
- Rooms in the lodge. Cozy feeling to just walk downstairs to a fire roaring in the giant fireplace capped by the head of a giant Roosevelt Elk. Think about the size of a hotel room from the 1930’s with bathroom down the hall. I love the nostalgia so this would be a romantic option. Not pet-friendly.
- Roosevelt Fireplace Cabins. This is a charming series of three cabin units located just off the serene banks of the lake. Parking is convenient and this is an excellent option for larger groups, families and pets. These book up way in advance, like 9 months ahead of time, especially on weekends and the thick of summer.
- Singer Tavern Cottages. Dirty Dancing, here we come. Cute rustic cabins line the main entrance lawn to the lodge. Hanging begonias frame in tiny porches with rocking chairs well positioned to soak in all the charm oozing from every squeaky floor board. Some of the cottages are pet friendly.
- Marymere. This wing is reminiscent of the 1950’s and every room looks out toward the bank of the lake. I appreciate the larger room size and peaceful views. These are not pet friendly.
- Pyramid and Storm King. Two different two-story buildings that harken back to the 1970’s on the outside and a quaint forest lair on the inside. I love these spaces because they are set just a little deeper into the forest environment making it easy to walk up and gaze out the windows at robins flying from fern to fern, underneath old growth timber. Pet friendly (Pyramid only) and plenty of more modern space and furnishings in the rooms.
Service at Lake Crescent Lodge
The lodge is doing the best they can to move with grace during a global pandemic — and social distancing measures, including wearing masks inside the lodge building, seem robust enough. Although the dining area is open for in-restaurant seating, most people order the breakfast, lunch and dinner options to-go and eat in the window clad solarium or outside on the porch or options closer to the lake. Order food from the intimate bar in the corner of the lobby, along with any other beverage desires — the friendly staff serve up a full bar. The menu is fairly standard and covers fish to vegan diets but won’t wow tastebuds or the pocket book. Still, it’s lovely to enjoy a sunset takeout dinner lakeside with a favorite cocktail in hand. Of note, the lodge serves non-guests just as well, making this a great stop for a snack and drinks along a day-trip or “passing through” route.
This lodge is rustic and peaceful and is a place to enjoy the disconnect from daily noise — including tv’s, email and social media. There is some form of free guest Wi-Fi but it’s not really worth the effort — just detach or use the fairly strong cell service available throughout most of the recreation area.
The lodge has a gift shop with a generous assortment of National Park paraphernalia, including the beautiful Olympic National Park version of the Pendleton blanket series. Check out a tchotchke honoring Sasquatch and pick up a postcard or two.
Boat rentals are suspended because of the pandemic but kayaks and paddle boards are still available to rent just in front of the lodge. The options are a five-hour package (8am-1pm), or all day (8am-5pm.)
The grounds of the recreation area house many picnic tables and areas to set up a day camp of sorts. There are numerous parking lots without fees, and even two electric car charging stations that require reservations.
Nature near Lake Crescent Lodge
It’s tempting to stay put on a comfy adirondack chair with a book while soaking up the powerful energy of the water and surrounding waves of green forest. Or, why not jump off the central dock into a rush of frigid but oddly satisfying lake water? There is plenty of nature around the wood buildings but if sights are set on more movement, consider these quick and easy nuggets of nature, steps away.
- Marymere Falls. This easy path winds from the lodge through massive old growth fir trees to a spectacular 90 ft waterfall deep in the damp, oxygen-rich forest. Most of the path is accessible, but the final rise to the waterfall involves an elevation gain of about 400 feet. (1.8 miles roundtrip.)
- Moments in Time. A self-guided tour that is accessible and weaves from lakeside respites to deep forest vegetation with interactive signage along the way. This is an easy way to ponder some really old trees. (1.2 miles, flat)
- Mt. Storm King. The switchback-rich trail really raises the heart rate, but opens up to sweeping views of the lake and surrounding terrain. (4.4 miles, 2,000 elevation gain)
- Fairholme Campground Loop. Quick and easy loop through an old-growth forest. (.8 miles, 100 elevation gain)
- Pyramid Peak. Climbs to a WW II spotting tower with views of the lake. (7 miles, 2600 elevation gain)
- Aurora Creek. Upward climb through old growth forests to Aurora Ridge. (6.8 miles, 3,220 elevation gain)
- Barnes Creek. Much longer hike with only about half of the distance on maintained trails. (15 miles, 4,200 elevation gain)
The Spruce Railroad was designed to haul timber to mills around Port Angeles during WW II but the line was completed just after the war ended in 1945. The tracks were used for a number of years but more recently the National Park has reclaimed this right-of-way, turning it into a 4-mile long path. The old railroad bed hugs a good portion of the northern shore of the lake and is bike and pet friendly. Since the work continues to improve this trail and add about 6.5 mile extension, access is closed through 2021.
Day trip options to nature from Lake Crescent Lodge
This gateway area to the Olympic National Park makes for a great location to set up a longer stay in order to enjoy great day-trips in and around the northern parts of the park. Here are a few great options well within a day-trip distance from Lake Crescent.
- Hurricane Ridge. Famous 17-mile highway that seems to ascend to the gods on a ridiculously scenic, windy road. Park entrance fee is required and the attraction is very busy on weekends and throughout the summer months. There are great short hikes and an easily accessible vista to enjoy a picnic lunch.
- Salt Creek Recreation Area. This park sometimes gets left out of all the acclaim enjoyed by the Olympic National Park but is worthy of the time needed to explore the rocky shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Stop at the cute country store in Joyce for a snack and continue out to the saltwater park. Be sure to explore the area around Tongue Point.
- Clallam Bay. Most people seem to want to venture to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery — the most northwest point in the continuous USA. Since both are part of the Makah Indian Reservation, access is closed for non-locals during the pandemic. Still, it’s worth it to take the winding road out to gently curved Clallam Bay Spit County Park. The entrance and parking lot don’t look like much, but push onward over the pedestrian bridge to the soft gravel beach. Mist flows in and out almost as quickly as the pulsing waves.
- Sol Duc. The hot springs are only open to registered guests, due to the pandemic, but many options for hiking along the powerful bubbling Sol Duc River exist. Note that this requires park entrance fee.
- Port Angeles. Lake Crescent Lodge is technically in the city of Port Angeles, which serves as the regional economic hub and gateway to Victoria, Canada by way of the Black Ball Ferry. Of course, at the time of this wiring the border between USA and Canada is still closed. Nonetheless, Port Angeles has a charming downtown core with antique stores, tiny galleries and a number of good food options. New Day Cafe is tasty for lunch and Country Aire Natural Grocery a must for picnic supplies.
Leave no trace and take nothing but great memories
No matter the length of time or amount of actives, Lake Crescent and her historic lodge are show stoppers, worthy of taking time to steep in the abundance of nature. Key elements of water, air, wind, earth and forest combine to produce a soul nourishing experience. I hope this review helps to inspire a visit to one of my favorite parts of the world.