This story was created in partnership with Visit USA Parks. Photos and story by Nick Cote.
Nestled in the southern terminus of the Puget Sound, Olympia is the perfect base camp for visiting the western reaches of the Olympic Peninsula. On one side you have the 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier looming over bucolic farmlands; on the other, you have the rugged, glacier-riddled Olympic Mountains rising up from wind-swept beaches. In between, there’s the Washington State Capitol of Olympia, where restaurants and watering holes are sourced by local farms of the land and sea variety. I spent a few days here in late summer – here are a few of the stops that make this place unique.
Located right in downtown Olympia, Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar is your go-to spot for local shellfish. Here you can shoot oysters by the dozen, sample the Pacific Northwest’s infamously-odd looking geoduck clam, or fill up on smoked-salmon eggs benedict. But the “farm” part is more than just a name—the actual shellfish farm is just down the road. There currently aren’t any public tours, but owner Shina Wysocki was kind enough to show me around. It’s here where they harvest the Olympia, Chelsea Gem, and Bonito oysters you’ll find in the raw bar. Not only are these oysters as fresh as possible, but oyster farming is beneficial to the environment—a single adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of seawater per day, leaving the bay cleaner and more biodiverse.
A Day Around Town
For birdwatchers, take a 20-minute drive out to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, which attracts over 200 species of birds. Boardwalks over the wetlands give you a great vantage point to spot wildlife where the freshwater Nisqually River flows into the saltwater Puget Sound.
After lunch, go for a leisurely paddle around the sound in a rented a kayak from Tugboat Annie’s. You’ll get unobstructed views of the waterfront, the capitol complex, and wildlife.
Catch an Ocean Sunset
One of the things Western-Washingtonians will tell you is that the Puget Sound is “the saltwater,” which, to a Wyoming-born guy, sounds an awful lot like “the ocean.” But, they’ll tell you, there’s a difference: the sound, as lovely as it is, isn’t the never-ending expanse of water that you’d normally think of when you picture an ocean beach. But no need to split hairs. The actual ocean is only about an hour away. Head out to Ocean Shores or Westport where you can catch sunset from a bonafide ocean beach.
When you’ve called it a day, grab a drink from Heritage Distilling Company in Tumwater. I’m particular to their Elk Rider Rye, but they have a wide range of spirits from vodka and gin to whiskey and bourbon.
Take in the Old Growth Forests of Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is huge, and exploring each aspect of the park would take weeks. But if magical old-growth forests and crystal clear rivers are what you’re after, the Staircase Area of the park is only about an hour’s drive from Olympia. Along the way you’ll drive along the scenic Hood Canal and if it’s a hot summer day, don’t pass up the swimming holes on the shores of Lake Cushman on the drive up. You can hike to your heart’s content in this region, but the two-mile Staircase Rapids Loop is a good introduction to this corner of the park.
As you branch out from Olympia, you’ll find there’s so much more to explore on the Olympic Peninsula. With mountains, beaches, forests and a thriving local food culture, I keep finding reasons to plan my next trip there.
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