Olympic National Park, Washington, USA: Far-flung, lush beauty disguises a dark past

Covering most of the northern Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park is circumnavigatable by car, but impenetrable; leaving most of the park's densely-forested centre people-free and creature-filled. Exactly what kinds of creatures that hide in its forests and mountains, however, remain open to 'interpretation'.

Catching a ferry from Seattle, a two-day road trip begins in the atmospheric outpost of Port Townsend, where nothing worse than badly-behaved elk roam its streets, nibbling at the gardens of its charming old Victorian buildings. To the peninsula's northern tip, a former army barracks have been converted into Fort Warden State Park, home to restaurants, a hotel, and the peninsula's only sand beach at the end of which a lighthouse sits atmospherically. The town's restaurants, according to a local, are the best on the peninsula – a title they tussle with nearby Sequim for.

Both towns have a strong arts community and today Dungeness Spit is dotted with local artists competing in 'Paint the Peninsula' –which this year they are required to paint the same thing, much to the chagrin of the artists.

Located just off the coast of Sequim, the Spit is the world's longest stretch of sand, piled high with driftwood, where you can hike the 5.5 miles to its end and stay at its historic lighthouse.

From here it's a short, steep drive to Hurricane Ridge, one of the highest peaks on the peninsula. It's a spectacular spot – the slew of snow-capped mountains, the highest of which is Mount Olympus, with views that stretch across to neighbouring Canada on a clear day. It's perfect for hiking in summer and snow sports – such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing – during winter. It's also home to an abundance of wildlife – marmots, bears, noisy squirrels, cute chipmunks, the world's meanest mountain goats and Sasquatch.

Yes, you read right – Olympic Peninsula is home to the legendary Bigfoot.

There are some pretty serious and cashed-up believers out here, my host tells me, as my jaw drops in disbelief. These believers often come attached with vans decked out in high-tech surveillance gear like something out of a Scooby Doo episode. Or perhaps the X-Files. Some are alive and well on the interwebs; such as the Sasquatch Genome Project, run by a former police officer who has spent years searching for Bigfoot after claiming to have seen one. Twice.

The first incident was on a sunny July day in 2001 while on patrol near La Push (also the home of werewolves and vampires, if you're a Twibie – more on this later), when a 'two-legged, barrel-chested, dark brown furry being' dashed across the roadway in front of his patrol car.

"When I seen it I hit the brakes and actually stopped in the road," Germeau says on the website. "It's like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. My mind was saying, 'Was it human?' when my eyes told me it was not."

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Germeau says the being was around eight feet tall and possibly weighed 800 pounds, and moved in a 'gliding motion, with no head bob and minimal arm swing'. "In four steps it had cleared the road. It didn't even look at me," he describes.

His sighting came just a few weeks after another claimed to have seen 'Bigfoot' along the Hoh River, further south, which I am due to visit the next day. When the man told fellow law enforcement officers, "they all kind of laughed at me."

While my visit to Hurricane Ridge, where a French tourist purportedly spotted not one, but two of the mythical creatures right near the visitor's centre in 2000, remained Sasquatch-free, I make tracks to Port Angeles for the first of two nights on the peninsula with a meal fit for a Bigfoot – superb Pacific Northwest cuisine of Dungeness​ crab cakes – found here at convivial gastropub Next Door in a burger, with sweet potato fries and washed down with local craft brews.

The next morning we're up early for a short hike to the nearby Marymere Falls, and then on towards the spectacular, brilliant blue, 19-kilometre long Crescent Lake, a classic American beauty. This is where romanticised lakeside summer holidays take place; popular with watersports (although waterskiing is no longer allowed), and nestled alongside the historic Lake Crescent Lodge. Although the setting is idyllic, its fair share of mystery and intrigue has placed it firmly on the map.

The first incident happened back in 1936 when a Lake Crescent Tavern barmaid called Hallie Illingworth disappeared without a trace, five months after a tumultuous marriage to a local truck driver.

Four years later a saponified, or completely preserved, body of a woman was found floating on the lake's surface. The cadaver could not be properly identified and for years was nicknamed 'the Lady of the Lake', until proper identification methods found that it was indeed the missing barmaid who met a grisly end. Her husband, who had fled the state, was jailed for her murder in 1942.

The lodge received further attention during August of 1962, when Bobby Kennedy and family took refuge at the lodge at the exact same time Marilyn Monroe was found dead. It's said that Kennedy who spent many hours on the telephone that night, had flown in to get some distance from the scene. The telephone that he used remains in a booth in a corner of the lodge's main building.

A short distance away lies the tiny timber community of Forks. Had I arrived one day later, I would have chosen a very bad time to be here. It's the tenth anniversary of teen vampire romance Twilight, and the tiny town is gearing up for author Stephenie​ Meyer's impending visit, which is expected to draw hundreds of 'twibies' to the town.

The visitor's centre, outside which star character Bella's truck is now parked, is littered with Twilight memorabilia – think autographed cardboard cutouts, shirts, books, calendars – and the folks tell me a few hundred fans have already been through this morning, although there is no sign of them around now – just a raggedy-looking woman dragging a sullen-looking child down the main street. "There's one now!" exclaims my host, eagerly, as I look on doubtfully.

Twilight aside, there is nothing mysterious or romantic about Forks.

Although the movie was filmed in Oregon for the most part, fans are lured by the points of interest featured in the book such as the high school – which has since been shuttered down. It's been 10 years, after all. The 'Welcome to Forks' sign is still there – it's been removed from its hilltop location to the roadside to make it safer for 'twibies' wanting pictures.

Anyone on a time frame would be well advised to exit Forks, and head to some of the peninsula's more deserving sights.

The 101 escorts me straight through Forks and to the milky-blue Hoh River which leads to the Hoh rainforest, one of the peninsula's temperate rainforests, receiving a whopping 14 feet of rain a year. It's one of the world's most lush rainforests, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covered with huge clumps of hanging moss and fern, giving the forest a Tolkien ambience. The best part of this can be traversed over the short Hall of Mosses trail, a mere 0.8 miles long.

It's here, while I'm driving through the forest in my tiny pistachio ice-cream-coloured Fiat Bambino that I see a black figure slink into the forest. Remember, this was the exact spot the a man allegedly saw Bigfoot a few years before. I slam on the brakes and take a closer look at the figure disappearing into the dense forest. It's a black bear. It turns its head towards me and issues a threatening glare before trundling into the forest.

From here, the 101 steers outward towards the Pacific Coast and on to Ruby Beach. Piled high with driftwood and dotted with sea stacks, with the only mystery being how a beach can be so spectacularly beautiful. Then I spot a whale spouting in the distance, answering my question. Further south, a stay on the beach can be facilitated at Kalaloch Lodge, where there is also a top-notch restaurant for hungry road-trippers that overlooks the beach.

Veering inward, the highway takes you to the peninsula's second largest lake, Lake Quinault. Set against a thick forest of sitka spruce, douglas firs and western red cedars, it comes as no surprise to hear that Bigfoot resides here too – and you can pick up a Sasquatch souvenir from Lake Quinault Lodge. Another of the area's historical buildings, the lodge, built in 1928, has all the charm of a turn of the century lodge – large, majestic fireplace, lake views and a historic dining room from which they service mouth-watering breakfasts. Quinault being the most populated lake, it has a smattering of accommodation and restaurants to choose from – including Salmon Lodge, which serves five different kinds of local salmon dishes. The lake is a mecca for those who love watersports – you can kayak or sail, or just relax at the beach off the campsite. Landlubbers can explore the surrounding woods that are filled with walking trails suitable for all fitness levels, where waterfalls lay hidden among the forest.

The 101 veers inland towards the the peninsula's gateway city – Aberdeen – with its saloons, brothels and gambling gave it the reputation of being one of the grittiest towns on the western coast of the US. It has had two famous residents; one was rumoured to have killed more than 140 people during the early 1900s, and the second a more palatable figure of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. 'Come as you are', the welcome sign beckons in his memory – you can visit the small riverside memorial park dedicated to the musician, before making a wistful exit towards Seattle.

The writer was a guest of Visit Seattle and Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau.

Trip Notes

Sleep

Red Lion Hotel, Port Angeles; redlion.com/port-angeles, 360-452-9215

Lake Quinault Lodge, olympicnationalparks.com; 360-285-2900

Lake Crescent Lodge, olympicnationalparks.com; 360-928-3211

Quinault River Inn, quinaultriverinn.com; 360-288-2266

Kalaloch Lodge;thekalalochlodge.com; 360-962-2271

Eat

Next Door Gastropub; nextdoorgastropub.com; 360-504-2613

Salmon House Restaurant (Quinault); rainforestresort.com; 1-800-255-6936

Lake Quinault Lodge, olympicnationalparks.com; 360-285-2900

Lake Crescent Lodge, olympicnationalparks.com; 360-928-3211

The Commons Cafe (Fort Worden, Port Townsend); 360-344-4400

Visit

Forks Visitor Centre; forkswa.com; 360-374-2531

The writer was a guest of Visit Seattle

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