Mosses cover the deep forest, blanketing rocks and fallen trees, clinging to the living spruces and firs like babies embracing their mothers. In some places a pale-green, stringy species dangles from branches like clots of witch hair. The vast, living coat absorbs sound and leaves the whole area in a hush. This is Lake Quinault in winter, and there’s no place in the world I’d rather be.
Lake Quinault in winter barely resembles its summer self, when tourists fill the area. In winter, the rain almost never stops. There are windows of sunlight here and there, always brief and always glorious, but for the most part it’s a persistently gray time. The upside of that is a region left in solitude and silence, perfect for those who yearn for those things as a break from modern life.
The hiking can be a slog. At times, it can be downright sloppy. But, the slog and slop keeps everyone else away, and even a short hike will leave you feeling like the whole of the rain forest is yours’ and the animals’ alone.
The Irely Lake trail, a short trek usually full of hikers in summertime, leaves you feeling continents away from the modern world. The trail is frequently flooded and blocked by fallen tree — great for keeping out the halfhearted. I’ve had conversations with trees there, and there wasn’t a single person (other than myself) to call me crazy for doing it.
You don’t even need to get on the trails, really. Very few people drive the “loop,” which is what I (and presumably others; it’s not all that unique or creative of a moniker, after all) call the North Shore and South Shore roads that will take you in a complete circle around the lake and a good portion of the river feeding into it.
You can simply drive out along the road, park your car, and walk that. That’s nice way to do it, really, because the river adds a pleasant musical backdrop. There are also many things to see right off the road, including Merriman Falls and the Roosevelt elk.
My favorite place to stay in the area is the Quinault River Inn, but that’s just my personal preference. The Lake Quinault Lodge is a beautiful building with the best views of the lake.
No matter where you go, you’ll find a quiet place, perfect for silencing that mental cacophony that’s been driving you batty.
If you find yourself somewhere along the Irely Lake trail talking to trees, please tell them the Northwest Nomad said “hello.”
The list of “Places I’ve Been in Washington” is pretty extensive, but one place stands out above ALL the others. You’ll find it on the western side of the Olympic Peninsula, right off State Route 101. It doesn’t get the press that Mount Rainier or Seattle gets, but for my money there’s no place in Washington I’d rather be. Even beyond the rugged beauty of a glacially-carved lake (as if that weren’t enough in itself), there’s just no shortage of things to do at Lake Quinault.
It’s an ideal destination for solo excursions, family trips, romantic getaways, and for introducing visiting family and friends to what Washington has to offer. Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rain Forest are like a second home to me. So hop on in and let me show you what Lake Quinault has to offer.
Things to Do at Lake Quinault #1: Wildlife Viewing
Bring a pair of binoculars and keep your eyes peeled for the critters and creatures you’ll encounter at Lake Quinault. Every season of the year offers excellent bird watching for the avian-inclined visitor. A basic guide book on bird identification is helpful for identifying species, but for the casual viewer, a keen eye and couple of hours is all you need.
For bigger game, consider checking out the Roosevelt Elk, frequently found off of the northeast section of North Shore Road. They’re a pretty reliable sighting, and chances are you’ll be part of a very small crowd; the elk get few visitors, practically guaranteeing a few minutes alone with some big-time wildlife.
If you want to try your luck at other big game, Lake Quinault is home to black bears, black-tailed deer, bald eagles, and mountain lions. I’ve seen them all on the back trails.
Things to Do at Lake Quinault #2: Relaxing Beside the Lake or ON the Lake During a Boat Tour
Few things are more soothing than the sound of Lake Quinault’s great blue expanse lapping up on shore. For some visitors, a day sitting on the shore and soaking up the sun and fresh air is what it’s all about.
The tours are set up on morning, afternoon, and sunset schedules. The morning and afternoon tours are informative expeditions. You’ll learn about the history of the lake and the surrounding environment. For those who prefer a more quiet and reflective time on the lake, the sunset tour is your best option. It’s designed to help you wind down after your day exploring Lake Quinault.
Things to Do at Lake Quinault #3: Drive the Loop
After my brother visited Washington and returned home, I asked him what his favorite parts of the trip were. The first thing that came out of his mouth was, “Driving the loop!”
A total distance of 31 miles, the Lake Quinault Forest Loop Drive is a nice jaunt for the viewer, and you can enjoy it from the comfort of your car. Venture into the depths of the park and take a gander at the waterfalls along the road. All of the wildlife that calls Lake Quinault home is viewable on this trip, and the road takes you by some great places to get out and stretch your legs.
Things to Do at Lake Quinault #4: See Giant Trees
The second favorite part of my brother’s trip was seeing the giant trees. Dwarfing every other tree in the nation, except the sequoias in California, the giant trees of Lake Quinault are a “you’ve gotta see it to believe it” kind of experience.
First on the list is the Quinault Big Spruce Tree. A clear and relatively flat trail leads to the base of this monster. There isn’t much that gives you a sense of scale like the Big Spruce Tree.
The Quinault Big Cedar Tree is next to check out. It collapsed during a wind storm in the last few months of 2017, but champions like this are astonishing even in defeat. It’s still a great, short hike to take, and you’ll see some huge standing trees along the way. Besides, it takes more than a little storm to take away the grandeur of a tree like this. They’re like gods fallen to Earth.
Don’t let the unassuming names for these trees trick you; they’re immense and majestic, Grand Canyons of the tree world.
Things to Do at Lake Quinault #5: Day Trip Hikes
Lake Quinault has hikes for every fitness and interest level. For a quick out-and-back journey, check out the 2.2 mile long Irely Lake Trail. Dead trees rise up from the water in this secluded section of hiking trail. It can get a little muddy and washed out early in the season, so make sure to wear good boots.
The Quinault River-Pony Bridge Day Hike is 2.5 miles long. Hikers typically turn around when they reach the bridge, but the walk goes on considerably farther for those interested. Sections of the trail can be a bit rocky. Hiking poles aren’t necessary, but they’ll make the going a little easier for those inclined.
Not for the faint of heart, the Colonel Bob Trail is a serious undertaking. It’s a 14-mile trip that climbs to a height of nearly 5,000 feet. At the apex of the trail you’ll get a stunning view of the mountains and forests of the Quinault region. Prepare for rocky sections of the trail with loose footing. Hikers are advised to bring plenty of water; the final uphill battle of this hike is taxing and demands hikers be prepared.
Ready for More?
This article was meant to be a launching point for things to do at Lake Quinault, and by no means exhaustive. Talking about it has me jonesing for a trip there myself.
If you want any custom insider guidance, shoot me a message here on the Nomad. This entails no sales pitch or product push. I’ll happily help you out with any information you need. I don’t get any money from any of the areas I write about, and this is all straight talk about the places I’m passionate about. Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll get back to you with the information if I have it, or I’ll point you towards someone who does.
A couple months ago, a friend asked me if I had any tips regarding Lake Quinault birding. I had no answer for her, so I decided to find someone who did.
My gumshoeing eventually led me to Mary O’Neil, secretary of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society. After graciously agreeing to talk with me about Lake Quinault birding, O’Neil gave me more information than I’d hoped for in my wildest dreams. My intention was to deliver an informative Lake Quinault birding guide, and I believe O’Neil helped me accomplish that.
O’Neil was introduced to birding by her sisters. Her passion for the hobby eventually led her to be an interpretive program worker at the Lake Quinault Lodge, a job she’s still doing today.
Though O’Neil vehemently insists that she’s no expert, I find it hard to believe there’s anyone else in the world who knows more about Lake Quinault birding than she does.
O’Neil also happens to be a good-humored conversationalist and a pleasure to talk to, and I look forward to someday getting a personal Lake Quinault birding tour from her. So, without further ado, here is my conversation with Mary O’Neil.
Lake Quinault Birding: A Conversation with the National Audubon Society’s Mary O’Neil
Northwest Nomad: What are some of the more common birds people can expect to see around the Lake Quinault Lodge area?
O’Neil: Steller’s jays are the dominant bird there. They raid the feeders constantly. We have the song sparrow. At the moment we have this dysfunctional song sparrow who thinks he’s competing with a bird in the lobby window.
Then we have our white-crowned sparrows during the summer months, and they’re having babies up there just having a wonderful time. In the summer months we also have ospreys that nest around the lake, and if you take the lodge’s lake tour you’ll quite often see a contest between the osprey and the eagles catching fish. It’s really cool.
They don’t have as many Anna’s hummingbirds. Well they may have them, but everybody takes their feeders down after summer, not expecting a winter hummingbird.
Summer months, the hummingbirds are just thick. They get so thick people can’t keep their feeders full. They do feed them there at the lodge, and everybody in the area has hummingbird feeders in their yards. You can walk in the woods and the hummingbirds will just buzz you. They’re everywhere.
Winter months we’re looking for the varied thrush. They should be returning quite soon, and if you look out to the water you’ll see the common common merganser and occasionally red-necked grebes; not so much, but occasionally. And, of course, the common loon hangs out there on the lake quite a bit.
The most common bird up there, probably, is the Pacific wren. I saw some just yesterday out on the trail. There was one, probably a male, chipping at us. A second bird was quieter in the background, and it was like the louder chipping one was trying to draw attention away from it.
Nomad: What are some of the rarer birds to have out there, or the more difficult ones to see?
O’Neil: Well, I don’t know how difficult it is, but we have grouse in the area. We have the ruffed grouse. Occasionally you’ll just see them walking on the trails around the lodge. In the summer months, if you drive the 31 mile loop road, they’ll be nesting in the dirt road in the upper end of the valley. It’s quite common to see them there.
It’s a little more difficult to bird among the trees. In the summer months, you can expect to see warblers. You’ll definitely hear the Wilson’s warbler, orange-crowned warblers, black-throated grays, but to see them is quite difficult, because they’re in the thick trees. You can get lucky, but it’s very difficult.
It seems year-round we’ve got the black-capped chickadees and the chestnut-backed chickadees. And if you walk the trails carefully you’ll run into them.
One of the more rare birds that I found and took great delight in identifying was the warbling vireo. I’d never run into one before, but I found it, isolated it, and identified it. I felt really good then.
It was up in an alder tree, and it was really hard to pull out of the tree. There was one year and then the next there were three in the area year-round. I think they may have reproduced in the area, but I don’t know.
Nomad: What are your tours like?
O’Neil: Well, it has been and will probably continue to be on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I just do a standard interpretive walk in the woods. But depending on the interests of the people there, I may turn the focus to a bird watching trip. But a lot of the times the people aren’t interested as much in the birds, so I talk more about the plants and animals and some silly stories.
Nomad: How about for newcomers to the area who want to bird on their own? There’s a lot of ground to cover out there. What would you say is the best place to start?
O’Neil: Definitely check out the lawn at the lodge. That’s probably got your best variety. They’re out in the open.
In the summer months, we have evening grosbeaks and black-headed grosbeaks. I think they nest in the area. They also hang out at the feeders quite a bit. You can count up to 10, 12 at a time, maybe even as many as 25. They’re really cool to see. That’s definitely a good place to start, just checking out the feeders there.
The further off the road you get, the more difficult it is to catch the birds, but around an area above the lodge some trees blew down rather seriously in 2007, so quite often if you get yourself in the right position you can look down over the shrubbery and the newly growing trees and then you’ll see the trees in the tops. That’s particularly where you want to look for the threshes. You can hear them with their upward, spiraling whistle.
Nomad: Do you know if there’s any particularly good time to see eagles?
O’Neil: I don’t see that many, but they nest there in the summer months so that may be a good time, especially if they’re particularly bent on stealing from the osprey. I don’t see so many in the winter months, but there’s great opportunity for them because the fish run in the winter months.
Winter Lake Quinault Birding
Nomad: What about winter birding? Winter seems to be a time when few people take advantage of Lake Quinault, but it’s so great there during that time of year. So quiet.
O’Neil: I think you have quite a bit of opportunity because the lake birds will show up. I think there was a grebe out the other day. You have your western grebes and your red-throated grebes.
Along the sides of the roads there’s juncos and song sparrows. Then you’ve got fox sparrows out there. Winter we get the hermit’s thrush; summer we get the Swainson’s thrush. You may come across one of those.
If it snows, you can expect to see the varied thrush. The varied thrush likes to hover near the snowbanks. You’ll hear it singing all summer long, but picking it out of the woods is not so easy. You can hear it, but you can’t see it.
A couple years back the snow was real bad and I was doing a different job. I drove in several times early in the morning, after the snow plow had gone through, and the edge of the road would be so full of varied thrush you couldn’t go very fast because they’d fly up in clouds in front of you.
Nomad: And you don’t get to see them as much in the summer?
O’Neil: No. If you live there you might hear them, because I think they’re around all the time, but they do elevation migration. In the summer months, they’ll migrate up to the higher elevations where the snow is.
Making a Day of Lake Quinault Birding
Nomad: Are there any other tips you’d like to share about Lake Quinault birding?
O’Neil: The most extensive way to do it, is to take a morning and do a morning walk around the lodge area. Then get in the car and drive up the south shore road, up to the bridge area. Take it very slowly. Don’t rush it. The open fields just east of the lake area quite often will have hawks. That’s also where the elk like to hang out.
There are cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. That’s what you can expect to find if you troll slowly up through the valley. Of course you’ll find flocks of Canada geese and sometimes ducks in the upper valley. The common merganser’s the most common duck in the valley, but occasionally I’ve run into the harlequin duck.
Nomad: Well, I’m no good at identifying them, but I’ve seen lots of birds up at Irely Lake.
O’Neil: Did you run into Sasquatch up there? (laughs)
Nomad: Not yet, but I’m hoping! Do you have anything else to suggest? Anything I’ve missed?
O’Neil: Only that if you do plan on coming, check out the Lake Quinault lodge website and see what kinds of things they’re offering.
Nomad: Great. Well, Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge with Northwest Nomad and my readers.
Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rain Forest provide some of the best outdoors recreation in the Pacific Northwest. They’re terrific for hiking, fishing, and viewing wildlife.
Black bears, black-tailed deer, bald eagles, and cougar all inhabit the region. In my travels across the landscape (it’s my favorite spot in Washington and I go there frequently), I’ve run into all of those animals at least once, and often at close proximity (the bear a little too close for comfort in fact) in their natural environments.
Perhaps the best wildlife to see in the area is the herd of Roosevelt elk at Quinault. The sizable herd regularly inhabits the area and can be found quite reliably in the woods and fields just off northeast portion of North Shore Road.
This area of Lake Quinault gets little visitation, especially in the off-season autumn/winter months. The road is rough and sometimes washed out, so even on days when Lake Quinault Lodge is full, you can find some solitary remove in this area.
The Roosevelt elk of Quinault feel safe and at home there, so they generally won’t scatter if you set up shop to observe them (as long as you don’t get too close, of course). They’ll go about their social business at ease.
I watched them for nearly an hour once, and they just went about their routine as though I wasn’t there. Obviously, I can’t speak for every encounter with the animals, but in my personal experience they’ve never bolted when I stopped to watch.
About the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault
According to the National Park Service, the elk at Quinault represent the Pacific Northwest’s “largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk.”
The elk are named after President Theodore Roosevelt, famous wildlife enthusiast and the man who started the national park system in the United States. The elk at Quinault are significantly bigger than the black-tail deer they share space with (the deer are beautiful, as well, though harder to find).
Male elk at Quinault, identified by their antlers, are larger than the females, but all share the characteristic darker-brown heads and lighter-brown bodies. They eat meadow grasses, ferns, shrubs, and lichens.
The elk can also be seen regularly in the Hoh Rain Forest, and I’ll be covering that area, as well. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m focusing on the elk at Quinault.
How to Find the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault
The elk move throughout the area, but they frequently congregate along a stretch of North Shore Road. Google Maps won’t let me pin to the fields, so I had to pin the Quinault Rain Forest Ranger Station (which has a nice little nature trail) in the interactive map below.
If you go east about 10 miles east of that ranger station, you’ll find some open fields. The Roosevelt elk herd often hangs out in those fields, which are pretty close to the road–I’m talking close enough to watch clearly without equipment. With binoculars or a camera, you can see the sky reflected in their eyes.
North Shore Road Approach
You can drive to the area either from North Shore Road or from South Shore Road, both of which run into each other to form a loop around Lake Quinault. South Shore Road has merit because it’s better maintained and makes the approach from Lake Quinault Lodge, but I’m going to start with North Shore Road because the ranger station is the most easily identifiable landmark close to the elk.
Before going on, let me stress that you WILL lost phone reception for a good portion of this drive. This isn’t a great cause for concern, as I’ve explained below, but just be aware that you may want to write directions down or bring a hard copy of a map.
It’s difficult to get lost on the North Shore Road drive because it’s the only real road out there, other than some primitive Forest Service roads branching off into the woods. The one spot that may cause confusion is at the end of North Shore Road. There, you’ll encounter a spot where the North Shore Road turns left/north to continue as North Shore Road and right/south to go over a bridge connecting North Shore Road to South Shore Road.
If you want to continue the loop and head back to the main road, you need to go over the bridge to the south rather than the road continuance to the north. Even if you miss this exchange, though, you’ll just end up driving a dead end road that leads to North Forks Campground, a Park Service ranger station, and the Irely Lake Trail (among other walks). It’s a dead end road and will just take you a few miles out of your way and into beautiful country.
South Shore Road Approach
You can also get to the elk-viewing spot by driving up Lake Quinault’s South Shore Road from Lake Quinault Lodge, which may be the most desirable route if your car isn’t well suited to rough driving. North Shore Road gets pretty tough in parts, particularly after heavy storm events. South Shore Road also has its hairy moments sometimes, but in my experience after years of visiting this area regularly, it’s generally kinder to vehicles than the North Shore Road.
If you decide to come up South Shore Road, just remember to turn left over the bridge linking South Shore Road to North Shore. If you’ve got the vehicle for it, though, I recommend driving the whole Lake Quinault North/South Shore Road loop. It’s a terrific drive through moss-laden trees and mountain views.
Regardless, remember to write directions down or take a hard copy map, because you WILL lost phone reception for a good portion of this drive. Also, South Shore starts out well paved, but be prepared because it will turn into a dirt road that has lots of big holes and rocks.
Come for the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault, but Stay for all the Other Critters
As mentioned in the preceding section, close to the area with the elk herd is the North Forks Campground and the Irely Lake trail. I go camping and hiking in that area frequently.
Once, in winter, I stumbled upon a black bear in one of the North Forks camping spots (I was the only person staying there). It was a spectacular encounter. The bear was no more than 10 yards from me when we first realized we weren’t alone. He watched me curiously as I walked to the outhouse and then lumbered off. I was a bit nervous camping that evening!
If you go to this area during the salmon runs, you’ve got a good shot of seeing bald eagles picking off the fish. Having grown up in Pennsylvania where bald eagle were nonexistent, I’ve never stopped being amazed at the sight of these birds.
One time (I swear) I saw a lynx dip into the woods on South Shore Road. A big chunk of road had collapsed from flooding and made the road inaccessible to vehicles. National Forest Service sites say lynx aren’t found in this area, but I swear that I caught a fleeting glimpse of one.
The area is a terrific spot for wildlife enthusiasts. Obviously, you can never know for sure what you’ll run into, but the elk are about as safe a bet as I know of.
Go check them out. Maybe you’ll see some bear or eagle, too.
If you decide to make a longer trip of it, consider staying at the Quinault River Inn. There are many great choices for lodging in the Lake Quinault area, but the Inn has always been my favorite. It’s run by terrific people and is set off on quiet spot by the riverside.
No, I do not have any affiliation with the Inn and receive no compensation from them. I just really like their establishment.
If any of you need more specific directions to the open fields I discussed, shoot me a message and I’ll walk you to the spot. Also, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
I arrived fifteen minutes after closing time to find the hosts at the Quinault River Inn still awake and waiting for my arrival. I’d called a couple hours earlier for an impromptu weekend getaway but hadn’t actually paid for the room yet. Despite this lack of financial or legal obligation, the hosts—Georgia’s own Jim and Angela Sowards—stayed late to make sure I got into my room. The wind and rain had been heavy that night, and they figured I might run a bit late. That’s hospitality that you can’t find just anywhere.
When people think of staying in the Lake Quinault area, they tend to think of the Lake Quinault Lodge. While that’s a nice establishment and one I’ve also enjoyed staying at, I just don’t think the Quinault River Inn can be beat for sheer character. It’s my “go-to” place when I want to visit the area but don’t want to camp. I go the area mostly for the hiking, but for those who want to see the lake specifically, the inn is conveniently located less than 3 miles away.
A Great Location for Relaxing or Exploring the Lake Quinault Area
As the name suggests, the hotel sits right on the bank of the Quinault River. It’s popular with fishermen, but it’s also a great little hideaway for any vacationer. The river’s always there, rolling slowly, its easy-going spirit infusing the whole area.
The inn is located more-or-less halfway between the Lake Quinault’s South and North Shore Roads. Down those two paths lies that all the outdoors magic, which makes the Quinault River Inn a convenient launching point for adventure.
Far as I’m concerned, Lake Quinault is the best kept secret of the Olympic Peninsula. In addition to the lake itself, which is beautiful, the area’s also got miles and miles of rain forest hiking, waterfall and elk viewing, and camping. I’ll be doing a full rundown of the area soon enough, but for now I’m focusing on the inn.
Peaceful and Quiet, but Close to All the Comforts You Need
I’ve stayed at the Quinault River Inn multiple times over the years. The rooms are always clean and the beds are comfortable. This last visit, I had one of the best nights of sleep in my life.
I spend a great deal of time in the Lake Quinault area. In the spring and summer, I generally like to camp. But, when I do stay in a hotel, there’s no place I’d rather stay than the Quinault River Inn. The lengths the innkeepers went to for me on this last trip were the proverbial cherry atop the sundae, but this has my home run hotel for a while. The innkeepers’ personalities also seem to act like magnet drawing in equally kicked back, friendly guests. I’ve met some great people at the inn and had some memorable conversations, especially in the summer when people gather outside around the gazebo.
I’m tempted to say the Quinault River Inn is a great alternative to Lake Quinault Lodge, but that’s not really true. For me, it’s the best choice there is.