Olympic thrills, and a few chills, on a summer Puget Sound adventure

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By Christopher Elliott

Washington State’s Puget Sound area is famous for its moderate climate and postcard-perfect views of the Olympic mountain range. You’ve probably seen those gorgeous images of kayaks in the bay, a whale splashing in the distance, and, behind it all, snow-capped mountains.

Erase those pictures from your mind, please.

You can get that maybe 11 months out of the year, but during late summer, when I visited with my kids, the region was gripped by a heatwave and a thick haze had descended on the water from the wildfires in nearby British Columbia. It was a freakout moment for tourism authorities, and we were at ground zero.

Great timing for a summer trip, right?

During three weeks in August, we trekked from Olympia, Wash., to Hoodsport and then to Whidbey and Camano islands. But even with the distractions, discomforts and an occasional fly-by from a Navy fighter jet, we would do it all again without hesitation. Summer heatwave notwithstanding, the Puget Sound area is incredible.

Temperatures soared into triple digits a few days after we arrived in Olympia. Fortunately, the air conditioners at the Hilton Garden Inn were working well. (Air conditioning is not a standard amenity in some accommodations, as we were about to find out.) My normally heat-tolerant kids, raised in Central Florida, lingered in our Hertz rental car a little longer than usual, reluctant to venture into the stifling heat.

Olympic mountains

Olympia, on the southern end of Puget Sound, is not known as a tourist destination. But Washington’s state capital has its charms, including an interesting downtown culinary scene (excellent microbreweries and gelato) and a historic capitol with an incredible view of the Olympic mountains. To see the building, be sure to take one of the free tours that start every hour. (Here’s our guide with the best travel advice.)

For my kids, ages 10, 12, and 15, the highlight of our Olympia visit was visiting Wolf Haven International, a sanctuary for wolves and coyotes, located about a half-hour drive from town. Here we met a few of the 200 or so displaced, captive-born canines, including grey, red and Mexican wolves. A tour guide brought us through the sanctuary on a sweltering hot afternoon. The wolves were desperately trying to stay cool under the canopy and several times began to howl in unison — a rare treat for visitors to the sanctuary.

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A small town called Hoodsport

From Olympia, we drove up Highway 101 to a small town called Hoodsport, where we checked into a HomeAway vacation rental along Dabob Bay. The waterfront rentals in this area aren’t equipped with air conditioning, and on a calm day the heat settles on the water like a duvet in a sauna. We fled to the mountains in search of relief, and, fortunately for us, there was plenty of that to be found.

Among our favorite excursions: The Staircase Trail, in Olympic National Park, a meandering hike through old-growth Douglas fir forests along the North Fork of the Skokomish River. And the Mt. Ellinor Trail, a more strenuous hike that takes you up a steep, winding path, past incredible views of the Olympics and a snow field.

There’s also Lake Cushman, a reservoir on the north fork of the Skokomish River, which proved to be an ideal place to hang out. The water was too cold for the kids to swim in, but the air temperatures were significantly lower than Hoodsport. We’ll take it.

Puget Sound Navy Museum

One of our favorite day trips from Hoodsport was a visit to nearby Bremerton, where we found the Puget Sound Navy Museum, a collection of naval heritage memorabilia from the Pacific Northwest. There’s also an entire floor devoted to life on an aircraft carrier, which we found kinda cool. Also, the museum had air conditioning, which was definitely “cool,” according to the kids.

We couldn’t see Bremerton on a scorching hot day without a visit to the Harborside Fountain Park, with its stylized, battleship-inspired sculptures that spout water on kids playing below. It was here that we first began to understand how militarized this area is. Bremerton is the location of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, a key naval repair facility.

In subsequent days we were buzzed by fighter jets on Whidbey Island, watched a submarine go out to sea from the beach at Admiralty Head Marine Preserve near Camp Casey, and we received a stern warning about torpedo tests being conducted in Puget Sound.

Torpedo tests. I’m not making that up.

Whidbey and Camano Islands

All of which brings us to Whidbey and Camano Islands, just off the coast of Everett. Here, on the final part of our journey, things started to cool a little, so much so that we turned on the heat in our cottage at the Fort Casey Inn. And here we also came face to face with with those fighter jets, stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. When we checked in, my 12-year-old son asked me about the earplugs in the bedroom. We had our answer at 8 p.m., when the aircraft came in low and loud over our rental. Fortunately, they weren’t firing any ammunition or dropping bombs.

Even though the temperatures fell, those perfect views continued to elude us. We needed to get on the water to pursue that perfect photo (you remember, the one I told you to forget?).

From choppy waters to calm adventures

We paddled into the bay on a frigid morning on kayaks, but it wasn’t meant to be. A strong current pulled us out to sea, and then the winds shifted, making us fight twice as hard to get back to shore. There were no whales, not even a lone seal — although we saw several blue herons. After a while, my 10-year-old daughter, in the kayak with me, simply refused to paddle.

I felt a little guilty because I knew that we’d picked the wrong day to go out on the water. I promised the kids we’d return one day to see this place in its full glory, with mountains, wild creatures and flat-calm waters. And we’ll take one of those “wish you were here” photos. Really, kids. I mean it.

Our Puget Sound adventure ended on a happy note when we headed down to The Center for Wooden Boats at Cama Beach State Park on nearby Camano Island. That’s where you can rent a boat and crab traps and try your hand at catching a Dungeness. We found flat-as-glass seas, windless conditions, and comfortable temperatures. Thanks to a little help from our friend Chuck Gittings, who manages the center, we trapped a record crab, more than nine inches long. He also helped us prepare the crustacean and steam it. Delicious.

Even if you don’t go for the crab, you should find a way to get out on the water on a day like that. You can hike the Olympics, enjoy the area’s restaurants and attractions — but really, Puget Sound is all about the sound.

If you go …

Where to stay

Vacation rentals are popular in the Puget Sound area, including many private rentals and abundant inventory on HomeAway. The Fort Casey Inn on Whidbey Island also offers cottages for rent, with full kitchens.

Where to eat

In Olympia, our favorites included Sofie’s Scoops Gelato on Capitol Way and Three Magnets Brewing Company. Farther north, we hit the farmer’s markets and prepared our own food. Whidbey and Camano Islands offer several open-air markets during the summer months, with fresh produce, meats and, of course, seafood.

What to do

The Olympia area has many interesting parks. One of our favorites was the Tumwater Park and Old Brewhouse, a historic building that will answer the question: What’s a fish ladder? In the islands, scale one of the monster trees near Deception Pass State Park with AdventureTerra.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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