We packed a lot into a week, and a lot sticks out. Two of the best moments were gazing into the top of Mount St. Helens as steam vented from the lava bridge, and walking the wonderful beach at Kalaloch in Olympic National Park as the mists swirled over the sea stacks off shore.
We emerged through the mist and fog to a spectacular view of the Olympic Range at Hurricane Ridge. That gave our carful a surreal, heavenly experience: at sea level, it was a misty, gray day with no hope of sunshine. As we drove up the mountain, heading through one of the tunnels, the sunlight crept in as we neared the tunnel's end. All of us gasped at the halo-like effect as we emerged into the open.
We're not a campin' family, so we try to head for a motel with separate kid/parent rooms, or a lodge with a view. We spent the extra money to stay on the bluff at Kalaloch Lodge in Olympic National Park for two nights and were glad we did.
Olympic National Park amazed us with the variety of landscapes and climates. Rainforest, endless beaches, alpine lakes, virgin forest, 8000-foot mountains only miles from the ocean--it truly is about three or four parks in one.
Mount Saint Helens blew us away. Even a quarter-century after the mountain exploded, the damage and reshaping of the landscape is unbelievably evident. Those who've been here before can see some signs of regeneration emerging, which means it must truly have been a moonscape for years afterward. There's a chain of visitor centers on the drive toward the mountain which are worth your time, culminating with a fantastic movie at the Johnston Ridge Observatory (the closest to the mountain itself).
Don't miss the Grove of the Patriarchs in Mount Rainier National Park near the Stevens Canyon entrance. An easy 1.5 mile round trip, this walk takes you to a stand of thousand-year-old trees on an island in the middle of the Ohanapecosh River.
Copper Creek Inn, two miles west of Mount Rainier's Nisqually Entrance, is a great place for a meal, featuring a wonderful old building, friendly staff, a great menu, generous portions, and a neat gift shop. We ate there once because we had to—too late to cook, no one else still serving—and then another time because we enjoyed it so much.
The Olympic Peninsula is too big to fully explore in a short time. If you only have a couple days, pick out one area, stay put, and enjoy it. Otherwise, you'll spend more time driving than enjoying—and due to the logging outside the park, big chunks of the driving can be less than scenic.
The northern edge of the peninsula has plenty to do: neat towns (Port Townsend, Port Angeles), alpine lakes (Lake Crescent), mountain ridge drives (Hurricane Ridge), native peoples (the Makah at Neah Bay). But consider the western side: the ocean strip of Olympic National Park is wonderful, with misty, isolated beaches, and beautiful seashore landscapes. Plus, you have access to the rainforests at Hoh and Queets.
If you end up on the northern edge of the Peninsula, take the mountain drive up to Hurricane Ridge. And don't let bad weather at sea level stop you: check in at the National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles. They have a closed circuit TV that will show you the view at 5000 feet, which can be quite different than the fog you're moving through down below.