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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.