An ATV-only playground By Lane Lindstrom

The spectacular scenery from the top of 2,659-foot Capitol Peak makes it a must-see during any adventure in Washington state’s Capitol State Forest. You can see for hundreds of miles in most any direction.

If you’re like us, you’d rather be riding than spending time driving to your favorite riding area or trailhead. So, it’s a big bonus when we’re lucky enough find a riding area close by. We all are aware those close-by riding opportunities are becoming more and more scarce as towns and cities get bigger and encroach on our off-road riding experiences. We were able to experience one exception—the Capitol State Forest, which sits just outside and to the west of Olympia (population 189,000). It’s a mere 14 miles from the Washington State Capitol building to the edge of the forest.

One of the best views from Capitol Peak is of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier. What makes it so amazing is that Mount Rainier is about 100 miles from Capitol Peak.

This oasis of OHV riding in Washington state’s Black Hills is “just” 110,000 acres (the city of Los Angeles, in comparison, is 322,000 acres). You’d never know you were so close to some of Washington’s biggest population centers as you ride along most of the Capitol State Forest’s 89 miles of motorized trails.

We spent a day riding in the area but didn’t come close to exploring all the motorized trails. We did experience bridge crossings, very narrow-to-wide trails, and a thick canopy of trees. That was along with a handful of open stretches that provide incredible views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Along with an impressive trail map that is posted in many places all over the forest, there are numerous signs to help keep you oriented on your ride.

It should be noted that the Capitol Forest motorized trails are open to ATVs and singletrack vehicles only. There are other trails open to hiking, horseback riding and pedal bikes, but no side-by-sides are allowed. UTVs wouldn’t fit on most the trails in this forest. On our trip to the Capitol Forest we tackled the trails on a Yamaha Kodiak 450, which is a mere 46.5 inches wide. There were times when we were touching trees and obstacles on both sides of the ATV while trail riding.

Additionally, the forest is open to ATV riding from May 1 to November 30. During our mid-summer ride in July—the driest part of the year in this area—we did see other riders but not as many as we were expecting. It was just a fun adventure exploring a new area and not having to share it with a bevy of other riders.

When we say some of the trails are tight, we mean tight. There are spots where you and your ATV can barely squeeze between the trees. It can be challenging, especially when you’re carrying any kind of speed down the trail.


We can basically sum up our Capitol State Forest adventure in two likes and a must.

Like #1: Variety. We tend to like more aggressive and technical trails, and we got to experience some of the toughest ones in this forest. But, we know not everyone likes tough trails. The Capitol has a great mix of wide, smooth trails, along with tight, rock-strewn, twisty trails. Not surprisingly, with the number of trees in this forest, there are roots crossing tighter trails, as well as some fun rock-patch stretches when you’re looking for more challenging sections. Or, you can avoid those sections altogether and travel along at a leisurely pace without having to rub elbows or knees with the trees.

When we say “tight,” we are actually thinking about two kinds of tight. The first is a tight tree canopy where sunlight struggles to poke through to the forest floor. It adds to the adventure in some places where the shadows are deep and dark. The tight and plentiful foliage along the trails can hide a lot of nasty roots and rocks so rider beware.

Some of the Capitol State Forest’s most unobstructed views are from Capitol Peak. You can see the surrounding mountains and valleys, lakes and creeks.

The second tight, as mentioned earlier, are narrow trails. Some trails are barely 48 inches wide, and that means you best be paying attention as you rip along, or you’ll be rubbing paint with trees and other trailside obstacles.

Even if you’re not overly fond of tight trails, we think you should give at least one of these trails a try. It really adds to the adventure, and some of the trails cling to the hillside with a steep bank on one side and steep drop-off on the other. And when there are gaps in the trees big enough to see the surrounding area, the views are spectacular.

Not all the trails are tight as this one, but most trails through this dense Pacific Northwest forest are under a canopy of trees.

Like #2: Exclusive. We’re big fans of UTVs, but we’re also big fans of quads. We like the idea of an ATV-only riding area. This is especially true with the Capitol State Forest, which is an ideal playground for four-wheelers. The trail system is well-developed, clearly marked and incredibly scenic.

The trails are easily accessible from three main trailheads: Rock Candy, Porter Creek and Middle Waddell. We staged out of the Middle Waddell campground/trailhead, which sits on the east side of the forest. Porter Creek is on the west side of the forest and Rock Candy on the north. There is plenty of parking for trucks with trailers at these trailheads. There are also a few campsites available in the forest in case you want to turn your adventure into a multiple-day affair. And, of course, you can ride right from camp. There are trail maps strategically posted around the forest, showing which trails are open to ATVs.

This secondary trail leads off the east side of Capitol Peak and was strewn with rocks, especially about halfway down the hill. It was so much fun, we rode up and down it two or three times.

The must: A definite must is a ride to the top of Capitol Peak (elevation 2,659 feet), the second tallest (missing being the tallest by a measly foot) mountain in the Capitol Forest. The views are amazing and come as close to being completely unobstructed as any in this riding area, even with the copious number of trees. There are some radio towers on top of the peak, but not enough to block any views. Considering our starting elevation at Middle Waddell was about 350 feet, the climb up to Capitol Peak is an impressive 2000-plus-foot gain in elevation.

Even though it was slightly cloudy the day we rode, one of the most impressive views from Capitol Peak is 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, nearly 100 miles to the east of Capitol State Forest.

When the trees do open enough to afford a view of the surrounding Capitol State Forest, the scenery is jaw-dropping and scenic. Most of the time views are hidden by trees.

Other smaller mountain ranges and peaks, beautiful valleys, lakes, and the southern end of Puget Sound are also visible from the peak.

The climb up to the top of the peak is easy, although for those looking for a bit more adventure, there is a secondary trail leading up to the peak on the east side. It’s narrower and rockier than the main trail. We rode both during our Capitol adventure, taking the easier main road up the first time and the other trail the second time. The main trail is the faster route and approaches from the west.

And despite being the driest part of the riding season, there were still plenty of flowers in bloom on top of the peak. The annual rainfall is 66.7 inches, so rain is usually never too far away, but that provides additional scenic beauty to the riding area and helps keep the dust down.

This is one of our favorite trails in the Capitol State Forest. It can be found on the east side of Capitol Peak. It’s not long, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in difficulty, which ramps up the fun factor.

Our one day of riding could have easily been two or three days. There is enough to explore and keep ATVers busy, especially if you want to do a little hiking to see the forest’s waterfalls and other natural features.

Yes, the Capitol State Forest is compact, but everyone knows that many times good things come in small packages. And even if this forest isn’t right next door to you, we think it’s worth the trip.


ELEVATION: 300–2,659 feet

TRAILS: 89 miles

FULL-SERVICE TOWN: Olympia, Tumwater, McCleary, Elma

NEAREST AIRPORT: Seattle-Tacoma International (65 miles)

GETTING STARTED: Capitol State Forest, (360) 825-1631 or

GETTING THERE: Our base camp in the Black Hills was Middle Waddell trailhead, which is located just off Waddell Creek Road SW on the east side of the forest. There are other trailheads on the edges of the forest.

GETTING AROUND: BYOQ, or bring your own quad/ATV.

BEDDING DOWN: There are numerous options for lodging near the Capitol State Forest in the towns and cities listed above. There are also several camping options. Log on to the website listed above to find out about the camping opportunities.

EATING OUT: Again, the dining options are nearly limitless and can be found in the same towns listed above.

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