Possibly the first European to sight the Olympic Peninsula was Juan de Fuca, a Greek pilot sailing for Spain. In 1592 he claimed discovery of the strait that now bears his name. The late 18th century saw the first well-documented voyages. In search of the Northwest Passage, the waters of the Olympic Peninsula were visited by people from various countries including Mexico, Spain, France, Russia, England, and the United States. Spanish explorer Juan Perez Hernandez sailed the coast in1774. Four years later, English navigator Captain James Cook unsuccessfully searched for Juan de Fuca's elusive strait. His countryman Captain William Barkley sailed into the strait in 1787, and named it after its discoverer. The next year another English explorer, Captain John Meares, named Mount Olympus––it seemed to him a veritable home of the gods. In 1792 the region's waters were thoroughly explored by Captain George Vancouver, who named many features including Puget Sound and Mount Rainier.
Events elsewhere in North America began affecting the Olympic Peninsula in the late 1800s. Gold rushes and depressions led to movement of many young men across North America. After the California gold rush, people came to prospect the peninsula as part of the British Columbia and Klondike gold rushes. Development was limited as there were no roads at that time. Where the waters were more tranquil, canoes and small boats provided a ready means of transportation. People and commerce traveled on pack animals and across crude bridges.
Though Native Americans had been long acquainted with the interior of the peninsula, Euro-American exploration of the mysterious and seemingly unknown occurred later. Several expeditions took place during the 19th century, however, it was not until the summer of 1885 that the first well documented exploration of the interior took place. Lieutenant Joseph P. O'Neil led a party of enlisted men and civilian engineers from Port Angles into the Olympic Mountains. O'Neil chose Port Angeles--at the time a town of about forty inhabitants, a hotel, a sawmill, and two stores--as his starting point because of its nearness to the mountains.
On July 17, the party headed south into the foothills following a route similar to the present-day Hurricane Ridge Road, making slow progress cutting a trail through dense forest and windfalls. It took them about a month to climb to Hurricane Ridge. From there part of the group began to explore the Elwha Valley while O'Neil and the others headed southeast. O'Neil explored almost as far south as Mount Anderson before a messenger reached him with orders to report to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the expedition was cut short.