Olympic National Park is one of those rare jewels in America’s National Park System. It is sometimes referred to as “three parks in one.” The park offers a variety of bioclimatic zones within its boundaries—high mountains with glaciers and flower-laden, sub-alpine meadows, deep river valleys draped in temperate rainforest, and wild, rugged Pacific coast. Olympic’s west side receives roughly 135 inches of precipitation each year, while the park’s drier side receives as little as 16 inches annually. At nearly one million acres, the park is unique in that no road crosses its expanse, and thus, 95 percent of the park is designated wilderness. Visitors come from the world over to experience Olympic’s backcountry via its 611 miles of hiking trails. Yet, visitors to Olympic also find several options for a frontcountry experience. Visitor centers, grand lodges, rustic campgrounds, convenient picnic areas and easy trails to scenic destinations are found around the park’s perimeter.
Surrounded by saltwater on three sides, Olympic National Park is somewhat of an ecological island. Certain species found here are found nowhere else on earth, like the Olympic marmot and Piper’s bellflower. As such, Olympic National Park is designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. Record-size trees are found in several of the park’s west-side valleys, where conditions are just right for temperate rainforests. Also home to the park’s west side are the largest unmanaged herds of Roosevelt elk in the world. The elk played a large role in the protection of the park. Before Olympic was designated a national park in 1938, President Grover Cleveland created the Olympic Forest Reserve in 1897. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Mount Olympus National Monument, in part, to protect the declining elk herds that today bear his name.
Human history in what is now Olympic National Park pre-dates the park’s creation by approximately 12,000 years. Evidence has been found around the Olympic Peninsula to suggest that the earliest inhabitants were hunters, followed by hunters and gatherers. As the human population of the peninsula grew, there was increased dependence on the abundant forests, rivers and ocean. Then, with the arrival of European explorers in the late 18th century, disease, competition for resources, and the disruption of customs forever changed the native way of life. Today, eight tribes have traditional associations with land inside Olympic National Park. The National Park Service works closely with these tribes to continue the protection of not only the precious natural resources, but also the cultural ties to park land and its resources.
NPCA’s Top Ten Olympic Experiences
- Stroll through an old growth, temperate rainforest in the Quinault or Hoh Valleys.
- Take a ranger-led snowshoe walk on Hurricane Ridge in the winter.
- Explore the Elwha Valley and learn about the historic restoration project that includes two dam removals to restore the Elwha watershed for salmon habitat.
- Plan a visit to Shi Shi Beach, one of Olympic’s most remote and scenic beaches. You might just see a passing whale!
- Spend a night in the charming Lake Crescent Lodge and wake up to the sound of the lapping waves of Lake Crescent, a deep, clear lake on the park’s northern boundary.
- If you enjoy waterfalls, don’t miss Sol Duc, Marymere and Madison Falls—for starters. There are many more waterfalls and cascades to be discovered in Olympic.
- For a good taste of pioneer history, hike the 5.5-mile Humes Ranch Loop Trail in the Elwha Valley. Don’t miss Goblins Gate along the way.
- Listen for the primal sounds of elk bugling in early autumn throughout Olympic’s west-side river valleys, like the Hoh, Bogachiel, Queets or Quinault.
- For backpacking, consider a trip to the Seven Lakes Basin/High Divide area or the Enchanted Valley. Chances of seeing a black bear in either destination are pretty high!
- Discover the rich cultural heritage of the Olympic Peninsula. Visit the Makah Museum in Neah Bay. Hike to the Wedding Rocks petroglyphs near Sand Point. Learn about the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe at their scenic rest area along U.S. Highway 101 in Blyn.
Air pollution is among the most serious threats to national parks. The National Park Service has established the NPS air quality webcam network to show “live” digital images of more than a dozen parks. Click here to see current air conditions at Olympic National Park.