NPCA Expert Travel Insights
An Insider's Guide to Olympic & Beyond
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Can’t decide between glacier-capped mountains, lush rainforests and wild seashores? Olympic National Park has them all, and more.
The 922,700 acres of jaw-dropping beauty comprising Olympic National Park span much of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula on lands traditionally used and revered by the Hoh, Lower Elwha Klallam, Makah, Quileute, Quinault, Skokomish, Jamestown S’Klallam and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.
Today, more than 3 million visitors come each year to this land of astonishing diversity to explore alpine trails and lakes, walk through ancient temperate rainforests, and marvel at wild coastlines dotted by even wilder sea stacks. From the 7,980-foot Mount Olympus, the region’s highest and most prominent peak, to its hundreds of miles of hiking trails and countless rivers and tributaries that eventually reach the Pacific Ocean or Salish Sea, Olympic has something sure to please every park lover.
Where to Begin
Inland mountains and rainforests lined by rivers characterize most of Olympic National Park’s sprawling contiguous area; a separate, narrow section of the park protects its more than 70 miles of rugged coastline. Route 101 is the main road that rings the Olympic Peninsula, partially encircling the majority of the park and providing access to its many points of interest.
Visitors beginning their journey in the Seattle metro area often choose to create a vast loop, either entering Olympic from the south (via the gateway community of Aberdeen, a 2-hour drive from Sea-Tac Airport) and traveling clockwise, or entering Olympic from the north (via the gateway community of Port Angeles, 2.5 – 3 hours from Sea-Tac) and traveling counterclockwise.
The main visitor and information center is located on the entrance road at the park’s northern boundary in Port Angeles. That same road, 18 miles later, climbs some 5,000 feet to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, which features a gift shop, café and terrace with spectacular views of glaciated peaks. A modest visitor center with picnic grounds can be found in the Hoh Rainforest. There are also several ranger stations throughout the park in popular locations such as Lake Crescent, Sol Duc and the Quinault Rainforest. Visit the National Park Service website for updates on necessary fees, passes and potential closings.
NPCA AT WORK: OLYMPIC
Olympic National Park is an incomparable place, and NPCA has been fighting to protect it for decades — from saving stands of old-growth forest from lumber production during the Second World War to advocating for the largest dam removal in U.S. history, freeing the Elwha River. Today, NPCA and its supporters are working to safeguard Olympic’s natural sounds and silence through a campaign to keep booming Navy training flights from the airspace above the park.
Olympic is like three parks in one — wild coastlines, lush forests and alpine peaks, all connected by the rivers that run between them — and no trip to the park would feel complete without at least one stop in each of these ecosystems.
- Rialto Beach & Ruby Beach: A driftwood lover’s paradise — with incredible sea stacks and jagged headland formations of the Pacific Coast. Both beaches are accessible by short walks from nearby parking.
- Third Beach: A scenic 1.3-mile hike through a coastal forest leads to this beautiful stretch between headlands and the distant stacks of Giant’s Graveyard.
- Quinault Rainforest: Olympic’s lush temperate rainforests are nothing short of majestic. This one features a variety of riverside hiking trails and enormous western red cedars.
- Hoh Rainforest: Renowned for its quiet, otherworldly beauty, this forest is home to the famous Hall of Mosses Trail and the 18-mile, out-and-back Hoh River Trail, resplendent with Sitka spruce and Douglas fir.
- Hurricane Ridge: Stunning views and a variety of high-elevation scenic trails make this one of Olympic’s most popular hiking destinations.
- Lake Crescent: Situated in a glacial basin surrounded by mountain peaks and dense forests, the deep, clear waters of this lake are perfect for paddling.
- Sol Duc River Salmon Cascades: A wheelchair-accessible viewing station offers glimpses of the coho salmon that leap over these falls beginning in late summer each year.
- Sol Duc Falls: These ancient cascading falls are like something out of a storybook and accessible by an easy hiking trail of less than one mile.
- Seven Lakes Basin: More ambitious hikers and backpackers can continue their trek upslope through old-growth forest all the way to the subalpine serenity of seven crystal lakes.
Tips for Visiting
Olympic is big, and the driving time between destinations can be long, so a little planning goes a long way toward a rewarding visit. The park’s three primary ecosystems — alpine, rainforest and coastal — provide unique experiences, and it’s worth spending time in each, if you’re able.
Park lodging fills up quickly, especially in the peak summer season, so make a reservation well in advance to secure a room. The same goes for camping. Kalaloch, Sol Duc and Mora are the only campgrounds that accept reservations in the summer. All other campgrounds are first-come, first-served.
There are three lodges serving Olympic National Park, each with a cozy, rustic feel. Kalaloch Lodge, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is the only one open year-round. Quinault Lodge, situated on its namesake lake where Olympic National Park borders Olympic National Forest, is seasonal. So, too, is the historic Lake Crescent Lodge, nestled at the foot of Mount Storm King on a picturesque glacial lake — excellent for paddling or boating — where visitors also can enjoy fine dining. Across Lake Crescent, a log cabin resort offers an alternative to the lodge; a similar log cabin resort in the Sol Duc area of the park boasts mineral hot springs.
Most campgrounds are first-come, first-served, while others — including group campsites — require reservations. Backcountry and wilderness camping require permits that can be reserved online. Note that park-approved bear canisters are required in many locations and that coastal camping requires understanding the tides that can cut off certain sites from mainland access. Visiting the park’s website for up-to-date information on camping conditions and reservations is recommended.
A good rule of thumb for Olympic is to expect the unexpected. The conditions vary widely throughout the park and at different elevations and can change with little notice. Wear or pack layers and always be prepared for the precipitation that keeps Olympic so lush and green: The Hoh Rainforest receives about 12 feet of rain per year, and the mountains receive 30 feet of snow or more. Outside of the peak summer months, the weather and travel conditions can fluctuate greatly — always check both before heading out.
Always follow Leave No Trace practices when you visit the parks by packing out everything you pack in and leaving everything you find. Pets are only allowed on specific trails and must be on leashes of 6 feet or less at all times. Don’t feed wildlife and always view animals from a safe distance.
Beyond the Boundary
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- The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial: Commemorating the internment of Japanese Americans, this small, lesser-known park site lies on the south shore of Eagle Harbor, opposite the town of Winslow. A memorial wall winds solemnly down to the historic Eagledale ferry dock landing site, where the first of more than 120,000 Japanese — two-thirds of whom were American citizens — were banished from their West Coast homes and placed in incarceration camps during World War II.
- Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve: This park preserves a 19th-century settlement along a pastoral stretch of coastline on nearby Whidbey Island.
- Port Townsend: Tucked into the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, this charming coastal town has an artsy, eclectic vibe and includes a National Historic Landmark District encompassing a significant portion of the waterfront and downtown area. Port Townsend is located about an hour from Olympic National Park’s visitor center in Port Angeles.
- Port Gamble: This historic company town has been lovingly preserved and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a great waypoint for visitors traveling between Seattle and the northern part of Olympic National Park.
- Forks, Washington: This small town is situated conveniently between Olympic’s coastal destinations to the west and forests and mountains to the east. It’s also the setting for a popular fictional series of books and movies — the Twilight saga — a connection the town has embraced wholeheartedly.
- Aberdeen, Washington: Located about an hour south of Lake Quinault, this town is known as “The Gateway to the Olympics,” a moniker that appears on its Wishkah River bridge. Aberdeen is also the birthplace of Kurt Cobain, and another welcome sign on the city’s eastern boundary bears the words, “Come as You Are,” a line from the hit Nirvana song of the same name.