Olympic National Park Essentials

Get lost in the lush foliage, crystal-clear lakes, raging rivers and glaciated mountains of the Pacific Northwest’s most prized park.

With more than 2.5 million visitors every year, Washington’s Olympic National Park is one of the 10 most-visited national parks in the country. For good reason. Encompassing nearly 1 million acres, it’s as diverse as any park in the system, harboring everything from vast tracts of wilderness and eons of human history to a range of ecosystems, including glacier-capped peaks, old-growth temperate rainforests and 70 miles of wild coastline. Unique geology defines the park, from sandy, sea stack-bordered beaches and coastal cliffs to lush forests and alpine habitats, including crevasse-riddled glaciers and 7,979-foot-high Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in the Olympic range. All this habitat also makes the park home to five species of endemic mammals, including the furry Olympic marmot. 

 

History

The region is home to eight contemporary tribes of the Olympic Peninsula—the Makah, Quileute, Hoh, Quinault, Skokomish, Port Gamble S'Klallam, Jamestown S'Klallam, and Lower Elwha Klallam—with more than 650 archeological sites documenting 12,000 years of human occupation. But it wasn’t until 1890 that naturalist John Muir, Congressman James Wickersham and Lieutenant Joseph O’Neil, who led an exploration of the peninsula's interior, proposed turning the area into a national park. President Grover Cleveland responded in 1897 by naming it a national forest reserve. In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt designated part of it as Mount Olympus National Monument to protect its Roosevelt elk population. And then in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt visited and, the next year, designated it Olympic National Park. It gained an additional section of Pacific coastline in 1953, expanding to its current 922,700 acres. The designations weren’t finished, though. In 1976, UNESCO named the park an International Biosphere Reserve, and in 1981 declared it a World Heritage Site—some of the highest accolades in the entire national park system

 

Visiting the National Park

With no roads that cross the park, you need to plan your trip carefully (hint: the Visitor Center in Port Angeles has exhibits, an orientation film and staff to help). In one long day (packed with overlooks and side-hikes), you can visit each of Olympic’s major ecosystems: the mountains, the rainforest and the coast. Grocery stores, restaurants and other amenities are available in Port Angeles, Forks and other towns along Highway 101. But pack a lunch; you’ll want to stay outside to enjoy every minute of this ecologically diverse and sprawling park. Here are the main geographic highlights to hit, as well as a pair of sampler itineraries to experience all three via road and trail. More Info: nps.gov  

  • Temperate Rainforests
    To the west of the Olympic Mountains is a land of towering, temperate rainforests, whose canopy umbrellas upwards of 156 inches of rain annually. The result: a lush green forest of coniferous and deciduous trees as well as vibrant mosses and ferns. Rainforests to put on your list include: the Hoh, whose Hall of Mosses and Spruce nature trails loop from its Visitor Center (which is also the trailhead for Hoh Valley and Mount Olympus); uncrowded Queets and the secluded upper Queets Valley; and the Quinault Valley, a gateway to sparkling lakes, high meadows and jagged peaks. 
  • Pacific Coast
    Hit the park’s 70 miles of coastline along the convoluted Pacific Ocean and your neck will get sore from gawking at the grandiose scenery, from towering sea stacks and other unique rock formations to crashing waves, sculpture-like driftwood and sandy beaches. Sandwich this tour with side-trip stops at worthy lakes (Ozette is must-see) and visits to old-growth forests and you’ll realize the park’s coastal areas could well be a park of their own.  
  • Sea Stacks and Beaches
    Along the park’s 70-mile coast you’ll find a higher concentration of sea stacks than anywhere else in the country. These towers of rock define the views from beaches such as Ruby, Ozette, Shi Shi, Rialto, La Push, plus First, Second and Third. Pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic as you marvel at these volcanic wonders. 

Scenic drive sampler: The day-long drive from Hurricane Ridge to Rialto Beach starts with a 45-minute jaunt from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge, going from old-growth forest in the lowlands to open meadowed treeline with views of the majestic Olympic Mountains and Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Check out the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center for nearby nature trails and picnic areas.) From here, a three-hour drive west brings you to the Hoh Rainforest, which also offers a Visitor Center, picnic area and short nature trails. A 1.5-hour drive northwest will then bring you to the Pacific’s Rialto Beach for a wave-crashing walk at sunset. (Note: You can also access Rialto via a 20-minute drive from Forks.) For a shorter outing, drive 30 minutes from Port Angeles to the stunning shores of Lake Crescent. 

Coastal Hiking Gem: Offering sunsets over the sea stack-strewn Pacific, you can find one of the best views on the wild Olympic Coast by hiking the Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches trails. The 8-mile round trip is doable in a day, but also makes a great backpack outing. Starting near the fish hatchery, the first couple miles meander through groves of Sitka spruce, crossing creeks and bogs, until you reach the bluff and descend down to Shi Shi Beach, riddled with sea stacks, crashing waves and surf- and sun-bleached logs. From here, continue barefoot for a mile and a half south along the beach to Petroleum Creek (where the campsites are located) and onto mile-long Point of Arches, a stretch of beach harboring more monolithic sea stacks and tide pools. Note that you need two permits for this hike: the Makah Recreation Pass, available at Neah Bay; and a park wilderness permit, available at the Visitor Center in Port Angeles. Use a tide table to plan the beach portion of your hike, be aware of surf conditions and camp above the high-tide mark. To get there, drive U.S. Highway 101 west for 5 miles from Port Angeles, then turn west onto OR-112 for 64 miles to Neah Bay, and a final 4 miles on Hobuck Road to the fish hatchery.  

Deeper Dives

Once you’ve gotten a start and sense of all the experiences, opportunities and activities available, target a few of Olympic National Park’s most breathtaking corners to see some of the best that the park has to offer and extend your stay with memorable camping and lodging options to get the most of your trip.

  • Lake Crescent 
    This sparkling, 12-mile-long, glacially carved lake is located 18 miles west of Port Angeles in the park’s northern foothills. If you can withstand the cold, bring a snorkel: Its surprising depth of 624 feet limits the nitrogen available, impeding algae growth and making it gin-clear. (History note: A giant landslide 7,000 years ago isolated it from Lake Sutherland, creating two unique fish populations, the Crescenti and Beardslee trout.) 

At the lake, you’ll find a general map and info about facilities, picnicking areas, campgrounds, and a vast network of trails. For a lakeside lunch, hit the Fairholme, Bovee's Meadow, La Poel and North Shore picnic areas, all of which have tables. Two favorite trails include the Barnes Creek trail to Marymere Falls and Spruce Railroad along the lake’s north shore. To take in the area’s grandeur from the water, boat launches for paddlecraft are located at the east and west ends of the lake (canoes and touring kayaks work well here), with rowboats available for rental from Lake Crescent Lodge.  

Overnight options: On the lake’s west end, the Fairholme campground has 87 campsites. For a real roof overhead, try the Lake Crescent Lodge at Barnes Point just off Highway 101 or Log Cabin Resort on East Beach Road (north of U.S. 101), both operated by the park. 

 

  • Sol Duc Valley 
    Located in the park’s northwest region 40 minutes west of Port Angeles, the Sol Duc Valley is riddled with old-growth forest, subalpine lakes and snowy peaks, all bisected by the Sol Duc River, where coho salmon swim upstream to spawn. Popular hikes include a short, 1-mile stroll from the parking lot through old-growth forest to the Sol Duc Falls overlook. For a longer outing, tack on the 6-mile Lover's Lane loop or the 5.2-mile round-trip hike to Mink Lake. Want to go bigger? The High Divide passes through Seven Lakes Basin and is often done as a two- or three-day backpack trip for its views of Mount Olympus. Local tip: If you’re visiting in late October/early November, head to the Salmon Cascades overlook 5 miles down the Sol Duc Road to see salmon leap up and over the falls. 

Overnight options: Open late March through the last weekend in October, the concession-operated Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort offers an array of cabins—including standard, kitchen, duplex and riverside suite—as well as an RV campground with 82 sites in old-growth forest right along the river (reserve at recreation.gov). Other high-comfort amenities include hot mineral pool bathing, massage and dining. 

 

  • Hurricane Ridge 
    The most easily accessed mountain area within the park, Hurricane Ridge is located 17 miles south of Port Angeles on Hurricane Ridge Road, open throughout summer (swing by the Visitor Center for brochures, maps, snacks and tips). In the winter, the road is open Friday through Sunday and holiday Mondays, conditions permitting, and all vehicles must carry tire chains. The region has an array of hiking trails, including ridgetop traverses and steep descents to subalpine lakes. Obstruction Point Road provides access to additional trails. In winter, visitors can use them to snowshoe, cross-country ski and sled, with the local Winter Sports Club even operating two rope-tows and a Poma surface lift. No matter when you visit, score a clear day and you’re rewarded with the best mountain view in the park. 

Overnight options: Open year-round, Heart O’ the Hills Campground is located 12 miles north of Hurricane Ridge (and 5 miles south of Port Angeles), with 105 campsites strewn about old-growth forest. 

 

  • Staircase 
    The park’s Staircase section benefits from being in the dry rain shadow of the peninsula, on the eastern side of the Olympics, two hours south of Port Angeles. It’s known for towering forests of Douglas fir and hiking trails traversing the Skokomish River, including Shady Lane, a flat mile-long trail leading to Lake Cushman, and the longer Flapjack Lakes trail, which gains more than 3,000 feet in elevation.

Overnight options: Staircase offers a campground with 47 sites.

 

  • The Elwha Valley 
    Located in the central northern area of the park (11 miles west of Port Angeles), the Elwha Valley is the Olympic Peninsula's largest watershed—before two hydropower dams were built in the early 1900s, it was also known for its salmon runs. Today, it’s the site of one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects in National Park Service history. In 1992, Congress authorized the removal of the two dams to restore its ecosystem and fishery: first the Elwha Dam in 2011 and then the Glines Canyon Dam in 2014, letting the Elwha once again flow free from its headwaters in the Olympics to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Popular day-hikes in the area include the Boulder Creek Trail and Humes Ranch Loop. 

Overnight options: The Elwha Valley has no campground facilities. Nearby lodging can be found within the park at Lake Crescent or in Port Angeles—for camping try the Elwha Dam RV Park or Boulder Creek Campground.  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.