Olympic National Park: The Complete Guide

A man in a red jacket stands on beach with two rock outcroppings in the water.

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Known for its diversity of landscapes—which include glaciated peaks, old-growth forests, and miles of open coastline—Olympic National Park is a true gem of the Pacific Northwest. Located on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, the park spreads out across nearly one million acres of pristine wilderness, making it a top destination for hikers, backpackers, and adventurous travelers.

Native Americans have inhabited the region for thousands of years, including the Makah, Quileute, Hoh, Quinault, and Skokomish tribes. In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt declared Olympic a national monument to protect what are now known as Roosevelt elk; 19 years later, Olympic gained full national park status under Franklin Roosevelt. Later it was recognized as both an international biosphere reserve and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO thanks to its unique landscapes and history. Add in the region's rugged beauty and it is easy to understand why it draws over three million visitors on an annual basis.

Travelers who make the journey to Olympic National Park will find a stunning number of environments to explore. From snowy alpine peaks to dense rainforests and rugged Pacific coastlines, there is plenty to see and do within its borders.

A hiker walks along a wooden bridge in a lush green forest.

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Things to Do

Thanks to its location on the Olympic Peninsula, the national park is a popular outdoor destination all year long. In addition to being an outstanding location for hiking, backpacking, and camping, it offers excellent road riding for cyclists and wildlife viewing for animal lovers. Olympic is also a top location for both saltwater and freshwater anglers, with salmon, trout, and char being found in its rivers and lakes. And after sunset, the park is one of the best dark zones in the entire Pacific Northwest, delighting stargazers with its unfettered views of the heavens.

Unlike many other national parks, Olympic isn't meant to be explored by motor vehicle. While there are several roads that lead into the park, most are just meant to take visitors to the hiking trails that provide access to its wild interior. In other words, if you truly want to experience the things that make Olympic special, you'll need to pull on your hiking boots and go for a walk.

Best Hikes & Trails

Day hikers will find several trails that offer a glimpse of the dramatic landscapes that make up the surrounding wilderness:

  • Peabody Creek Trail: A 5.6-mile, out-and-back trail that makes for a pleasant walk through the forest. It has the added benefit of being easily accessible directly from the Olympic National Park Visitor Center.
  • Spruce Railroad Trail: For a stunningly scenic hike along Crescent Lake, head to the Spruce Railroad Trail, which can stretch for up to 10 miles in length depending on how much you want to tackle.
  • Mount Storm King: Those up for a true challenge should add Mount Storm King to their "must-do" list. With 2,076 feet in elevation gain in 5.3 miles, the strenuous trail rewards hikers with unforgettable views from a summit perch.
  • Rialto Beach: If a stroll along the coast is more your speed, try Rialto Beach, particularly around sunset. Take the 3.3-mile, out-and-back trek to Hole-in-the-Wall during low-tide to explore the beach's famed tide pools.

While those shorter hikes are rewarding in their own right, the true Olympic wilderness can only be reached on a longer excursion into the backcountry. Backpackers who are willing to commit to several days on the trail can gain access to the park's snowy peaks, legendary rainforest, and remote coastlines. With nearly 100 trails within the parks border, there are numerous options to choose from—many of which connect with one another to create an intricate network of routes. Through careful planning, it is possible to construct a journey of just a few days or several weeks. Some of the more popular treks include:

  • High Divide Loop: This trails is 19 miles in length and passes by numerous gorgeous lakes.
  • Duckabush River Trail: The 10.6-mile trail features more than 2,300 feet of elevation gain through a lush, old-growth forest.
  • Wynoochee Pass to Sundown Lake Trail: This trail provides 12 miles of solitude on the Olympic Peninsula.
  • South Coast Route: If a shoreline hike is what you crave, the 15.9-mile South Coast Route will take you to some remote and serene locations that few visitors ever see.

As you would expect when wandering into the Olympic backcountry, a wilderness permit is required. As of 2021, those permits must be obtained before arriving in the park and self-registration is no longer an option. Visit Recreation.gov to obtain a permit prior to arrival.

A man and woman stand at their campsite along a Pacific Coast beach.

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Where to Camp

Camping is an option, with designated group sites found at Kalaloch and Sol Duc. During the busier parts of the year, those areas tend to fill up quickly, so claim your campsite early. Be aware that park-operated campgrounds do not include showers or electricity, including those designated for RV camping.

As already noted, camping in the backcountry requires a permit. There are no designated campsites in the wilderness, so hikers are encouraged to take caution when selecting a place to stay for the night. Avoid camping too close to water and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Bears, mountain lions, raccoons, and other rodents frequent the area and may approach a campsite looking for food. Always keep your provisions in a bear canister and hang it from a tree each night.

Where to Stay Nearby

In addition to finding hotels and motels in the small communities that border the park, visitors can also book a stay at one of several lodges within Olympic itself. For instance, Kalaloch Lodge is open year round and has several types of accommodations, including rooms, cabins, and campsites. The lodge also features a restaurant and gift shop.

Other options include Lake Crescent Lodge, Log Cabin Resort, and Sol Due Hot Springs Resort, each of which offers seasonal bookings. All locations provide rustic yet comfortable stays in addition to restaurants and shops. Guests can also rent boats and kayaks, soak in the local hot springs, and take part in special events and ranger encounters. As you would expect, it is advised that you reserve a room well in advance of your visit.

A man rides a skateboard down a road with a snowy mountain in the background.

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How to Get There

If you're flying from anther part of the U.S. or Canada, the closest major airports are Seattle-Tacoma, Portland International, and Victoria International. Sea-Tac is the closest of the three, but the park is located less than three hours from both Portland and Victoria, making either option viable.

Once in the region, you can reach Olympic National Park by car, bus, or ferry. If you're approaching from the southeast, take I-5 out of the town of Olympia until you reach Highway 101, which runs directly into the park. Visitors traveling along the Washington/Oregon Coast can also connect up with 101 in Aberdeen.

Those driving in from Tacoma will need to take State Route 16 northwest to the town of Bremerton, then turn north on SR 3. Stay on that road until reaching SR 104, which also intersects with Highway 101.

If you'd rather leave the driving to someone else, the Dungeness Bus Line and Clallam Transit System both offer alternative options. Dungeness picks travelers up at Sea-Tac and delivers them to various locations in and around the park, while Clallam Transit does the same within Clallam County.

Visitors can also hop aboard one of the Washington State Ferries, which shuttle passengers across Puget Sound. Popular drop-offs with access to Olympic National Park include Port Townsend, Kingston, and Bainbridge Island. The Coho Ferry even brings Canadian visitors in from British Columbia.

A lush green rainforest in the Pacific Northwest.

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Accessibility

While the National Park Service works hard to make its facilities open and accessible to all visitors, 95 percent of Olympic National Park is considered wilderness, much of which is difficult to access even for able-bodied visitors. Keep that in mind when planning any excursions that venture into the backcountry.

That said, the park's visitor centers, ranger stations, shops, restrooms, restaurants, lodges, cabins, and parking lots are all wheelchair accessible. Ramps and boardwalks also provide access to some trails that are either paved or have crushed gravel surfaces. Routes like the Madison Falls Trail, the Hall of Mosses, Mini Rain Forest, Hurricane Hill Trail, and Cirque Rim Trail make excellent outings for all visitors.

A rocky coastline stretches into the distance with a thick forest lining the shore.

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Tips for Your Visit

Looking for a few more helpful tips for planning your trip to Olympic National Park? Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Best time to visit: From a weather perspective, the best time to visit the park is in July and August each year. Temperatures are warm and stable; rain is at a minimum; and most roads, trails, and facilities are open. The downside is that most people visit this time of year, often creating congestion on the roads and most accessible trails. Going before Memorial Day or after Labor Day each year helps alleviate that to a degree, but the weather is less predictable.
  • Winter in Olympic: The park is open all year round, although access can be limited during the winter months. Those who can reach its interior will find it mostly deserted. That said, Hurricane Ridge is usually kept open and is accessible to visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. This is the park's hotspot for alpine and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, sledding, and other activities.
  • A quick visit: If you only have one day, plan on visiting Hurricane Ridge, Hoh Rain Forest, and Rialto Beach. These destinations will give you a taste of Olympic's famous ecosystems and are all reachable in one busy day.
  • Olympic wildlife: While traveling through the park, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. The park features black and grizzly bears, elk, red foxes, coyotes, bighorn sheep, lynx, and dozens of other species.
  • Come prepared: Olympic National Park is a rugged, remote wilderness. If you're planning to visit, be sure to bring the proper gear to stay safe on the trail. That includes clothing that is appropriate for the season and weather, plus an extra layer. Carry plenty of food and water with you at all times and wear proper boots for the trails. Be sure to let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back. Check in with the ranger station if you have any questions about current conditions.
  • Don't rely on your cell phone: Cell phones are handy tools when traveling, but the service in Olympic National Park is spotty at best and mostly nonexistent in the backcountry. Keep that in mind when visiting the park, where you may not be able to connect with friends and family, check email or weather reports, or download maps.
Article Sources
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  1. National Park Service. "History & Culture." Retrieved on August 23, 2021.

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