Why Olympic National Park Should Be Your Next Destination

Beautiful cascade waterfall in Sol Duc falls

The Olympic Penin­su­la and encom­pass­ing Olympic Nation­al Park of Wash­ing­ton embody the true def­i­n­i­tion of adven­ture. Lush rain­forests, snow-capped moun­tain peaks, and a rugged coast ripped straight from those scenic cal­en­dars hang­ing in the break room—Olympic Nation­al Park deserves at least one encounter in a lifetime.

Thanks to the dense sur­round­ings and many things to do, Olympic Nation­al Park also deserves a lit­tle plan­ning ahead to make the most out of your trip. Whether you are look­ing for a day hike into one of the dis­tinct nat­ur­al land­scapes of Olympic, or a front coun­try camp­site to spend the night, or per­haps you are inter­est­ed in the crème de la crème of Olympic—backpacking through the Olympic Wilderness—a lit­tle plan­ning ahead can ensure you get to play free.

Get­ting There and Where to Go
The most com­mon way to access Olympic Nation­al Park is through Seat­tle. Tak­ing the fer­ry across Puget Sound onto the Olympic Penin­su­la is faster than dri­ving through Taco­ma, but both routes will lead you to the looped High­way 101. No roads cut through the cen­ter of Olympic Nation­al Park (only trails), and the 101 is the main high­way unit that cir­cles the entire park. Includ­ing the trip from Seat­tle, thanks to the many com­bined Pub­lic Tran­sit Options of the penin­su­la, it is pos­si­ble to ride the entire 101 while let­ting some­one else wor­ry about the dri­ving (and parking).

An often pop­u­lar first place to head on the Olympic Penin­su­la is the north­ern coast where some of the big­ger cities pro­vide a good home base for explor­ing. Port Townsend and Sequim are both promi­nent bus stops, and Port Ange­les is con­sid­ered by many the true gate­way to Olympic Nation­al Park—where you’ll find the Olympic Nation­al Park Vis­i­tor Cen­ter. From Port Angles, many key fea­tures of the park are acces­si­ble includ­ing Hur­ri­cane Ridge (see below), great back­pack­ing trail­heads (see fur­ther below) and with a 70-mile dri­ve (or bus ride) the wild Olympic coastline.

Day Hik­ing…
Three dis­tinct land­scapes can be dis­cov­ered at Olympic Nation­al Park—high alpine, dense for­est, and rugged coast. While back­pack­ing and long trails can cross envi­ron­ments, most day hikes in the park cater to main­ly one. What you want to see and expe­ri­ence should depict the day hike that’s right for you.

Panoramic View of Old Forest with TrailRain­for­est Sur­round­ings: To get a taste of the tem­per­ate rain­for­est unique to Olympic Nation­al Park, the west-fac­ing Quin­ault, Queets and Hoh Ranger Sta­tions lend access to lush day hik­ing trails. At the Hoh Ranger Sta­tion, the Hall of Moss­es is an easy near-mile loop through Old Growth sur­round­ings, and day hik­ers can trek as long as they like along the 17-mile Hoh Riv­er Trail.

Family Hiking in Olympic MountainsMoun­tain Views: A name syn­ony­mous with big moun­tain views, Hur­ri­cane Ridge can usu­al­ly guar­an­tee a breath tak­en away or two. Span­ning from the Hur­ri­cane Ridge Vis­i­tor Cen­ter (20-mile dri­ve from Port Ange­les), mul­ti­ple trails of vary­ing length extend into the sur­re­al sur­round­ings, includ­ing a few paved paths that deliv­er on panoram­ic views. For some­thing a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing, the Mt. Elli­nor Trail near the Stair­case Region of the park pro­vides ele­vat­ed views (and sore calf muscles).

Beach at Olympic National ParkCoastal Beau­ty: On the far west coast of the penin­su­la, the Wilder­ness Coast is ripe for adven­ture. Three main points of explo­ration include (from south to north) Kalaloch, Mora / La Push, and Lake Ozette—each pro­vid­ing access to beach­es and day hikes on the coast. Rial­to Beach is right out­side the door of the Mora Ranger Sta­tion, and Cape Ala­va is a well-kept secret day hike in the Ozette area. Sev­en dif­fer­ent trails along the Kalaloch and south­ern region of the Wilder­ness coast extend to the ocean, includ­ing the worth-vis­it­ing Ruby Beach.

Front Coun­try Campgrounds
Olympic Nation­al Park pro­vides an array of front-coun­try camp­grounds that are acces­si­ble by vehi­cle. Near­ly all camp­grounds issue sites on a first-come, first serve basis—meaning reser­va­tions aren’t nec­es­sary, but an ear­ly arrival in the warmer sea­sons near­ly is. The clos­est camp­site to Port Ange­les (and one of the most pop­u­lar), Heart O’ the Hills Camp­ground pro­vides flush­ing toi­lets and run­ning water, 105 dif­fer­ent sites (can accom­mo­date RV’s) and sur­round­ing old-growth forest.

Oth­er pop­u­lar camp­grounds include:

  • Hoh Camp­ground: 78 sites along the Hoh Riv­er, flush­ing toi­lets and near the Hoh Rain For­est Vis­i­tor Center
  • Mora Camp­ground: Locat­ed two miles from Rial­to Beach on the Wilder­ness Coast, 94 sites avail­able with flush­ing toi­lets and potable water nearby
  • Graves Creek Camp­ground: Qui­eter camp­ground sup­port­ing 30 sites in the Quin­ault Rain For­est, near a serene stream (no potable water)

Reserv­able Campgrounds:
Only two of Olympic Nation­al Park’s dozen+ camp­grounds take advanced reser­va­tions, and by many stan­dards, it’s the two most pop­u­lar places to pitch a tent. The park’s largest camp­ground (170 sites) is Kalaloch Camp­ground locat­ed on the south­ern half of the Olympic coast­line. The oth­er reserv­able camp­ground, Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort Camp­ground, is accessed from Port Ange­les with a 40-minute dri­ve. Both camp­grounds accom­mo­date RV’s and pro­vide run­ning water.

Hiking through Olympic National Park

Back­pack­ing
Nine­ty-five per­cent of Olympic Nation­al Park is des­ig­nat­ed wilder­ness. That means while there aren’t any roads to dri­ve on with­in the heart of Olympic Nation­al Park, it’s a true backpacker’s par­adise with many trails to explore. A great first place to start research­ing your future best back­pack­ing expe­ri­ence in Olympic is the Wilder­ness Trip Plan­ner in com­bi­na­tion with the Wilder­ness Camp­site Map. The Wilder­ness Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter in Port Ange­les is also a valu­able resource and a good place to talk with some­one about trip plan­ning (and to pick up your permits).

Wilder­ness Permits
Wilder­ness camp­ing per­mits are required for a major­i­ty of back­coun­try stays in Olympic through­out the year, and those per­mits can be in hot demand dur­ing the warmer months. For this rea­son, Olympic Nation­al Park allows for reser­va­tions between May 1st and Sep­tem­ber 30th—and it’s a rec­om­mend­ed approach. Hik­ers can sub­mit reser­va­tion requests begin­ning Feb­ru­ary 15th by using this Per­mit Request Form and email­ing it direct­ly to the park.

Icon­ic Back­pack­ing Trips 
Hoh Riv­er Trail: Overnight per­mits are required on this pop­u­lar back­pack­ing trip along the Hoh Riv­er. Back­pack­ers expe­ri­ence some of the best rain­for­est action with­in the nation­al park along this 17-mile (one-way) trip. Bear can­is­ters are also required, and it’s rec­om­mend­ed to take 3–5 days to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the surroundings.

Sev­en Lakes Basin: Big moun­tain views and ster­ling alpine lakes define this pop­u­lar back­pack­ing route (also known as the High Divide Loop). Per­mits are also required and can be hard to come by—but plan ahead or get a bit lucky and you can enjoy this 18-mile loop. (note that snow con­di­tions can exist into July).

Pacif­ic Coast Wilderness 
For many, the rea­son to vis­it Olympic is the Wilder­ness Coast—tidal pools, rock fea­tures, and a stun­ning land­scape define this area of the park, and at times, a good crowd of peo­ple. Per­mits are required to camp on the beach, and so are bear can­is­ters. Know­ing how to use Tide Tables and car­ry­ing them with you is a key part of the expe­ri­ence (and your safety).

Things to Consider

  • The sin­gle night fee for stay­ing in the Olympic back­coun­try is $8, and an annu­al pass for $45 is also avail­able. If you are going to be spend­ing more than six days in the wilder­ness, this annu­al pass is the way to go.
  • Prop­er food stor­age is manda­to­ry in Olympic, and in many areas bear can­is­ters are required. Can­is­ters can be loaned out from var­i­ous insti­tu­tions sur­round­ing Olympic (with a lim­it­ed sup­ply), and in some areas, the park pro­vides bear wires to hang your food.
  • Fol­low Leave No Trace guide­lines! This includes human waste dis­pos­al, respect­ing the wildlife and leav­ing what you find behind. Over 50,000 overnight vis­its occur in the Olympic Wilder­ness each year—making every lit­tle trace­able action from every sin­gle per­son real­ly adds up over time.