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.
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.
Rainforest 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.
Mountain 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).
Coastal 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)
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.
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 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.