National Park Guide: Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park
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Situated on the Olympic peninsula of Washington state, Olympic national park offers a wide range of climates to experience, scenery to scope, and adventures to be had. With almost a million acres of protected wilderness, this park gives you three different ecosystems to explore – from the cold waters of the Pacific ocean to the viewpoints from Mount Olympus.

Over 2.5 million visitors – ranging from families with small children to the most hardcore outdoorsmen – explore the park per year. Read on to see how to make the most of your first (or next!) Olympic national park visit.

History

While there are many historical accounts penned in the 19th and 20th centuries that claim it was “the white man” who first discovered these mountains, there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. A basket fragment was found on Obstruction Point, which at 6100 ft offers a diverse view of the region, and dated at just under 2900 years old.

In 1977, an American farmer just outside of the park, was using a backhoe to dig in his property when he discovered the tusks and skull of a mastodon. In the excavation that ensued, archaeologists discovered the bones scattered in a way that showed the mastodon was tampered with after it died. In fact, this find is evidence of the oldest known interaction between humans and mastodons in the Americas.

The same archaeological site revealed bison and caribou bones that had been butchered by humans, and they were dated at least 9,000 years old. Along with hunting animals, these early peoples foraged for roots, nuts, and berries. There’s even evidence these early people optimized the land for growth with ecological techniques such as prairie burning.

Settlements along the Pacific coast provided natives with fish, birds, shellfish, and even seals and whales. Maritime traditions developed over time and in the 1770’s, a smallpox epidemic (thought to be introduced by seafaring colonists) wiped out almost half the indigenous populations.

In the 1890’s, the local timber industry attracted European settlers and until the late 1920’s, they had turned billions of feet of trees into lumber each year. The lumber industry and those interested in protecting the beauty of the land fought back and forth for years until Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument to protect most of the land. In 1938, Roosevelt named it a federally protected national park.

Olympic national park was named as an international biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1976 and then as a world heritage site in 1981.

river in Olympic National Park

Key Facts about Olympic National Park

Size: 922,650 acres (3733.8 square km)

Number of visitors: 2.5 million in 2020

Established: March 2, 1909 (national monument). June 29th, 1938 (national park).

Length of hiking trails: 611 miles (983km)

Highest point: Mt Olympus at 7956 ft above sea level (2425m)

Lowest point: The coast of the Pacific Ocean (0 feet above sea level)

Other interesting facts:

  • In 2014, two major dams – Glines Canyons dam (210ft tall) and the Elwha dam (108ft tall) – were removed from the park as part of the Elwha River restoration project, making it the world’s largest dam removal.
  • You can adopt a fish in the park through the Adopt-A-Fish radio tracking program.
  • Because the park sits on an isolated peninsula, the Olympic marmot evolved separately from similar species in the surrounding areas and can only be found in Olympic national park.
  • Along with the Olympic marmot, there are at least 16 kinds of endemic animals and 8 kinds of endemic plants.
  • The park has 73 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean.
  • There are over 60 named glaciers in the park.
  • From April to May and then again from October to November, gray whales can be seen feeding along the coastline as they migrate from Mexico to the Bering Sea.
  • Located in the northern foothills of the Olympic mountain, Lake Crescent is known for its pristine and crystal clear waters. The water is as clear as it is, because unlike in other lakes, Lake Crescent doesn’t contain nitrogen and thus does not grow algae.
  • Hurricane Ridge, one of the most popular spots in the park, gets its name from the fact that it can see whips of winds over 70mph (112kph) on some days.

Climate and Weather

Within the park, there are three different ecosystems – temperate rainforest, Pacific coast, and subalpine forest. Combine this with a big margin of elevation gain (7956ft, to be exact) and you’re going to experience a wide array of weather all within the same park.

The western part of the park receives the most precipitation, averaging out to over 135in (343cm) per year. The northeastern part of the park is far drier, receiving only about 17in (43cm) per year. Everything in between receives between 35-38in (89-96cm) of precipitation per year. This is because of the rain shadow effect; as storms move from the Pacific inland along the peninsula ridge and across the Olympus mountains, the moisture in the air must be released. Of course, the weather you experience will largely be dependent on in which season you visit.

Summer

The summer months are moderately warm; usually between 65 and 70℉, with occasional glimpses of 80 during the day, but can drop as low as 45℉ at night. Rainfall is uncommon, except for a few thunderstorms from June to August. In the latter half of summer (and the beginning of fall), low clouds and fog banks move from over the Pacific inland creating fog filled valleys, with the clouds reaching around 3000ft. Sometimes this means clear skies in higher elevations while looking down upon the clouds!

Fall

Fall is usually cool and wet, with temperatures ranging from 35 to 65℉ during the day. Snowstorms can occur towards the end of fall at higher elevations. And as mentioned above, you sometimes find low clouds and fog banks in the lower elevations in the valleys.

Winter

Daytime temperatures during the winter are in the mid 40’s and dip as low as 20℉ at night. Most of the 135 inches of annual rain on the coast and rainforest region of the park happens between November and April. At lower altitudes, there’s rarely more than a foot of snow on the ground and it lasts a mere couple of days. At higher altitudes, there’s a dramatic increase in snowfall and accumulation with Hurricane Ridge averaging 33ft (10m) of snowfall per winter!

It’s always smart to check for campground, road, and trail status pages for any weather-related closures when traveling to the park in winter. If you plan on skiing or snowshoeing, avalanche conditions are available from Northwest Avalanche Center.

Olympic NP in Winter

Spring

Daytime temperatures range from 35-65℉ during the spring and is usually wet, making it perfect for the beautiful wildflower bloom full of endemic flora and fauna. At higher elevations, it will sometimes snow in the beginning of spring.

When to visit Olympic National Park

Summer

July and August are the most popular months to visit the park. Temperatures hover between 60 and 70℉ and often sunny, although fog can put a damper on the sunshine. Because of the popularity during these months, most tourist attractions are open (although it’s always best to check up to date reports), but that also means that of the 2.5 million annual visitors, many will be here during that time.

Fall

From September to October the temperatures begin to dip for the winter and higher altitudes begin to see snow as early as September. One of the reasons the park was created was to protect the Roosevelt Elk, and visiting during the fall gives you an opportunity to hear them bugling during their mating season (September). This is the time of year when seasonal campgrounds begin closing for the winter, as do some of the roads in the park. If you’re looking for a time of year without many tourists but still reasonable (although, as always, unpredictable) weather, fall may be your best bet.

Winter

From November to April, the weather is at its coldest and most of the annual precipitation falls during these months. Certain campgrounds, tourist attractions, and roads close for the winter due to weather and the sometimes dangerous conditions it creates. Of course, if you’re looking to partake in the snowsports offered at Hurricane Ridge, winter is your only option.

Spring

May through June is when the outgoing winter temperatures and precipitation start to head out and bring in the warmer and drier weather. Seasonal campgrounds begin to open and the wildflowers begin to bloom. Although this is the second most popular time of the year to visit, weather is still highly unpredictable and it’s still common to experience rain during these months.

Sunset in Olympic NP, Washington

Recommended gear

Because of the different climates, you will want to make sure you pack for whatever mother nature throws at you.

Waterproof raincoat. As we said in the climate section, Olympic national park gets quite a bit of rain. You’ll want to have a waterproof (not water resistant) rain coat on hand at all times. A waterproof shell might work to keep you dry, but you may want one with some insulation given the temperature fluctuations that can occur.

Layers of clothing. Again, due to the ever changing climate, you’ll want to be prepared with clothing that’s easy to put on and take off. As temperatures fluctuate depending on the area you’re in and the time of day, you will want to have multiple layers of clothing to ensure you’re dressed for the weather. Of course, if you plan on partaking in snowsports at Hurricane Ridge, you will need to dress appropriately.

Hiking boots. Most of the hiking trails in the park consist of dirt (or mud), rocks, or sand. It’s best to have a pair of quality boots to keep your feet dry and your ankles supported.

Water shoes. If you plan on exploring the pacific coast and dipping your toes in the [cold!] water or plan on exploring some of the tide pools, you will want a hard soled water shoe. The rocks around the tidepools can be sharp, so be sure to protect your feet.

Park map. Cell service is spotty around the park, so relying on your cell phone isn’t the best idea. A map is included when you pay your park entrance fee at the entrance gates or can be downloaded as a PDF here.

Tide chart. If you want to explore the pacific coast, knowing the tides will ensure you can plan a hike in tandem with the tide you want. A rising tide may mean that you have a nice footpath to do the “out” part of your beach hike, but incoming water for the “back” part of it, resulting in a dangerous situation.

Bear canister. There are black bears in the park and it’s highly recommended (and even required in some parts) that you store your food in a bear resistant food storage container. Hanging food is not allowed. There are a limited number of canisters available for rent from the Port Angeles wilderness information center and the South Shore Lake ranger center.

Water. Some camping sites have potable water and there are convenience stores at some of the lodges, but you will of course want to bring water with you while you explore. It’s recommended to have .5 to 1 gallon (2.25 to 4.5 liters) of water per person per day.

Lighter/matches. If you’re going camping and want to start a campfire. Campfires are allowed and certain sites sell firewood. For those that don’t, it is allowed to collect dead and down wood within 100ft (33m) of your campsite to start a fire.

What to do

With so many different climates and seasons, there’s no shortage of things to do in Olympic national park no matter what time of year you go. Of course, if you want to go skiing or snowshoeing, winter is your best option. If you want warmer weather for swimming, summer is your best option.

Skiing, Snowboarding, Tubing

Hurricane Ridge averages around 33ft (10m) of snowfall each winter and people have capitalized on this by providing a variety of snowsports for locals and visitors alike. There’s a small, family friendly ski area that contains two tow-style lifts and a platter lift for getting to the top of the ski area. It doesn’t have a “traditional” ski lift like most ski resorts, but Olympic national park contains one of only two ski lifts in any national park (the other is Yosemite national park in California).

Even though the elevation is nearly a mile high, there’s only about 650ft of elevation change in the area. Despite this, skiing in Olympic national park has been called “a hidden gem” for Pacific Northwest skiing and snowboarding and offers “short but sweet” runs. There are very few groomed trails and most of the skiing and snowboarding is done in areas designated by skill level (from a bunny slope to double black diamond), as you can see from the map. As you ski or snowboard in these backcountry trails, your safety is in your own hands, so remain vigilant and stay up to date with local weather warnings. Tubing is allowed only on the bunny slope.

The ski area is open from mid December to the end of March on Saturdays and Sundays only from 10am to 4pm. Even though it opens at 10, most of the locals have a phrase “to get through the gate, be there by 8.” The park is small and the parking lot is even smaller, so get there early to ensure you’re allowed in. You can rent ski equipment there and prices can be found on their rates page, however as of this publishing they are not renting equipment due to Covid.

For up to date information on the park regarding weather and covid-19 restrictions, visit the Hurricane Ridge website.

Hiking

With over 600 miles of hiking trails in all the different areas of the park, you have all the diversity you could ever ask for. Difficulty levels range from family friendly short hikes through the rainforest to trekking up steep mountains. Below are some of the most popular hikes throughout the park.

Hoh River trail in the Hoh Rainforest

This 17.4 mile trail is the most popular rainforest trail that tourists flock to in spring, summer, and fall and for good reason. The trail is well groomed and mostly flat and surrounded by nearly every shade of green you can imagine from ferns, mosses, and plants. Canopies from giant Sitka spruce and western hemlocks tower almost 300ft in the air.

This trail is an out and back trail, so for day hiking, you’ll have to decide how far to go and when to turn back. Overnight adventures are possible only with a permit. There are other shorter hikes that start from this trailhead such as Hall of Mosses and the Sitka nature trail, both of which are about a mile long loop.

Hoh Rain Forest Olympic

Rialto Beach on the Pacific coast

This 13.4 mile out and back hike is along the beautiful rocky Pacific coast. The trail is composed of mostly sand and small rocks for easy walking, up until the “hole in the wall” (aptly named for a rock feature with a hole you can walk through), at which point it becomes much rockier and you may need to use your hands and feet to navigate the trail.

Because it’s along the beach, knowing the tide schedule is a must and you should plan so that low tide is at the planned midpoint of your hike. One plus about knowing the tide schedules (and knowing low tide, specifically) is that there are tide pools teeming with small aquatic life you can check out along the hike.

The best weather window for this hike is between March and October.

Sol Duc Falls, Sol Duc

Sol Duc Falls trail is a gorgeous option for a much shorter day hike. The 1.6 mile out and back trail features boardwalks and handrails in some spots and is generally considered easy and suitable even for families with small children. The trail ends at Sol Duc falls, a three pronged waterfall with a wooden platform for you to rest and enjoy the views before turning back.

Fishing

From fly fishing the rivers, freshwater fishing the lakes, to saltwater fishing at Seal Rock campground, there are tons of options for the beginner to most well seasoned angler. Northwest salmon and steelhead trout are two of the more commonly sought after fish with a variety of other smaller fish available to you – if you’re lucky, of course.

Please check the regulations for all local laws regarding fishing and wildlife at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife here.

Mountain Biking

There are dozens of mountain biking trails sprawling throughout the park ready to offer beautiful sights from trails along rivers all the way up to mountain peaks. Two of the more popular trails are the spruce railroad trail (easy) along crescent lake and the Mount Muller trail (hard) that loops around (you guessed it) Mount Muller.

Other mountain biking options include: the Big Quilcene area, Dungeness area, Forks area, Mt. Zion area, Quinault area, and the Wynoochee area. Each of them offers something different in terms of difficulty as well as scenery, so it’s best to do research before your trip and plan ahead.

Mountain bike rentals are available through Adventures Through Kayaking and cost around $60 per day.

Kayaking, Canoeing, and Paddle boarding

The beautiful crystal clear water of Lake Crescent is a wonderful place to do some kayaking or paddle boarding during the warmer months. Lake Crescent Lodge rents these to tourists at a day rate, so don’t feel the need to pack your own kayak if you’re only planning on spending a little time on the water. Lake Quinault Lodge rents kayaks on Lake Quinault, located in the south of the park and provides beautiful paddling along forested peaks.

Rafting trips used to be available in the park, but low and unpredictable water levels have prevented this since 2018.

Camping

There are 15 campgrounds located in the park and most of them operate on a first come first served basis. Kalaloch, Mora, and the Hoh Rain Forest are the only park-operated campgrounds that accept reservations and they can be made here through recreation.gov.

For a full list of campgrounds and their amenities, please check out the national parks services website here.

How to get there

If you’re flying in from out of the area, the closest international airport is the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). Once you’re in Seattle, there are a couple of different options you have to reach the park.

By car

You can rent a car at the airport and drive the entire way to the park. Once you’ve got your car in Seattle, you’ll want to take I-5 south to exit the city and head towards Olympia (the capital city of Washington).

From Olympia, you can take highway 101 (the Pacific coast highway) north on the east side of the park which will eventually land you at the visitor center at the north of the park, but not before passing multiple entrances on the east side of the park. The city of Hoodsport, for example, is an entrance that’s about an hour drive from Olympia. Continuing past this entrance will eventually land you in Sequim, another entrance to the park (although still relatively close to the main park entrance).

Your other highway 101 option is to drive west from Olympia and continue south of the park before it eventually steers you north and continues on the west side of the park. This route will take you past park entrances on the southwest corner of the park in cities such as Quinault, Queets, Hoh, and Forks. If you plan on visiting the pacific coast of the park, this is your best option.

Highway 101 is the only highway that completes a loop around the entire area and is a beautiful drive all the way around. Many people choose this route as a road trip around the park before eventually entering it.

By ferry

You can also take the Bainbridge Island ferry from Seattle operated by Washington State department of transportation. Your other option to ferry is the Kingston fast ferry operated by Kitsap transit. Both ferries allow passengers to bring their cars on board and will drop you off on Bainbridge island, at which point you can make the 70 mile drive to Port Angeles which is where the Olympic National Park visitor center is located. This is a perfect starting point for those who want to begin their visit on the north side of the park.

If you opt to take your car on the ferry, please be aware that tickets should be bought in advance as vehicle space runs out quickly. The ferry ride takes about 90 minutes from Seattle to Bainbridge island and will be another 90 minute drive to the main visitor center in Port Angeles.

By bus

There are three bus options to get from Seattle to the Olympic peninsula. The first is the Dungeness bus line. They have two busses heading in both directions daily and will take between 4 and 5 hours.

The second bus option is to use the Greyhound bus line which will take you from Seattle to Port Angeles in around 4 to 5 hours.

Your third and fastest bus option is Clallam transit which, even though it includes a ferry to Bainbridge Island, will get you to Port Angeles in about 3 hours. This trip uses route 123, which is aptly named “the straight shot” by locals, which obviously explains the shorter bus duration.

Once you’re on the Olympic peninsula, you have numerous options from local busses that will take you where you want to go. Clallam transit has local busses that cater to the western side of the park and will take you as far as La Push. Jefferson transit provides local bus services to the eastern side of the park.

As always, transportation around the park by way of any mode of transportation is subject to closures due to weather, so make sure to check updates regularly to avoid getting stuck.

Hurricane Ridge in Olympic NP

Where to stay

Olympic national park is massive. If you want to see more than one area of the park, and I suggest you do, it is best to stay in more than one location. If you were to choose Port Angeles as your home base, it would take you two hours each way to visit the Hoh rainforest. Not that the drive isn’t beautiful, but I think you’ll find it’s worth spending some of that driving time searching for other natural beauties in the park.

Camping

As I said above, there are 15 campgrounds in Olympic national park. Almost all of them are a first come first serve basis, so your best bet is to arrive early in the day, and even better, earlier in the week as weekends tend to fill up quickly. If that’s something you don’t want to worry about, Kalaloch, Mora, and Hoh rain forest, and Sol Duc hot springs campgrounds do take reservations which can be made here.

Most campsites cost between $14 and $25 per night. Some sites have flushing toilets and running water, others don’t. Some sites are accessible by car or RV and some are walk-in only. Certain sites are accessible for those with physical disabilities while others aren’t.

For a list of the campsites and the amenities they offer, you can visit the national park service website here.

Lodging

There are four lodges – Kalaloch, Lake Crescent, Log Cabin, and Sol Duc hot springs resort – in the park and all four offer a variety of accommodations at different price points. Each lodge offers something different, from rustic cabins to the more luxurious options – suites and chalets.

To see which lodges offer what accommodations, please visit each of their websites for amenities, seasonal openings, and room availability.

Kalaloch Lodge

Lake Crescent Lodge

Log Cabin Lodge

Sol Duc hot springs resort

Staying outside the park

There are numerous little towns along highway 101 that circles the park, and almost all of them offer some sort of overnight accommodation. From motels located on the side of the highway for a cheap place to lay your head to more luxurious options for those willing to splurge, a google search for “accommodation in [city you want to stay]” will yield numerous results for you to choose from.

As always, you will want to check the national park services alerts and conditions page for the most up to date information about weather, warnings, and closures.

Olympic National Park

Conclusion

Olympic national park has so many different things to do and sights to see, it would be difficult to do it all in one go. But a little planning beforehand will bring you a long way in choosing which parts of the park are best suited to your interests. Whether it’s your first time or tenth time, Olympic national park will leave you in awe of it’s natural beauty that you’ll remember for the rest of your life!

 


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