The AFT Guide to Olympic National Park

Olympic is one of the most ecologically varied parks in the entire NPS system! The park protects the largest old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, contains over 70 miles of undeveloped wilderness coastline, and everywhere you look, the mountains of the Olympic range tower above. You could spend weeks here and still hardly scratch the surface.

The park was originally established by Teddy Roosevelt to protect a species of elk found primarily on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. Before the area was established as a national monument and, later, a national park, the elk population had been hunted down to 150 animals. Now the Roosevelt elk are thriving and are the largest species of elk in North America. Gotta love a good comeback story!

Read about our first visit to Olympic right here!

Where Olympic National Park is located:

Olympic lies along the mountains and coastline of northwestern Washington.

Getting to Olympic National Park:

The nearest airport is Sea-Tac International. You can access the park via the Bainbridge Island Ferry from Seattle, or across the bridge from Tacoma.

How Long to Stay in Olympic National Park:

Olympic is a large and varied park, and travel times between the sections can be long. If you want to see the whole park, or at least experience each region, we recommend at least five days. A week or more is better.

When to Go to Olympic National Park:

Olympic is beautiful year-round and there are activities in every season. Roads are closed in high elevation areas during the winter. The coastal areas and low-lying rain forests see lots of rain. The highest average rainfall is in December and January, but be prepared for rainy days at any time of year.

Best For:

  • Native history
  • Hiking
  • Hot Springs
  • Tidepooling
  • Whale Watching
  • Backcountry Camping
  • Winter Sports
  • Wildlife
  • Beaches

Pair With:

Extend your Puget Sound explorations by visiting the San Juan Islands or Whidbey, Bainbridge or Orcas Island. Go on a whale-watching tour, explore the beaches, or go urban with a visit to Seattle.

Where to Stay in Olympic National Park:

Olympic is a large park and getting around on the narrow roads can mean long travel times between sites.

If you want to experience the full range of the park, we’d recommend choosing at least two areas to base yourself for a few days each.

There are five options for lodging within Olympic: Kalaloch Lodge, Lake Crescent Lodge, Lake Quinault Lodge, Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, or the Log Cabin Resort. Click through the link on each lodge to get more info and make reservations.

Camping in Olympic National Park:

Olympic operates 16 developed campgrounds. Kalaloch, Sol Duc and Mora accept reservations in the summer; otherwise, everything is first-come, first-served.

Dosewallips (walk-in only), Graves Creek, Heart O’ the Hills, Hoh, Kalaloch, Mora, North Fork, Ozette, Queets and Staircase are open year-round.

For up-to-date information on openings and regulations, check the park’s website.

Backcountry Camping:

Olympic is 95% wilderness area and backcountry camping is a popular way to explore the park.

You can make reservations for backcountry permits up to 6 months in advance. Bear canisters are required at most wilderness campsites. Check out the park’s trip planner here and find more info on reservations here.

Activities:

Scenic Driving:

Hurricane Ridge Road:

The 17-mile Hurricane Ridge Road climbs steeply from Port Angeles (near sea level) up to Hurricane Ridge (more than 5,000 feet above sea level.) When the skies are clear, the road offers sweeping views of the Olympic Range and Strait of Juan de Fuca below. Even if the road is fogged in, keep going to the top—Hurricane Ridge might be sunny above the clouds (this is what happened for us!)

Hoh River Road

This road winds through the rainforest to the Hoh River Trail.

US 101

One of America’s most beautiful highways, the 101 runs along and through Olympic, taking in Quinault, Kalaloch, the Sol Duc Valley and to Port Angeles.

Tidepools:

Beach 4 in the Kalaloch area and Hole in the Wall near Mora are the most popular places to view tidepools. There are ranger programs in both spots during the summer.

You can also view tidepools at low tide on many of the park’s other beaches, especially Ruby Beach, Beach 2 and Beach 3. Check tide times before you go, wear sturdy shoes (coastal rocks are slippery!) and watch kids closely.

The PNW is also known for “sneaker waves”, huge swells that come without warning and sweep much farther onto the beach than expected. The waves are very strong and can be dangerous, so keep an eye on the ocean and stay near your kids and pups.

Paddling:

There are tons of places to paddle in Olympic! River areas range in difficulty, from Class II to Class V; low water and log jams can create tricky conditions.

For a more straightforward paddle, set out on Lake Crescent, Lake Ozette or Lake Quinault. Each has at least two launch sites.

Paddling in the ocean along the Olympic Peninsula is recommended for expert sea kayakers only.

Wildlife:

Olympic was established in order to protect the elk population in the area. Now called Roosevelt Elk after their benefactor, you can spot these largest of the elk species in Olympic’s valleys and rainforests, most often at dawn or dusk.

Olympic marmots are found only on the Olympic peninsula. Spot them at high elevations, such as Hurricane Ridge.

Check out the park’s official birdwatching page here.

Whale Watching:

Watch whales migrate along the Olympic coast from April to May and October to November. Some popular spots to watch from the shore are Shi Shi Beach, Rialto Beach and Neah Bay.

The Whale Trail is a series of sites, running from British Columbia to Southern California, that provide information and resources for whale watching. Check out their site here to find the best spots and times for whale spotting.

May is official Whale Watching Month at Kalaloch Lodge, and the lodge offers special interpretive programs throughout the month.

Or join a boat tour to spot these giants from the water. Tours operate out of Port Angeles and Port Townsend.

Winter Activities:

Hurricane Ridge is typically covered in snow from December through March, and is the center for snowy activities in Olympic.

Hurricane Ridge Road stays plowed throughout the winter and is open most weekends, Friday to Sunday, and many holidays. Vehicles must carry tire chains from November 1 to April 1.

You can join a ranger-guided snowshoe walk on winter weekends, or cross-country ski in the meadows around the visitor’s center. The Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club runs a small ski area with two rope tows, a poma lift and a tubing area. You can rent gear at the rental shop there.

The visitor’s center is generally open whenever the road is open in winter. Bathrooms and a warming area are always open.

Makah Museum:

Learn more about the Makah people at this cultural and research center, which holds hundreds of artifacts from an ancient Makah village that was buried by a landslide around 1750.

Join a guided tour or watch a weaving or wood-carving demonstration by Makah tribal members. Find more info about visiting here.

Hot Springs:

Have a soak in the mineral pools at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Day passes are $15. Each pool closes for an hour twice a day to have a “resting period” and water testing. Two of the four pools are only for guests age four and older.

Hiking:

There are entire books about hiking in Olympic National Park! Day hikes are a fantastic way to explore the diversity of this park. There are trails in the temperate rain forest, the mountains of the Olympic range and along the coast.

On all hikes, be prepared for quick-changing weather, especially rain, and follow Leave No Trace guidelines.

The best resources for finding day hikes that meet your needs are the park’s website and the park rangers themselves. AllTrails is another great resource.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Hall of Mosses Trail

An easy 0.8-mile loop gives you a good look at the Hoh Rainforest.

Maple Glade Trail

A family-friendly half-mile loop near Quinault Lake.

Hurricane Hill

A moderate 3.2-mile out-and-back trail will get you high up into the alpine landscape of Hurricane Ridge. Look out for herds of deer, screeching marmots and black bears.

Ruby Beach

Take the stairs down onto the beach and have a stroll to look at seastacks, driftwood and tidepools.

Marymere Falls

An easy 2-mile out-and-back trail to a gorgeous waterfall, with lovely greenery all along the way.

Sand Point Trail

From the Ozette Lake Visitor’s Center, follow a 3-mile boardwalk trail to the coast at Cape Alava.

Bringing Kids:

Olympic’s variety means there’s something for everyone, including the littlest park explorers! Kids may especially enjoy checking out tidepools at the beach, looking for animals around Hurricane Ridge, and exploring the incredible temperate rainforest regions of the park.

Be prepared for lots of rain! We ended up hiking in swimsuits so the kids could run around in the pouring rain and dry off quickly ;). If you’re going out for the day, dress kids in quick-drying layers—nothing is more miserable than soggy jeans!

Many of the park’s most popular hikes are short and easy loops. Pick up Jr. Ranger books to give you activities to do while hiking and in the car going from place to place.

If you go to the pools at Sol Duc, kids under four are free, but can only use two of the pools. Because each pool closes for two one-hour periods each day, there will be times when both kid-friendly pools are closed and you’ll just have to sit around and wait.

During winter, there’s a Small Children’s Snowplay Area near the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center where children eight and under can sled for free. BYO tubes or sleds; nothing with runners is allowed.

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Olympic National Park.

If you only had one day, what would you do?

Start at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles to learn more about the park. Then drive the 17-mile road up to Hurricane Ridge. Take in the views and go for a hike up Hurricane Hill. If you’ve still got time, drive west to Lake Crescent and a quick and rewarding hike to Marymere Falls.

Where can you see whales?

Whales migrate along the Olympic coast from April to May and October to November. Check out The Whale Trail for loads more info about where and when to see whales!

When can we go that will have dry weather?

There’s no way to guarantee a rain-free visit in this area, but July and August will raise your odds!

What are some good ranger programs?

Ranger-led programs and hikes are fantastic ways to learn more about the park. Most programs happen in the summer at campgrounds and near visitor’s centers. Tidepool programs happen at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 and Mora’s Hole in the Wall.

On winter weekends, rangers guide short snowshoe walks at Hurricane Ridge. In the summer, there are astronomy programs at Hurricane Ridge with telescopes open for public use.

Check the park’s calendar for a list of programs, or check out the seasonal newspaper here. The park newspapers are often more up-to-date than the online calendar.

What are the best hikes?

There are so many hikes in Olympic and the regions are so varied that this is just an impossible question to answer definitively!

We always recommend choosing one longer hike rather than several short ones if you’re limited on time. That way you’ll spend more time on the trail and less time in the car!

Where can we go to escape the crowds?

Olympic is a well-visited park, especially when the weather is sunniest during summer. Be prepared for traffic and slow travel times any time of year.

The best way to find solitude in any national park is to go for a long hike! The crowds usually thin way out a mile or two down any trail.

Tips from Our Readers:

“Don’t miss the petroglyphs on the Capa Lava triangle.”

“Give yourself multiple days! Fog might obscure views and waiting may help.”

“Olympic is one of the best parks! I recommend rubber boots and rain pants for kids, for tide pooling.”

“Schedule a lot more time than you expect to need!”

“Read the park information about wildlife and streams before you leave! Good info.”

“Bring a rain coat, no matter what the forecast says.”

“Plan plenty of time! So much to see and do!”

“Ruby Beach is a must do.”

“Watch out for slick rocks on North Beach!”

“If you can, stop by and enjoy Crescent Lake on the way there.”

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