Complete Guide to Olympic National Park

How Complete is This Guide?

The answer? Not very complete. Olympic National Park constitutes a huge expanse of land and while we have done our best to explain the very best to get the most out of your time at the park, there are always new adventures to be found. From off the beaten path backpacking trips, to hidden waterfalls that no one knows about, part of the wonder of exploring our national parks is finding places and treasures that are uniquely your own.​ If you feel something is missing or needs to be updated, you are welcome to contact us and contribute.

Introduction

Located in the top right hand corner of the United States is one of the most beautiful, enchanting, and awe-inspiring places in the entire world. Olympic National Park borrows its name from Olympus, the mythical mountain top in Greek Mythology which as the abode of the gods. After spending a few days exploring the over 140,000 square miles that make up this truly unique region, you´ll understand why it got its name.

From whale sightings to glaciers, rugged coastlines to alpine tundra, this park is one of the most varied and diverse places in the world; not to mention that you will also be able to enjoy old growth temperate rainforest. What other place in the world can you be at the beach one minute, in the middle of a rainforest the next minute, and climbing up a glacier packed alpine mountain the next?

In this complete review of Olympic National Park, we will let you know why this unique national park is so special. We will begin by looking as the natural history of the park before exploring the unique ecology of Olympic National Park. For nature buffs, we´ll also explain how this park is also involved in a world renowned ecological restoration project. Finally, we offer advice on the top activities at Olympic National Park so that you can get the most out of your time at the park.

Rainforests and Glaciers: the Unique Ecology of Olympic

For thousands of years, indigenous population have made the area that today comprises Olympic National Park their home. While early research believed that most indigenous people mostly lived along the coastline, today archaeological evidence supports the theory that indigenous populations also had significant presence in the higher regions, especially in the sub-alpine meadows which were most likely used for hunting and fishing.

Today, two indigenous groups continue to live in the region. The Hoh People live along the Hoh River while the Quileute people live along the coast at the mouth of the river of the same name.

The small peninsula in northwestern Washington where Olympic National Park is located is unique in that three very distinct ecosystems exist in a much reduced area of land. The coastal strip of the park runs about 60 miles from north to west, but is only a few miles wide at most. Instead of white sand beaches that many people picture when they think of the ocean, the coasts at the park are filled with huge boulders, thick vegetation, and mystical sea stacks which are large, pillar like rocks that rise out of the ocean.

The constant fogs and mists associated with the rainforest ecosystem nearby create habitat for all sorts of unique marine animals including seals and sea lions. Tidal pools are a great place to find starfish and all other sorts of ocean creatures.

In the middle of the park you can find the mighty Olympic Mountains which rise sharply from the coast to close to 8,000 feet. While there are certainly higher mountains throughout the United States, the fact that these mountains literally rise out of the sea gives them a commandeering presence.

On top of the mountains are several ancient glaciers, the largest of which is the Hoh Glacier which runs for more than 3 miles in length. Mount Olympus is the tallest peak in the range rising to over 7,900 feet. This almost perpetually snow-capped peak offers a beautiful contrast to the surrounding greenness of the old growth forest.

Finally, on the western edge of the park sits the Hoh Rainforest. A magical, temperate climate rainforest that receives over 150 inches of rain each year making this easily the wettest area in the entire continental United States. The Hoh Rainforest is dominated by several unique coniferous trees such as firs, cedars, and spruce. A variety of mosses and air plants hang from the branches of virtually every tree.

The fact that the park is located on an isolated peninsula with a massive mountain range separating a coastal ecosystem and a rainforest makes for an exclusive ecology. Within the park you can find exceptional wildlife, such as the Roosevelt Elk, that are hard to find anywhere else in the country. Black bears, deer, and even cougars have large numbers within the park as well.

The Elwha Ecosystem Restoration Project

For many indigenous peoples around the Pacific Northwest, the Salmon were an important source of food and a vital part of their spirituality. With the arrival of western peoples and industrial development, however, hundreds of rivers were dammed up for hydroelectricity and other uses, essentially blocking the path of large populations of salmon who used to “run” from the ocean, upstream to their spawning grounds.

The Elwha Ecosystem Restoration Project at Olympic National Park is an ambitious restoration project being undertaken by the park service. Essentially, they are removing over 300 feet of dams and draining the artificial reservoirs in order to allow the Pacific Salmon to once again gain access to the upper portions of the rivers that they haven´t had access to in almost 100 years. For people who are interested in ecological restoration, this project is one you will want to visit and study.

Some Unique Facts and Figures about Olympic National Park

· The United Nations has proclaimed Olympic National Park to be both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve

· Close to 3 million people visit the park each year making it the 7th most visited park in the country

· Olympic National Park has 60 ancient glaciers covering the peaks of the Olympic Mountain Range

· Over 600 miles of trails criss cross the entire park

· The Hoh Rainforest receives over 150 inches of rain each year while many areas on the eastern edge of the park only receive 16 inches of rain

· President Franklin Roosevelt created Olympic National Park in 1938

· Over 95% of the park is designated wilderness area

· 30 million years ago, Olympic National Park was actually under the sea

· Crescent Trout is a species of trout that can only be found within the park boundaries

Day Hikes at Olympic National Park

Without a doubt, the best way to enjoy and explore Olympic National Park is through getting out of your car and into the wilderness. From coastal hikes to trekking up alpine glaciers, to meandering through deep rainforests, the 600 miles of trails that weave through the park will allow you to explore three distinct and magical ecosystems. Below are our recommendations for the absolute best day hikes at Olympic National Park

Ozette Loop Trail

This nine mile trail is by far the best way to explore the rugged coastline of Olympic National Park. From the beginning point at Ozette Lake, the trail first takes you through thick swamplands populated by old growth cedar forests. Once you emerge from the forest, you will walk along the coastline for over three miles enjoying stunning views of sea stacks and rocky beaches. If you want to do this hike, however, you will have to register at the visitor´s center as access to this area is sometimes controlled by park authorities.

Sunrise Ridge

If you are looking for a place to find hordes of wildflowers, a short five mile hike to Sunrise Ridge will take you into subalpine meadows where you can find dozens of types of flowers. Make sure to visit between July and August to best enjoy the bloom season.

Grand Valley

This close to ten mile loop will take you deep into the Olympic wilderness, showcasing wildflowers, mountain lakes, and some truly otherworldly views. If you are in decent shape you can still do this as a day hike, though it can also be extended into an overnighter if you get the right permits.

Sol Duc Falls

This short trail (ranging from 1.5 to 5.2 miles depending on the actual route you take) is a classic Olympic experience. You´ll meander through old growth forest before emerging at a beautiful waterfall. Nearby you can also find the Sol Duc hot springs which is a great way to relax after a long day on the trail.

Mount Elinor

This is one of the easier peaks to climb in the Olympic Range, but it also offers some fantastic views of both the ocean at Puget Sound and the park´s craggy, snow-capped interior. At only 6.2 miles round trip, it makes for a great day hike.

Overnight Backpacking Trips at Olympic National Park

For hikers who aren´t content with a simple day excursion into the Olympic wilderness, you can get a backcountry permit from park authorities to explore more in depth the beauty of Olympic National Park. To apply for your backcountry permit you will need to do so with plenty of time in advance as much many permits run on a quota basis that is first come, first serve.

South Coast Wilderness Trail

For people who want to see the best of the Olympic National Park coastline, this trail is the one for you. The 17 mile stretch from Third Beach to Oil City Traverse might not sound like a lot of miles, but the going will definitely be tough as you will be scrambling over boulders, fording creeks, climbing up muddy headland trails to wait for tides to go down. However, if you are up for the challenge, you´ll be in for a treat as the trail offers virtually unlimited amounts of quality campsites where you´ll be able to enjoy epic sunsets and unique views of all sorts of wildlife.

North Fork Quinault River Trail

This 21-mile loop following the Quinault River for much of the way and is perhaps the best way to spot unique wildlife on the trail. Both mountain goats, black bear, and the hard to spot Roosevelt Elk can be seen.

Enchanted Valley

The name alone should be enough enticement to get you out into the backwoods. The 26 roundtrip miles of this backpacking adventure will give you the full Olympic experience as you will be trekking through old growth rainforests, passing by (and through) numerous pristine mountain rivers and streams, and enjoying otherworldly panoramic views of glacier-capped peaks and powerful waterfalls.

Winter Sports Activities at Olympic

What could be better than heading from the beach to snow in the span of a few hours? While the coastal regions of the park almost never receive any sort of snow, the mountainous regions have thick snow cover for much of the winter months.

Hurricane Ridge is by far the best place to head if you are into skiing or snowboarding. The Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area is a non-profit ski resort operated by the park. Relatively cheap lift tickets will allow you to head up and down the mountain on one of the two tow ropes and the one poma lift. Plan accordingly since the road to Hurricane Ridge is usually only operable from Friday to Sunday during winter months.

The Best Campgrounds at Olympic National Park

Nothing is quite as enchanting as camping out under the stars while visiting Olympic National Park. If backpacking isn’t your thing, there are still several unique campgrounds located around the park that combine proximity to the natural world with some basic conveniences for families. Below are our top three recommendations for the top campgrounds at the park.

Deer Park Campground

This is high-alpine camping at its absolute best. After a grueling 18 mile drive up winding mountain roads (RV´s aren´t allowed because of this) you will find a gorgeous, small camp ground that offers stunning 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains to one side and the ocean to the other side. After enjoying the sunset, you´ll want to keep your eyes to the sky as the stars come out in breathtaking fashion. There are only 14 sites available at a first come, first serve basis so make sure to head up the mountain early in the day if you want a spot.

Graves Creek Campground

Who wouldn´t want to camp in a rainforest? Graves Creek Campground is located next to the Quinault River within the section of the Quinault Rainforest. This campground is strategically placed so that campers have relatively easy access to popular hiking trails throughout the park including the Enchanted Valley and Pony Bridge.

Heart o´the Hills Campground

If you are looking for a family friendly campground, the Heart o´the Hills Campground offers fantastic ranger programs for kids and is also very accessible. Furthermore, you will only be a short 14 mile drive from Hurricane Ridge which offers fantastic views and a place to view some epic sunsets.

Other Activities to Fill Your Days at Olympic National Park

If hiking isn´t your thing, or if your kids are complaining that they don´t want to walk through the woods anymore, there are several other recreational options at Olympic National Park which we will explore below.

Both the Elwha and Hoh Rivers offer spectacular rafting trips. While the rapids might not be as quick as other spots throughout the United States, the scenery alone makes up for it as you will most likely spot wildlife and enjoy the rainforest that comes right up to the edge of the river. Several outfitting companies offer different length rafting tours.

For folks looking for more of an adrenaline rushing, alpine climbing is also available throughout the park. While the loose shale rock that makes up much of the Olympics is not quite as sturdy as solid granite, several mountaineers make their way to the park to climb up Mount Olympus, Mount Deception, Mount Constance, and other sheer cliffs located throughout the park.

After several hard days of hiking, nothing is quite as relaxing as finding a perfect spot next to an alpine lake or pristine mountain stream to fish for the day. Olympic National Park has over 600 lakes, 4,000 miles of rivers and streams, and 60 miles of coastline. With water virtually everywhere, you can easily find that perfect spot to fish for the day. You can check out the requirements to get your fishing license at the National Park Website here.

Finally, Olympic National Park also offers a number of hot springs which is a great way to enjoy the park. Olympic Hot Springs can be found along the Boulder Creek Trail and the Mineral Hot Springs, which are a little bit more accessible, can be enjoyed at the Sol Duc Hot Spring Resort. Either one of these options makes for a great way to end your memorable trip to Olympic National Park.

When to Visit Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park is open year round, though the vast majority of people head to the park during the dry summer months between June and September. If you are worried about the rain ruining your vacation (and there is a lot of it) this might be the best time to visit. If, however, you want to avoid the crowds, you plan your trip early in the spring where the heavy snow runoff brings alive the thousands of miles of creeks and streams running through the park.

If you like winter adventure sports such as skiing, snowboarding, or snowshoeing, you can also plan to visit the park during the winter months. While some of the roads will be closed, snowshoeing trails are open year round and will offer you a truly unique view into this special place.

Conclusion

If you have never visited the Pacific Northwest, Olympic National Park should definitely be in your itinerary. Even if you live in Seattle or Portland, the massive size of the Olympic wilderness means that there will always be new places to explore. From rugged coastlines, to glacier topped mountains, to thick, enchanting old growth rainforests, Olympic National Park is a place that is beckoning you to come and explore.

For people who want to see the best of the Olympic National Park coastline, this trail is the one for you. The 17 mile stretch from Third Beach to Oil City Traverse might not sound like a lot of miles, but the going will definitely be tough as you will be scrambling over boulders, fording creeks, climbing up muddy headland trails to wait for tides to go down. However, if you are up for the challenge, you´ll be in for a treat as the trail offers virtually unlimited amounts of quality campsites where you´ll be able to enjoy epic sunsets and unique views of all sorts of wildlife.

Sandy
 

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