Outdoor spaces are more popular than ever with travelers of all ages, including America’s 423 national parks. After spending four nights in Washington state’s Olympic National Park last fall, I can enthusiastically recommend this spectacular park to others. It’s easy to see why it welcomed some 2.5 million visitors in 2021.
After flying into Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport and picking up a rental car, a fellow travel writer and I followed Highway 101 on a route around the peninsula, covering nearly 500 miles.
FAST FACTS ABOUT OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
First, here are some “fast facts” about the park, which makes up the majority of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
- In 2020, Washington state’s Olympic National Park ranked #9 among the top ten most-visited U.S. National Parks.
- Olympic National Park was established in 1938, a year after President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the area. President Theodore Roosevelt set aside more than 500,000 acres surrounding Mount Olympus as a National Monument in 1909. It became part of the National Park Service in 1933.
- The park offers three distinct ecosystems — mountains, rainforests, and 70 miles of coastline — covering more than 900,000 acres. You can experience all of them in a day!
- The more than 600 miles of hiking trails offer options for all levels of experience and fitness.
- Olympic National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
WHAT TO SEE & DO AT OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Search for Sasquatch in the Hoh Rainforest
Primeval, ethereal, and otherworldly are words that perfectly describe parts of Olympic National Park’s forested area. You may feel as if a Sasquatch may cross your path in the Hoh rainforest, and those who actively search for Bigfoot would agree. A group of scientists, biologists and researchers formed The Olympic Project to learn more about the creatures. They also lead expeditions in the forest.
My travel companion and I didn’t experience a Big Foot sighting, but the Hoh Rainforest, one of the largest temperate rainforests in the U.S., would be the ideal setting to see one. The Hall of Mosses Trail, less than a mile long, led us through groves of giant ferns and towering old-growth trees and under a canopy of draping mosses and lichen hung from tree limbs. Do not miss it if you go!
Follow the Waterfall Trail
The Olympic Peninsula receives more than 140 inches of annual rainfall – that’s nearly 12 feet! Keeping that in mind, it’s not surprising that there are more than 20 waterfall sites in seven distinct areas to be discovered on the Olympic Peninsula Waterfall Trail.
We made it to two of them. The first was to the 90-foot Marymere Falls. We followed a scenic trail from behind Lake Crescent Lodge, our accommodation for the first two nights, through an old-growth forest of fir, cedar, hemlock, and elder trees to reach it. We walked past fields of huge ferns, across bridges, and up a winding path to an elevated platform to view the Falls, which flow into Barnes Creek.
While staying at Lake Quinault Lodge, we hiked a portion of the four-mile Quinault Loop trail, locally known as the Rain Forest Nature Trail. Our goal was to reach Cascade Falls, named for its cascading feature as it flows downstream into Falls Creek.
Sol Duc Falls, considered to be the signature waterfall of Olympic National Park, is near Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, which offers guests access to several natural hot mineral pools. Since this resort closes in mid-October, we missed being able to stay here and soak in these natural “hot tubs.”
Explore the tide pools on coastal beaches
The only beach we had time to visit was Ruby Beach, one of the most photographed and starkly beautiful beaches on the peninsula. It is so named for the reddish, ruby-like granules that appear in the sand. Be sure to take in views from the road as you approach the parking lot. You’ll see the sea stacks. Erosion formed these spectacular towers of rock rising from the sea.
To explore the tidepools that form, time your visit at low tide (check the tide charts), when marine creatures (sea stars, anemones, urchins, limpets, and crabs) may be observed.
Rialto Beach is another popular one that has an excellent location for exploring tidepools at what is called “Hole in the Wall,” an opening in a sea stack, located about 1.5 miles north of the trailhead.
Get “high” on Hurricane Ridge
For a natural high, travel 17 miles south of Port Angeles up the ridge road to reach the top of Hurricane Ridge. You’ll be nearly a mile high (5,242 feet) when you reach the Visitor’s Center. Hurricane-force winds above 80 mph have been reported here but were not to that level on the day we visited. We braved the chilly winds just long enough to snap photos and take in views of the mountain peaks that surrounded us.
Hiking trails are well-used during spring and summer, while hardy snow enthusiasts make their way to the area during winter months for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Hike the trails…or take a tour
Whether you are a fair-weather walker, a serious hiker, or somewhere in between, there is a trail for you in Olympic National Park. With 600 miles of trails ranging from easy to strenuous, you can pick your elevation (from ground level to over 3,000 feet) and surroundings (coastline, mountains, or rainforest). Go on your own or book a day hike with an experienced guide. For more information, check out Washington Trails Association’s Hiking Guide.
Not a hiker? Schedule an educational half-day guided Quinault Rainforest Tour via coach, which includes short walks and plenty of photo opportunities. Three boat tours from Lake Quinault Lodge are also offered — morning, afternoon, and sunset. Canoes, kayaks and paddleboards can be rented too.
Visit the Valley of the Giants
Six champion conifer trees grow along eight miles of interconnected trails near Lake Quinault Lodge in Olympic National Park. Located in the Valley of the Giants, these conifers are recognized as the largest living specimens of their species by the National Forestry Association.
We sought out one of them, the World’s Largest Sitka Spruce Tree, located on the grounds of Rain Forest Resort Village. With an estimated age of more than a thousand years, it stands 191 feet high (that’s taller than a 10-story building) and measures nearly 18 feet in diameter.
Eat local fish and drink Washington wine and cider
The cuisine of the Olympic Peninsula is influenced by its proximity to the coast. Salmon, trout, char, halibut, and Dungeness all crab can be found on restaurant menus. Wine lists heavily feature Washington wines. We began each evening with a local vintage, which we paired with appetizers of Penn Cove mussels or seafood chowder. Our “fresh catch” entrees included perfectly prepared salmon and halibut.
We sampled wines at two of the nine Olympic Peninsula Wineries. Both were in Port Angeles — Camaraderie Cellars and Harbinger Winery. When you’re ready to take a break from outdoor activities, stop at a tasting room and savor a glass of Washington wine.
Fans of hard ciders will want to stop in Chimacum, as we did, for a tour of Finnriver Farm & Cidery, a 50-acre organic orchard. We sampled a selection of its award-winning hard ciders and fruit wine while learning the process of making it from organic cider apples and pears. Two other cideries – Alpenfire and Eaglemount – are located within a 10-mile area. You can visit all three in one afternoon.
Stay at historic lodges
My travel companion and I stayed at two of the four lodges located within Olympic National Park – Lake Crescent Lodge near Port Angeles and Lake Quinault Lodge.
Lake Crescent Lodge was originally opened in 1915 as Singer’s Lake Crescent Tavern. We stayed in one of 20 cabins with a view of the brilliant blue, glacially-carved lake. It owes its clarity to a lack of nitrogen, which limits the growth of algae. More accommodations (55 rooms) are available in the lodge and an adjoining building.
Hiking trails from Lake Crescent Lodge to Merrymere Falls and other sites can be found at this link.
A more rustic lodging option, also on Lake Crescent, is the Log Cabin Resort, which offers log cabins, lodge rooms, A-frame chalets, rustic camper cabins, and 38 RV/tent camping sites.
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort had already closed for the season when we were there. If you visit in the spring or summer months, check availability for one of its 32 cabins, with easy access to the hot springs mineral pools.
Our last two nights were spent at Lake Quinault Lodge, built in 1926. Unlike the other Olympic National Park lodges which close seasonally, its 91 rooms are open year-round. The Roosevelt Dining Room was named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had lunch at the lodge in 1937.
IF YOU GO
Weather in Olympic National Park
Pack your rain gear and waterproof boots. Since the Olympic Peninsula receives over 140 inches of annual rainfall (that’s nearly 12 feet), it’s best to be prepared. Rain jackets or ponchos and waterproof boots will most likely be needed no matter when you go.
July and August are the driest months; November through March are wettest. We visited in mid-October and had a nice mix of sun and brief showers.
National Park Fees and Passes
The America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass Series may be a better option if you plan to visit more than one national park this year. There are also interagency passes to access more than 2,000 federal recreation areas across the U.S.
What’s appealing to over-50 luxury travelers
- While national parks may not conjure images of luxury, accommodations at Lake Quinault Lodge could easily fall into that category. Its spacious fireside rooms overlook the lake with amenities such as heated bathroom floors.
- There are plenty of less active ways to enjoy the beauty of Olympic National Park. Book a relaxing sunset boat tour of Lake Quinault. Unwind with a glass of wine at a sitting area near a roaring fire in one of the lodges. Or, tour the Quinault Rain Forest aboard a shuttle bus with an interpretive guide.
- The beaches along Olympic Peninsula’s 70-mile coastline are rugged and rocky. Be sure to pack waterproof, hard-soled shoes to navigate the rocks and driftwood as you make your way along the shore.
Keep current with Olympic National Park’s Guest Updates re: Covid-19.
Disclosure: The author was hosted by Olympic Peninsula Visitors Bureau and Visit Seattle.
Photo Credits: © Debbra Dunning Brouillette
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