9 Things To Do in Olympic National Park
While there is nearly an endless list of reasons to love living in Port Ludlow, being so close to one of America’s finest national parks is surely one of them, with the three entrances to Olympic National Park starting just 15 miles from home.
This massive 1,442-square-mile park is larger than Rhode Island by 200 square miles, almost twice as big as Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and 300 square miles bigger than California’s Yosemite National Park. It’s also home to 49 peaks that soar more than 6,500 feet, many of which are rarely climbed due to isolation and sheer difficulty, and over 600 miles of scenic trails, much of which are designated wilderness by the National Park Service. What that means to you, is that unlike places such as Yosemite, where the crowds in the valley can be as thick as those at Disneyland, you’re probably not going to rub elbows with many tourists here, despite the fact that it’s the country’s fifth most visited national park. It’s also considered one of America’s most isolated places, sometimes even referred to as the “quietest square inch in the States.”
The park hosts everything from the towering jagged mountains and wild, rugged beaches to lush emerald forests, countless waterfalls, misty cliffs and more than 250 glaciers - Blue Glacier, located on Mount Olympus, is 2.6 miles long and is estimated to be the size of 20 trillion ice cubes. While most people head to parks like Yellowstone for wildlife, there is an abundance to be seen here too, from Olympic marmots and black-tailed deer to mountain goats, bear, Roosevelt elk and even whales, which can be seen swimming offshore along the Olympic coast during their migration seasons. Many bird species call the area home too, including bald eagles, northern pygmy owls, black oystercatchers, and more, with some 300 different species of birds found in the park’s diverse habitats.
While the Olympic Peninsula is filled with all sorts of things to see and do, there are so many options in the park alone, it would take months, or even years to experience it all.
Trying to figure out how to best experience Olympic National Park can be rather overwhelming, with four varied ecological regions among its nearly million acres to explore. While the more adventurous often choose to backpack into the park’s more remote reaches, with such a wonderful wealth of day hikes that reveal just why the park is one of the crown jewels of the Pacific Northwest, and the nation as a whole, it makes sense to begin with those. If you plan on remaining in Port Ludlow for some time to come, the spectacular Olympics will continue to be right at your doorstep, making it easy to gradually work up to more challenging multi-day treks, if that’s your goal.
While opinions may vary some, most consider the seven hikes listed below to be the top day hikes in the park – some are short enough that you may want to combine them with another for a full day in the park.
Marymere Falls. This short 1.5-mile round trip trek follows a mostly flat path through the dense forest, making it rather easy, but also incredibly rewarding. Leaving from the Storm King Visitor Center near Lake Crescent, it brings hikers to a magnificent waterfall that plunges nearly 90 feet into a pool below. It makes for the ideal photo op, and the path leading there, surrounded by remarkable shades of green and twisted trees, is just as spectacular.
Sol Duc Falls. Another short but unforgettable hike will lead you to Sol Duc Falls, one of the most photographed in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, if the 50-foot cascading falls look familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen them on a calendar or postcard. It’s less than a mile to the waterfall (1.6-miles up-and-back), where you can stand on a wooden bridge and look down into the canyon in one direction, and upstream to what’s surely one of the most breathtaking waterfalls you’ve ever seen. If you’re here later in the day, when sunlight hits the mist of the falls, a rainbow often develops, making the sight even more magical.
Hurricane Hill. This 3-mile round trip hike is one of the most popular in the park, as you’ll enjoy incredibly majestic views – not only will you get a great view of the Olympics, but on a clear day you can look out to the Elwha River Valley, across the glistening San Juan de Fuca Strait, and even see the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In the summer, there are brilliant wildflower-filled meadows, and you’re also likely to spot lots of marmots and black-tailed deer, along with the occasional mountain goat.
Hoh Rain Forest. The Hoh Rain Forest is among the only protected temperate rain forests in the Northern Hemisphere, and a not-to-be-missed destination on the west side of the park. With an annual average of 140 inches of precipitation, the Hoh and the nearby Queets and Quinault valleys are true temperate rain forests, where annual precipitation can reach as much as 200 inches in the highlands. Combine the Sitka Nature Trail, a 1.25-mile loop, with the .8-mile Hall of Moss Trail for a fabulous hike in the most accessible of the temperate rain forests in the park. The Sitka trail winds through the younger, late-secessional forests of red alder and cottonwood along the glacier-fed river, while the shorter Hall of Mosses route reveals the moss-covered maples that are especially magical in the spring. While summer is significantly drier, throughout the winter season, the forest is dumped on by up to 14 feet of rain. The result is this remarkably lush canopy in all shades of green, with deciduous and coniferous species. The mosses and ferns that blanket it all add to its allure.
Second Beach. Arguably the best short hike along the coast, this 1.4-mile round trip trek takes hikers through a set of switchback stairs that lead down to the coast where a dramatic scene awaits, including giant sea stacks that rise straight out of the Pacific. At low tide, or within an hour or two before, you can search through tide pools that are often filled with a myriad of colorful sea creatures like starfish, hermit crabs and sea anemones.
Ozette Triangle Loop. If you’re up for a longer adventure, the 9.4-mile Ozette Triangle Loop is one of the Olympic Peninsula’s very best hikes. One of its highlights is the Makah petroglyphs that have etched into the Wedding Rocks, a cluster of boulders that hug the shore about halfway along the coast. These sacred artifacts predate European settlement in the Northwest. Along the way, sea stacks come into view and a variety of wildlife is often spotted, including bald eagles, sea lions, sea otters, and, if your timing is right, perhaps even a whale or two. A little over three miles of the route follows the shoreline, where you can peer into tide pools and watch the oystercatchers search for their meal.
Lake of the Angels. A longer hike for those looking for more of a challenge, the Lake of the Angels trail is a somewhat difficult 8-mile roundtrip trek, but it brings a bounty of rewards, nestled in the remote foothills in the shadow of Mount Skokomish. The beautiful lake sits against a dramatic mountain backdrop, and you’ll see a number of waterfalls along the way. This is also an area where there is an abundant mountain goat population.
With more than 75 miles of Pacific coastline, 600 lakes and 4,000 miles of rivers and streams supporting some of the most extensive runs of wild salmon, trout and char, the Olympic National Park is a fisherman’s, or woman’s, dream. A Washington State Recreational Fishing License is not required in the park, other than when fishing from the shore along the Pacific Ocean, but if you like to fish, you’ll probably want a license anyway, as there are hundreds of fantastic fishing spots outside of the park, throughout the Olympic Peninsula.
There are 31 species of fish that populate the park’s lakes, rivers and streams, including cutthroat trout, dolly varden, bull trout, steel trout and five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, pink, chum, Coho and Chinook.
Some of the best spots to fish for them include:
Bogachiel River – Home to cutthroat trout, steelhead and Chinook salmon that can be fished in the winter and spring.
Elwha River – Home to a large population of rainbow trout.
Hoh River – Home to cutthroat, steelhead and bull trout as well as Chinook and Coho salmon.
Queets River – Home to a large population of cutthroat trout, Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, dolly varden, bull and steelhead trout.
Lake Crescent – Home to cutthroat and rainbow trout.
Lake Ozette – Best fished by boat, Ozette is home to a large population of cutthroat trout as well as three-spined stickleback and sculpin.
Seven Lakes Basin (including Morgenroth, Clear and Sol Duc Lakes) – Home to a large population of cutthroat trout, Coho salmon, Chinook salmon, dolly varden, bull and steelhead trout.
Canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and other non-motorized water sports
If you want to get out on the water, visiting Lake Quinault or Lake Crescent offers a number of ways to do so, including canoe, kayak, paddleboard, row boat and pedal boats.
Lake Crescent is truly one of the world’s most magnificent lakes, with its emerald-hued waters surrounded by lush greenery and an abundance of waterfalls. In the summertime, visitors can also enjoy a cool refreshing dip in spots like the Devil’s Punch Bowl, where at approximately 1,000 feet deep, thrill-seekers jump in from heights of up to 50 feet.
Lake Crescent Lodge offers kayak, canoe and paddleboat rentals, as well as guided scenic kayak trips for exploring the lake and learning about its unique ecology, formation, wildlife, phantom forest, history, legends and more. The Log Cabin Resort also offers rentals, including paddleboards, canoes, kayaks and pedal boats.
If you want to get out on Lake Quinault, another stunning glacier-carved lake next to Lake Quinault Lodge, you can take one of three lake tours, including the Daybreak Lake Tour, offered in the morning when the water is typically quite calm- you’ll learn about the Quinault Rainforest, area wildlife and views, tribal life, and pioneers, while also enjoying the chance to spot river otters, bald eagles and osprey. The Afternoon Lake Tour offers an orientation to the Quinault Rainforest as well as the opportunity to learn about the area, while the Sunset Lake Tour is especially popular, cruising around the lake just before sunset as the bald eagles seek their final catch of the day.
Canoes, kayaks, paddleboard and row boats are available for rent at the lodge for those who want to get out on their own, and get some good exercise too.
Those who enjoy biking aren’t left out either. If you want to mountain bike, most of it is available just outside the par, but the roads of the park do allow bicycles, and there is one unique trail inside the park that permits them. The Spruce Railroad Trail, or Lake Crescent Trail as it’s also called, follows Lake Crescent, with about half the route actual trail, and the other along the North Shore Road, for a total of about 9 miles from one end of the lake to the other. If you want to only ride the trail, you can turn around when it turns into road, for a good 8-mile round trip ride. You’ll ride right along the lake shore, enjoying sweeping vistas of the Olympic Mountains and the emerald waters. One highlight is the arched bridge, which in late spring and early summer, typically has gorgeous wildflower blooms on both sides.
The 30-mile Rainforest Loop Drive, which begins and ends at Lake Quinault Lodge, looping around the lake, up the Quinault River and into the park, finishing back around the other side, is another good ride and a way to spot things you might have missed when driving.
While taking a whale watching cruise is a great way to see the majestic creatures that live or pass through Washington’s waters, there are also a number of location in and near the national park where you can watch them right from shore. The park’s coastal side is part of the Whale Trail, which is made up of more than 60 sites along the shores of the western North American coast, for watching whales as well as seals, porpoise and other marine mammals. Many have interpretive signs which describe the marine life that’s likely to be viewed from there.
Some of the best spots can be found at Kalaloch, South, Rialto and Shi Shi beaches, during the migration seasons, April and May, and again in October and November. Grey whales migrate through in April and May on their way from Baja California, Mexico to Alaska. Humpbacks and orcas can often be seen as well. If you plan to spend a lot of time on one of the beaches, be sure that you aren’t caught unaware by high tides, by checking a tide chart first. They can be found online as well as at ranger stations in the park during the summer.
Participating in Ranger-Led Programs
The park hosts all sorts of ranger-led programs year round, at both visitor centers and campgrounds. In the summer, each visitor center throughout the park features ranger walks and talks for its particular ecosystem. For example, at Hoh, you can learn more about life in the rainforest, while Kalaloch offers the chance to join a beach walk, which covers topics like the area marine life and tide pools. At Elwha, you can learn about the plight of the Olympic salmon, and at Hurricane Ridge, there are ranger-led walks through the meadows, and talks on wildlife.
In the winter, Hurricane Ridge is the hub, where you can enjoy a short ranger-led snowshoe walk – if you have a group of 7 to 25 people, you can make a reservation in advance by calling 360-565-3136, otherwise, simply sign up at the Hurricane Information Desk a half-hour before the walk is scheduled.
The summer season brings a better opportunity for clear night skies, which opens up the fabulous night sky programs at Hurricane Ridge – the very best place for star-gazing in the park. With the Hurricane Ridge Astronomy Program, you’ll join a Master Observer for an evening of astronomy.
Many other talks, walks and programs are available throughout the year. By checking the park’s website or official newspaper, The Bugler, you can plan in advance which events you’d like to attend. Keep in mind that some events require reservations.
Skiing and Snowboarding
Skiing and boarding are the biggest draws in the winter at Olympic National Park, with the Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area at its heart. Situated nearly a mile high, the small ski area offers unrivalled winter wonderland views of glaciated peaks in every direction, without a high price tag, or crowds. It’s also one of only three ski areas in a national park with a ski lift. Typically snow-covered, with an average annual snowfall of over 400 inches, in addition to downhill skiing and boarding, Hurricane Ridge offers snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, tubing and more, generally from about mid-December through the end of March.
Downhill, cross-country, and snowshoe rentals, along with various foods and beverages, are available at Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. While there are no overnight accommodations at Hurricane Ridge, that shouldn’t be a concern for Port Ludlow residents, as it can be reached with only about a 90-minute-drive, making it a fairly easy day trip.
Beachcombing offers a less strenuous way to get some exercise and possibly find some unique treasures in the process. Rialto Beach is famous for its offshore sea stacks as well as its exceptional beachcombing. It’s covered with rock beds of gray basalt and various other quartz and jasper specimens, like orbicular jasper, which stands out with its red orbs on a black background. Agates are frequently found here as well.
Kalaloch Beach is ideal for driftwood, with countless twisted, worn pieces strewn across the sand. There’s beautiful driftwood on Shi Shi Beach as well, but truly, no matter where you are on the 73 miles of sands that stretch along the Pacific in Olympic National Park, you can enjoy beachcombing along with impressive ocean scenery.
Soaking in Hot Springs
After a long day of play and exploring in the park, one of the best ways to relax, unwind and soothe sore muscles, is to soak in one of the hot springs. There are two places in which to enjoy it, and they’re extreme opposites. One more of a built-up, manmade area with maintained springs, and the other wild, natural, unmaintained springs.
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort is the place to go if you don’t want to hike in, and prefer to enjoy a number of other facilities too, but keep in mind that the three hot mineral pools, and not-so-hot freshwater pool, can get crowded. The spring waters that are used to fill the pools come from rain and snowmelt, which seeps through cracks in the sedimentary rocks where it blends with gasses coming from cooling volcanic rocks. The mineralized spring waters then rise to the surface along a larger crack or fissure. The temperatures of the hot pools vary from 99 degrees to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, while the freshwater pool ranges from 50 to 85 degrees, depending on the season. The resort also offers a facility for massage, a poolside deli, casual eatery, gift shop and convenience store.
Olympic Hot Springs, accessible via Olympic Hot Springs Road in the Elwha River Valley followed by a 2.5-mile hike from the Boulder Creek Trailhead. Be sure to check the National Park Service website before you go, as closures sometimes occur on Olympic Hot Springs Road that can make it impossible to reach the trailhead. Once you’re there, you’ll find 21 springs in a bank on Boulder Creek, a tributary of the Elwha River in Olympic National Park. The temperatures of the water range anywhere from lukewarm to a scalding 138 degrees.