With its incredible range of precipitation and elevation, diversity is the hallmark of Olympic National Park. Encompassing nearly a million acres, the park protects a vast wilderness, thousands of years of human history, and several distinctly different ecosystems. Located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the park has four regions, including 70 miles of wild Pacific coastline, alpine areas, old-growth temperate rain forests and the forests of the drier east side.
My name is Rob Decker and I’m a photographer and graphic artist with a single great passion for America’s national parks! I’ve been to 50 of our 61 national parks — and Olympic National Park has so many different areas, there are tons of things to see and do! You can hike in the mountains, kayak or canoe in a lake or river, play in the tide pools, relax in the hot springs...and so much more! I’ve explored many areas of Olympic National Park — so I’m ready to help! If this is your first time to the park, or your returning after many years, here are some of the best things to do in Olympic National Park!
Exploring the Pacific Coastline
The coastal portion of the park is a rugged, sandy beach along with a strip of adjacent forest. It is 60 miles long but just a few miles wide. While some beaches are primarily sand, others are covered with heavy rock and very large boulders.
The most popular piece of the coastal strip is the 9-mile Ozette Loop. The Park Service runs a registration and reservation program to control usage levels of this area. From the trailhead at Ozette Lake, a 3-mile leg of the trail is a boardwalk-enhanced path through near primal coastal cedar swamp. Once you arrive at the ocean, you can continue out on the headland trails for spectacular views and sunsets. Some of the best places to enjoy the Olympic coast include:
- Rialto Beach
- Second Beach
- Third Beach
- James Pond
- Beach 4
- Ruby Beach
The most popular tidepools areas are at Kalaloch's Beach 4 and Mora's Hole in the Wall. Rangers offer programs at both locations. Second Beach, Third Beach, Ruby Beach and many other coastal wilderness locations are also excellent places to view intertidal life in the park.
Explore Olympic’s Rivers by Kayak and Canoe
There are many kayak and canoe options in Olympic National Park’s rivers and lakes. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most popular spots to see the park from the water.
Paddle The Rivers of Olympic National Park
Elwha River (Class II-IV) This river can be paddled most of the year, but the best season is in the spring or early summer. The most common put-in sites are in the lower portions of Glines Canyon and Altair Campground.
Hoh River (Class II-III) This river offers scenic views of old-growth rainforest, but is frequented with log jams. Always scout ahead before paddling to avoid hazards. The most popular put-in locations are at the Hoh Campground and near the park entrance station on the Hoh River Road.
Queets River (Class II-III) Queets River is a great place to experience secluded rain forests during higher water levels. In late summer, the river is often blocked by large debris and water that is too low for paddling. Log jam hazards may exist throughout the year. Popular put-in sites are the Queets Campground above Sam's Rapid and the Hartzell Boat Launch.
Quinault River (Class II-V) For expert kayakers willing to hike into the backcountry, the Quinault River offers challenging water. From the Graves Creek trailhead, hike 2.5 miles to Pony Bridge. This 3 mile route is through a gorge and has a mandatory portage at Dolly Falls. For calmer waters, a popular launch site is near-end of the North Shore Road at the bridge.
Sol Duc River (Class III-V) For experienced kayakers, a 1.2 mile hike up the North Fork Trail in the Sol Duc Valley to the launch site offers fun water above Salmon Cascades. For experts interested in rapids, put-in at Salmon Cascades Overlook.
Enjoy The Lakes of Olympic National Park
Big, deep, and blue, Lake Crescent offers a scenic paddling experience, particularly in the early morning when winds are most likely to be calm. Winds often come up in the afternoon and can quickly create waves of a foot or more. Boat launches include Storm King Ranger Station and Fairholme. Kayaks and canoes can be rented at concession operated Log Cabin Resort and Lake Crescent Lodge.
Lake Ozette Near the coast and filled with summer water lilies, Lake Ozette offers a secluded paddle journey. Two boat launches exist at the Ozette Ranger Station and Ozette Campground. Kayak and Canoes can also access a few backcountry campsites. Sudden weather changes are common in the Ozette area -- always check the forecast and plan for the possibility of sudden, strong winds and waves.
Lake Quinault In a rainforest valley, Lake Quinault boasts mountain views and old-growth forests. Afternoon winds are common here, so always be prepared. Two boat launches are found on the U.S. Forest Service operated Falls Creek and Willaby Campgrounds. Boat rentals are available at the concession operated Lake Quinault Lodge.
Fishing in Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park protects over 70 miles of Pacific Coast, 600 lakes, and 4,000 miles of rivers and streams that support some of the most extensive runs of wild salmon, trout, and char remaining in the Pacific Northwest.
Only catch and release fishing is allowed, which improves native fish populations by allowing more fish to remain and reproduce in the ecosystem. This practice provides an opportunity for increasing numbers of anglers to enjoy fishing and to successfully catch fish. Releasing native fish caught while in a national park will help to ensure that enjoyment of this recreation opportunity will last for generations to come. Fishing gear is perhaps the most important factor affecting whether a fish will survive being caught and released. Use artificial lures or flies. Use of bait is prohibited in all park waters. Use rod, reel, and line of sufficient strength to quickly land the fish Use properly sized single circle or barbless hooks.
Visit The Hoh Rainforest
Throughout the winter season, rain falls frequently in the Hoh Rain Forest, contributing to the yearly total of 140 to 170 inches (or 12 to 14 feet!) of precipitation each year. The result is a lush, green canopy of both coniferous and deciduous species. Mosses and ferns that blanket the surfaces add another dimension to the enchantment of the rainforest.
The Hoh Rain Forest is located in the stretch of the Pacific Northwest rainforest which once spanned the Pacific coast from southeastern Alaska to the central coast of California. The Hoh is one of the finest remaining examples of temperate rainforest in the United States and is one of the park's most popular destinations. The Hoh lies on the west side of Olympic National Park, about a two-hour drive from Port Angeles and under an hour from Forks. The Hoh Rain Forest is accessed by the Upper Hoh Road, off of Highway 101.
See Olympic National Park on Foot
Day hikes of varying length and difficulty are found throughout the park. Some are universally accessible while others are more challenging. Because of the diverse nature of the park, and depending on how much time you’re able to spend in the park, you’ll want to choose one or more areas to explore.
Before You Go...
- Even on short hikes, be prepared for changeable weather. Carry food, water, raingear and extra layers of clothing.
- Do not drink water directly from streams. Boil water or use a water filter or other treatment that kills or filters giardia and cryptosporidium. Iodine tablets do not kill cryptosporidium.
- Stay on trails to avoid injury to yourself and the park's vegetation.
- Pack out all trash, including food waste.
Many bird species share Olympic's skies. Bald eagles, northern pygmy owls, black oystercatchers and sooty grouse are among the 300 species of birds found in the diverse habitats of the park.
Black-tailed deer can be encountered in nearly all areas of the park. Deer often roam in the mountainous and forested locations within the park and tend to be more active during the morning and evening.
Spot these charismatic animals at Olympic's higher elevations. Trails near Hurricane Ridge and alpine trails make prime destinations for marmot sightings during the summer.
Most elk sightings occur in Olympic's lower valleys and rainforests. Elk encounters occur throughout the day, but are most common during dusk or dawn.
Olympic's rivers are home to all five species of Pacific salmon, as well as anadromous steelhead and bull trout. Although there are salmon migrations throughout the year, fall is the best time to view the salmon's dramatic upstream journey. Most rivers in the park host a fall salmon run, but the Salmon Cascades Overlook in the Sol Duc Valley provides one of the best views from late September to Early October.
The Olympic coast offers many opportunities to view whales during their migration seasons of April - May and October - November. Prime whale watching sights include Kalaloch, Rialto, and Shi Shi Beaches.
Although not native, mountain goats can been seen high elevation areas of the park and may be encountered along alpine hiking trails. They occasionally roam near Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.
Black Bears are seldom sighted in areas with high human presence, such as roads and Visitor Centers. Most sightings, while rare, occur along backcountry trails.
Exploring Olympic National Park in Winter
At an elevation of 5,242 feet, Hurricane Ridge is Olympic's alpine destination in winter. Typically snow-covered, Hurricane Ridge provides opportunities for snowshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, snowboarding, tubing and more. Hurricane Ridge's winter season is generally mid-December through the end of March.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist with a single passion for our national parks! Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph each of our national parks and to create WPA-style posters to celebrate the amazing landscapes, vibrant culture and rich history that embody America’s Best Idea!