A Complete Guide to Olympic National Park

Named after the mountains that surround it, Olympic National Park is a wilderness-lover's playground. Designated as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, the park contains nearly one million acres of land, with several different ecosystems from snow-capped mountains and temperate rainforests (including the Hoh, one of the largest in the US) to over 70 miles of stunning coast.

Before President Theodore Roosevelt named this a national park in 1909—and prior to a short stint as a national monument before that—Olympic National Park was inhabited for thousands of years by Indigenous people of the region. The Skokomish, Klallam, Makah, Quileute, Hoh, Queets, and Quinault people's traditional land borders and lies within this national park; today, eight Olympic Peninsula tribes live nearby and maintain a relationship to it.

A visit to Olympic National Park means getting to enjoy trails to scenic lakes, walks through subalpine forests, and camping near wildflower meadows. Below, we cover how to get the most out of a trip to Olympic—from timing your trip right, to beelining for the best sights—so you can see how it embodies the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

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You'll need a car to explore Olympic National Park, but the drives are as scenic as can be.
You'll need a car to explore Olympic National Park, but the drives are as scenic as can be.
Getty

How to get to Olympic National Park

Start your journey by flying into the closest airport, Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA). The drive from Seattle to Olympic National Park takes about two and a half hours; alternatively, Portland, Oregon is a four-hour drive away. If you don't want to drive, there are bus lines and a ferry that will take you from Seattle to the towns of Kingston, Edmonds, Discovery Bay, Sequim, and Port Angeles that surround the park, but you will need a car to properly explore once you arrive. Also worth noting is that the park's main road is a big loop—you can't cut directly across the park, and it can take time to turn around, so keep driving time and distance in mind when mapping out the places you plan to visit.

When to go

The Pacific Northwest is notorious for rain, and the area can see from 100 to 170 inches annually along the coast and western-facing valleys. While the park remains open year-round, many key roads and facilities are open weather permitting.

The summer months, specifically June through August, are the best time to visit this park as temperatures are warm and wildflower meadows explode with color—but everyone else knows to come in summer too, so prepare for crowds. Early fall from September to October is also a great time to visit, and though the weather can be unpredictable, the rain tends to hold out. Most of the rainfall in the park occurs between November to April. If you don’t mind getting wet, those early months can be a good time to have the park to yourself. January to April are less desirable as temperatures drop, most lodging will be closed, and camping is unavailable. The exception: skiing, snowshoeing, and snowboarding enthusiasts, who head to Hurricane Ridge, where the mountain records 30 to 35 feet of snow a year (just check avalanche conditions before any trip).

What to do in Olympic National Park

Hiking

No national park visit is complete with a hike. Seemingly straight out of a fairytale is the Hall of Mosses trail located in the Hoh Rainforest. The short, flat 1.1-mile loop hike will take you under large moss-covered Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock trees. (The trail is open year-round, but you’ll have to leave dogs at home.) If you want a hike with a little more punch, try the six-mile roundtrip hike to Hurricane Hill. At the top, marvel at panoramic mountain and water views. On a clear day, you will be able to see Vancouver Island, BC, and parts of the San Juan Islands. For more of a day hike, head to Lake Ozette to start on the Ozette Triangle Trail. The 9.4-mile loop has an elevation gain of 538 feet and covers both forest and beach terrain.

Hike among moss-covered Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock trees in the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park.
Hike among moss-covered Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock trees in the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park.
Joshua Earle/Unsplash

Hot springs

No trip to Olympic National Park is complete without a hot spring session. The best place to go? Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Located west of Lake Crescent, inside the national park, the source of the spring water comes from rain and melting snow, and is then directed into four spa pools ranging from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 104. Guests staying at the resort get access, or you can book a 90-minute session in advance. (The springs close during the winter.)

Stargazing

The best views happen at nightStargaze in the summer when there is less rain to disrupt your view and enjoy the near-total absence of human-caused light. Head to Hurricane Ridge to take part in a night sky program led by the Olympic Dark Rangers who will help you see galaxies, stars, and constellations through their free public telescope program; or join a three-mile round trip hike to Hurricane Hill for a constellation tour at the top.

Boat on Lake Crescent

Get out of the car, stretch your legs, and get a different point of view by booking a guided boat tour just 18 miles west of Port Angeles at one of the deepest lakes in the park: Lake Crescent, which is 624 feet deep. You'll spend 90 minutes learning about the history of the lake, the surrounding geology, and Indigenous stories. Stick around after the boat tour, as Lake Crescent has several hiking trails, picnic areas, and swimming during summer and fall. You can also rent a rowboat from Lake Crescent Lodge. (The boat tour runs Thursday to Sunday, from mid-June to mid-September.)

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing

While trails in Olympic National Park may close due to winter weather, Hurricane Ridge is in its prime during the snow season. At an elevation of 5,242 feet, Hurricane Ridge offers all types of winter sports from snowboarding to downhill tubing. Cross-country ski and snowshoe 15 to 20 miles of routes in the region—but beware that no trails are groomed or marked. For those who want a less rugged experience, Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area offers lift facilities and equipment rentals. The ski area is the westernmost in the U.S. and one of just three lift-serviced ski areas located inside a U.S. National Park. Backcountry skiers can also explore slopes and bowls in the area including Hurricane Hill, Sunrise Ridge, and Klahhane Ridge. If you visit in winter, just know that you'll need snow tires or chains to access these areas.

Kalaloch Lodge in Forks sits between driftwood-covered beaches and evergreen forest.
Kalaloch Lodge in Forks sits between driftwood-covered beaches and evergreen forest.
Kalaloch Lodge

Where to stay in and around Olympic National Park

Camping in Olympic

During the summer months of June through September, reservations for campsites fill up fast. Reserve a spot at Hoh Campground to spend a night in the temperate rainforest. This year-round campground is best for adventure groups, as the park service offers summer ranger programs and even riverside campsites along the Hoh River. Those seeking solitude should head to the smaller, remote North Fork Campground. Or, listen to the sounds of the waves from the South Beach Campground overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where you also get beach access. The popular Fairholme, Kalaloch, Mora, Hoh Rain Forest, and Staircase campsites also need to be reserved in advance, but other campsites are first come, first-served.

Wilderness camping is also on offer, and permits become available for advance reservation in April, for the summer season through October. Seek out a permit for Seven Lakes Basin, High Divide Trail, and Royal Basin. On the 19.3-mile Seven Lakes Basin-High Divide Trail, you'll be rewarded with sweeping views of mountains, lakes, wildflowers, and glacier peaks. Royal Basin gives you the best of the Eastern Olympics, working its way to the scenic Royal Lake during an 18-mile out-and-back hike.

For visitors with an RV, Log Cabin Resort has a variety of campsites next to Lake Crescent that include full hook-up RV sites and wheelchair accessibility.

Near the park

There are several lodging options in the gateway communities surrounding Olympic National Park —most notably Port Angeles, Sequim, Port Townsend, and Forks—that all make for cool basecamps if you’re exploring the wider region. (And yes, these towns are famously known for their appearance in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga.) Think about what you might want to do after a day in the park when deciding where to base yourself: You can go below ground on the Underground Heritage Tour in Port Angeles and learn about their subterranean network of tunnels and storefronts from the early 1900s, created due to flooded concerns; or take to the skies in Sequim with a hot air balloon ride. Downtown Port Townsend, meanwhile, is home to two National Historic Landmark Districts.

Located on the Pacific Coast in Forks, a standout stay is the laid-back and pet-friendly Kalaloch Lodge, which is open year-round, and sits between driftwood-lined beaches and an evergreen forest. At the lodge’s restaurant, Creekside, take a seat overlooking the ocean and bite into local and sustainable Pacific Northwest cuisine, such as their Grilled King Salmon or Northwest Elk Burger—60 percent of their food and beverages are sourced within 150 miles, are certified organic, or both; and every wine served comes from Washington.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler