When we found ourselves traveling to Washington on both personal business and work, I knew one of my top priorities whilst in the state was heading to Olympic National Park. This breathtaking National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is an incredible region due to the vastly varying topography and ecosystems. From rainforests, cascading waterfalls, and mountain ranges to the glaciers atop Mt. Olympus, sprawling rocky or sandy beaches, and old-growth forests with some of the tallest trees we’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, Olympic National Park is one of the most exciting, diverse, and impressive national wonders in the world.
About Olympic National Park
At nearly 1,000,000 acres, Olympic National Park is the 13th largest National Park in the United States. The National Park has 60 glaciers that have been given names (like Blue, Hoh, Jeffers, Ice River, and more), it has 4 separate rainforest areas, 650 archaeological sites or active dig sites, 64 different trailheads, and thousands of miles of rivers and streams. There are more than 1,200 types of plants, 300 different types of birds, and more than 50 different types of mammals that live in the park. 16 animals (like a species of marmots and a type of trout) as well as 9 varieties of plants are only found within the Olympic National Park and aren’t known to exist anywhere else on Earth. Indigenous people like the Hoh, Quinault and the Quileute have lived in this area for at least 12,000 years, and they were the original stewards of this stunningly diverse and breathtaking natural area.
Given National Park status in June of 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted to build on the moment of previous presidents to preserve the forested areas that were being exploited by logging companies, which was, in turn, damaging the waterways and destroying this stunning region. He also wanted to preserve the large, gentle elk that were named after his uncle-in-law, President Theodore Rosevelt. In 1986, Olympic National Park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in order to help preserve and emphasize its importance in historical, cultural, biological, and social contexts.
How to Reach Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is open 24/7, 365 days per year, and can be reached from Seattle via a 2.5 hour, 110-mile drive, or from nearby Port Angeles which is only about a 15-minute drive away. There is a ferry that can take vehicles across Puget Sound when traveling from Seattle, but unless you are traveling early in the morning on a weekday, it may end up adding more time to your drive, ergo I recommend instead driving around Puget Sound. The nearest major airport is the SeaTac (SEA aka Seattle-Tacoma) airport in Seattle.
With a GPS and a car, the National Park can be accessed from really anywhere in the state. Common trailheads that can easily be reached via driving with a GPS include the Olympic National Park Visitors Center entrance, the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, Staircase Ranger Station, and the Elwha Ranger Station, plus a few others along the US 101 highway that winds around the peninsula.
When to Visit Olympic National Park
This region is beautiful to visit any time of year, with the proper clothing and gear. While it is rather rainy in the Olympic Peninsula, in general, the Pacific Northwest region receives about as much rain as New York City. We visited at the end of summer, and up in the mountains, the air was cool and crisp, but not cold. Average temperatures run around 37ºF November – March, low 40ºs to mid 50ºs from April – June, and low 60ºs July – September, with October been around 46ºF on average. Essentially, look ahead at the weather when you plan to visit, wear thing layers (or thicker layers if you visit in the winter), and expect the weather to change rapidly. Dressing flexibly will ensure that you are safe and comfortable in any weather.
Getting Around Olympic National Park
The National Park is a haven for hiking, camping, kayaking & canoeing, and swimming. If you just want to visit for the day, plan out your adventure ahead of time, and head to the nearest trailhead on foot, and then drive to the next spot you’d like to visit. Alternatively, plan a drop-off and pick-off point if you want to hike in and hike out somewhere else and be picked up by a friend.
To enjoy the scenic drives at Olympic National Park, take the US 101 that loops around the Olympic Peninsula and explore at your leisure, stopping to marvel at all of the gorgeous and fascinating scenery.
Where to Eat at Olympic National Park
As far as I’m aware, there aren’t many options for dining within the park, so visitors, particularly those who plan to stay for an extended length of time, should bring their own food. There are some snacks sold at the Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center, but there aren’t any restaurants I could find within the National Park. There are cougars, bears, mountain goats, and other wild animals living within the sprawling National Park, so be sure to research how to carefully, safely, and securely store your food (either in bear containers, cars or up in trees) prior to visiting. People have been attacked by bears for having food left out, and while the bears are, of course, more interested in eating food than people, they have hurt people who weren’t careful and didn’t follow proper outdoor procedures.
Absolutely everything you bring into the park MUST be brought back out with you, like bottles of water, food wrappers, and even peels and pits from produce should be taken out so as not to disrupt the natural ecosystem of the park, encourage wildlife to follow or stalk you if you’re regularly dropping food scraps, and to keep the park clean and pristine for others, and future generations. We packed a lunch and some snacks during our visit, and we didn’t even throw our trash away at the trash cans near the camping grounds, we took it back out with us to reduce the burden on the park rangers and staff who keep the park clean for us, and because we could easily dispose of it, responsibly, ourselves.
Where to Stay Near Olympic National Park
The obvious place to stay would be inside the National Park itself if you obtain the proper passes from a ranger station or visitor center. If camping doesn’t tickle your fancy, nearby Port Angeles offers several accommodation options for those wanting to stay in more modern accommodations. While my husband and I do really love camping, I think adding in a visit to Port Angeles would make our next visit to the Olympic Peninsula even more enjoyable. I don’t recommend staying in Seattle if you plan anything longer than a day trip, because it’s at least 5 hours of driving each day, which sucks up too much time to really enjoy the area properly.
Staying Safe in Olympic National Park
As I mentioned above, there are wild animals like cougars, bears, and mountain goats, among hundreds of others. While they primarily keep to themselves, don’t give the wildlife a reason to follow you by keeping food out when in the park, using the bathroom near trails (there were lots of signs warning people not to urinate on trails, because mountain goats like the salt in human urine and will follow you if you go too close to trails, and may attack with their sharp horns), and certainly don’t go near, attempt to touch, or attempt to feed any wild animals you might encounter. The last thing you want is a wild animal associating you and your scent with food.
Hiking & Recreating Safely
If you head into Olympic National Park, know where you are going and tell someone your plans. That way, if you don’t show up, they will know that you’ve gotten lost. Stick to the trails (unless you need to answer “the call of nature”, in which case don’t go so far that the trail isn’t visible), and be sure to carry a map with you, extra clothing, carefully sealed snacks, a life straw, and an emergency blanket and flashlight in your pack. We also had a can of bear spray given to us by a friend who frequents the park, and he recommended taking some if you plan to visit just before or right after hibernation season, just in case.
No Cell Service
We didn’t have any cell service whatsoever from about 30 minutes outside of the park, until we returned to that same point later that night, so don’t plan to be able to use Google Maps, the internet, or even your phone’s GPS. I recommend bringing a paper map, a satellite phone if you have one or can borrowing from a friend, and saving a map of your route to your phone’s photo gallery as well, which can be accessed without cell phone service.
Since Olympic National Park is such a varied ecosystem, technically it’s multiple ecosystems, but I digress, there are a variety of natural hazards. Be careful of sharp drops around hiking trails, and keep an eye out for uneven terrain. When the ground is wet, the ground can become slippery or lose and slide a bit, making hiking more treacherous. Since the weather can be a bit unpredictable, be sure that you have enough layers to keep you warm and dry. We didn’t notice any problems with insects, but if you’re sensitive to bug bites, be sure to keep that in mind when packing, and don’t forget the bug spray. The water in some of the rivers, streams, and even lakes can have fast-moving currents, so be careful when swimming and don’t do anything if you don’t know for certain you can handle it.
Overall, if. you have basically outdoor survival skills, you’ll be perfectly fine enjoying this gorgeous natural treasure. Stay safe, and never stop exploring!
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