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Everything to know about Olympic National Park

National Geographic logo National Geographic 5 days ago Joe Yogerst

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One of the most primeval parts of the lower 48 states, Olympic National Park covers nearly 1 million acres of the eponymous peninsula in Washington State—95 percent of which is designated wilderness. While the typical image of the park is a dark, damp, and overwhelmingly beautiful temperate rainforest, the park also shelters alpine highlands, tranquil lakeshores, and a wild Pacific coastline that seems totally untouched by humans.

Olympic is one of the places that President Teddy Roosevelt recognized as an endangered national treasure, protecting the area’s snowcapped peaks and lush forest with national monument status in 1909. That set the stage for a struggle between the timber industry and conservationists that segued into the ecological wave that later swept the Pacific Northwest.

In 1938, Olympic was designated as a national park, after an act of Congress that was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Can’t-miss experiences

While it’s possible to enter the park from more than two dozen spots off the Olympic Highway (U.S. 101), the most popular is via Port Angeles on the peninsula’s north shore. The city’s Olympic National Park Visitor Center provides the usual range of information, books, and maps, as well as hands-on exhibits on the park’s human and natural history. Two short nature walks, the Living Forest Loop (0.4 mile) and Peabody Creek Trail (0.5 mile), are a good introduction to the nature that lies ahead.

Mount Angeles Road meanders 17 miles south into the heart of the park and a popular spot called Hurricane Ridge, where another visitor center offers exhibits and ranger-guided activities during the summer. Hikers have plenty of choices, from the short, flat Big Meadow Loop (a quarter mile) to challenging treks like the 8-mile Wolf Creek Trail to Whiskey Bend. During winter, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing take over the Hurricane (equipment rentals are available at the gift shop).

Heading west from Port Angeles, Highway 101 makes a beeline for blue-green Lake Crescent, renowned for both its beauty and indigenous trout species. Get out on the water with a rental boat from Fairholme Store, hike or bike the north shore via the 10.5-mile Spruce Railroad Trail, or take a refreshing dip at East Beach.

Just beyond the lake’s western end, a side road leads to Sol Duc Hot Springs with its outdoor mineral pools (the hottest averages 104°F) and massage treatments. The valley is also renowned for its ancient forest, with many of the towering trees more than 200 years old. Salmon Cascades is a great spot to watch fish spawn in the fall, while trails lead off to Mink Lake, Sol Duc Falls, and the secluded Seven Lakes Basin.

Over on the park’s supersaturated west side, the Hoh Valley is home to the park’s most enchanting forest, a mosaic of moss, ferns, and giant trees that really does look like something from a medieval fairytale (or Sasquatch movie). This is also the gateway to 7,980-foot Mount Olympus, the park’s highest point. Glacier-climbing skills are necessary to reach the peak, but day hikers can reach the base of Blue Glacier via the 18-mile Hoh River Trail.

As Anne and Mike Howard wrote for National Geographic, the Quinault Valley is “a humbling place,” home to some of the largest hemlocks, Douglas firs, western red cedars, and a 1,000-year-old Sitka spruce. The Howards suggest starting with the educational Quinault Rain Forest Nature Loop, a half-mile trail through this textbook example of a temperate rain forest. Continue hiking on the various connecting trails or keep it mellow with a 31-mile drive around the exceptionally scenic lake.

Separated from the rest of the park by private and tribal lands, Kalaloch area protects 65 miles of a wild Pacific coast carved by waves and tidal action. Riptides and floating logs inhibit swimming or surfing in these waters. The shoreline is more suited to long walks, exploring tide pools, and scouting for the harbor seals, porpoises, sea otters, and other local denizens.

This article was updated on August 12, 2019; a version of this text originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
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