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Olympic National Park things to do and travel tips
When I think back about my visit to the Olympic National Park in Washington, a smile always appears on my face. Together with Crater Lake National Park this was one of the highlights during my Pacific Northwest roadtrip that I made in the summer.
Olympic National Park was stuck in my mind for years because in the past I noticed this area from a distance. The Olympic Peninsula in the extreme northwest of America and is located opposite Vancouver Island in Canada. I regularly made a whale watching excursion from Victoria and during this excursion you will sail through the waters between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. While on this excursion, I already saw the snowy peaks of Olympic National Park in the distance. During my road trip through Washington State it was now time to go and visit after seeing the mountains so often. I hope you’ll enjoy reading this travel guide with the best things to do in Olympic National Park Washington.
About Olympic National Park
The Olympic National Park is located on the Olympic Peninsula, a huge peninsula in the extreme northwest of the United States. You can reach the peninsula from Seattle by crossing the waters of Puget Sound. I myself came from the Oregon Coast and drove via Astoria onwards to the Olympic Peninsula. The national park consists of two parts: the central part (also called the Olympic Wilderness) and the coastal strip on the west of the Olympic Peninsula.
The Olympic National Park was declared a national park in 1938 and is one of the least known national parks in the USA, partly because it is fairly out of the direction of many other sights. The highest point of the park is the 2,428 meter high Mount Olympus, which is covered with glaciers and visible in good weather from the Hurricane Ridge visitor center.
The central part consists of mountains, backpacking trails and crystal clear lakes, as well as rain forests. The coastal area consists mainly of rugged coastline, fishing villages and beaches. Because I only had one day for the area, I decided to visit the central part: Hurricane Ridge and Lake Crescent. If you have an extra day, you could add the Hoh Rain Forest to your visit.
Planning your visit to Olympic National Park
It’s impossible to see all the beautiful places of Olympic National Park in one day. The area is huge and you can’t drive through the park from one area to another, unfortunately. So you will always have to leave the park to drive to the next area. Hopefully the map below will clear that up for you.
So, what to see on one day in Olympic National Park and more importantly: how to organize this? Technically you can visit Hurricane Ridge, Lake Crescent and Hoh Rain Forest in one day from Port Angeles, but this will be a very long day. If you want to add the coastline, you need at least two days.
During my trip I decided to visit two places because I don’t like to rush. In addition, I wanted to do a nice hike to better explore the area instead of just driving from one place to the next, taking a photo and continuing. I therefore chose to visit Hurricane Ridge for the mountains and Lake Crescent for the interior. I have seen beautiful bearded mosses and waterfalls here, so in looking back, I did not regret the fact that I no longer had time for the Hoh Rain Forest.
Tip: before you head out, visit the Olympic National Park Visitors Center. This one is located just outside Port Angeles, on the way to Hurricane Ridge. They can tell you everything about the must-sees, wildlife, the hiking trails and what else you want to know.
Hurricane Ridge Olympic National Park
The first part of Olympic National Park that I visited was Hurricane Ridge. This one was closest to my camping site and so it felt like a logical choice to go here early in the morning. I was lucky and the weather was beautiful, so getting up early doesn’t feel like a big effort if that’s the case. From the campsite I drove straight to the route to Hurricane Ridge and at the sight of the first snow-covered mountains in the distance my heart started pounding. Unfortunately I also have be honest: the snowy mountains are only accessible on multi-day hiking trails, as they are located in the heart of the park where there’s no roads.
The route to Hurricane Ridge is beautiful and takes you from (almost) sea level to a height of 1.592 meters. The area consists of a ridge where it the wind can be quite fierce, hence the name Hurricane Ridge. In the winter it’s a popular ski and snowboard area, in the summer you can make beautiful hikes. The way up is winding and gives you amazing views. I was reminded a bit of the opening scene of the movie The Shining, especially when I looked back on the road below me on the walk that I was making.
Upon arrival on the Hurricane Ridge it was already difficult to find a parking space, so arriving on time is important as there’s limited parking. I was there in mid-July and when I returned from my hike to Klahhane Ridge in the middle of the day, there was a line for cars waiting to park.
There also is a visitor center on Hurricane Ridge and from the rear terrace you have beautiful views of the glaciers and Mount Olympus in the distance. Here you will also find bear warnings everywhere so make sure you do not leave food anywhere. As advised by the staff at the visitor center at Hurricane Ridge, I decide to take the hike to Klahhane Ridge. This walk took me about four hours, 2.5 hours there and 1.5 hours back. If you have less time, there are plenty of other Olympic National Park hikes you can do.
Walks and hikes at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park
From the visitor center at Hurricane Ridge there are several short walks that you can take for a good impression of this area. To start with, there are two short walks, both half a mile along a paved path: the Cirque Rim and the Big Meadow Trail. The first gives you a view of Port Angeles and Juan de Fuca Strait (the water that separates the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island) and the second gives you a view of the Olympic Mountains. The High Ridge Trail is a partially paved trail that leads you to a viewpoint and has a rise of almost 100 meters. The two previously mentioned trails are relatively flat.
From the visitor center you can drive even further to Hurricane Hill. Please note: this road is only for cars and not suitable for campers! From here you can climb the Hurricane Hill and here also the trails towards the glaciers in the heart of the park begin.
Klahhane Ridge hike
I chose to do the Klahhane Ridge hike. Tip: only do this hike in good weather as the highlight is the view of Vancouver Island and the snow-covered Mt. Baker in the distance. When it is cloudy and/or foggy, hiking this trail is not worth it. I start my walk on the High Ridge Trail, after which I arrive at the branch to Klahhane Ridge. As it hasn’t rained for several days, the path is dusty and in no time I am slightly orange colored.
The start of the hike is not too difficult, the only thing I am a bit worried about are possible bears on the road. I generally don’t mind walking alone when hiking in the US, but I am always extra alert when it comes to bears. When I inquired at the visitor center I learned that black bears are regularly observed around the trail, often a little further away. I therefore ensure that, whenever possible, I always keep other hikers in sight. It doesn’t always work, especially during the part where I have to go through the forest.
After I’ve walked through the forest and I have experienced a small hurricane (see the video!) it is time for the climb to Klahhane Ridge. People have been zigzagging for a while above me and now it’s also time for me to start the steep climb. The alpine flowers are in full bloom and along the way I am encouraged by other hikers who are on their way down again.
After a 30 minute break it’s time to start the way back. Just after the zigzag I suddenly hear sounds in the bushes. It turns out to be a herd of goats, luckily. If they are grazing safely here, I have little to fear anymore. I’m always thinking ‘bears’ but luckily it was just goats this time. Not too much time later I arrive back at my car.
The Klahhane Ridge hike is about 3.8 miles one way and took me a total of four hours of walking time. In total you climb around 500 meters, most of which during the last climb to the ridge. The path is not difficult and easy to do for anyone with a good hiking condition.
Lake Crescent & area
Halfway through the afternoon I’m back at my car and in doubt. My legs are a little tired from the Klahhane Ridge hike, but I still want to see a bit of the rainforest. And so I decide to drive to Lake Crescent, about a 30 minute drive from Port Angeles (and an hour from Hurricane Ridge). When I get there, I stop by the visitor center, the Storm King Ranger Station, where they advise me to take the hike to Marymere Falls.
The Marymere Falls hike takes me through a centuries-old forest and along a simple hiking trail to Marymere Falls, one of the major attractions of the Olympic National Park. The rise is minimal and on the way I take the time to take pictures of the huge bearded mosses that grow here. The falls are impressive and from the platforms I take some pictures.
I also do the short Moments in Time walk that takes me along the lake. However, I soon notice that it is starting to cool down, so quickly take some pictures and return to the car. Although there are also countless hiking options here, my day has been long enough. And so I drive back to Port Angeles where I treat myself to a huge barbecue chicken pizza. I know for sure that someday I will go back to the Olympic National Park for further exploration!
Olympic National Park lodging & camping
I traveled through the Pacific Northwest with a rental car and a tent. At times, I found it quite hard to find an affordable place to sleep as I didn’t book anything ahead. Fortunately most of the campsites in Olympic National Park are based on ‘first come, first serve’ and I arrived early enough to get a spot at Heart O’ the Hills Campsite. I arrived around noon and then there were still a few places available, halfway through the afternoon everything was full.
The Heart O’ the Hills Campsite is a simple campsite with only running water and no other facilities. It is also the best place to stay when you want to go to Hurricane Ridge. I paid USD 20 per night and this can only be paid in cash. You can find more information about the campsites in Olympic National Park here.
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, motel or B&B, Port Angeles is the best base for your visit to Olympic National Park. Reservations in advance in high season are necessary. In addition, I was told by a friend who was in the area with me at the same time that Port Townsend is also worthwhile. This is about an hour’s drive from Port Angeles.
Also good to know before your visit + Olympic National Park map
Don’t forget to buy a national park pass, with which you can visit all the national parks of America. This is generally cheaper than buying an entrance ticket over and over again for each park that you visit. Furthermore, it is useful to know that Americans generally are on vacation from June and that the months of June to August are therefore high season. Although there are few visitors from Europe, the Olympic National Park is a popular destination for Americans and Canadians. In June and July there may still be snow at Hurricane Ridge and not all trails may be open. The Olympic National Park weather is alpine and so you can experience all kinds of weather in one day!
Make sure to order your Olympic National Park hiking guide ahead as well as your this Olympic National Park map so you can plan your trip the best possible way!
Conclusion and disclaimer
Hopefully you found this extensive article about Olympic National Park things to do useful. I thought it was one of the nicest places I visited during my trip through the American Pacific Northwest. As the area is so incredibly large, one full day was actually not enough, so I certainly hope to return to the Hoh Rain Forest and to the coastal area of Olympic National Park.
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