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Exploring Olympic National Park and the Hoh Rain Forest: A Visitor's Guide

On the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park lies in the northwest of Washington State and borders the Pacific Ocean in the west. Isolated, rugged, and picturesque, the park attracts visitors who come here to explore the largest and finest expanse of temperate rain forest in the western hemisphere: the Hoh Rain Forest.

This is one of most visited national parks in the United States, drawing nearly three million visitors a year. From the tidal beaches at sea level to the alpine ridges and summit of Mount Olympus (7,980 feet), the park protects an enormous spectrum of different landscapes. The Olympic Mountains lie in the center of the park, deeply fissured with a complex system of steep valleys. There are some 60 glaciers and numerous snowfields throughout the highest elevations. Above the tree line is a region of alpine meadows with colorful mountain flowers. But the ascent of the highest mountains is recommended only for the most experienced climbers with proper equipment, and it is strictly forbidden to walk on the alpine meadows. Rainwear and good boots are also essential for hikers.

The national park is open all year round, though not all areas are accessible in every season. There is a central visitor center for the Olympics in Port Angeles, and additional outposts near the Hoh Rain Forest, Forks, and Hurricane Ridge. Campsites are scattered throughout the region, as well as many cozy lodgings both in and outside of park boundaries.

Olympic Peninsula Scenic Drive

Olympic Peninsula Scenic Drive
Olympic Peninsula Scenic Drive
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The park is divided up into a narrow coastal strip 50 miles long on the Pacific, and the main central mountainous area through which no roads pass. The mountains, with the adjoining national forests, are encircled by the 330-mile-long Olympic Peninsula Scenic Drive (US 101). Side roads, some only partly asphalted, lead off to attractions like the Hoh Rain Forest and Hurricane Ridge inland, or endless sandy beaches on the coast. A good starting point for a motor tour of the park is the little harbor town of Port Angeles, where there is a park visitor center.

Hoh Rain Forest

Hoh Rain Forest
Hoh Rain Forest
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The greatest attraction of the national park is this magnificent expanse of nature, one of the last surviving areas of temperate zone rainforest. The Hoh Rain Forest, 90 miles from Port Angeles, caters for visitors with its three nature trails, including the short but very impressive Hall of Mosses Trail.

The annual cycle of rain coming in from the Pacific and the heavy snowfalls on Mount Olympus in winter (melt water from which flows down into west-facing valleys of the Quinault, Queens, and Hoh Rivers), have fostered the lush green growth of the forest. While the coastal region lying in the rain shadow of the hills is extremely dry, Mount Olympus has the highest annual precipitations (200 inches) in the United States outside Alaska. Rainproof clothing and stout footwear are a must for all visitors.

The four main species of conifer found here (Sitka spruce, hemlock, red cedar, and Douglas fir) and the Oregon maple and vine maple grow to gigantic heights of up to 330 feet, with diameters of up to 13 feet. The trees and fallen trunks are covered with ferns of unusual size (including liquorice and sword ferns), lichens, and moss. A fallen trunk that has rotted away will nourish whole colonnades of trees. Particularly striking is Selaginella, a species of moss related to club moss that hangs down from trees (mostly maples) in long garlands and curtains.

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Visitors will rarely see any Roosevelt elk (wapiti) in summer, but the signs of their presence are everywhere: they graze on the rapidly growing vegetation and prevent it from flourishing too luxuriantly. Other animals that may be encountered are black bears, cougars, and coyotes, whose tracks can sometimes be seen in the soft soil of the forest. The rivers are well stocked with fish. Various hiking trails start from US 101. One of the best is the 16 mile Queets River Trail; other more strenuous trails cross the entire park.

The coastal strip of Olympic National Park is a region of sandy beaches, cliffs rising sheer out of the sea, rock arches, accumulations of driftwood, and forests reaching right down to the shore. The northern part is accessible only on side roads branching off US 101; drivers experience the southern third on the scenic drive between Ruby Beach and Queets. The sea is not particularly inviting for bathers since cold currents keep the water temperature low. When walking on the numerous promontories, tourists must keep a watchful eye on the tides. Seals are common, and sometimes grey whales swim past in spring and autumn.

Hurricane Ridge

Hurricane Ridge
Hurricane Ridge
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A 20-mile-long scenic road runs up to Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center (altitude 5,200 feet; no overnight accommodation). From this great height, there are magnificent views of the glacier-covered Olympics and over the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island in Canada. It is a particularly spectacular sight in late summer, when the alpine meadows flush with lupines and delicate valerian.

Sol Duc Hot Springs

Sol Duc Hot Springs
Sol Duc Hot Springs
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A resort with thermally heated pools, Sol Duc Hot Springs are also located on the Olympic Peninsula. The therapeutic waters have long attracted visitors. Simple cabins are situated next to a scenic river if guests wish to spend a night. Day trippers can also just come for a swim in the mineral water pools.

Forks

Forks
Forks
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Near the coastal western section of the national park, the town of Forks is the main hub for the surrounding area. Many scenic driving tours explore the area's hiking opportunities, waterfalls, and hot springs. The town makes a great base from which to reach the beaches near coastal La Push. But the pride of the town (despite fleeting fame as the setting for the "Twilight" teen-vampire series) is its lumber. The Forks Timber Museum offers a chance to learn everything you ever wanted to know about loggers, logging, and forestry equipment.

Neah Bay

Neah Bay
Neah Bay
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Neah Bay is a small community located on the far north-western tip of the Olympic Peninsula, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is the gateway to Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point in the contiguous United States, that's reached via a hiking trail. The community's Makah Cultural & Research Center works towards preserving the Makah language through various programs. The center also operates the Makah Museum, which features a permanent collection of exhibits related to local history.

Lake Crescent

Lake Crescent
Lake Crescent
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About 20 miles west of Port Angeles, US 101 passes Lake Crescent. A road runs along the south side of the delightful mountain lake to the Marymere Falls, which plunge down from a height of 90 feet. Just two miles further on from the waterfall, a side road branches off to Sol Duc Hot Springs, where visitors can bathe in the prized mineral hot springs.

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