Exploring Olympic National Park and the Hoh Rain Forest: A Visitor's Guide
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Abutting the Pacific Ocean on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, Olympic National Park draws millions of visitors each year into its wild environment. With glaciated mountain peaks, a rugged coastline, and one of the finest expanses of temperate rain forest in North America, Olympic National Park is isolated, rugged, and nothing short of picturesque. With numerous places to visit and many fun things to do, planning a trip for Olympic National Park can feel overwhelming with so many exciting options.
Olympic National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States, and with a majority of visits taking place between the months of May and September, it's worth planning ahead. The good news? Whatever direction you travel, Olympic will surely be defined by the sights, sounds, and instant awe of this wild and scenic national park of Washington.
See also: Where to Stay near Olympic National Park
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The national park is open all year-round, though not all areas are accessible in every season. The central visitor center for Olympic National Park is in the charming town of Port Angeles, on the northern coast of the peninsula, which also provides a great jumping-off point, with many hotels, restaurants, and easy access to the rest of the peninsula.
The Wilderness Information Center is also located in Port Angeles, where interested explorers can pick up backcountry permits. Additional visitor and ranger stations can be found at the Hoh Rain Forest, Hurricane Ridge, and Kalaloch.
Olympic Peninsula Scenic Drive
No roads pass through the central, mountainous section of Olympic National Park. 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. US 101 also connects with prominent communities and cities of the peninsula including Port Angeles, Forks, and Hoodsport. Public transportation is available on the 101, primarily from Port Angeles.
Vast Ecosystems to Explore
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.
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, and the southern third of the coastline between Ruby Beach and Queets is easily accessible via the 101.
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.
The annual cycle of rain coming in from the Pacific and snowmelt from Mount Olympus help create the rain forested environments unique to Olympic. Alongside the celebrated Hoh Rain Forest, the Quinault, Queets, and Bogachiel Rain Forest all deliver on scenic appeal. These moss-strewn areas of the park are inviting for all ages to explore, with different adventure opportunities ranging from interpretive nature trails to multi-day backpacking expeditions.
Top-Rated Places to Visit in Olympic National Park
Hoh Rain Forest
One of the biggest visitor draws 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 family-friendly Hall of Mosses and Spruce Nature Trail. The longest route extending from the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, the Hoh River Trail is 17 miles long leading to the terminal moraine of the Blue Glacier of Mount Olympus. The first 13 miles of the trail are moderate and mostly flat, following the contours of the Hoh River, enabling a fun out-and-back family hike experience.
The four main species of conifer found in the Hoh Rain Forest (Sitka spruce, hemlock, red cedar, and Douglas fir) and the Oregon maple grow to gigantic heights of up to 330 feet with up to 13 feet diameters. The trees and fallen trunks are covered with ferns of unusual size (including licorice 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 in long garlands and curtains.
Visitors rarely see any resident 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 hiking trails in the region is the 16-mile Queets River Trail, with other more strenuous trails crossing the entire park.
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.
Easily accessed from Port Angeles, Hurricane Ridge is a common first stop when exploring Olympic National Park. The Heart O' the Hills Campground at the base of the drive up to Hurricane Ridge is a popular place to spend the night.
Sol Duc Hot Springs
A concessionaire-run resort and hot springs within Olympic National Park, Sol Doc Hot Springs has therapeutic waters, which have long attracted visitors. Simple cabins, a lodge, and an adjacent campground are situated next to a scenic river for guests who want to spend the night, and day trippers are also welcome to pay a day fee to enjoy the waters. Near the resort, the Sol Duc Falls trailhead invites exploration into a dense alpine environment, where permit holders can venture farther into the stunning Seven Lakes Basin of the park.
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 the coastal village of La Push. The Forks Timber Museum offers a chance to learn everything you ever wanted to know about loggers, logging history, and equipment used by the forest industry.
Neah Bay is a small community located on the far northwestern 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, which is 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.
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, a family favorite that plunges for over 90 feet. Just two miles farther from the waterfall, a side road branches off to Sol Duc Hot Springs, where visitors can bathe in the prized mineral hot springs.
A picturesque beach on the southern Olympic Coast, Ruby Beach is filled with changing tides, dramatic sea stacks, and an abundance of driftwood. This vast environment, accessed via the 101 near Forks, is large enough to host the big groups of people who visit the beach, and nearby campgrounds facilitate overnight stays. Ruby Beach is just one of many signature ocean areas of Olympic, and there's plenty more to explore at places like Rialto Beach, Second Beach, and Shi Shi Beach.
Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Olympic National Park
The best hiking trails of Olympic National Park span the rain forest environment and make their way up the coast, with the occasional route leading to the top of glaciated peaks (for advanced hikers and climbers only). Day hiking is abundant throughout the park, with some essential items to bring along, including water, rain jackets and sturdy boots. For overnight travel, some backcountry permits can be obtained on a walk-up basis, while other popular overnight spots in the heart of the park require a competitive permit that hikers can obtain ahead of their visit.
Top-Rated Campgrounds in Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park has an abundance of auto-campgrounds open throughout the year. While places like Heart O' the Hills, the Hoh Rain Forest, and South Beach Campgrounds are some of the most popular, the best campgrounds in Olympic National Park all deliver on instant access to a stunning environment. Advanced reservations, where available, are especially advised throughout the summer and particularly on the weekends.
Where to Stay near Olympic National Park for Sightseeing
- Mid-Range Hotels: Many great accommodations can be found within or surrounding Olympic National Park, all of which offer easy access to the stunning scenery. Olympic Lodge, in Port Angeles, is one of the top-rated hotels of the entire peninsula thanks to its gorgeous views, first-class service, and proximity to the Olympic National Park Visitor Center. For coastal explorations, the Kalaloch Lodge puts overnight visitors right next to the ocean and provides spacious rooms, a great location, and easy access to the nearby Hoh Rain Forest. For other family-friendly, mid-range accommodations, the Lake Crescent Lodge is near its namesake body of water and Marymere Falls.
- Budget Hotels: The best-value hotels are going to be found within the cities and communities that border the national park. In Port Angeles, the All View Motel is popular for its friendly rates, clean facilities, and easy access to places like Lake Crescent and Hurricane Ridge. In the nearby city of Sequim, also known as the "Lavender Capital of America," the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites North Sequim is a highly reputable hotel with favorable rates. To stay closer to the beach and the stunning Olympic coastline, The Pacific Inn Motel in Forks provides fast access to the ocean, clean rooms, and a great overnight rate.
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Washington Outdoors: Washington is a wonderful state for outdoor pursuits. For ideas on adventures in the state, see our articles on the Best Hiking Trails in Washington and the Best Campgrounds in Washington. Other fun activities to try here include white water rafting and kayaking, and in winter, the ski resorts in Washington are worth checking out.