Are you thinking about visiting the Olympic National Park and trying to figure out what there is to do? Well, this particular wilderness preserve is filled with unique and amazing activities that you could spend weeks exploring and still have more you want to do!
We’ve visited Olympic National Park twice. The first time was in 2011, when we spent four days exploring all areas of the park. We then returned in 2015 for three more glorious days spent mostly in the Hurricane Ridge and Neah Bay areas. This post is based on our experience, as well as on extensive research. The photos here were all taken by me as well.
Here are the top 11 things to do when visiting Olympic National Park:
- Take a stroll through the Hall of Mosses Trail
- Explore Enchanted Valley
- Hike through Quinault Valley
- Kayak or Canoe on Lake Crescent
- Explore Hurricane Ridge
- Soak in the Hot Springs at Sul Duc Resort
- Explore Rialto Beach
- Hike to Hole in the Wall
- Go Whale Watching or Tide Pooling at Kalaloch Beach
- Take in a Sunset (or Storm) at Kalaloch Lodge
- Explore Neah Bay
This is a rather vague list, keep reading to find a description of each of the park sections as well as more detailed explanation of the different activities from this list you can do within them and landmarks you need to see while there. I have also provided some suggestions for places to stay at the end of the post to help you plan your trip!
Why Visit Olympic National Park?
Olympic National Park is unique due to the fact that there are 3 specific ecosystems located within the one park. It is listed as a World Heritage Site and is a part of the international system of Biosphere Reserves, which basically just shows you how unique it is. In the course of a single day, you can go from a rainforest to a beach to a mountain without leaving the park!
Highway 101 encircles the park and allows visitors access to the different trails within the interior of the park. While you drive the perimeter of the park, you can enjoy an audio tour from the comfort of your car by calling 360-406-5056 and then selecting the area of the park you would like to hear about.
The cost to enter Olympic National Park is $30 per car and the fee is good for seven consecutive days of use. If you choose to visit on a motorcycle the cost will be $25 and if you are on foot or bicycle, then the cost is $10 per person. Since this is a National Park, if you have an America The Beautiful card, aka the Annual National Parks pass, you can use that to enter the park for free.
If you are still not sure about visiting the Olympic National Park, I would suggest checking out their biannually published newspaper The Olympic Bugler. This offers ideas about how you can make the most of your trip and gives you information on different aspects of the park you might have missed if you had not browsed its pages!
When to Visit Olympic National Park
There is no bad time to visit the park because each season offers a different experience. If you prefer avoiding snow and freezing temperatures then plan your trip from May to October. If you like winter weather and want to experience the winter activities, plan your trip from October through April.
Olympic National Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week but some roads and facilities are only open seasonally. June through September are high traffic times for visitors, but this is also the time when all of the facilities are open and all of the programs offered are available for you to enjoy.
Highway 101 is undergoing a rehabilitation that is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2019. Due to this the area around Lake Crescent and East Beach Road could be alternating a single lane of traffic. All expected work is listed on the website or you can click here if you want more detailed information about the time you will be in the park.
If you plan to visit during the winter months, many of the roads will close after the first snowfall. Check the website for detailed information on the conditions of each road within the park to allow you to plan properly for your mode of transportation. It is very detailed and gives notes on opening and closing dates for most of the roads located within the park.
Breakdown of Olympic National Park
Since the Park’s website chooses to break the park into three distinct areas, the Temperate Rain Forests, the Mountains and Old-Growth Forests, and the Pacific Coast, that is what I have done here.
I have placed each of the suggested activities in the appropriate section of the park so that you can plan your trip properly. In addition, I have added in some trails for each section so if you want to explore an area more thoroughly you can do so!
Olympic National Park Visitor Center
The main visitor center for Olympic National Park is located outside the park in Port Angeles and is open daily all year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. The hours of operation vary by season, so you will need to check the website for the times it will be open while you are planning to visit the park.
In addition to providing trail maps, exhibits, a discovery room for kids, a bookstore, and two short nature trails, the Port Angeles Wilderness Information Center is located within this main visitor center. This stop is a must for planning to camp in the “backcountry” as this location sells the permits necessary and provides bear canisters, which are mandatory for campers, to visitors.
Temperate Rain Forests
Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center is a bookstore and has different exhibits about the different rainforests in the park. It is open daily in the summer and on the weekends in the off-season, but the hours vary by season so check the website for detailed information about the dates you will be visiting.
1. Take a stroll through the Hall of Mosses Trail
This trail is an easy 0.8-mile loop that provides you with a wonderful taste of what a rainforest is like. This section of the forest has huge spruces, maples, and firs draped in dark green moss making the scenery picturesque.
If this taste of the rainforest leaves you wanting to see more, there are many different trails available for hikers of all skill levels. Below I have suggested two different options, and remember that even though you start a hike you do not actually have to do the entire trail!
Spruce Nature Trail is a 1.2-mile loop through the forest to the Hoh River. Many visitors have been lucky enough to see grazing elk moving through the forest. If you want a longer hike, people suggest pairing this trail with the Hall of Mosses trail for a fairly flat exploration of the rainforests in the area.
If you are a more adventurous hiker and would like to get further into the rainforest, I suggest taking the Hoh River Trail. This is a 17.3-mile hike and will take you to Glacier Meadows, just keep in mind that you have to walk back the amount of distance you walk in!
2. Hike through Quinault Valley
This Valley offers you a chance to see some of the largest trees in the nation, there is a Sitka Spruce that measures 191 feet tall, a Western Red-cedar that is 159 feet tall, and a Douglas Fir that comes in at 281 feet tall! There are many different trails you can choose, here are the ones I thought looked worth hiking!
Kestner Homestead trail is a self-guided 1.3-mile loop that allows you to walk through a tunnel of maples, spruces, and hemlocks and learn about frontier life. You will walk through the Kestner family’s grounds and buildings dating back to the 1800s.
If exploring a homestead isn’t your idea of a good afternoon, the Irely Lake trail is a 1.1-mile hike with an elevation change of about 100 feet that ends at Irely Lake. This is a shallow lake that offers you some peace and quiet after your hike.
3. Explore Enchanted Valley
Enchanted Valley is home to the Enchanted Valley chalet which opened its doors back in the early ‘30s. In World War II it served as an Aircraft Warning Station and is now only used as an emergency shelter and ranger station due to the changing landscape of the valley caused by the Quinault River.
Many people suggest planning to camp overnight during the hike to Enchanted Valley, but it can be done in one day just don’t plan to do anything else. The 13-mile hike from Graves Creek is moderately difficult but worth it since you will get the chance to see the old-growth forest, waterfalls, and the historic chalet.
Along the trail keep your eyes open for ptarmigan, elk, and deer. The valley is home to a population of black bears, so make sure to brush up on your bear safety skills which include keeping your distance and be noisy, so you don’t surprise a bear. If you need more information, check out this post by the National Park Service.
(We haven’t done this but it’s definitely on my Olympic National Park bucket list – and yes, we will be back!)
Mountains & Old Growth Forests
Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center is open daily in the summer, but the rest of the year the center’s hours vary so check the website or call 360-565-3131 for more detailed information about your specific dates.
The Visitors Center has exhibits about the different mountain habitats and even an orientation film lasting about 20 minutes that you can view if you would like to. In the lower level of the Center is a snack bar and gift shop so this is a good stop if you want a keepsake from your visit!
4. Kayak or Canoe on Lake Crescent
Lake Crescent is a glacially-carved lake with crystal-clear turquoise waters that plunge to over 600 feet deep in some places. Due to the low nitrogen levels in the water, there are limited algae in the waters, so you can see down as much as 60 feet from the surface.
Located along the shores are rentals that include pedal boats, row boats, kayaks, canoes, and more all to help you explore this beautiful body of water. Most people suggest taking the time to get out onto the lake, so you can see the viewpoint looking back on the shore, so take the vessel of your choice and get to rowing or paddling!
If you are looking for a more low-key chance to take in Lake Crescent, there are many areas along the shore where you can just sit and enjoy the scenery. East Beach, Bovee’s Meadow, North Shore, and La Poel (in the summer only) have areas set up for you to picnic and also have vault toilets available for your use.
Around the lake are numerous hiking trails so if you decide you want to explore, here are a couple of the trails I suggest! If you want an easy self-guided nature trail so you can see different views of the lake and forest, then I suggest the Moments in Time Trail. It is a 0.6-mile loop with no change in elevation.
The Marymere Falls Trail is a 0.9-mile one-way path through the old growth forest surrounding the lake. There is an elevation change of 400 feet, but it leads you to a 90-foot waterfall so if you can handle a medium difficulty trail then I would suggest heading off on this one!
5. Explore Hurricane Ridge
Hurricane Ridge is accessible by the Heart O’ the Hills Road, which offers many amazing views as you drive to your destination. Once you arrive, you will be awed by the many views of the snow-capped mountains surrounding you.
Be sure to stop at the visitor’s center for a bathroom break before you head off exploring one of the many trails accessible from here! Below you will find a few of the ones I would suggest, depending on your hiking expertise.
There are a couple of paved trails available here. Cirque Rim is 0.5-miles (one-way) and will provide you with different views of Port Angeles and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Big Meadow Trail is a 0.25-mile trail (one-way) that crosses open meadows and provides you with views of the Olympic Mountains.
High Ridge Trail is a 0.5-mile partially paved loop that has an elevation change of around 220 feet. I suggest you take the dead end 0.1-mile spur that dead-ends at Sunrise Point. You will be treated to some amazing views from this spot!
Hurricane Ridge is also the home to one of the only ski lifts operating within a national park. So, if you are visiting in the winter, this is a private, no-frills, family-friendly spot to enjoy your favorite winter activity. Keep in mind though, in the winter Hurricane Ridge Road will only be open Friday through Sunday.
6. Soak in the Hot Springs at Sol Duc Resort
The mineral hot spring waters are fed by rain and melting snow seeping into cracks in the sedimentary rocks where it is heated by the gases from the cooling volcanic rocks located under the surface. Eventually, the spring rises back to the surface creating pools along the cracks and fissures in the ground.
Natural hot springs are naturally occurring and can contain harmful bacteria when they are not maintained. Sol Duc Resort allows you to get a feel of the hot springs without the danger associated with springs found elsewhere in the park, plus it is much more accessible!
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort allows visitors to purchase passes if you are not staying at the resort and is free to anyone choosing to book a room there. For adults the cost is $15 and children ages 4 to 12 are $11. Towels and lockers are also available for a fee. Check their website for more detailed pricing information.
The resort has three mineral hot spring soaking pools and one freshwater pool to help soothe your weary muscles from all your exploring. The mineral pools have water with a natural temperature around 100*F (38*C) and the freshwater pool’s temperature changes with the season, from 50-85*F (10-30*C).
In addition to the Hot Springs, Sol Duc Valley has a wide network of trails that branch off from the Sol Duc Falls trail. Here are the ones I suggest, depending on the type of hiker you are!
The Sol Duc Falls trail is a short and easy 0.8-mile hike that leads you to a beautiful waterfall (with several smaller waterfalls visible along the way). This is a popular destination for many photographers as Sul Doc Falls is considered one of the most photogenic waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest.
If you are wanting to hike the day away before coming back to soak your sore muscles, I would suggest the Lover’s Lane Trail. This is a 6.0-mile loop (when you combine it with Sol Duc Falls trail and campground trail) that has only a 200-foot elevation change. It is a longer hike so make sure you are ready for it!
Kalaloch Ranger Station has a bookstore and provides information about the coast, Forks, and the other areas located on the west side of the peninsula. It is open daily during the “season,” but hours vary. Check the website for detailed information for the timeframe you will be visiting.
7. Explore Rialto Beach Or Ruby Beach
Rialto Beach is considered one of the best beaches in Washington according to Frommer’s Travel Guides and locals. The water is usually too cold for swimming, but the rugged features of the beach are awe-inspiring. Locals also suggest activities such as beach-combing, exploring tide pools, and viewing sea stacks.
Tide pools are shallow pools of water visible at low tide making them temporary homes for starfish and many other small sea creatures. Beach-combing is simply the act of searching the shore looking for items of value or interest…so now we all know! We did find sand dollars along the beach and plenty of sea stars and anemones in the tidepools. Just make sure to check the tide tables before you arrive, so you get there when the tide is low.
There is a parking lot just above Rialto Beach making it a good starting place for many different hikes. One of the best, and most often suggested, is the hike to Hole in the Wall (which just happens to be #8 on this list!).
8. Hike to Hole in the Wall
This arch was formed by a colossal rock being constantly battered by waves and winds. Over time a tunnel was bored through the rock, creating the famous Hole in the Wall. It is located 1 mile north of Rialto Beach and is easily accessible during low tide (usually in the afternoon).
The “hike” is a walk along the beach but depending on your timing and the tides you might not be able to get all the way to Hole in the Wall. Along the way, there is also a small creek you have to cross which might cause you to end up getting a little wet so plan ahead.
As you walk along the beach to (and back from) Hole in the Wall, you will be able to see numerous offshore sea stacks, Gunsight Rock, and Little James Islands. Keep your eyes open for a wide array of wildlife including whales, sea lions, otters, and eagles.
9. Go Whale Watching or Tide Pooling at Kalaloch Beach
Kalaloch Beach is one of Olympic National Park’s most visited areas partly due to the ease of access right off of Highway 101 and the Ranger Station being located there. In reality though, the draw of this beach has more to do with the amazing wildlife and scenery that has been called “picture perfect” by visitors.
Birdwatchers love it for the large populations of coastal birds that nest and feed along the coast, including bald eagles. Other visitors enjoy getting a chance to see the otters, harbor seals, and porpoises that can often be found sunning on the sand. Kalaloch is also known for miles of driftwood-strewn sand.
There are quite a few day hikes available around Kalaloch Beach. Kalaloch Nature Trail is an easy 1.0-mile loop that will take you through the coastal forest. Seven other trails lead to the ocean from the highway, Ruby and Beach Trail 4 have vault toilets and accessible viewpoints.
And yes, we did get to see whales from the shore!! We stood there enthralled for about 15 minutes as this huge whale was feeding within 200 yards from us. It was difficult to take good pictures because the whale would only pop up for a couple of seconds at a time. Still, super exciting!
10. Take in a Sunset (or Storm) at Kalaloch Lodge
Kalaloch Lodge is situated on a bluff overlooking where the Kalaloch Creek flows into the Pacific Ocean. The original lodge was built back in 1953 with lumber from the driftwood logs that washed up on the beaches.
There is a patio with outdoor seating perfect for taking in the view as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. If the weather is not conducive to taking advantage of the outdoor seating, the lodge’s magnificent fireplace and large windows overlooking the views is a wonderful place to watch the weather roll in.
11. Explore Neah Bay
While not technically a part of Olympic National Park, Neah Bay is visible from the Cape Flattery Trail and is worth a look if you have the time. This little gem is situated at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula and just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Canada. Here you can see the emerald green waters of the Pacific and the coastal peaks of Vancouver.
Neah Bay is the home of the Makah Tribe and has been for as long as records have been kept. There is a museum located here that displays artifacts of the tribe going back 300-500 years. In addition to some amazing history, Neah Bay has many coastal activities available for visitors to partake in.
Where should you stay while visiting Olympic National Park?
Where you should stay will depend on what area(s) of the park you are interested in visiting. To help you out, I have selected a couple of hotels within the main surrounding cities and provided the link to their site on booking.com, which is my go-to website for making hotel reservations!
Port Angeles is where the Olympic National Park Visitors Center is located. It is a good location to stay in for when you arrive and when you are exploring the mountain areas in the park. Based on the reviews and the cost, these are the two locations I would look at staying at.
Olympic Lodge (A mountain lodge feel with close proximity to the Visitors Center)
Flagstone Motel (Close to the Visitors Center, a well rated and well-priced option)
Forks is an ideal location to stay if you are wanting to explore the coastal areas of the park since it is much closer to these areas than Port Angeles. I would also suggest staying in Forks if you, or someone you are traveling with, is a big fan of Twilight since this is the famed city from the book series.
Hoh Valley Cabins (If you like the idea of “roughing it” but not the actual act of “roughing it!)
Far West Motel (For a well rated yet well-priced option)
What do you think?
Let us know how your trip goes and whether you have any additional suggestions on things to do while in that part of the Pacific Northwest! If you have been to Olympic National Park, do you have any suggestions to add to this list? And as always, if you have any questions about visiting the park, let me know and I’ll do my best to help out.
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