Do you love beaches? How about old-growth rainforest? Mountains? Hot springs? Do you know which national park has all of these? Olympic National Park in Washington State is the perfect place to have it all, and we’ve got the perfect Olympic Park itinerary for you.
At two o’clock on a cold, snowy December morning, I realized camping in a pop-up trailer in Olympic National Park might not be my smartest decision. Especially since the gas regulator had frozen closed and the heat was out. Oh well, just snuggle in deeper and wait til morning.
Peeking out the trailer door we found a snowy white winter wonderland. We had chosen to stay at Heart O’ the Hills because it is the closest campground to Hurricane Ridge. This is the winter destination in the park with snowshoeing and skiing. Needless to say, we weren’t disappointed. And luckily, the regulator thawed and we had no more problems with it.
Designated a National Park in 1938, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, Olympic National Park has everything from multiday backcountry trekking to easy and informative nature trails. Hot springs, crystal clear lakes, pristine beaches, moss-covered rainforest, wildflower-carpeted mountain meadows, climbing, boating, and fishing are all available. There really is something here for every nature lover.
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In this article:
- Best Time to Visit Olympic National Park
- Olympic National Park in Winter
- Do You Need Reservations?
- Hurricane Ridge
- Klaloch and Ruby Beach
- Lake Crescent
- Sol Duc Hot Springs
- Hoh Rain Forest
- Driving Around Olympic National Park
- Wildlife Viewing
- Places to Stay in the Park
- Places to Stay Near the Park
- One Day Itinerary
- Two Day Itinerary
The Best Time to Visit Olympic National Park
With the best weather, the least rain, and most areas and activities open, summer is the best time to visit Olympic National Park. Most of the park’s roads and areas are open and accessible between May and September, but outside of that period, the weather plays a major role. Some roads are not maintained during winter, so it’s best to check while planning an off-season visit.
My absolute favorite time to visit the park is in July and August, when the wildflowers are in full bloom. However, we’ve also camped there during winter and found it to be a magical winter wonderland, especially up on Hurricane Ridge.
Olympic National Park in Winter
While it might seem like winter would put an end to things to do in the park, it’s just not the case. The park service does a good job of keeping several roads open. For instance, weather permitting, Hurricane Ridge is open year-round though primarily only on weekends in the winter months. The visitor center there rents out snowshoes and skis.
The only hotel open in the park during winter months is Klaloch Lodge on the Pacific Coast, but several campgrounds remain open all year on a first-come, first-served basis. The stormy beaches at Klaloch are amazing as is the Hoh Rainforest. Sol Duc Hot Springs opens in March, and I just love relaxing in the hot springs with a little rain or snow falling around me.
Weather in Olympic National Park
The weather in Olympic National Park can be completely different depending on where you are in the park. With sections all-around the peninsula, it can be raining at Hoh, windy and cold atop Hurricane Ridge, and clear and sunny on the beach. Regardless of location, the weather can, and does, change very quickly. Be prepared with plenty of layers, rain gear, and maybe even an extra pair of dry socks.
Do You Need Reservations to Enter Olympic National Park
Unlike some larger, heavily visited national parks, Olympic does not have a restrictive entry system. However, camping and lodging do fill up very quickly so reservations for accommodations are always a good idea. Wilderness backpacking permits must be booked in advance as well, there is no longer a walkup permit system available.
In summer the parking lots at Hurricane Ridge and Hoh Rain Forest can quickly reach capacity, especially on weekends. When this happens, cars are stopped at the entrance station and only permitted to enter as another car leaves. Wait times can be very long, so plan on arriving at these places early in the day.
Best Things To Do at Olympic National Park
There’s so much to do in Olympic National Park that you could never do it all in one visit. This is one park where my own personal interests really steer my visit. I love the beach and the mountains but I’m not a big hiker. Still, I do like a good day hike or a long walk down a lonely, stormy beach. I enjoy kayaking and canoeing, and maybe even a little fishing. Happily, all of this and more is available.
Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park
Probably the most traveled stretch of road in the park, Hurricane Ridge Road takes visitors on a 17-mile scenic drive through Olympic National Park. The route starts in Port Angeles at sea level and winds its way high up into the park to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center perched on a mountainside at 5242 ft above sea level. We’ve seen deer, elk, fox, and marmots from the road as well as the stunning views.
Thanks to that incredible drive, Hurricane Ridge is one of the most accessible and, therefore, most popular areas in the park. High up in the mountains above Port Angeles, the views of Mount Olympos from the visitor center are spectacular. Other amenities here include toilets, a gift shop and deli, the park film, and some historical exhibits.
Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center is also the starting point for several stellar hikes ranging from as short as 1/2 mile on a paved track, to limitless back-country hiking. Wildflowers carpet these alpine meadows in late summer and deer and marmot can be seen in the area as well.
Klaloch and Ruby Beach
The rugged coastline and pristine beaches of Olympic National Park may not be the best for sunbathing and swimming, but they’re unparalleled for wildlife viewing and tide-pooling. Ranger-led programs are offered at Klaloch Beach 4 during summer months, but visitors are welcome to explore the tide pools on their own. Just be sure to check the tide charts and don’t get caught away from shore, that water is cold.
Wildlife viewing is focused mainly on birds on the beaches. The big star here is the great Bald Eagle. We’ve often spotted them perched high up in a coastal pine, or fishing offshore for some unlucky fish. Common murres, tufted puffins, and Steller’s Jays are also likely sightings as well as other surf birds and waders.
Beachcombers are often rewarded with interesting finds on the beach, however, the real treasure lies under the sand. Between November and March, it’s clam and mussel season. Bring a shovel and a bucket and dig up your dinner! Be sure to check the Fish and Shellfish Regulations Guide before you start digging.
Lake Crescent lies right alongside Highway 101 about eighteen miles from Port Angeles. This is the perfect place for a lakeside picnic or a scenic walk along the shore. Lodging and camping are also available here, at the historic Lake Crescent Lodge and Log Cabin Resort.
One of the best things to do at Lake Crescent is to get out on the water. Boat launches can be found at Fairholm Campground, Storm King, and Log Cabin Resort. Rowboats, kayaks, and paddleboards can be rented at Lake Crescent Lodge and Log Cabin Resort. Fishing here is strictly catch and release only, but check the Fish and Shellfish Regulation Guide before putting a line in the water.
Sol Duc Hot Springs
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and Campground is a concessionaire-operated attraction in Olympic National Park offering lodging and a soothing hot spring experience. While it has a fairly long operating season, late March to Late October, it is not open year-round.
The resort offers accommodations in cabins, some with kitchens, and riverside rooms. The main lodge houses the hot springs, a day spa, and a small restaurant. We found the food in the restaurant to be expensive and not really to our liking. Nearby, the campground has 82 sites, flush toilets, and potable water. The RV Park has 17 sites with water and electric hookups.
The main draw here is the hot springs, of course. Temperatures in the three mineral spring pools range from 99 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. I always follow a good long soak in the hot water with a plunge into the freshwater pool, so invigorating! Unlike the wilderness areas of the park, this is one place where I love to meet people.
On one visit we met a family from Mongolia that was just relaxing and soaking in the springs. We had so much fun just chilling, or rather steaming, in the soothing hot water and sharing stories.
Hoh Rain Forest
With an average rainfall of nearly twelve feet per year, Hoh Rain Forest really lives up to its name. The Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest once ran all the way from Alaska in the north down to California in the south. Today, most of that rainforest is gone, but Hoh remains a green, shining example of what used to be. Bring your rain jacket and get out and explore.
Hiking is the big draw here, with some really otherworldly scenery to trek through. The most popular trail is a short, less than a mile, hike on the Hall of Mosses trail. As the name suggests, you’re walking through an alien landscape covered in every hue of green imaginable.
This is where I saw my first banana slug. It was about six inches long, yellow, and slimy. I just stepped around it and let it continue on its way down the path.
What’s the Most Visited Place in the Park
I just can’t pass up those sweeping mountain views at Hurricane Ridge, so it’s easy to see why that is the most popular spot in the park. A close second, however, is the beach at Klaloch. Especially popular there are the tide pools at Beach Four. Also quite popular, the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort offers visitors a chance to soak their weary bones in soothing hot mineral water.
Driving Around Olympic National Park
While Olympic National Park is not the largest park; in fact, it’s not even in the top ten for size; it is still large with the different sections of the park quite far apart. It can take several hours to drive from one entrance to another, and there are no roads that traverse all the way through the park.
Still, there are some truly epic drives in the park. Of course, Hurricane Ridge is at the top of the list. Obstruction Point Road, another 8 miles through the mountains around Hurricane Ridge, is a phenomenal extension to the Hurricane Ridge drive.
A good alternative for Hurricane Ridge Road during the summer is to take the bus out of Port Angeles. Buses depart from the Gateway Transit Center, but park entrance fees must be paid before boarding the bus.
For those traveling without a car, there are more ways to see the park than just taking the bus to Hurricane Ridge. Several operators offer tours in different parts of the park. This can be a great option for many who would otherwise be unable to visit Olympic National Park.
- From Seattle: Olympic National Park Small Group Tour
- Olympic National Park: Hoh Rain Forest and Rialto Beach Tour
- Olympic National Park: Sol Duc and Hurricane Ridge Tour
Wildlife Viewing in Olympic National Park
Black-tailed deer, Roosevelt Elks, Olympic Marmots, and black bears have all been spotted in the park. Luckily, those bears are pretty shy and usually stay away from people, so they are a pretty rare sighting.
Salmon runs in the fall month are always fascinating to watch and can be found in most of the park’s rivers. Whales pass by the shore at Klaloch during their migration in April and May and then again in October and November.
The best wildlife viewing occurs during dawn and dusk when the animals are the most active. Marmot, however, can be seen during the summer, pretty much all day, up on Hurricane Ridge. For whale watching, during the day is fine, just find a comfortable spot on a bluff overlooking Klaloch Beach and wait.
Binoculars, a good field guide, and patience will certainly help. Remember to never feed wildlife, and keep a safe distance of at least 150 feet.
Olympic National Park Entrances
Olympic National Park might just have more entrances than any other national park. There are eleven park entrances around the peninsula. The most popular ones are at Hurricane Ridge, Elwha, and Sol Duc in the north; Klaloch, Quinnault, and Hoh in the west; and Staircase and Dosewallips in the east.
Visitors centers are in Port Angeles, Hurricane Ridge, and Hoh Rain Forest. The main center in Port Angeles has visitor information, a small museum, a kid’s discovery center, and some nature trails. This is also the main Wilderness Information Center where you’ll need to go for your backcountry permits.
Places to Stay – Olympic National Park
Four lodges and fifteen established campgrounds in Olympic National Park provide ample accommodations for visitors. Of course, as with most national parks, the lodges fill up quickly so reservations, at least six months in advance, are recommended. It’s also recommended to make reservations for camping, however, there are some first-come first-served camping areas.
Lodging in Olympic ranges from historic, rustic luxury lodges, to cottages, chalets, regular hotel-style rooms, and even log cabins.
Lake Crescent Lodge is the jewel of the park, nestled on the shores of Lake Crescent. Klaloch Lodge is in the Pacific Coast section of the park right on the beach. Log Cabin Resort, is another collection of cabins and rooms on Lake Crescent. Finally, Sol Duc Hot Springs resort has a collection of cabins near the hot springs.
There are several options for camping in many sections of the park. The park-operated campgrounds, Fairholme, Kalaloch, Mora, Hoh Rain Forest, and Staircase all accept reservations for the summer months. Sol Duc and Log Cabins both have RV and camping resorts that accommodate larger RVs and more tent camping. However, showers are only available at Log Cabin Resort.
Best Places to Stay Near Olympic National Park
Lodging outside the park, but still close by, is possible in a few places. The biggest of these is Port Angeles north of the park. There are also some hotels in Forks, on the western side.
The main visitor’s center and several hotels are found in Port Angeles, the closest city to Olympic National Park. This is the best place to base for a park visit if lodging inside the park isn’t an option.
I like to stay in Forks if I can’t get accommodations in Klaloch. It’s further away from the north side of the park but is a good location close to the beaches and Hoh Rain Forest.
Where to stay in Port Angeles
There are many options ranging from five-star luxury, cozy bed and breakfasts, standard hotels, and motor inns. Here are our recommendations:
- Port Angeles Inn – Steps away from the historic downtown and the port
- Angeles Motel – Classic Route 101 drive-up motel, close to Olympic NP Visitor Center
Where to Stay in Forks
There aren’t many options in Forks, and they tend to fill quickly in the summer months. Still, there are a few good choices in the Twilight town of vampires and werewolves.
- Pacific Inn Motel – Friendly, helpful staff and comfortable rooms in the center of town
- Dew Drop Inn – A fitting name for a hotel in one of the country’s wettest cities; clean, large family rooms available
Restrooms and Showers
Restrooms with running water and flush toilets can be found at the visitor centers at Hurricane Ridge and Hoh Rainforest. Most campgrounds have at least a pit toilet and are open for a quick stop to non-campers. The only campground with showers is at Log Cabin Resort. Showers can also be found at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Take a soak and finish off with a nice shower!
1 Day Itinerary Olympic National Park
While one day isn’t much time to spend at such a sprawling park, sometimes that’s all you have. If you are pressed for time, plan on staying in the north of the park. Start with a stop at the main visitor center in Port Angeles to learn all about the park.
Next, drive up Hurricane Ridge Road and park at the visitor center for the amazing views of Mt. Olympus. Then go for a hike on either the Cirque Rim or Big Meadow Loop trails to take in the amazing views, see the colorful wildflowers, and maybe spot a marmot or two.
Afterward, drive back down towards Port Angeles and then head west on 101 to Lake Crescent. Bring a picnic lunch with you or stop and pick up some fried chicken and pie at Granny’s Cafe. Find a quiet table on the north shore of the lake. Then continue along the lake to Log Cabin Resort and rent a kayak to get out on the water.
Where to stay: Camping or lodging at Log Cabin Resort or Lake Crescent Lodge provides a good base for visiting the north side of the park. Otherwise, stay in Port Angeles.
2 Days in Olympic National Park Itinerary
On the second day, plan on getting a little further afield. It’s about a two-hour drive to Klaloch Beach 4, so check the tide tables and plan on arriving about a half hour before low tide. Attend a ranger-led tide pool exploration during the summer months or explore on your own. While on the beach, keep an eye out for eagles and puffins, and maybe even a whale swimming offshore.
Next, drive to Hoh Rain Forest visitor center. After stopping in at the center, head out on the Hall of Mosses Trail or the Spruce Nature Trail to experience the old-growth rainforest up close and personal. Raingear is not optional.
Finally, head back towards Port Angeles, but take the 14-mile spur road up to Sol Duc Hot Springs. The road itself is scenic and a great area to spot deer and elk, but a soak in the hot springs will finish off the day perfectly.
Note: if the low tide is later in the day, consider swapping the order and visiting Hoh Rainforest first.
Where to stay: Camping or lodging at Klaloch or Sol Duc in the park or Forks outside the park are all good options as they are close to the beach for early morning tide pooling.
Getting to Olympic National Park
Most visitors are coming from Seattle, about two and a half hours away driving time. Others might just be on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip driving around the Olympic peninsula on Highway 101. Another option is to take the ferry in from Victoria, Canada with the Black Ball Ferry port right there in Port Angeles.
Olympic National Park just might be my favorite park for its vast diversity. I can be tide pooling in the morning, hiking through the rain forest in the afternoon, and then watching the sunset behind Mt. Olympus from the top of a mountain. All of that in one day! Whether you’re into long, backcountry hikes, mountain drives, or kayaking and canoeing, Olympic National Park has something for everyone.
About the Author
Jim Vail, cofounder of Roving Vails, is an avid traveler and explorer. He’s been to all fifty states and traveled around the world. He’s happiest shooting wildlife photography, camping and hiking in the mountains, or fishing on the side of a river in Alaska. Find out more on our About Us page.