Get ready for sensory overload. Olympic National Park is an area of such variety in climate and terrain that it’s hard to believe it’s just one park. Here you can view white, chilled alpine glaciers; wander through a green, sopping-wet rain forest; or soothe your muscles with a soak in a hot springs pool. Or perhaps you’d prefer to ponder the setting sun from the sandy Pacific coastline, or disappear from the outside world altogether in the deep green forests of largely untouched mountains.
In the Olympic Mountains, remnants survive of 2-million-year-old glaciers that once crept northeast toward what are now the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Hood Canal. The 60 glaciers inside the park continue to grind and sculpt the mountains now as they did then, if only a bit more slowly. Farther down some of the steep coastal valleys traversing the peninsula lie the major temperate rain forests in the contiguous United States. In addition, Olympic National Park contains the longest stretch of uninterrupted coastal wilderness area of any park south of Alaska.
Water is serious business here. Precipitation is measured in feet, not inches, with some areas receiving up to 20 feet in a single season. Contrast this with some parts of the drier eastern side of the peninsula, which receive a comparatively paltry 20 inches on average. Again, variety is the rule. If the crystalline, jade waters of the glacier-fed lakes feel a little too cold for comfort, you have the opportunity to warm your bones in hot springs in the northern section of the park.
Despite its inherent ruggedness, raininess, and mysterious nature, the interior of the park began yielding its secrets in the mid- to late 1800s. Unbridled curiosity and the inevitable desire for timber, mineral, and tourism dollars played a part in its exploration. Homesteads had been established by westward-moving pioneers on the periphery of the peninsula as early as the mid1800s. However, the first documented exploration of the interior didn’t occur until 1885, and it was no easy feat. One group of explorers spent a grueling month hacking through dense brush to get from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge. (Today, the trip takes approximately 45 min. by car.)
On the advice of these adventuresome explorers, Congress declared most of the peninsula a national forest. Then, in 1909, just before leaving office, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, established Mount Olympus National Monument. It was set aside to preserve the summer range and breeding grounds of dwindling herds of Roosevelt elk (flatteringly named for the president himself in a brilliant piece of prelegislative public relations). In 1938, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt turned the national monument into a national park, and in 1953 the coastal strip was added. Finally, in 1981, the park was declared a World Heritage Park.
Today, Olympic National Park encompasses more than 900,000 acres of mountains and rain forests, glacial lakes, and Pacific shoreline. By a fortunate stroke of planning or a fortunate lack of money, no roads divide the interior of the park. Consequently, large sanctuaries exist here for elk, deer, eagles, bear, cougars, and other inhabitants and visitors to its interior.
Avoiding the crowds in Olympic National Park is not as simple as you may think. With easy access from both Seattle and Victoria, B.C., the park is a magnet for visitors from around the world. However, a few options are within your control.
The easiest solution is to go in the off season, especially in the fall. Although the west side of Olympic is often deluged with rain in the fall and winter, the eastern side can be fairly dry. So head east, toward Duckabush or Sequim. Otherwise, strap on your snorkel and try some winter camping in the Hoh or the Queets.
You might also try getting to the park on the southern route, up the peninsula through Aberdeen. If you choose this route, you can see everything the peninsula offers in a nutshell. Instead of going to the Hoh, try the Queets. Although less traveled, this area affords the same rain-forest views as the more popular Hoh. On the east side, try a walk into the interior from Duckabush or Dosewallips. Both jumping-off points are less trafficked than the more northerly areas, and the views as you walk through the old growth beside the blue-white rivers are as good as any in the park.
Finally, if you absolutely have to come in the summer and don’t want to miss the most popular views, such as those on Hurricane Ridge, try heading up in the late afternoon when everyone else is on their way down. You’re liable to get spectacular views of the sunset over the Strait of Juan de Fuca as the fog rolls in and the deer make their evening pilgrimage to the parking lot at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.
If You Have Only 1 Day
First things first: Decide in advance what you would like to see. This is a big park, and no roads go completely through it. The roads that do venture inside (and they’re major tourist attractions) are generally short and pleasant. It’s 18 1⁄2 miles from U.S. 101 to the Hoh Visitor Center, and 17 miles to Hurricane Ridge.
If you want to see the rain forests and the coastal strip, drive up from Olympia on U.S. 101 through the coastal region, perhaps stopping at the Kalaloch Information Station and Ruby Beach, and then head to the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, from where you can explore further. To see the glaciers and the alpine meadows of the east side of the park, start by driving to the Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles, and from there head up to Hurricane Ridge, where you set out on a hike or drive even farther into the park.