The Pacific Northwest of the United States is a wonderland of snow-capped mountains, lush rainforests and foggy coastlines, and the far northwest corner exemplifies all of those qualities. The Olympic Peninsula, the “top-left” corner of Washington state and the lower 48 states, is a relatively small (about 3600 square miles) area of land has more diverse landscapes than perhaps any other similarly sized piece of land anywhere in the world. The interior of the peninsula is dominated by the Olympic Mountains and protected by Olympic National Park, which also contains some non-contiguous areas along the Pacific Coast. Created in 1938, Olympic National Park is also designated by UNESCO as both a International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. You could spend weeks trekking the backcountry, exploring almost a million acres of virtually untouched wilderness. If you don’t have that much time, here are a few highlights you won’t want to miss when you visit.
The Staircase area of Olympic National Park is an excellent introduction to the park, and conveniently, it is also the first major area of the park you will reach if you enter from the southeast. Accessed from Highway 101 by turning west on Highway 119 in Hoodsport and roughly following the north shore of Lake Cushman, this area features a nice campground and plenty of trails that introduce you to a Pacific Northwest forest, complete with streams, waterfalls and towering trees. If you are really tight on time, skip it, but if you can squeeze in a few hours for a quick hike, Staircase is a great area to get your feet wet (possibly literally) hiking in the park.
Arguably the highlight of Olympic National Park, Hurricane Ridge is best-known for its panoramic views of the Olympic mountain range, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the North Cascades. The Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center is located about 20 miles from Port Angeles on the appropriately named Hurricane Ridge Road. All of it is uphill, so make sure your vehicle is in good shape (oil, coolant, brakes, etc.), particularly if you are in a larger RV. Also, this road can be subject to all kinds of terrible weather, so be aware of that before you head up into the mountains.
Since you are probably here for the views, do the Hurricane Hill hike. It’s paved trail that leads from a parking lot just east of the main visitor center parking lot (if you stop at the visitor center, get back in your vehicle and drive down there unless you are in a large RV or you want to add a couple extra miles to the hike). You climb about 700 feet in 1.6 miles, but the views are fantastic. You really feel like you are on top of the world. We we even lucky enough to encounter the awesome mountain goats you see at the top of this page.
A beautiful, narrow valley that contains the largest watershed in Olympic National Park, the Elwha Valley also contains one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects. The Elwha River was dammed early in the 20th-century, destroying salmon runs and the natural character of the valley. The National Park Service is working to restore the valley to its wild state by removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams (completed in early 2014) and repairing some of the damage done over the past century.
If you are in a hurry, you can do a short drive off Highway 101 to Madison Falls, a photogenic waterfall that is a very short (less than five minutes) hike from the parking area.
This beautiful lake looks like it could be a man-made reservoir, and it is the result of a dam. But in this case, an ancient landslide built the dam, not the Army Corps of Engineers. Filling a deep glacial valley, the lake reaches depths of almost 600 feet, with clear blue water that is a result of the nitrogen-poor water keeping algae growth to a minimum. This recreation area contains a classic NPS lodge, plenty of hiking trails and of course, all sorts of water activities on the lake. It is also where you can climb the mountain with the best name in all of Olympic National Park, Mt. Storm King. The hike to the top is less than two miles but the trail climbs thousands of feet above the lake surface, so consider yourself warned. An easier hike leads about one mile through a tunnel under Highway 101 and through old-growth forest to Marymere Falls.
Sol Duc Hot Springs
One of the only commercialized areas of the park, Sol Duc Hot Springs is a resort, and as you might have guessed from the name, has hot mineral springs producing luxurious water that you can bathe in. If you want a nice, comfortable place to sleep and relax in the park, this is the best bet. Plan ahead, reservations are hard to come by if you don’t make them far ahead of time.
The Pacific Coast Beaches
There are so many beaches along the Olympic Peninsula’s Pacific coast that you likely won’t be able to visit all (or even most) of them unless you have a few days to spend just in this area. Rialto Beach is a great place to see massive pieces of driftwood strewn across the beach, with seastacks and green forests as backdrops. Further south, First, Second and Third Beaches are all scenic spots, with forested headlands plunging into the sea around broad beaches. Most visitors without a lot of time will likely just choose one of these to visit. First Beach is the most crowded, while Third Beach is the least (but with the longest hike from the parking lot of the three). Continuing south on Highway 101, Ruby Beach is another popular hiking spot, and nearby Kalaloch Beach has a lodge and cabins. Really, you can’t go wrong visiting any of the beaches in the park, so read the descriptions to see which one might appeal to you the most.
Hoh Rain Forest
The Hoh River flows to the Pacific Ocean through a forested valley that experiences about 150 inches of rain every year, making it one of the largest temperate rain forests in the U.S. Protected from logging by the National Park designation for almost 100 years, the rain forest is an example of the lush landscape that once stretched up and down the Pacific coast from Alaska to California. Mosses and ferns cover every available spot, while massive trees form a thick canopy far overhead. Serious hikers can find a 17-mile trail that begins at the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center parking lot, but there are also two short nature hikes that give you a quick tour through the various ecosystems.
Located in the southwest corner of Olympic National Park, Lake Quinalt is also located in a temperate rain forest, giving the lakeside ambience a different feel from most summer lakeside getaways. In addition to hiking, fishing and scenic drives, the lake boasts the historic Lake Quinalt Lodge, built in 1926 and a fantastic example of the rustic architectural style of national park buildings of that era.