A Guide to Olympic National Park
Known for its rainforests, natural hot springs, and gorgeous views, Olympic National Park attracted more than 3 million visitors in 2015—and for good reason. Not only is Olympic home to some 22 endangered or threatened species, 73 miles of wilderness coast, and more than 3,000 miles of rivers and streams wending through its nearly one million acres, but it’s also large enough to shelter wonderfully silent, remote spaces, too. One traveler even proclaimed that its Hoh Rainforest contains the “quietest square inch in the United States.”
Barb Maynes, a national parks service employee for 35 years, worked at eight other parks before landing at this one—and has since spent nearly three decades at Olympic. “Time flies when you’re having fun!” she laughs. Here are Maynes’s tips about how to best appreciate this vast wilderness.
Olympic, Maynes says, is “unlike many other parks in that there isn’t a road that goes all the way through [it].” Shenandoah National Park on the East Coast, for example, contains Skyline Drive, which shoots straight through the park. Many people only stop for the scenic lookouts. Not so here. Olympic has what are called “spur roads,” essentially dead ends scattered throughout the park. You park your car and wander on foot, bike, or canoe. It’s unusual, and it means it takes a while to get around in a vehicle here.
Maynes suggests you think about the sort of ecosystem you want to see when planning a trip here. Do you want glacier-capped mountains, or a hike through ancient forests where the trees are centuries old? Do you want to see a rainforest (a true rarity in the United States), or do you want uninterrupted coastline?
Hurricane Ridge, for example, is a popular, easily-accessed mountain area within the park, with fabulous views of Canada. Not far away is Lake Crescent, which was carved by glaciers long ago and nowadays has boating, paddleboards, rowboat, and canoe rentals, plus a handful of lodges where you can stay the night. Nearby trails allow you to wander into the old-growth forest—including the wheelchair-accessible Spruce Railroad trail (which is closed during the winter of 2016, warns Maynes).
Head west on Highway 101 and you’ll hit the roads that lead you out to the beach and to Forks, Washington—the home of the vampires from the Twilight books. (“There’s still quite a bit of—I guess you could say, pilgrimage—there,” Maynes says dryly of Forks.) More importantly, you’re in prime rainforest country: Hoh and Quinault are among the most trafficked, and paved roads lead into both. But be sure to check the weather, and NPS alerts in advance of your trip to Olympic. Hoh road has been known to close to traffic because of a washout, for example.
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Maynes suggests you figure out where in the park you want to stay before you start driving around randomly. “There is so much…distance,” she notes. She suggests looking at Sol Duc Valley near Lake Crescent, which is centrally located and has some of the best lodges and campgrounds in Olympic National Park. Bonus: There are hot springs here! At the Sol Duc Hot Springs resort, naturally occurring hot water is pumped into a series of pools, so you can soak when you wake up and before you fall asleep. “You could easily spend several days there and not do the same thing twice,” she says. “There’s a beautiful walk up to a waterfall, and [treks] along a river.” Or you could drive out to the beach for the day.
Related: A Guide to Shenandoah National Park
As for those beaches, there’s pretty much a beach for everyone—from sugary stretches of sand to rocky, cliff-like outposts. “You can spend a lot of time there,” says Maynes. If you’re a beach person rather than a forest person, look to stay at the 175-site Kalaloch Campground, she suggests, where you can get some of the best sunset views in the region.
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Generally, Maynes is a fan of just slowing down: “Pick one rainforest and just spend some time there—maybe a couple of days—so you have a chance [to enjoy] the peace and the quiet.” Although the park is 95 percent pure wilderness, she warns, “the five percent that is not can be really, really busy during the high season.” So if you’re here in the summertime, consider bringing a breakfast up the Hurricane Ridge trail, or a sandwich for a picnic supper to watch the sunset—and skip it at lunch when the trail is packed.
Keep in mind that because of those dead-end roads, major slowdowns will happen on summer weekends, and you might have difficulty finding parking spots. Channel your inner Zen, be patient, and be open to unexpected adventures in this incredible national park. “Bring a map, of course," Maynes says, "and extra clothes, and always bring rain gear. But yeah, it’s a great place to slow down and explore."