Alpine meadows, wild misty beaches, temperate rainforest and snow-capped peaks. IN Olympic National Park in Washington state in the northwestern United States, three completely different nature experiences come together in one and the same national park. Definitely one of America's coolest national parks, and definitely the highlight of our Washington State driving vacation.
The heart of the park is Mount olympus, namesake of the mountain in Greece and one of the largest mountains in the western United States. Unlike the peaks in the nearby Cascade Mountains, Mount Olympus is not a volcano, but an ordinary mountain at 2400 meters. As the mountain is in the middle of the national park, it is more or less impossible to cross the park other than on foot, so to get around the park you need to drive around the foot of the mountain. If you drive the whole lap, it is closer to 50 miles around the national park, far enough to be enough for a week's holiday if you want to hike and experience beaches and mountain peaks. However, we did not ride a lap, but started in Ocean shores (where we stayed overnight) and went clockwise towards Port angeles and concluded in Port townsend - a transport distance of "only" 30 miles. In order to see the area's most unique places, we spent three whole days in the national park:
- 1 day of hiking in it temperate rainforest
- 1 day of hiking at them the fog-shrouded shores
- 1 day hiking on the ridge at Hurricane Ridge
Day 1 – The rainforest
Did you know there are rainforests in the Northwestern United States? Those kinds of forests with moss hanging like cobwebs from the branches, which you almost only see in pictures from the American South?
A bit north of the resort Ocean Shore do you find Hey Rainforest, one of the world's rainiest areas. Here, an unimaginable 5000 mm (17 feet!) of rain falls every year and the air is constantly heavy with moisture. It almost feels like you are surrounded by a rain cloud. The forest has the characteristic rainforest features of plants growing densely on top of each other and mosses, ferns and grasses stretching upwards towards the sunlight in the thick vegetation.
Around Hey Rainforest there is both a visitor center and several nature trails (with information signs) and regular hiking trails. One of the simplest, but coziest, is Hall of Mosses which takes you to an area of trees completely overgrown with hanging moss. A real little fairytale trail that we really appreciated.
One of the better ways to experience the Hoh rainforest is to hike along the river trail Hoh River Trail – a long day hike (if you go all the way round trip) up to a glacier. Even if you don't have time to hike all the way to the top, the trail is worth walking a little bit - you can always turn around. The river is fed by meltwater from the glaciers, making the water milky cloudy and icy cold and full of nutrients for the vegetation. Look out for salmon and wapiti deer, there is wildlife hiding around every bend.
In the southwestern part of the Olympic National Park is located Quinault Valley, an area of large Sitka firs and babbling brooks, all clothed in a blanket of hanging moss. Here it rains almost as much as in Hoh, but the trees here are a little bigger. Most famous is the tree with the original name "Big Sitka Spruce Tree”, a really big spruce which, in my eyes, looks more like a gnarled overgrown juniper bush.
Day 2 – The beaches
Have you seen the Twilight movies? If you answered yes, you will definitely recognize yourself here, because it was among the fog-shrouded and wild beaches of Olympic National Park that the movies took place.
Some of the most famous beaches are Ruby Beach, Rialto Beach and Third Beach, all with dramatic cliffs rising out of the fog on the beach and out of the sea. The beaches are covered with driftwood, so it is important not to get stuck on the beaches at high tide, because then there is a risk of being crushed by the floating logs. The fun here is to walk up and down the beaches watching bald eagles and crabs and collecting clam shells.
Rialto Beach was almost deserted and there was a chilly wind when we were here. The cliffs, which lay only a couple of hundred meters out to sea, were barely visible due to the fog that is constantly thick along the coast. Gigantic tree trunks washed into the sea by gushing meltwater from the nearby mountains litter the sand. Beautiful softly rounded stones are everywhere and we found one super smooth stone after another.
The beach that offers the most hiking is Beach Three in La Push. To get to the beach you have to walk in the forest about 5 km round trip, but with a little singing and talking we got even the youngest family member to walk. It was worth the transport distance to get to the beach though, because it was just us and three other (tenting) families on the beach. On the way back to the car we met a few more hikers, but we were mostly on our own.
On the way to the motel we passed deer along the road on four occasions. The hardest part was having to cross the road for a mother deer with kid who couldn't leave the road, but we managed to block the road with the car so they got some peace and quiet and could jump back into the forest.
Day 3: Hurricane Ridge
We saved the best for last. A winding and steep road takes you up to Hurricane ridge on the slopes of Mount Olympus during the summer months. Here at an altitude of 1500 meters you are almost at the same height as the mountain peaks around you and snow still remains on the paths well into July. Fleece sweaters are a must even in summer, 13-15 degrees and the wind is a bit too tough for a t-shirt and shorts (at least for us...).
The week before we hiked Hurricane ridge, a wild mountain goat mauled an unsuspecting tourist to death, so we slavishly stuck to the trail. However, it was quiet and peaceful and the trails were perfectly groomed. We sat down and ate the packed lunch on a rock and enjoyed the view. A long steep meadow covered in spring flowers, with an impressive snow-capped mountain range in the background made the lunch particularly pleasant. Some of the fragile spring flowers almost looked like daffodils, but I have a feeling those don't grow wild(?).
Many of the shorter trails start from the parking lot at the visitor center, but our favorite trail was Hurricane Hill Trail (5 km t/r), which starts from a parking lot at the end of Hurricane Road. The hiking trail offers incredible views over flower meadows, lakes and mountain peaks. However, the relatively large difference in height and the steep drop next to the path make it a bit challenging for those who suffer from vertigo. Daughter hiked almost all the way to the top, but ran out of fuel right before the top, so we turned around before the trail ended.
General tips for going to Olympic National Park
- The summer months June July and August are the best months to be able to visit all the places in the park. However, the climate is unusually mild here all year round, so the rainforest and the stands can be visited all year round. We were here in early July and there was still snow along the Hurricane Hill Trail.
- You will find the accommodation mainly in Ocean shores, Fork and Port angeles, so it can be quite a lot of driving in a day just to get to the next accommodation. Book a cancellable hotel as soon as you start to get the hang of which dates you want to go here, because the hotels that still have rooms available the week before departure are usually not particularly fun...
- A packed lunch is essential for experiencing the park. Of course you can have a really good lunch at one of the park's lodges, but it's nicer to sit on a rock in the sun and enjoy nature. So do as we do - fill yours rucksack full of good stuff before you head into the park 🙂
- Read up properly before you go here, the best are official ones National Park Service which has awesome pdf maps and informs current events such as closed roads and hiking trails.
- Don't forget to pay entry to the park - if you don't have one America the Beautiful-Pass. The pass is not only pretty, but is valid for all national parks for a year.
Want to check out more places in Washington state, USA? Check out my collection page.
Want to read more from Washington?
Still, almost 40 years after the eruption, you see traces of the disaster. America's Deadliest Volcanic Eruption…February 8
One of the world's most dangerous volcanoes attracts during the short summer with scenic hiking trails and…November 6