Why Olympic National Park Feels Like Heaven
At Olympic, you can go from luscious rainforests, to snowcapped peaks, to the stunning Pacific Coast—all in one park. What more could you ask for?
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63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road, practicing COVID-19 best safety protocols along the way. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late. Olympic is her 41st park visit.
Olympic National Park, in northwestern Washington, is heaven for those of us with short attention spans. Rather than centering in on one main attraction or ecosystem, the park straddles a few radically different zones—temperate rainforest, glacier-capped peaks, and ragged Pacific coastline. On my visit last September, I made it my personal mission to hike in all three.
After nabbing a campsite in the furry, moss-cloaked trees of the Hoh Rainforest, I set off on the famous Hall of Mosses Trail, a one-mile jaunt through old growth cedars and maple trees in which dappled light turns the forest’s myriad of leaves a thousand shades of green. It was moody, quiet, and just the thing my weary traveling soul needed after the four-hour drive from Seattle. Old Man’s Beard lichens fluttered in the breeze as I crept up and around the most densely-packed timberland I had ever seen. New life was everywhere, bursting forth beneath my feet, on nearby moldering stumps, and high overhead. There was a peace and a stillness to the place that quieted my mind and steadied me for the next day’s adventures.
In Olympic, if you’re planning to hike along the rugged, driftwood-covered coast, you’ll first need to consult a tide chart to time your trek just right. Due to impending waves, I got an early start and sped over to Rialto Beach in my van to dip my toes into the ocean and saunter along the rocky shore towards Hole-in-the-Wall. Tide pools sprung up out of seemingly every water-filled boulder, showing off their electric green anemones and thick clumps of mussels. A hermit crab darted out from beneath a small stone and hid near a dark purple sea urchin. The entire peninsula was teeming with life.
I scrambled around on sea-sanded driftwood hunks and snapped photos as surfers floated above the ocean’s ten-foot waves with grace and ease. The salt spray made my smile tingle. I felt giddy and hungry for more.
What better way then, to round out my trip, than with a side order of glaciated mountains?
Though I was heartbroken that I didn’t have enough time to backpack through Olympic’s incredible mountainous landscape, I settled on the next best thing—a three-mile journey up Hurricane Hill.
A warm wind whipped through the air, and off in the distance, I could make out the hazy horizon, blanketed in thick wildfire smoke. Monstrous grasshoppers cluttered the paved pathway as I climbed ever higher towards what was sure to be a phenomenal view from the top. As the sun sunk low in the sky, a golden glow illuminated the pulsating grasses all around me, and I felt as though I was traipsing through a postcard.
At the top of the hike was a signpost with a large photo of Mount Olympus and her sparkling white sister peaks, quietly levitating in their icy realm far above the mucky smoke. They looked enchanted. Dreamlike, even. The perfect reward after a long day of exploration.
63 Parks Traveler Olympic Info
Size: 922,650 acres
Location: Northwest Washington, about three hours from Seattle
Created in: 1909 (national monument), 1938 (national park)
Best For: Backpacking, hiking, mountaineering, forest bathing, car camping, beaches, scenic drives
When to Go: There’s something in Olympic for every season, but visitors may have to contend with heavy rain during the colder months. Snow at higher elevations is also common in winter. For these reasons, spring (35 to 62 degrees) and summer (47 to 72 degrees) are the best times to check out the park. (Temperatures listed are for Hoh Rainforest.)
Where to Stay: If you’re looking for a truly magical temperate rainforest experience, grab a site in Hoh Campground and soak up all the mossy woodland goodness you can muster. (first-come, first-served with flush toilets and potable water)
Mini Adventure: Check a tide chart and head to Rialto Beach when the water is set to be low. Then, spend the day darting around salty tide pools and photographing awe-inspiring coastal rock formations before setting off for an early evening stroll through the spellbinding Hoh Rainforest.
Mega Adventure: Not only is Olympic huge, but there are massive sections of the park that are inaccessible by car. If you’ve got the time, backpacking is the best way to get into its pristine alpine lakes and majestic high peaks. One fan favorite is Hoh River to Blue Glacier, an out-and-back that begins in the fabled Hoh Rainforest and ends at an overlook of one of Mount Olympus’ most impressive icefields.