Fun and Exciting Things to Do Olympic National Park
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One of the most beautiful natural wonders in North America is Olympic National Park. Located in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the park is 922,000 acres of pristine mountains and forests reminding how the Pacific Northwest appeared prior to man’s encroachment.
The vast interior remains rugged and remote with some hiking trails. Winters can be brutal with up to 240 annual inches of rain, ice, and snow. Besides the interior lands, the park also includes a 73-mile-long narrow strip of coastline along the Pacific.
The major geographical feature is the glacier studded the Olympic Mountains with the most dominant peak being 7965 foot Mount Olympus. The mountains form a natural weather barrier to conditions rolling in from the ocean. Thus the western side receives phenomenal precipitation resulting in rain forests while the drier eastern side only receives 20 inches of rain yearly. Early explorers tried penetrating its depths only to run up across the harsh climate conditions.
The special nature of the area was recognized in 1909 when set aside for preservation as Mount Olympus National Monument. National park status was signed by President Roosevelt in 1938. Olympic National Park has been listed as a World Heritage Site.
Besides natural beauty, the park is a wonderland of plant and animal life. Dense old forests are crowded with Sitka spruce, maple, cedar, hemlock, and Douglas firs. Beneath the big trees are species like lupines, glaciers and tiger lilies, and moss. Roosevelt elk, Olympic marmots, black bears, blacktail deer, and rarely seen cougars call it home. Eagles soar above and salmon swim rivers and streams. The park is alive with an enormous variety of life right down to tiny insects and plants.
The park is a popular tourist destination during good weather. Winter offers snowy scenes of beauty but rain and road conditions make visiting difficult. The park is just over three hours from Seattle via ferry to Port Angeles. Most visitors will either drive up the coast on Highway 101 or I-5 to Olympia where the 101 connects. The drive from Seattle and Vancouver is long due to going around Puget Sound. The 101 loops around the park and goes through Olympic National Forest, Indian reservations, and other wilderness areas.
Port Angeles is the primary gateway. Just a few miles off Highway 101 is the park headquarters and visitor center which is where to get weather, hiking, camping, campground, and boating information. The HQ is situated at the beginning of the park’s most popular drive to Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. The road winds through mountainous terrain and even traverses through a series of tunnels blasted into mountainsides.
There are numerous spots to pull over and take in scenic vistas of mountains and forests. Deer grazing alongside the road is always possible. Hurricane Ridge offers hiking trail starts, a gift store, food service, and most importantly, an observation deck. Visitors are afforded the park’s most spectacular views into the heart of the remote unspoiled wilderness. On a clear day, visitors can turn cameras on the three peaks of Mount Olympus and surrounding glaciers.
Visitors do have to return the way they came in back to the 101. The next road into the park is to the campground and boating facilities at Elwha whose main attraction is Lake Mills. Some 19 miles west of Port Angeles is Lake Crescent and the highway hugs the south shoreline. The lake was carved out by a glacier and is 624 feet deep. The water looks clean and downright cold. This is the park’s major recreational area with a number of campsites and boat docks ringing the lake as well as overnight facilities at Log Cabin Resort and Lake Crescent Lodge.
Just a few miles west of Lake Crescent is the turn-off to Sol Duc. This long scenic road follows the Sol Duc River and provides a look at forest valleys and meadows where a herd of elk may be spotted relaxing. Near the end of the road is Sol Duc Hot Springs resort. Several trailheads lead deep into the park. Asphalt fades into a trail connecting to Elwha and it is not too strenuous a walk to Sol Duc Falls.
Highway 101 exits park boundaries but you cannot tell the difference since it is Olympic National Park. The roads travel along Sol Duc Valley along the river until parting ways when the river and valley split off to the coast. There are more lakes, campgrounds, and county parks visitors can take advantage of.
Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center
An absolute must-visit is Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center. Look for Upper Hoh Road from the highway and it is s good nearly 20-mile drive tracing Hoh River from Willoughby Creek Campground. Like all drives in the park, this is another containing continuous natural beauty and allows travelers to ponder when all the land here looked unspoiled by man.
Rain Forests in Olympic National Park
Rain forests are part of the park’s unique appeal. This is the only place in America to experience them but it is advisable to visit during good weather. The visitors center has information pertaining to rain forests and prepares visitors for what is an easy winding walk through the Hoh Rain Forest. The forest plant life is dense and trees soar to the heavens so high you cannot see the tops. Animals and birds live way up there hidden from human sight. The sun is almost blocked out and its rays hit the ground in a scattered fashion. Ferns and moss are abundant.
A nice place to stop for a moment in the sun is on the bridge over a stream. The water is clear and little fish can be seen swimming around. Trees are old, towering, and massively thick. The forest floor is littered with fallen trees which are vital to the cycle of life. Decaying trunks provide nourishment for new plant life and insects. Saplings spring forth along a fallen tree and that is why trees in the forest appear in straight rows as if planted. A hiking trail penetrates into the park and comes to a split. Go left to connect to Sol Duc or continue on to Blue Glacier which is as close to Mount Olympus as people can get. Hurricane Ridge and Hoh Rain Forest are the two ca n’t-miss stops.
Returning to the 101, the highway turns toward the coast following the Hoh River and enters the southern coast section of the park which allows for plenty of beach access. Kalaloch Lodge provides facilities. The highway crosses from parkland into Quinault Indian Reservation and turns inland. Upper Queets Valley Road and State Highway 21 provide access to a park finger with recreation along Queets River. The last major park destination is lake Quinault. North and South Shore Roads circle the lake and continue into the forest until morphing into hiking trails.
The coastal region almost seems a separate entity from the mountainous interior. Rivers and streams feed into the Pacific thus providing avenues for spawning salmon. Forest seems to go right to the edge of shorelines pounded by wind, rain, and surf. There are three points of access to the coastline. The aforementioned Kalaoch is the best spot to explore beaches and tide pools filled with sea urchins, anemones, and sea stars. Visitors should be aware it is a long circuitous route to reach Ozette and the road is scenic but with scarce amenities.
Ozette is known for its coastal forests and Lake Ozette is Washington’s third largest lake. There are boat docks, camping, and plenty of ice-cold water. North of Upper Hoh Road on Highway 101 is State Highway 110 to the beaches of Mora. Besides the usual boating, camping, and campgrounds, Mora offers the best coastal hiking because visitors can get great views of the arches, bluffs, and sea stacks carved from the elements.
The entire Olympic Peninsula including the national park is an opportunity for visitors to see what long ago pioneers and Native Americans did: wilderness at its most rugged and nature untamed and dangerous. Visitors will come away with an appreciation of majestic beauty from snow-capped mountain peaks to off-shore islands.