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Olympic National Park’s forests, mountains, beaches look unreal

by Staff

Olympic National Park looks straight out of a fairy tale or film.

Its beauty is unreal.

”We’ve got rugged glacier-capped mountains, more than 60 miles of wild Pacific coasts, and these massive, magnificent stands of old growth and temperate rain forests,” said Molly Pittman, Public Affairs specialist at the park. “Every shade of green that you can imagine.”

Located in northwest Washington state, the park has more than 922,000 acres, 95% of which are designated wilderness. 

“If you haven’t been to this part of the country before … you might be the most awestruck by the size of the trees and maybe also just the richness of growing things,” Pittman said. 

Here’s what travelers can expect at Olympic National Park, the latest park in USA TODAY’s yearlong series.

What is so special about Olympic National Park?

Olympic National Park’s three distinct ecosystems offer visitors a world of opportunity.

“(You) can stroll along the coast and witness the power of the Pacific Ocean,” Pittman said. “You can hike for a full week through Olympic National Park, into the backcountry and out. You can drive up to Hurricane Ridge and view this sea of mountain tops.”

Whatever visitors choose to do, she said, “Come with a sense of discovery because there’s so much to stumble upon and explore out here.”

What is the most beautiful part of the Olympic National Park?

“I love walking through rain forests, either in the Hoh or Staircase, and just counting all the different shades of green,” Pittman said. “That’s, to me, one of the most beautiful parts of the park.”

There is no singular most beautiful place. 

“You’ll get different answers depending on which ranger you ask,” she added.

What is the best month to go to Olympic National Park?

Pittman said June is one of her favorite months in the park because the weather is nice and the days are long, but she noted any time of year can be a great time to visit.

“It depends on what you want to do,” she said. “The summer is a lovely time to visit if you want to have those wide open views. The winter can be a lovely time to visit if you enjoy winter sports, like backcountry skiing and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. That’s also all possible at Olympic.”

She noted that the weather can change quickly at the park. “So it’s really important to pay attention to those changing climates as you make your plans and also to the tide charts if you’re exploring the coastline.” 

How much time do you need at Olympic National Park?

“You could explore one area in a day, but I would give yourself at least three,” Pittman said. “I would want to spend a day in each kind of ecosystem.”

She said visitors should also budget for the time it takes to get to and from the park.

Do I have to take a ferry to get to Olympic National Park?

No. You can drive the whole way, but many visitors may choose to take a ferry for part of the journey.

“When you’re taking a ferry across, it kind of amps you up,” Pittman said. “ You can see – if you’re lucky, if it’s not shrouded in clouds – where you’re headed toward, and it’s just a really special spot.”

Once visitors cross Puget Sound, there’s still a long road ahead.

“If you take the ferry over from SeaTac and you take either the Bainbridge or the Kingston/Edmonds ferry, you’re still going to have about an hour and a half or so before you get to the Port Angeles Visitor Center,” Pittman said. 

Can I drive to Olympic National Park?

Yes. Visitors coming from points south can drive up the Interstate 5 corridor or, if they’re coming from the east, down through Tacoma, and then up the peninsula. Directions to various points of interest are available through the park’s website.

“It’s a journey to get here,” Pittman said, noting that the park is nearly entirely encircled by Washington State Highway 101. “You have to drive quite a ways around on that highway to get to an entrance point that either has a visitor center or you could drive up into the park through Olympic National Forest.”

A $30 park entry fee is required for private vehicles.

What big city is near Olympic National Park?

Seattle is about 2.5 hours away by car and home to the nearest major airport, Seattle-Tacoma International. Visitors will want to stay closer to make the most of their time in the park.

“Planning to explore the mountains of Hurricane Ridge or the waterfalls of Sol Duc? You may want to make your home base in Port Angeles, Washington, or near Lake Crescent,” the park suggests on its website. “Want to stroll through the lush Hoh Rain Forest or tidepool along the coast? Consider a home base in the Forks, Washington, area.” (Yes, Forks, like in “Twilight.”)

Lodging and camping are also available inside the park. Permits are required for overnight wilderness trips. Those are available through Recreation.gov or Port Angeles Wilderness Information Center at (360) 565-3100.

Are there grizzly bears in Olympic National Park?

No, but there are black bears. Other notable wildlife species include the Olympic marmot, Olympic snow mole and Olympic torrent salamander, which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. 

According to the park’s website, Olympic also protects the Pacific Northwest’s largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk, the largest elk species on the continent, and fishers, which are members of the weasel family that were reintroduced to the park after over-trapping led to their disappearance from the state decades ago. 

“Salmon are actually a pretty important species for Olympic,” Pittman added. “They are one of those species that connects our ocean and our forests and are culturally significant to the original people of this area and the tribes that are here.”

What Native tribes are connected to Olympic National Park?

Eight Native tribes are historically tied to the lands encompassed by Olympic National Park. 

Travelers who want to learn more about the tribes can visit the Carnegie Museum in Port Angeles, Makah Museum in Neah Bay, Quinault Cultural Center in Taholah, and Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s virtual museum, House of Seven Generations.

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