Olympic National Park can only be described as incredible. A diverse ecosystem of glacier-topped mountains, lush forests and coastal beaches spans nearly one million acres in the northwest corner of Washington State, providing seemingly endless opportunities to immerse yourself in all the park has to offer. Despite being encircled by a major highway, I was amazed how a few hours’ drive can mean all the difference between the hustle and bustle of civilization and the peace and tranquility of unspoiled nature.
Because there is so much to see and do – from hiking and canoeing to skiing and soaking in hot springs – the best piece of advice I can offer is to focus on the area(s) that match your interest. That and be prepared for all types of (changing) weather. For us this meant dividing our time between Lake Crescent and the Hoh Rainforest, two very different but equally as ‘incredible’ destinations within the park. Our limited time left us wanting more and with the hope of returning to Olympic National Park again someday soon.
Day 1: Lake Crescent
After landing at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport we hit the road for the 3-hour journey north along Highway 101 towards Lake Crescent. The drive was a scenic one framed by tall trees and bright yellow flowers (which we later learned were the invasive Scotch broom) and punctuated by the occasional roadside coffee “cottage”, the first sign that coffee culture is alive and well in the Pacific Northwest.
While there are a many accommodations in the nearby city of Port Angeles, our destination was the Lake Crescent Lodge inside Olympic National Park. The property felt frozen in time in a good way. We were greeted by the main lodge building, which dates back to 1915 and is set against a mountainous backdrop overlooking the sapphire blue water and lakefront lined with Adirondack chairs and kayaks available to rent. It’s a piece of Americana that’s all too fleeting these days. Inside there’s an inviting living room-type space with a fireplace, bar and board games for guests to play, as well as a sunroom and restaurant that serves a thoughtful menu of locally-inspired food matched with friendly service and beautiful views. In terms of guest rooms there are several different accommodation types to choose from, both inside and surrounding the main building. We stayed in the Marymere Rooms and found our room to be spacious and well maintained and I especially loved the back door that opened up to the lake.
There’s also a handful of hiking trails nearby, so after exploring the property we headed out towards the Marymere Falls Trail. From the meadow next to the lodge it’s a 0.9 mile walk each way through old growth forests to reach the 90-foot tall waterfall. Almost immediate we were surrounded by a kaleidoscope of green in the form of moss-covered trees, fiddlehead ferns and the other plants that carpeted the forest floor. In some areas where the sunlight attempted to shine through the thick vegetation, the light was filtered in such a way that the result was almost florescent. The trail was relatively flat as we traveled along the rushing stream before crossing a few bridges and then climbed slightly via wooden stairs to reach Marymere Falls. The forest was cool and peaceful and beautiful, and what makes this relatively easy hike even better is the reward of a waterfall at the end before we turned around.
After making our way back to the lodge, we had just enough time before dinner for the Moments in Time Trail. This gentile 0.6 mile trail loops through the forest near Lake Crescent and is dotted with a series of informative placards along its route that narrate the history and flora and fauna of the area. It provided a great orientation to the region, giving us a greater appreciate for what we were seeing along the trail. Afterwards we enjoyed a lovely lakeside dinner at the lodge restaurant and then sat on the shore of Lake Crescent to watch the final slivers of daylight slip away.
Day 2: Hoh Rainforest
The next day we enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the lodge before packing up and hitting the road. Our first destination of the day was the Hoh Rainforest about 1.5 hours away from Lake Crescent. What makes Hoh special is that it’s one of four rainforests in the park and part of the only temperate rainforest in the United States. It’s also one of the most popular areas in Olympic National Park, which was evident as soon as we arrived at the Visitor Center parking area. Luckily the groups of people were more spread out once we hit the Hall of Mosses Trail, an easy 0.8 mile loop that winds through the rainforest. Other easy (Mini Trail/0.1 miles and Spruce Nature Trail/1.2 miles) and harder (Hoh River Trail/17.3 miles) trails also start at the same area.
Mild winters, cool summers and up to 12 feet of rain per year create the perfect conditions for the flora and fauna of the rainforest to flourish. As we walked along the trail we were mesmerized by our surroundings. Towering trees dating back hundreds of years create a canopy over the dense understory below – plants growing on other plants, moss dripping off everything, enchanting ferns and fallen giants feeding the forest floor. And the cycle repeats. The Hoh Rainforest is nothing short of ethereal and is a must-see-to-believe pocket of Olympic National Park.
As we made our way to Seattle for the next part of our trip we drove along the Pacific Coast and stopped to have lunch at Ruby Beach. Just under an hour from the Hoh Rainforest, this rocky beach provided the perfect setting of scenic views and driftwood seating for an impromptu picnic. Afterwards we drove 10 more minutes to the see so-called Tree of Life, a sprawling Sitka spruce tree with its exposed roots clinging to the weathered and washed out earth, forming a sort of cave below. Both locations are near the town of Forks, which has been made popular in recent years by the Twilight books and movies. From here it was an increasingly slow 3.5 hour drive to our hotel in Seattle. Thank goodness for the roadside coffee cottages along the way.
Also Good to Know
Olympic National Park is quite large, and given the record number of visitors some of the most popular national parks around the United States have been experiencing recently, good planning has never been more important. For us the first step was to decide what areas to spend our time in, factoring in how long it would take to drive though locations given potential for road construction, traffic and other delays. We also found that staying at an accommodation within the park was worth a little extra cost to save a lot of extra time. And as I hinted at earlier, the weather can vary greatly throughout the park and even throughout the day so always check the forecast and prepare accordingly with the right clothing and gear.
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK BY THE NUMBERS
- Established as a National Monument in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt and later a National Park in 1938
- Spans a total of 922,651 acres
- Average annual precipitation ranges from 100-170 inches
- 4 temperate rain forests are located within the park
- Home to 22 species listed as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act
- 73 miles of coastline and more than 3,000 miles of rivers and streams run through the park
- The highest point in the park is Mount Olympus is the highest point in the park at 7,956 feet
- Attracts more than 25 million visitors per year
- There are 4 lodges and 14 campgrounds located throughout the park
- Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981