In Washington’s Olympic National Park, you will find a rugged coastline, a rain forest with trees draped in moss, a winter ski area and sparkling lakes that offer swimming, boating and fishing.
The park occupies 1,400 square miles in the northwest corner of the state, and 95 percent of it is wilderness. It is designated as an International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.
Highway 101 encircles the park and several spur roads lead to recreation areas. The center of the park, untouched by roads, offers incredible wilderness adventures. The park is split into two major areas, with hundreds of inland square miles on the east and a strip of 73 miles of coastline wilderness on the west.
A great place to begin exploring the park is the Olympic National Park Visitor Center at 3002 Mount Angeles Road in Port Angeles. Open daily, the center offers information, exhibits, a “hands-on” room for kids, an award-winning 25-minute orientation film shown on request, and two nature trails.
Olympic’s Wild Coast
The coastline is expansive and diverse. Most of the beaches are wide and sandy, offering superb hiking and beachcombing opportunities. One of the best, Rialto Beach, is a photographer’s heaven, with spectacular sunsets, huge stone haystacks, a natural stone arch called “Hole-in-the-Wall” and sweeping beaches. Three beaches south of Rialto Beach are named First, Second and Third beaches, and are also worthy of exploration.
Ozette, at the northwest tip of the park, can be reached along three-mile boardwalk trails to either Sand Point or Cape Alava. A popular day hike is a nine-mile loop, which includes a three-mile beach walk.
Kalaloch’s beach, at the south end of the park’s ocean shore, was named by Seattle Magazine as one of the ten best beaches to storm watch. Visitors can spend hours here on wide sandy beaches, exploring tide pools, rocky cliffs and driftwood.
Olympic’s Rain Forests
You’ll want your rain gear for this part of the trip. Drenched with more than 12 feet of rain a year, the forests are magical, with curtains of moss hanging like shaggy winter fur from some of the world’s largest trees. Ferns, salal, berries and groundcover take up every inch of space. We saw a healthy fern growing 20 feet up on the branch of an old live cedar. The world is green here, and the air is heavy with moisture.
The Hoh Rain Forest, 91 miles west of Port Angeles, has a nice visitor center with exhibits, books, maps and self-guided nature trails. Giant trees abound. One forest monarch we saw was a Sitka Spruce, 270 feet tall with a diameter of 12 feet and estimated to be 500 to 550 years old.
The Quinault Rain Forest, in the northwest section of the park, also has a ranger station with maps, information and self-guided trails.
Olympic’s Sparkling Lakes
Popular Lake Crescent is 19 miles west of Port Angeles on Highway 101. This shimmering, 624-foot deep jewel, was carved out by a huge glacier thousands of years ago. The lake offers swimming, boating and fishing.
A worthwhile photo stop is the short hike to Marymere Falls, a ribbon of water cascading 90 feet to a pool below. The hike is mostly level with only the last section a little steep.
Lake Quinault, in the southwest corner of Olympic National Park, is framed by old-growth mossy trees of the Quinault Rain Forest. The lake offers swimming, boating, fishing and miles of easily accessible hiking trails.
Ozette, a two-hour drive from Port Angeles, offers a lovely lake for boaters, a small campground and trails to a rocky ocean beach.
Olympic’s Majestic Mountains
The most accessible alpine area is Hurricane Ridge, at 5,242 feet and 17 miles up a paved road from Port Angeles. Hurricane Ridge is the only area in Olympic National Park where you can drive from sea level, through lowland, montane and subalpine forests, to the park’s high alpine country. At the top, the stunning view of mountains and valleys makes this destination alone reason to visit the park. The visitor center is a worthwhile stop. Miles of trails offer breathtaking views of glaciers, forests and wildlife. Deer, oblivious to humans, graze close to hiking trails.
The Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area offers spectacular winter recreation for downhill and cross-country skiers, snowshoers and snowboarders.
Camping is handled on a first-come, first-served basis with the exception of Kalaloch Campground, which takes reservations from June 16 to September 6. There are no hookups in Olympic campgrounds operated by the National Park Service, but water is available at central locations. Bathrooms are centrally located, but have no showers. Campsites have fire pits and picnic tables. RV dump stations have a $5 fee and are located at Fairholme, Hoh, Kalaloch, Mora and Sol Duc campgrounds.
The National Park Service operates 16 campgrounds with a total of 910 sites. Some campsites have ocean views. As a rule, Olympic can accommodate rigs no larger than 21 feet. There are some exceptions, but these size limitations were true for most of the campgrounds we visited. There are two RV campgrounds with hookups that are operated by private concessionaires within the park, and there are also several private RV parks with all the amenities outside the park boundaries.
Two of our favorite campgrounds at Olympic are Mora and Kalaloch. Mora is two miles from Rialto Beach, a short drive, or nice hike or bike ride. Five loops with a total of 94 campsites offer a variety of sites, many of which have privacy. A boat launch is located on the Quillayute River (not accessible at low tides).
Kalaloch is a large (175 sites) very popular campground. Most of the six loops have a few sites with ocean views, most of which, however, lack privacy. Sites only a short distance away often provide more privacy and are more spacious. All campsites are between the highway and the ocean. The real draw to Kalaloch is its closeness and easy access to the beach.
Recreation fees provide about $1.8 million annually to maintain visitor facilities and services. All passes are good at any of the Olympic National Park entrances. A single visit pass, good for up to seven consecutive days, is $15 per vehicle. Individual passes for individuals on foot, bike or motorcycles are $5. Annual passes are $30. In addition, there are nightly camp fees ranging from $10 to $18, depending on location and season. Our Golden Age pass gave us free entrance into the park and half-fee for camping.
For camping and other information, visit www.nps.gov/Olym.
Mary E. Trimble and her husband, Bruce, live in Camano Island, Washington.
Writer Earns Honor
Mary E. Trimble, author of this issue’s article on Olympic National Park and a frequent contributor to RV Life, also writes fiction, and her latest book, Tenderfoot, has been chosen by Western Writers of America as a finalist for a Spur Award for Best Novel of the West. Previous winners include Larry McMurtry for Lonesome Dove, Michael Blake for Dances with Wolves and Tony Hillerman for Skinwalker.
Tenderfoot, published by Treble Heart Books, is a romantic suspense novel that takes place on a Northwest cattle ranch during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. You can learn more about it at marytrimblebooks.com and trebleheartbooks.com.