Olympic National Park: A user's guide
From rugged Pacific Coast beaches to the lush rain forest, this park in Washington state offers a lifetime's worth of exploration.
Tue, Aug 30, 2011 at 08:54 AM
Sitting on the rain-soak Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington, Olympic National Park is perhaps most known for its expansive temperate rain forest. Considered one of the best remaining examples of this unique ecosystem in North America, the rain forest is the park's headlining attraction. However, Olympic is very diverse, with glacier-topped mountains, forested valleys, and ruggedly picturesque coastline also occupying space within the park's boundaries.
With only a few major roads, none of which lead far into the interior, much of Olympic is wild and virtually unvisited. Because of this lack of infrastructure and the fact that 95 percent of the park is designated as a wilderness area, Olympic is an attractive venue for intrepid hikers and nature-seekers who want to feel like they are in a true wilderness, not an overcrowded tourist attraction. At the same time, the park's size (more than 1,400 square miles) and diverse landscapes give even casual nature enthusiasts a lifetime's-worth of different attractions to explore.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the forested areas of the Olympic Peninsula began to draw the attention of logging companies. President Grover Cleveland answered early calls for conservation by creating the Olympic Forest Reserve in 1897. The reserve protected a section of lowland forest from logging. The Mount Olympus National Monument was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 to protect the park's wildlife, namely its dwindling elk population.
It wasn't until 1938 that the Olympic National Park, as it is known today, was born. The establishment of the park, which merged the forest reserves with the national monument areas, was largely due to the efforts of conversationalists at both the local and national level. The park's boundaries were expanded in 1953 to include a long section of rugged coastline.
Olympic National Park has also received a nod from the international community. In 1981, UNESCO named the park one of its World Heritage Sites.
Things to do
Summer is the most popular time to visit Olympic National Park. Though this means more crowds, it also means more programs. Anyone who feels intimidated by the immensity and wildness of the park can get their feet wet with a ranger-guided hike before hitting the trails on their own.
Though longer hikes along the coast and into the interior of Olympic are possible, a majority of visitors opt for day hikes. These hikes are facilitated by a series of routes that fall in the fraction-of-a-mile to three-mile range. The trails connect with parking lots and handful are even paved.
With 16 campgrounds and more than 900 sites, there are plenty of places to pitch a tent. Backcountry camping is possible with a free permit from the visitor's center.
Experienced hikers can try longer hikes. Two of the more well-traveled routes are the 20-mile North Coast Route or the 20-plus mile trail that follows the park's Elwha River. Both these trips require multiple days to complete.
Summer and fall are the best times to undertake longer hikes. In the wintertime, Olympic's action is centered around the highland area of Hurricane Ridge. Alpine and cross country skiing are possible, as are snowshoe-aided treks around the highlands.
Why you'll come back
Olympic National Park's biggest strengths are its uniqueness and diversity. The rugged, pine-lined beaches and lush, temperate rain forests cannot be found elsewhere, at least not on such a vast scale. A first taste of the landscapes, perhaps on one of the shorter trails, is sure to inspire the desire for a longer trip. Also, there is a full menu of ecosystems, all of which can be experienced on both long and short-term treks. Winter brings a completely different set of adventures and attractions. This diversity makes it possible to spend a lifetime exploring this unique national park without ever retracing your steps.
Flora and fauna
Olympic National Park is home to species that thrive in primary or old growth forests. A variety of forest-dwelling amphibians and reptiles and rare birds, such as the northern spotted owl, are among the park's residents. Mammals inside Olympic range from small (shrews, chipmunks, and moles) to large (elk and black bears). Because of the isolated geography, some species have developed without outside influence. The Olympic marmot, a large rodent that can weigh as much as 15 pounds, is endemic to the park, as is the short-tailed weasel and Olympic chipmunk.
Olympic has more than 1,400 species of plants. Along the coast, spruce and red cedar trees provide the canopy, while the abundant rains allow head-high undergrowth, mosses, and ferns to thrive on the forest floor. Ceder and fir trees are found in the Olympic Mountain foothills, as are wildflowers. These species also thrive in the lowland rain forests. Moss-covered cottonwood and maple trees are the main non-coniferous trees inside Olympic.
By the numbers
- Website: Olympic National Park
- Park size: 922,651 acres (1,441 square miles)
- 2010 visitation: 3.7 million
- Busiest month: August (688,000 visitors)
- Slowest month: December (115,900 visitors)
- Funky fact: There are 60 named glaciers inside Olympic National Park.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.