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It’s tough, but possible to see everything in three days at Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula. Running from the Olympic Mountains west to the Pacific Ocean, Olympic is the largest national park in the Pacific Northwest and rivals Yellowstone National Park for land area and ecosystem diversity.
Here’s how to set a three-day Olympic National Park itinerary that allows you to take some amazing hikes, soak in the area’s incredible beauty and spend time wandering along the Pacific Ocean. Note that a healthy dose of luck, in the form of a rare unreserved campsite, is a good first step, but with post-pandemic crowds, making reservations and planning ahead are important.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Bring a raincoat when you visit Olympic National Park. Even in the middle of summer, jackets were needed in all three park districts, including layering up at chilly Hurricane Ridge. Fog, mist, drizzle and heavy clouds were the norm for the trio of days.
Camping at Olympic National Park
“I can’t believe we found this campsite,” she said as we started unloading the car.
This sale is valid until 6/4/2023.
Amazingly, when we arrived at Olympic National Park, we found an empty, unreserved campsite next to the Hoh River in the Hoh Rainforest Campground in Forks, Washington.
It was a perfect start to this three-day itinerary on our 4,500-mile road trip from Phoenix. We wouldn’t experience a clear day that weekend, but we did avoid the rain.
Our Olympic National Park itinerary was free-form, but more people discovered national parks during the pandemic. Close-to-urban sites like Olympic National Park are seeing more visitors than ever, and there are many places to camp in the park and the adjoining forests. And since Olympic is so close to the Canadian border, it’s a popular spot for outdoorsy Canadians as well.
Hiking at Olympic National Park
With our campsite luck, I wanted to buy a lottery ticket, but my companion wanted to get set up and start exploring. Amazing that we could find a Hoh Rainforest campsite on the July 4th holiday weekend in the most accessible rainforest in the continental United States. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it’s one of four rainforests in Washington state, all of which are on the Olympic Peninsula.
Looking at the map over lunch, we figured covering the Hall of Mosses and Spruce Nature trails would be an easy short hike after setting up the campsite. After checking the outside temperature on the dashboard, it was apparent that my light rain jacket would be just right in the steamy rainforest.
Many guidebooks offer the best hikes based on skill and endurance. Smartphone apps like GaiaGPS from Outside Magazine or All Trails have long lists and descriptions of Olympic National Park hiking trails.
Scrolling on her phone, my companion said, “If we get set up fast, there is a ranger program on the Hall of Mosses Trail at 2:30. We can make that our first stop.”
Day One: Hiking in Hoh Rainforest
Leaving the Puget Sound behind and tooling on a road trip across the Olympic Peninsula on Highway 101 from Port Townsend and through Port Angeles, the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center is a perfect first stop.
After lunch in Forks, the vampire home in the “Twilight” books and films, we turned onto Upper Hoh Road and followed the Hoh River the 18+ miles (30km) to the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center. It’s just over a two-hour drive southwest of Seattle on Highway 101.
All hiking trails radiate from the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center. Ranger tours in the Hall of Mosses are a must-experience to learn about the long tendrils of moss dripping from tree branches. The ranger opened a whole new world about moss, lichens and the wide variety of plants in America’s rainforest.
Two short, easy hikes originate at the Visitor Center, the Hall of Mosses and Spruce Nature Trail. Many hikers, including families with children, use these trails, and the paved pathways make for easy hikes.
Hiking to a Glacier
“I’ve never seen moss hanging from a tree before.”
“Living in the desert, do we ever see moss? Have we ever seen temperate rainforests?”
The 17-mile (27km) Hoh River Trail is a long but easy hike from the ranger station pressing through the rainforest and following the river to Glacier Meadow.
The short Blue Glacier Primitive trail runs another 0.9 miles (1.4km) to the foot of the glacier. A moderately difficult side trail runs south along Mount Tom Creek to the base of the mountain. It’s the only trail, other than the primitive route to the glacier, that has an elevation gain.
There are fewer hikers on this route. Take it leisurely. Nine backpacking campgrounds are along the hiking trail, and the largest is at Olympus Ranger Station in the shadow of Mount Olympus.
Read More: Trail Tips and Must-Have Gear for Your First Backpacking Trip
Hoh Rainforest Hikes with Kids
Hoh Rainforest works well to introduce children to hiking and wilderness. The trails around the visitor center are short in distance and fully paved.
We passed many families hiking the mosses and ferns with young kids, often rushing ahead of mom and dad to scout what was around the next turn.
Read More: What to Pack for a Day Hike with Kids
Day 2: Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and Pacific Ocean
A shade over an hour’s drive from Hoh Rainforest to Rialto Beach brings you to the Pacific Ocean. We could have stayed in the coastal hamlet of La Push; the Mora Campground was one of our options if the Hoh Rainforest campground had been packed.
The North Coast Beach Travelway is a hiking trail over sand and ocean-washed gravel. The 5-mile (8km) trail ends at John Peak.
It connects to the Northwest National Scenic Trail, another hiking trail running for 10 miles (16km), connecting with more scenic Pacific Ocean trails rounding the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.
The trails zig-zag along the beach past and around the picturesque sea stacks. Trailheads are a few miles west of Three Rivers, Washington.
Treasures in the Tide Pools
“What is that? It looks like a crystal teardrop.”
Wandering along the tide pools, brimming with life for the time of year. Scattered along the beach at the tide line were teardrop-shaped, almost transparent, water-filled, well, things that were most likely plants. Neither of us wanted to touch them.
The North Coast Beach Travelway takes hikers past the famous Hole-in-the-Wall sea stack. The trail splits in two, one taking the coast side of the hiking trail and the other climbing through the split, making up the hole.
The Pacific Ocean side trail is only accessible at low tide.
Exploring the Beach
The Hoh River and Quillayute River look like perfect flows in the summer for a calm afternoon to paddle a kayak.
Two highly popular beaches are just off U.S. 101 south of the Hoh River. Second Beach and the more popular Ruby Beach hiking trail connects with Highway 101, where it meets the Pacific Ocean after its run through the old-growth forest.
A short—with a modest switchback elevation drop—hiking trail takes hikers to the beach. After crossing Cedar Creek, it’s a sandy 1.5-mile (2.4km) beach walk past a sea stack to Ruby Beach.
A bit further south on the highway are the Kalaloch Beaches. This series of beaches has a steeper climb from the trailhead to hit the beach hiking trail. The site is popular, and the adjoining cliffs make a picturesque setting against the Pacific Ocean. Several trailheads branch out from the Kalaloch Lodge.
While there are information signs and kiosks along the ocean, no ranger station or visitor center exists in this portion of the national park.
Day 3: Hurricane Ridge
Bundle up, prepare for windy and misting conditions and start humming the theme from “The Sound of Music” while driving the 17-mile (27km) Hurricane Ridge Road out of Port Angeles.
After making the last switchback curve in the Hurricane Hill parking lot, we were a mile (1.4km) high in the sky, where a wildflower-filled meadow rises to meet the view from vehicles arriving at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.
My companion wanted to run across the meadow, arms akimbo and singing, “The hills are alive…”
The Olympic Mountains definitely are alive with views, wind and wildflowers in the summer. From the ridge, you can see far across the Olympic Peninsula, almost all of the Olympic Mountains and the lush green of the Olympic National Forest.
On the drive, it’s common to be stopped by a herd of mountain goats migrating from meadow to pasture across the road.
If the weather could be better, the parking area offers incredible Alpine views right out the window. Several hiking trails cut into the glacier-carved terrain, with trailheads leading from the visitor center.
The Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center offers snacks, a gift shop and a mini-museum with interpretive displays about the indigenous people who lived here long before there was the United States. Exhibits include wildlife, Alpine meadows, glaciers and the rugged Olympic Mountains.
The 14.7-mile (24km) Wolf Creek Trail follows a Hurricane Ridge toe with switchbacks dropping 3,850 feet (1,174m) to Whiskey Bend, where it intersects the Elwha River Trail and Whiskey Bend Road. Hiking from the Whiskey Bend trailhead starts a 26-mile (42km) wilderness hike to lakes Beauty and Margaret. The other direction from the Whiskey Bend trailhead takes you north to Madison Falls, one of the many waterfalls in Olympic National Park.
SheBuysTravel Tip: It’s a nearly three-hour drive from Hoh Rainforest to Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, so putting Hurricane Ridge on the last day of a northbound return makes the most sense. Swapping Days 2 and 3 on the itinerary when leaving Olympic National Park and going south through the Olympic National Forest can cut travel time. Or, if you only have one day, Hurricane Ridge can be a day trip from Seattle or Tacoma.
Where to Stay in Olympic National Park
We could have stayed at a motel in Forks, dodged the local Twilight vampires, and been within a reasonable range of all three best sites in Olympic National Park: Pacific Ocean/Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Hurricane Ridge and Hoh Rainforest.
We opted for camping despite heading to one of the most popular spots in the national park without a site reservation.
It’s best to snag a reserved spot on Recreation.gov rather than find a fully-booked campground in the national park and have to set up outside the Hoh Rain Forest in a national forest or Washington state campground.
A slew of motels also serves Olympic National Park from Port Angeles on the north along Highway 101 past Rialto Beach and into Forks.
If you prefer an in-park experience and a solid roof, the Olympic lodge options include:
Lake Crescent Lodge
From Seattle, the closest accommodation option inside the park is the historic 1915 Lake Crescent Lodge on the shores of the lake, just a few miles west of Port Angeles. The lodge is open from the end of April through January 1. Features include lake activities, hiking trails and Marymere Falls.
Lake Quinault Lodge
Coming up from the south, Lake Quinault is the first popular destination and base camp with campgrounds, space for recreational vehicles and the historic Lake Quinault Lodge. Here you’ll find lake activities, access to the Olympic Mountains backcountry and one of the four rainforests in Olympic National Park.
“I want us to stay there sometime,” my companion said. “It’s very romantic.”
Right on the coast, the Kalaloch Lodge is historic elegance with a windswept view of the ocean on one side and an old-growth forest on the other.
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort
The Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort is an escape tucked deep into the old-growth forest. The rustic cabin experience includes the natural hot springs in the area. There are plenty of trails for hiking.
Finish your day off with a trip to Sol Duc Falls, which is worth the detour even if you are not staying at the lodge or adjacent campground. Sol Duc Falls is reached with a road to the trailhead or hiking trails on both sides of Sol Duc River.
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