Backpacking Olympic National Park – Top 7 Trails

Royal Basin - Backpacking Olympic National Park
The summer wildflowers line the bank of the glacial tarn at the end of the Royal Basin Trail.

Olympic National Park is a diverse wonderland of mountain peaks, rainforests, and ocean vistas. There are many great day hikes and other adventures to be had when visiting this national treasure. However, some trails need more time to be fully explored. There are trails in Olympic National Park that journey deep into the rugged backcountry where no road leads. Other trails have destinations that are found on a shorter hike but because of epic sunsets or dark skies, they are best experienced with a backpacker’s tent. Below are the best seven trails for fully exploring and backpacking Olympic National Park in Washington State.

Camping Permits

When backpacking Olympic National Park visitors are required to stay in established permitted campsites. The best way to obtain a camping permit is to be prepared to grab a reservation when they become available 6-months to the day in advance of your first desired night on the trail. Once reserved, the park service will issue your permit within a few days of your scheduled trip. Each of the campsites falls into a backcountry zone. I have the appropriate zone listed for each of the trails below. You can also use this map provided by the parks service for planning your backcountry journey. Some of these trails are only available for reservation during the summer season, mid-July through mid-October.

Backpacking Olympic National Park Gear

The type of gear you will need for your Olympic National Park trip will depend greatly on where in the park you intend to hike. The coastal trails allow for slightly lighter clothing and gear than mountain trails, but all backpackers are required to carry bear canisters inside the park. Check out our backpacking gear list and the accompanying guides for how to choose the right gear for you. Most of the mountain trails in Olympic National Park have good bridges for stream crossing but the beach trails do not. You might want to carry a set of water shoes for the crossing, in addition to quality hiking shoes for the rocky shorelines. For the beach trails, make sure you have a copy of the tidal charts and know how to effectively use them to avoid getting trapped by the high tide.

Olympic Bald Eagle
Animals are abundant in the backcountry. You might want to include a pair of binoculars into your pack when backpacking Olympic National Park.

Backpacking Olympic National Park – Top 7 Trails

  1. High Divide Loop
  2. Shi Shi Beach
  3. Royal Basin
  4. Ozette Triangle
  5. Grand Loop
  6. South Coast Wilderness Trail
  7. Enchanted Valley

The above Google Map is for reference only and is not detailed enough to use for anything other than getting to the trailheads. Use the Park’s backcountry map for planning a backpacking trip and acquiring the appropriate campsite permits. The park also supplies GPS coordinates for campgrounds and trailheads on its website.

1) High Divide Loop w/ Seven Lakes Basin

Sunset Olympic National Park
A river of clouds runs from below Mount Olympus to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Total Distance: 20.5 miles
  • Type: Loop
  • Elevation Gain: 5,320′
  • Rating: Strenuous
  • Trailhead: Sol Duc Parking Lot
  • Zone: Sol Duc
  • Recommended Time: 3 Days, 2 Nights (Summer Only)

The High Divide Loop is Olympic National Park’s most iconic backpacking trip. Much of the journey follows the flow of the Sol Duc River as it makes its way through the dense rainforest and crashing over waterfalls. The most popular of which is the unique triple-column, Sol Duc Falls. The trail leaves the rainforest and climbs by Heart Lake before crossing over the ridgeline known as the High Divide. On one side of the ridgeline is the gorgeous Seven Lakes Basin, which is full of highly-saturated blue lakes. This is a great place to explore looking for wild creatures and backpackers can spend a night under the stars at Lunch Lake. However, the crown jewel of this hike is found on the other side of the ridgeline rising out of the Hoh River Valley. This is the best vantage point in the entire park of the glacial-covered Mount Olympus.

Tip

Camp at Heart Lake and Lunch Lake. This makes your first day and last day a little long but gives you ample time to explore the ridge-line and Seven Lakes Basin. When you do camp on Heart Lake make sure you go up to the ridge-line to watch the sunset on Mount Olympus. It is an experience you will never forget.

Backpacking Olympic National Park
Jennifer overlooks the Seven Lakes Basin from the High Divide Trail.

2) Shi Shi Beach

  • Total Distance: 9 miles
  • Type: Out-n-Back
  • Elevation Gain: 200′
  • Rating: Easy
  • Trailhead: Shi Shi Beach Trail Parking Lot
  • Zone: North Coast
  • Recommended Time: 2 Days, 1 Night
Cape Alava Sunset
We weren’t able to visit Shi Shi Beach because of Covid in 2020, but Cape Alava also is a great place to watch the sunset on the Olympic coast.

Beyond Mount Olympus, the rocky coastline of the Pacific Northwest is the most endurable image of Olympic National Park. Shi Shi Beach is the best place for backpackers to explore the iconic coastline at sunset. The long sandy beach turns into a rocky coastline with tidal pools and a cluster of sea stacks known as the Point of Arches. These formations are widely considered the best in the park. Add in the fact that the trail is one of the easiest backpacking journeys in the park and you are left with what might be the best beginners backpack in the country. Just don’t get too excited and overpack. You still have to carry that gear across the sand.

Tip

While Shi Shi beach is a part of the National Park, backpackers will have to cross Native American land. In addition to your park camping permit, you will also need a Makah Recreation Pass for each day you intend to be in the park. Passes can be purchased in Neah Bay on your way to the trailhead.

3) Royal Basin

Royal Basin Waterfall
The Royal Basin Waterfall is a beautiful but often overlooked highlight of the Royal Basin Trail.
  • Total Distance: 17 miles
  • Type: Out-n-Back
  • Elevation Gain: 3,926′
  • Rating: Difficult
  • Trailhead: Upper Dungeness
  • Zone: Hurricane
  • Recommended Time: 2 Days, 1 Night (Summer Only)

The Royal Basin Trail leads to a secluded area in the northeastern section of Olympic National Park. Just getting to the trailhead is an adventure as it requires getting off the asphalt and driving up and down a few mountainsides on a gravel road for nearly an hour. The Royal Basin lies in an area known by the locals as the rain shadow because it receives about seven times less rain per year than the western side of the park. This trail spends a lot of time climbing through the forest and it looks vastly different from those found in the western rainforests. Nearing treeline, the path rounds Royal Lake and then climbs into the Royal Basin skirting a beautiful waterfall along the way. The Royal Basin itself is an alpine bowl dotted with turquoise-colored tarns separated by rocky moraines. It is an amazing corner of the park to explore.

Tip

Get a permit to camp at Royal Lake Campground and explore the Upper Royal Basin area in the early morning on the second day. The basin faces east so the light is best in the morning. Don’t miss the beautiful Royal Basin Waterfall that is located near the ranger’s hut west of the Royal Lake. (Not the one located on the main Royal Basin Trail.) It is a 61-foot height waterfall that is nearly as wide.

Upper Royal Basin
A saturated turquoise tarn in the Upper Royal Basin in Olympic National Park.

4) Ozette Triangle (aka, Cape Alava to Sand Point Trail)

Sandy Point Trail
A large majority of the Sandy Point Trail is a beautiful boardwalk but it can be very slippery.
  • Total Distance: 9.5 miles
  • Type: Loop
  • Elevation Gain: 578′
  • Rating: Easy
  • Trailhead: Ozette Ranger Station (Parking lot to the north)
  • Zone: The North Coast
  • Recommended Time: 2 Days, 1 Night

The Cape Alava Trail is one of the best day hikes in Olympic National Park and one of the must-do adventures when visiting the park. This is because Cape Alava is the westernmost point in the continental United States. Grab a permit and camp out on the westernmost point. Watch the sunset as bald eagles soar overhead. Scan the ocean waves for gray whales, killer whales, sea lions, seals, and otters. Search through the tidal pools for sea stars, green anemones, crabs, and other small aquatic life. At the Wedding Rock formations search for the ancient petroglyphs left here by the Native Americans who survived off of the life-giving bounty of the sea. Make the full loop by hiking along the coastline for several miles to the Sand Point Trail and then head back to Ozette Lake completing the Ozette Triangle.

Tip

Wedding Rock Petroglyph
One of the many ancient petroglyphs found in the Wedding Rock area of the Olympic National Park.

The Ozette Triangle is a hike that is best completed at low tide so make sure you have a tidal chart for the day you intend to hike the coast. If you are up for a bigger challenge skip the Sand Point Trail return and continue to backpack the entire North Coast Trail all the way to Rialto Beach. The North Coast Trail s a 21-mile journey that typically takes about 3 to 4 days because of the high tide pinch points. You would also need to arrange a shuttle for the 65-mile road return to the Ozette Ranger Station.

5) Grand Loop (AKA: Deer Park Loop)

  • Total Distance: 43 miles
  • Type: Loop
  • Elevation Gain: About 13,000′
  • Rating: Extremely Strenuous
  • Trailhead: Deer Park (Alt: Obstruction Point)
  • Zone: Hurricane
  • Recommended Time: 5 Days, 4 Nights (Summer Only)
Olympic National Park at Night
One of the best things about backpacking in Olympic National Park is being able to explore the rugged mountains at dusk.

While the High Divide Trail is considered Olympic National Park’s premier mountain backpacking route for views of Mount Olympus the Grand Loop is the park’s alpine loop trail. It passes over four mountain passes, three of which rise above 6,000 feet in elevation. It is a stunningly beautiful summer loop with rushing rivers, gorgeous turquoise lakes, and wildflower-covered meadows. Sections of this trail are remote and secluded while others are very popular. This is the perfect five-day journey for those looking for a longer trip when backpacking Olympic National Park.

Tip

A 10-mile section of this loop is classified by the park service as a primitive trail and is not recommended for those unprepared to route find. We recommend starting at Deer Park and backpacking the loop clockwise camping at Falls Camp, Bear Camp, Upper Cameron, and Gladys Lake. This makes the 3rd and 4th day fairly short but this puts crossing the steep Grand Pass on the 4th day rather than parring it with two other passes on a shorter itinerary. Gladys Lake is stunning but staying at Grand Lake would shave a mile off the long 12-mile day.

6) South Coast Wilderness Trail

  • Total Distance: 17.5 miles
  • Type: Thru-Hike (Shuttle)
  • Elevation Gain: 370′
  • Rating: Difficult
  • Trailhead: Oil City or Third Beach
  • Zone: South Coast
  • Recommended Time: 3 Days, 2 Nights
Third Beach Sea Stacks
The massive sea stacks found on the South Coast Wilderness Trail in Olympic National Park.

A 17.5-mile long trail with only 370′ of elevation would normally be a walk in the park for beginner backpackers or a long day hike. But that is not the case for The South Coast Wilderness Trail. In addition to timing certain sections of the hike with the low tide like some of the other coastal hikes on this list, backpackers have no choice but to climb up steep embankments via ropes to cross over certain stretches of land that plunge steeply into the ocean even at low tide. This deceptively challenging stretch of coastline also requires fording several creeks, which during the spring runoffs can be waist deep. However, those who do take on this rugged coastal trail are also rewarded with beautiful sea stacks, the unique Strawberry Bay Waterfall, abundant wildlife, and solitude.

Tip

This is a thru-hike that requires a shuttle for the 37-mile drive between the Third Beach Trailhead and Oil City Trailhead. This trail, more than any of the others on this list, requires backpackers have good planning in accordance with the tidal conditions to have a safe and successful trip. There are certain points that are completely impassible during a high tide. Bring a pair of gloves for the rope sections.

7) Enchanted Valley

Olympic Rainforest
The journey to the Enchanted Valley starts in the Quinalt Rainforest.
  • Total Distance: 26 miles
  • Type: Out-n-Back
  • Elevation Gain: 3,649′
  • Rating: Moderately-Difficult
  • Trailhead: Graves Creek
  • Zone: Quinault
  • Recommended Time: 3 Days, 2 Nights

The Enchanted Valley Trail, not to be confused with The Enchantments in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness, lies in an area of Olympic National Park often overlooked by visitors. The trail follows the flow of the Quinalt River which flows through the Quinalt Rainforest on the south side of the Olympic Mountain Range. The most common destination of this hike is The Enchanted Valley Chalet. The chalet was built in 1931 but today is off-limits to the public. In fact, the river is encroaching on the chalet so it may be demolished soon. (So go now!) Even without the chalet the valley is gorgeous with mountains rising steeply out of the valley. It has been given the nickname of the “Valley off 10,000 Waterfalls” because of the amount of water that plummets off of the steep cliffs during the springtime.

Tips

This is a fairly easy 26-mile traverse as backpacking trips go. The journey to the Chalet can be done as a long day hike but we list it as a three-day journey. We recommend spending both nights at the Enchanted Valley campsite but using the second day to venture higher. After leaving the chalet, the trail climbs steeply up to Anderson Pass and there is a path to the foot of the Anderson Glacier. This would add 10 miles to the overall length of the backpacking trip. Those wishing for a more challenging adventure could thru-hike all the way to Duckabush Trailhead on the east side of the park but a shuttle would be needed and it is very expensive if you don’t have two vehicles.

Backpacking Olympic National Park – Top 7 Trails

Backpacking Olympic National Park Top 7
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Olympic National Park is a truly unique place. It is geographically special containing the westernmost point in the lower-48. It is biologically special housing a conglomeration of creatures in its three distinct echo systems, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Just being able to visit this amazing place is a memorable experience but the best way to explore the park is by lacing up your boots and backpacking Olympic National Park. These top 7 trails have the best vantage points of the key areas of the park. They provided beauty, solitude, and explore all three ecosystems. If you love backpacking, Olympic National Park should be on your bucket list.

If you are looking for places to stay or good restaurants in the area after backpacking Olympic National Park, check out our guide to the park.

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