Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula is home to one of the United States’ most unique national parks. It is often referred to as three parks in one, protecting glaciated mountain peaks, lush rainforests, salty kelp forests, and all the creatures that live in them. Circumnavigating the park via the major roads is a 6-hour journey of about 300 miles. Add in several side destinations that can easily add 80-miles each (one-way) and you are left with a massive amount of land to explore. So if you are planning on visiting Olympic National Park (and you should be), you need to know what the best activities are so you can map out your journey. Thankfully, you’ve come to the right place! We’ve got the Top 10 activities not to be missed when visiting Olympic National Park.
Visiting Olympic National Park Top 10 Quick Links
- Driving Hurricane Ridge Road
- Backpacking the High Divide Loop
- Hiking the Hoh Rainforest
- Exploring the Western Most Point of the Continental United States
- Camping on Shi Shi Beach
- Watching the Sunset from South Beach
- Searching for Life in the Tidal Pools on Rialto Beach
- Paddle Lake Crescent
- Biking the Olympic Discovery Trail
- Hiking to the Dungeness Spit Lighthouse
1) Driving Hurricane Ridge Road
The pinnacle experience for many visiting Olympic National Park is venturing into the mountains to see the park’s namesake, the 7,980’ high glacier-laden Mount Olympus. Named after the mythical home of the greek gods, Mount Olympus can be most easily seen from the 5,242′ high Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. Hurricane Ridge Road is both curvy and paved. It can be a bit nerve-racking for those unaccustomed to driving in the mountains. However, the payoff at the end of the road is a gorgeous viewpoint of the Olympic range and Mount Olympus. A few hiking trails can take you even higher, including Hurricane Hill and the High Ridge Trail. But the view from the visitor center alone is amazing.
If you are up for an even more scenic-driving-adventure take the 8-mile long gravel road from Hurricane Ridge to Obstruction Point. This is considered by many to be the most dangerous road in Washington state. Many sections of the road have sheer drop-offs on one side and no guardrails. However, the drive is simply stunning as it skirts the ridge with amazing views all along the way.
2) Backpacking the High Divide Loop
The terminus of Hurricane Ridge Road is the easiest way to view Mount Olympus. But the High Divide Loop Trail provides the best viewpoint in the park. It’s found by crossing over the ridgeline directly to the north of Mount Olympus. The High Divide Trail combined with the Seven Lakes Basin Trail is arguably the most beautiful multi-day hike in the park. A few visiting Olympic National Park take on the 18.5-mile-long High Divide Trail in a single day. With over 4,700′ of actual trail elevation gain and loss it is a herculean task. The High Divide Loop Trail is best to be undertaken as a 3-day backpacking journey. But first, you will need to successfully acquire one of the highly coveted backcountry camping permits.
3) Hiking the Hoh Rainforest
While the United States is home to several rainforests, including some in Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park is the most accessible. According to the parks service, the Hoh receives 140″ of rainfall annually. That’s more than double the 60″ required to be an official rainforest. This is a land of massive green trees colored with hues of green moss. It has an otherworldly beauty to it. Beyond the rain, the Hoh forest flora is fed by the glacial Hoh River that flows off of Mount Olympus. Hiking the short 0.8-mile Hall of Moss Trail and the 1.2 mile Spruce Nature Trail is a great way to explore the lush green forest. If you are looking for more time in the forest think about a multi-day hike on the 18.5-mile long Hoh River Trail to the foot of the Blue Glacier.
4) Exploring the Western Most Point of the Continental United States
Olympic National Park is home to the beautiful Cape Alava, the westernmost point in the continental United States. Getting to Cape Alava requires a long drive to one of the most remote areas of the park on the north end of Ozette Lake. Once at the Ozette Ranger Station it is a relatively easy 3.5-mile hike (one-way) to the coast at Cape Alava. The cape is a rocky coastline littered with sailing buoys that wash ashore from far-flung locals. Take one home as a souvenir! The Parks Service encourages visitors to do so to help clean up the area. While you are searching for the perfect buoy to grace your home don’t miss the abundance of bald eagles that live on the cape.
5) Camping on Shi Shi Beach – Visiting Olympic National Park
While Cape Alava is the westernmost point, a few miles to the north lies Shi Shi Beach. It’s the most beautiful coastal area of Olympic National Park. Shi Shi is a long sand beach, rare to the northwestern coast. The real unique beauty is found on the southern tip of the beach. The rocky terrain rises out of the ocean in a cluster of sea stacks to create the formations known as the Point of Arches. This is an easy and favorite location for backpackers to overnight (permit required) watching the sun set on the ocean behind the jagged rocks.
Makah Recreation Pass
To visit Shi Shi beach requires a 4-mile (one-way) hike thru the Makah Native American Reservation. You will need a typical entrance pass for the National Park and need to purchase a Makah Recreation Pass. A day pass can be purchased in Neah Bay on your way to the trailhead.
We were not able to visit Shi Shi beach due to the Native American Reservation being closed to outsiders in response to Covid. I look forward to returning to see this beach for myself. Just looking at photos I know this deserves to be on the top 10 reasons for visiting Olympic National Park.
6) Watching the Sunset from South Beach
Shi Shi Beach may be the best spot to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park. To enjoy it though takes 8 miles of hiking and some forethought to get a camping permit. Instead, one of the easiest places to watch the sunset is from the South Beach Campground. This seaside campground is perched on the cliff just above the sand on the southern tip of the coastal drive. It has unobscured 180-degree views of the Pacific Ocean. Not only is it a beautiful place to watch the sunset but it’s a great place to be lulled to sleep by the crashing waves. This is a first-come, first-served campground. Make sure you secure your spot early in the day to enjoy the sunset. This is also a great spot to look for whales, dolphins, and other aquatic life when visiting Olympic National Park.
7) Searching for Life in the Tidal Pools on Rialto Beach
One of my favorite things about visiting the National Parks is the opportunity to spot wildlife in their natural environment. Ranging from mountains, rainforest, and beaches, Olympic National Park is home to a wide range of creatures. Bears, elk, marmots, owls, and bald eagles to name a few.
The largest abundance of creatures that call the park home live beneath the waves in the kelp forest. You might even spot otters and killer whales too. Beyond donning a wet suit and diving into the kelp forest, the best way to spot many of the creatures found here, like barnacles, sea stars, and anemones, is by searching through the tidal pools during low tide. Many of the rocky coastal areas in Olympic National Park have tidal pools. We found that the ones on the north side of Rialto Beach seem to have the most easily accessible pools teaming with life.
8) Paddle Lake Crescent
Most people visiting Olympic National Park will drive along the picturesque shore of Lake Crescent on their way to or from the Pacific beaches and Port Angeles. A few may even stop and hike to Marymere Falls or summit Mount Storm King. While all of these activities are great, there is perhaps no better way to enjoy the tranquility of this beautiful blue lake than by paddling around it in a kayak or canoe. The lake was carved by glacial forces and is officially the second deepest lake in Washington state. While the lake is nearly 12-miles long, there is no need to paddle the full length. However, if you wish to take on the challenge there are campsites (Fairholme & the Log Cabin Resort) located on both ends. You could also choose to bike ride the north shore of the lake. It’s part of the Discovery Trail.
Need a Rental?
You can rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard from the Lake Crescent Lodge located in the center of the south shore drive.
9) Biking the Olympic Discovery Trail
The 130-mile long Olympic Discovery Trail runs across the north end of the Olympic Peninsula from Port Townsend in the east to La Push on the west coast. The trail is a multi-use bike and walking path that traverses many sections of the National Park as well as the main city of Port Angeles. It is a beautiful path that cuts across the mountains, crossing over rivers and inlets via beautiful bridges.
If you don’t have time to ride the entire 140 miles of the trail I recommend riding the east-central section from Strait View Drive to Hollywood Beach. Both are marked on our google map. The path crosses over a gorgeous, elevated wooden bridge as it leaves the Strait View Drive parking area. Then proceeds to the coast where the path follows the coastline for the remainder of the ride. Although this looks like it would be an urban ride it follows the water along the Straight of De Fuca with very little development other than the thin paved bike path. We even saw two otters playing on the path during our ride.
10) Hiking to the Dungeness Spit Lighthouse
The Dungeness Spit is not an actual part of the National Park. It’s a unique landmass on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula. According to OlympicPennisula.org, the Dungeness is the longest spit in the United States. It juts out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca for well over 5.5 miles and continues to grow at an amazing 13 feet each year.
Visitors to the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge are allowed to hike the sandy spit for 5.5 miles (one-way) to the lonely lighthouse standing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The spit is a unique place with an abundance of sea birds, seals, and dense fog. It is a surreal thing to be strolling along the beach 5 miles out into the salty water of the Strait when the dense fog rolls in. It blots out everything but the sand at your feet. The whole experience is otherworldly.
Visiting Olympic National Park
Regardless of if you are a beach person, a mountain person, or a tree hugger there is something in Olympic National Park for everyone to love. It is a magical place where glacial water runs off of mountain peaks through dense tropical rainforests and into the ocean. There is no other place like it in the continental United States with creatures that are literally found nowhere else in the world.