Olympic National Park is like heaven

The goal of 63 Parks Traveler was to visit every national park in the United States. Emily Pennington, a backpacker and public-lands nerd who built a tiny van to travel in, hit the road, employing COVID-19 best safety protocols as she went. Her desire was to see the parks before they are lost to time. She has visited 41 parks, including Olympic.

Those of us with short attention spans are in heaven at Olympic National Park, located in northwestern Washington. It straddles several important ecosystems – temperate rainforest, glacier-capped peaks, and the ragged Pacific coastline – rather than focusing on one main attraction. I hiked in all three during my visit last September.

In the Hoh Rainforest, I found a campsite in moss-covered trees and took off on the Hall of Mosses Trail, an old growth cedar and maple tree path where dappled light casts a thousand shades of green on the forest’s leaves. Having driven from Seattle for four hours, I was in need of a moody, quiet experience. In the most densely packed timberland I’ve ever seen, Old Man’s Beard lichens fluttered in the breeze as I slowly crept up and around it. Despite my bare feet, moldering stumps nearby, and the skies high overhead, there was new life bursting forth everywhere. My mind was calmed and steadyed by the place, as if it were preparing for the next day’s adventures.

If you plan to trek along the rugged, driftwood-covered coast of Olympic, you’ll need to consult a tide chart first. In anticipation of incoming waves, I got up early and drove to Rialto Beach in my van to dip my toes in the ocean and stroll along the rocky shore towards Hole-in-the-Wall. Anemones and thick clumps of mussels filled nearly every water-filled boulder. In the water near a dark purple sea urchin, a hermit crab emerged from beneath a small rock. There was a flurry of activity all over the peninsula.

Olympic’s Hoh Rainforest Photo: Emily Pennington

The surfers floated above the ocean’s ten-foot waves with grace and ease as I scrambled around on sea-sanded driftwood chunks. I felt my smile tingle when I saw the salt spray. A giddy feeling pervaded me, and I wanted more.

How about a side of ice-covered mountains to round out my trip?

Though I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to backpack through Olympic’s spectacular mountains, I settled on the next best thing-a three-mile hike up Hurricane Hill.

Wildfire smoke blanketed the hazy horizon in the distance, and a warm wind whipped through the air. While climbing ever higher towards a superb vista at the top, huge grasshoppers scurried across the paved path. I felt as though I was walking through a postcard as the sun set low in the sky and a golden glow illuminated the grasses all around me.

Mount Olympus and its sparkling white sisters, sitting silently in their icy space far above the mucky smoke, were featured prominently on a signpost at the top of the hike. There was an air of enchantment about them. It’s almost dreamlike. It’s the perfect way to end an adventure-filled day.

63 Parks Traveler Olympic Information

Area: 922,650 acres
Northwest Washington, about three hours north of Seattle
Founded: 1909 (National monument), 1938 (National park)
Ideal For: Backpacking, hiking, mountaineering, forest bathing, car camping, beaches, scenic drives

During the winter months, visitors may have to deal with heavy rain, but there are plenty of things to do in Olympic. In winter, snow is also common at higher elevations. This is why the best time to explore the park is in the spring (35 to 62 degrees) and summer (47 to 72 degrees). (The temperature listed is for the Hoh Rainforest.)

Staying at Hoh Campground in the temperate rainforest is a real treat if you’re looking for a true temperate rainforest experience. The facility has flush toilets and potable water (first-come, first-served)

Explore Rialto Beach whenever there is a low tide. Look at a tide chart and plan your visit accordingly. Enjoy a day of leisurely strolls through salty tide pools and marveling at coastal rock formations before heading to the Hoh Rainforest for an evening stroll.

Olympic is extremely large, and much of it is inaccessible by car. It’s best to backpack if you can spend time exploring its alpine lakes and majestic peaks. There is also Hoh River to Blue Glacier, an out-and-back that starts in the Hoh Rainforest and ends at an overlook of one of Mount Olympus’ most impressive icefields.

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