If you’ve never been to Olympic National Park, stop what you’re doing and start packing. To make it easy for you, here’s the ultimate Olympic National Park guide for families. Because where else in America can you find glacier capped mountains, old-growth temperate rainforests, and miles of wild, craggy coastline? The answer is easy. Nowhere.
Located just a couple hours outside of Seattle in western Washington, it covers nearly a million acres. The national park spans a vast, pristine wilderness, thousands of years of human history, as well as several different ecosystems. With more than 3 million annual visitors, Olympic National Park is one of the jewels of the national park system.
But, it’s a big park and easy to get overwhelmed by all the sights. That’s why we’ve put together this ultimate guide for families. In it, you’ll learn:
- A little history of the park and native people to share with your kids
- The best time of year for families to visit
- 4 must-see sights to see in Olympic National Park
- Camping tips for families in the park
- Lodging options in the area if camping’s not your bag
Let’s get started!
Olympic National Park and Native American Heritage
It’s hard to imagine that only 200 years ago Native American tribes were the only human beings who called the land that is now Olympic National Park home. Since first contact with Europeans in the late 18th century however, that all changed swiftly and dramatically.
Before the founding of the first Spanish settlement at present day Neah Bay, no less than eight Native tribes lived on the Pacific peninsula. These people lived in relative harmony, interacting with each other and traveling great distances to procure and trade resources, attend social gatherings, and engage in spiritual ceremonies and practices.
The arrival of European settlers proved to be catastrophic for the people and the land. Disease, displacement, and the plundering of natural resources disrupted a way of life that had survived for thousands of years.
Recent archaeological digs have uncovered thousands of wood, shell and bone artifacts that have helped modern tribes piece together more of their rich heritage.
Tribes Native to Northwestern Washington
The tribes that currently claim traditional ties to Olympic National Park include:
- Jamestown S’Klallam
- Elwha Klallam
- Port Gamble S’Klallam
- and Skokomish.
Despite many challenges, area tribes are working hard to reinvigorate their traditional ways of life, their spiritual traditions, and their language.
A Quick History Of The Park
Olympic National Park has had many names and designations over the years. President Grover Cleveland originally established the area as The Olympic Forest Reserve in 1897. Over the course of the next four decades it was also known as Mount Olympus National Monument, then Olympic National Forest. In 1938, it was finally designated as Olympic National Park by President Franklin Roosevelt.
These various designations granted the park increasingly more layers of protection. As a part of the national park system, the area is now required to be preserved in its natural and unaltered state by law.
Olympic National Park Basics
Olympic National Park occupies 922,700 acres of jaw-dropping emerald beauty and spans much of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula.
There are no roads that cross the park. Instead, Highway 101 encircles most of the park’s perimeter, giving access to its many points of interest.
Many visitors begin their journey in the Seattle metro area. From there it’s possible to either enter the park from the south via Aberdeen, (a 2-hour drive from Sea-Tac Airport) and traveling clockwise up the coast, or entering from the north via Port Angeles (2.5 – 3 hours from Sea-Tac) and traveling counterclockwise.
Either way, the main visitor and information center is located on the entrance road at the park’s northern boundary in Port Angeles.
Best Times For Families To Visit
Olympic National Park is open year round. While the summer often boasts a fair number of warm, sunny days it is also the park’s peak season and the majority of its 3 million visitors plan their trips between May and September. Destinations such as Hurricane Ridge and Hoh Rainforest can experience crowded conditions in the summer so it’s a good idea to plan ahead. Try to visit popular spots before or after the busiest times, generally between 10am and 2pm.
Pluviophiles will find more than enough soggy bliss during the fall and winter months. Torrents of relentless rain fall in much of the region from October to April (or even May and June). In fact, as much as 12 feet of rain falls in some areas of the park during any given season! Higher elevations receive enough snowfall to close some areas of the park between December and March. If that’s the case, you may want to head to the coast for some winter storm watching and thrill at the power and majesty of the Pacific.
Olympic National Park Guide For Families: The 4 Must-See Places In The Park
Olympic National Park is actually more like three parks in one. From wild coastlines, lush forests, and snow-capped peaks, it’s worth considering planning enough time to be able to visit each of these unique ecosystems. It’s so big and spread out that one day is not enough to see it all.
Consider a 2-3 day itinerary, which should include a stop in all of these must see sites without feeling rushed.
1. Rialto and Ruby Beach
Photo by Beier C.
A paradise for driftwood lovers, these untamed stretches of Pacific coastline are adorned with incredible sea stacks and jagged headland formations. Both beaches are accessible by short walks from nearby parking.
2. Third Beach
A short (1.3-mile) scenic hike through a coastal forest leads to this beautiful stretch between headlands and the distant stacks of Giant’s Graveyard.
3. Quinault And Hoh Rainforests
Photo by Susan Flynn
Olympic’s lush temperate rainforests are nothing short of majestic. Quinault features a variety of riverside hiking trails and massive western red cedars. Hoh is best known for its quiet, otherworldly beauty with raindrop-bejeweled moss dripping overhead all along its famous Hall of Mosses Trail. For longer hikes, there is the 18-mile, out-and-back Hoh River Trail, resplendent with Sitka spruce and Douglas fir.
4. Hurricane Ridge
Photo by Anurag Jain
One of the park’s most popular hiking destinations, Hurricane Ridge offers stunning views and a variety of high-elevation scenic trails. It’s closed in winter due to snow but even in the summer it’s wise to check the local weather report as conditions can change rapidly.
Family Camping In Olympic National Park
Photo by Scott Goodwill
Olympic National Park has over a dozen campgrounds with hundreds of campsites, many of which are open year round. Most campgrounds feature tent, RV, camper van, and rustic campsites. Facilities vary from campground to campground with many offering toilets, hookups, and potable water.
Many campsites are reservable during the peak summer season from around May 25 through September 21. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. Spots fill up extremely fast so make sure you are logging on to the reservation site exactly 6 months to the day before your visit.
For those campgrounds that are open during the fall and winter months, campsites are available on a first come, first serve basis.
Find out more about the 14 park campgrounds in Olympic National Park and how to make reservations click here.
Lodging In And Around The Park
Camping is great, but not for everyone. And no Olympic National Park guide for families would be complete without a good rundown of hotels in the area. In addition to the pristine wilderness and natural beauty, Olympic National Park offers several options for comfortable lodging and gourmet dining.
- Lake Quinault Lodge: This grand and historic lodge was built in 1926 and welcomes guests with warmth, hospitality and home-away-from-home comfort.
- Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort: Featuring cabins surrounded by towering evergreens along the Sol Duc River in a picturesque valley with spectacular waterfalls. Guests also have convenient access to hot mineral-spring pools, massage therapists, deli and restaurant.
- Lake Crescent Lodge: Nestled among giant fir and hemlock trees on the shores of beautiful Lake Crescent, the lodge offers a restaurant overlooking Lake Crescent, guided hikes, and on-site kayak, as well as canoe and paddleboard rentals.
- Log Cabin Resort: This family-oriented resort on Lake Crescent welcomes visitors seeking summer fun of paddle boats and kayaks, hiking trails, snow-capped mountains and deep blue waters.
Leave No Trace
One of the unique features of Olympic National Park is that it is not crisscrossed by roads or highways. This means that almost 95% of the park is pristine wilderness. We humans have plenty of space of our own to muck up. If we all follow the “leave no trace” doctrine when visiting here, we ensure these areas can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.
More National Park Guides
Looking for more family guides to America’s national parks? See the complete list here.