10 Top Things to Do on an Olympic National Park Vacation

Olympic National Park and the surrounding areas are a Things to Do Mecca! You’ll be hard-pressed to fit it all in a single vacation.

1. See the Big Trees

Woman hugging a big tree at Olympic National Park

Woman hugging a big tree at Olympic National Park

Olympic protects one of the most unique habitats on the planet—the temperate rainforest. Found primarily on the west and southwest sides of the park, these rainforests are home to towering western redcedars, hemlocks, Douglas firs, and Sitka spruces, plus an assortment of giant ferns, moss, and lichen.

The Hoh Rainforest is the most popular place to see this ecosystem, and it’s well worth a visit, but don’t overlook the equally impressive Quinault and Bogachiel Valleys. Olympic also features several champion trees, the biggest examples of a species in the nation: See the largest Sitka spruce (191 feet, Quinault), western redcedar (159 feet, Quinault Big Cedar Trail), Pacific silver fir (220 feet, Bogachiel Valley), and Douglas fir (281 feet, Quinault).

2. Spend a Day at the Beach

Olympic Coast Sea Stacks. Photo by Justin Bailie

Olympic Coast Sea Stacks. Photo by Justin Bailie

This is no California beach—the water is too cold for swimming, and the weather often too wet for sunbathing. But the park’s rugged Pacific coast features a stunningly beauty all its own: sculpted sea stacks, tidepools, high bluffs, wildlife, and endless ocean views.

With 73 miles of wilderness coast, there’s no shortage of beach trips at Olympic. At the southern end, Kalaloch Beach offers miles of driftwood-strewn sand, plus a campground, hotel, and restaurant.

The tide pools are excellent at northern Shi Shi Beach, and Second and Third Beaches offer beach camping at its finest. Whale watching can be done right from the beaches (look for Whale Trail stations) and during winter, the waves crashing on the rocks steal the show.

3. Reach New Heights on the Mountain Trails

Mountain hiking in Washington. Photo by Justin Bailie

Mountain hiking in Washington. Photo by Justin Bailie

Olympic’s inner alpine zone encompasses dramatic, craggy peaks soaring to almost 8,000 feet and wildflower-dotted meadows frequented by mountain goats and marmots.

The quickest way to the top is to drive to Hurricane Ridge, where you can get excellent views from the visitor center and connect with hiking trails. One of the finest high-elevation hikes in all the national parks circles the Seven Lakes Basin; the loop can be hiked in two or three days and offers vistas of Mt. Olympus and the Hoh Rainforest far below.

4. See a Winter Wonderland on Skis or Snowshoes

Cross-country skiing on Hurricane Ridge. Photo by NPS

Cross-country skiing on Hurricane Ridge. Photo by NPS

The park doesn’t shut down when the snow flies—instead, it becomes a wonderful spot for winter recreation. The place to be on a snowy weekend is Hurricane Ridge, where you’ll find a visitor center with a warming hut and snack bar and excellent snowshoeing trails.

Check avalanche conditions with rangers, then tromp out on the ungroomed route up 5,757-foot Hurricane Hill for gorgeous views of the surrounding peaks.

The private, no-frills Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area (one of only a few ski lifts operating inside a national park) offers a family-friendly spot for playing on a small groomed area or exploring untracked bowls and glades.

Hurricane Ridge Road is open Friday through Sunday only during the winter; check road conditions before you go at twitter.com/HRWinterAccess.

5. Sleep Under the Stars

Campfire under the stars on the Olympic Coast. Photo by Justin Bailie

Campfire under the stars on the Olympic Coast. Photo by Justin Bailie

Olympic’s diverse and beautiful campgrounds make for unforgettable memories. The only hard part is choosing which of the 16 frontcountry campgrounds you want as your home away from home.

Like falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves? Head to the coastal Kalaloch, South Beach, or Mora Campgrounds. Hungry for easy access to mountain hiking trails? Pitch your tent at Deer Park or Heart O’ the Hills. Dreaming of a night among the rainforest’s giant trees? Bunk at Hoh or Graves Creek. All but Kalaloch are first-come, first-served, so arrive early in summer to guarantee a site.

6. Go Birdwatching on a Sandy Spit

Dungeness Spit. Photo by Eric Frommer via Flickr

Dungeness Spit. Photo by Eric Frommer via Flickr

Just north of Olympic National Park, near Sequim, the Dungeness Spit unfurls into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

This long (5.5 miles), skinny sand spit provides an important habitat for a slew of birds and mammals (the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge protects much of the beach here).

Grab your binoculars and strike out to explore the spit, looking for species like brant geese, harlequin ducks, cormorants, oystercatchers, sandpipers, and bald eagles. You might also spot harbor seals, orcas, and elephant seals among the waves.

Dungeness Spit sits in the Olympics’ rain shadow, making it a great hike in any season, and visitors can stroll all the way to a lighthouse on the tip of the spit.

7. Drive to Paradise

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier

Mt. Rainier National Park is located southeast of Seattle, a scenic 3-hour drive from Olympic.

For an up-close look at the park’s namesake peak, the 14,409-foot Cascade volcano of Mt. Rainier, you can’t beat a drive to Paradise. This huge subalpine meadow sits at about 5,400 feet, directly below the summit, and features a visitor center, historic inn, and miles of gorgeous trails.

In winter, Paradise is a popular area for sledding, snowshoeing, and backcountry skiing.

8. Explore the Wilderness

Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park

Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is a hiker’s mecca. Located a 2.5-hour drive northeast of Seattle, the park is best known for its astoundingly beautiful hiking trails, azure lakes, backcountry camping, and wildlife. It would take years to fully explore every inch of the park, but these trips are an excellent start to sample the alpine scenery: the 7-mile Maple Pass Loop, the 3.7-mile (one-way) hike to Cascade Pass, and a multiday hike up to Copper Ridge.

9. Enjoy City Culture

A kayaker in Tacoma’s downtown marina with the Glass Museum Dome in the background

A kayaker in Tacoma’s downtown marina with the Glass Museum Dome in the background

Seattle and neighboring Tacoma are vibrant cities packed with culture, great food, and lovely waterfront views.

In Seattle, don’t miss a stroll through the famous Pike Place Market, a visit to a museum (try the Experience Music Project, the Seattle Art Museum, or Pacific Science Center), and a walk or kayaking trip along the water at Lake Union, Lake Washington, or Puget Sound.

In Tacoma, visit the Museum of Glass and stroll through the arts and museum districts.

10. Head to Canada

Totem pole in Vancouver's Stanley Park

Totem pole in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

Grab your passport and head north to visit some of British Columbia’s finest cities.

Vancouver is an internationally beloved city with beautiful parks, museums, food, and culture—don’t miss a meal in its expansive Chinatown and a stop by waterfront Stanley Park.

Just a ferry ride west you’ll find Victoria, located on Vancouver Island. This pretty city just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Olympic National Park features the famous Butchart Gardens, the Royal British Columbia Museum, and great seafood.