Go for the gold: Awe-inspiring adventures in Olympic National Park

January 19, 2016                 5m read time
Stephanie Mee


Spanning a million acres of mountains, waterfalls, old-growth rainforests and oceanside cliffs, Olympic National Park is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. Whether you’re into hiking and birdwatching along the beach, glacier climbing some of the region’s highest peaks or wading in clean, clear alpine lakes, this Pacific Northwest wonderland has it all.

Located a few hours west of Seattle, Olympic National Park has more than 70 miles of protected coastline and 600 miles of trails to explore—no wonder UNESCO declared this outdoorsy oasis a World Heritage Site. Read on for our top 10 adventurous activities in its green valleys, rocky hillsides and mist-cloaked forests.

1. Heigh-Hoh! Hike the Hoh Rainforest

The Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park  Adam Schweigert

The Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park 

Adam Schweigert

 

Things are often wild and always wet (well, damp at the very least) in the Hoh Rainforest, a section of the Pacific Northwest that receives 12 to 13 feet of rain annually. As a result, the forest is especially lush and green with feathery ferns, fragrant Sitka spruce trees and moss-covered trails that add a little spring in your step. Start at the visitor center to learn about local wildlife like bobcats and elk, then head out on an easy hike on the Hall of Moss Trail or the Spruce Nature Trail. Hardcore trekkers can embark on the Hoh River Trail, which snakes 18 miles up the side of Mount Olympus to Glacier Meadows. Most people take to the rainforest trails in summer when the rain abates, but hiking and camping is permitted all year long.

2. Hike to a different kind of Hole-in-the-Wall

Hole-in-the-Wall at Olympic National Park Kevin Lobene

Hole-in-the-Wall at Olympic National Park

Kevin Lobene

 

Oly's beaches aren't what you'll find in California, but they're appealing in their own rocky way. Experience one of the finest stretches of Northwest coastline in search of Hole-in-the-Wall—no, it's not a dive bar, but you won't be disappointed. Carved by centuries of crashing waves, this towering stone arch is exactly what it sounds like, but much more photogenic. To get there, park at Rialto Beach and take a lovely two-mile hike over soft sand, smooth pebbles and sun-bleached driftwood logs. Along the way, observe spectacular tidal pools sparkling with starfish and anemones, the barks of sea lions in the distance and the tell-tale spouts of grey whales misting just offshore. To extend the adventure overnight with a campout on the sand, grab a permit by phone or in person at the Port Angeles Wilderness Information Center.

3. Kayak Lake Crescent

Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park  Angie Hu

Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park 

Angie Hu

 

While its nearly-the-same-name neighbor to the south is a sapphire wonder, Lake Crescent is known for glassy water with visibility up to 60 feet deep. Rent a kayak or paddleboard from Adventures Through Kayaking, or try a guided kayak tour to learn about the Olympic Peninsula's cultural and historical importance. The area is also prime fishing territory, so BYO-rod for some catch-and-release of Beardslee and Crescenti trout—this is the only lake on the planet where you’ll find them. A general store, restaurant and cozy lodging like the Log Cabin Resort and the historic Lake Crescent Lodge are all nearby.

4. Marvel at Sol Duc Falls

Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park  Mark Smith

Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park 

Mark Smith

 

Prefer the rumble of a natural fountain to the crash of waves? Head to Sol Duc Falls. From the Sol Duc Valley parking lot, walk less than a mile down a well-maintained trail. Know you’re close when you hear and feel the pummeling vibrations of crashing water. Stop on the wooden bridge, marinating in the moment as four different columns of water cascade into a moss-covered crevasse. The falls are particularly pretty in the late afternoon, when the setting sun casts rainbows in the mist. While open to the public year-round, consider planning your visit in spring, when the snow melts and the falls are at their finest.

5. Be a total bird nerd at Kalaloch Beach

Kalaloch Beach in Olympic National Park  Abhinaba Basu

Kalaloch Beach in Olympic National Park 

Abhinaba Basu

 

If you secretly geek out over bird watching (hey, we don’t judge), consider Kalaloch Beach your personal Eden. Explore miles of pristine coastline, all the while spotting bald eagles, red-throated loons and brown pelicans diving like fighter pilots into the water. If you arrive late in the day, bring a pair of binoculars, pick a driftwood log to sit on and settle in for an epic sunset. For those looking to camp, the remote Kalaloch Lodge has 40 cabins, six nestled on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

6. Ride Hurricane Ridge

Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park  2009fotofriends

Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park 

2009fotofriends

 

Named for fierce winter winds that can reach 75mph, Hurricane Ridge loses its bluster in spring and summer. That's the perfect time to grab a set of wheels and hit the trails. While cycling up the mountain, keep an eye out for marmots, black-tailed deer and stirring views of the Olympic Mountains. At the top, stop in the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center to fuel up on snacks and check out exhibits about the habitats you'll see again while coasting back down.

7. Spot giants off the coast—or better yet, see them up close

Island Adventures Whale Watching in Olympic National Park Island Adventures Whale Watching

Island Adventures Whale Watching in Olympic National Park

Island Adventures Whale Watching

 

Along with plenty of mountains, the Olympic Peninsula's coastal location provides front row seats for viewing migrating marine life. Head to La Push Beach from March through May to spot grey whales as they feed near sandy shores. For a close-up view of the action, join a whale watching tour with an outfitter like Island Adventures Whale Watching, which guarantees sightings of up to four species including greys, orcas, minkes and humpbacks from March through October. They’ll give you a comprehensive wildlife viewing pamphlet so you can check off all the species you spot.

8. The most magical swimming hole you've ever seen

Devil's Punchbowl in Olympic National Park Waters West Fly Fishing Outfitters

Devil's Punchbowl in Olympic National Park

Waters West Fly Fishing Outfitters

 

After all that hiking, biking and kayaking, cool off with a dip in Devil’s Punchbowl, which is quite the opposite of its ominous name. This pristine swimming hole sinks to about 300 feet at its deepest point, with numerous surrounding cliffs doubling as nature’s diving boards. To get there, take the Spruce Railroad Trail, which follows Lake Crescent’s shore. On the northwestern edge of the lake, come upon a beautiful wooden bridge that looks like it belongs in a Robert Frost poem. The azure swimming cove below—a sparkling emerald and turquoise—is the stuff summer dreams are made of.

9. Scale the Olympic Mountains With a Guide

Olympic Mountains in Olympic National Park  Don Mammoser

Olympic Mountains in Olympic National Park 

Don Mammoser

 

The Olympics are a lofty playground rife with adventure. Uninitiated climbers, however, should explore its remote trails with an expert outfitter like Mountain Madness. They’ll provide you with high-quality climbing gear, plus basic instruction on things like snow climbing, ice axe positioning, and self-arrest (the last of which is just as thrilling as it sounds). To really escape the crowded trails, try their Mount Olympus trip to hike in the shadows of old growth trees, passing alpine lakes before making camp at Glacier Meadows. End your climb on a high note, summiting a 7,962-foot glacier.

10. Toss a Line in the Sol Duc River

Fisherman in the Sol Duc River in Olympic National Park  Goodluz

Fisherman in the Sol Duc River in Olympic National Park 

Goodluz

 

Anglers from around the world head to Olympic year-round to fish for wild salmon and steelhead. The Sol Duc is one of the most popular fly-fishing spots for salmon of all types, but coho are particularly plentiful after a big rain. Expert anglers can also try their luck with steelhead trout during the winter, although icy temperatures can make conditions harsh. For those new to the fishing game, try a guided trip with Waters West Fly Fishing Outfitters.

Why Olympic National Park? There are a million reasons—and a million acres—of rocky beaches, wildflower meadows, crashing waterfalls, subalpine forests and winding rivers. From snow-capped mountaintops to rugged coastline, this park's got it all.

Stephanie Mee

Stephanie Mee is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Bali, Indonesia. Her work has been featured in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, and she is constantly on a mission to seek out new stories and adventures. In addition to being an avid wordsmith, she is also an incurable foodie and wanderluster.

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