Olympic National Park in Washington encompasses nearly a million acres, including a vast wilderness and more than 70 miles of wild coastline. What’s particularly noteworthy is that it has several distinct ecosystems, including glacier-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rainforests, and that stunning coast.
In 2020, Olympic had 2.5 million visitors, down from 3.2 million in 2019. What many visitors don’t realize, however, is that Olympic is very large and there are no roads that cross the park. Furthermore, distances on the map can be deceiving — often taking longer to drive than expected.
Consequently, it’s essential to spend time thoroughly planning a visit to Olympic so the trip is memorable for all of the right reasons — and nobody understands that better than the rangers who work there. That’s why the National Park Service has released its “Top 10 Tips for Visiting Olympic National Park,” written by those rangers.
“There are countless opportunities for adventure, fun, sightseeing, and solitude in Olympic National Park,” the rangers write. “Many national parks, including Olympic, expect an especially busy season this year. Therefore, trip planning is more critical than ever to help ensure you make the most out of your visit.”
So, as the rangers explain, “Here are our top 10 insider tips for making the most out of your visit to Olympic National Park.”
1. Plan Activities With Time, Elevation, And Distance In Mind
Olympic is very large and diverse with a range of elevation that rises from sea level to almost 8,000 feet. Furthermore, there are no roads that cross the park. Consequently, rangers strongly encourage visitors to consult the park’s mileage chart for distances between key destinations so they can plan properly.
You can find the chart here.
“Secondly, weather in Olympic is variable and unpredictable — no matter the time of year,” rangers explain. “Hikers should always check trail conditions in advance.”
You can check trail conditions here.
Finally, rangers also suggest checking the current weather forecast and calling the road and weather line before visiting the park. That phone number is (360) 565-3131. You can learn about the current weather and even view webcams at the park here.
2. Make A Camping Reservation
As you probably expect, the summer months of June through September are the busiest time of year at Olympic. Rangers point out that reservations can be made for Kalaloch, Hoh, Mora, Sol Duc, and Log Cabin campgrounds. That said, all other campgrounds are first come, first served, and can fill early — especially on weekends and holidays.
You can learn more about the campgrounds as well as how to make reservations for them here.
3. Follow Best Practices For Wilderness Trips
Rangers encourage everyone who plans to go backpacking to visit the park’s “overnight backpacking webpages for ideas to minimize your impact on park wilderness and also learn how to prevent life-threatening situations when you are miles away from help.”
You can find those web pages here.
Pro Tip: Wilderness Camping Permits are required for all overnight stays in the Olympic National Park wilderness (backcountry) year-round. You can learn more about wilderness camping permits here and make reservations for permits here.
4. Stay Up-To-Date
“When you go from the mountains down to the coast, a lot can change! Weather in Olympic is variable and unpredictable — no matter the time of year,” the rangers write. “Different weather conditions can also exist within the park at the same time.”
For example, even in the summer, temperatures may vary 10 to 20 degrees from area to area within the park — especially along the coast and higher elevations, the rangers explain. Secondly, since rain is always a possibility, hikers always need to be prepared for thunderstorms — especially while at higher elevations. Finally, despite sunny conditions, there can be fog along the coastal strip that inhibits visibility.
“Call the recorded Road & Weather line at (360) 565-3131 before traveling to the park,” the rangers suggest. “Park Rangers update the recording daily. We also post traffic updates and real-time info on Twitter.”
5. Pack Your Patience And Be Flexible
Hundreds of thousands of people visit Olympic from June through September. To avoid the resulting crowds, the rangers suggest arriving at the park before 10 a.m. Another option is to arrive in mid-afternoon — or even later — because lines will be shorter and parking lots won’t be as busy.
“Take advantage of the long, summer days and you’ll find fewer crowds as dinnertime approaches,” the rangers explain.
“It’s important to also remember that Olympic is a big place, and traffic and road construction — inside and outside of the park — can make drive times longer than expected,” the rangers note. “Have a backup plan in case parking lots are already full (temporarily restricting access) when you arrive.”
6. Timing Is Everything
“Plan your visit to the most popular areas of the park for even earlier or later in the day,” the rangers continue. “For example, parking lots at Hurricane Ridge and the Hoh Rain Forest can easily fill by mid-morning, which causes wait times of an hour or two at the entrance stations — especially on weekends and holidays. Parking at Lake Crescent, Sol Duc Falls Trailhead, Ruby Beach, and Rialto Beach is also challenging in the summer.”
You can learn more about how to avoid crowds at the most popular areas of the park here.
7. Buy Your Entrance Pass In Advance
Although advance reservations are not needed to enter Olympic this summer, the rangers suggest buying your park entrance pass online in advance to save time.
“Be sure to print your pass before you visit,” the rangers note. “While in the park, the paper copy is presented at entrance stations and displayed on the vehicle dashboard — particularly when your vehicle is parked at trailheads, campgrounds, and park lodges.
You can buy your park pass online here.
8. Hike Smart And Have An Emergency Plan
Olympic has 600 miles of trails that vary in length and difficulty. However, it’s important to remember that it is a wilderness park. The rangers have several tips to help you safely enjoy the park’s trails.
“Recognize your abilities and the abilities of your group, and then pick the right trail for you and your group,” the rangers explain. “You won’t miss out on the spectacular views, wildlife sightings, and connection with nature by choosing an easier trail for your adventure.”
The best resource to help pick the right trails for your group, they explain, is the Day Hiking Information and Wilderness Trail Guide. It can be found here.
Next, the rangers encourage everyone to “Plan ahead, Hike Smart, pack the Ten Essentials, and have an emergency plan — even for a short day hike.” You can learn more about how to plan a trip here, how to “Hike Smart” here, and plan for emergencies here.
9. Give Yourself Time To Explore
“Try to sample destinations within each of the park’s major ecosystems: Subalpine, coast, temperate rainforest, and lowland old-growth forest. But you’ll need time to do it!” the rangers note. “Be sure to plan your visit by getting to know the park map, exploring some trip ideas, and checking the mileage and driving times between destinations.”
10. Get The App
The NPS App provides interactive maps, tours of park places, and on-the-ground accessibility information about more than 400 national parks to make trip planning easier. The free app can be downloaded through the App Store and Google Play.
Rangers at Olympic recommend downloading the app — not just for the planning tools, but for use inside the park.
“Cell service is spotty throughout Olympic, but with the NPS App, you can download content ahead of time for offline use,” the rangers write. “That’s especially handy if you’re exploring remote areas of the park or are concerned about data limits.”
While you’re thinking about the park, be sure to also read all of our Olympic National Park coverage. And if you are planning a trip to Olympic, be sure to check out our Seattle and Washington coverage as well.