Top 10 Things to Know About Olympic National Park: PHOTOS

by Jon D. B.

If you want to visit an unparalleled rainforest, go whale watching, and see glacier-peaked mountains in the same national park, Olympic National Park is it.

At a whopping 922,651 acres, Washington state’s Olympic National Park holds the finest examples of America’s Pacific Northwest. It is one of the most pristine, breathtakingly-gorgeous parks this Outsider’s ever experienced. If you’re ever forming a Top 10 list of U.S. National Parks, Olympic needs to be on it. It’s that spectacular.

As is it’s past and present. Today, 95% of Olympic National Park is federally-designated wilderness, leaving it wild and untamed. And a prime example of this is the Hoh Rainforest, a place you have to see to believe.

10. Hoh Rain Forest is the Pacific Northwest at its Finest

Beauty, and Top 10 lists for that matter, is subjective. But every living soul is guaranteed to find it in Olympic’s Hoh Rain Forest.

As one of few remaining temperate rain forests in the United States, Hoh is a natural temple of giant trees, mosses, ferns, lichens, and wildlife. And you have not truly experienced the color green until you’ve stepped inside this forest.

The best way to experience the rain forest is via Hoh River Trail. Those looking for an even more intimate visit, however, can stay in Hoh Rain Forest’s campground. Either way, no visit to Olympic is complete without experiencing Hoh Rain Forest.

9. Olympic National Park Offers Amazing Whale Watching

Pacific Ocean: Breaching Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Did you know the Olympic National Park coast lies along the whale trail? The whale trail is a path of sites where marine mammals can be seen from the shore, and Olympic is one of the best places to experience whale watching as a result.

As magnificent giants migrate north from Mexico all the way to the Bering Sea from Mexico, park visitors can watch humpback, gray whales, and other species feeding along Olympic’s coast.

Come during migration season in April and May to whale watch in the national park. The best places to whale watch from the shore are Kalaloch Beach, Rialto Beach, and Shi Shi Beach. Then, come back to the same spots in October and November to witness their return journey.

8. Neon Wildlife Populates Olympic’s Famous Tide Pools

It’s wild to think you can see Roosevelt elk, glacial peaks, and starfish all in the same park, but Olympic is full of surprises. Famous for its tide pools, park rangers offer educational programs at some of the most fascinating tidepools in North America to help visitors understand – and appreciate – the wealth of marine life within.

If you’ve never glimpsed a tide pool, Olympic is the place to do it. Here, periwinkle sea snails, purple-shelled Dungeness crabs, vibrant ochre sea stars, and countless other organisms flourish in these wild, wild places. And it absolutely doesn’t hurt that the surrounding views are spectacular, especially at Point of Arches (above).

7. Banana Slugs are Vital to Olympic National Park

Speaking of neon wildlife, one of Olympic National Park’s most famous residents is the banana slug. As the park cites, “They play an important role in the forest ecosystem as decomposers, the cleanup crew of the forest floor. They eat vegetation, lichen, mushrooms, animal scat, and even carcasses.”

As for the name, the obvious component is their neon-yellow color. These slugs can resemble a rotten banana, too, as they also take on a brown coloration with dark blotches. But it’s their size, too, that contributes to their name. Banana slugs can grow up to 10 inches long!

To see one for yourself, check out any of the park’s rainforests, and concentrate on cool, moist, and shady locations. Always remember to stay on trails and Leave No Trace as you do.

6. Come for the Park, Stay for Glorious Night Skies

Are you a stargazer? From cities and rural areas, it’s hard to imagine a night sky as shown in the Olympic National Park photo above. But get far out and away from all the light pollution, and you’ll see what our ancestors saw: a night sky blanketed with trillions of stars and our own Milky Way Galaxy.

In the park, Hurricane Ridge is a renowned stargazing spot. The park’s coastal beaches offer fantastic night skies, too. It’s hard to see the full splendor with the naked eye at first, but stick around and let your eyes adjust and you’ll see some of the most beautiful skies available in any part of the U.S.

Olympic also offers various ranger-led programs to Hurricane Ridge during the summer for stargazing. But remember to dress warm, as summer nights in Washington are cold.

5. In Olympic, Glaciers Still Reside in the Lands they Carved

View of glaciers on Mount Olympus from Hurricane Ridge. Olympic Peninsula in the Olympic National Park in Washington State, USA. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The entirety of Glacier National Park’s landmass was once beneath the glaicers of the last great Ice Age. But did you know over 60 still remain some 11,000 years later?

These massive chunks of solid ice tower over the park’s hot springs and rain forests, with 60 of the glaciers named by the park. Of them all, Blue Glacier is the largest. Residing atop the Olympic Mountain’s most impressive peak, Mount Olympus, Blue Glacier is a true relic at over 2.6 miles long.

It was once far larger, too, and helped carve out the very ridges, basins, and mountain valleys Olympic National Park is famous for. To see Blue Glacier for yourself, head to Hurricane Ridge and the surrounding hiking trails that offer vistas of Mount Olympus.

4. Mount Olympus is the Highest Peak in the Olympic Mountains

View of the visitors center on Hurricane Ridge on the Olympic Peninsula in the Olympic National Park in Washington State, USA, with Mount Olympus in the background. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Mount Olympus isn’t only the home to Blue Glacier, but the highest peak in the Olympic Mountain Range. This pinnacle of the park stands 7,980 feet (2,430 m) and is the tallest in the Olympic Mountains of western Washington.

The mountains are different on the Olympic Peninsula, however. The peaks all stand together, stretched out atop the crests of the Olympic Mountains – unlike the Rocky Mountains where individual peaks are highly distinguishable.

Regardless, Olympus (named for the towering seat of Greco-Roman mythology) is the central feature of Olympic National Park, and can be seen from the visitors center at Hurricane Ridge.

3. Visit Olympic National Park in the Sun or Snow

It goes without saying for the locals, but for those of us who live on the other side of the continent, it’s worth noting that Olympic makes for fantastic exploration year-round.

Snow tubing, snowboarding and alpine climbing are all popular winter activities. Hurricane Ridge Road and the Olympic Mountains provide both during snowy months. Come in warmer months and you can also relax in mineral pool baths at hot springs resorts, or take to Salmon Cascades to watch the spawning salmon leap over waterfalls. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg, too. You could spend a year in Olympic National Park and still not experience everything there is to do and see. But the point is: Olympic is one of the best parks for year-round excursions.

2. Know the Indigenous Peoples

A literal paradise for those brave enough to thrive within, the Olympic Peninsula hosts one of the most fascinating cultural legacies of anywhere in North America.

Today, “Eight Olympic Peninsula tribes continue to recognize a relationship to the park based on traditional land use, origin, beliefs, mythology and spiritual beliefs and practices,” the park explains. These tribes are:

“It was the ancestors of the these tribes that lived throughout the Olympic Peninsula,” the park continues. But America forced the allocation of these “lands and waters to the federal government through treaties in 1855 and 1856.”

Each of these Indigenous American Tribes now live on reservations along the shores of the peninsula.

1. How Olympic National Park Came to Be

Olympic National Park, historic sign. (Photo by Bütow/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

As for the park itself, Olympic National Park was established on June 29, 1938. Then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed it into existence; his administration wishing to preserve the area’s unique wildlife and landscapes

As a result, millions have come out to experience the splendor of the Olympic Peninsula. Just two hours from Seattle, Olympic is easily accessible for many, and one of the best places in America to experience the outdoors.

As for how the park got its name, that’s an easy one. Olympic National Park is named for the Olympic Mountains it protects.

Looking to learn more ahead of your next excursion? Head to An Outsider’s Quick History of the National Park Service next.