One of the main draws for travelers to the Pacific Northwest is the diversity of the region’s stunning natural landscape, brimming with vistas of bays, conifer forest, rivers, and mountains. Seattle visitors itching to get out into nature have an abundance of choices. The national park at majestic Mt. Rainier often gets top billing, but to the west of Seattle out on the Olympic Peninsula is the smaller yet dramatic Olympic Mountain range.
Avalanche lillies bloom at the foot of the Olympic Mountains. — Photo courtesy of National Park ServiceThe Olympics are largely within Olympic National Park, about an hour-and-a-half southwest of Seattle. The nature preserve centers around the mountains. The main summit, 7,980-foot Mount Olympus, acts as a hub within the parkland, with valleys and rivers spreading out from its flanks like the spokes of a wheel and stretching into several microclimates, including subalpine woodland and meadow, temperate rainforest, and beach ecosystems. Each of these zones supports a diversity of indigenous species.
Conveniently enough, all of the park’s destinations can be accessed from Highway 101, which encircles the park as it makes its way around the perimeter of the Olympic Peninsula. For a day trip from Seattle, the peninsula can be reached by numerous routes. By far the most dramatic and scenic way to get there is on the Washington State Ferries system, boarding a boat from the main terminal in Seattle by foot, bike, or car to enjoy the ride across Puget Sound. Alternately, drive south on Interstate 5 to Tacoma and exit to Highway 16 eastbound and cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge for a rural drive to Highway 101 and on to the park. Yet another possibility is to pass through Tacoma on I-5 and keep going to Olympia, exiting directly onto Highway 101 from I-5and approaching the park from the south.
From woodland trails, hikers emerge on the rugged shoreline. — Photo courtesy of National Park ServiceWhatever way you take into the park, upon arrival a huge range of recreational opportunities awaits in a relatively compact area. This is due to the diversity of the park’s habitats and landscapes, which together cover some one million acres. Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, bird watching, tide pool exploration, dipping in hot springs, or just touring by car, it’s easy to check out the varying zones of the park, no matter what type of adventure you seek.
Maybe it’s crunching along a dirt and gravel trail up a mountainside to find spectacular views at Hurricane Ridge. On a clear day, you can see north into Canada from this part of the park, and the photo opportunities of the Strait of Juan de Fuca are phenomenal from this vantage. Storm King Information Center is a great resource for this area of the park.
The Sandpoint trail winds through dense forest. — Photo courtesy of National Park ServiceOr perhaps you prefer padding over fragrant pine needles along a path deep in the shade of a temperate rainforest, stopping to rest at fern-fringed streams on the padding of moss-covered rocks. Within the park boundary, both the Hoh Rainforest and the Quinault Rainforest offer miles of hiking trails.
If beach exploration is more your thing, follow forested headland trails to the coastal beaches at Mora or Kalaloch, among other beach areas at which to camp and explore. Once you emerge from the woods, look for solid wet sand to save energy exploring along rugged Pacific Ocean beaches, stopping at vast tide pools along the way to examine sea stars, anemones, and tiny fish waiting for the tide to come back in.