Olympic National Park – Wet, Wild and Wonderful

August 31, 2016

Explore glaciated peaks to rainforest valleys

By Douglas Scott

Photo at right: Framed by moss-covered rocks and trees, the Quinault River flows peacefully through a southwestern rainforest in Olympic National Park. Photo by Douglas Scott


Visitors of Olympic National Park are greeted by pristine, untouched wilderness on a scale that boggles the mind.

The Park is one of America’s most diverse National Parks. From glaciered peaks and soaked rainforest valleys, to dry ridges and stunning wilderness coastline, Olympic has captured the imaginations of countless generations, each discovering something incredible and magical about the wilderness of the region.

Of its nearly 1 million acres, Olympic is 95 percent wilderness, with little more than a narrow trail splitting sections of nature untouched by human activity. It is here that we are able to soothe our souls in majestic beauty and reconnect to a relationship with nature long ago lost by society.

Olympic is one of America’s 10 most-visited National Parks, drawing over 3 million visitors a year. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the fjord of Hood Canal, the Olympic Peninsula is home to endless adventures in pristine wilderness, vista-filled mountains and timeless coastline.

Despite crowds at popular areas like Lake Crescent, Hurricane Ridge and the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic is home to the official “Quietest Square Inch” in America, over 1,000 miles of untouched, underexplored wilderness and 611 miles of hiking trails.

A young girl enjoys backpacking through the Olympics. Photo by Bill Baccus, courtesy of Olympic National Park and the National Park Service

Remote Exploration

The region was first documented during the summer of 1885 by Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil, who blazed a trail up to Hurricane Ridge and into the Elwha River Valley.

In 1889–90 the Press Expedition—a group of ragtag explorers and reporters from Seattle—traversed the Olympics for six months. They traveled from the Elwha River to the Quinault River and brought back stories of incredible wilderness, majestic mountains and ridiculously rugged and soaked terrain.

Known for giant trees and rugged wilderness, Olympic was set aside as the Olympus National Monument in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the elk population from overhunting.

The rainforest regions of Olympic are world-famous; but if it wasn’t for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Park designation in 1938, the ancient forests that captivate our imaginations might have become a causality of the growing demand for timber.

Old growth driftwood can be found on Olympic Peninsula beaches like these scattered along Kalaloch Beach, south of Forks. Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park and the National Park Service

More Than 14 Feet of Rain

Tucked in the wettest corner of Washington, over 14 feet of rain fall each year in the rainforests, transforming the majority of the 1,442-square mile park into a bastion of green wilderness. Surrounded by water and often dripping with moisture, Olympic is wet, wild and wonderful.

Whether it is flowing, dripping, frozen or falling, water is the life-force of Olympic National Park and is the constant in this varied terrain. The glacial-fed rivers and rain-swollen streams have provided life to creatures of all shapes and sizes. Salmon runs return annually, as they have for millennia, while elk graze along the river banks and eagles soar overhead. Water is life, and nowhere is that more obvious than in Olympic.

High in the Olympic Mountains, over 300 glaciers dot the majestic and craggy ridges, isolated from humanity. The rocky peaks, now thousands of feet above the salty waters surrounding the peninsula, were once on the ocean floor, evidenced by climbers who occasionally find seashell fossils while taking in panoramic views.

The alpenglow of the setting sun highlights Blue Glacier, which sits at 7,800-feet on the north side of Mt. Olympus. Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park and the National Park Service

Thanks to all the moisture, Mt. Olympus has the greatest glaciation of any non-volcanic peak in the contiguous United States, outside of the North Cascades. Save from the few dozen climbers who attempt to summit the peaks in search of the best panoramic views in America, the Olympic Mountains have remained mostly untouched.

Capped off by Mt. Olympus at 7,965-feet, peaks in the Olympics are rarely climbed. Many first summits didn’t occur until the 1960s and ’70s, a testament to the difficulty and remoteness of even getting to the mountains’ flanks. As heavy storms dump rain on the rainforest valley, heavy snow falls on the mountains.

Rivers, Waterfalls and Lakes

The rivers of Olympic take on a life of their own, tumbling downstream, creating stunning waterfalls and filling up the breathtaking lakes. What makes the rivers of Olympic so remarkable is that many of them drop 6,000 feet in elevation over the course of a few miles, giving the region iconic waterfalls.

Capped off with Marymere, Sol Duc and the Falls at Royal Basin, the waterfalls of Olympic are reason alone to see the park. The flowing rivers and creeks also help form high alpine lakes like Lake of the Angels, Seven Lakes Basin and Flapjack before reaching the five larger lakes around the Olympic Peninsula. It is here, among these lakes, where water meets forests that most visitors fall madly in love with the Olympics.

In fact, it is rumored that at Lake Crescent and Lake Quinault President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his decision to create Olympic National Park.

A tree-topped haystack complements the blue-sky reflected in the tide-pools at Second Beach west of Forks. Photo by Douglas Scott

Miles of Coastal Beauty

Many visitors end their day by watching sunsets along the Olympic Coast. The coastal sections of the park are the newest, and quite possibly, the most stunning. Added to Olympic in 1953, the 73 miles of wilderness coast is where tide pool-filled beaches meet ancient points of inspiration among slowly eroding driftwood and sea stacks.

The coast of Olympic is highlighted by three beach regions, each as beautiful as the last. Exploring the subtlety of the shores at Kalaloch to the south, the history and beauty of Ozette or the rugged and inspiring Point of the Arches at Shi Shi, both to the north, the coast captures the wild spirit of the Olympics.


Olympic National Park: www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm
One Square Inch of Silence: www.onesquareinch.org

Douglas Scott is an avid writer, hiker and photographer in and around Olympic National Park. He has written numerous guidebooks and currently runs The Outdoor Society www.outdoor-society.com and Exotic Hikes www.exotichikes.com/blog