Photograph by Melissa Farlow
Established: June 29, 1938
Size: 922,000 acres
Encompassing 1,441 square miles of the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park invites visitors to explore three distinct ecosystems: subalpine forest and wildflower meadow; temperate forest; and the rugged Pacific shore. Because of the park's relatively unspoiled condition and outstanding scenery, the United Nations has declared Olympic both an international biosphere reserve and a World Heritage site.
Inside the park, the Olympic mountain range is nearly circular, contoured by 13 rivers that radiate out like the spokes of a wheel. No road traverses the park, but a dozen spur roads lead into it from US 101, making it easily accessible from outside the park.
Residents of the Olympic Peninsula refer to it as a gift from the sea, and its features were indeed shaped by water and ice. The rock of the Olympics developed under the ocean—marine fossils are embedded in the mountain summits. Another component, basalt, originated from undersea lava vents. About 30 million years ago, the plate carrying the Pacific Ocean floor collided with the plate supporting the North American continent. As the heavy oceanic plate slid beneath the lighter continental plate, the upper layers of seabed jammed against the coastline, crumpling into what would become the Olympic Mountains. Glaciers and streams sculptured the mountains into their current profiles.
Glaciers nearly one mile thick also gouged out Puget Sound and Hood Canal to the east, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, isolating the peninsula from the mainland.
Ice Age isolation led to the 15 animals and 8 plants that evolved nowhere else on Earth, including the Olympic mountain milkvetch, Olympic marmot, Olympic Mazama pocket gopher, Olympic mud minnow, Beardslee, and crescent trout.
There are also the 11 mammals common in the nearby Cascades and Rockies that either died out in the Olympics or never found their way into the peninsula. The missing include the grizzly bear, lynx, and mountain sheep.
The mountain goats found here are non-native. They were introduced in the 1920s before the park was established. The goat population eventually boomed to over 1,000 and so damaged Olympic’s alpine meadows in 1981 the park staff began efforts to manage their numbers within the park.
Moist winds from the Pacific condense in the cool air of the Olympics and drop rain or snow, bestowing on the mountains' western slopes the wettest climate in the lower 48 states. Mount Olympus, which crowns the park at 7,980 feet, receives 200 inches of precipitation a year.
How to Get There
Approach the park from US 101, which skirts three sides of the Olympic Peninsula. The main visitor center and entrance are in Port Angeles. From Seattle, take the Washington State Ferry to Bainbridge Island, then drive north to Wash. 104 to join US 101 west to Port Angeles, a drive of about 60 miles. Airports: Port Angeles, Seattle, Sequim, and Olympia.
When to Go
All-year park. Summer is the "dry" season, but be prepared for cool temperatures, fog, and rain at any time. Hurricane Ridge opens for skiing on winter weekends and holidays, weather permitting.
How to Visit
Plan to spend at least two days. On the first day, stroll subalpine meadows at Hurricane Ridge while admiring the peaks and glaciers in the distance. Savor the Lake Crescent area and, if you're feeling energetic, wind up with a dip at Sol Duc Hot Springs.
On the second day, drive to the Hoh Rain Forest and sample its nature trails before heading west for the Pacific Ocean beaches and tide pools. If you have more time, consider a trip to Ozette along the coast, or visit less known Quinault.
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