I went to college at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington just south of Olympic National Park. But alas, I was a chemistry major and spent way more time in the lab then I did outside. This summer, once I get my Sprinter Van, I’ll be spending a good chunk of time exploring the Pacific Northwest and hitting up the spots that I didn’t have a chance to visit when I lived there.
In this super helpful post, Bearfoot Theory contributor Kim Vawter (who is currently hiking the Pacific Crest Trail….yeah Kim!) shares her ultimate 6-day Olympic National Park Itinerary from her trip last summer with all the details about the best hikes, cool campsites, and everything else you need to know to plan an amazing trip to the Evergreen state. Now who else is excited to road trip this summer? –Kristen
The Ultimate 6-day Olympic National Park Itinerary
by Kim Vawter
Mountains, ocean and the rainforest…to most, visiting that much natural and diverse beauty would involve three separate trips to three very different locations. There is one National Park has it all though: Olympic National Park, in the northwestern corner of Washington State. And Olympic National Park is beautifully laid out for a perfect weeklong car camping trip that will allow you to experience a lot that the park has to offer. In this post, I’m going to share the details of my 6-day Olympic National Park itinerary that I took last summer and my best tips for planning your own road trip.
— Olympic National Park Basics —
First and foremost, you need to be okay with knowing that you aren’t going to see the entire park, not in 6 days at least. My 6-day Olympic National Park road trip itinerary hits all the major highlights, but it would be insane to try to devour the near one million acres of Olympic National Park in a single trip. As a forewarning the trip itinerary below does not take into account the Lake Ozette or Staircase areas, and due to weather we were not able to visit Rialto Beach.
The Olympic National Park website is incredibly helpful, and they have posted online information sheets for every single area of the park. Use this link and the menu on the left to select an area of the park to research. I’d also suggest picking up a waterproof copy of National Geographic’s Olympic National Park map.
Map courtesy of the National Park Service
Entrance to Olympic National Park is $20 per vehicle, and your pass will be valid for 7 consecutive days.
— The Best Time to visit Olympic National Park —
Olympic NP is wet, wet, wet. Even if you go during the summer months, known as the “dry season”, it still may pour! Weather closures, as we learned, aren’t an anomaly for Olympic NP, so check the current park status before you go and plan accordingly.
For our trip, the day before we arrived to Hurricane Ridge – for the premiere day of our adventure – the entire park had been evacuated with 70+ mph winds. Many areas of the park remained closed for multiple days as downed trees and debris were cleaned up. That said, if you are hoping for a dry visit, the summer is your best bet.
Olympic NP is open year-round, and while some of the roads and facilities do close from October through May, the Hurricane Ridge road is open Friday-Sunday during the winter season for snow activities!
If planning around the weather isn’t your priority, spring offers the best chance of seeing some wildlife – including black bears, elk, and giant banana slugs. It’s also when waterfalls are most impressive and flowers are in bloom.
No matter what season you come, be prepared for rain, then cross your fingers and hope for sunny skies.
— Olympic National Park Permits & Campsites —
Olympic National Park boasts beautiful campsites set in peaceful and natural settings. Campsites range from $15-$22 a night, and all but two of them are first-come / first-served.
Kalaloch (a large site on the Pacific Ocean) and Sol Duc (a riverside campground tucked in old growth forest) are the exceptions. These two accept reservations from June 10th – September 20th and remain first-come / first-served in the off-season.
Sol Duc Campground (Photo: Brendan T Lynch)
If you are looking for a quiet spot, check out Queets, North Fork Campground, and Deer Park Campground where RVs are not allowed or recommended.
The campground guide on the National Park website also tells you which campgrounds have potable water and flush / pit toilets. And just a heads-up, we couldn’t find a single campsite during our entire trip that had shower facilities.
If you want to go backpacking in Olympic National Park, you must obtain a wilderness camping permit. They cost $5 per person per night for groups up to 12 people. Depending on the trail, reservations may be required, and the park accepts reservations for the entire season starting on March 15th.
More information on wilderness camping and permit information can be found here.
— Getting to Olympic National Park —
While there is public transportation to the park, I think a vehicle is a must for this trip. From the SEA-TAC airport, the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center (where we started) is just about 3 hours along the I-5 corridor and HWY 101, driving through the towns of Tacoma and Olympia.
If you want to get out on the water, you can also take the ferry from Seattle, crossing the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island, and the driving north from there towards Port Townsend. One-way rides are about $8, and a regular vehicle costs just $28.
We ended up making a giant loop, which you can see on the Google Map if you keep scrolling down.
Map courtesy of the National Park Service
— Essential Gear for your Olympic National Park Road Trip–
Having solid rain gear -including proper clothing, a tent with a rainfly (if camping), and warm clothes for nighttime – is critical. Here are a few of the things I brought along and recommend.
Shop Popular Women’s Rain Gear
Shop Popular Men’s Rain Gear
— 6 Day Olympic National Park Car Camping Itinerary —
— Day 1: Hurricane Ridge —
We took the ferry and then drove a counterclockwise loop from Seattle, and our first stop on the trip was Hurricane Ridge. Unfortunately it was pretty overcast, and we weren’t able to see Mount Olympus at all. Had the weather been better, we planned to hike Hurricane Hill, which is 1.6 miles one way and offers great views of the mountains. If you are luckier than we were, from the visitor center there is an incredible platform to see out to Mount Olympus and the entirety of its mountain range. Make sure to swing into the visitor center gift shop which carries some really fun stuff made by local artists.
Here’s a picture of what the view looks like on a sunny day.
That first night, we camped at Heart O’ the Hills which was by far one of the most beautiful campsites I have ever visited. I highly recommend loop D that has sites right along a flowing stream.
— Day 2: Lake Crescent & Sol Duc Hot Springs —
On day 2, get ready for totally different and yet equally incredible landscape. As you leave the mountains of Hurricane Ridge, you arrive at the 650 foot deep Lake Crescent. Make sure to read up on the Indian legend about how Lake Crescent formed. Geological records suggest there was large-scale disturbance that affected Lake Crescent and its neighbor, Lake Sutherland – creating two lakes from one.
Lake Crescent also has a delightful lodge on its banks – the Lake Crescent Lodge. The hotel was built in 1915 and includes a stone fireplace and cozy sun porch. The lodge has a beautiful restaurant, bar and gift shop as well. You can also rent kayaks on the lake to enjoy a beautiful day on the water! They even offer guided kayak tours.
In terms of adventures on foot (and in drizzling rain), we opted for the 0.9 one-way Marymere Falls trail that was as green as could be. Highlights included a few of these awesome log bridges that were used to cross streams. Use the same turn off as the Lodge to access the parking lot and trailhead for Marymere Falls….there are plenty of signs or you can just ask the staff in the Lodge.
Continuing on along HWY 101, don’t miss the Salmon Cascades and the Ancient Grove trail, on Sol Duc Hot Spring Rd. If you are traveling during the salmon spawn (varies with temperature changes but generally is September-November), the salmon cascading along the Sol Duc River are a must see. You can find them halfway down the road to Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Just down from the Salmon Cascades viewpoint is also the Ancient Groves 0.6 mile self-guided nature trail loop through an old growth forest which is a nice quickie for stretching your legs!
Now, the hot springs…I hate to be negative but these are not wild hot springs that you hike to for a few miles for a quiet soak in nature. Instead, this is a fee-based “hot springs resort” where the naturally flowing water has been piped into concrete and tile soaking tubs. We walked in and checked out the set-up and walked out. The resort itself includes cabins, massage therapists, food options and a gift shop. It was $13.50 for adults to visit the pools—although if you go for the last two hours it’s only $9.25. Hours depend on season.
My personal opinion, SKIP…I’m pretty sure there are some natural hot springs in the area that you can find with a little internet sleuthing.
Due to the nonstop rain, we were moving along pretty quickly and ended up camping at Klahowya campground, which is technically outside of the National Park in the neighboring National Forest. It was right along Highway 101 and also along the Sol Duc River. This is a great campsite for originating yourself close to Forks for the next day of adventures!
— Day 3: Forks & La Push Beaches —
From Klahowya Campground, head west on Highway 101 towards Forks. If you are a young female, or avid vampire fan, you might be wondering why you’ve heard of Forks, WA. Well, that is the town Stephanie Meyer used to base her Twilight series novels. While none of the movie was filmed on the Olympic Peninsula (Meyer never even visited!), if you do want to “Twilight geek out” head straight to the Forks Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, which offers all the Twilight trivia and maps you need. It is important to note though that after Port Angeles, Forks is a 2nd largest city you will pass through on this trip so if you need a hot shower, warm bed, s’more supplies or just a nice cup of espresso, make it happen in Forks!
Just north of Forks is the turn-off for La Push, Mora and Rialto Beach. Unfortunately, Mora and Rialto Beach were closed due to weather during our visit (just a great reason to go back soon!). La Push has three main beaches and they are simply named – First Beach, Second Beach and Third Beach.
First Beach is literally right in town and is the only beach that can be accessed by car. Second Beach was roughly a one-mile hike from the parking lot and was an absolutely beautiful spot for a picnic lunch. We ate and explored the large beach before high tide started setting in.
Third Beach is a flat 1.6 mile hike from the parking lot. On the way back to the 101, we did find what appeared to be a cute gem called Manitou Lodge if you need a night in a bed. The lodge is off Mora Road and has a small gift shop that features local artists, which is why we ventured back to check it out. The lodge and its grounds were impressive, and they have lots of information and advice for exploring the local area available in their “Great Room” which boasts a massive stone fireplace and vaulted ceilings. Since we couldn’t camp at Mora campground, due to the weather closure, we ventured on to the Hoh Rainforest to camp.
— Day 5: Hoh Rainforest —
Before leaving Forks for The Hoh Rainforest, make sure you are stocked on food and necessities, as there is only a small coffee shop/café/convenience store that offers a limited selection. The rainforest, less than an hour from Forks, is located down Upper Hoh Road. Hook a left off 101 onto Upper Hoh Road and travel 18 lush miles east to the Hoh rainforest and visitor center.
Hoh is the gateway to Mount Olympus. Crazy to think you would hike through a rainforest to get to the tallest peak in the national park! We meandered through the Hall of Mosses trail (0.8 mile loop) as well as the Spruce Nature Trail (1.2 mile loop) both of which I wouldn’t miss. The Spruce Nature trail takes you along the Hoh River where you can see the silt flowing down from the mountains.
Have more time to explore or want to get into the backcountry? There is no question about it…next time I visit Olympic NP I am going to hike the 17.3 mile trail to Glacier Meadows and then another 0.9 miles to see Blue Glacier.
— Day 6: Ruby Beach, Kalaloch Beach and Lake Quinault —
On the last day, head to Ruby Beach – apparently the most photographed beach in all of the Olympic Peninsula. We were lucky to enjoy exactly one hour of sunshine while we were there—just long enough to understand why Ruby Beach carries the prestige it does.
From Ruby Beach we headed down the 101 south through torrential downpour to the Kalaloch Lodge. Ultimately we didn’t fight the rain to see Beach 4, 3, 2 or 1, but the 101 hugs the coast so you get incredible views the entire way. Kalaloch Lodge offers seaside cabins, a restaurant, a gift shop and a little convenience store. The gift shop had different goods in comparison to Hurricane Ridge, with a big selection of local products. From Kalaloch Beach the rain pushed us on to Lake Quinault where we camped for the night at Willaby campground on a ledge above the lake.
Lake Quinault on a sunny day
Photo: gary windust
I am a sucker for National Park hotels and the nearby Lake Quinault Lodge is definitely one to checkout. The lodge has Wi-Fi in the public areas and also offers showers (for a fee) for campers! They have a great “living room” complete with vintage photographs of the lodge and memorabilia. Also don’t miss The Salmon House Restaurant & Lodge. It is a local hangout and has responsible prices. Their wine glasses hold about half a bottle and the onion rings will not disappoint (and yes, that is what I had for dinner, in case you were wondering). We explored some of the United States Forest Service trails here, which were pleasant but not as surreal as the National Park. The United States Forest Service has an outstanding ranger station and information center right next door to the Lake Quinault Lodge.
Lake Quinault was the last stop on our trip. Afterwards, we made our way back to Seattle via Olympia, a drive that takes just under 4 hours.
There you have it, a full 6-day loop featuring some of the best highlights of Olympic National Park and the greater Olympic Peninsula. For more road trip tips and itineraries, check out the posts below!
About the author: Kim Vawter was originally born in Sydney, Australia and now calls Los Angeles home. She is a Purdue University grad and was a 2008 Teach For America corps member. After spending the last 7 years working in education, Kim recently left her job with the goal of completing a thru-hike of the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail this year. She is also working hard to accomplish another personal goal of visiting every national park in the U.S. You can follow her PCT adventures on Instagram, Facebook, or over on her website, Kim’s Walkabout.