EVER SINCE THE PANDEMIC HIT, hordes of travelers, desperate to hit the road and stay outdoors in the fresh air, have overrun our National Parks. Record-breaking entrances are taking place at Yellowstone, Yosemite, Arches, Acadia and more. Even our publisher took her family to Yellowstone and Grand Teton over the summer! This is why I decided to visit the Pacific Northwest. I, too, wanted to spend time in the parks. But I’ve always done that. Pre-pandemic, I was already a big fan of road trips broken up with hikes through heavily wooded forests, along bustling brooks, and near stunning waterfalls.
However, I hate crowds. I suppose no one likes crowds, so maybe “hate” isn’t the right word. “Despise with every ounce of my being?” I feel claustrophobic when too many people are on the trails. I don’t mind crowds in cities and tourist attractions, but when I’m attempting to become one with nature, it’s hard to do when surrounded by people.
How can I listen to the sound of the wind blowing through the trees when a group has decided they should hike with a Bluetooth speaker?
I found the peace and solitude I was yearning for when I headed as far west as the continental United States allowed and visited Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks in Washington State.
A PARK OF OLYMPIC PROPORTIONS
At a million acres in size, the vast wilderness of Washington State’s Peninsula that abuts the Pacific Coast with 70 miles of untouched coastline is a place one can easily get lost. The land here is ancient: old-growth forests with towering giant sequoias and home to thousands of years of history in both nature and people.
While General Sherman may be the tallest tree in the U.S., Olympic National Park is home to the “Forest of Giants,” where Douglas and Grand Firs stand between 200 and 300 feet in height. These ancient trees are more than 1,000 years old and have long been overlooking the native Quinault tribes that have made the Pacific Northwest home. In fact, nearly a quarter of the peninsula and a third of its coastline belonging to the Quinault Reservation, and areas you visit may take you to their land.
The rainforest that covers Olympic National Park is legendary beyond its people; Hollywood often uses it to set a misty stage. It’s easy to see why when you can start your day surrounded by the morning fog and encounter a fern forest where sword fern and moss carpet the land in such a way it feels you are walking on sponges. Hoh Rain Forest, a temperate rainforest, receives 14 feet of rain per year, but the Wynoochee River Valley in the southwest portion of the area recorded more than 180 inches of rain in one year. That’s not to say your visit will be clouded in rain. My visit featured completely dry and sunny days, once the morning fog burned off. Beginning my first day along Hurricane Ridge near Port Angeles took me above the fog. Mount Angeles, the highest peak on the ridge, stands at 6,454 feet, and looking down upon the clouds is a perspective rarely scene save from an airplane window. Mount Angeles is not the highest point in the park. That honor goes to the park’s namesake mountain: Mount Olympus. Standing 7,980 feet, it is one of the most isolated peaks in the country, and you won’t see the peak from outside or inside the park unless you specifically head for hiking it.
DWARFING THE OLYMPIAS
The highest peak you can see, including when you land in Seattle, is Mount Rainier. The tallest mountain in the Cascade Range symbolizes Washington State and is the centerpiece of Mount Rainier National Park. It is nearly twice as tall as Olympus, yet its national park is less than a third of the size. Don’t let that fool you, as the undeveloped 236,000+ acres are rich in forests, glacial-carved valleys, and scores of waterfalls carrying the melting snow down the mountains.
I cannot say which park was more stunning. Just 113 miles separate the two, and both feature lowland forests, wetlands, fern forests, old-growth trees, and alpine tundra. Although the windy road to Hurricane Ridge afforded me some pretty spectacular views in Olympic, the multiple switchbacks of the streets within Mount Rainier National Park are far more stunning. While there were specific areas of Olympic National Park to visit, I didn’t pull my car over on the side of the road again and again (and again and again) much as I did in Mount Rainier. Everywhere you look is an awe-inspiring view.
Arriving at sunrise, I drove up 5,420 feet to Paradise Visitor Center, intending to follow the Skyline Trail and reach Panorama Point on foot to 6,800 feet. The morning fog was so unbelievably thick that I couldn’t see the Visitor Center when I parked and could only see the steps in front of me. But I was amazed at the wildflowers carpeting the ground in every color of the rainbow: blues, oranges, purples, yellows. I had never encountered such a display.
On the opposite side of Rainier is Sunrise, which also has an impressive collection of wildflower meadows. Its Visitor Center stands 6,400 feet and gives you the best sunrises (hence its name). It’s also where I first took in the majesty of Mount Rainier as it directly faces the snow-capped mountain without any obstruction. This area does see more crowds with an accessible 1.5-mile Sunrise Nature Trail only gaining 300 feet in elevation and the more strenuous 5.2mile Sunrise Rim Trail, which gains 1,000 feet. I avoided the crowds by visiting Paradise, and although I caught the fog, I had switchback vistas and waterfalls entirely to myself.
THE MUST-SEE SPOTS
Arriving in Seattle, my trip began with a 2-hour drive to Port Angeles. Although I arrived late at night, I elected to drive straight to the entranceway of the Olympic National Park at the advice of a friend who lives in Seattle, warning me traffic would start early. By staying the night in Port Angeles, the largest town on the peninsula, I could start my day before the weekend crowds. I discovered beginning my days at 7 a.m. meant the gates were not outfitted with rangers, and my National Park Pass never got scanned as I drove right into both parks on my visits.
Inside Olympic National Park, the big draws are Hurricane Ridge for fabulous views. It’s a 17-mile drive from the Port Angeles entrance to the Visitor Center near the top. A heavily-trafficked 3.4-mile trail leads to the top, but there were only a few people on my early morning encounter. Continuing on in the park, a short drive brought me to the Elwha River. Here, a .5-mile out-and-back trail led to Madison Falls, which I had entirely to myself. I was amazed at the river’s color: it was a pristine blue, so clear I could see the rocks and the fish in it. Continuing to Lake Crescent, a 1.5-mile out-and-back trail leads to Marymere Falls. Here, the trail was a bit more crowded, but I could get ahead of hikers to have the waterfall to myself once again.
If you stay in the area, find time to enjoy the lake. If you continue, you can discover Forks, which has been made famous due to the “Twilight” series of movies. Other than a sign you can find that lets vampires know they cannot cross the boundary due to a treaty, there is not much in Forks, although it’s going to give you the only places to grab a bite if you don’t bring your own provisions. If you want to see the sign, head to Rialto Beach, where the rocky shores are littered with the remains of tree trunks and fallen trees along the Pacific Ocean. Keep an eye on the ocean as humpback whales can be seen migrating along the shores. Beyond Forks is the coastal town of La Push on the Quileute Reservation. Here, First Beach and nearby Second Beach are similar to Rialto, and the reservation offers an oceanside resort with 23 oceanfront cabins and RV parking—a great place to spend the night.
Back at Forks, you can continue along the 101 to the Hoh Rainforest. This is where the giant ferns and spongy ground await. So popular is this area that unless you have spent the night at Quileute and started your day early, you could find heavy traffic up to an hour to enter to walk along its main trail near the Visitor’s Center. But that doesn’t mean you cannot find the same amazing beauty on other trails without going all the way to the center.
Continuing further south in the park, the last must-see is Ruby Beach, which has haystack-like rocks and tide pools similar to Oregon’s.
After completing the peninsula circle toward Olympia, you’ll find yourself not too far from Mount Rainier. Camping is the way to enjoy this park, but there are some lodges near Ashford. Making your way to Paradise and Sunset will have you on the roads encircling the park within this national park. Pick any number of trails because you cannot go wrong.
The real benefit of visiting Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks is you are not in the middle of nowhere without city fun. You’ll have Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia within your sights.
If you have more time, you can cross the border into Oregon where Portland and the Hood River provide more fun. Portland’s Botanical Gardens and Washington Park are beautiful in-city parks and 30 minutes from Portland is Multnomah Falls, which drops 620 feet. Nearly 2 million people a year visit these falls, so if avoiding crowds is your plan, you should skip this. I visited and had to push my way through crowds along the trails.
Seattle is a great city to visit, as well. The Space Needle is connected to the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit for a two-for-one entry to see two of the best the city offers. Pike Place Market is a lively shopping and dining area, and the piers provide tours into Elliott Bay and Puget Sound.
Having visited several of America’s biggest and best national parks, Olympic and Mount Rainier jumped directly into my top five favorite parks. I could have spent weeks enjoying the trails and camping, but I did my tour over a long weekend, cramming far too much in too quickly. I saw it all but cannot wait to go back.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Learn more by visiting the National Park Service at nps.org.