Glacier capped mountains, wild Pacific coast and magnificent stands of old-growth forests, including temperate rain forests at Olympic National Park, you can find all three. About 95% of the park is designated wilderness, which further protects these diverse and spectacular ecosystems. Often referred to as “three parks in one”, Olympic National Park encompasses three distinctly different ecosystems rugged glacier capped mountains, over 60 miles of wild Pacific coast and magnificent stands of old-growth and temperate rain forest. These diverse ecosystems are still largely pristine in character with about 95% of the park is designated wilderness.
Olympic is also known for its biological diversity. Isolated for eons by glacial ice, the waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Peninsula has developed its own distinct array of plants and animals. Eight kinds of plants and five kinds of animals are found on the peninsula and live nowhere else in the world.
History & Culture
Olympic National Park welcomes you to a diverse and stunning world a fog-shrouded coast with booming surf and wave-manicured beaches, spectacular alpine country dotted with sparkling lakes, lush meadows, glaciers and North America’s finest temperate rain forest. American Indians have lived here for thousands of years, both along the coast and in the interior reaches of the peninsula. Their primary form of subsistence came from the sea and rivers, as well as berries, roots and land mammals. Cedar was the most important material resource, used for everything from house planks to canoes. The bark was used for clothing and baskets, even towels and diapers.
In 1592, the first European, Juan de Fuca, may have come along these shores. Reliable information of European penetration, however, is not available until 1774 when Juan Perez sailed along this coast. In the next 25 years a bevy of British, American and Spanish explorers visited the area. The most enduring work was done by Robert Gray, an American and George Vancouver, an Englishman. Both men explored the area thoroughly, establishing rival claims to this land for their own countries.
Although American Indians utilized and traveled throughout the mountains of the peninsula, it was not until 1885 that the first systematic documented exploration of the interior of the Olympic Peninsula was made. That year Lt. Joseph P. O’Neil led the first documented expedition into the interior. In 1889-90 the Press expedition led by James Christie made a north-south crossing in five and one-half months. In 1890 Lt. O’Neil returned and made an east-west crossing. Slowly a movement got underway to set aside some of the peninsula as a national park.
In 1897, President Grover Cleveland created the Olympic Forest Reserve, a portion of which President Theodore Roosevelt designated a national monument in 1909. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation creating Olympic National Park and in 1988 nearly 96 percent of the park was designated as wilderness. Olympic is a place for the soul to expand and for the mind to be refreshed with the beauty of life.
Nature & Science
The Olympic Mountains are not very high – Mount Olympus, the highest, is just under 8,000 feet but they rise almost from the water’s edge and intercept moisture-rich air masses that move in from the Pacific. As this air is forced over the mountains, it cools and releases moisture in the form of rain or snow. At lower elevations rain nurtures the forests while at higher elevations snow adds to glacial masses that relentlessly carve the landscape. The mountains wring precipitation out of the air so effectively that areas on the northeast corner of the peninsula experience a rain shadow and get very little rain. The town of Sequim gets only 17 inches a year, while less than 30 miles away Mount Olympus receives some 200 inches falling mostly as snow. These mountains have arisen from the sea. For eons, wind and rain washed sediments from the land into the ocean. Over time these sediments were compressed into shale and sandstone. Meanwhile, vents and fissures opened under the water and lava flowed forth, creating huge underwater mountains and ranges called seamounts. The plate(s) that formed the ocean floor inched toward North America about 35 million years ago and most of the sea floor went beneath the continental land mass. Some of the sea floor, however, was scraped off and jammed against the mainland, creating the dome that was the forerunner of today’s Olympics. Powerful forces fractured, folded and over-turned rock formations, which helps explain the jumbled appearance of the Olympics. Radiating out from the center of the dome, streams and later a series of glaciers, carved peaks and valleys, creating the beautiful, craggy landscape we know today. Ice Age glacial sheets from the north carved out the Strait of Juan Fuca and Puget Sound, isolating the Olympics from nearby landmasses.
Surrounded on three sides by water and still crowned by alpine glaciers, the Olympics retain the distinctive character that developed from their isolation. Several plants and animals are unique to the Olympics examples of how genetic diversification occurs when geographical isolation exists. The most striking example is the Olympic marmot, with its distinct chromosonal and behavioral patterns. Others included Flett’s violet, Piper’s bellflower, Olympic Mountain synthyris, Olympic chipmunk, Olympic snow mole and Beardslee and Cresceti trout, as well as others.
With Olympic’s nearly one million acres and three distinct ecosystems, you should plan on spending at least one very full day to get a feeling for the park’s diversity. With this amount of time, visitors often drive to Hurricane Ridge for a taste of the park’s high country and mountain vistas. From there, a three-hour drive to the west will bring you to the Hoh Rain Forest, where over 12 feet of rain per year creates a stunning world of huge trees and profuse greenery. Views of the Pacific Coast and Olympic’s wilderness beaches can be seen by an additional 30-40 minute drive to Rialto or Ruby Beach. Visitors interested in hiking or exploring some of the park’s lesser-used areas should allow at least several days to see the park.
From the Seattle/Tacoma area, travelers can reach U. S. 101 by several different routes, either by crossing Puget Sound on one of the Washington State Ferries or by driving south around Puget Sound. Travel time along any of these routes is approximately two-and-a-half to three hours from the Seattle/Tacoma area to Port Angeles, where the main park visitor center and park headquarters are located. All major rental companies serve the SeaTac Airport. Rental cars are also available on the Olympic Peninsula in Port Angeles, Sequim and Grays Harbor.
Olympic National Park
600 East Park Avenue
Port Angeles, WA 98362-6798
Operating Hours & Seasons
Olympic National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Most roads remain open year round, although several are subject to winter closure because of snow or other weather related problems. During the winter the Hurricane Ridge Road is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and may be closed with short notice at other times due to severe weather or unsafe road conditions.
Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center
Open All Year 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.. Phone: 360-374-6925.
Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center
Open during the winter: Fridays – Sundays only 10 – 4. This visitor center is open whenever Hurricane Ridge road is open, but is staffed only Friday through Sunday. Weather permitting, the Hurricane Ridge road is open Friday through Sunday and may be open Mondays and Thursdays if conditions allow. It is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the winter.
Olympic National Park Visitor Center
Open All Year 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.. Phone 360-565-3130.
Olympic National Park has a moderate marine climate with pleasant summers and mild, wet winters.
Summers are generally fair and warm, with high temperatures usually between 65 and 75 degrees F. Summer is the driest season, with heavier precipitation during the rest of the year. Winters are mild, with temperatures at lower elevations in the 30’s and 40’s.
At higher elevations, snowfall is generally heavy, with accumulations of up to 10 feet common. Closer to sea level, much of the precipitation comes as rain, with some infrequent snow fall. At any time of year, visitors should come prepared for a variety of conditions. Rain gear and layered clothing are a must.