By Robert Haru Fisher
Seattle says it's the only major U.S. city from which you can see three different national parks (Olympic, Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Park), but there's no denying which park is the biggest, or prettiest, or closer to nature -- Olympic National Park has the others beat, hands down ( Frommers.com has further divided the Park into Olympic Park West and Olympic Park North). Ninety-five per cent of the park is designated as wilderness, a designation which protects its ecosystems and provides a chance for peace and quiet to visitors. It's home to many Native American tribes and is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. The park was created in 1938 to protect the Roosevelt elk, the primeval forest and the wild coast, and totals about one million acres. (The area was a National Monument as early as 1909.) Among the larger Native American nations within and near the park are the Elwha Klallam, Hoh, Jamestown S'Klallam, Makah, Ozette, Quileute and Quinault peoples.
Olympic's system includes a temperate rain forest, old growth forests (the largest remnants of ancient forests left in the country, they say, with trees some 300 feet tall), a wild Pacific coastline (73 miles), glacier-capped peaks and sub-alpine meadows, as well as a unique community of "more than 20" plants and animals found here and nowhere else on Earth (a few other national parks also have this distinction for different plants and animals).
For visitors, the area breaks down into three parks in one. These are 1) the wilderness coast (73 miles of it, and beware the tides), 2) Ancient Forests (including those temperate rain forests in the west side valleys of Quinault, Queets, Hoh and Bogachiel), and 3) snowy mountains, the Olympics, best seen from Hurricane Ridge, 17 miles south of Port Angeles. The highest peak is, of course, Mount Olympus, with six of its own glaciers. Its west peak is 7,980 feet high. (As I write this in August, there is still snow atop Olympus).
No roads cross the interior of the park, that's part of being a wilderness park. There are several spurs into the interior from State Highway 101, which nearly encircles the entire park. You get here mostly from Seattle or Tacoma by car and/or ferry across Puget Sound (about three hours either way). You could also fly into Port Angeles and there are private bus lines from Seattle, as well.
You should always check in with the visitor center when taking in any national park. The Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles is at 3002 Mount Angeles Road (en route to Hurricane Ridge), open daily in summer with reduced hours the rest of the year. Exhibits, orientation movie, nature trails and more. Phone tel. 360/565-3130 for general information, 360/565-3131 for road and weather information. TTY users phone 800/833-6388 or 6385. There's another source of information, the Olympic National Park and Forest Recreation Center on Highway 101 in Forks, west of the largest part of the park, at 360/374-7566.
There are more than 600 miles of trails, some as short as a quarter of a mile, others up to six miles for day hikes at the Hurricane Ridge, Deer Park, Hoh, Sol Duc, Lake Crescent, Heart o' the Hills, Elwha, Staircase, Dosewallips, Ozette, Mora/LaPush, Kallaloch and Quinault areas. To stay in the park in a tent or sleeping bag overnight, a wilderness camping permit is required and there are some fees, typically from $10 to $18. There's a helpful Wilderness Information Center at the Olympic Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles, tel. 360/563-3100. Camping is popular year round, weather permitting, first come, first served except during summer at Kalaloch (reserve at 877/444-6777; www.recreation.gov ). Ranger programs throughout the year include nature hikes and, in winter, snowshoe walks at Hurricane Ridge.
Bird watching and animal spotting should provide plenty of opportunities, too. Among animals are the Roosevelt elks (largest unmanaged herd of same in the world), Olympic marmots, cougar (rare), bears (rare), sea lions, whales, deer, sea otters, beaver and mink. Of the some 300 species of birds, you might see peregrine falcons, bald eagle, blue grouse, shorebirds, pelicans, loons, grebes, owls, and my favorite (just for its name), the marbled murrelet, a kind of auk.
You can stay at four concession-operated lodges in the park, call far ahead for reservations. Open all year is Kalaloch Lodge (tel. 360/962-2271; www.visitkalaloch.com), on 101 south of Forks. Cabins, motel rooms, gift shop, restaurant, the works. Open from April or May to September or October (dates vary), are three more: Lake Crescent Lodge (tel. 360/928-3211; www.lakecrescentlodge.com), on the south shore of that lake, with cottages, motel, restaurant and more.
Log Cabin Resort (tel. 360/928-3325; www.logcabinresort.net), on the lake's north shore, with cabins, motel, restaurant. Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort (tel. 360/327-3583 ; www.visitsolduc.com), with cabins, pool, hot mineral pools, massage, restaurant.
The park is open year round, with entrance fees for a 7-day pass of $15 per vehicle or $5 per visitor on foot or bicycle. You pay at Staircase, Hurricane Ridge, Elwha, Sol Duc, Ozette or Hoh. Additional fees may be required for the Olympic National Forest, south of the park, or on tribal lands.
Number of Visitors
According to the website Infoplease.com, Olympic had the fourth-largest number of visitors in the nation for the parks they surveyed, amounting to 3,142,774, those being figures for 2005, the latest available. The top three were Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Yosemite. This is no doubt due to the fact that the Olympic park is only a three-hour journey from the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area.
A good book for making plans and with many details on the park is Frommer's National Parks of the American West.
Here are some helpful organizations and their websites.