Two remarkable events created Washington’s Olympic National Park: one natural, one political.
The first occurred 35 million years ago. The geological plate beneath the Pacific Ocean began sliding under the North American continent, jamming parts of the sea floor against the mainland. This upheaval constructed a massive dome, gradually sculpted by weather to become the Olympic Mountains.
The second event occurred more recently. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the need to protect the Olympics from hunting, logging and mining advocates. At his urging, the mountains were upgraded to a National Park from their less-secure status as a National Monument, which Teddy Roosevelt had christened them in 1909.
Today, this mountain reserve remains one of the Northwest’s premier attractions, but most of its interior is off limits to all but hardy hikers and their pack horses and llamas. Unlike most of America’s mountain parks, the Olympics cannot be traversed by vehicle.
Instead, 10 access roads penetrate the park, meandering inward from all around its outer edge like spokes on a wheel that stop well short of the hub.
As if to compensate, a scenic trail begins at each dead end, inviting hikers to continue the journey into the Olympic’s wild and rugged interior for a few yards, a few miles, or perhaps a journey of several days. Some trails connect, allowing hikers to do what drivers cannot: travel from one side of the mountains to the other.
Imagine Olympic National Park as the face of a clock, and you’ll get a sense of where the 10 access roads begin:
The popular paved road to Hurricane Ridge starts at approximately 1 o’clock in the city of Port Angeles, 17 miles from the large visitor center.
There is no campground, but this area offers the most dramatic panoramic view of the snow-capped inner Olympics available via road.
From the visitor center, the two-mile Meadow Loop Trail is an easy hike through fields of summer wildflowers. There is minimal elevation gain and the trail is wheelchair-accessible with assistance. The first half mile is paved.
Just before the lodge, a narrow, scenic, unimproved road turns off to the left and winds through parklands along the ridge crest for 8.5 miles. The road ends on the side of Obstruction Peak at 6,200 feet, where several trails intersect. The main trail leads southward through the Grand Valley, with its stunning mountain views and alpine lakes.
Starting just east of Port Angeles, the rugged Deer Park road is paved for the first 7 miles, gravel for the next 11. This road climbs fast and winds sharply, making it unsafe for larger recreational vehicles.
At road’s end is Deer Park Campground in an alpine setting at 6,000 feet. Views across the foothills with a glimpse of the inner mountains are dramatic on a clear day, especially from the lookout. Just below is a ranger station and day-use picnic area.
Trails lead in three directions: east toward the Buckhorn Wilderness, south into the mountains, and west to join a primitive road at Obstruction Peak, which winds back to Hurricane Ridge.
From just north of Brinnon on Hood Canal at about 3 o’clock on the imaginary clock face, a paved road parallels the Dosewallips River, then continues unpaved to the Dosewallips Campground.
Trails lead northwest into the mountains, eventually connecting with Hurricane Ridge and Lake Mills. This is also the eastern terminus of the famous Enchanted Valley Trail leading southwest toward the Quinault River. If you remain long enough at the trailhead, you may encounter a llama pack train on its way in or out of the mountains.
At 5 o’clock, the paved road from Hoodsport leads north along the shores of placid Lake Cushman with its two lakeside campgrounds. One mile farther is Staircase Campground and ranger station at road’s end. Nearby, Elk Creek flows into the North Fork of the Skokomish River. Campsites along the river’s edge afford access to sandy beaches and deep pools separated by rapids.
The Staircase Rapids Loop Trail features a granddaddy cedar with a 43-foot diameter; this giant first put down roots in the 12th century A.D. Although this is reputed to be the “dry side” of the park, tree trunks are wrapped with rain forest mosses.
Two roads follow either side of the Quinault River, both starting from 7 o’clock on the park rim, leaving Highway 101 just north and south of the town of Quinault. The roads straddle Lake Quinault for the first few miles.
The last five miles of the southern road are unpaved, but remain level as it passes by several waterfalls. It ends at the Graves Creek campground, the southwest terminus of the Enchanted Valley Trail. Green veils of moss hang from ancient trees in this definitive rain forest setting.
The northern road ends at North Fork campground, start of the Quinault River trail which traverses the mountains, eventually joining the Elwha River and emerging at Lake Mills.
At 8 o’clock on the mountain clock face, the Queets River road leaves Highway 101 just east of the village of Queets and follows a narrow corridor which extends from the park like a thin peninsula, to protect forests and fishing.
This is the realm of the intrepid traveler; take a 13-mile unpaved (but level) road, add a cold, fast-flowing river that must be forded on foot to access the trail, and you have a recipe for wilderness trekking (if “wilderness” is defined as a dearth of human traffic). The trail dead-ends after meandering 12 miles along the Queets’ northern edge.
Hoh Rain Forest
The most popular route into the Olympic rain forest, the Hoh River road turns off Highway 101 at 9 o’clock. Like the Hurricane Ridge road, it’s paved for its entire 17-mile length. The Visitor Center features interpretive displays on the rain forest ecosystem and a three-quarter-mile walk along the Hall of Mosses Trail to see the real thing. Roosevelt elk have been sighted in the early morning in this area. The Spruce Nature Trail is slightly longer, and intersects with the Hoh River trail to Mount Olympus and Glacier Meadow.
The Hoh River Campground is among the most extensive in the park, accommodating all types of RV’s as well as tents, in both roadside and walk-in spaces.
Back on the north rim of the park, the Soleduc road leaves Highway 101 at 11 on the clock face. It is paved to its end, where trails lead into the mountains via spectacular Soleduc Falls. Cascading down a steep canyon, the multiple falls are a one-mile hike from the parking lot, and crowned by a picturesque wooden bridge.
Soleduc Hot Springs and resort are open during the warm months and offer relaxing immersion in the area’s spas, for both day and overnight guests.
Between the highway and the resort, travelers can pull off the road at the river’s edge, find their way to the huge boulders in midstream, and watch steelhead trout fighting their way up the river to spawn.
Just west of Lake Crescent, the road up the Elwha River leaves Highway 101 at high noon on our park clock face.
Just inside the park boundary is the newly constructed trail to Madison Falls, one of few wheelchair-accessible trails in the park. The falls cascade 100 feet down basalt cliffs.
This historic site, location of a 19th century mine, was used as a camp by the six intrepid mountain men comprising the Press Exploring Expedition that traversed the Olympics in the winter of 1889-90.
In addition to the 10 routes penetrating the national park itself, numerous roads enter the Olympic National Forest around the park rim, winding through foothills and following river valleys; many culminate in campgrounds.
Most travelers are not aware that five wilderness areas border the mountain park. These are the Buckhorn, Brothers, Mount Skokomish and Wonder Wilderness areas on the eastern side, and the Col. Bob Wilderness on the south.
With 10 roads to choose from, some paved, some primitive, the traveler has a wide choice of routes and recreational opportunities. One can wander along a quiet forest stream, stand before a thundering waterfall, cast a line into a raging river, gaze at glacier-covered mountain peaks, walk through wildflowers, encounter elk and other wild creatures, bathe in hot springs, swim in forest pools, and even go cross-country skiing.
Add the park’s more recently-annexed coastal and lake sanctuaries, and you have a world of outdoor experiences that one can scarcely hope to tap in a lifetime.