best day hikes

olympic national park


olympic mountains sunset

Olympic National Park, just two and a half hours from Seattle on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, offers extraordinarily diverse hiking. Glaciated mountains, waterfalls, rainforest and the wild Pacific coast are all here, and all are well served by hiking trails. This page describes a handful of the best hikes I found on a short Olympic hiking vacation.

High Divide loop trail, Olympic National Park

Trailhead: the loop starts at the end of the Sol Duc River Road, off Highway 101 west of Port Angeles
Distance: 18 miles round trip, with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain

Sol Duc falls Blue Glacier from High Divide trail

As long as you're up for a long and strenuous day on trail, Olympic's High Divide loop can't be bettered. This was my favorite hike in Olympic National Park, and although I've hiked in a lot of places since it still makes my list of top hikes in the western US and Canada. It combines a pleasant walk through Olympic's forest with unsurpassed alpine views once the trail breaks through treeline. My brother and I did the loop in August, when the trail was snow-free. If you attempt it earlier in the season (before about mid-July in a normal year) you might need an ice axe to safely cross lingering snowfields along parts of the High Divide.

From the trailhead at the end of the Sol Duc River road, it's a short level walk through the forest to Sol Duc Falls, pictured to the left above. Here, the trail divides. We opted to hike the loop counter-clockwise, which makes for a shorter but steeper ascent in return for which you gain a gentle descent at the end of the end of the day (going counter-clockwise also means that if there is more snow on the High Divide than you're comfortable with, there's no problem retreating). From the junction it's a relentless climb through the forest until you reach Deer Lake, the treeline, and the start of the best section of the trail along the High Divide. The views here across the deep Hoh River valley toward Mount Olympus and the Blue Glacier are outstanding. After several miles, the trail reaches Heart Lake and then descends along the Sol Duc Valley, passing numerous small creeks and waterfalls along the way.

We did this as a day hike, but it's also possible to camp in the Seven Lakes Basin above treeline. Lunch Lake and Heart Lake in particular would make for great campsites. Backpacking permits are required in Olympic National Park, and limited in number between May 1st and September 30th, so it's worth making plans in advance for backpacking trips.

Boulder Falls and Appleton Pass

Boulder Falls Olympic national park

Trailhead: at the end of the Elwha Valley road, a short drive west of Port Angeles
Distance: 8 miles round-trip to Boulder Falls

One of the highlights of the park is the temperate forest, which covers much of the lower elevations and provides a beautiful backdrop to numerous waterfalls. Upper and Lower Boulder Falls are both very attractive, and I'd recommend the pleasant and easy day hike to see them. It's about 8 miles out-and-back. The same trail continues on to Appleton Pass, 8 miles from the trailhead, from where you can continue on into the Sol Duc valley. The high country here is good for wildflowers. The trail along Boulder Creek can also be combined with the Happy Lake Ridge for a (near) loop, which might be worth considering if it's too early in the season to tackle the High Divide trail.

Klahhane Ridge

Klahhane Ridge

Trailhead: Hurricane Ridge Visitors' Center
Distance: 7 miles out-and-back

The Klahhane Ridge offers exceptional views across the interior of Olympic National Park, that are even better than those available at the Hurricane Ridge Visitors' Center. It's a 7 mile out-and-back to the Ridge from the Visitors' Center, initially along a rolling trail that follows Sunrise Ridge. In July, this is one of many Olympic high country trails that are good for wildflowers. After a couple of miles the trail reaches a junction with the Switchback trail, and begins a steep ascent of about 800 feet to the Klahhane Ridge. In the summer this is hot and hard work in the direct sun, mitigated by the spectacular views out across numerous ridges and distant ranges of mountains. On reaching the Ridge we ate lunch and returned, but it's also possible to continue further toward Lake Angeles, along a trail that eventually descends to the Hurricane Ridge road near the park boundary.

A shorter steeper route ascends directly to the ridge along the Switchback trail, from a starting point a few miles back along the Hurricane Ridge Road. If you have time, however, I'd recommend starting from the Visitors' Center, as the "warm-up" walk along Sunrise Ridge is just as scenic as the destination of the Klahhane Ridge.

Cape Alava / Sand Point loop, Pacific coast

Sand Point Olympic hike

Trailhead: Ozette Ranger Station. From Highway 101 take Highways 113 and 112 to the Hoko-Ozette road
Distance: 9 mile loop

The coastal strip of Olympic National Park runs along 70+ miles of the Pacific shore. You can drive to the coast at several points, including Rialto beach, and do an out-and-back hike north from there. Instead, we did the Cape Alava / Sand Point loop, which accesses a strip of the northern coast that's not accessible by vehicle. Doing the loop counter-clockwise, it's about 3 miles through the forest to reach the ocean, then three miles along the beach to reach Sand Point, then three more miles back to complete the loop. The forest sections are mostly along flat boardwalk, so this is a moderate hike that allows plenty of time to savor the stretch along the coast. The ocean here is backed by dense forest and feels quite wild. It's interesting, though probably not as scenic as the more easily accessed beaches further south.

Hoh rain forest hike

Hoh rain forest

Trailhead: Hoh Rain Forest Visitors' Center
Distance: variable, from a one mile walk to a full day out-and-back along the Hoh River Valley trail

The valleys of the Hoh, Queets and Quinault rivers on the western edge of the park receive enough rainfall (more than ten feet annually) to qualify as temperate rain forests. The ancient forests within the park stand in sharp contrast to areas blighted (scenically at least) by clear cut logging, which continues apace elsewhere on the Olympic Peninsula (watch out for logging trucks on some of the minor roads).

The Hoh rain forest is the most accessible, and you can get a flavor of the area by walking the short loops that leave from the Visitor Center. You can also hike up the valley on a trail which parallels the river - eventually this leaves the forest behind and reaches the foot of the stunningly beautiful Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus. That's much too far away to reach on a day hike, unfortunately, though you can make a pleasant (and flat) hike through the forest for as long as you want before turning back the way you came. After a few miles the scenery of ferns, moss-draped trees, and huge fallen logs starts to get a bit same-ish, so unless you're a real afficionado of rain forests you can probably see all you want of the Hoh river valley in half a day.

Easy day hikes and long backpacks, Olympic National Park

Olympic national park sunset Marymere Falls

There are numerous easy walks that offer good photographic opportunities in the park. Marymere Falls, just a stone's throw from Lake Crescent, is well worth seeing if you're driving Highway 101 en route to the coast or the Hoh rain forest. From the Hurricane Ridge Visitor's center, it's a short climb to great views at Sunrise Point (seen above at sunset). Deer and other wildlife are common in this area.

There are also numerous longer trails that can only be explored with a backpack. On my personal to-do list is the hike along the Hoh River valley to Glacier Meadows, at the snout of the Blue Glacier flowing off Mount Olympus. That's 17.5 miles one way. If you're looking for more solitude, several ambitious traverses of the park are possible, especially in the southern section which I haven't visited. Long hikes along the Elwha, Quinault and Dosewallips Rivers, for example, could be combined for a week or more in the backcountry.

Access and accommodation

Olympic National park is easy to get to. The shortest route from Seattle involves taking the ferry to Bremerton (2.5 hours, 100 miles to Port Angeles), but it's just as quick to take I5 south and cross at the Tacoma Narrows bridge on to the peninsula. Highway 101 more or less rings the park, providing access points from all directions, though most of the routes into the park from the east and south are along unpaved forest service roads. The most developed areas are to the north and west, and for visiting these the moderately large town of Port Angeles on the north coast of the penninsula makes the best base. Port Angeles is a work-man-like destination unlikely to feature high among your most cherished memories, but there are plenty of accommodation and eating options. The area is visitable year-round as the climate is mild, with dry-ish but often cloudy summer days, and lots of rain in the winter falling as heavy snow on the peaks.

The official website for Olympic National Park
Hiking Olympic National Park by Eric Molvar is a reliable guidebook

 

photography, text and design by Phil Armitage