Why Olympic National Park Is Amazing
At just shy of a million acres, Olympic National Park on Washington’s eponymous peninsula sprawls over three types ecosystems: Pacific shoreline, glacier-clad mountains, and forested valleys. The 73-mile coastline is the longest undeveloped stretch in the lower 48, and just one of the reasons the U.N. declared it both a World Heritage Site and international biosphere reserve. At its heart is the 7,979-foot Mount Olympus, the highest peak in the Olympic range; snowmelt from Olympus and its surrounding peaks feed 11 major wild, whitewater rivers, often described as radiating out like “spokes on a wagon wheel.” Despite its proximity to the metropolitan Seattle area, most of the park has seen very little human intrusion—roads only skirt its exterior, while the vast interior is roadless and perfect for back-country exploring by hiking or kayak. Yet a number of large drive-in campgrounds make it accessible for those who prefer to stick to the more popular trails and attractions.
Why May Is the Perfect Time to Go
Olympic’s temperate rain forests are the largest in the continental United States and one of the most popular features of the park. By May, the winter rains are waning and drier weather sets in, making it the best time of year to see the rainforest at its most lush and green. If you only have a little time to spend in the forest, take the short (0.8-mile) Hall of Mosses trail from the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center. Keep your eye out for Roosevelt elk—North America’s largest elk—who thrive on the lichen, ferns, and shrubs that abound here.
Why It’s Great at Other Times of Year
Summer brings the driest weather to the park, and by July the alpine and sub-alpine wildflowers are out in full force. It’s a great time to visit Hurricane Ridge, a popular spot for hiking, picnicking, and taking in the spectacular views out to the Olympic Mountains, especially at sunset (keep your eye out here for the Olympic marmot, found only on the peninsula). In late September and October the coho salmon begin their epic journey from the Pacific up the Sol Duc and Quillayute rivers to their spawning grounds (the Salmon Cascades in the Sol Duc River offers good views). Winter brings a quiet hush to the park, but most of the visitors centers stay open so it’s a good time to visit if you want to avoid crowds. It’s also when the locals head to Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area for winter recreation.
If You Go, Don’t Miss
After a day exploring the park, treat yourself to a warm dip at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, where the pools are fed by rain and melted snow that seeps through rocks before being heated by volcanic gasses and rising back to the surface. Three soaking pools are kept at near-constant temperatures of 99, 101, and 104 degrees Fahrenheit; while the temperature of the freshwater pool varies seasonally. Adult day passes are $13.50, while children ages 4 to 12 pay $10 and children under three are free. If you want to stay longer, the resort is one of four options for accommodations in the park.
May Bonus Pick: Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park stretches nearly 22 miles along northeast Ohio’s Cuyahoga River Valley, a swath of forested hills and rolling farmland nestled between the urban bustle of Cleveland and Akron. The park draws nearly 2.5 million visitors a year for popular activities such as cycling the 20-mile Towpath Trail, which was once part of the Ohio and Erie Canal. From April to October, you can take the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train back to your starting point with your bike (or to your destination and bike back) for only $3. The train also hosts beer- and wine-tasting trips through the park. One of the most popular natural attractions in the park is the 65-foot Brandywine Falls cascading from the Cuyahoga River. Hale Farm and Village features historic buildings that re-create a 19th-century farm community.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Great Smoky Mountains: Our April National Park of the Month
- Death Valley: Our February National Park of the Month
- Everglades: Our January National Park of the Month
Deb Hopewell is a longtime journalist and the former editor of Yahoo Travel. She writes for Outside, Fodor’s, Architectural Digest, Travel+Leisure, Yahoo Travel, and others. Follow her on Instagram @debhopewell and Twitter @dhopewell.