Mount Rainier is known for its snow capped mountains. Towering forests grow in Yosemite. Millions visit Golden Gate National Recreation Area to enjoy its beaches. But many people don’t realize -- on a single trip to Olympic National Park in Washington -- you can experience all three.
Named after the Olympic Mountains it encompasses, the park was established on June 29, 1938, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to preserve the area’s unique wildlife and landscapes. On the park’s peaks, trails and beaches, you can see everything from humpback whales swimming in the ocean to mountain goats climbing over rocks to 10-inch slugs traversing the rainforest floor. There are few parks with such diverse ecosystems and varied geography. Located just two hours outside of Seattle, Olympic is easily accessible, making it a great place for many to connect with the outdoors.
In celebration of the park’s 80th anniversary, check out 11 things you might not know about the stunningly beautiful Olympic National Park.
1. Visitors can discover a hidden world in Olympic National Park’s tidepools. Tidepools are left from retreating waves on the shoreline and are home to hundreds of colorful marine species normally hidden in the ocean. The most popular tidepools are at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 and Ruby Beach. During low tide, visitors can explore a diverse ecosystem filled with anemones, starfish and other creatures, creating an enchanting underwater world. In the summer, park scientists hike to the tidepools before dawn to work at the lowest tides. Although visitors don’t need to wake up quite as early, they should always be aware of returning tides, follow tidepool etiquette and respect all marine life.
2. Olympic’s Hoh Rain Forest receives over 12 feet of rain a year. The Hoh Rain Forest is one of few remaining temperate rain forests in the United States. Heavy rainfall and cool summers contribute to the rainforest’s abundance of natural life including grazing elk, massive conifers and over 130 species of mosses, lichens and ferns. Plant life blankets everything -- from the tree-top canopy to moss-covered ground. Park goers can hike the Hoh River Trail or stay in the Hoh Rain Forest’s campground and let the sounds of nature sing them to sleep.
3. Breaching whales make a big splash for park goers. While migrating north to the Bering sea from Mexico, gray whales often feed along the coast of Olympic. The park lies along the whale trail -- a series of sites where marine animals can be seen from shore. Kalaloch, Rialto and Shi Shi Beach are prime locations for whale watching during migration seasons in April and May and then again in October and November. Various whale species can also be spotted feeding at the mouth of the Hoh and Quillayute rivers or the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The experience of watching breaching whales is something you’ll never forget.
4. Lake Crescent’s waters are so pristine, visitors can see over 60 feet down into the lake. Nestled in the northern foothills of the Olympic Mountains, Lake Crescent is known for its brilliant blue and exceptionally clear waters. While most lakes grow algae, Lake Crescent lacks nitrogen, which makes its waters crystal clear. Visitors can kayak, sail, swim or enjoy the lake’s beauty from numerous picnic areas and scenic viewpoints.
5. Banana slugs play a vital role for the park’s ecosystem. Fittingly named for their resemblance to bright yellow bananas, banana slugs serve as composters for the park. They are an important factor in the ecosystem since they consume organic debris and vegetation and disperse seeds. While predominantly yellow, they also range in color from green to brown and can grow up to 10 inches long. Although banana slugs are named after a fruit, it’s not advisable to eat them because their stomachs can be filled with toxins.
6. The world’s largest dam removal took place in Olympic National Park. In 2014, two major dams were removed as part of the Elwha River Restoration and thousands of fish returned to the area in an unprecedented river revival. The 210-foot-high Glines Canyons dam and 108-foot-high Elwha dam stood for over a century. Although both dams fueled regional growth, they blocked salmon migration and disrupted the flow of sediment and debris. In 1992, Congress passed a law to free the Elwha River and it now flows unobstructed from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
7. Enjoy the stunning night sky while visiting Hurricane Ridge or coastal beaches. At night, visitors can view a beautiful starry sky free from light pollution. What might look like a faint cloud could actually be the Milky Way and light from millions of distant stars. On clear nights, visitors can enjoy the thrilling sight of faraway constellations, nebulae and planets with the naked eye. Additionally, there are various ranger-led programs to Hurricane Ridge during the summer. Dress warmly as night-time temperatures drop to 30-50 degrees Fahrenheit at high elevations.
8. You can adopt a fish in Olympic National Park. The Adopt-A-Fish radio-tracking project began in 2014 to track the movement of fish in the Elwha River and better understand salmon restoration after the dam removals. The program teaches students radio telemetry techniques -- methods of tracking and fish migration patterns. But tracking fish isn’t as easy as it sounds. Each fish has to be caught, photographed and radio tagged. Once released, the fish are monitored through stations along the river, by researchers hiking with handheld antennas or from a small airplane with attached antenna. Although it’s tough work, the research provides vital information on the recovering salmon population, which in turn affects much of the park’s ecosystem and the local economy.
9. Massive frozen glaciers tower over the park’s hot springs and rain forests. Blue Glacier, the largest glacier in the Olympic Mountains, is over 2.6 miles long and descends from the mountain’s highest peak: Mount Olympus. Blue Glacier is so large that it is equal to over 20 trillion ice cubes. Blue Glacier and others helped sculpt the wild, beautiful landscape, carving out ridges and basins that attract millions to Olympic every year. Visitors can view the massive Blue Glacier from Hurricane Ridge and various hiking trails throughout the park.
10. Olympic is home to a cute and unique marmot. People often visit national parks to see wildlife in their natural habitat. Whether it is nuzzling, playing, chirping or feeding together, the Olympic marmot is quite possibly one of the most social and gregarious mammals in the park and a thrilling sight for nature lovers. Because the park sits on an isolated peninsula partially blocked by mountains, the Olympic marmot evolved separately and diverged from similar species in surrounding areas. Keep on the lookout while hiking to catch a glimpse of these furry little creatures!
11. Have fun in the sun or snow at Olympic! Olympic National Park has endless fun year-round with delightful winter and summer activities. While snow tubing, snowboarding and alpine climbing are popular activities on Hurricane Ridge Road and the Olympic Mountains during winter, visitors can also relax in mineral pool baths at hot springs resorts during the summer season. Another popular summer destination is the Salmon Cascades where park goers can watch spawning salmon leap over waterfalls.
Olympic National Park has something for everyone to enjoy. Start planning your visit today: