Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park is full of diverse wildlife, plant life, history, and activities. There is so much to learn about the park, and no matter what interests you, there is always something more to learn! Here are a few of our favorite facts about Olympic National Park.

Things To Do

Olympic National Park is a water-based park, with lakes, rivers, and coastal regions

As you can guess, there are a lot of water based activities for visitors to take part in! Even if you don’t want to get directly involved in the water, there are still activities for you, from hikes to wildlife sightings. There is something for everyone in Olympic National Park. Here are a few of our favorite activities.

Boating

Olympic National Park is full of water, from lakes, to rivers, to the Pacific Ocean on the coastline. One of the most popular activities for visitors to take part in is boating. Boating is an amazing way to explore the water bodies in the park, and have an experience and adventure that you and your family will talk about for years to come.

There are many different rivers that you can boat within the park. Elwha River is a great paddling river for most of the year, with its most popular seasons in spring and early summer. The Hoh River flows through an old growth rain forest, which makes an incredibly vista to experience from the water. However, this river is prone to log jams, so be sure to check conditions before you go.

The Queets River is more secluded, and also flows through a rain forest. This river is best experienced during high water levels- in late summer, low levels often result in log and debris blocks. The Quinault River is perfect for more adventurous visitors. You will be required to hike to reach this river, and it is recommended for expert kayakers. Sol Duc River is also recommended for more experienced kayakers. This river is home to Salmon Cascades, perfect for boaters interested in rapids.

Visiting the Lakes of Olympic National Park is just as unique an experience as paddling the rivers. Lake Crescent is a popular location, with a scenic view from the lake’s waters. We recommend boating this lake in the early morning to experience calmer waters, as windy conditions in the afternoons often create potentially dangerous waves.

Lake Ozette is a coastal lake that offers a secluded boating experience, with beautiful views of summer water lilies if you visit during their blooming season. Lake Quinault is located within sight of incredible mountain views and old growth forests. Like many lakes in the park, afternoon winds can create less than ideal boating conditions, so be sure to plan in advance for your trip.

Finally, the Pacific Coast of Olympic is the ultimate challenge for kayakers in the park. Even experienced sea kayakers find these waters challenging. Extreme winds and weather conditions, not to mention the tides, require previous experience. If you are a beginner, we highly recommend that you take a trip with an expert guide. If you are more experienced and going by yourself, be sure to research the routes and weather patterns in the area, and be sure to be prepared. Make sure to bring proper equipment as well!

Fishing

As you can probably imagine, as a water based national park, fishing is a very popular activity in Olympic. The park is a protected area, and is home to 75 miles of coast, 600 lakes, and 4,000 miles of rivers. There are so many different fish in the park, including wild salmon, trout, and char, and boasts some of the most extensive runs in the pacific northwest.

Olympic National Park is dedicated to preservation of native species and their habitats. The park works with fisheries biologists, the state of Washington, and eight treaty tribes annually to establish fishing regulations for the following seasons.

Tidepooling

The coastal shores of Olympic National Park are home to some absolutely breathtaking tidepools. Tidepooling is an educational and fun activity for you and your family, and offers opportunities to spot marine wildlife that you won’t have another opportunity to see. There are two very popular tidepool areas at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 and Mora’s Hole in the Wall.

You can explore tidepools on your own or participate in a ranger led program. There are also tidepools at Second Beach, Third, Beach, and Ruby Beach, if you would like a less crowded tidepooling experience. The best times to see tidepools is at low tide. You should plan to arrive at your location 30 minutes before the lowest tide for the best experience!

Camping

Camping in Olympic National Park is an amazing way to stay close to the activities offered in the park and to get up close and personal with nature. You have a variety of different camping options in the park.

There are three campgrounds that accept summer reservations. These are Kalaloch, Sol Duc, and Mora. all other campgrounds are first come first serve. Kalaloch and Sol Duc are home to group campsites, which require advance reservations. The group sites at Kalaloch can host anywhere from 10-20 people, and start at $40 a night for ten people, with an additional $2 fee per additional person. Sol Duc can host 24 people at their group sites, and is $43 a night.

When camping in Olympic, food storage is of the utmost importance, for both your safety and the safety of the native wildlife. Birds, rodents, and even bears will seek out food from visitors, and leaving food unsecured can attract them to your location. Please be sure to store your food according to guidelines, and keep your campsite clean during your visit.

There are no showers, water facilities, or electrical hookups in the campgrounds in Olympic. RV space is limited to 21 feet in most campgrounds, though a few accommodate up to 35 feet.

Hiking

Hiking is another popular activity in Olympic National Park. There are hikes of varying lengths and difficulties found throughout the park, so there is something for everyone. There are a few things to be aware of when you are planning a hike in the park.

There is highly variable weather in Olympic, and rainfall is a common occurrence. We recommend bringing food, water, raingear, and layered clothing. Please stay on the trails, for your own safety and that of the park’s vegetation.

A few of the more popular day hikes in Olympic are the Spruce Railroad Trail, Rialto Beach, and Peabody Creek Trail. 

Wildlife viewing

The wildlife of Olympic National Park is diverse and varied, making wildlife viewing opportunities abundant. Due to the habitats of the park, sometimes wildlife viewing may take a bit of time and determination, so here are a few tips to help you increase your chances of spotting some of the native species.

The best times to spot wildlife is at dawn and dusk. Many animals feed during these times, so this is when they are most active. We recommend bringing some tools along on your trip- field guides, binoculars and a zoom lens can all be very helpful in your ventures.

Do your research beforehand! Knowing the habitat and behaviors of the animals you are seeking can help increase your chances of spotting them. If an animal is migratory, knowing what time of year to come is an invaluable piece of information.

Rangers and visitor centers will have up to date information on the wildlife in the park. Stop by during your visit!

Finally, be sure to follow safety protocols. Never feed the wildlife of the park, even the small and cute ones like chipmunks or birds. This can be hazardous to their health and to yours. Be sure to stay safe distance especially from larger animals. Stay 50 meters away from wildlife to avoid disturbing them.

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Wildlife

Olympic National Park is home to a wide and diverse wildlife community

There are many habitats in the surroundings of the park. In the Pacific Ocean, whales and sea otters thrive. In the lowlands, raccoons, beavers, and mink roam the area. In the meadows of the mountains, elk, deer, cougars, and bears find their homes. The waters of the park are home to the healthiest runs of Pacific Salmon in the lower states.

There are over 300 species of bird who live in the area. Olympic National Park is home to several species who are dependent on old growth forests, including some endangered species. Some of these include northern spotted owls, and marbled murrelets. Here are a few of the notable species in the park.

Black Bear

The black bear is common throughout north America, and the Olympic National Park is no exception. These bears are smaller and darker in color than both the grizzly and brown bears. Males weigh between 250 and 600 lbs., and females weigh between 100 and 400 lbs. The black bear makes its home in a variety of habitats, including lowlands and subalpine regions of the mountains.

They have a wide and varied diet. They thrive during the salmon runs in the Olympic Region, where they feed in the shallow waters, grabbing the easy prey out of the rivers. They can also eat tree sapwood, young tree bark, and insect mounds. During the early fall, they eat huckleberries that appear on the mountain slopes.

Black bears play an important role in the ecosystem. Their diet is so varied that they eat a bit of everything, which helps keep the forest clean. They also spread seeds and nuts through their droppings, which is important for the spread of the trees of the forest. Bears also feed on carcasses of deceased wildlife, which is a vital part of the web of life.

Black bears hibernate during the winter. They fall into a sleep like state for months, where their breathing slows to one breath every 45 seconds, and their heartbeat goes as low as 8 beats per minute.

As park visitors, do not approach bears. They are frightened of humans, and will stay out of your way unless threatened. Mothers with cubs are highly protective, and will not hesitate to attack if they believe their cubs are in danger. Share the park safety, respect their space, and both you and the bears will be safe.

Roosevelt Elk

The Roosevelt elk thrives in Olympic National Park more than any other area in the united states. These elk, named for President Theodore Roosevelt, are the largest elk variety in North America. Olympic National Park is home to the largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk. Female elk weigh from 600-700 lbs., while males can weigh up to 1100 lbs.

They have brown heads and bodies, with white rumps and stubby tails. Males are taller than females, and have antlers in the summer and fall, making them very distinguishable.

Elk are adaptable creatures, and can live anywhere from montane meadows and forests to lowland rainforests. Within the park, the best place to see these creatures is in the Hoh Rain Forest. There are non-migratory herds that live in this area year round, usually consisting of 20 individuals, all females and their calves. Male Roosevelt elk live separately.

Roosevelt elk are herbivores, and their diet consists of ferns, shrubs, and lichens, mainly from the rainforest. They also subsist on meadow grasses. They are the largest herbivores on the peninsula. They are an indicator species for the health of the area. They have to eat a lot, and consistently, and are important prey animals for the predators of the peninsula.

Douglas Squirrel

The Douglas squirrel is one of the most commonly sighted species throughout the forests of Olympic National Park. They are also called “chickarees”, and they are grey with orange chests in the spring and summer. Their color changes in the winter and fall, turning brown with grey chests. They make high chattering noises, which are often mistaken for birdcalls.

They live in trees and on the ground, and are not afraid to make their presence known. They are important in the ecosystem, spreading the seeds of trees and other plants when they bury them for the winter, and are prey animals for predators like cougars, owls, and martens. They consist on a diet of Douglas fir seeds, Sitka spruce, acorns, and berries.

Olympic Sea Otter

Olympic Sea Otters are some of the most playful and most adorable marine inhabitants in the park! They were reintroduced to their native waters, and have taken  to the environment with ease. They can be seen fishing and swimming in the ocean, and can be spotted by their white faces when they float on their backs. They usually weigh from 50 to 100 lbs., much larger than their river otter cousins.

Sea otters are aquatic mammals, and do not live on land. They can survive on land, but they live fully in the Pacific Ocean. They stay close to shorelines, especially around the large kelp beds in the area. Their diet is in large part dependent on the kept forests. They eat many creatures that live in that habitat, diving to the seafloor to find crabs, clams, mussels, urchins, and snails.

Sea otters are a keystone species in the Olympic peninsula! This played a large role in their reintroduction. They are an indicator to the health of their habitat. Having a healthy population of sea otters often means a healthy ecosystem as a whole.

To add to their adorable nature, sea otters have a habit forming “rafts”, where they tie themselves together in groups of 10-100 otters with kelp to rest and eat.

California Sea Lion

The California sea lion is one of the best known sea lion species. They have a very distinctive bark, and are named for their breeding grounds on the Channel Islands of California. They can be distinguished from other sea lions in the area by their smaller size and more vocal nature. The males of the species have prominent crests on their heads as well.

Sea lions are migratory creatures, and the Olympic coast lies along their migratory path. They travel from foraging areas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in California, and stop to feed in the coastal waters along their way. They arrive in late summer or early fall, staying through spring.

The California sea lion’s diet consists of squid, smelt, codfish, rockfish, and any other fish available for them to hunt. Sea lions are an indicator of ocean life. They feed on sea life and come to shore, making them a visible species. Their health is often used to indicate whether there are toxins in the water.

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Plant Life

Like the wildlife in Olympic National Park, the plant life in the area is diverse and beautiful

The quick changes in precipitation levels and elevation provided by the mountains, valleys, and coastal areas of the region create unique biomes. Olympic National Park is home to three main plant communities and environments, each providing a home for the wide variety of plants that call the peninsula home. These plants range from conifers to pink Douglasia flowers on the cliffs of the mountains.

There are over 1450 plant species on the peninsula. This is nearly as many as the British Isles, which is 30 times larger. Here are the three main plant communities in the park and some of the species you can find in each one.

Coastal forest

The coastal forests of the Olympic Peninsula are created by mild temperatures and abundant rains. This creates a dense forest with Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar trees. Below the trees is a carpet of ferns and mosses. Within these forests are wet coastal prairies that create homes for bog plants, such as wild cranberry, bog laurel, and sundew.

These forests grow along the coastline, and yield to the ocean on the beaches. The heavy winds and sands of the beaches wear away at the branches on the ocean facing sides of the trees, often leaving them bare.

In Olympic National Park, you can see the coastal forests along beach access trails and along the Coastal Forest Nature Trail, located near Kalaloch. There is a picnic area in the coastal forest at Rialto Beach. Third Beach and Ozette have trails in the coastal forests as well.

Subalpine forests

The subalpine forests are transition zones, from dense forests below the tree line to alpine tundra above the tree line. Trees often have difficulty surviving in the higher elevations of the mountains due to strong winds, ice, and snow. The subalpine forests form what is known as the tree line.

The tree line on the mountains is shaped by climate and topography. As elevation increases, temperature drops, and eventually the mountain will become too cold for trees to grow. The trees will shrink as the temperature drops until there are no trees left.

In Olympic National Park, the heavy winter snow on the mountains also shapes the tree line, breaking off branches in the winter, and lingering into the spring, preventing new growth. Tree line in this area is listed between 5,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation.

Temperate rainforests

Temperate rainforests are also known as ocean born forests. Olympic National Park has some of the few remaining protected examples of primeval temperate rainforests outside of Alaska. The forests in the park are located in the Quinault, Queets, Hoh, and Bogachiel valleys.

A temperate rainforest is dependent on a few different factors. The first is heavy rain. The Pacific Northwest certainly has enough of that to meet this criteria, especially in coastal regions. Storms coming from the Pacific Ocean drop great deals of moisture into the valleys.

These valleys get 12-14 feet of precipitation every year. Moderate temperatures are also required, and the valleys provide this. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing, and rarely rise above 80 degrees in the summer.

Mosses, ferns, and lichens also make up an important part of this ecosystem. They grow on the trunks of trees and on branches, which creates the jungle like feel of the forest. There must also be large, old trees. In Olympic National Park, the dominant species are Sitka spruce and western hemlock, most of which are hundreds of years old. Nurse logs are a necessity.

The ground is densely covered in these forests, so seedlings require dead, decaying trees to grow in until their roots are strong enough to reach the ground. These forests have a large amount of deadwood. This is in part due to the size of the trees. The trees will fall when they die, but can take centuries to fully decay. These trees are habitats for many different organisms, including mosses, fungi, seedlings, small mammals, and insects.

The temperate rainforest is home to the Roosevelt elk. The moderate temperature allows the elk to remain year round, and their eating habits shape the forest.

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Park History

From the first inhabitants of the park, to early protection efforts, to the eventual establishment of Olympic National Park, the peninsula is full of rich history

Here is a brief overview of the history of Olympic National Park.

The First Inhabitants

The first inhabitants of the Olympic peninsula were the Native Americans. For some time, it was believed that their use of the peninsula was mainly for hunting and fishing. However, more recent reviews and archeological surveys of the mountains suggest that the tribes were more involved in the area than first thought. The subalpine meadows in particular were of higher importance than simply hunting. The Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest were adversely affected by European settlement with the bringing of disease, even before settlers made their way to the area. Many of the records we have of the tribes are of reduced activity and population after the settlers arrived. However, many Native American cultural sites and artifacts have been identified in the Olympic mountains.

Settlement

Settlers began to appear during the time extractive industry in the Pacific Northwest was on the rise, drawing workers to the area. The harvest of timber was an especially large industry, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1920s, protests against the extensive logging began, after people began to see the effects on the natural splendor of the area. This period of time was also important for newfound public interest in the outdoors, especially after the introduction of the automobile. The automobile allowed for touring of the peninsula, which before would have been too remote for widespread tourism.

The Idea Begins

Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil and Judge James Wickersham made expeditions into the Olympic wilderness in the 1890s. Both of these men were well known political figures, and they fell in love with the Olympic Peninsula. They combined their reputations and political influence to place protections on the area. On February 22, 1897, the Olympic Forest Reserve was created by President Grover Cleveland. This would later become Olympic National Forest in 1907. There were later unsuccessful efforts to create further protections in the early 1900s.

President Roosevelt and the Olympic National Park

In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt created Mount Olympus National monument to protect the subalpine calving grounds and summer range of the Roosevelt elk herds, named after the president himself. After this protection, public desire for a national park continued to grow. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Olympic National Park in response. The park still faced difficulties, however, in the form of illegal logging within the parks bounds. Political battles continue to this day over the timber supply in the park.

Formation of the Park

The story of the creation of the Olympic Peninsula began in the sea, and continues on with uplift and tectonic collisions today

Here is a brief overview of the geological history of the area that would become Olympic National Park.

The Olympic Mountains are a coastal range, and were born in the sea. They were created from basalts and sedimentary rock, laid down anywhere from 18 to 57 million years ago, that then went through uplifting and erosion to create the range that you see today.

Subduction

A key point in the story of the creation of the Olympic Mountains and the peninsula itself is the concept of subduction. Subduction occurs when an oceanic tectonic plate runs into a continental one, and slides beneath it. This was instrumental in the beginning of the formation of the Washington Peninsula. Over millions of years, the weight of sand, mud, and debris settling on the ocean floor hardened into sedimentary rock.

There are two tectonic plates in the area, one of which is the Juan de Fuca Plate, which holds the ocean and the Olympic Peninsula. This plate is forced down under the North American Plate. The sedimentary rock forms a crust on the Juan de Fuca Plate, and not all of that crust makes it underneath the North American Plate. Some of it crumples and folds upwards, creating mountains.

Hurricane Ridge

Hurricane Ridge is a popular tourist destination, desirable due to it panoramic views of the Olympic Mountains. This destination is not just a viewpoint, however- it offers a glimpse into the lost chapters of the creation of the peninsula. Along the ridge o the Hurricane Hill Trail, there are slices of stone pressed together into what looks like a tall standing ream of rock.

These slices are like pages in a book, telling the story of what the mountain looked like years ago. They are former pieces of the ocean floor that have now risen to 6,000 feet above sea level.

Mountains

The mountains of Olympic National Park are breathtaking geological features. The most prominent is Mount Olympus, the tallest in the range. It reaches 7,979 feet high. The mountain range is still undergoing the uplifting process, as the tectonic plates continue to collide. However, this uplift is continually being cancelled out by erosion from various environmental factors.

Glaciers

The geological history of the area is not only about the sediment forming the region, but about the way that it was formed. The earth rises through uplift, and for tens of millions of years, it was shaped by ice. 2.1% of the earth’s water is held in glaciers. Washington has the second highest  number of glaciers in the United States, following Alaska. Climate change has affected the way that glacier’s shape the earth by changing their number and size as they melt.

While the glaciers of the area may have melted, their influence is still seen across the country, and specifically in Olympic National Park. One of the ways that we see them is through glacial erratics. These are large boulders and rocks that were moved from their original location to another by the movement of a glacier.

Areas such as valleys were carved out by the weight of the glaciers, but the sediment and boulders didn’t disappear- they were  moved. Glaciers were able to carry sediment for thousands of miles. Through these glacial erratics, we can track the movement of glaciers. We can also see the impact of glaciers in glacial lakes. These lakes are created by basins that were built up by sediment transferred by the glaciers, and were then filled with water.

The glaciers also created what we call the rainforest valleys. These are wide, u-shaped valleys with tall cliff sides, carved as the glacier moved across the valley. These have a distinct shape as opposed to river carved valleys, which have more of a V-shape.

Glaciers feed the rivers of the park today. Glacial melt off flows through valley watersheds. The Hoh River is fed from the Blue Glacier, White Glacier, and Hoh Glacier. Sediment flows out of the glaciers, which creates a blue silty look.

The Peninsula Today

While the Olympic Mountain Range is not volcanic, Washington State has volcanoes to the north and the south. The Olympic Mountain Range has some geology that could make it appear volcanic to the passing eye. Many years ago, underwater volcanic eruptions gushed lava, which created basalt on the ocean floor.

This became a layer of sediment that built up on the tectonic plate, which then underwent a collision. 34 million years ago, the North American Plate and the Juan de Fuca Pate had a massive collision that shaped the Olympic Mountains. This collision is still ongoing to some extent. The Juan de Fuca Plate is being forced underneath the North American Plate, which continues to form the geology that attracts and inspires the visitors of today.

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