If you stand in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Garden in the middle of downtown, the mountains of Olympic National Park to the west seem to call from the horizon. Despite this illusion of proximity, it actually takes a very long time to get to the park (4 hours or more, one way!), since you have to drive around its outer perimeter before you can get into the heart of it. The park is huge and incredibly diverse: besides the beautiful mountains, you’ll find temperate rain forests filled with tall trees and densely covered by moss, and rugged beaches with sea stacks off the shore.
We only had time for a (long) day trip, so we visited the park’s south side, where we got to experience the park’s forests and beaches. Another bonus of this trip is that you can stop in Olympia, Washington, the state’s capital, along the way from the Seattle. You’ll have plenty of light to make this trip from the late spring to the early fall.
- 8:30 AM: Leave the Seattle area for Olympia.
- 10AM: After a quick stop at the Capitol Building, check out the Olympia Farmer’s Market for breakfast and to get some food to pack for lunch. Plan to leave around 11:30AM.
- 1:30 PM: Hike the Quinault Forest Trail (up to 4 miles, 2 hours) or the Maple Glade Trail (0.5 miles, 15 minutes) in the Quinault area
- 5:00PM: Admire the awesome sea stacks at Ruby Beach
- 5:30 PM: Head back to Seattle (4 hours of driving), stopping for dinner in Aberdeen, Olympia, Tacoma, or back in Seattle depending on how hungry you are!
If you have time for a multi-day trip, consider driving counter-clockwise around the outside of the park via the main entrance at Port Angeles, stopping at Hurricane Ridge to see the mountains, the Hoh Rain Forest to experience the famous Hall of Mosses, and the series of beaches starting with Rialto Beach (staying in Forks, of “Twilight” fame).
On your way to Olympic National Park from the Seattle area, you’ll drive right past Olympia, home to Washington’s State Capitol. The capitol campus itself is very impressive, and open to visitors starting at 10AM. There is metered parking right on the campus, which is perfect for a quick stop.
Another awesome place to stop in Olympia is the indoor-outdoor farmer’s market, which felt like a mini version of Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. The market is open from Thursday to Sunday in the “high season,” from April to October. We had a delicious grilled cheese sandwich, a giant macaron, and espresso from the vendors here and in the shops around the market square. The market also has beautiful flowers, fruit, and lots of interesting Pacific Northwest crafts that would make great gifts to take home. There is lots of free two hour parking in lots around the market. Although you’ll find shelter from the rain, it can be chilly on a cold day, so be sure to dress appropriately.
After fueling up, we hit the road for the park! Our first stop was the Quinault Valley. Although not as famous as the Hoh Rain Forest, this area offers a chance to see the iconic large trees and beautiful moss with a much shorter drive. The valley’s central feature is Lake Quinault, which has a loop trail around its perimeter.
We chose two hikes in this area: one was along the Quinault River at the eastern tip of the valley (Graves Creek Trailhead), and the other was through the Maple Glade on the north side of the lake. The trails were bursting with green in every direction, enhanced by the golden maples in the fall. It was particularly interesting to look at the undergrowth in the forest, where we found all sorts of weird and wild mushrooms growing.
In retrospect, the road to the Graves Creek Trailhead was rough and slow-going, probably only worth it for the multi-day excursion to the Enchanted Valley. Instead, we probably should have checked out the Quinault Forest Loop Trail on the south side of the Lake, which features dense forests and some amazing waterfalls. We got a taste for some of this as we drove along the loop road.
After having our fill of forest, we headed for the beach! The first beach with significant sea stacks is Ruby Beach, which is about an hour away from Quinault. We stopped at the parking lot at the top of a cliff and walked down to the beach, where we saw an incredible scene of rocks off the coast framed by trees and driftwood.
The stacks are formed by erosion as the waves crack off pieces of the headlands. Since the forest extends right up to the coastline, this explains why so many of the rocks off the shore had trees growing on top of them!
That was the end of our excursion, and also completed our 3-day tour of Washington State’s National Parks! We’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions – drop us a comments below!