How to Plan the Best Olympic National Park Trip
From the exotic rainforest waterfalls to the ombre blue Lake Crescent to the gorgeous beaches and tide pools…Olympic National Park is every outdoor enthusiasts dream vacation.
I swear if I could be a travel agent for National Parks my life would be fulfilled. I love planning trips for our little fam to go to National Parks and hike over a long weekend. Then once those trips are over I set to work writing down detailed itineraries so I can revisit the parks and know exactly where to go, how much it costs and what to skip seeing. You my friend, have just stumbled upon one of those itineraries.
This trip will feature flying into Seattle and visiting Olympic National Park over the weekend. Warning: I am an obsessive planner so this is not going to be a quick read. Jump to whatever topic you need.
When to go: Some people are worried about rain ruining their trip to Olympic National Park, but it really isn’t an issue. First off, it is a rainforest and a slight misting of rain only adds to the ambiance. Second, the foliage is so thick that you can’t even feel the rain when you are on on the trails. We went to Olympic National Park in June and the weather was perfect! We experienced the occasional drizzle, but the sun showed its face a lot more than I expected.
Where to stay: Get ready to unplug for your trip to the Olympic Peninsula. There is little to no cell reception and there are very few main chain places to stay. We stayed at a little Airbnb guest house located on the Three Rivers Resort (just 15 minutes outside of Forks, Washington). I loved the location, but it was a bit more rustic than your average hotel stay. There are no big chain hotels in this area so your options are cabins, park lodges, Airbnb guest houses or motels. Port Angeles does have more options than the Forks area, but it means backtracking so I wouldn’t recommend it. You will see a lot of Twilight themed lodging in this area, but try not to let it dampen your spirits.
Here are the places I would consider staying on our next visit: Beaver Creek Cabins, Huckleberry Lodge, Airbnb Tiny House with Donna, Three Rivers Resort, or the cottages at Lake Crescent. (I’ve got an Airbnb $40 free travel credit link towards the end of this post.) There are other places you can check on TripAdvisor too. I opted out of camping, but that is also an option.
What route to take: If you are coming from Seattle I recommend taking the 7:55am Bainbridge Ferry across the sound. The Seattle Ferry Toll Booth charged us $42 for four adults and one vehicle on a Friday. The ferry ride is a great kickoff activity to your weekend and makes more sense than driving down and around the sound. Once you park the car on the ferry, get out and walk the upper deck – we loved the view of Mount Rainier and the Seattle skyline.
Tip: I know what you are thinking…can I rent a car on Bainbridge Island rather than pay for my rental car to cross on the ferry? Nope. I researched that option extensively (I love saving a few bucks).
Ok! You’ve now made it to Bainbridge and from there you will drive to Port Angeles (where you will see your last fast food chain/Walmart) then down to the Lake Crescent Area.
Tip: You can print out the Google Map I made here or you can enter each of the point addresses in your car GPS. You won’t have cell reception so make sure you have a way to navigate without it.
What to see and where to go: (Link to Google Map here.)
Here is what you will want to see/hike on your first day:
Note: We skipped Hurricane Ridge because we figured we get enough of the high altitude views in Utah. However, if you are traveling in July and the weather is clear…you might want to stop at Hurricane Ridge. The wildflowers are in bloom in July and the main visitors center is located here. You might have to cut out one of the stops below to fit in Hurricane Ridge.
- Madison Falls (1/4 mile easy trail)
- Marymere Falls (1.7 miles round trip loop, easy to moderate trail)
- Lake Crescent (stop at a viewpoint or head to the Lake Crescent Lodge, too cold for swimming)
- Sol Duc Falls (fee area) (1.5 miles round trip, easy trail)
There are also some hot springs located next to the Sol Duc Falls. The Native Americans in the area say the hot springs are the result of an ancient battle between two dragons. The dragons fought each other for several days and when neither could overpower the other, they dropped their scales and went into their respective caves to cry. Their tears are now the hot springs. I considered seeing these springs, but I heard that the price wasn’t really worth it. Still…that Native American legend may be enough to tempt you into stopping there after your full day of hiking.
You will be totally exhausted at this point (in a good way) and want to head to your lodging (see my suggestions above).
Here is what you will want to see/hike on your second day:
- Second Beach Tide Pools (.7 miles down to the beach; easy trail but switch backs at the end)
- Third Beach with Strawberry Bay Falls (1.3 miles down to beach and .6 to walk down the beach to the waterfall; easy trail)
Tip: If you are carrying a child in a hiking carrier, keep them in it until you cross the huge tree trunks separating the trails from the beaches. You will need to help young kids across the logs too.
Don’t be fooled by their humble names. Second Beach and Third Beach are the best beaches in the area according to the locals (and my obsessive research). We hiked Third Beach (the longer trail of the two) in the morning, went back to our lodging for lunch and naps, and hiked Second Beach in the early evening. We knew we wanted to catch the tide pools at Second Beach so we used a tide chart to time our visit at low tide. It just so happened that low tide was at 6pm so we also brought hot dog and s’mores stuff for a little beach fire.
Tips: If you bring food to eat at the beach…make sure you keep it with you or put it in a cooler! A crow got into our bag and ate all of our hot dogs! Also, don’t forget a fire starter and kindling. You can usually find driftwood for your fire on the beach, but if it has rained recently it will be wet.
On our trip we added a third day to see Kalaloch and the Hoh Rainforest. I wouldn’t reccommend it. Next time I would skip the Hoh Rainforest and Kalaloch and head straight back towards the Bainbridge Ferry. If you have the time, I would check out Neah Bay and the Cape Flattery trail instead.
Tip: I wanted to avoid paying for the ferry a second time so we looped down south and back up towards Seattle. This works if you have your heart set on seeing the Hoh Rainforest (it isn’t that impressive compared to what you have already seen above) and Kalaloch or Ruby Beaches. However, keep in mind that you will hit Sunday-night traffic if you are headed back into Seattle. The traffic jam starts after Aberdeen and before Puyallup/Tacoma area. Next time we do this trip, I will opt for paying for the ferry again to avoid the traffic jam. Have pity on your driver.
Where to eat: I hate packing a ton of food and worrying about keeping it cold, but I also don’t like spending a ton of money eating out every meal. If you are like me and want to strike a good balance between the two options, here is what you want to do: The first day eat breakfast before you leave, pack sandwich stuff for lunch (enough for two days) and eat out for dinner in Forks (or pick up a frozen pizza from the Forks Super Market if your lodging has an oven). My kid is a picky eater so I also packed her fail safe food: rice cereal. Avoid eating at the park lodges: it will be a lot more expensive.
On your second day, eat cold cereal with milk (either packed previously or purchased at the Forks Super Market) for breakfast, break out the sandwich stuff that you packed for lunch and eat out for dinner.
Food to Pack: Cereal, milk, PB&J stuff, your kid’s fail safe food, snacks for the car ride.
Places to eat out: In Forks there is a Subway (the only chain food around), a couple of pizza places, a super market and a few cafes. The Three River’s Resort (just ten minutes outside of Forks towards the beaches) has a nice burger place we ate at too.
What to wear: In June the weather was warm enough that we didn’t need more than a light rain jacket and long pants. However, the beach can get breezy and cold in the evenings so I also packed some gloves, an extra parka to layer and some baby bogs for my toddler.
All of the trails are soggy and in some places muddy so pack appropriate footwear. The baby bogs worked perfectly for Riley, but I stuck with my Tevas the whole trip. They cleaned up quickly and had plenty of traction for the trails and tide pools. Zach used his regular tennis shoes.
How much will the trip cost: This depends on your launching point and size of your group. We traveled from Utah and flew in to Seattle. I included our trip costs below to give you an idea of the cost.
Airfare: I can’t remember what we paid, but basically just reserve your tickets 3 months before you want to go. That is when tickets are cheapest.
Lodging: We stayed at an Airbnb guest house that fit 6-8 people for $218 a night after taxes and fees. We stayed two nights in the same place so we wouldn’t have to worry about checking in and out more than once. We also split the cost with family.
Tip: If you are reserving a place with Airbnb, make sure you compare costs after all the hidden fees. Some places look cheaper, but if you read through the details they add large cleaning fees, per person charges, etc. If you sign up for Airbnb by clicking below, it will get both of us $27 travel credit!
Food: $27 per day (For 2 adults and a toddler)
Car Rental: I used Priceline and paid $37 a day for our airport car rental. Then we got smooth talked into upgrading to a larger car for $20 more. Plus $89 of taxes and misc. fees. Yep – rentals suck.
Tip: Rental car prices are MUCH cheaper in the off season (for example May is half the price of June) and off airport. Next time we visit, I will take the link light rail from the airport to an off airport car rental place (Enterprise in Westlake). Note: This would only work if your plane tickets had you arriving well before the off site car rental place closes! With a little planning it could save you money, but it might not be worth it if you are going for convenience.
Fuel: $55 (making a full loop instead taking the ferry twice)
Ferry Cost (4 adults and one car): $42 one way
Souvenirs: $22 (I bought a shirt)
Other Misc. Notes and Tips:
You will want to make a mix CD for the drive. You won’t be getting any radio reception.
Drive time is about 8-9 hours total
Bring mats and/or beach towels to protect your rental car from beach sand and trail mud
If you have an extra day to spend in the area, consider adding a whale watching tour to your trip (check best times to see Orca whales from Port Angeles) or go up to Cape Flattery
If you are LDS and staying in the area over a Sunday…we caught the sacrament service at the chapel located in Forks at 10am
Have so much fun and let me know if you have additional questions!