What to Do in Olympic National Park, the Quiet Gem of the Pacific Northwest

Credit: Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Think of it as New Zealand on American soil. Ancient cedar forests flanked by wild beaches, whitewater rivers, and glaciated mountains. That's Olympic National Park, a 1,500-square-mile oasis on the peninsula separating Puget Sound from the Pacific. "We've got three regions: beach, mountains, and forested river valleys," says Greg Marsh, who's been a ranger in the park for 18 years. "But I think of it all as a wilderness ringed by roads; inside are empty trailheads and few people."

With 140 inches of precipitation dousing parts of the park each year, mushrooms and moss — or something like moss — grow on everything. Even the antlers of the endangered Roosevelt elk are fuzzy. The toothy Olympic Mountains sprawl out from the middle of the park, with 7,900-foot Mount Olympus rising above wildflower meadows and glacial cirques. "It's as close to Alaska as you can get in the lower 48," says Mark Gunlogson, owner of the Seattle-based Mountain Madness, which guides trips up Olympus each summer. Beneath the peaks, riverside trails tunnel through waist-high ferns. Then, an hour west, the Pacific breaks against 70 miles of wild coastline.

Driving the highways around the park is like road-tripping through time: stands of old-growth forest, untouched coast, and quaint fishing villages like Port Angeles, where the local oysters are as good as the microbrews. But like most things, the hard way in — hiking in the Hoh Rain Forest, climbing Olympus — is the best approach to experience the park's richest treasures. Just bring a rain jacket.

Hike to Secluded Second Beach

The park is made up of two main landscapes: the interior mountains and rivers, and the wild Pacific coast, which stretches for 70 miles, from the remote Shi Shi Beach in the north to Kalaloch in the south. The best place to see migrating whales and photograph immense columns of rock jutting from the ocean — known as sea stacks — is at Rialto Beach, off Highway 110. But rather than join the throngs heading north from the trailhead, go south along the less-used one-mile hike to Second Beach. "You're in the cedar forest and can't see the ocean, but you can smell it," says Marsh. "Then you step out onto this incredible wilderness beach with sea stacks, driftwood, and almost nobody else." If you need a place to crash, the tents at Manitou Lodge ($59; manitoulodge.com) are a perfect respite, tucked away in the forest just inland from the beach. The next day, on your way back to Seattle, stop at the Boulder Creek Trail — and bring your swimsuit. The 2.5-mile forest hike ends at 21 different hot springs that range in temperature from lukewarm to 138 degrees.

Raft the Free-Flowing Elwha River

For most of the past century, two dams plugged the park's biggest river. Then, in 2012, the government removed the dams, opening up a stretch of Class II–IV whitewater in a cedar-draped gorge with moss-covered walls. Olympic Raft and Kayak is the only outfit to guide this nine-mile stretch of the Elwha. "The whole system is changing and restoring each year," says Marsh. "All the sediment that built up over the past century is getting flushed out and creating new beaches." It's also forming new whitewater, like a technical section of Class IV at the site of the old dam that's now affectionately known as That Dam Rapid.