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Little-Known Fact: Temperate rainforests like the rare Olympic National Park can be found only in New Zealand, southern Chile and the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
Pristine forest and isolated, seemingly endless beach are rare commodities these days. You’d probably think it foolish to long for one location with both.
But such an impossibly appealing place does exist in a stretch of wilderness coast on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The 57-mile-long Olympic Coastal Strip has changed little since Native Americans walked its shores centuries ago. A short hike takes you past majestic sea stacks (pillars of rock jutting out of the sea), vast tidal pools, and extraordinary outcroppings of land weathered by a raging sea.
The sheer quantity of flotsam and jetsam cast upon the beach is astonishing. Probably the most exotic are the glass floats that Japanese fishermen use to support their nets. It takes the ocean currents about one year to carry the floats across the Pacific to the Washington Coast. Among the debris are huge trees felled by rushing rivers from inland stream bank sites and washed out to sea. As they’re repeatedly thrown and banged against sand and rocks, their limbs and bark are removed and the wood is sanded smooth by the action of the waves.
The Coastal Strip is within the boundaries of Olympic National Park and lies in the shadow of Mount Olympus, a 7,965-foot-high peak that’s roughly 35 miles inland and the recipient of up to 200 inches of annual precipitation (mostly snow). While the rare temperate rain forest on its western slopes receives a “paltry” 140 to 150 inches by comparison, raingear is definitely a necessity.
Trekking in wild country holds different attractions for everyone, but attaining peace and contemplation are high on the list for most folks. There’s no better place to pursue such goals than the Coastal Strip, where the relentless pounding of the surf is the only sound that punctuates the utter silence.
Olympic National Park
600 E. Park Avenue
Port Angeles, WA 98362
The park is on the Pacific Coast, along the western edge of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. The nearest towns are Port Angeles to the north and Forks to the west.
From Seattle, travel west across Puget Sound, then west along U.S. Hwy. 101 to the coast. From Olympia, go west along Hwy. 8/U.S. Hwy. 12 to Aberdeen, then north along U.S. Hwy. 101 to Queets and points beyond. Access is from U.S. Hwy. 101 at Kalaloch and Ruby Beach and from the turnoffs for Mora-La Push (a mile north of Forks) and Ozette (at Sappho).
Summer temperatures range from 65 to 70 degrees F, with nights dipping into the mid-40s. The climate tends toward fair, warm and dry, but expect occasional thundershowers. In late spring and early fall, fog banks and low clouds form over the ocean and move in at night. Tops of the clouds are generally below 3,000 feet ~ so higher elevations are often clear when the lower valleys are shrouded in fog.
Winter temperatures range from 20 to 40 degrees F. At lower elevations, snow averages 6 to 10 inches in depth but increases dramatically the higher you go.
Spring temperatures range from 35 to 60 degrees F. The climate is mostly wet, mild, and often windy. Higher elevations are cooler with occasional snow flurries.
Fall temperatures range from 35 to 65 degrees F. Early snow storms are possible in the mountains, but usually it’s cool and wet with occasional winds.
The coastal woods are home to plenty of inhabitants that would be pleased to eat your supper; skunks, raccoons, black bears and Olympic marmots roam this region. Precautions for storing food are in order. If you’re lucky, you might spot the rare and skittish Roosevelt elk.
Contact park office for information.
Nearly every bit of available space is taken up with a living plant. The dominant species in the rainforest are Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees, both of which can grow to a tremendous size, reaching 300 feet in height and 23 feet in circumference. Also common are Douglas fir, western red cedar, bigleaf maple, red alder, vine maple and black cottonwood, as well as mosses, lichens and ferns.
There are 16 campgrounds with varying numbers of sites that operate on a first-come, first-served basis. The fees range from free to $10.
The Ozette campsite features a three-mile hike to the beach over a boardwalk that winds through the rain forest’s swampy and irregular terrain. After you reach the ocean and hike south about three miles, you’ll find a second boardwalk that returns to Ozette, offering an excellent one-day adventure for those with limited time.
Although the loop is only nine miles, the stretch along the soft sand beach will test the fitness of experienced hikers conditioned to hard-packed dirt trails. If you plan to go the entire distance, pay attention to tide tables (available at ranger stations and trailheads) to keep from being stranded between headlands. The Park Service is now limiting the number of overnight hikers on the Ozette Triangle hike, so call ahead to check on site availability weekends and holidays.
Beach camping is by backcountry permit only north of the Hoh River, and no camping is allowed on Kalaloch beaches. Numerous areas adjacent to the park and surrounding Olympic National Forest are Native American lands with reservation status. Respect the permission that has allowed your passage here.
Free parking areas are available at two trailheads near La Push and two trailheads near Second Beach and Third Beach. Free parking areas are also located near Ozette and Rialto Beach.
The ocean has caused some damage to the Rialto Beach lot, but a boat launch area has been substituted as a parking area for the present time. Officials warn that lots fill quickly.
Free backcountry permits are required for overnight camping. They are available at ranger stations, visitor centers, and many trailheads. Check before coming to make sure there are no quotas or reservations needed for the area you wish to visit.
Contact park office for information.
- When coastal hiking, make sure to check tide tables.
- Watch out for frequent drenching rains.
Leave No Trace:
Respect Native American lands adjacent to the park and surrounding Olympic National Forest.
All LNT guidelines apply.
The Park Service’s “Olympic Coastal Strip,” a one-page map and brochure, shows dangerous and impassable headlands. The “Olympic National Park Map and Guide” shows access points. Both are available from Olympic National Park. The best maps are the Custom Correct “North Olympic Coast” and “South Olympic Coast,” which show the beaches, trails, and tidal points. Maps available from park visitor centers and ranger stations.
Other Trip Options:
Olympic National Park takes lots of time to explore fully, but if you are looking for still more, Mt. Rainier National Park is south of Seattle.