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Advice from a Park Ranger: Plan Your Best Vacation at Olympic National Park

Posted by Anna Roth at Dec 11, 2018 01:00 PM |

Find a quiet corner of one of America's most popular national parks with this advice from a ranger who works there.

Olympic National Park (ONP) is routinely listed among the top 10 most visited parks in the United States. With a reputation like that, you might imagine it'd be hard to find a camping spot or a quiet corner of the park to enjoy on your own. In the summer the park is quite busy, with people flocking to Hurricane Ridge just outside of Port Angeles or to the Hoh Visitor Center south of Forks on the west coast of the peninsula. 

But in winter, those same places see fewer visitors, and they can be an excellent destination for families hoping to head outside for the holidays or just to make some new memories. Park rangers are on duty all seasons at Olympic National Park, so we asked Jed Friedman from the Wilderness Information Center at Olympic National Park for some top tips for families to enjoy the park outside of peak season.

The coast in winter is just as impressive in as in summer, with far fewer people. Photo by Keith LaPlante.

1. The park is big and spread out. Make it a weekend trip

We asked Friedman what the one thing he wanted families to know about Olympic.

"Olympic National Park is a big place and it is very decentralized," he said. "A family coming to the park should expect to spend a lot of time in the car. It is not unusual to spend six hours in the car getting from Seattle to Hurricane Ridge and back."

Six hours is quite a while to spend with kids, and likely you'd want to take bathroom breaks or tacking on other locations to break up the drive. Friedman's aware of this, and cautions that in that case, a one-day trip can often result in a full day of driving with a disappointingly little amount of time spent in the park.

His advice: it's best to plan for a weekend at least to really get the most out of visiting here. 

Game time in the tent can be a fun way to pass the time if weather keeps you off the trail. Photo by Regina Carey.

There are a few ways to plan for this. Consider WTA's Northwest Weekend itinerary for Port Townsend, or save your spot at the Kalaloch Lodge if you want somewhere cozy to be in winter weather. 

Hoping to build character or save some cash? Try winter camping! WTA's magazine editor went camping last January with her family and had a great time

2. your favorite summertime spot may look a bit different in winter

While Olympic National Park is very busy in the summer months (typically mid-May through mid-September), it's substantially less busy in the early spring and winter seasons. Friedman points to one telltale sign: the parking lots.

"In summer, the lots at Hurricane Ridge and Rialto Beach fill up to the point that there is no parking available, but in the fall and winter those same places are almost empty." 

Wide-open beaches means plenty of room for kids to run off excess energy. Photo by Archana Bhat.

While colder and wetter, Washington beaches are as good in the winter as they are in the height of summer. Take Friedman's advice and make a weekend of it. There are lots of coastal locations to explore in our hiking guide, and you can get started planning your camping outing using our resource page

Hurricane Ridge, on the other hand, is an entirely different experience between winter and summer. While absolutely worth a visit to experience one of Washington's most wondrous winter landscapes, you'll want to make special considerations for visiting in the winter: check out the road status, carry chains, and and have a backup plan before you go. 

3. Think about the tides

Despite that huge body of water right in front of you, it's easy to forget about tides and how they can affect your outing. Luckily, Friedman reminded us.

"The coast plays host to tidal changes typically twice a day. Low tides can allow access to tide pools full of star fish, mussels, and other inner tidal creatures. However as tides come in beaches shrink and in some locations can trap visitors from access to their car." 

Tidepooling is an excellent kid-friendly activity, just be cautious not to damage the habitat of the animals who live in the pools. Photo by Teresa Cronin.

By that he means that a headland you may have been able to round at low tide might become impassable once the tide comes in. Keep this in mind as you wander down the beach. A good rule of thumb is to not round headlands, or climb on rocks near the water's edge. 

4. Knowing is Half the Battle

Getting outside with your family takes planning. Luckily, WTA's site has plenty of resources for planning hikes, camping, or even backpacking with kids. You can search for kid-friendly hikes, find campgrounds, and even find advice from other parents

If you need more specific information for Olympic National Park, the park's website includes information about visitor center hours (good if you have to pick up a camping permit) a schedule of ranger-led interpretive programs, and which campgrounds are open this time of year. 

If you decide to try a winter outing with your family, we'd love to hear about it. You plan your trips with; let us know how they go by writing a trip report when you're back. 

Bonus: thank a ranger

Rangers like Jed help make our public lands a safe and welcoming place to be. They can provide useful advice (like he did for this blog) and help you plan your hike when you visit in person. Signing the form below and we'll send you a short guide on how to connect with your local rangers. 


Wilderness Photographer on Advice from a Park Ranger: Plan Your Best Vacation at Olympic National Park

A great article! Our rangers deserve a lot of thanks for all their hard work.

I was excited to read about WTA's Northwest Weekend itinerary for Port Townsend, but the link appears to be broken. It just leads to a page saying "This page does not seem to exist…"

Posted by:

Wilderness Photographer on Dec 13, 2018 12:01 AM

Anna Roth on Advice from a Park Ranger: Plan Your Best Vacation at Olympic National Park

Woop! Great catch - try it now.

A Port Townsend weekend is really fun; definitely recommended. :)

Posted by:

Anna Roth on Dec 13, 2018 09:10 AM