The Lay of the Land: An Encompassing Overview of Olympic National Park

The sun sets over the Bailey Range in Olympic National Park
The sun sets over the Bailey Range in Olympic National Park Benjamin Hollis
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Olympic National Park may be one of the most-visited in the U.S., but it’s also among the wildest. Roads ring it and cherry-stem its fringes, but the bulk of the park is a big block of roadless mountain wilderness. The existing trails are long and the trail-less swaths plentiful. The coastal strip of the park, meanwhile, describes the remotest seashore in the Lower 48 (alongside, arguably, the mangrove abyss of southwestern Florida and northern California’s Long Coast).

Road access at Hurricane Ridge, the Sol Duc Valley, the Hoh Rainforest, Kalaloch, and other areas notwithstanding, Olympic is a hiking/backpacking destination above all else. Better than 95 percent of the park constitutes the Olympic Wilderness. To see most of this countryside—whether it’s Point of Arches on the coast or a full view of Mount Olympus—you’ve got to walk. That’s long been the case, too: The heart of the Olympic Peninsula was one of the last great outbacks in the contiguous United States, a blank space on the map until the very end of the 19th century, even as Seattle boomed and hamlets blossomed along the Peninsula’s coast.

From spruce rainforest to manzanita thickets, from orcas and sea otters, to pumas and Roosevelt elk, Olympic National Park is a place of spectacular ecological diversity. Here, though, we’re rounding up its basic natural geography—the lay of the land—to orient you to its ridges and rivers. Sea stacks to snow peaks, it’s a downright mythic layout.

Olympic at a Glance

Olympic National Park occupies 922,651 acres of the Olympic Peninsula, that huge fin of land marking the Lower 48’s northwestern extremity. The Peninsula is edged by saltwater on three sides: Puget Sound to the east, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, and the open North Pacific to the west. The southern boundary is, roughly speaking, the broad valley of the Chehalis River and its estuary in Grays Harbor.  To northbound travelers tracing Highway 101, this marks the end of the modest elevations typical to the Oregon Coast Range and the Willapa Hills and the beginning of the Olympics. With their craggy, ice-field heights, the Olympics are a bold announcement of the steep and snow-capped country to come up the “rain coast” of British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle.

Most of the park lies in the Olympic Mountains proper. Much of the northern, eastern, and southern borders of this park are located on the edge of the Olympic National Forest, and a string of small but rugged Forest Service-managed wildernesses offer buffering backcountry—like the Colonel Bob Wilderness near Lake Quinault, and the Wonder Mountain, Mount Skokomish, the Brothers, and Buckhorn wildernesses on the eastern margin. Trails are, overall, pretty sparse in these roadless areas, but important hiking routes enter the park from the Brothers and Buckhorn wildernesses.

The valley of the Queets River is notable in that a fringe of National Park acreage—the Queets Corridor—extends down its lower reaches nearly to the Pacific Ocean; the last few miles to the mouth lie on Quinault Indian Nation land.

And the 73-miles of Olympic National Park coastline—which extends in three segments from Shi Shi Beach in the north down to South Beach—borders and interweaves with American Indian lands: the Makah, Ozette, Quileute, Hoh, and Quinault reservations.

Written in the Rocks

Valley of Heaven in Olympic National Park
Valley of Heaven in Olympic National Park Nick Mealey

The Olympic Mountains are a mess of seafloor that have been glommed onto the margin of North America due to the oceanic plate subducting beneath it. The range’s rocks derive from eruptions of basaltic lava as well as sediments washed off the continent. Smashed, squeezed, and folded into the crook made by Vancouver Island and the North Cascades, the Olympics have an outer horseshoe of basalt (the Crescent Formation) on their northern, eastern, and southern fronts, and a core of sedimentary and metamorphic strata that includes at its margin a less continuous inner basalt ring. (Check out this U.S. Geological Survey site , an online version of Rowland Tabor’s classic Geology of Olympic National Park , for more on Olympic’s deep-time backstory.)

The Olympics have risen because of their buoyant sedimentary core and continued subduction. They aren’t high mountains by American West standards, but they’re hard against the ocean and lofty enough to get dumped on prodigiously by marine storms. The heaps of wet snow in the high country form glaciers and permanent snowfields; the cooler conditions of the ice ages promoted much bigger ones that scalloped the Olympic dome and plowed the river valleys.

Upon this freshly glacier-pillaged country, weathering and erosion have continued to gnaw away: rivers drill canyons into U-shaped glacial valleys and staggered glacial steps, while the shoulders of ridges and massifs slump and buckle without glacier ice propping them up any longer. Visitors to the Olympic high country see the raw gray moraines and rubble of the Little Ice Age, a few centuries past, sprawling below today’s comparatively scrawny glaciers.

The Olympics’ geographical relief rivals that of much higher ranges like the east-front Tetons or Sierra Nevada. We’re talking 5,000, sometimes 6,000 feet or more from valley bottom to mountaintop. When one considers how close these snow peaks lie to tidewater—only a couple dozen miles for even the most interior summits—this topographic punch isn’t surprising. The Brothers, a double summit just shy of 6,900 feet, stands but eight miles from the Hood Canal (with its oysters, wolf eels, and giant Pacific octopus).

And it's no surprise that the gnarled fist of the Olympics grabs a lot of moisture out of those Pacific cloudbanks: The greenwood valleys west of the crest receive 150 inches or more of yearly precipitation, the high peaks more yet. The rainshadow effect, meanwhile, is one of the most striking on the globe: In the lee side of the crest, the Olympic Peninsula’s northeast gets a mere 20 inches or so annually.

A Tour of the Mountains

Above the clouds at Hurricane Ridge
Above the clouds at Hurricane Ridge Anupam_ts

Mount Olympus is a huge icy sandstone massif in the western Olympics with three main horns all standing just shy of 8,000 feet. A mere 30 miles or so from the Pacific, free of any major blocking windward peaks, and flanked by the sea-draining valleys of the Hoh and the Queets, the Olympus Massif is one of the greatest snow factories in the world: Its annual precipitation likely exceeds 220 inches, mostly as the white stuff. It’s the third-most glaciated mountain in the Lower 48 (exceeded only by Mounts Rainier and Baker in the Cascades); among its several glaciers are the largest (the Blue) and longest (the Hoh) in the Olympics.

Several subsidiary peaks of the Olympic Massif exceed 7,000 feet. To find mountains of that height elsewhere in the Olympics, you have to head over to the east side of the range. At 7,788 feet, basaltic Mount Deception is the second-loftiest, though other high peaks of the eastern Olympics block its view from Puget Lowlands vantages. Mount Deception forms part of the ridiculously scenic backdrop of the Royal Basin, one of the headwater cirques of the Dungeness River drainage.

Mount Constance, 7,743 feet tall, is the third-highest Olympic peak, and its height and position in the basalt horseshoe only about a dozen miles from the Hood Canal ensure it dominates the Olympic skyline from Puget Sound (or, rather, co-dominates with the twin horns of the Brothers to the south).

Another standout Olympic mountain block is the Anderson Massif, the burly sandstone hydrologic apex of the entire range: Meltwater here shuttles to the Hood Canal, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific. At 7,365 feet, West Peak crowns the massif.

The heart of the Olympics could probably be reckoned at multiple places—the Anderson Massif among them—but certainly a strong contender is the Bailey Range, a high summit-studded crest arcing from Cat Peak east of the High Divide down to Dodwell-Rixon Pass. The range, which tops out at a few feet shy of 7,000 on the summit of Mount Carrie, makes the northern and eastern gates of the upper Hoh River canyon. A traverse of the Bailey Range ranks among Olympic National Park’s preeminent wilderness experiences, requiring route-finding and mid-grade mountaineering skills—and serving up gobsmacking views of the deep Olympics.

Backpacking in the Bailey Range of Olympic
Backpacking in the Bailey Range of Olympic Benjamin Hollis

Among the most rugged expressions of the Olympics, meanwhile, lie in the inner basalt ring of the eastern range. Between Mount Deception to the south and Gray Wolf Ridge to the north, the Needles snarl up the skyline with their pillars and spires, which reach 7,650 feet in Mount Johnson. Savor the Needles up-close from Royal Basin or, on the west side, from the Upper Gray Wolf Trail .

The southeastern Olympics’ answer to the Needles is Sawtooth Ridge, one of the chief climbing hubs in a range mostly known for rotten rock (but still appealing, mountaineering-wise, for remoteness and scenery). Another manifestation of the inner basalt ring’s ruggedness, Sawtooth Ridge culminates in the 6,104-foot sword of Mount Cruiser. Appreciate these toothy ramparts from the east by hiking to the Mildred Lakes Basin in the Mount Skokomish Wilderness; easier climbing access to Sawtooth Ridge comes from the park side via the trail past Flapjack Lakes.

Over on the west side of the park, meanwhile, and equally stirring in their own right, the fierce sandstone jags of the Valhallas stud a southwestern flanking ridge of the Olympus Massif. These far-flung fins, between 5,000 and 6,000 feet or so in elevation, form the divide between the South Fork Hoh River and the Queets River.

The Rivers Run Through It

The Hoh River in Olympic National Park
The Hoh River in Olympic National Park David Lee

The domal rise of the Olympics created a radial pattern of rivers draining its weather-making terrain. At various times during the Pleistocene, long alpine glaciers nosed far down the valleys of west-side rivers. Smaller glaciers in the rainshadow of the range molded the headwater basins and upper reaches of east-draining rivers, but their lower courses are mostly sharp-cut canyons.

The West

Five great rivers drain the west side of the Olympics. The Sol Duc and Bogachiel fall from the northwestern mountains, merging to form the Quillayute a few miles from the Pacific. Next south is the famous Hoh, a stream of glacial meltwater off Mount Olympus’s icecap and the windward flanks of the Bailey Range. The Queets, another big, braided glacial river, funnels off the Olympus Massif’s southern slopes. Then comes the Quinault, its long mainstem rolling off the glaciated Anderson Massif through the Enchanted Valley and its handsome North Fork heading at Low Divide.

The Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets, and Quinault, along with some of their big tributaries, support the grandest temperate rainforests on the Olympic Peninsula—and some of the very grandest in the world. These glacially broadened valleys are perfectly aligned to swallow up marine air masses that dump buckets as they ride up the Peninsula (the Bogachiel’s orientation is actually a little less favorable than the others, which explains its slightly drier conditions).

Given the topographic factor and the proximity to the ocean combined with a latitude offering a long growing season, and you’ve got a recipe for gargantuan Sitka spruces, Douglas-firs, western red cedars, and other outsized, moss-coated conifers. Throw in the fact that Olympic National Park was established before broad-scale logging extended up these misty valleys, and it’s apparent why the Peninsula’s low-elevation rainforest is the superlative expression of the biome on the Northwest Coast.

The South

Wrapping around the south side of the mountains, the Humptulips River, whose headwaters fall just outside the national park, drains to Grays Harbor; the Wynoochee, which rises in the far southern edge of the park below Wynoochee Pass, flows (like the more southerly Satsop) through a rainsocked basin into the Chehalis River.

The East

The east-side rivers have short, steep, swift runs to the Hood Canal. From south to north, the Skokomish, Duckabush, and Dosewallips rise in the national park, but mostly flow through the Olympic National Forest.

The North

The northern Olympics are mainly drained via the Dungeness River (and its mighty tributary, the Gray Wolf) and the Elwha River into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Elwha has been in the news lately because of the long-debated removal of its dams; check out this excellent Seattle Times feature for an overview of the ecological rebirth already underway as the newly unshackled river rediscovers its wild flow.

Of the Olympic rivers, the Elhwa has cut the deepest into the mountains. Its headwaters spring from another of the great fountainheads of the Olympic Mountains, along with the Anderson Massif: the vicinity of Dodwell-Rixon Pass east of Olympus and south of the Bailey Range, where the Elwha, Queets, and Hoh all rise within shouting distance of one another.

Taking to the Riverside Trails and Ridge Walks

The Upper Hoh River Trail
The Upper Hoh River Trail David Lee

Penetrating Olympic National Park’s interior means walking alongside rivers up to headwater cirques and passes, switchbacking more severely from valleys to ridgetops, or gaining the high country directly from the roads to Hurricane Ridge, Obstruction Point, or Deer Park.

Each Olympic flow has its own personality, and the valleys are the heraldic thoroughfares into the heart of the mountains: Whether in the spruce-hemlock rainforest of the western peninsula or the airier Douglas-fir woods of the east, catching a glimpse of distant buttresses or snowfields from a riverside trail never gets old.

Hiking up the Hoh River to the Blue Glacier—from cathedral rainforest to alpine ice—is one of Olympic National Park’s most celebrated adventures. Following the Elwha up to Low Divide, meanwhile, and then dropping down into the Quinault basin via the North Fork allows you to make a mighty north-south traverse of the range. Another standout river walk is that up the Quinault to the Enchanted Valley, a flat-floored glen walled by soaring, waterfall- and avalanche-streaked slopes.

Along with some of the mountain traverses mentioned above, standout high-country treks in the park include the Happy Lake Ridge Trail, the High Divide Loop, the Long Ridge Trail up to Dodger Point Lookout, the remote Skyline Ridge Primitive Trail on the Queets-Quinault Divide, and the Grand Ridge Trail between Obstruction Point and Deer Park.

An Inside Look at the Lakes of Olympic

Lake and mountain hemlocks along the Queets-Quinault Divide.
Lake and mountain hemlocks along the Queets-Quinault Divide. Ethan Shaw

Hundreds of little lakes pepper the Olympic Mountains, from swampy basins in mid-elevation forests to gleaming high-country tarns. Among the most significant concentrations occupies the Seven Lakes Basin in the north-facing cirques of the High Divide, which drain to the Sol Duc River. Snowmelt pools in the heather parklands of Olympic ridges enhance the scenery, too.

Then there are the bigger lakes of the foothills. Lake Cushman—once a moraine-dammed backwater of the Skokomish River and now an enlarged reservoir—barely touches the far southeast corner of the national park near the Staircase Ranger Station. In the north, gorgeous Lake Crescent fills a basin scoured by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet; a later landslide pinched off its east end to form smaller Lake Sutherland. Already-mentioned Lake Quinault is the gateway to the Quinault Rainforest, one of the most impressive conifer forests in the world.

Finally, the park’s coastal portion includes huge, island-scattered Ozette Lake, the biggest natural lake in Washington State; from here, you can hike through red cedar swamps a few miles to Cape Alava or Sand Point on the coast.

A Glimpse at the Wilderness Seacoast

Sea stacks at Second Beach along the wild coast of Olympic National Park
Sea stacks at Second Beach along the wild coast of Olympic National Park Esther Lee

And speaking of, a whole other world awaits you at Olympic National Park’s raw Pacific coast. Tracing remote beaches, detouring around cliffs and wracks of giant driftwood through jungly maritime forest, hikers marvel at looming sea stacks near and far—from squat haystack rocks and arches to wave-smashed spires and fangs.

Highway 101 skirts the park’s farthest south coastal segment (anchored by Kalaloch), and the road to La Push on the Quileute Reservation offers trail access to the central segment, but most of the Olympic seashore is deliciously far from asphalt. Gazing out at the rich North Pacific waters here, you’re looking at a protected seascape that complements the terrestrial national park: the mingled domains of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, the Flattery Rocks and Quillayute Needles national wildlife refuges, and the Washington Islands Wilderness.

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