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Olympic National Park, WA

Best Attractions in Olympic National ParkIn a national park with dozens of points of interest and things to see, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

Whether it's from a car window or along a hiking trail, you'll probably spend most of your time in Olympic National Park marveling at the scenery. But before you hit the road, stop at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center near Port Angeles (on the road to Hurricane Ridge). This is the park's main information and orientation center. The exhibits will whet your appetite for exploring, and the Peabody Creek Nature Trail—a half-mile loop beginning at the center—is a tantalizing preview of the park's many outstanding hiking trails.

Explore the Hoh Rain Forest

Hiking is the best way to see the glories of nature up close, and some of the park's grandest sights are in the Hoh Rain Forest , best known of Olympic's three temperate rain forest regions (the other two are located in the Queets and Quinault river valleys). Rising near Mount Olympus, the Hoh River reaches the Pacific Ocean in less than 70 miles, fed by snowmelt and rain along its descending path. Abundant precipitation and year-round mild temperatures create the incredibly verdant rain forest habitat.

Hoh River Road, the access route to the rain forest visitor center, offers glimpses of the river (an unusual milky shade of blue, the result of rock pulverized into powder from the grinding action of glaciers) as well as plenty of magnificent forest scenery. In addition to hiking, the Hoh Rain Forest—a AAA GEM attraction—offers opportunities for bicycling, kayaking, back-country camping and other adventurous things to do.

Note: Upper Hoh Road and Queets River Road are subject to periodic closures due to washouts caused by heavy rains. Check current road conditions if you're planning to travel to any of the park's rain forest areas; for recorded information phone (360) 565-3131. Elk in the wild should not be approached. Due to risky conditions, swimming and boating on the Hoh River are not recommended.

Relax at the Hot Springs or Hike at Lake Crescent

An Indian legend maintains that Sol Duc Hot Springs was created when two dragons met and fought each other for control of the Sol Duc and Elwha river valleys. Retreating to their caves after years of frustrating battle, the dragons wept bitter tears of defeat, forming the source of the springs. You can take a dip in the soothing waters at the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, or hike a trail through majestic old-growth forest to cascading Sol Duc Falls. The Sol Duc river valley is one of the few places where chinook and coho salmon run in every season. A hike along Lover's Lane Trail may reveal a glimpse of a spawning pair.

Even in a park resplendent with natural beauty, Lake Crescent stands out. Stop at one of several pull-outs off US 101, which runs along the lake's southern shore, for gorgeous views of the water framed by tree-covered ridges. From the Storm King Ranger Station off 101 you have a choice of several hiking trails (the short hike to Marymere Falls is one of the park's best). Rising southeast of the lake is 4,534-foot Mount Storm King; a trail climbs part way up the mountain via a series of steep switchbacks and branches off the Marymere Falls trail.

Admire the View from Hurricane Ridge

Hurricane Ridge , a AAA GEM attraction, exemplifies the wilder side of Olympic National Park. Strong winds often buffet the ridge (hence the name), and up to 35 feet of snow falls annually, lingering on the ground for much of the year. Hurricane Ridge Road branches south off US 101 and makes a 20-mile ascent to the crest of the ridge, passing through three tunnels en route—your portal to this rugged section of the park. The road passes a number of scenic overlooks before reaching the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, but the most breathtaking is the Double Parking Overlook, about 2 miles beyond the third tunnel.

From a height of some 5,400 feet, the ridge offers sweeping views south across the Upper Elwha Valley to the heart of the Olympic range and north to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and distant Vancouver Island. Paved hiking trails, accessible from the visitor center, lead through sub-alpine meadows bright with wildflowers in early summer—and the views are fantastic. The visitor center has interpretive exhibits and an excellent topographical relief map of the park. You also can take advantage of numerous ranger-led activities during the summer months.

Hurricane Ridge Road continues as far as the trailhead for Hurricane Hill Trail. The last 1.3 miles are not for the faint of heart (or suitable for RVs); the very narrow road continues to the edge of the ridge, unprotected by a guardrail. Two designated picnic areas between the visitor center and the trailhead provide spots to stop and marvel at the views from this lofty vantage point.

Hike, Swim or Camp Near Lake Quinault

The deep blue waters of glacier-fed Lake Quinault plunge to depths of more than 250 feet. The Quinault River Valley is known for its verdant rain forest: Giant Sitka spruces, Douglas firs and western red cedars, many wearing a green cloak of mosses and lichens, soar above a forest floor rife with sword ferns and mushrooms. Waterfalls and streams complete this lush picture. A network of hiking trails along the lake's south shore could keep nature lovers happily occupied for days. Camping, bicycling, swimming, canoeing, bird-watching (bald eagles, ospreys and trumpeter swans, among other species) and fishing for steelhead and cutthroat trout are some of the other activities to be enjoyed.

Nearby Attractions in Port Angeles

Although nature's glory is Olympic National Park's calling card, there are other nearby attractions to visit as well. The fascinating exhibits at the Olympic Coast Discovery Center in Port Angeles focus on Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, a 3,300-square-mile swath of Pacific coastline and adjoining ocean waters. If you're planning a trip to Neah Bay, Cape Alava, Rialto Beach or other out-of-the-way locations along the park's coastal strip, stop here for handy tips regarding driving directions, recommended hikes, secluded beaches and the best spots to observe whales.

At the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center the multimedia works by Pacific Northwest artists have an appropriate display space in the semi-circular Webster House, which sits on the crest of a hill with grand views of the city, harbor and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Walking trails thread the 5 acres of Webster's Woods, where the often whimsical sculptures fit right into the outdoor setting.

Ride the Ferry to Victoria, B.C.

Take a side trip to beautiful Victoria, B.C., 18 miles from Port Angeles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, aboard the Black Ball Ferry Line passenger ferry. The ferry sails daily, year-round; crossing time is approximately 90 minutes. For schedule information and reservations phone (360) 457-4491. Note: All U.S. citizens traveling between the United States and Canada by land or sea (including ferries) must present a valid passport or other approved document.

What to See in Port Townsend

Although Port Townsend is not within Olympic National Park, it does share a geographic bond due to its location on the Olympic Peninsula. It's also one of the coolest little towns in the state. On a picturesque harbor at the entrance to Puget Sound, this AAA GEM place has character to spare. Dozens of Victorian-style buildings and residences line the downtown streets, and there's an eclectic assortment of restaurants and shops. On a clear day you can see mountains in every direction: Mount Rainier to the south, the North Cascades to the east, Mount Baker to the northeast and the Olympics to the west. Expect to encounter big crowds during spring and summer weekend festivals.

While there's plenty to do in Port Townsend—from strolling the waterfront in the company of seagulls to whiling away a lazy hour in a coffee shop—a couple of attractions are worth your attention. The old fortress at Fort Worden State Park & Conference Center , a AAA GEM, was one of three built in the late 1890s to guard Admiralty Inlet, at the entrance to Puget Sound; collectively the fortifications were known as the “Triangle of Fire.” In addition to the fort's historic buildings and gun emplacements, the 433-acre site includes a dozen miles of hiking and biking trails and beaches fronting the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The restored and furnished Commanding Officer's Quarters was the residence of the fort's commander until 1953. The Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum has exhibits pertaining to the defense of the sound from the late 19th century until the end of World War II. Artillery fire from these coastal fortifications, guided by precise plotting and tracking, was as accurate as it was deadly. The Point Wilson Lighthouse, standing at the end of the point where Admiralty Inlet meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is a great place to watch the passing parade of ships entering and leaving the harbor. Long, skinny Whidbey Island lies some 6 miles across Admiralty Inlet.

The natural history displays at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center focus on conserving the Olympic Peninsula's coastal resources. In summer the center conducts guided beach walks and other interpretive programs, the highlight of which is a 3-hour narrated nature and birding trip around nearby Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Approximately 70 percent of Puget Sound's seabird population nests on the high, sandy bluffs of this 364-acre slip of an island near the mouth of Discovery Bay. Double-crested cormorants, loons, mergansers, oystercatchers and glaucous-winged gulls are among the island's inhabitants, along with one of the world's largest nesting colonies of rhinoceros auklets. A close relative of the tufted puffin, this medium-sized seabird's intriguing name refers to a hornlike beak extension that appears in breeding adults and is shed every winter. Harbor seals also gather on the island to bear their pups, and bald eagles nest in a small stand of trees on this barren, lonely outpost.

Protection Island is closed to the public; nature cruises to observe seabirds and other marine animals are offered by Puget Sound Express aboard the 65-foot motor yacht Glacier Spirit. The trip takes place in April, July and October and is timed to coincide with annual migrations; they depart from the fuel dock at the Port Townsend Boat Haven. Dedicated bird watchers should not miss this excursion.

Marrowstone Island makes a nice side trip from Port Townsend (take SR 20 and SR 19 south to SR 116 east). Some 7 miles long and averaging only half a mile wide, the island was discovered by British Capt. George Vancouver in 1792. Past the village of Nordland at Marrowstone's northern tip is Fort Flagler Historical State Park, another of the “Triangle of Fire” fortresses erected to protect Puget Sound (the third is Fort Casey on Whidbey Island). Once equipped with camouflaged concrete ramparts and rifled cannons mounted on disappearing carriages, Fort Flagler was deactivated in 1953 and became a state park in 1955.

There are hiking and biking trails and nearly 4 miles of beachfront to explore (you can dig for clams April through June). Marrowstone Point Light, the smallest lighthouse on Puget Sound, was built in 1918; the shallows off the island are a notorious ship navigation hazard. Port Townsend, a mere 2 miles across Port Townsend Bay as the crow flies, is an 18-mile drive back. From this vantage point, on a high bluff overlooking Puget Sound, there are sweeping views of both the Olympic and Cascade mountains.

See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.

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Olympic National Park, WA

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