Hiking in Olympic National Park: contrasting trails
When we’re not lounging on a beach in the hot sun or gallivanting the globe, we love to hike locally. Local, to us, is anything within a few hours’ drive of Seattle. One of our favorite local activities is hiking in Olympic National Park. It’s such an interesting place, with beaches, lowland rainforests, snow-capped peaks, and sweeping views from terrifying ridges. From Seattle, Hurricane ridge is one of the closest access points to the Park. A little over an hour beyond is the Hoh Rainforest. Both are great for hiking with kids and each is drastically different.
I think most people in the Pacific Northwest will tell you that no visit to the Seattle area is complete without going hiking. There are tons and tons of options, but we truly prefer and will direct visitors to either Mt Rainier National Park or Olympic National Park. Both can be done as day trips or long weekends. Since we live closer, we more often go hiking in Olympic National Park, so you should listen to our advice and enjoy either of these awesome places on the Oly Pen that we’re highlighting for you now.
Hiking in Olympic National Park at Hurricane Ridge
As you’re driving on Highway 101 looping around the Olympic Peninsula, you must go through Port Angeles. Although the town itself might not grab your eye immediately, it’s worth investing a day in…but we’re talking about hiking, not playing tourist. So, you’re driving through downtown PA and you see a sign for Hurricane Ridge and you turn. You instantly start heading up hill. You wind past the Port Angeles Olympic National Park Visitor Center, up through a few tunnels and keep going up out of the forest. All of the sudden you’re driving on the side of a mountain with little to no shelter and you keep going up. Eventually the road flattens out and you’re in a parking lot… on the top of the mountain. Weird.
Wildlife on Hurricane Ridge
There are several trails to choose from that all leave from the same spot. This is one of those times that we’ll tell you to go into the ranger station and see what’s up. Sometimes there are mountain goats or cougar warnings, so trails may be closed. Sometimes there’s been a wash out far down the trail and you won’t be able to hike to where you want. The ranger can make a recommendation on how far is safe to go or just tell you “No, you can’t hike there today.”
Tip: listen to the rangers and DO NOT go seeking out wildlife. The animals you might encounter at Hurricane Ridge are dangerous, even if they don’t seem it. These ones aren’t as docile as what you encounter in Yellowstone (which are still dangerous).
Hurricane Ridge Trail Options
We like the Lake Angeles / Klahhane Ridge trail. It starts off mellow, providing sweeping views through mountain valleys, down to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and across to Vancouver Island and Victoria. Hiking this path is a great way to hone your trail-chops. While you’re still early in the hike, it’s very kid friendly. The climbs aren’t too steep and the path is wide. There’s even an old ski hut and ancient chair lift to provide a bit of historical creepiness.
Once you’ve been hiking for a bit though you do start to climb. You’re in a sub-alpine forest, which means that the trees are scarce and the ones that are there are grouped in stubby little stands. This means that there’s not much shade from the sun or wind.
Tip: When you think you need a little break, take one, because that sun and wind are out to get you and zap your energy and common sense.
The trail continues on and the hikers become fewer. The hillsides become steeper and the trail morphs into what we’d call not kid-friendly. Big kids are fine probably, but little kids that like to run or trip or not look where they’re going, yeah no. The views change too. Instead of looking north to Canada you’re taken around the ridge for a glance at the rest of Washington State: Hood Canal, Seattle, Mt Rainier, and the Cascade Mountains. It’s breathtaking.
If you go all of the way on the trail you’re looking at 3.5 miles to Lake Angeles and twice that to the Klahhane Ridge. Just like with any hiking, be prepared and know what lies ahead.
Picnics at Hurricane Ridge
Of course we’ll tell you about where to have a picnic. It’s us. We picnic everywhere. So, here at Hurricane Ridge you have three great options! If it’s cold, windy or rainy, you can use the tables inside the ranger station lounge. It’s got picture windows all around and a grand fireplace. Outside of the building are picnic tables too, all with the same amazing view looking across the Olympic Mountains. For a more secluded lunch, you can hop in your car and head northwest away from the lot to the picnic areas just a few minutes away. There are TONS of actual picnic sites, all located within the stubby forest, and there are restroom facilities for when nature calls.
Tip: the ranger station also is a visitor center, but its displays and information for perusing are minimal. There is a gift shop and snack shop if you need as well, say for perhaps a dandy sweatshirt when it’s windy.
Hiking in the Hoh Rain Forest
Let’s start by clarifying: this isn’t a tropical rain forest filled with toucans and poison dart frogs. This is a temperate rain forest, filled with hemlocks, firs and maples. And Elk. Everything is moist and covered in moss; mushrooms and other fungus are EVERYWHERE. Pretty sure that gnomes live there. No vampires or werewolves though; they stay in Forks.
First thing you must do at the Hoh, well, let’s just say that picnicking in the Hoh Rain Forest is perfect family fun. There is a picnic area, but there’s also a great big lawn that just needs a blanket and you’re good to go. Just like with anywhere else, clean up after yourself. Seriously. So now, you’ve had lunch and you’re ready. If you’re not up for a crazy 17 mile hike (the Hoh River Trail), you’ve got two great options and it’s easy to do both.
With virtually no elevation gain, this path is easy-peasy. Still not quite ideal for a stroller, you could bring one here if you were really determined. The trail winds through the woods as giant, old-growth trees tower above you and mushrooms peek out from all kinds of places. One of the nifty things about this trail is when you come across a clearing. When you break out of the woods you get to see light filtering through the trees and casting the most interesting shadows across the lower vegetation. There are some great places to let the kids run free on the trail.
And then there’s the river. This trail is wonderful because you actually get to walk along the Hoh River and see how it’s shaped the land. The river is COLD so it’s not good for swimming, but it sure is pretty. See how flat and expansive the area around the river is? It’s the perfect causeway for elk herds.
As you finish the loop (the trail is a circle) you come across some small swampy streams surrounded by nursery logs and more towering giants. It’s a perfect sight to finish this very diverse trail. And since this trail is so mellow, you’ll still have energy to move onto the next path.
Hall of Mosses
Not the Hall of Moses, but mosses. Plural of moss. Why is this trail called the Hall of Mosses? Well, as you climb the hill (there is a tiny elevation gain) you enter an area that you can’t easily explore except on the path. It’s very much like a hall, a beautiful hall where the stumps and trees guide the way through the forest.
The best things about this trail are the unusual tree formations and the abundance of the plushest moss in the whole wide world. There are enormous roots winding around stumps like ancient Cambodian temples. There are trees bent across the trail like bridges made by gnomes. Everything is photo-worthy.
Tip: something to think about if you’re going hiking with the intent of getting exceptional photos, be sure you understand the concepts of photography in the forest and in low-light situations. The forest is dense in most places and light plays tricks on your eyes…and camera.
Suggested reading: check out this blog post from Udemy regarding the basics of forest photography and helpful equipment recommendations. There are some great tips that are sure to help you hone your low-light photography skills.
The Hall of Mosses trail is exceptionally easy, but a little longer than the Spruce Trail. It’s very rooty in comparison to the Spruce Trail, so it’s not going to be doable with a stroller. The combined length of the two loop-trails is only two miles. That’s not two in and two out, but a total of two miles. It’s the easy set of trails in the entire National Park System… Actually, we can’t rightly say as we haven’t hiked every single one, but it’s easy, fun, beautiful and perfect for kids.
Visitor Centers in Olympic National Park
For us this is a very important part of stopping into a National Park. The visitor center is there to provide all kids of information, from hiking suggestions to safety bulletins, history of the area to instructions on identifying animal poop (always a favorite kid-activity). And we can’t forget that this is where to do Junior Ranger Programs and National Parks Passport stamps.
The Port Angeles Visitor Center has lots of great information and displays about the history of Olympic National Park. This is also the trail head for the more lengthy back-country hikes. The Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center serves the same purpose and also houses the restrooms for the trail heads and a quick service cafe. Down in the Hoh Rain Forest, the same.
Because of the diverse life found in the rain forest, the Hoh gives some extra information, including a wonderful display of the fungus you’ll encounter in the woods. This is actually a highlight for our family, as nothing is quite so exciting on a hike as finding mushrooms (if you could only hear the sarcasm).
As with any National Park, there will be wildlife. If you’re a birder, you’re in heaven. If you’ve got a thing for squirrels, you’re golden. If you’re looking to learn about how an introduced species adapts and acts in a new place, well, study the mountain goats at Hurricane Ridge. They were introduced for sport in the 1920s and are more aggressive than their cousins in other areas. Cougars, aka Mountain Lions, are also prevalent in the Park with frequent sighting. We’ve never seen one here, but the rangers keep logs of where they’ve been seen.
The most exciting wildlife in Olympic National Park, at least to us, is the Roosevelt Elk. Elk are one of the largest members of the deer family and are quite majestic. On our most recent visit, we were blessed with a bull elk accompanying us on our drive out of the Park. We could actually hear him and other nearby elk bugling to each other. It was incredible.
With such different landscapes to explore, Olympic National Park is easily worth investing in with a three day weekend. Another option: spending a day at the Hoh Rainforest and a day out at Cape Flattery; this is a great plan for a fun easy two day weekend. Come springtime, we’ll be sharing more stories and tips about the beaches and lakes of Olympic National Park (Ruby Beach, Mora, Lake Crescent…), but for now, we want to encourage you to get outside and explore the stark contrast of these two awesome parts of the Park.