First timer's Guide to the Olympic National Park

The Olympic Peninsula is the stuff that dreams are made of. Lush rainforests butt up against snowcapped mountains. Those famous PNW clouds hang low, giving the whole area an ethereal quality, and yes, waterfalls really are everywhere.

Visiting the Olympic Peninsula can’t be easily “crossed off a list” because the opportunities to explore are endless. That’s not even an exaggeration. You could literally spend your whole life living on this peninsula and have a new hike each weekend. Backcountry lovers obsess over this place because there are so many opportunities to get off the well-trodden path.

But let's say that you don't live in the area, and you, like us, don't have endless amounts of time to explore each nook and cranny.

Where should you go in the OP?

What places should you be sure to see during your first visit?

In this post, we’ll share some of the highlights for your first trip to the Olympic Peninsula.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to the area, but it should give you a good idea of which places to work into your route for your first time visiting this stunning corner of the PNW.


A Map to your Route in the Olympic Peninsula

We've put all of the stops onto a map so you can visually see where we're talking about. We've laid them out in an order we would suggest, but you could visit them in any order you'd like.

How many days should you plan for this route? 

If you planning on making quick stops at each of these areas, you could probably see everything in two days. It would be really rushed and lots of time spent driving. You could also stretch this out to a week, taking more time to linger in each place and add in a few more stops.

We spent four days on the Olympic Peninsula, and thought it was a good amount of time, especially of you plan on camping at any of the beaches (#6 and #8). 

1 & 2: High Steel Bridge and Vance Creek Viaduct

For a vertigo-inducing view, a pit stop at these bridges is an interesting detour on your way into the Olympic Peninsula.

There are two bridges, and they’re actually quite different. If you have the time, we’d recommend going to both, but we’ll give you a brief description of each, so you know which to choose if you can only pick one.

1. High Steel Bridge

This bridge is accessible by car and stands 427 feet over the South Fork Skokomish River. From above, you can look down on the stunning blue water in the gorge below, and you'll even see a waterfall. Don’t forget your camera and your common sense. Please be very cautious when taking pictures on this bridge, as the barrier (especially on the west side, is very short).

A note on this picture: Although it may look quite scary in the picture, I was actually sitting quite far from the edge, and had a barrier in front of me. Do not attempt to climb over barriers to get photos. 

This bridge is more easily accessible than Vance Creek, so it can be busier. Though when we stopped here around dusk, the lighting was great and we didn’t have any company other than a group of teenagers who were throwing fireworks into the canyon to make a huge boom. (A bit frightening when you’re standing at the edge of a bridge!)

How to get there: Traveling north on Hwy 101, turn left on West Skokomish Valley Road. After about 7.5 miles, turn right on NF-2340 to this bridge, and the last portion of the road is gravel (not too bad, though). Drive across the bridge and park at the turnout point. You can walk back over the bridge, but be cautious – on one side, the barrier is pretty short and you could easily fall if you’re not careful.

2. Vance Creek Viaduct

This old railroad tracks because an Insta-famous PNW landmark in the last few years. If you Google it, you can see images of people walking across this rustic wooden bridge, though when we visited (May 2017), we found a very different view.

The entrance to the bridge has been torn away and there is no way to get on top. I’m assuming that people wandering out on this bridge without any barriers led to some dangerous situations and the owners of the land decided to make it impassible.

You can still walk a little ways and get a nice view from the side, but don’t make a special trip here if you are expecting to walk across, because you'll be disappointed.

How to get there: Take the same West Skohomish Valley Road as in the High Steel Bridge. Instead of turning right, continue on NF-23 (still a gravel road) until it become payment again in about 300 yards. Park your car and you will see a gate that blocks cars from accessing the road on the right (the second orange gate).

It is private property, but there is a sign that says you are free to walk to the viewpoint. After about 100 meters, you will come to a Y in the path. To the right is the actual bridge (but again, you can no longer access the bridge), and to the left is a 0.6 mile walk on a wooded path that will lead you to the viewpoint.

Note on both bridges: There’s not much else to explore in the vicinity, so if you’re really pressed for time you could skip these bridges.

Where to camp near High Steel Bridge: Brown Creek Campground is not far from the bridges and is a very nice place to set up camp down by the river. Sites cost $14 and there is a pit toilet.

3. Hurricane Ridge

A stop at Hurricane Ridge will teach you the meaning of the phrase, "the mountains are calling." This dramatic landscape will make you feel worlds away from bustling Seattle, yet it is incredibly accessible. The drive up to the visitors center is breathtaking, as is the view at the top.

Explore the nearby trails for more epic backdrops, and take advantage of one of the many picnic tables in the vicinity. Hurricane Ridge reminded us of the mountains surrounding Leavenworth where we lived for the winter. Pack a lunch to be enjoyed with postcard-worthy views. Oh, and don't forget to bring your camera!

If you're planning on staying on any of the beaches on the OP (which I would highly recommend), make sure to get your permits and bear canister at the Olympic Peninsula Visitor Center on your way to or from Hurricane Ridge. 

Note: This area can look dramatically different depending on the time of year you visit. When we were there in mid-May, there was still lots of snow and you needed snowshoes to access some of the hiking paths. Later in the summer, however, the trails are covered in wildflowers.

4. Lake Crescent

This lake, flanked by mountains, has a few nice lookout points and you'll likely drive past it on your way into the peninsula. If you have the time and are a hiking enthusiast, try making the trek up to the summit of Storm King.

The views look incredible, though when we went, we heard part of the trail had been washed away (including a rope necessary to making it to the summit). I guess we'll have to save it for next time!

5. Sol Duc Falls

These stunning falls look like something out of Fern Gully (remember that movie?!). There are two main parts to the falls – the first sections you’ll walk past is smaller and filled with moss-covered rocks.

Walk a bit further and you’ll reach the main part of the falls, which is larger. You’ll definitely want to see both parts, but we actually enjoyed the first section more!

The hike itself is short – 1.6 miles roundtrip– and very easy, only 200 feet elevation gain.

Where to camp nearby Sol Duc Falls: Lyre Campground is a perfect place to stop for the night if you are camping in the OP. It's FREE if you have a Discover Pass ($30 for the year, good in all Washington State Parks). If your camping between June 15 and October 15 each site costs $10 per night and you have to self register.

There are only 11 spots, first-come first-serve, and we got one of the last ones when we arrived around 7 p.m. It's a stunning little riverside oasis that we were happy to call home for the night. If only all campsites were like this one! There is a pit toilet and a potable water spigot.

Note: There is no phone service down by the river where the campground is located, but if you drive to the entrance, you'll have a somewhat strong signal.

6. Shi Shi Beach

To get to this somewhat remote beach, you’ll need to hike 2 miles on a muddy, jungly path on Makah Indian Reservation. Once you reach the ocean, it is another 2 miles of walking on the sand to get to the dramatically stunning sea stacks. But oh man, is it worth it for the sunset.

Being that it is quite a trek, we’d recommend a stop here only if you are camping overnight, or if you intend to spend the whole day exploring.

We put together an entire guide to camping on Shi Shi Beach with everything you need to know.

7. Hoh Rainforest

Most first-time visitors to the Olympic Peninsula don’t leave without a stop at the Hoh Rainforest. With a few different walks of varying lengths to choose from, this makes a nice addition to your itinerary.

Keep in mind that the easily accessible trails are heavily trafficked, meaning this may be one of the more crowded stops on your time in the OP. 

When we were there, it was a beautiful, sunny day. Don't worry though if the weather isn't great during your visit. I remember visiting as a child on an overcast rainy day, and the forest had a completely different vibe. (I think I actually preferred the drizzly weather because it made everything seem more lush and dramatic!) 

Tip: If you have a short amount of time and have to pick just one trail to walk, the Hall of Moss is said to be the most worthwhile with limited time.

8. La Push – First, Second and Third Beaches

These beaches are well-known and can be found on just about every PNW photographer's Instagram page. They're popular for a reason.

Bring a tent, a guitar and a surfboard, or just a blanket and some snacks. However you choose to enjoy the rustic, driftwood-strewn beach, you're in for a good time. But know that you definitely won't be alone.

The accessibility of these beaches mean that you'll be sharing the view - with hippies hanging out in their half tent/half driftwood shelters, families on day trips, surfers and photography classes. The mishmash of people coming together makes for a cool vibe, and the dramatic seascape doesn't hurt either!

9. Ruby Beach

Just a short walk from the parking lot, Ruby Beach is a great place to stop for a picnic lunch amongst sea stacks and driftwood. Unlike Shi Shi and the beaches in La Push though, camping is not allowed at Ruby Beach. 

 
 

Which place in the Olympic Peninsula would you like to visit most? What places would you add to an itinerary for someone's first visit to the Olympic Peninsula? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!