Rangers' Secrets: Olympic National Park

With a rugged coastline just miles away from alpine meadows, glaciers and vast swaths of rainforest, Olympic National Park is one of the most diverse protected areas in America.

"You never get tired of it," said Barbara Maynes, a public affairs specialist for the National Park Service. "You can choose your activity according to your mood."

Maynes arrived in the park 23 years ago, fell in love with the area's "terrific diversity" and settled in the nearby town of Port Angeles.

Whether you want to see lush valleys, hike the backcountry or trek along the sea, Maynes suggests the following adventures to help you see the park without the crowds.

Backpack the High Divide Loop to Seven Lakes Basin 

This 18.2-mile loop is a moderate hike with 3,050 feet of elevation gain. You'll begin in an old growth rainforest and make your way up into the high country. Once you've arrived at the basin, you can spend several days camping and exploring the area.

"You'll be surrounded by mountains," Maynes said. "And if you hike up onto High Divide on the south rim, you can look straight across at Mount Olympus, which is the highest peak in the park. It's just spectacular." From this vantage point, you can also see into both the Sol Duc and Ho River areas—two distinct parts of the park.

Permits are required and access to the area is limited May through September, so it's best to call ahead. For more information, contact the Wilderness Information Center at the park. Maynes also cautions hikers to be wary of mountain goats. In some areas, these animals have become accustomed to people and hikers have been injured or killed after wandering too close.

Take a Beach Trek to Cape Johnson

While many people visit the Olympics' rainforest and mountains, significantly fewer explore the 73 miles of wilderness coast, Maynes said.

One of Maynes' favorite places is Cape Johnson, just north of Realto Beach. While visitors can do the trip in a day, she recommends an overnight or weekend excursion to the area.

The hike will take you along the beach, where you'll walk on cobble-sized rocks and may sometimes need to climb over boulders. As you go, you'll have incredible views of the area's seastack rock formations just off shore and you may spot bald eagles or sea otters. You'll also have a chance to stop at Mora's Hole in the Wall. At low tide, this area has amazing tidepools.

The tides are a critical part of the trip, so it is vital to check them before you depart. Some areas of the coast are only passable at the lowest tide and can be very dangerous at other times. 

Hike the Quinault Valley

While the most popular place to hike is the Hoh Rain Forest, the Quinault Valley offers an equally incredible chance to commune with nature. You'll see cascading creeks, Douglas fir trees, western red cedar, western hemlock and the telltale sign of any rainforest: Sitka spruce—a species that grows only in very wet areas.

Maynes recommends the East Fork Quinault River Trail, accessible from the Graves Creek Trailhead. The path will take you along the river where you have a chance to spot black bears, spotted owls and Roosevelt elk. This 13-mile trial ends at Enchanted Valley, however a good turnaround point is at Pony Bridge—a landmark about three miles into the hike.

Take Your Family to the Kestner Homestead Trail

When Anton Kestner arrived on the North Shore of what is today Olympic National Park, he and his family claimed a section of land under the Federal Homestead Act. Today, this area has been preserved as an interpretive area and provides visitors a glimpse into the past.

"You get a sense of what it was like to show up in the Quinault Rain Forest in the early 1900s and carve out a pasture, fields and orchards, and to build a house and barns," Maynes said. The Kestners did it all without electricity in an area that receives up to 12 feet of rain each year.  

To visit, park at the North Shore Ranger Station and catch the Kestner Homestead trail by way of the Maple Glade trail. You can take the tour solo or on a scheduled walk during the summer.

For more information about Olympic National Park, visit the National Park Service website.