Most people know that Washington offers epic scenery, from some of the most dramatic mountainscapes on the planet to lush rainforests and rugged coastline. So it should be no surprise that three incredible national parks are found within its footprint; in fact, it’s tied for fifth as the state with the most national parks! Here’s everything you need to know about Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades, the three amazing Washington national parks.
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Table of Contents:
1. Olympic National Park
2. Mount Rainier National Park
3. North Cascades National Park
If you’re looking for jaw-dropping scenery in the United States, it’s hard to beat the diversity of landscapes found in Washington. And I should know- for the last four years, my husband, Justin, and I have called this beautiful state our home and have spent every possible free second exploring its spectacular mountains, beaches, and forests.
Needless to say, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to each of the national parks in Washington state and have sussed out the very best things for you to do and see in each of them.
So let’s get to it!
1. Olympic National Park
What to expect:
While I try not to play favorites, if I HAD to choose just one of the Washington national parks to go to if you’re limited on time, it would probably be Olympic.
Because it really offers a little bit of everything—soaring glaciated mountains, jaw-dropping coastline, and, perhaps what it’s best known for, lush temperate rainforests that look straight out of a fairytale. And what’s even cooler is that you could pretty easily explore all of those things within just one day’s time!
Best things to do:
Any Olympic National Park itinerary should include:
- Checking out a rainforest: If you come to Olympic and don’t go to a rainforest, did you really even visit?
The most popular choice in the park is the Hoh Rainforest and for good reason, with its towering trees, covered in moss; enormous primeval ferns; and abundant wildlife (there’s a good chance you may be able to spot an elk alongside the Hoh River!). While there’s several incredible Hoh Rainforest hikes, the family-friendly Hall of Mosses trail is an excellent way to get your bearings in its mystical-looking landscape.
For something away from the crowds, the Quinault Rainforest is just as beautiful as the Hoh, with a fraction of its visitors. If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, the 26-mile Enchanted Valley trail, usually done as a backpacking trail, will take you through the heart of the Quinault Rainforest to a stunning valley, complete with a seemingly vertical wall of mountains, cascading with countless waterfalls.
- Hitting the beach: So I wouldn’t come here expecting bikini weather, but nevertheless, there are some incredible Olympic National Park beaches to explore. You can expect pebbly shores, rugged cliffs, and pine-tree topped sea stacks, jutting out of the crashing ocean below.
Some of my favorites are:
- Ruby Beach, which is easily accessible and has some of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever seen
- Kalaloch Beach, home to the Tree of Life, a massive sitka spruce that’s seemingly suspended in air between two parted bluffs along the beach
- Shi Shi Beach, which is renowned for its cluster of sea stacks, called the Point of Arches. For one of the most epic experiences in the park, consider backpacking in with a tent and camping at Shi Shi Beach (talk about a room with a view!).
- Getting high (…on a mountain): The Olympic Mountain range sits in the park’s expansive footprint, with peaks stretching up to almost 8,000 feet tall, glaciers that are millions of years old and mountain goats galore.
Some of the best hikes in Olympic National Park allow you to explore these incredible mountains, from the beginner-friendly Hurricane Hill hike, where you’ll stroll directly on top of the ridge of Mount Angeles, to the spectacular High Divide and Seven Basin Loop, a challenging backpacking trail, filled with 19 miles of alpine lakes and dramatic peaks.
- Enjoying the water: There’s several beautiful lakes here that, while chilly year round, can feel downright refreshing to jump into on a hot summer’s day. Rent a stand-up paddleboard or kayak or, alternatively, bring your own (Justin and I love our inflatable Intex Explorer K2 kayak) and get out on the water!
My favorite lakes in the park are Lake Crescent, Lake Ozette (the third largest lake in the state!), or Lake Quinault.
- Soak in a hot spring. One of the most unique things about Olympic as compared to the other Washington national park is that it’s home to a handful of natural hot springs.
For easy access, plan a stay at the Sol duc Hot Springs Resort, a rustic inn, tucked in a rainforest. The resort has several geothermally-warmed man-made pools that you can access as a guest of the resort or as an outside visitor (for a fee, of course).
Alternatively, you can hike to a more rustic and secluded option, with pools of steaming water hidden deep in a rainforest, along the moderately challenging (but looooong) 21.6-mile Olympic Hot Springs trail.
Olympic National Park is located here in the Olympic Peninsula, in the northwestern-most corner of the state.
How to get there from Seattle:
One thing to note is that Olympic is GINORMOUS, covering a staggering 1,442 square miles. So drive time—and even the mode of transportation—may vary depending on where you’re headed in the park.
Most of the popular sites in the park, like Hurricane Ridge or the Hoh Rainforest, are located in the northern section of the park. To access this section of Olympic from Seattle, you can either drive down and around the Puget Sound or alternatively, take a ferry straight across it!
In my experience, driving is usually a bit quicker, since you don’t have to worry about the ferry schedule, but if you’re looking for a unique Pacific Northwest experience (and you’re not in a rush), taking your car across with the ferry is definitely the way to go.
Some example drive times from Seattle for attractions in the northern section of the park are:
- Hurricane Ridge: 3 hours
- Lake Crescent: 3 hours
- Hoh Rainforest: 4 hours, 5 minutes
- Shi Shi Beach: 4 hours, 15 minutes
For sites located in the southern half of the park, like Lake Quinault, you’ll simply drive down and around the Puget Sound, along the Olympic Peninsula Loop. Most of the popular sites in this portion of the park are around the Quinault Rainforest, which will take approximately two and a half to three and a half hours to drive to.
$30 per vehicle for a one week pass or $80 for an America the Beautiful pass, which includes ALL of the Washington national parks (and all the rest of ‘em throughout the country!), plus over 2,000 other federally managed sites for an entire YEAR!
2.72 million visitors
There are 15 campgrounds in Olympic, 10 of which accommodate my RV brethren.
The best campgrounds, in my opinions, are Kalaloch (perched on a bluff, overlooking the Pacific), Hoh (true to its name, located in the Hoh Rainforest), and Sol Duc Hot Springs (just a short walk over to some very cozy hot springs!).
I’d suggest booking these campgrounds several months in advance—as the most visited national park in Washington and the 15th most popular in the country, the campsites book up fast!
Where to stay:
Not the camping type? Consider instead:
- Olympic Lodge: This is a popular choice in Port Angeles, near Hurricane Hill, Lake Crescent, and Sol duc Falls. The rooms have a lodge-like feel, while still being modern, and you can relax those muscles in the hot tub after a long day of hiking
- Pacific Inn Motel: For a place to stay along the coastline, the family-owned and operated inn in Forks, Washington (yes, of the Twilight fame) is a crowd favorite. For being relatively easy on the wallet, it has a LOT of thoughtful touches, from cookies at check-in and a year round hot tub. And, if you’re so inclined, even a Twilight-themed room!
- Rain Forest Resort Village: If you’re looking to explore the off-the-beaten-path southern portion of the park, this cozy lodge, on the banks of Lake Quinault, is kind of like going to a retro summer camp. Expect friendly staff, comfortable beds, and unparalleled views of the lake.
When to go:
The best thing about Olympic is that, unlike the other two national parks in Washington, most of its main attractions, like the Hoh Rainforest or the coastline, are easily accessible year round. Because of its proximity to the coastline, these areas tend to have moderate temperatures and remain snowfree, even in the wintertime.
For the park’s higher elevation trails, you’ll find snow from late October through June, but this just means you’ll get to bust out your snowshoes (Justin has this pair and I have this pair). In fact, one of my favorite things to do in Olympic National Park in winter is to visit Hurricane Hill—there’s nothing quite like snowshoeing on top of a 6,454 foot mountain while surrounded by countless other snowy peaks.
2. Mount Rainier National Park
I know this might sound crazy, but if I had to pick a favorite mountain on the planet, it would be Mount Rainier, no question. It’s the very embodiment of “purple mountain majesty.”- it’s so stunning that I literally pick my seats on airplanes flying into and out of Seattle so that I’ll have the best view of it while we’re flying past it. Seriously, its rugged peak and ancient glaciers are that amazing.
My fangirling doesn’t just stop there—its namesake national park is just as incredible. Beyond just being the home of Washington’s tallest mountain at 14,411 feet, the national park is an alpine wonderland, offering dramatic mountainscapes, old-growth forests, and fields of technicolor wildflowers (and SO many cute marmots)!
While Mount Rainier’s landscape may not be as diverse as Olympic’s, it’s no less stunning. In fact, I gotta agree with the famed naturalist John Muir, who once declared that Rainier was “… the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.”
Best things to do:
- Chase all the waterfalls: Because Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the United States, it has a RIDICULOUS amount of waterfalls (over 150 named waterfalls in the park!).
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hike, Myrtle Falls is probably the most iconic waterfall in the park, streaming 72 feet down a gorge, while the backdrop of Mount Rainier looms overhead. Plus, the falls are within about a quarter of a mile from the popular Paradise section’s parking lot!
Alternatively, Spray Falls requires a bit more effort along a 4.0-mile roundtrip hike, but the payoff will totally be worth it! At the end, you’ll find a 354-foot waterfall, with countless streams rushing over a cliffside.
- Visit a fire lookout: Perhaps my very favorite aspect about Mount Rainier is its four historic fire lookouts. These historic structures, built in the 1920s and 1930s, were perched on top of the mountain peaks surrounding Rainier so that rangers could spot forest fires on the surrounding slopes and forestlands. And, oh yeah—because of their vantage point, they have MIND BLOWING views of the mountain.
The best Mt. Rainier hikes to get to see these awesome structures up close and personal include:
- Mount Fremont Lookout, the highest one in the park at 7,181 feet tall. Located in the northeastern Sunrise section of the park, you’ll have epic views of Mount Rainier and the seemingly endless peaks of the surrounding cascades, as well as a good chance of seeing a dreamy cloud inversion during your visit (especially if you time your visit at sunrise or sunset).
- Tolmie Peak Fire Lookout, which overlooks the sparkling waters of Mowich Lake and, beyond, a glaciated peak of the tallest mountain in the Cascade range. If you happen to be visiting in the fall, it’s basically required that you come here—the trail and all of its foliage are stunning.
- Enjoy the wildflowers: Being the magical alpine wonderland that it is, of course Mount Rainier has meadows upon meadows of colorful wildflowers, carpeting its slopes.
The best place to see them in the park is along the iconic Skyline Trail, usually between July and August of each year. Located in the Paradise section of the park, you’ll climb through brilliant displays of subalpine wildflowers, like lupine and Indian paintbrush, to Panorama Point. This lookout is situated almost exactly halfway up Rainier’s massive slope (7,051 feet, to be exact!) and provides vistas of the jagged Tatoosh Mountain Range and Mount Adams.
- Relax near (or in!) an alpine lake: Did I mention that Rainier has, like, a lot of glaciers? This has resulted in a ton of glacial lakes—400 of which are actually mapped in the park— just waiting to be enjoyed.
If you’re visiting on a hot summer’s day, nothing can beat taking a dip in Mowich Lake (although be prepared- it’ll be CHILLY!), with the mountain towering above.
Alternatively, if you’re more in the mood for just drinking in the views, Tipsoo Lake, located on the eastern side of the park, offers boundless wildflowers, some family-friendly hiking trails, and of course, jaw-dropping views of Rainier.
Mount Rainier National Park is located here in the heart of the Cascade Mountain range.
How to get there from Seattle:
From Seattle, you can generally get to most of the popular areas of the park in about two and a half hours.
Like Olympic National Park (really, like all of the national parks in Washington state), Rainier is pretty enormous, at 370 square miles. And with, well, a 14 THOUSAND foot mountain smack dab in the middle of the park, you can’t exactly just drive clear across it. All that said, it may take longer than two and a half hours to drive from Seattle to Rainier, depending on exactly where you’re headed in the park.
Here’s a breakdown of Rainier’s most popular sections and how far they are from Seattle:
- Paradise: As noted above, Paradise is one of the most popular sections of the park, located on its southern side or two hours and 25 minutes from Seattle. You’ll find some of my favorite hikes here, including the Skyline Trail and Pinnacle Peak, as well as stunning lakes, waterfalls, and fields upon fields of wildflowers.
- Sunrise: The second most popular section is located in its northeastern section or a little over two hours from Seattle.
At 6,400 foot elevation, this is the highest point that can be reached via vehicle in the park and offers jaw-dropping views of the surrounding mountains and valleys (and, of course, Rainier). Main points of interest here include the Mount Fremont Trail, Summerland Trail (try to snag backpacking permits here—it’s the best backcountry campsite in the park!), and Burroughs Mountain trail.
- Carbon River/Mowich: Located in the northwestern section of the park, a little over two hours from Seattle, this area mostly offers old-growth forests and temperate rainforests. While this part of the park is definitely less trafficked than others, it’s nonetheless stunning (and you won’t have to wait three hours to get into its entrance gate!). Head here for Tolmie Peak, the cool waters of Mowich Lake, or Spray Falls.
$30 per vehicle for a one-week pass or free with an America the Beautiful Pass
There are only four campgrounds in the park.
Three of them are RV-friendly, but get ready to get rustic—none of them have any kind of hookups. The most popular one is Cougar Rock, near the Paradise section and Mount Rainier’s sole and very illustrious dump station.
Where to stay:
Given the popularity of Paradise, most visitors stay in the nearby town of Ashford. Some of my favorite places to stay in Ashford are:
- Paradise Village: If you’re looking for an affordable stay with comfy beds, I’ve personally stayed at this motel and thought the recently updated rooms were clean and cozy (I looove me a heated floor!). Plus, if you’re feeling a lil’ extra, you can book a session with its wood-fired hot tub and live out your best mountain life.
- Stormking Hotel: It’s one of the best-rated hotels in Ashford, with charming cabins, private outdoor hot tubs, and cozy details, like a hammock in the garden area or a fireplace to curl up to after all of your day’s adventures. Definitely great for couples or someone who is just trying to totally unwind for a day or two (or five!).
- Mountain Meadows Inn: This historic bed and breakfast has everything you’d need for a Rainier getaway, from a hot tub to a fire pit. The staff are wonderful and the breakfast spread is definitely nothing to sneeze at either!
When to go:
Fun fact- Mount Rainier is actually one of the snowiest places in the Lower 48, due to its soaring elevation. Because of the immense amount of snow it receives (54 FEET, to be exact!), its trails and roads at high elevations tend to be snow-covered from mid-October to early to mid-July. Accordingly, if you’re looking to see and enjoy unencumbered access to the aforementioned wildflowers, alpine lakes, and pine tree forests, your best bet will be to come here from mid-July through early October.
If you enjoy snow activities, like snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, or backcountry skiing, Mt Rainier National Park can still be a pretty epic destination in the winter. Just be aware that only certain areas of the park, like Paradise, remain accessible through the winter and you may be required to have special equipment, like chains for your tires, to drive on the roads during this time of the year.
3. North Cascades National Park
What to Expect:
The incredibly underrated North Cascades offer Gatorade-blue alpine lakes, meadows of colorful wildflowers, and best of all, some of the most dramatic and rugged mountains in the country. In fact, one of my friends went trekking down in Patagonia in South America, which is known for its iconic peaks, and upon his return, he said he was “slightly disappointed” as compared to his experience in the North Cascades. Yeah, they’re that incredible.
North Cascades is also quite spread out (clocking in at 1,070 square miles). It also feels a lot more remote than the other Washington national parks, with a limited number of towns and facilities, like gas stations, visitors centers, or restaurants, as you’ll find in and around the other parks.
If anything, though, this adds to the epicness of the North Cascades—it truly feels like a pristine and untouched wilderness, just waiting to be explored.
Best things to do:
- Stop at Diablo Lake: While you’ll pass a number of colorful lakes driving from Seattle to the North Cascades, the most iconic is Diablo, the aforementioned Gatorade-colored glacial lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and their pine tree-covered slopes.
If you’re looking for a low-impact activity, stop by the Diablo Lake Vista Point, which offers breathtaking views of its turquoise waters. Alternatively, if you’re feeling more adventurous, there’s several places to rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards on its shores, like Ross Lake Resort or North Cascades Kayaks, to enjoy the water up close and personal.
There’s also a number of hikes that meander around the lake. One of the most popular is the family-friendly Thunder Knob trail, which winds through a stunning forest and ends at a viewpoint overlooking the south side of the lake.
- Participate in larch madness: In late September or early October of every year, it’s an annual tradition that Washingtonians LOSE their damn minds over larches.
Not sure what a larch is? All good—I didn’t either prior to moving here!
A larch is a unique coniferous tree, found on alpine slopes, with needles that turn golden every autumn before falling off for the winter. While the larches definitely look wild, the rest of the fall foliage in the North Cascades is just as gorgeous, with its shrubs and wildflowers, like blueberries and Indian paintbrush, bursting into vibrant hues of orange and red.
Get in on that larch madness action yourself by hiking on any of the amazing trails that are known for their larches. For example, along the iconic Heather Maple Pass Loop trail, you’ll climb past countless larch groves to the top of a mountain ridge, with panoramic views of the surrounding mountain peaks. Alternatively, Cutthroat Pass Trail is way less crowded than Heather Maple Pass and its endpoint offers one of the best vistas that I’ve seen (I literally cried along this trail, it was so beautiful!).
You’ll need a bit of luck to time this correctly—the larches really only turn vibrant gold for a few weeks out of the year and, if you come just a day or two too late, these high elevation trails are often covered with snow already!
- Visit Stehekin: The teeny town of Stehekin is pretty unique, home to only 75 residents, nestled in the heart of the Cascade Mountains. Because of its location along the banks of Lake Chelan, the third deepest lake in the United States. Stehekin is pretty remote—in fact, you can only get here via a 46-mile round trip hike, plane, or boat.
Once you’re here, though, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping natural beauty, like its famed 312-foot tall Rainbow Falls. Despite its tiny size (with only 75 residents!), there’s plenty to do here, like getting out on Lake Chelan on a paddle board or drinking in the thousands and thousands of twinkling stars in the night sky.
- Go on a hike: With some of the vastest wilderness in the United States, it should come as no surprise that North Cascades seriously has some killer hiking.
Some of my favorite hikes include Blue Lake, which meanders up and through a forest to a crystal clear lake, sitting at the foot of a jagged mountain, or the very challenging Desolation Peak, a butt-kicking climb to a historic fire lookout, overlooking Ross Lake and the surrounding mountains.
- Cruise along a scenic drive and stop at all the overlooks: Listen, if you’re not in the mood for a 46-mile hike to a town of 75 people, or paddling in some very icy water, that’s totally cool—the park offers plenty of chill activities, like driving along the jaw-dropping North Cascade Highway, which snakes between seemingly endless mountain peaks, or enjoying the jaw dropping views at the park’s plentiful scenic overlooks.
Regardless of whether you’re planning a low or high impact trip to the North Cascades, be sure to carve out time to stop at the Ross Lake Overlook, where you’ll be able to see all the way to Canada on a clear day, and the Washington Pass Overlook, the highest point along the North Cascades Highway and with the views to prove it.
North Cascades National Park is located here, tucked along the northern border of Washington state.
How to Get there From Seattle:
To get around the national park, there’s really only one road that will take you through it—the aptly-named North Cascades Highway.
Depending on how far east you’re heading in the park will dictate how long of a drive time you’ll have. For example, it will take about two hours and 20 minutes to get from Seattle to Diablo Lake (near the western edge of the park) to a little over four hours to get to the attractions on the eastern side of the park, like Heather Maple Pass Loop.
It’s worth mentioning that the North Cascades National Park is considered as part of a larger complex. Besides the national park itself, the complex includes the Ross Lake National Recreation Area towards the northern section of the park and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area in its southeastern area. Because there’s no fee entry stations (that’s right—it’s freeee!) or clear boundaries of the national park to visitors, I’ve also noticed that people seem to lump things in the surrounding national forests, like Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, into the North Cascades.
All that is to say, be sure to triple check your GPS before heading to your destination to estimate accurate drive times and don’t feel limited to exploring within the national park’s borders. There’s so many epic things—like the Park Butte Trail or the Yellow Aster Butte Trail— that aren’t technically within the national park’s boundaries that are still absolutely worth exploring!
As noted above, one of the best things about North Cascades National Park is that it’s totally free!
The North Cascades is by far the least visited of the Washington national parks, with less than one million visitors exploring the park each year.
Along the North Cascades Highway, there are six campgrounds, all of which allow RVs. There’s also a few campgrounds that you can only hike, boat, or fly into, like Hozomeen at the north end of Ross Lake and three campgrounds in Stehekin (no RVs here, unless your RV happens to float and/or fly!).
My favorite is the Colonial Creek Campground, which offers some campsites directly on the shores of Diablo Lake.
Where to stay:
Given that North Cascades is kiiiinda of in the middle of nowhere, there really aren’t any formal accommodations within the park itself. Instead, I’d suggest staying in the adorable town of Winthrop, on its eastern side.
Winthrop was an old gold rush town from the 1800s, which has now REALLY leaned into the Wild Western vibes, complete with antique wooden boardwalks, Western facades, and old time-y signage. I love this kind of kitschiness, but even if it’s not your jam, I promise the sweeping views of the surrounding Methow Valley will more than make up for it.
In Winthrop, check out:
- Sun Mountain Lodge: Everything you’d want in a mountain lodge— cozy robes to wear to the hot tub or pool, a delicious onsite restaurant, and, of course, epic views of the surrounding peaks.
- Methow River Lodge: This inn offers close proximity to Winthrop’s charming downtown area, large rooms with comfy beds and balconies, and friendly staff.
- Hotel Rio Vista: This riverside hotel provides excellent wildlife opportunities (tons of bald eagles!) that you can watch from the huge picture windows and the private balconies. You’ll be steps from Winthrop’s old time-y town if you want to grab dinner or a beer or you can relax onsite, in your comfy room or the outdoor hot tub.
When to go:
The best time to go is mid-July through early October, when the trails and roads are mostly snow-free and the weather relatively pleasant. If you can swing it, I’d highly recommend trying to time your visit for late September or early October—seriously, fall is AMAZING here.
From mid-October through April or May of each year, large sections of the North Cascades Highway close down due to the heavy snowfall here, so you won’t be able to access the heart of North Cascades National Park. If you’re into snow-shoeing, skiing, or other winter sports, the areas around North Cascades, like Mount Baker or Winthrop, are a winter wonderland, with just as incredible mountain views as the national park itself!
There you have it- everything you need to know to plan a visit to the three incredible and unique Washington national parks. Do you have any questions about any of the parks? Let me know in the comments below!
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