Washington State is a treasure trove for nature lovers, boasting diverse landscapes that range from coastal beaches to towering mountain peaks. The state’s most prized attractions are its three national parks: Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades. Each park offers visitors a unique and unforgettable experience, showcasing the state’s natural beauty and rich biodiversity.
Olympic National Park, located on the Olympic Peninsula, is renowned for its impressive temperate rainforest, picturesque mountain trails, and rugged coastal shores. Mount Rainier National Park, centered around the iconic 14,417-foot Mount Rainier, is a haven for anyone captivated by the beauty of glaciers, thriving subalpine meadows, and old-growth forests. The lesser-known but equally spectacular North Cascades National Park is a pristine wilderness featuring stunning alpine landscapes, turquoise lakes, and more than 300 glaciers.
Whether you are a seasoned adventurer or just looking for a peaceful retreat amidst nature, Washington’s national parks offer unforgettable experiences suitable for everyone.
Table of Contents
The 3 Washington National Parks
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is a diverse region encompassing temperate rainforests, high mountain peaks, and a rocky, misty coastline. It is about 120 miles from Seattle, 380 miles from Spokane, and 50 miles from Olympia. The best months to visit are typically May through September, when the weather is most pleasant, and the park’s attractions are easily accessible. While in Olympic National Park, visitors can explore miles of hiking trails, traverse through verdant rainforests, and stroll along the picturesque coastline.
Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park is centered around the majestic Mount Rainier, a massive glacier-encrusted stratovolcano that towers over the surrounding landscape. The park is situated roughly 110 miles from Seattle, 290 miles from Spokane, and 80 miles from Olympia. While the best times to visit are generally from late June to September, it is essential to keep in mind that the mountain’s high altitude can affect weather conditions. Visitors to Mount Rainier National Park can enjoy a variety of recreational activities, such as scenic drives, hiking trails, and wildlife viewing.
North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park features a stunning array of landscapes, including soaring peaks, deep valleys, dense forests, and striking glaciers. This national park is located around 115 miles from Seattle, 250 miles from Spokane, and 170 miles from Olympia. The best months to visit North Cascades National Park are from June to September when the weather conditions are most favorable. During their visit, travelers can indulge in an array of outdoor activities, such as hiking, backpacking, fishing, and wildlife watching. The North Cascades also offer well-maintained campgrounds and lodging options for those looking to extend their stay and fully immerse themselves in the awe-inspiring beauty of the region.
Which Washington National Park Should You Visit?
Washington State is home to three stunning national parks: Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades. Each park offers unique experiences and landscapes, catering to various interests and activity levels.
Mount Rainier National Park is ideal for those who love towering mountains and alpine meadows. The park surrounds an active volcano, Mount Rainier, which stands at 14,417 feet. Activities here include hiking, wildlife viewing, and scenic drives. Rainier is also known for its gorgeous displays of wildflowers in the summer months.
Olympic National Park provides diverse ecosystems, from rainforests to rugged coastlines. The Hoh Rainforest, famous for its moss-draped trees, is a must-visit. Enjoy coastal hikes, such as Rialto Beach and Shi Shi Beach, or venture into the mountains to hike Hurricane Ridge or Mount Storm King.
North Cascades National Park is perfect for those seeking solitude and pristine wilderness. Here, you’ll find glaciated peaks, lush pine forests, and turquoise lakes. Whether you’re up for casual day hiking or a multi-day backpacking adventure, this park will not disappoint.
When planning your visit, the time of year significantly determines which park is best for you. All three parks are generally accessible from late spring to early fall, with various activities and trail conditions depending on the season. However, due to snow conditions, Mount Rainier tends to have more limited access during the winter months.
So, whether you’re looking for snow-capped mountains, lush rainforests, or serene lakes, Washington’s national parks have something for every nature enthusiast. Take time to consider your desired activities, available time, and preferred landscapes to choose the park that will provide your ideal Washington State adventure.
Top Hiking Trails
Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades offer a variety of captivating hiking trails featuring alpine lakes, breathtaking vistas, and diverse terrains. This section will explore some of the best hiking trails available in these national parks.
Skyline Trail in Mount Rainier National Park is a must-do hike for those seeking remarkable views of Mount Rainier and its lush surroundings. This 5.5-mile loop trail begins at Paradise, the park’s main visitor center, and offers a moderate level of difficulty with an elevation gain of 1,700 feet. Hikers can expect to encounter wildflower meadows, alpine lakes, and even the possibility of spotting wildlife, such as marmots and deer, during this 4.5-hour roundtrip hike.
Another highlight of Mount Rainier National Park is the Wonderland Trail, a challenging, 93-mile-long loop that circumnavigates the entire mountain. This trail is well-suited for experienced hikers and backpackers, as it features steep ascents and descents, multiple river crossings, and an elevation gain of over 22,000 feet. The Wonderland Trail typically takes around 10-14 days to complete, but those who brave its challenges will be rewarded with impeccable alpine vistas and pristine wilderness.
In Olympic National Park, one of the most popular trails is the Hoh River Trail, which meanders through the enchanting Hoh Rainforest. This 17.4-mile, out-and-back trail begins at the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center and follows the Hoh River, offering a mostly flat terrain with an elevation gain of approximately 3,700 feet. At 17.4 miles round trip, the Hoh River Trail is also a pleasant option for those looking for a less strenuous day hike.
The Pacific Crest Trail is a renowned, long-distance trail that spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, passing through several states, including Washington. In the North Cascades National Park, the Pacific Crest Trail makes its way through lush old-growth forests, alpine meadows, and serene lakes. One of the best sections of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington is the stretch from Rainy Pass to Hart’s Pass, which is about 32 miles long and showcases captivating views of the North Cascades mountain range.
These are just a handful of the exceptional hiking trails available in Washington’s national parks. Each offers a unique experience, allowing hikers to explore the diverse natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Washington’s national parks offer a variety of activities throughout the year, catering to visitors with different interests and preferences. The three most prominent parks in the state are Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades, each providing unique experiences during different seasons.
Summer: The summer months, with their warmer temperatures and long days, are ideal for exploring the outdoors. Activities such as hiking, wildlife spotting, and photography are popular in all three parks. Olympic National Park’s temperate rainforest and rocky coastline provide excellent hiking opportunities, while Mount Rainier National Park’s wildflower-filled meadows are a delight for nature lovers.
Spring: As plants bloom and temperatures start to rise, the spring season in Washington’s national parks brings excitement and rejuvenation. While higher elevations may still experience snow, trails at lower elevations become more accessible for hikers and nature enthusiasts. Keep an eye out for migrating birds and blossoming wildflowers, which are some of the highlights of visiting during spring.
Winter: For those looking to engage in winter sports, you are in for a treat. Skiing and snowshoeing become popular activities in the higher elevations of Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks. Although some roads and services may be closed or limited during this time, the snowy landscapes provide an entirely different view of the majestic parks.
Early Fall: The early fall season, when leaves change color and temperatures begin to drop, is also an ideal time to explore Washington’s national parks. The vibrant autumn colors and crisp air offer a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of the summer months. Hiking and photography enthusiasts will find the early fall to be particularly enchanting in both Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks.
Overall, the best time to visit Washington’s national parks depends on your interests and preferences. Each season brings unique experiences, catering to adventurers and nature lovers alike.
Unique Landscapes and Wildlife
Washington State is home to a diverse array of national parks that showcase some of the most stunning landscapes and wildlife in the United States. With a myriad of mountains, forests, glaciers, lush meadows, and coastlines, these parks offer an unparalleled opportunity to experience the beauty of nature.
Nestled within the Cascade Range, Mount Rainier National Park is a must-visit location for any nature enthusiast. Home to the iconic Mount Rainier, this park boasts an impressive skyline that is made even more special by its surrounding glaciers and wildflower-filled meadows. Visitors can also catch a glimpse of a wide variety of wildlife, including black bears, elk, and marmots.
Stepping from mountains to rainforests, Olympic National Park is a true natural paradise. With over a million acres of protected land, it encompasses a diverse range of landscapes and environments, from lush temperate rainforests to wild, rugged coastlines. The park’s ancient forests come alive with the melodies of Pacific tree frogs and the presence of Roosevelt elk, while its beaches showcase the unspoiled beauty of the Puget Sound coastline.
Covering a vast expanse of the North Cascades, North Cascades National Park is perfect for exploring the wilder side of Washington. The park is home to one of America’s most significant glacial systems, and its many lakes, such as Ross Lake and Lake Chelan, add to its scenic beauty. The region teems with wildlife, attracting birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts alike. Popular sights within the park include the striking Mount Baker, pristine Lake Crescent, and the enchanting Myrtle Falls.
Throughout these national parks, an America the Beautiful Pass allows for easy exploration and access to cherished natural treasures. In Washington’s diverse environments, each park offers a unique perspective on the landscapes and wildlife that make up this extraordinary region. The combination of mountains, forests, glaciers, lush meadows, coastlines, and more create an unforgettable experience for visitors to these national parks.
Exploring Nearby Attractions
The Pacific Northwest is known for its stunning landscapes and iconic landmarks. Washington State’s national parks are an essential part of any road trip itinerary in this region, offering visitors a myriad of recreational opportunities. When planning a trip to Washington’s national parks, it is essential to consider exploring nearby attractions as well.
One of the most popular cities in the Pacific Northwest is Seattle, a vibrant and modern city known for its iconic Space Needle and Pike Place Market. A visit to Seattle can easily be combined with a trip to nearby Mount Rainier National Park, which stands at 14,410 feet above sea level and offers diverse outdoor activities such as hiking, wildlife viewing, and scenic drives.
The Olympic Peninsula is another noteworthy destination in Washington State. This beautiful area is home to Olympic National Park, known for its scenic coastlines, temperate rainforests, and stunning mountain ranges. Exploring the various ecosystems in the park provides an unforgettable experience for nature enthusiasts. Nearby attractions such as the Hoh Rain Forest and several state parks allow visitors to create a comprehensive and diverse itinerary.
North Cascades National Park is a breathtaking gem in the Pacific Northwest. This park is a haven for hikers, campers, and wildlife enthusiasts, with its rugged mountain peaks, deep valleys, and numerous lakes. Adding a visit to surrounding state parks and nearby attractions, such as small towns and viewpoints, can enhance visitors’ experience of the natural beauty of the area.
In short, Washington State offers a plethora of incredible national parks, each boasting unique landscapes and outdoor recreational opportunities. Including nearby attractions such as Seattle, the Olympic Peninsula, and state parks into your road trip itinerary allows for a comprehensive and memorable way to explore the Pacific Northwest.
Not-to-Miss Sights and Experiences
While exploring Washington’s national parks, there are several iconic sights and experiences that you shouldn’t miss. Start with Olympic National Park, which offers an incredible range of landscapes, from rainforests to beaches. One must-see location is Hurricane Ridge, known for its awe-inspiring views and an array of hiking trails. Take the opportunity to visit the Hoh Rainforest, a temperate rainforest characterized by its lush old-growth forest and the famous Hall of Mosses.
Continuing your journey through Olympic National Park, be sure to stop by Rialto Beach to take a relaxing stroll alongside the ocean. Keep an eye out for the Hole-in-the-Wall, a breathtaking natural formation along the shore. Other highlights in the park include Marymere Falls and Shi Shi Beach, both known for their captivating beauty.
Next on your list should be Mount Rainier National Park, home to the prominent stratovolcano Mt. Rainier. The park provides many opportunities for both casual sightseeing and more advanced hiking. Two key areas to visit are Sunrise and Paradise, both offering spectacular views of the mountain and surrounding areas. Don’t miss out on the Panorama Point trail, which provides a stunning vantage point of the landscape.
While at Mount Rainier National Park, be sure to stop by the various visitor centers for helpful information, maps, and restaurant options. In addition to its majestic peaks, the park boasts diverse wildlife, including mountain goats and elk, which can often be spotted near the roads and water sources.
Finally, venture to North Cascades National Park and the Ross Lake National Recreation Area to explore the majestic mountain landscapes characterized by their glacier-carved peaks and numerous lakes and waterfalls. Keep an eye out for Diablo Lake, an ideal spot for a scenic picnic with its turquoise waters and picturesque mountain backdrop.
As you explore the best of Washington’s national parks, immerse yourself in the wide-ranging beauty and diversity each park has to offer, from the azure waters of Ross Lake to the enchanting rainforests of Olympic National Park.
Transportation Options from Seattle to Olympic National Park
Driving by Car or RV
One option to get to Olympic National Park from Seattle is to drive by car or RV. Travelers can take the I-5 corridor southbound from Seattle to Tacoma and then take State Route 16 westbound towards Bremerton. Next, they need to continue on State Route 104, which will eventually connect to the Hood Canal Bridge. Once they cross the bridge, they can follow signs to Olympic National Park.
Taking a Ferry
Another way to reach the park is by taking a ferry from Seattle. The Washington State Ferries system offers a few routes that can shorten the drive:
- Seattle-Bainbridge Island ferry: This ferry departs from downtown Seattle and arrives at Bainbridge Island.
- Seattle-Bremerton ferry: This ferry also departs from downtown Seattle and takes riders to Bremerton.
- Edmonds-Kingston ferry: For travelers coming from Seattle’s northern suburbs, the Edmonds-Kingston ferry may be the most convenient option.
Using Public Transportation
For those who prefer using public transportation, there are a few options available:
- Greyhound USA: This bus company offers regular service between Seattle’s downtown and Port Angeles, which is near Olympic National Park’s main visitor center. Journey time is roughly 5 hours, with layover times averaging 1 hour.
- Dungeness Line – Olympic and Clallam Transit: Another option is to use the Dungeness Line, which connects Seattle to Port Angeles as well. Both bus lines require connections to reach the park itself, but they do shorten the overall travel distance significantly.
Exploring the Olympic Peninsula
Scenic Drives and Routes
The Olympic Peninsula offers numerous picturesque drives for visitors looking to explore the breathtaking beauty of the area. One of the most popular routes to Olympic National Park from Seattle is Highway 101, which circles the peninsula and provides access to many of the park’s major attractions, including Lake Crescent, Hoh Rainforest, and Hurricane Ridge. For a shorter, more direct route, visitors can also take the Bainbridge Ferry from Seattle, which cuts off about an hour of travel time and costs $28.60 per standard car, as well as $8.50 per person.
Other scenic routes around the park include State Route 123, which offers incredible views of the Olympic Mountains, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca Scenic Byway, featuring stunning coastal vistas. Consider stopping in charming towns like Sequim, Port Gamble, and Poulsbo along the journey to experience the local culture and history.
- Day Trip from Seattle: Take the Bainbridge Ferry to the Olympic Peninsula, then drive to Hurricane Ridge for awe-inspiring mountain views. On the way back, make stops in Sequim and Port Gamble.
- Weekend Adventure: Begin your road trip by driving around the peninsula on Highway 101. Explore the Hoh Rainforest, Lake Crescent, and La Push on the first day, then discover the coastal beauty of the park, including the Quinault area, on the second day.
- RV Journey: Rent an RV and embark on a leisurely exploration of the Olympic Peninsula over several days, visiting attractions like Forks, Lake Quinault, and Hurricane Ridge at your own pace.
Getting Around the Park
Although a personal vehicle or RV is the most convenient way to explore the Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park, public transportation options are available for those without a car. Clallam Transit operates several routes in the area, providing access to key locations within the park and nearby towns. However, keep in mind that public transportation schedules may be less frequent and flexible than driving a personal vehicle.
Lodging and Camping Options
Lodges and Hotels
Several lodging options are available within and near Olympic National Park, catering to different preferences and budgets. For a rustic and seaside experience, Kalaloch Lodge is the only lodging within the park next to the ocean, offering a combination of history and modern amenities. Located near Port Angeles, Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort provides a rejuvenating experience with hot springs amidst the lush Pacific Northwest rainforest.
When selecting lodging options, consider:
- What time of year you are visiting (as weather may impact your experience)
- Proximity to park entrances and hiking trails
- Reservation and cancellation policies
- On-site dining and restaurant options
Numerous hotels are also available in nearby towns such as Port Angeles, Olympia, and Hoodsport.
Campgrounds and RV Parks
Olympic National Park offers various campgrounds within the park, accessible for tents and RVs, but plan for making reservations ahead of time. Some popular campgrounds within the park include:
- Kalaloch Beach Campground: Located on the Pacific coast, this campground is open year-round and includes 168 campsites.
- Sol Duc Campground: A forested campground with 82 campsites and easy access to Sol Duc hot springs and waterfalls.
- Hoh Rainforest Campground: Experience the lush Pacific Northwest rainforest with 88 campsites, open year-round.
In addition to campgrounds within the park, nearby national forests and private campgrounds also offer a range of options, including RV parks.
Keep in mind:
- When visiting during peak seasons (spring and fall), securing a campsite without a reservation may be difficult.
- Olympic National Park has limited RV services, and some campgrounds may restrict RV length; check the park’s official website for specific details.
Whether you choose a lodge or campground experience, Olympic National Park has options to accommodate your preferences and make your visit a memorable experience in Washington State.
Transportation Options from Seattle to Mount Rainier National Park
Driving from Seattle
Driving a personal vehicle is a common choice for travelers visiting Mount Rainier from Seattle. The park has four main entrances: White River/Sunrise (Northeast Entrance), Stevens Canyon (Southeast Entrance), Nisqually (Southwest Entrance), and Carbon Entrance (Northwest Entrance).
To reach the Nisqually Entrance with access to Longmire/Paradise, use the address 39000 State Route 706 E, Ashford, WA 98304. For the Eastside entrances, such as White River Entrance (access to Sunrise) and Stevens Canyon Entrance, use SR 410. Ohanapecosh is reached via SR 123. Be aware of summer congestion and potential parking limitations.
Taking a Bus
While public transportation options to Mount Rainier National Park are limited, there are a few choices for travelers who prefer to take a bus. Visitors can utilize the line 915 bus from Auburn Station which connects to a train from King Street Station in Seattle. This option is recommended to reduce potential parking headaches, especially during peak season.
For a more scenic and immersive experience, travelers can opt to take a train from King Street Station in Seattle to Auburn Station. From Auburn Station, they can connect with the line 915 bus to get to the park. This combination of train and bus travel offers a more environmentally friendly and unique way to reach Mount Rainier National Park.
For visitors who prefer a more guided and structured experience, several tour companies offer transportation and travel packages from Seattle to Mount Rainier National Park. One such company is Bearing Tours, which provides private driving tours for groups of up to 11 guests from the Seattle and Puget Sound region. These specialized group tours offer convenient transportation, knowledgeable guides, and customizable itineraries to suit travelers’ preferences and schedules.
Which Mount Rainier Park Entrance Should You Use?
White River / Sunrise: Northeast Entrance
The White River entrance is located in the northeast corner of the park and serves as the primary access point to the popular Sunrise area. Open seasonally (typically late June through early October), this entrance provides visitors with access to the Sunrise Visitor Center, breathtaking views of the mountain, and various trailheads for day hikes. From Seattle, it is approximately a 2.5-hour drive to reach the White River entrance.
Stevens Canyon: Southeast Entrance
The Stevens Canyon entrance in the southeast part of Mount Rainier National Park provides convenient access to the Ohanapecosh and Box Canyon areas. Usually open from late May to early October, this entrance is about a 3-hour drive from Seattle. The area offers a range of recreational activities such as hiking trails, waterfalls, and campgrounds. Visitors can also find the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center near this entrance.
Nisqually: Southwest Entrance (Most Popular)
For year-round access to Mount Rainier, the Nisqually entrance in the southwest corner is your best bet. It is a 2-hour drive from Seattle and provides access to popular destinations like Longmire, Narada Falls, Reflection Lakes, and Paradise. The closest visitor center is the Longmire Museum, while the popular Paradise area features both day hiking and historic buildings, as well as a visitor center.
Carbon River: Northwest Entrance
The Carbon River entrance, located in the northwest area of the park, is a more remote and less visited option for those seeking fewer crowds. This entrance is open year-round, but be aware that the road to the Carbon River area is unpaved and may be unsuitable for some vehicles. The Carbon River area contains lush rainforest scenery and hiking trails, perfect for those looking for a more secluded experience. This entrance is approximately a 2.5-hour drive from Seattle.
Lodging and Camping Options
Lodges and Hotels
Paradise Inn is a historic hotel located within Mount Rainier National Park. It offers guests a unique and rustic experience with a combination of original and updated amenities. The Inn is situated at an elevation of 5,400 feet, providing stunning views of Mount Rainier and its surroundings. Accommodations vary from standard rooms to family suites. Prices depend on the type of room and season. You can find more information and photos on the official Paradise Inn website.
National Park Inn is also located within the park, in the Longmire Historic District, at an elevation of 2,700 feet. Open year-round, this cozy inn offers 25 guest rooms, a dining area, and a small gift shop. Room rates vary depending on the time of year and room type. More details about the National Park Inn are available on the National Park Inn website.
Campgrounds and RV Parks
- Cougar Rock Campground: Situated near the Nisqually River in the southwest section of the park, Cougar Rock Campground offers 173 well-maintained campsites. All sites are conveniently located near the road to Paradise. This campground is perfect for visitors who want to explore the park’s extensive network of trails. For more information, including reservations and campsite details, visit the Cougar Rock Campground page.
- Mounthaven Resort: Located just half a mile from the Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, Mounthaven Resort offers a variety of camping options, including full hookup RV sites, tent sites, and two camping cabins. This family and dog-friendly resort allows visitors to enjoy the beauty of the park in a more luxurious setting. Visit the Mounthaven Resort website for rates, booking details, and more information.
- Elkamp Campground: Located a short distance from the park, Elkamp Campground offers a more rustic camping experience. Visitors can enjoy basic amenities and the beautiful natural setting. For more information about Elkamp Campground, visit their official website.
Remember to check the campground websites for reservations, availability, and specific details about the facilities provided to make the most of your stay in Mount Rainier National Park.
Transportation Options from Seattle to North Cascades National Park
Driving by Car
Driving is one of the most convenient ways to reach North Cascades National Park from Seattle. The park is approximately 2 hours north of Seattle.
Visitors may encounter alpine lakes, charming restaurants, and scenic views along the way. Remember that North Cascades National Park does not have an entrance fee.
Lodging and Camping Options
Lodges and Hotels
Visitors to North Cascades National Park have a variety of lodging options, ranging from budget-friendly motels to more upscale hotels. Some popular choices include:
It is recommended to book accommodations early, as popular options can fill up quickly during peak travel seasons.
Campgrounds and RV Parks
North Cascades National Park offers several camping options for visitors, including:
- Colonial Creek Campground: Centrally located and offers tent and RV sites with access to hiking trails and fishing opportunities.
- Newhalem Campground: Features sites for tents and RVs, as well as a group campsite with nearby access to the Skagit River.
- Goodell Creek Campground: A small campground with tent and RV sites, located near the Skagit River.
- Gorge Lake Campground: Offers a quiet setting with tent and RV sites near Diablo Lake.
All of these campgrounds can be reserved in advance, which is especially important during the busy summer months. Additionally, there are boat-in campgrounds and backcountry camping options for those seeking more remote experiences.
When planning your trip to North Cascades National Park, consider your lodging and camping preferences, as well as the availability of accommodations during your travel dates. With a range of options available, you’re sure to find a comfortable place to stay while exploring the park’s stunning scenery.