Backpacking in Olympic National Park: An Insider’s Guide
Olympic National Park is often described as three parks in one; in reality, it is even more than that. With glaciated mountains, endless forests, snaking rivers, and some of the best stretches of wilderness coast in the country, the best way to truly get a feel for Olympic is to backpack through the heart of it.
Olympic National Park is 95% wilderness with roughly 1,400 square miles of stunning backcountry. There are 611 miles of trails criss-crossing the park, and while it might be impossible to explore all of them in a lifetime, there are a handful of renowned backpacking destinations that deliver an unforgettable taste of the park.
Here, we offer an overview of some of the can’t-miss backpacking destinations in the park.
Seven Lakes Basin
Seven Lakes Basin is a 19.3 mile loop trail that is said to be one of the most gorgeous trails in the national park system. Those who get a permit to the Seven Lakes Basin region are awarded with drool-inducing sights of stunning mountain panoramas and incredibly pristine alpine lakes. Full of mountain goats, marmots, wildflower-filled meadows, and incredible views of glaciated peaks around the Olympic Mountain Range, this loop is jam-packed with some of Olympic’s finest assets.
Starting at the ever-popular and impressive Sol Duc Falls, the trail heads up along the Sol Duc River, gaining in elevation before spitting out hikers into a lake-filled alpine wonderland. With five killer camping areas around the basin, deciding which spot to pitch your tent is one of the hardest parts. Each lake offers unrivaled beauty, but the highlights are probably the jaw-dropping views at Heart Lake and Lunch Lake. Slightly off the beaten path, Hoh Lake and Deer Lake are also quite spectacular in their own right and may provide a bit more solitude. The Seven Lake Basin Loop is best done during clear summer nights, as this area has some of the darkest skies in the park, which makes for unforgettable and unrivaled stargazing opportunities.
If you’re looking for a classic, high alpine experience in Olympic National Park, this is probably the best option. Keep in mind: This region is popular, so make sure you contact Olympic National Park offices well in advance to get your itinerary approved.
For those looking for a more remote hike with less people, head to the southeastern corner of the park and explore Gladys Divide above the North Fork of the Skokomish River. Located near the Staircase Ranger Station, the 20-mile round trip route to Gladys delivers dense forests, plunging waterfalls, misty rivers, and shimmering twin lakes before emerging at one of the most epic views in the Olympics.
The first 3.5 miles of this trail are flat and scenic, traveling along an old road long since abandoned. The trail then climbs steeply up a ridge for 4 miles, crossing creeks and waterfalls before emerging at Flapjacks Lakes. Flapjack Lakes is a popular backpacking destination, but the true beauty of the region occurs in the next 2.5 miles. The 2.5 miles from Flapjack Lakes are more reminiscent of the Alps than the Olympics, as towering rocky peaks rise on either side. Those looking for an even greater panorama than the view at Gladys Divide (if you can believe it) should head up a boot path at the left of the sign and stand atop Mount Gladys. From here, the glory of the entire Olympic Range unravels in all directions.
The Enchanted Valley
For those looking for the quintessential backpacking trip in Olympic, the route to the Enchanted Valley of the Quinault Rainforest is without rival. Starting out along the Quinault River, the trail quickly passes into true wilderness as soon as you cross Pony Bridge just 2.5 miles past the Graves Creek Ranger Station. From here, the path weaves through ancient rainforests, crisscrossing wild streams in the middle of prime black bear and elk country.
After 13.5 miles of hiking from the Graves Creek Campground, the trail once again crosses the Quinault River, this time emptying out into a glorious valley that showcases the stunning river, the surrounding Olympic Mountains, and a 1930s-era chalet that is now used as a backcountry ranger station. Once in the valley, head up to Anderson Glacier, search for gigantic tree specimens, or just sit back and watch the black bears and deer roam about the valley floor in the Land of Enchantment.
Hoh River Trail
Hiking the Hoh River Trail to the base of Mount Olympus is yet another iconic hike in Olympic National Park. Mostly flat for the first 12 miles, the trail works its way up the glacier-fed Hoh River, weaving its way through moss-draped old-growth forests and neck-deep groves of ferns.
After Lewis Meadow, the trail climbs 3,000 feet in less than 4 miles to Glacier Meadows Camp, just a short trek to Blue Glacier and the route to climb Mount Olympus.
This hike has it all, from rainforests to high alpine lakes, to glaciers, to the peak of the tallest mountain in the Olympic Range. And it’s all splayed out along one incredibly beautiful and popular trail. While you don’t need to climb Olympus to enjoy the hike, taking a trip to see Blue Glacier should never be skipped. There is a somewhat sketchy section due to a washout, but do not let that deter your adventures. Be aware, the best campsites fill up quickly in the summer when reservations are needed to access the Glacier Meadows Campground.
Finally, no backpacking trip to Olympic National Park is complete without a trip along the 73 miles of Wilderness Coast. While any route you choose will be stunning and memorable, perhaps the best trip you can take is to Point of the Arches and Shi Shi Beach. While this technically can be done as a day trip, backpacking the coast and taking in sunsets on the beach will soothe even the hardest of souls.
Point of the Arches is just 4.3 miles from the Shi Shi Beach Trailhead, but it feels like a million miles from anywhere. As whales swim offshore and eagles circle overhead, there are few things as memorable as taking in the sights of sea stacks and tide pools and mazes of giant driftwood along the wildest stretch of coast in the Lower 48.
For those looking for a longer wilderness coast trip, you can actually traverse the entire Olympic Coast in a mind-blowing 32.8 mile trek from Rialto Beach, near LaPush, to Shi Shi Beach. This is the penultimate experience in rugged coastal hiking and will undoubtedly leave you in awe at the power and majesty of the Pacific Ocean.