Olympic National Park is one of my favorite national parks in the United States, and generally is a favorite for a lot of people. This is because the park is extremely varied, encompassing everything from temperate rainforests to mountain peaks to dramatic Pacific beaches.
And while being inside the park on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula can feel very secluded at times, you can reach parts of Olympic National Park in less than 3 hours from Seattle.
The park’s popularity and proximity to Seattle also makes it one of the most-visited national parks in the United States, though, averaging 2.5 million visitors per year. And while the park is large (1400+ square miles), 95% of it is wilderness; meaning all those visitors tend to congregate in just a few spots.
Roughly 75% of visitors to Olympic National Park visit in June, July, and August, and during those months you can expect to find long entrance station lines and full parking lots (and sometimes wait times) at popular spots like Hurricane Ridge and the Hoh Rainforest.
And so, while lots of people will say that summer is the “best” time to visit Olympic National Park, I’ll actually make an argument for going in winter instead!
Winter is low season at many US national parks, and it’s no different at Olympic. During the winter months, the mountains in the Olympic range get lots of snow, and the coastal parts of the park get plenty of storms bringing cold rain. So it’s not difficult to understand why summer is the preferred and busiest time to visit.
Certain parts of the park close or are hard to access during the winter months, too.
The road to Hurricane Ridge, for example, often closes due to snow, and when it is open (usually only on weekends in winter), you’re required to have snow chains for your tires. Sol Duc Road, which is used to access Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and the hike to Sol Duc Falls, closes entirely in the winter. And the visitor center in the Hoh Rainforest usually shuts up after New Year’s for a couple months.
So the question you might be asking is…. is Olympic National Park actually worth visiting in the winter? My answer is a resounding YES!
Like at many other national parks, winter is the “silent season” at Olympic National Park. Yes, some parts of the park are inaccessible, and yes, the weather may not always be ideal. BUT, you’ll find less traffic and basically zero crowds, meaning you can get some of the most magical parts of the park to yourself.
Visiting Olympic National Park in winter is obviously different from visiting at other times of the year. Here are the top things to do there during the winter months:
Hurricane Ridge is the most accessible mountain area within Olympic National Park, and one of the most popular spots for visitors. It’s close to the town of Port Angeles, and is accessed via the Hurricane Ridge Road.
Hurricane Ridge sits at 5,242 feet, and gets its name from the gale-force winds that are common at the top. Winter season generally runs from late November through the end of March, and during this time (IF the area is accessible), you can do things like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and tubing.
The Hurricane Ridge area has miles of snowshoe and cross-country skiing routes, and Ranger-led snowshoeing tours are offered on Saturdays in the winter. Kids can also go sledding and tubing, and backcountry skiing is available for experienced skiers.
The road to Hurricane Ridge is open (weather permitting) on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the winter months. Anyone driving up the road (including if you’re in a 4×4) is required to carry snow chains, though; you won’t be allowed up the road without them.
You can call 360-565-3131 to check on current Hurricane Ridge road conditions, or follow @HRWinterAccess on Twitter.
*Hurricane Ridge WAS open during my own winter trip to Olympic National Park, but we opted not to drive up the mountain. We DID get snow chains with our rental car, but this Ohio-raised girl has no clue how to use them and we decided not to risk it! (Plus, we didn’t really pack winter gear for our trip since the rest of the spots we visited were much more mild!)
If you’re looking for a very rewarding stop for very little effort, make a slight detour off Highway 101 and onto Olympic Hot Springs Road. A good portion of this road is currently closed indefinitely due a wash-out, but you can still drive as far as the Madison Falls Trailhead.
At the trailhead, a very short (like, 5-minute) walk will take you to the lovely Madison Falls (pictured above).
The views along the Elwha River at the trailhead parking area are also amazing! (In fact, we spent more time taking photos of the river and surrounding mountains than we did of the waterfall.)
Backtrack to the 101, and continue west. The next point of interest you’ll reach is Lake Crescent, a deep lake known for its clear, blue water. There are several pull-out areas along the road where you can stop for photos.
I also recommend stopping in at the Lake Crescent Lodge if you’re visiting in early winter. The historic lodge dates back to 1915, and sits on a quiet bit of lakeshore. It’s a popular base for hiking, fishing, and boating during the summer, but remains open through the fall and early winter, too. (Operating dates are usually from April through January 1.)
If you’re visiting during a time when the lodge is open, you can stop for breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the Lake Crescent Lodge Dining Room. (Or, if you visit between meal times like I did, you can always grab a coffee or adult beverage from the bar, and enjoy it in the cozy lobby or attached conservatory.)
And the view from their dock out over the lake is outstanding any time of year.
The magical, ethereal Hoh Rainforest is personally my favorite part of Olympic National Park – and it’s a favorite among most other park visitors, too!
The Hoh Rainforest is a temperate rainforest that covers about 24 miles, and (as its name would suggest) it’s one of the wettest places in the entire United States, receiving on average nearly 140 inches of rain per year.
The Hoh Rainforest can be extremely busy during the summer months (it’s not uncommon for people to have to wait 1-2 hours to even get into the parking area during busy summer weekends), but it’s blissfully quiet during the winter.
Visiting the Hoh Rainforest in winter may be one of the better times to visit if you want the trails to yourself. You may be able to spot everything from Roosevelt elk in the forest to Coho salmon in the streams and rivers. Winter is also when the moss and lichen on the trees will be its thickest and most vibrant, giving off optimum FernGully vibes.
The visitor center here closes from January 2 through early March, but you can still visit the forest and hike the trails. (The Hall of Mosses Trail and Spruce Nature Trail are both must-dos.)
READ MORE: Visiting the Hoh Rainforest in Winter: Everything You Need to Know
Olympic National Park is mostly confined to the central part of the Olympic Peninsula. But the park also includes a sliver of coastline that stretches for miles down the Washington coast.
Important note: Not only is it important to practice Leave No Trace principles when you’re visiting this part of Olympic National Park, but you also need to pay attention to the tides. Some of these beaches are more safely visited at low tide – and you’ll definitely want to know when low tide is for tidepooling! Check tide times here.
While you might not want to go for a dip during the winter months, there are still several great national park beaches to visit, including (from north to south):
*Shi Shi Beach and the La Push beaches are technically within Olympic National Park, but also on Indigenous land. The La Push beaches belong to the Quileute Nation, and you’ll be passing through their community in La Push. The trailhead to Shi Shi Beach is on land owned by the Makah people, and you’ll need a separate Makah Recreation Permit in order to park/visit here (the permits cost $20, and can be purchased in the town of Neah Bay).
It’s not part of Olympic National Park, but it is part of the Makah Nation. If you’re going to go north and visit Shi Shi Beach and need to buy a Makah Recreation Pass anyway, you may as well make the most of your pass and also detour to Cape Flattery.
Cape Flattery is the most northwesterly point in the contiguous United States, and it’s very much worth visiting! A 1.5-mile out and back trail leads through some beautiful forest and to three different viewing platforms on the coast. From these, you can view sea stacks, crashing waves, and the Cape Flattery Lighthouse on Tatoosh Island.
The trail is a mixture of dirt and wooden boardwalks and is mostly downhill on the way out, but the views are definitely worth the return hike.
Another area that’s not technically within Olympic National Park that I still think is worth visiting is the southern side of Lake Quinault. The northern shore of the lake is within Olympic National Park, while the southern shore is within the Olympic National Forest. (And the whole lake is owned by the Quinault Nation.)
You can actually drive a loop around the whole lake, but there are two spots along the southern shore that I think are must-visits:
This question is easier to answer during the winter, since certain parts of Olympic National Park close. In winter, I recommend at least 3 days to explore all the different parts of Olympic National Park. During the summer months, 4-5 days (or more!) is probably better.
If you just want to see the highlights, though (i.e. Hurricane Ridge, the Hoh Rainforest, and maybe 1 or 2 beaches), you can fit it into 2 days if you manage your time well.*
*Just remember that there’s less daylight during the winter! You may only have 8 hours of daylight to work with, and keep in mind that the different sections of the park can be a couple hours’ drive apart.
Here are a few hotels you can consider for a winter ONP trip. (Note though that the park is large and mostly wilderness, meaning driving times between different parts of the park can sometimes be long. You might want to stay in more than one place if you’re visiting for more than 2 or 3 days.)
And the Lake Crescent Lodge is in a great location in the middle of the park. The lodge’s Roosevelt Fireplace Cabins are super cozy, and come complete with lake views. HOWEVER, the lodge closes for a while during the winter months; it’s usually open from April 1 through the following January 1, with limited availability in November and December.
Check out these other national park winter guides, too:
Olympic National Park is located in the center of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state in the Pacific Northwest. The park covers a lot of area, and has four distinct regions: the Pacific coastline, alpine areas, the temperate rainforest on the west side, and drier forests on the east side.
From Seattle, it takes 2-3 hours to reach either the alpine area of the park (i.e. Hurricane Ridge, with an entrance in Port Angeles) or the eastern forest. It takes 4 hours from Seattle to the Hoh Rainforest, and 3 hours to get from Seattle to the Pacific beaches.
Olympic National Park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Visitor centers and certain other things within the park have seasonal opening hours, but the natural parts of the park are always open (as long as road conditions allow).
The entrance fee for Olympic National Park is $30 for passenger cars, $25 for motorcycles, and $15 for hikers and bicyclists. The entrance fee allows you to visit for 7 consecutive days. But you might want to purchase a national parks pass, which is $80 but good at any NPS-managed site for one year.
Yes, Olympic National Park is open in the winter, and it’s a great time to visit! You can visit the rainforest, beaches, and even mountain areas during the winter.
Some things do close (or have limited opening hours) in the winter in Olympic National Park, including certain park roads, lodges, and visitor centers.
Things that close entirely in the winter include: Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and the Sol Duc Road leading to it; Lake Crescent Lodge (closes Jan. 1 thru March); the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center (closed Jan 2 until early March); and the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.
Things that have limited opening hours in the winter include the road to Hurricane Ridge, which is open only on weekends in the winter, and only if the weather allows.
Find more info about what closes when here.
Winter in Washington state spans from December through March, though the wet, rainy season usually rolls in to the more temperate coastal areas of the state in October.
Because Olympic National Park encompasses several different types of natural areas (mountains to rainforest to coast), winter temperatures can vary greatly depending on which part of the park you’re in.
In higher-elevation parts of the park (like Hurricane Ridge), winter temps are usually below freezing (20s-30s F during the daytime), and you can expect to find snow on the ground.
In lower-elevation parts of the park, daytime winter temperatures usually average in the 40s (F), with nighttime temps dipping into the 20s or 30s. Once March rolls around, temperatures can rise into the 50s.
In the mountainous part of the park (like at Hurricane Ridge), yes, it snows often in winter. The annual snowfall total at Hurricane Ridge is 400+ inches per year.
Snow is also possible in the lower-elevation parts of Olympic National Park during the winter (like in the Hoh Rainforest), but it’s not frequent and usually melts fairly quickly if it does fall. Rain is much more likely in the lower-elevation parts of the park.
Who’s convinced to visit Olympic National Park in winter?
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