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Set on a remote peninsula in northwestern Washington that can receive over 12 feet of rain each year, Olympic National Park might not be an obvious choice for wintertime nature seekers.
But, for truly intrepid, in-the-know travelers, it’s a magical bastion of lush rainforests, backcountry ski areas, and feral, windblown coastline.
In short, it’s an excuse to feel the raw power of majestic nature from a variety of microclimates.
Because the park is spread across three main entrance areas in the winter, advance planning is key to ensure that you’re able to access the sights you’re after when the weather is best in that zone. One thing’s for certain, though–whether you’re seeking moss-cloaked maples, stormy coasts, or snowy slopes, you’ll want to travel with good rain gear, a pair of microspikes (or snowshoes), and tire chains.
Read on for our full-service guide to visiting this truly spectacular national park in the winter.
Things to Consider
- The Olympic Peninsula is one of the rainiest places in the United States, so winter travelers will need to come prepared for rain and, in some cases, snow. Don your heartiest rain gear, put on a happy face, and check current weather and road conditions before heading out.
- Hurricane Ridge, set at an elevation of 5,242 feet, is considered the gateway to the alpine areas of Olympic National Park. Winter season is generally late November through the end of March, and all travelers (even those in 4WD vehicles) are required to carry tire chains.
- During winter, the Hurricane Ridge area is only open from 9am to 4pm, Friday through Sunday and some holidays. Plan accordingly if snow is on your Olympic wish list.
- Massive storms swell and batter the ragged Pacific coastline during winter months, making it a great season for storm watchers to experience the raw majesty of nature, especially at low tide.
- Winter is the wet season in the Hoh and Quinault Rainforests, creating a perfect excuse to go forest bathing in a lush, temperate climate without the throngs of tourists you’ll find in summer. With all the extra rain, the trees and mosses will glow in even more verdant shades of green; just be sure to pack your best rain coat.
- Olympic National Park is simply humongous, at 922,650 acres. If the weather looks terrible in your chosen area one day, it’ll often be better in a separate section of the park, making it easy to switch gears and chase good conditions if you can keep an open mind and go with the flow.
Related read: 7 Phenomenal National Parks in the Pacific Northwest
Wintertime Activities in Olympic
In a park as diverse as Olympic, it’s no surprise that the options for outdoor recreation are many and varied, even at the height of winter.
Sure, hardcore exploits like mountaineering expeditions and snow camping are available for the masochists among us, but we’ve compiled a list of our favorite, more accessible wintertime favorites below.
Olympic hosts guided, ranger-led snowshoe hikes each weekend (and holiday Mondays) from the end of December through late March each year. The walks are 1.5 hours in length and typically cover less than a mile. Despite this short distance, they’re a great way to get out in the Hurricane Ridge area, meet fellow snowbound travelers, and learn about the park from a local expert.
Sign-ups for these hikes start at 1pm at the Hurricane Ridge information window, and the hikes begin promptly at 1:30pm. The cost of a guided snowshoe trip is $7 for adults, $3 for youth aged 6-15 years old, and free for kids under 5. New to snowshoeing? No worries! Snowshoe rentals and instruction are provided on these group trips.
There are also a bevy of unmarked trails and unplowed roads for more experienced snowshoers (and cross-country skiers) to explore in the Hurricane Ridge area on winter weekends. For the more adventurous, Olympic provides a route guide for those seeking a longer day out in the powder.
Both the Hoh and Quinault Rainforests are fantastic destinations for tree-hugging hikers and lichen lovers who think that getting wet is a fair trade off for experiencing these dense, spellbinding forests free from summer crowds.
The Hoh River Trail and the Hall of Mosses Trail are great places to begin your forest wandering, and along the way, you’re sure to encounter moldering stumps ripe with sprouting mushrooms, big leaf maples draped in sage green moss, and rushing creeks swollen with seasonal rain.
Olympic National Park is often called the “park of 10,000 waterfalls,” and in winter, this is especially true, as every tiny river tributary is bursting at the seams from the many feet of rain that falls here each year. Marymere Falls, Sol Duc Falls, and Enchanted Valley are some of the best in the state for waterfall chasers.
Related read: 8 Easy Day Hikes in Olympic National Park, Washington
Skiing and Snow Tubing
Olympic is one of only two national parks in the United States that operates a ski lift within its park boundaries (the other is Yosemite), meaning that downhill enthusiasts hoping to shred a few thousand vertical feet on their winter park excursion can do so with relative ease.
The Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area boasts a poma lift, two rope tows, and a tubing park, with two black (advanced) runs, four blue (intermediate) runs, a terrain park, and a bunny slope. Prices for skiing in this storied national park are modest, with all-day, all-lift tickets for $49.
Snow tubers who’d rather not hassle with all the gear and effort of Olympic’s ski area can sled and slide at the Tubing Park within the ski area. Current pricing is $20 for ten downhill runs. However, kids eight years old and younger are allowed to slide for free at the small children’s snowplay area just west of the visitor center and parking lot.
There’s nothing quite like sitting on a bedraggled piece of driftwood and watching the fury of winter storms rip across the wild Pacific coastline, then retiring to your cozy hotel or cabin afterwards to snuggle up next to the fire. Olympic is considered one of the best places in the country for wintertime storm seekers, because of its 73 miles of wilderness coast.
If you’re lucky enough to catch low tide on a storm-free day, you’ll be able to carefully hop along boulders near the shore and check out multicolored tidepools full of small fish, sea urchins, and anemones.
But, if you prefer to bask in the sheer power of Mother Nature, a short stroll along Rialto Beach and its craggy sea stacks is a fantastic way to watch the waves crash. If you’d prefer to storm watch from the comfort of a cozy lodge room, the historic Kalaloch Lodge offers well-appointed rooms and cabins with epic views and easy access to the Pacific Coast.
Greet the Salmon Runs
Late fall through winter is when many spawning salmon return home to their birthing streams and rivers within Olympic National Park, and witnessing their upstream run is a truly awe-inspiring experience.
Sockeye salmon can often be spotted in November and December around the Quinault River and its tributaries–a favorite place to watch them wriggling against the current is from Big Creek, off of North Fork Road.
Meanwhile, from October through December, Coho salmon leap and fight their way upstream at the Sol Duc Falls Cascade, an area so popular that it has its own viewing platform, Salmon Cascades Overlook, for visitors hoping to catch a bit of the action.
Winter Weather and Road Closures
Due to the extreme amount of precipitation the Olympic Peninsula sees each year, the majority of which falls during winter months, it’s imperative to pack extra safety gear and check the weather and road conditions before heading out on any adventure.
Hurricane Ridge’s main road is plowed most weekends and Monday holidays throughout the season, but all vehicles (yes, even those with 4WD) are required to carry tire chains when venturing into the park’s snowy section. Check out HRWinterAccess on Twitter (no account required) for the most up-to-date road conditions and avalanche warnings.
Though rainforest and beach roads in Olympic are typically open and snow-free throughout the winter, conditions can change in an instant, and roads may be closed due to washouts and other hazards. Check park road conditions before setting off and always carry a plan B in your mind.
Due to the huge diversity of landscapes found in Olympic National Park, the weather is dramatically different in each of the park’s biozones at any time of year. In general, all areas of the park receive an average of 19-21 days of precipitation during the winter.
One of the park’s highest elevation areas, Hurricane Ridge, sees an average high of 30 degrees and an average low of 17 degrees in winter months. By comparison, Quinault Rainforest (34 to 47 degrees) and Rialto Beach (35 to 48 degrees) are more temperate.
Year-Round Lodging in Olympic
At nearly one million acres in size, Olympic is one of the largest national parks in the lower 48, and choosing accommodations that’ll satisfy everyone in your crew can feel like a mighty task. Here are some of our favorite year-round lodging sites, with a little mix of everything from oceanfront cottages to rainforest hideouts.
Lake Quinault Lodge
Set on the gorgeous sapphire edge of Lake Quinault, amidst the temperate rainforest that shares its name, lies the historic Lake Quinault Lodge.
The 1920s-era main lodge provides easy access to fabulous hotel amenities, like a heated pool, game rooms, and a sauna, while the boathouse offers pet-friendly rooms with a wraparound wooden veranda that overlooks the wilderness and, of course, the lake. Choose a fireplace room for a bit of extra space and coziness in the winter.Check Availability
Cozy Port Angeles Studio Near the Ocean
Ideal for couples who want easy access to Olympic’s lakes, mountains, and coast, this adorable woodsy studio sits in the gateway town of Port Angeles. With rustic yet chic vintage-inspired design (the turquoise microwave is a dream), a queen-sized bed, and large walk-in shower, you’ll have all the creature comforts you need to warm up after a day of winter wandering.
Outside, guests will find a private, fenced patio with zero-gravity hang out loungers, a propane fire pit, and a wood pellet Traeger grill, fit for an al fresco feast when the rain halts.Check Availability
As the only official oceanfront accommodations in the park, Kalaloch Lodge has a special commitment to going green (they launched and met a series of eco-friendly goals in 2020) and to getting travelers exploring the great outdoors, rain or shine.
Each of the property’s historic lodge rooms offer a walking stick to encourage more hiking, and ocean fanatics won’t want to miss Seacrest House, in which every room comes equipped with its own ocean-view veranda. When you’re hungry for some post-hike grub, the on-site Creekside Restaurant serves up a variety of elevated American cuisine with a focus on sustainability.
Traveling with family or want a kitchenette? Kalaloch also boasts several stunning cabins, set right against the water.Check Availability
Cottage Cove on Lake Quinault
Tucked away in the very heart of Olympic National Park, on the rippling shore of Lake Quinault, is this pet-friendly three-bedroom 1,600-square-foot home perfect for families or larger groups who want to stay in the middle of everything that makes this park great.
Gaze out the window at visiting Roosevelt elk or try to spot a bald eagle while sipping your morning coffee, enjoy a warming campfire near the water, or simply cuddle up on the living room couch and soak up the forest scenery.Check Availability
Adorable Lake Sutherland Hideaway
Wood-paneled walls and stylish contemporary furnishings adorn this lovely one-bedroom cabin that sleeps four, set along the placid waters of Lake Sutherland. The area is remarkably close to both Lake Crescent and Port Angeles, which means that driving between Olympic’s top sights from your base camp will be a breeze.
An open common area feels extra spacious, with high ceilings that connect to a comfy, lofted bedroom. When your day of park exploration is done, whip up a fanciful feast in the full kitchen or enjoy the private wooden deck and gas grill.Check Availability
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