When to visit Olympic National Park
Because I live on the Olympic peninsula and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Olympic National Park, I get a fair number of people asking me about the best time to visit and photograph Olympic.
And I tell them it depends on what you want to see or do.
For photographers, if you’re after lush forest images and spring forest flowers, then probably the middle of May into mid-June is the best time. In mid to late spring the forest growth looks new, the ferns are fresh, and the forest flowers are peaking. Some of the flowers you find in the spring are Trillium, Bunchberry, Wood Nymph, Queen’s Cup, Calypso Orchid and more.
Late spring is also a good time for rivers, waterfalls, and small, moss-lined streams.
But it’s not the best time for sub-alpine wildflowers at higher elevations like at Hurricane Ridge. Hurricane Ridge is accessible year around, depending on snow levels and road conditions, and you should have easy access in spring time. Only there’s often still plenty of snow and there will be no access to the Obstruction Point Road where, later in the summer, you’ll find wildflower fields, different views of the mountains, and marmot colonies.
For all of that, you’ll want to visit in mid-July. Mid-July is usually peak time for high country wildflowers along Hurricane Ridge. Though late June is usually the peak for the showy white Avalanche Lilies, you’ll still find large patches of them through July. The lupine is usually in full bloom in mid-July too, as well as plenty of other flowers like Tiger lily, Larkspure, Mountain Aster, Spreading Phlox, and Red Columbine. It’s also a great time to see and photograph Columbia Blacktail Deer on Hurricane Ridge (and if you’re lucky, a black bear). Mid-July is also a good time to visit the other easily accessible high country location, Deer Park. The ecosystem at Deer Park is drier than Hurricane Ridge so you’ll find a different set of flowers. Also the views are different, looking north towards the Straits of Juan de Fuca rather that to the interior mountains of the park. It’s really quite a view. Mid-July is also the best time to visit the nearby lavender farms in Sequim.
In Mid-July the forests are beginning to dry out but can still be good. I’ve found that the forest in the Sol-Duc valley seems to always look good whereas the Hoh rain forest can really start to dry out towards mid-July.
The coastal areas can be good at any time of year. The lowest tides are usually May-July, so if you’re after tide pools, those months are the best. Rialto Beach is great for colorful rocks and easy access. Walk north on the beach for tide pools and a sea stack. Ruby Beach is easily accessible as well and has sea stacks.
August is our driest month, and on Hurricane Ridge many of the flowers have gone to seed and their colors have faded (lupine seems to last into late July/early August). The forests ferns aren’t at their best and the river, stream, and waterfall levels are at their lowest.
For my money, August is not the best time of year to plan a photo trip to Olympic National Park. Yes, you’ll still find some late flowers in areas where the snow lasted the longest, but on the whole, it’s not the best time (for good mid-August wildflowers, visit Mt. Rainier).
On the other hand, if you’re a backpacker, August is a great month for a trip. As I said, August is our driest month, and despite the fact that I got stuck in a three day rainstorm one mid-August in the Olympic back country, it’s still the most reliable rain-free time of year for a backpacking trip.
Autumn can also be a great time to visit Olympic. If you hike into the high country you’ll see the brilliant red displays of huckleberry leaves and orange mountain ash. And the huckleberries are ripe and delicious, though you might have to compete with the black bears. Down in the river valleys you might find yellow, oranges, and the occasional reds of vine maple. The big leaf maples will turn yellow as well. I’ve had some good luck with fall color up the Sol Duc River Road.
If you’re into winter photography or show shoeing and cross country skiing, Hurricane Ridge is worth a visit.
So to wrap up, if you’re after the most variety, wildflowers, and the best access to the Hurricane Ridge area, then, in my opinion, mid-July is the best time to visit. If you want lush rainforest pictures, then mid-May to mid-June or so will be the best time. For backpacking, mid-July through August and September, and even into October, are probably the best times.
For detailed guides to locations on the Olympic peninsula, get my book, The Photographer's Guide to Puget Sound and Northwest Washington.
I've started adding photo guides to specific areas of the park.