When to visit Olympic National Park

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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.

Old growth forest, Sol Duc trail, Olympic National Park, WA

Old growth forest, Sol Duc trail, Olympic National Park, WA

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.

Young man watching the sunset on Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, WA

Young man watching the sunset on Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, WA

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.

Deer, Huricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Deer, Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

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.

UPDATE:

I've started adding photo guides to specific areas of the park.

The Hurricane Ridge area
Sol Duc and Lake Crescent
The west side: rain forests and beaches

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45 responses to “When to visit Olympic National Park

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write such an extensive description regarding the best times to visit the park! Very helpful! We’re planning out some trips this year, and although I’m from Washington and have lived here most of my life, I’ve never been to the Olympic National Park. I love photography and have dreamed of visiting the park. I appreciate what you have written. Thank you so much! 🙂

  2. As a local and a photographer as well as a tour operator I think you hit it perfectly! When I fist lived here years ago I took a relative to the mountains to see the Spring flowers and found everything covered in snow. I’ve learned to be a more patient 🙂

  3. Thanks for the great description. Would you be able to tell me if it’s worth going in late Feb/early March? I just got a new camera and can’t wait to take some pictures and visit Olympic national park for the first time!

    • Hi Arya,
      Depends on what you’re looking for. Probably lots of snow at Hurricane Ridge (if the road is open). The coast can be good any time of the year. Hoh rainforest probably not so great, it’s way too early for new growth. No flowers anywhere.
      Sol Duc road may be open. You could hike to Sol Duc Falls, that’s always good. It’s a short hike.
      But generally, Feb/March are not the best times to visit. May and June for the rainforest, July and maybe into August for wildflowers up high.

  4. Hi Rod,

    Planning a trip to visit the rainforest etc. on my own for two days…where is best for sleeping accommodations etc? Kalaloch Lodge?

    • Kalaloch would be fine and the food at the restaurant is decent. I think Kalaloch might even be closer to the Hoh Road than Forks is. Plus you’ll be close to Ruby Beach. But it is a National Park Lodge so $$$.
      Forks has lots of place to stay.

  5. Hi Rod

    I was with you last July up there. I’m considering a June visit this year and wonder about deer on Hurricane Ridge….will I see any in June? We saw some fawns too in July but they’d be a lot younger in June — will they be around?

    Thanks much,

    • Hi Keith,
      It depends. How late in June?
      I’ve been up there in early June when there was still 12 feet of snow so…
      My best guess is that you may see some deer on the road up to Hurricane Ridge. If it’s mid to late June and the snow is mostly gone, then probably at the top too.

  6. This is a great post. Thank you for the specifics. I understand that this year (2015) the wildflowers peaked earlier in the season than usual, because of the lack of precipitation you all have received. I am planning a visit the 3rd week of June next year (2016) and would love to see some flowers. What would your guess be for next season? I have been to Rainier in mid July when the show is indescribable! I do not expect that at ONP, but was wondering if there would be any flowers in bloom at that time.

    • Boy, I wish I knew. According to the long range forecasts, we’re likely to get another dryer than usual winter. I usually schedule my workshop for mid-July in Olympic because that’s usually when the wildflowers are best (and early August for Rainier). I’m tempted to move my workshop up to early July…

      Typically, in mid-June you can find flowers in the forests. But heading up to Hurricane Ridge you’re only likely to see glacier lilies (the yellow ones) and maybe some heathers. There may be things like paintbrush lower down along the Hurricane Ridge Road.

      Either way, if you come in mid to late June and the flowers aren’t their best on Hurricane Ridge, you can always go into the forests (Sol Duc and Hoh) for waterfalls and rainforests, and out to the coast. Still lots to see.

      • Thank you! We have been to several NPs and we always have to make the choice…..thundering waterfalls and no flowers; or trickling or dry falls and wildflowers. Sounds like this was a good year to possibly catch both in ONP! Let’s hope next year is the same. 🙂

        • the waterfalls in Olympic flow year around so any time is good for them. This summer, Sol Duc seemed to be a little lower than usual. Still impressive though.

  7. I will be in Seattle the last week of October for business, and will be staying the weekend 10/31 and 11/1. Which park (Olympic, Rainier or North Cascade) would you recommend. I am leaning towards Olympic, would Hurricane Ridge be a good place to see this late in the season, or should i stick with the coast and lowland. Thanks for the great blog!

    • North Cascades is more of a hiking park. But Picture Lake (with a view of Mt. Shuksan) near Mt. Baker might be pretty good. And it’s easy to get to. Needs a relatively clear day for the reflection and is best in the afternoon.

      Everything is pretty well dried out on Hurricane Ridge. Though the mountain ash is probably still colorful.

      Fall color at Rainier is usually mid to late September, if I remember correctly. It may still be good though. Reflection Lake is always a good bet for sunrise. Then head up to Paradise to see what’s going on there.

      From Seattle, I think I’d either go to Picture Lake or Rainier.

  8. Hi Rod,

    My wife and I hope to visit Olympic NP in mid June, and drive along the coast as well. Could you suggest any good locations or specific trail sites to find the calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa)? I’ve hunted for this very rare beauty in the east (northern Vermont), but have never found it. I’m told that it is no longer in our area. This orchid is on my bucket list, and has been for over 15 years!

    A helpful, Olympic NP Visitor Center employee gave me some vague tips, by phone. He suggested Heart O’ the Hills, Elwa, and Salt Creek Reserve.

    Thank you so much for any suggestions and details you may have, on the above areas, or on any others you may know of. By the way, your site is excellent!

    Sincerely,
    Gerry Lemmo
    Queensbury, NY (southern Adirondack Mountain region)

    • thanks for the kind words.
      Those all could be good locations. I’ve seen Calypsos in low forest land before and I’ve photographed them in the Staircase area in the past.
      I’ve found them by simply walking the trails and keeping my eye out.
      You might try the Sol Duc trail too.

  9. Hey Rod,

    great article!
    I was wondering if a visit in early January is worth it or if I should rather look for another place to spend a few days enjoying nature?

    Thanks in advance!
    Best

    Franziska

    • What are you wanting to see?
      The coast can be good at any time. There could be storms, which would be exciting.
      Hurricane Ridge will have snow. You’ll likely need chains or you won’t be allowed up the road. They try to keep the road open year around. In the winter it’s closed at night and in case of avalanche danger.
      The forests will be accessible, though the Sol-Duc road closes in winter occasionally. Depending on if there’s snow.

  10. How do you think El Nino this year will effect bloom at Hurricane Ridge and precipitation at Hoh? I am thinking of visiting the end of May. Is it an easy drive from Portland? Thanks so much for your informative post!!

    • Hard to tell what’s going to happen. In the last few weeks western Washington has had a lot of rain in the lowlands and snow in the mountains. That’s good news. But if it gets unseasonably warm in the next few months, all that could melt away.
      I’m hoping that with all the snow will have more of a normal wildflower year in the Olympics this summer. Or it could be a late season, depending on how much more snow the mountains get.

      End of May should be pretty good for the Hoh. There will likely still be snow on Hurricane Ridge and definitely too early for wildflower season.

      The drive from Portland should be easy. It looks to be about 230 miles from downtown Portland to the turn off for the Hoh. Probably 5 or 6 hours?

  11. I really appreciate you taking the time to post this information. This is the BEST information on the Internet. As someone who loves taking photographs, this is perfect!

  12. Hi Rod,

    In your great description of the Olympic park seasons you skipped March-April, and those are exactly the months I am going to visit the park this year – the Easter week to be precise. I am interested in photographing the coast and rainforest, and my accommodation will mostly be camping. Is March-April a rain season? Why didn’t you mention these months in your article?

    • Hi Diana,
      March and April can be very rainy, especially on the coastal side of the park. The coast itself can be good any time of the year. Could be pretty wet too.
      In March and April it will still be winter in the high country, so that means snow on Hurricane Ridge. In the forests, it may be a bit early for forest flowers. The rain forest might look ok. It might be a bit early for new growth on ferns though, depending on elevation. So you might find a lot of brownish ferns on the forest floor.
      Sol Duc Fall should be good too, though the falls might be a little low on water compared to later in the spring and early summer.
      Lake Crescent could also be good for moody lake shots.

      I guess I didn’t mention March and April because I don’t think those are the best times to photograph in the park.

    • There probably won’t be many forest flowers out yet and the ferns will probably just be starting too. And yes, you’ll probably get rained on. March and April is kind of an inbetween time. The forests are still beat up from winter and the new spring growth is probably just starting out but not yet that prominent.
      But the coast is always nice, weather depending.

      More on the west side here: http://www.barbeephoto.com/blog/photo-guide-to-olympic-national-park-beaches-and-rain-forest/

  13. Hi Rod, great blog! I am planning to stay at the resort in la push for four nights in the first week of April with primary focus being on the beaches…. Rialto, first, second, third and ruby…. I anticipate poor weather which can make for great photos…. Hopefully one nice sunset too…. Worthwhile or should I head south to the oregon coastline? Thanks! Des

    • Hi Des,
      One big advantage to staying in La Push is that you’ve also got access to the forests. You can go south to the Hoh or northeast to Sol Duc.
      Lake Crescent is also nearby, as is Sol Duc, Marymere, and Madison Falls.

      If you’re planning on going to Ruby, you could leave earlier in the day and visit the Hoh rain forest too.

      The Oregon Coast might have more diversity, but there can be a lot of driving. The Olympic coast is completely wild, meaning there will be no buildings on headlands that you need to keep out of the shot. Add to that the forest/river/waterfall options as well as Lake Crescent, that’s hard to beat.
      Plus the weather can be pretty wild on the Oregon Coast.

  14. Hi Rod, I will be visiting my daughter in Seattle for a few days in March. We have only one free day, Sunday March 20 and were thinking of visiting Olympic National Park. I’m wondering what you would suggest for a day trip at this time of year. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, is there a scenic drive or short walks that we could do? What about the beaches? Or would it be smarter to just forget it this time and go next time I visit? Any suggestions you have would be appreciated. Thank You.

    • hi Vicki,
      If you only have the day I wouldn’t recommend driving out to the coast; you’ll spend most of your day driving.
      In late March you stand a good chance of getting rained on all day. Hurricane Ridge will still be snow covered.
      So I’d suggest going to the Lake Crescent and Sol Duc areas. At Lake Crescent you can hike to Marymere Falls or go to the Lodge for lunch (if it’s open in March)
      Driving along the lake is pleasant.
      And the drive up the Sol Duc road is nice too. At the end of the road is the trail. It’s about 3/4 mile easy walk to Sol Duc Falls. Even in the rain this would be a nice hike.

      Depending on how the spring shapes up, another option may be visiting the tulip fields near Mt. Vernon. That’s usually in April but the last few years it’s been harder to predict and late March might be an ok time.

  15. Thanks Rod! That sounds like a good plan. I appreciate your advice.

  16. Hi Rod,I’m planing a trip to Olympic Nat,Park by mid May,very interested in forest and coast photography
    would 14 days be too much time for it…(coming from Fl)
    Thanks in advance!

  17. Thank you sir! I’ll try that,have a beautiful year!

  18. Thank you for writing this post and answering so many of your reader’s questions! I am driving up from Portland on Friday, Mar 11, night and fly out from SEA Sunday around 6pm. This is our first trip up to the area, and I’m wondering what would be the best place to stay on Friday and Saturday nights, so that we can view a bunch of these wonderlands. Could you suggest an itinerary?

    • Hi Nithya,

      As you probably know, you stand a good chance of getting wet, so bring rain gear. Since you have so little time I’d just recommend the beaches and some easy trails on the west side of the park and Lake Crescent areas. You can base yourself out of Forks and be able to visit the Hoh, several beaches, Lake Crescent, and Sol Duc. There may snow at the end of the Sol Duc road and on the trail to Sol Duc Falls. Be sure to check with the park.

      For a guide to the west side of the park: hhttp://www.barbeephoto.com/blog/photo-guide-to-olympic-national-park-beaches-and-rain-forest/
      And for a guide to Lake Crescent and Sol Duc: http://www.barbeephoto.com/blog/photo-guide-to-olympic-national-park-lake-crescent-and-sol-duc/

      I’m guessing you have a rental car? If so, you probably won’t be able to go up to Hurricane Ridge. In the winter, the road is open on weekends, depending on weather and avalanche conditions. But they usually require you to chain up. Plus, since it’s winter, the drive will be slower. In the summer it’s about a 35 minute drive from Port Angeles to the parking lot on Hurricane Ridge. Not sure if it will be worth spending the time. But if you do go, you’ll want boots and winter clothing.

      Since you’re flying out from Sea-Tac, you’ll want be be heading out from the Forks area about 4 hours before you need to be at the airport. If heading out from Port Angles, allow about three hours.

  19. Your blog says generally mid july is the best time for wildflowers. In the Smoky Mountains in 2016 we are seeing flowers blooming earlier than normal. do you think that will be true for Olympic National Park 2016? We are planning a trip and wondering if maybe the first week in July would be good for 2016?

    Appreciate your blog. Lots of good information there.

    • Hard to say. While things have been happening earlier these last few years, we’ve also just had a record wet winter, which means lots of snow in the mountains. First week of July will probably be fine, but I’m still betting in mid-July. Maybe even later because of all the snow.


  20. Shelley Smith says:

    Hi Rod,
    Planning a backpacking trip to OP in early August and looking for a loop that can be done in 4 to 5 days. We are looking at the loop from the North Fork Trailhead with side trip to Three Prune and Kimta Peak. We were also looking at a through hike from Doeswallips Trailhead to Grave’s Creek but don’t find any shuttle services available so that would require renting an extra auto. Would be interested in your thoughts and recommendations. We are two sisters who are looking for scenery and solitude without too strenuous hiking. Thanks for any input you can give us.

    • Hi Shelley,
      One problem with the South Fork Quinault (Grave’s Creek trailhead) is that you’ll have to hike an extra several miles because the road is washed out.
      But there are a few loops that you can do that end up where you started.

      That North Fork Quinault loop your thinking of is really nice. Are you thinking of the long loop (Skyline trail) or the shorter loop (Elip Creek, I think)?
      Either way, it’s beautiful. And you’ll probably find the solitude too. The Skyline trail can be strenuous, if I remember correctly (it’s been over 20 years…) But the Elip Creek Loop wasn’t bad; when my son was about 8 or 9 I took him on that trip. You’ll get a good taste of the high country, especially if you’re going to take a day hike to the Kimta peak area (looks like it’s five miles or so from Three Prune).
      Another good trip that can be done very leisurely in four or five days is the High Divide loop, starting and ending at the Sol Duc trailhead. You’d need to make reservations if you plan on camping in Seven Lakes Basin (there goes the solitude). I’ve done the loop a number of times as a long, long day hike, but taking four or five days gives you the opportunity to stay in one place a couple of nights and do some exploring along the way.

      If you don’t mind an out and back trip as opposed to a loop, you could go up the North Fork Skokomish (enter at Staircase, on the southeast side of the park) and make your way up to the LaCrosse basin.

      The best topo maps of the area are the Custom Correct Maps. And if you need a good trail guide, my go-to reference is Robert Wood’s Olympic Mountain Trail Guide.

      Have fun. It’s been a number of years since I’ve been backpacking in the Olympics, but some of my best memories are there!

  21. I too am thinking about the summer bloom. We’ve had record heat and a plummeting snowpack. I’m thinking the flowers at Hurricane Ridge will be early….late June? What do you think? Some flowers are apparently blooming already. I’m trying to decide when to go, and will need to make motel reservations soon…..

  22. i was thinking of a trip mid to late April of this year would love to see the rain forest Do you think this is a good time to come or should I plan for another time. My husband and I love nature and hiking

  23. Hi! Great site! We are planning a visit to ONP for mid to late Aug this year. Have you had more snow/rainfall than normal so far this year? Wondering if you might experience a later season with the flowers? Had that happened before when you’ve had long winters? Also, is all snow typically melted on the tops of the peaks come mid Aug?

    • Hi Heather,
      Yep, it seems we’ve had more rain and snow this year. A lot will depend on how warm the spring is as to when the wildflowers pop out. Usually late August is too late except maybe in the higher areas (that you have to backpack to).
      I can remember a few years back when we had a lot of snow and I was seeing spring/summer flowers at Rainier in September. So we’ll just have to wait and see.

      There is snow on the higher peaks year around. But usually the trails on the high passes are clear, or at least passable in late August. But anywhere you want to go by car will be clear.
      You can always check trail conditions here: https://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wilderness-trail-conditions.htm

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