A family guide to road tripping the Olympic National park & Olympic Peninsula, Washington
The Olympic Peninsula is hands down one of the most beautiful places we’ve had the pleasure of visiting in the United States. You can hike, beach comb, and go boating – all in one day if you insist!
Located in western Washington State, the Peninsula is a large arm of land from Seattle across Puget Sound. Bordered to the west by the icy waters of the Pacific Ocean, the Hood Canal at the east, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north.
Much of the Olympic Peninsula is made up of the 1,406 square mile Olympic National Park and 70 miles of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. To explore the peninsula properly you will need a National Parks pass and a vehicle.
The expansive landscape has large lowland lakes, temperate rainforests, radiating mountain ranges, wild cascading rivers, waterfalls, saltwater beaches, and tidelands. The Olympic Peninsula is one of the country’s most biodiverse locations and is filled with fun and adventure for families who love the outdoors.
This post is part of our Pacific North West Road Trip series
The Best Time to Visit Olympic Peninsula
The perfect time to go on an Olympic Peninsula road trip is during the summer; however, I highly recommend you plan a visit in late spring if you want to avoid the crowds. Nonetheless, our trip last summer was fantastic and not too crowded. Most days were sunny, with temperatures hitting 70 degrees and above and clear blue skies – though we know this isn’t always the case!
Although the summer season is the best time to visit the Olympic Peninsula, a tour in the early fall can be ideal too, especially if you want to experience Peninsula’s colorful forest. Tour during Mid to late October if you want to see the Roosevelt elk when it’s most active or the fall foliage.
During winter, the temperature at sea level hardly gets below freezing point. In the mountains, it’s rarely above 30°F. You can tour Hurricane Ridge, which is family-friendly and adventure-packed during the cold season.
How to Get to the Olympic Peninsula
Most will start their journey on an Olympic Peninsula road trip either flying into Seattle, or en route as part of a greater West Coast tour of Highway 101.
Assuming you’re coming from the Seattle airport (SEA) and picking up a car, it’s at least a 2-hour drive. Covering around 130 miles, entirely by road you will pass around the Puget Sound and into the Olympic National Park Visitor Center, just outside Port Angeles.
Ferry & Public Transport to the Olympic Peninsula
Alternatively, you can use a ferry which (if the weather is cooperating!) will give you a spectacular view back to Seattle as you depart. When taking your vehicle with you, the easiest choice is the Bainbridge Island ferry. From Bainbridge Island, it’s a picturesque 70-mile journey to Port Angeles.
The ferry can be quicker from Downtown Seattle than entirely by road if your timings work out right. There are several hire car companies located just off Pine Street, close to the Pike Place Markets if you want to pick up a car a few days after you arrive in Seattle.
If you are coming from the north, another option to consider is the Edmonds-Kingston ferry to the Kitsap Peninsula.
If you do not have your own vehicle, it can be difficult to explore the Olympic Peninsula. You can cross from Seattle to the Kitsap Peninsula on the Kingston Fast Ferry but you would need onward ground transportation. If you want to get directly to Port Angeles, try “The Straight Shot” Route 123, a combined bus & ferry journey operated by Clallam Transit.
Coming North along the 101
Coming by road on the 101 from the south, the lower entry point to the Olympic National Park, Lake Quinault is about 120 miles – 2.5 hours from Astoria, Oregon.
Getting around Olympic National Park
There is no way to cut through the middle of the Olympic Peninsula. The only road around the Olympic National Park is U.S. Route 101, which takes you on a circular loop, with turnoffs approximately 15 to 45 minutes long each into the various parts of the park.
To simply complete the loop will take at least 3 hours – scenic yes, but you really want to take the turns and make several stops to benefit completely from your Olympic Peninsula experience. It doesn’t matter if you tackle the loop in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, we’d base it on your accommodation locations.
How many days do you need on the Olympic Peninsula?
If you want to maximize your experience and satisfy your spirit of adventure, then I highly recommend with children you spend at least four days touring the whole peninsula. This will allow you enough time to experience the distinctly different ecosystems of the National Park and coastal areas without rushing too much.
If you’re camping or planning on taking a few longer hikes, you’ll want even longer – we know the time and effort needed to set up camping with kids! Allowing at least a week will give you a great feel for the area and plenty of relaxing downtime to simply enjoy nature.
Where to Stay in Olympic National park
You will need to decide at the outset if you will be camping, RV’ing or staying with four solid walls around you; either way, visiting over the peak summer season, you will want to book your accommodation well in advance.
We would only recommend travelling the Olympic Peninsula without booking in advance off-peak, and then be aware of sudden road closures and delays to your journey.
Staying in main towns and hotels/motels
There are several towns around the Olympic National Park that offer family accommodation. If you’re starting your journey from Seattle and arriving at the visitor centre in the north, we’d suggest booking a night or two in Port Angeles to base yourself for exploring. Why not try:
- Quality Inn & Suites Olympic National Park – in nearby Sequim
- Red Lion Hotel Port Angeles Harbor – easy walking distance to everything on offer in Port Angeles with onsite pool & dining
The next town of size you will come to on the western side of the National Park is Forks. Forks is a good location for visiting the beautiful beaches of the Olympic Peninsula, and also a good base for the Hoh Rainforest. Nothing fancy here, cheap and cheerful motels but on a family road trip, they certainly do the job – some even offer heated pools, nice after a day of hiking! We recommend:
- Forks Motel – laundry facilities & heated pool, doubles can fit up to 5
- Pacific Inn Motel – larger doubles for families – even Twilight decorated rooms!
Note that it’s wise to pick up any picnicking supplies you need in these towns and think about easy DIY dinners, too; Whilst there is dine-in and takeaway options, we found in 2021 there are still extreme staff shortages in hospitality. You could be waiting some time to be seated or served. With hungry kids to feed, you will want to be prepared with self-catering food options!
Staying in Lodges
Lodging near the National Park is always the best bet if you are seeking something with full amenities. The three main lodges to choose from attached to the Olympic National Park are, Kalaloch, Lake Quinault, and Lake Crescent Lodge.
This lodge is situated on the southern coast, right on top of the cliffs. Kalaloch Lodge has some of the most remarkable views of the evergreen forest, as well as seafront cabin options and Seacrest House if you really want to experience the roar of the waves!
Lake Quinault Lodge cuts you off from the world while giving you tranquillity. Nearly 100 years old, this lodge has breathtaking views of the lakeside and its surroundings if you’re looking for a classic National Park lodge experience.
Situated on the north side of the Olympic National Park, the historic Lake Crescent Lodge along the shores has spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains. This lodge was established in 1916, and it offers various accommodation choices from lodge rooms to cottages and cosy fireplace cabins for year-round enjoyment. It would be our top pick for families.
Do note these lodges are designed to help you connect with nature; there are no television or phone services there. You’ll also find no additional facilities such as rollaway beds and microwaves, so plan for your dining at the lodge restaurants, too.
Camping at Olympic National Park
Camping is one of the best ways to enjoy your Olympic National Park experience with kids – if you’re up for it! Be aware of the need to book and pay in advance; first come, first serve now only operates at quiet off-peak season times. Most campsites are unpowered but will provide access to bathroom facilities and potable water.
Peak bookings are only released six months in advance on a rolling basis. Sites open between approximately March and June for the summer season, so you need to start looking from September – December the year before to lock in those prime sites!
The Kalaloch campground is located on the southern coast. There are 168 campsites on a cliff near the Pacific Ocean, and you can easily access the beach too. A great family spot for coastal exploring. Bookings are a must in summer, off-peak first-come basis but some loops may be closed if inaccessible in winter. Regular sites $24USD/night, group sites $48USD/night.
We’d argue one of the most beautiful spots to base yourself on the Olympic Peninsula. The 72 sites here will get snapped up fast with a short season from mid-June to the end of summer. Each site is equipped with a fire pit and picnic table, and there’s a great night-time ranger program for kids. Regular sites $24USD/night, group sites $48USD/night.
This campground is located on the shores of Lake Quinault, and it has 31 campsites. Bookings are open from May to mid-September. All sites here are unpowered $25USD/night.
Willaby campground is also situated along Lake Quinault; however, the campsites are fewer than those at the Falls Creek – only 21. Make early reservations if you want to surround yourself with temperate rainforests; the earlier, the better and more convenient for you – the season is slightly longer, from April to October. All sites here are unpowered, $25USD/night.
A popular beachside site close to Rialto Beach and La Push, your nearest town and facilities are at Forks. All sites are unpowered, RV dump only operates in summer with a charge. Regular sites $24USD/night, group sites $48USD/night.
There are also several more walk-in only campgrounds around the park. If you are brave and willing to take on this sort of camping with the kids, then by all means check out further campsite offerings You can hike well into the backcountry too but you’ll need a permit.
Those who prefer a few more facilities of travelling with larger RV’s will want to check out:
Offering 17 RV camping sites (water/electric hookup) as well as 82 tent camping sites, you will find the campsite just a 1/4 mile from the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. The resort has extensive facilities, including hot springs pools and swimming pools, onsite massage, restaurant, poolside deli and gift shop. The season here is slightly longer, from mid-April to end of October. Camping off-peak is permitted but you may not have water & power.
Operating from late May to September, these sites on the shores of Lake Crescent can only be booked by phone – 888.896.3818.
Highlights of Olympic National Park
So now we know how we’re getting there and where we can stay, let’s see exactly what you can do when visiting the Olympic Peninsula with kids!
1. Explore the Rainforest
The Olympic National Park is among the few places where you’ll find temperate rainforests in the U.S, complete with dripping moss from old trees and massive ferns. Some of the widespread rainforests worth exploring in the park are Quinault, Bogachiel, and Queets.
There are also several kid-friendly hikes in Olympic National Park which go through the dense green Hoh Rainforest.
2. Tubing at Hurricane Ridge
Hurricane Ridge is a fantastic place where you can have family fun during winter. Kids aged eight years and below can sled at the children’s snow play area for free. Whilst for older kids there’s a Tubing Park located within the Ski Area open to the public during the limited winter daylight hours. On weekends, there are ranger-guided tours across the icy trails.
In the summer, you may still spot some snow (much to our desert kids delight!) on Hurricane Ridge, and there are plenty of easy grade nature trails you can encourage even your most reluctant walkers to enjoy whilst admiring the permanently snow-capped peaks of Mt Olympus and Mt Angeles.
3. Hike to a waterfall
Some of our favorite trails lead to scenic cascading waterfalls in the park. Family hikers won’t be disappointed as most of the tracks are accessible and fairly short making them exciting mini-adventures you can tackle with the kids.
You can our complete guide to the best waterfall walks easy for families to access in the Olympic National Park!
4. Paddle on Lake Crescent
Lake Crescent is one of the most popular stops in the park, not just for its accessibility immediately off the 101! The stunningly blue lake has remarkable views of the mountains. There are also rowboats and kayaks for hire if you want to explore the lake and its surroundings.
There is an accessible trail around the crescent lake that passes through meadows, forests, and lakeshore and plenty of picnic tables for the perfect lunch break as you tour the park.
5. Head to the Beach
There are plenty of beaches you can tour along the Pacific Ocean coastline. They range in challenges in terms of accessibility, so it’s best to pick out a selection of beaches rather than visit them all.
Keep your eye on the tides to pick the best times to visit; low tide on most beaches offers the best opportunities for kids to explore the coastal tide pools – though only the brave would take a dip in the icy water, even in summer!
We have a complete guide here to the best Olympic beaches to enjoy with kids. Stretched on time we’d recommend you try just Rialto Beach or La Push Beach One and Ruby Beach for two contrasting coastal experiences. For beach lovers, why not camp at Kalaloch Beach for instantly accessible beach fun!
6. Dip Inside Natural Hot Springs
While touring the Olympic National Park, a visit to the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort is a wonderful place you can unwind. There are three hot mineral springs pools with freshwater that’s quite a spectacle. Do warn kids of the smell, though; this is mother nature at work!
NB – since COVID the hot spring works on a timed basis only, you must come in person, first come first served on a daily basis. Pool access fees are $15 for adults, $12 for children ages 4-12 and $12 for seniors over 62 years old.
7. Tour the Quinault Valley
A visit to the Quinault Valley, home to the Quinault rainforest, is renowned for having some of the largest Sitka spruce, western red cedar, hemlock, and Douglas Fir trees. Quinault Valley offers excellent recreational activities such as boating, hiking, and swimming. There is also the scenic Quinault Lake nearby. If you want a more secluded spot during your visit, then this is the part of the park for you.
8. Wildlife sightseeing in the mountain regions
If you have any little animal lovers, then they are in for a real treat in the Olympic National Park. The mountainous areas particularly are rich in wildlife spotting opportunities, including black bears, massive elk, Blacktail deer and mountain goats – as well as smaller critters such as voles, moles, squirrels and chipmunks.
The coast offers opportunities to spot sea otters, dolphins, grey whales, sea eagles and rock pooling you’ll almost certainly discover crabs, starfish and sea urchins.
Navigating the Hiking Paths in Olympic National Park
If you will be sticking to the main trails in the Olympic National Park you will be fine with the national park visitor center issued maps.
We do recommend though you download the App “AllTrails” – (and pay to upgrade for offline maps). We found this a brilliant tool for picking the easier hikes with kids – with more realistic timeframes than given by NPS. The offline maps let you see just how many “are we there yet” corners you have to go.
If you are avid hikers and want to explore deeper with the preference for a paper map, do pick one up before you go; we surprisingly found little by way of paper maps once en route!
Kids can become junior rangers or ocean stewards.
The park also has programs that your kids can enrol in and learn more about the importance of protecting the ecosystem within the park. The program makes them junior rangers or ocean stewards of the park. You can grab a copy of the Ocean Stewards and Junior ranger booklet for your kids before you go.
Borrow a kid’s discovery backpack
At the park’s visitor centers, visitors are allowed to borrow a kid’s discovery backpack for a small fee. The pack consists of interactive games, worksheets, field guide photos, among other educational materials that help them learn more about Olympic Peninsula Park. (Suspended due to COVID rules at our last visit but we do hope will return)
More on Washington state & the Pacific North West
We hope this guide will help you plan your own Olympic Peninsula family adventure. We have plenty more we’re still putting together from our extensive visit to the region in 2021 – in the meantime, you may also like to take a more in-depth look at:
- The Most Kid-Friendly Beaches on the Olympic Peninsula
- Exploring Spokane, Washington Outdoor Ideas with kids
- 20 Incredible Places to Visit in Oregon with Kids
- Plan a trip to the West Coast of the USA with kids
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