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Considered the most biodiverse of all national parks in the United States, Olympic National Park provides a wide array of photographic opportunities for anyone willing to throw on a rain jacket and visit this remote destination. This Olympic National Park photography guide will provide inspiration and insight into the best hikes, vistas, beaches, and destinations Olympic has to offer, as well as when and how to visit.
The park is best explored by vehicle as part of a road trip, with 1-3 nights minimum recommended for the average visitor. Be prepared for a lot of driving between each photoshoot as the distances between destinations are vast. While considered one national park, it is actually separated into four distinct regions, each boasting a unique ecosystem and distinct beauty.
How to visit Olympic National Park
As mentioned, the Olympic Peninsula is a large space to cover, and the only way to really see it is with access to a vehicle. Of course, if you are one of those crazy intense cyclists who don’t need an engine, by all means, go for a ride! The roads are safe and most inclines are not too intense, with the exception of Hurricane Ridge.
For the rest of us, you will need to either drive or ferry in. Those coming from Vancouver Island to the north as part of a road trip will take the ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles, while anyone coming from the US will need to arrive via car or bus.
When planning your visit, I strongly urge you to schedule your time as part of a greater road trip and give yourself the freedom of being selective with WHEN you visit each of the highlights. For those of you looking to make only a day trip to Olympic National Park, check out the photos below and decide which 1-2 interest you most; that is all you will have time for! Olympic National Park is home to some of the best hikes in Washington State, so make sure you factor in time for at least one of these.
Where to stay in Olympic National Park
Campsites are plentiful in the region but can fill up in the summer months. There are numerous towns and lodges that can offer accommodation to suit most budgets for those of you who prefer to spend your nights indoors. Namely, the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and Crescent Lake Lodge are in the best locations, but you will also find a variety of options in Forks, Quinault, La Push, and just outside the park in Port Angeles.
When to visit Olympic National Park
As beautiful as the Pacific Northwest is, and it is beautiful, the price of that beauty is a lot of rainy days. The Olympic Rainforest is a particularly wet climate nearly 10 months of the year. Fortunately, snow is rarely a problem and the moody grey tends to add some drama to the scenes here.
The best time to visit Olympic National Park is in the summer, beginning in July and spanning through to September. During these months, you have the best chance at sunny days with temperatures averaging 65-75°F (18-24°c). Of course, you will also have the largest crowds during these months. If you have the freedom, plan your trip for mid-September to maximize the weather and minimize the crowds!
The autumn may be the most beautiful time of the year to visit, but it is also the wettest! Temperatures start to cool to 45-65°F (8-18°c), and fog/rain is all too common. As a result, these are the quietest months in the park.
In addition to getting the place mostly to yourself, those willing to brave the foul weather will also be rewarded with some beautiful autumn colors in the Hoh and Quinalt Rainforests. Bigleaf and vine maple trees decorate the lush green rainforests with a pop of color, while the mating elk bugle away!
The winter months bring a unique opportunity to see and photograph the alpine areas, namely Hurricane Ridge, in pure-white awesomeness! If you plan to come during these months, pack and plan accordingly, as the Olympic mountains can accumulate a great deal of snow, sometimes without warning! The road to Hurricane Ridge is only open Friday through Sunday, and offers an array of winter activities such as snowshoeing, tubing, and skiing. The Pacific coast, meanwhile, is in storm season and ready to provide an amazing display of rough water and crashing waves.
Spring is cool and, you guessed it, wet! The rainforest will be bursting with lush greens, the numerous waterfalls will be flowing wildly, and the crowds will still be thin. May is arguably the best time to visit, taking advantage of the mild climate, small crowds, and new life that springs forth this time of year.
Where to photograph: Olympic National Park Photography Highlights
Despite being an enormous park in terms of area, relatively few sections of the park are accessible for day trips. However, these sections take you through a variety of landscapes guaranteed to offer something unique and prizeworthy for any photographer.
The following is simply a list of what I consider to be the top 10 places to photograph in Olympic National Park. It is by no means comprehensive or all-inclusive, but rather a rundown of those places that I find to be the most photogenic in the park.
I decided to begin this Top 10 Olympic National Park photography list with my favorite place in the entire park… usually. I say “usually” because the constantly changing clouds are what make Hurricane Ridge brutal, frustrating, and amazing all at once. After making the long drive up the mountain, you will arrive at the Visitor Center where you will be able to use facilities, grab food or coffee, and most importantly, discover some of the best hikes in Olympic National Park. There are numerous trails of varying degrees of length and difficulty, but the views from the parking lot are fantastic as well.
Often times, the clouds will settle below the peaks meaning you will be above them looking down, as in the photos seen here. Sometimes, however, you will find yourself smack dab in the middle, creating a wall of fog that prevents you from seeing more than 10 feet in any direction.
When conditions are right, I think the hikes and views at Hurricane Ridge are some of the best in Washington! When they’re not, the experience is still something you’ll be sure to remember. Take as much time as you can allow and explore some of the various hikes and trails and varying views of Mount Olympus and its endless brethren.
Perhaps the second most popular destination for the nature photographer or enthusiast is the Hoh Rainforest. This place can be completely overrun in the summer months and there are only a couple trails to choose from, but there is a unique beauty to the rainforest provided by impossibly lush mosses that ignite in color as the sun passes through them.
In addition to the trees and mosses, keep your eyes open for the insects, fungi, and other life forms that you will not find anywhere outside of this ideal environment. Bright orange mushroom communities growing amongst green ferns while bright yellow banana slugs crawl through; the Hoh Rain Forest is simply teeming with life and opportunity for the photographer with an eye for detail!
As opposed to its northern counterpart, Quinault is a temperate rainforest that offers a similar but unique landscape for those who make the time. The best thing about these trails is that, unlike Hoh, you are unlikely to be sharing them with hoards of people. I also found the light to be easier to work with here.
Sol Duc Falls
A moderate 1.5-mile roundtrip hike follows the Sol Duc River to a charming wooden bridge, where a massive triplet falls spills through the vibrant green forest. Sol Duc Falls is probably my favorite waterfall in all of Washington state (apologies to Palouse). I say this because the setting is unspeakably idyllic. Three separate cascades drop through a slim gorge surrounded by the most vibrant greenery one can imagine.
For me, this waterfall embodies the Pacific Northwest in one frame.
Upon arriving, the first great photo opportunity is from the bridge. However, capturing a long exposure can be tricky as you will need the bridge to be entirely still — and this is a popular destination! The best thing to do is arrive early (before 9am) to give yourself a chance to have it to yourself.
The second view is from around the corner, where you will find many unofficial trails. If you decide to descend at all, be EXTREMELY careful as the mossy surface is very slippery and one false step could be fatal. I urge everyone reading to stick to the flat portions, many of which provide great vantage points, and not risk getting too close to the falls.
*Bonus: Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort*
While my focus was on the landscapes and nature, the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort is located nearby the falls and is a very popular stop for most visitors, especially in the colder months. Pools of natural, geothermal waters are available to enjoy a relaxing soak in on a typical Pacific Northwest rainy day.
After reading about mountain tops, rainforests, and waterfalls, you may be surprised to be reading about and seeing photos of the beaches of Olympic! Perhaps now you are getting an idea of just how diverse this place truly is!
In the Northwest corner, just past Forks (the home of the Twilight series), head west toward the Pacific. Just outside of the town of La Push, you will discover my second-favorite beach, ironically named First Beach. This is a fantastic spot for sunset and to stop for the night. You will find some of the best fish and chips in the state, and of course, some beautiful vistas.
That said, my favorite beach is down the road… read on to see photos of Second Beach…!
The best of the Olympic National Park beaches is surely Second Beach. This secluded but renown gem offers some of the greatest seascapes I have found for landscape photography! There are miles of beautiful coast to explore with all sorts of interesting sea stacks and compositions available. The weekend I went most recently, a dozen or more locals were there camping as well. If you decide to make this an overnight stop, and I urge you to do so, make sure you arrive early enough to capture sunset! It truly transforms this already stunning coastline.
Begin your hike from either the lodge at Lake Crescent or the Marymere Falls Trailhead… depending on where you can find parking!
The hike itself is a 1.8-mile roundtrip effort with a small elevation gain. Most of the trail is easy and pleasant, with the exception of the steps towards the end of the hike. The reward for this jaunt is the scenic plummet seen above.
While the volume of water may not be staggering, the drop is considerable and the bright green moss that decorates the rock wall it falls past offers a nice pop of colour. There is also a log-graveyard that provides a bit of character to the scene. While Sol Duc Falls certainly remains at the top of the list as the true can’t-miss, I would personally recommend ensuring you allot some time for this short hike as well.
Somehow, Madison Falls sneaks by under the radar as one of the lesser-known, hidden gems of Olympic NP. Though smaller than both Sol Duc and Marymere, Madison Falls offers redemption value in the rich rainforest setting you find it in. Better still, the hike is only a 0.3-mile return, and I didn’t see another person on the trail despite it being a busy weekend in the park.
Though Madison Falls may not blow your mind, it is absolutely worth the quick trip.
Queets River Campground
You won’t find this destination on most blogs, which is really a bit of a shame. Your first peek of the Queets River will be as you cross a bridge from the south, revealing beautiful blue/aqua water. Look for signs to Queets River Campground and you will quickly find yourself in perhaps the most peaceful setting in the entire Olympic Peninsula.
This is a great place to stay the night, or at least stop and stretch your legs! There is one trail from the campground that follows the river through some beautiful scenery, as well as a boat ramp for quick access to the water for anyone staying the night.
Ok, not a destination by any means, but I would be remiss not to mention the opportunities for photographing wildlife in a blog all about Olympic National Park photography! Roosevelt Elk frequent many regions of the park, but the Hoh Rain Forest is the best place to see them.
Up at Hurricane Ridge, expect to see plenty of bucks and does who have very little fear of humans and practically beg for you to take their photos! Despite their insistence, please DO NOT FEED THEM, OR ANY OTHER ANIMALS. I also saw a fair few marmots during my visit.
If you are very lucky (or unlucky depending on how you see it), you may also see coyotes, black bears, bobcats, cougars, bald eagles, and surprisingly, airborne mountain goats! These guys are an invasive species and the National Park Service is actually having to helicopter them out of the area by the hundreds due to the damage they cause to an environment not suited for their needs.
Planning a trip or want to see more pictures of Olympic National Park? Feel free to contact me with any questions you think I can answer. If you are traveling onward to Oregon, you may also want to check out our guide to the waterfalls of Southern Oregon when planning your road trip itinerary south!