Washington National Parks Road Trip

The State of Washington is home to many breathtaking natural parks and landscapes and the best way to explore them is by taking a road trip! This Washington National Parks Road Trip will take you to Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, and North Cascades National Park, as well as other beautiful areas in Washington State.

Where to Go

Seattle

An international hub for the Pacific Northwest, Seattle rests on Puget Sound and provides a fantastic starting point for your trip. With a population of around 780,000, Seattle is the largest city in Washington State. Ever since it hosted the 1962 World Fair, Seattle has thrived as a cultural, technological, and outdoor recreation mecca. The 605-foot Space Needle remains the proud symbol of the Pacific Northwest metropolis and enchants visitors with incredible views. Snow-capped peaks and temperate rain forests characterize the city, luring hikers, cyclists, and other adventurers.

Olympic National Park

Just two-and-a-half hours from Seattle, Olympic National Park is the next stop along your road trip. From the rugged Pacific coast to snow-capped peaks, the diversity of Olympic National Park is off the charts. Beachgoers can marvel at the miles of driftwood and sea stacks dotting the coastline. Campsites along the shoreline allow you to watch mesmerizing sunsets and spend the evenings stargazing. Venture through the lush rainforests that boast Sitka spruce, western hemlock, ferns, spike-mosses, and other unique plant species. Find solitude at Lake Crescent by kayaking on its sparkling waters or climb the adjacent peaks. The temperate rainforests eventually give way to the mountains, and Mount Olympus sits proudly above the landscape. Hurricane Ridge offers year round recreation and enchants visitors as one of the park’s most iconic vistas. 

Mount Rainier National Park

Under a three-hour drive from Olympic National Park lies Mount Rainier National Park, the next stop on your road trip. Paradise is the word that best describes the natural beauty of Mount Rainier National Park. Its namesake peak rises 14,411 ft into the sky, the highest mountain in the Cascade Range. The Paradise Area gives visitors the best view of the famous mountain and its eye-popping alpine meadows. Gain more elevation by driving to Sunrise and explore the hiking trails that offer incredible views of the Cascades. The quick trek to Tipsoo Lake and the 6.3-mile Crystal Lakes Trail each include alpine lakes and blooming wildflowers. Thousands of mountaineers attempt to summit the mighty peak, but the sheer elevation gain of over 9,000 feet makes this a monumental challenge.

Hanford Reach National Monument

Just over two hours from Mount Rainer National Park sits the Hanford Reach National Monument, the next stop on your journey. Wildlife abounds in the last free-flowing, non-tidal stretch of the Columbia River. Established in 2000, the Hanford Reach National Monument brings visitors face-to-face with elk, coyotes, birds of prey, and other incredible species. More than 200 bird species inhabit the refuge, and anglers can catch bass, salmon, steelhead, and walleye. Hanford Reach features rare traces of sagebrush grassland that have remained untouched due to the security around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The B-Reactor at Hanford Reach was the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, and the landscape set aside for the Manhattan Project retained its immense diversity of plant and animal life.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

Just about two hours away is your next stop, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. More than 4 million acres of pristine wilderness lures nature enthusiasts searching for solitude from the crowds. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest straddles the eastern side of the Cascades and gives hikers hundreds of miles of trails to explore. Spruce, lodgepole pine and Douglas-firs adorn the subalpine forests and scattered lakes offer serene fishing holes. Methow Valley provides a sanctuary for numerous species such as lynx, grizzly bears, wolves, and beavers. Recreation seekers share the landscape with wildlife and partake in activities like mountain biking, fishing, rafting, and Nordic skiing.

North Cascades National Park

Continue on for two-and-a-half hours to reach North Cascades National Park. The park boasts over 300 glaciers, the most you’ll find anywhere in the Lower 48. Its untouched wilderness includes turquoise lakes, cascading waterfalls, and beautiful alpine meadows. Diablo Lake is the star attraction with its stunning mountain vistas and old-growth forests hugging its shores. The nearby Ross Lake Resort is a prime spot for recreational activities such as boating, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and camping. Hikers gravitate to the Cascade Pass for the jaw-dropping views of granite peaks and forested valleys. Situated at nearly 5,500 feet, the Washington Pass Overlook inspires nature lovers with its immense spires rising up towards the heavens. Although it requires serious effort to get to, the remote village of Stehekin is a magical lakeside hideaway engulfed by snow-capped peaks.

When to Go

Despite the large crowds, July and August offer the best conditions to road trip through Washington State’s national parks. These are the driest months of the year in Olympic National Park, which provides amicable hiking conditions. Many roads inside Mount Rainier National Park are closed from November to May. Plus, the wildflowers dotting the alpine meadows are at their peak bloom during the summer. North Cascades National Park experiences similar roadway closures in the winter, and summer offers the most pleasant weather conditions. Although this route is doable within a week, you could spend a lifetime exploring these miraculous landscapes. Give yourself at least two weeks, or longer, for a rewarding road trip.

Hidden Gems in Olympic National Park

AppleMark

One of the most naturally beautiful parks in the country, there’s no question why Olympic National Park is also one of the most visited in America. Full of ancient forests and spectacular landscapes, this national park located in western Washington is home to a variety of off the beaten path treasures to explore.

Quinault Valley

Take the East Fork Quinault River Trail through the gorgeous wooded Quinault Valley, a less-trafficked alternative to the popular Hoh Rainforest. If you’re feeling up for it, continue on this trail 13 miles until you reach Enchanted Valley!

Ozette Archeological Site

Located on the Makah Reservation nearby Olympic National Park, this fascinating archeological site reveals the remains of a historic town from 1560. Once covered by a mudslide, this town had been completely forgotten until its excavation revealed houses, utensils, and Native American artifacts which are now on display by the Makah Tribe at the Makah Cultural and Research Center.

Tree of Life

Found along the coast of Olympic National Park’s Kalaloch Campground is this unique natural phenomenon. The Tree of Life is a giant spruce tree perched precariously between two cliffs. A stream has corroded the earth that once connected the cliff ends, leaving the tree’s roots completely exposed in the empty space, creating a “root cave”. This unusual and strikingly beautiful wonder is a hidden gem worth visiting.

Cape Johnson

Olympic National Park’s extensive wilderness coastline is vastly underrated and not widely visited. Head just north of Realto Beach to Cape Johnson to experience untouched wildlife, ancient rock formations, and boundless empty beach. Check the tides before you go as they will impact your trip to Cape Johnson significantly. 

High Steel Bridge

Visit the High Steel Bridge on your way into the Olympic Peninsula if you’re feeling brave and adventurous! This truss arch bridge offers spectacular (if nerve-inducing) views of the breathtaking waters of the South Fork Skokomish River that lies below. Be sure to keep your wits about you and proceed with caution when visiting the bridge. 

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