About the Site
Olympic National Park  



Olympic Mountains

Hurricane Ridge

Pacific Coast

Ruby Beach

Kalaloch Beach

Kalaloch Lodge

Hoh Rain Forest

Hoh River

Lake Quinnault

Sol Duc Area

Sol Duc Trail

Lake Crescent

Elwha Valley


Trees and Vegetation


Olympic National Park is possibly the national park system's most diverse national parks, including snowcapped peaks, temperate rain forests, and windswept ocean coastal areas. The park is located on the Olympic Peninsula in the extreme northwest corner of Washington state, surrounded by the Strait of Juan De Fuca on the north, the Pacific Ocean on the west, and the Puget Sound to the east. Although it's only a short distance to Seattle across the Sound, the park seems very remote as the population of Washington's Olympic peninsula is not very large.

The park itself is quite large, containing 922,651 acres or 1,441 square miles. These park's borders include 60 glaciers, 13 rivers, 57 miles of coastline, over 600 miles of trails, the greatest remaining true wilderness forest in America, and the largest herd of Roosevelt elk in the United States. The park includes three separate and diverse ecosystems--subalpine forest and wildflower-rich meadows, temperate rain forests, and the Pacific coastline. Because the Olympic Peninsula was at one time isolated from the rest of the mainland by glaciers, the the park has some 16 endemic species of animals and plants found nowhere else in the world. The park is a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve.

In some ways the centerpiece of the park is the spectacular Olympic mountains. These mountains are rugged and covered with some 60 active glaciers. Although they are not particuarly high, the mountains arise from sea level and appear to be much higher than they are. The spectaular peaks are visible for 100 miles or more. The many sharp peaks of the range support a number of glaciers and the mountains are covered in white even in the summer.

Temperate rain forests can be found in the valleys of the Hoh, Queets, Quinault, and Boachiel Rivers in the western portion of the park. Giant trees and forests filled with a wide variety of lush vegetation can be viewed from trails easily accessible by most visitors. The temperate rain forests found in Olympic National Park are among the finest in the world. These forests are a result of one of the wettest climates in the 48 contiguous states.

The park also encompasses 57 miles of beautiful Pacific coastline. There are a variety of coastal landforms, including sandy beaches, rocky, gravel-covered ones, and spectacular rocky headlands and islands in the Pacific.

In addition to the Pacific coast, the park features a number of rivers and lakes. The rivers arise in the mountains of the central part of the park and flow into the major arms of the sea around the peninsula. The lakes are surrounded by forested hills and mountains.

Much of the park, including the land in the center of the park within the Olympic Mountains and long coastal strips, is wilderness. In fact, 876,669 acres of Olympic National Park is classified as wilderness. A quarter of the park land is covered by old growth forest. It is one of the premier wilderness parks in the national park system.

Views of wildlife, whether it be in the rain forest, on the coast, or with the spectacular Olympic mountains as a backdrop, can be spectacular.

Olympic National Park is a memorable place to visit. Of all the parks in the national park system, there is no better park to see a wide variety of spectacular natural features.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

Park History

Geology The Olympic Mountains were formed by subduction. 25 million years ago, collision of tectonic plates caused oceanic crust to slide beneath the continental plate, and the rocks which now form the Olympic mountains were skimmed off and added to the surface of the continent. Rocks on the continent were pushed up into a dome. During subsequent glacial eras, the ice carved the rock into the collection of mountains found in the area now. As a result, what was created was not a classic mountain range, narrow and lengthy, but rather a collection of peaks in a roughly circular cluster. Because of their origin, the summits of the Olympic mountains contain rocks which contain marine fossils. Some 60 glaciers continue to carve the Olympic Mountains today.

Human History The Olympic peninsula has a long history of human habitation and use, dating back some 12,000 years when the land was probably discovered by the ancestors of the current native American inhabitants. The Olcott people inhabited the area from about 12,000 to 6,000 years ago. At the time of the arrival of the first Europeans there were some nine Indian tribes living on the peninsula. There were approximately 9,000 Indians present when white explores first reached the Peninsula made use of the area for fishing, hunting, and gathering food. Compared with later residents, the early inhabitants left relatively few traces of their existence.

People on the peninsula traveled in the ubiquitous western red cedar canoes. The western red cedar was to some degree the foundation of the native culture on the northwest coast. The western red cedar has a number of advantages. It is light, resists decay, and can be easily split into boards and planks and other useful building materials. This raw material was used for a wide variety of purposes, including the building of houses, contruction of canoes, building cradles for infants, creating boxes and cooking containers, and making headdresses, rattles, ropes, mats, and shafts for spears and arrows.

The area provided a bounty of natural resources and food supplies. Ancient native inhabitants may have fed on mastodons, but more recently the Indians ate roots, and berries, hunted elk and deer, fished for salmon, trout, and steelhead, and gathered seafood such as clams, mussels, limpets, and barnacles. The Indians also hunted whales off the coast in cedar canoes. The inhabitants of the area used the bark of the cedar and which were woven into mats, robes, and baskets. Evidence of this culture has been found in Ozette Village where they were preserved by being covered by a mudflow.

A variety of tribes had villages on the peninsula, including the Quinnault, the Hoh, the Quileute, the Makah, the Klallum, The Chimacum, and the Skokomish. In general, the villages were on the sea and the perimeter of the peninsula. The culture was centered on winter villages which contained cedar longhouses.

The first European to spot the area was Spanish navigator Juan Perez Hernandez in 1774, although the Spanish navigator Juan de Fuca claimed to have sailed into the strait which now bears his name.

In 1775, Bruno de Heceta reached the shore of the peninsula near the mouth of the Quinnault River. Men from a sister ship on the voyage were involved in an altercation with local Indians in the area.

In 1778 the renowned navigator James Cook became the first English navigator to sail in and explore the Pacific Northwest, and named Cape Flattery. In 1788, sea captain John Meares of the British Royal Navy sailed along the Olympic Coast. He also sighted Mt. Olympus and gave it its name.

In 1791, the Spanish established a settlement at Neah Bay.

Although the area had been seen fron the sea, it was a long time before the actual area which now comprises the park was explored. During the 1800s most of the American lands were explored to varying degrees. However, because of its isolation the Olympic Peninsula became on of the last unexplored regions in the country. The rugged nature of the mountains and the dense vegetation, as well as the lack of navigable rivers into the interior, also made exploration difficult. Although the central areas of the Olympic Peninsula remained relatively unexplored until the latter years of the 19th century, the unique quality of the area was well appreciated.

The first trip across the mountains--in this case from the Hood Canal on the east to the mouth of the Quinnault River west of the mountains--was accomplished in 1878 by Melbourne Watkinson. The trip lasted 11 days.

One of the first attempts to explore the interior of the mountain area was led by US Army Lt. Joseph P. O'Neil, in 1885. In that year his group began at Ft. Townsend and explored the northwest corner of the peninsula.

The first group to thoroughly explore the interior of the Olympic Range, and to travel across the range from one side to another, was the Press Expedition in 1889. This expedition, which was inspired by press articles calling for exploration of the area, was sponsored, and later publicized by, the Seattle Press, a newspaper of the time which was the predecessor to the Seattle Times. The expedition was led by James Christie, an outdoorsman and explorer who took up the challenge of the Seattle newspaper. 6 men made up the expedition, including photographer and topographer Charles A. Barnes, John H. Crumback, the cook, John W. Sims, Christopher O. Hayes, and Dr. Harris Boyle Runalls, who had to leave before the expeditio proceeded very far. The expedition started north of the mountains in Port Angeles and followed the Elwha Valley, and the Quinnault Valley through the Quinnault Lake to the coast. The trip, undertaken in the winter, lasted 5 months. The expedition named a number of mountain peaks, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, although some names did not remain in future years. The expedition found some limited evidence of habitation of the mountain areas by native Indians.

Lt. O'Neil made a second exploration of the peninsula in 1890. He led a team of 15 men, including both members of the Army and civilians, from Port Union on the Hood Canal, explored the interior of the mountains, and emerged on Lake Quinnault. This expedition also built a pack trail into and across the mountains. This trail became a major route for entry into the mountain

The first survey of the Olympics was carried out by Theodore Rixon and Arthur Dodwell from 1898 to 1900.

One of tshe first person to advocate for the creation of a park to preserve the wonders of the Olympic Mountains and the surrounding area was James Wickersham during an expedition. He wrote letters to 2 publishing companies on November 3 and November 8, 1890, and in 1891 sent an article to Joh. W. Powell, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Interestingly, Wickersham later was an advocate for the creation of Mt. McKinley National Park in Alaska.

Lt. Joseph O'Neil also proposed setting aside parts of the area, because of their rugged nature, as a national park following his 1890 expedition. He advocated for this position during a lecture on Dec. 6, 1890, in Portland, Oregon, as well as by Professor Daniel G. Elliot. Preservation was necessary because logging of the magnificent forests of the Olympic Peninsula had begun in the 1860's. Some mining later also took place beginning in 1908.

The first move toward preservation of the area took place in 1897 when President Grover Cleveland designated portions of the area as the Olympic Forest Preserve. More than 2 million acres were withdrawn from settlement and entry at that time. It remained a forest preserve from 1897-1906.

Although opposed by some companies in Seattle and Tacoma opposed creation of a park, Theodore Roosevelt was asked by Congressman W. E. Humphrey of Tacoma to create a national monument. Roosevelt used his authority under the Antiquities Act, which had been passed in 1906, in 1909 to circumvent Congress and set aside the area as Mt. Olympus National Monument. 615,000 acres were set aside, although this was reduced to 300,000 acres in 1915 by Woodrow Wilson. The area served as a national monument for 27 years (1906-1933).

The effort to create a national park lasted a long time and involved a protracted argument. Presdent Franklin Roosevelt visited the area in 1937 and met with people to come up with a plan for creating a plot. The bill establishing Olympic National Park was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on June 29, 1938. Initially, 898,000 acres were set aside for the park, an increase of 187,411 acres, which now included portions of the Elwha watershed, including Hurricane Ridge, the west half of Mt. Angeles, Deer Park, the land between Sol Duc Hot Springs and Lake Crescent. The area of the park has now grown to 908,692 acres today.

Additional enhancements to the park took place when most of the current he park's coastal strip was added to the park in 1953 by President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1976 Congress expanded the park to include Shi SHi, Point of the Arches, and the east shore of Lake Ozette on the north shore section. In that year, UNESCO made Olympic National part of its sytem of International Biosphere Reserves. In 1981 it was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

In 1988, approximately 95% of the park was designated as a wilderness area.

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