Olympic National Park is quite a meaningful place for me, as it was the first National Park I visited after I had begun to pursue landscape photography seriously. I dragged my partner along to see everything we could cram into a quick weekend trip – and there is A LOT to see in the Olympic Peninsula. Olympic National Park not only has beautiful coastlines, but also mossy forests, grandiose mountain-top views, and flower-lined lakes.
I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of the park on that trip, so I knew I had to return to that beautiful place again to capture even more. This year, I was able to return – three years later! – to spend my Easter holiday weekend with my Pacific Northwest photography crew. We had a ton of fun exploring this amazing area, and I wanted to write up a guide so you too can have an epic long weekend in one stunning place.
Start your journey by flying into either Seattle or Portland, and then rent a car to drive to Olympic National Park, setting your GPS for Ruby or Rialto Beach. Along the way, stop at Lake Quinault to explore some stunning waterfalls and stretch your legs on some hiking trails before heading toward the coast.
At the southern most point of the park, head to the beach and look for the Kalaloch Tree, also known as the Tree of Life. This amazing tree straddles a large crack in the land, somehow still living despite storms and its precarious positioning – those are definitely some strong roots! Head north from here, with some optional stops at Kalaloch Beach 3 and Kalaloch Beach 4.
Heading further north, catch the sunset at Ruby Beach, where you can find the iconic sea stacks of the Olympic Peninsula. The trail down to Ruby is a short but semi-steep walk, with some logs to cross at the bottom of the trail. From here, you can either settle into one of the beach campsites, or drive the rest of the way to an Airbnb or hotel in Forks.
Start your day bright and early by heading toward Rialto Beach for sunrise. We unfortunately got skunked due to a heavy morning fog that rolled in, so if the weather is looking too cloudy, you can just get an early start on the next stop: Hoh Rainforest. There are tons of hiking trails in the rainforest, but I recommend starting with the Hall of Mosses Trail, which is a very short and easy loop. If you have more time, the Spruce Nature Trail and the Little River Trail are fantastic to explore next.
After a morning full of hiking, take a break for an early lunch to prepare for a long drive out to the mountain portion of the park. From the Hoh Rainforest visitor center, it’s just under two hours to get to Sol Duc Falls, a classic waterfall that you can’t miss. It’s an easy hike to the bridge, where you can get a perfect view of the stunning flow. From Sol Duc, journey to Lake Crescent, where you can either drive around the lake and admire the views, or get out and hike some of the trails around the lake.
From Lake Crescent, you can either choose to spend the night at the lodges or campgrounds, so you can do an early hike the next morning, or you can head back west to catch a sunset at the beaches. We headed back out to the beaches in the late afternoon, returning to Rialto Beach for a better look without the morning fog. At Rialto, you can explore the picnic area by the parking lot, but to get to the nicer sea stacks, you will need to hike a little over a mile along the beach and cross a river portion. Please keep an eye on the tide, as you could easily get stuck on the beach!
Catch your day 2 sunset at any one of the beautiful beaches you prefer: Ruby, Rialto, Second, Third, etc. On my first trip to the area, I caught a sunset at Second Beach, which is an easy 1-mile forest hike to get to the beach, but make sure you bring a flashlight for the hike back. On this second trip, I returned to Ruby Beach for sunset as there were more compositions I wanted to play with.
Catch a sunrise on one of the beaches you haven’t captured yet, making sure to first check tides and the hike length, or rest up for the final day of adventuring. If you opted to stay near the lakes, I highly recommend driving up Hurricane Ridge for some truly epic morning views. There are also a lot of gorgeous hikes in this area so you can experience more of the mountains in the park, just make sure to check the roads, as some do close for wintertime or may require chains.
Since day 2 was such a packed schedule, day 3 allows you to visit some of the stops you missed or didn’t get enough time to see. I know I always plan out my days to the max, but please feel free to swap around plans to best fit your own comfort and schedule.
When you’ve finished seeing all the incredible sights, head back south to Portland or head back to Seattle. If you didn’t have time for Lake Quinault on day 1 and spent more time on the beaches, this is a great stop on the way home. Three days is no where near enough time to explore all that Olympic National Park has to offer, so here are a few extra stops you can add onto your trip:
Other Places to Explore:
- Cape Flattery – northwest most point of the park with stunning sea stack ocean views
- Shi Shi Beach – sea stacks, rocks, and places to camp
- Third Beach – another gorgeous Olympic National Park beach we didn’t have the time to fully explore
- Marymere Falls – short trail to a beautiful waterfall near Lake Crescent
- Where to stay: there are campgrounds all over ONP, some you need to reserve and some you can walk up to. I love to camp as it’s the cheapest option and it’s usually closer to my photography subjects, but there are also plenty of hotels, lodges, Airbnbs, etc. for all price ranges and comfort levels.
- What to eat: honestly since I usually camp at ONP, I bring freeze dried meals along with my jetboil. That being said, there are plenty of restaurant options for meals in Forks (near the beaches) and around Lake Crescent.
- Weather: weather can change quickly and unpredictably at ONP. The beaches are often windy and cold, the mountainous regions can be snow covered even in spring, it rains A TON all the time (that’s why it’s so green!), and in summer it is easy to sunburn or not drink enough water. Bring layers and be prepared for many different types of weather, even on the same day, as the elevation changes in the park means lots of small weather systems.
- Tides: access to the beaches can be dramatically different at high tide versus low tide, and you never want to get caught out with a tide coming in. Keep an eye on the tide charts and be cautious when exploring tide pools and sea stacks.
- Visit the Olympic National Park website for more information!
Have you been to Olympic National Park? Did I leave out any favorite spots of yours? Or did this guide inspire you to make a trip to the Olympic Peninsula? Let me know in the comments!