How to Visit the 3 National Parks in Washington State

National Parks In Washington Olympic
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One of the best parts about visiting Washington is that we have not one, but multiple national parks to visit. If you’re wondering how many national parks are in Washington state, the answer is three! They’re all unique in their own way, so you get to explore a variety of landscapes if you have the time to stop at each one. I’ve been to all the national parks in Washington state multiple times, so I wrote this article to give you a mini guide on them.

I love each park for multiple reasons – for example, you can’t get better mountain views and wildflower hikes than at Mount Rainier. While the majority of North Cascades is only open for part of the year, it offers some of the best views of glacier-fed lakes. And of course, you can’t forget Olympic National Park, where you’ll get to explore both the ocean and forest if you have time. You can see why it’s hard to pick a favorite Washington national park!

In this guide, I list when to visit, where to stay, and what to do at each Washington state park so you can create your own day trip or vacation there.

Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park Port Angeles View

One of the most interesting facts about Seattle is the Olympic National Park is home to nearly a million acres of lush wilderness, including rainforests, and many people say it’s one of the best national parks in Washington.

The lands are roamed by reptiles, mammals, and birds, some of which are listed as threatened species. You can explore parts of its vastness as part of an Olympic National Park day trip or extended journey if you do an Olympic Peninsula road trip.

How to Get to Olympic National Park

Assuming that your trip starts in Seattle, there are several ways to get to this fantastic national park in Washington State.

By Ferry

You can take one of three ferries from Seattle across Puget Sound. Choose from the Bainbridge Island Ferry, Kingston Fast Ferry, and Edmonds-Kingston Ferry (grab coffee while visiting Edmonds first).

The Kingston Fast Ferry is passenger-only, while the other two ferries allow for cars to be transferred in the ferry’s deck. These are first-come, first-serve, so you’ll want to go early to get in line during peak times like the weekend.

By Car

The fastest way to get there without taking a ferry takes you along Interstate 5, south of the city, and passes through Tacoma and Olympia.

By Bus

Taking a bus is an economical way to venture from Seattle to the park’s surrounding communities. Three popular lines are serving this route which are Greyhound, Clallam Transit, and Dungeness Line. After arriving at the Olympic Peninsula, one of the lines can take you to the surrounding park entrances. 

However, a bus will take up quite a bit of your day, so I recommend this form of transportation as the last option.

Best Time to Visit Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park Viewpoint

Summer (June to August) is the best time to visit National Parks near Seattle because nearly everything is open to exploration. From hiking trails to campgrounds, you’ll find them all. You should note that this is also the most popular time, so go early and on weekdays when possible.

The spring season (March to June) is the second most popular period. Temperatures begin to rise and bring mild conditions, and many facilities begin to open up after the winter. You’ll get some rain, but many hikes will keep you protected from this, thanks to the trees (and you may be surprised that there are quite a lot of spring activities in Washington State to do).

The fall season (September to November) sees decreased temperatures and increased rainfall. Snow and strong winds may plague visitors in the lower elevation while the cold creeps in at high peaks. Facilities such as campgrounds, trails, and roads start to become unusable.

If you’d rather visit in winter (December to February), you’ll be spoiled by snow-capped mountains, evergreen forests, and several winter sports like skiing and snowshoeing. This is also one of the best places to do winter hiking in Washington, as many areas are free of snow. However, many facilities and roads may be closed or operate at reduced hours, so it’s always best to contact the park beforehand. 

Note: Visitor centers in the park and Hurricane Ridge Road are closed during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Where to Stay at Olympic National Park

Hurricane Ridge

If you’re visiting on a multi-day trip, there are many places to stay at. I have an even more extensive guide on choosing where to stay in Olympic National Park.

Olympic National Park Vacation Home

This Olympic National Park Vacation Home is perfect for a family getaway as it comes with three bedrooms that can sleep up to ten people. The home lies at the entrance of Olympic National Park by Rialto Beach.

Enjoy a meal made in the modern kitchen by the fireplace or on the patio. Binge on your favorite series with Wi-Fi, Netflix, and cable provided.

Hoh Valley Cabins

The Hoh Valley Cabins are nestled in Forks and provide a peaceful setting that’s just around 6-miles from the park.

Cook up your favorite meals in the fully furnished kitchen and indulge in your feast atop the cedar deck while enjoying views of the garden and forestry.

Super 8 by Wyndham Port Angeles

This Super 8 by Wyndham Port Angeles is a great option for anyone as it sleeps two to six guests. It features all the basic amenities, including free Wi-Fi, a TV with cable, and a coffee machine.

Start your day with a complimentary continental breakfast that has a selection of delicacies. Then come back from your adventures and clean your dirty clothes at the guest launderette.

Best Things to Do at Olympic National Park

With such a vast territory featuring so many attractions, it can be hard to choose what to do at Olympic National Park in Washington. 

Hoh Rainforest

rain forest things to do in olympic national park

If you started planning your trip to Olympic National Park after being enamored by the incredible greenery here, you’ve probably heard of Hoh Rainforest. It features several trees covered in bright green moss that you can’t miss the opportunity to catch up close.

Lakes and Oceans

One of the best things about this national park near Seattle is the beaches and lakes. You can go beachcombing, swimming or simply soak in the sun’s rays. 

Olympic National Park’s most renowned nearby beaches include Rialto Beach, Ruby Beach, Shi Shi Beach, and La Push’s three coastlines. Other bodies of water with activities like kayaking include Lake Crescent, Hoh River, Sol Duc River, and more.

Visit the Waterfalls

marymere falls

Washington state parks are home to some picturesque waterfalls, and the Olympic National Park may be the best one of the lot. The most popular ones include Madison Falls in the Elwha Valley, Marymere Falls in Lake Crescent, and Sol Duc Falls in Sol Duc. 

The park rangers and signage will guide you to these waterfalls that showcase nature’s beauty. There are so many waterfall hikes by Seattle that you’ll love checking out.

Hiking in the Park

To truly appreciate all that Olympic National Park offers, there aren’t many ways better than trekking on foot to explore some amazing Washington hikes.

Amongst the most-traveled hikes are the Royal Lake Basin, Hurricane Hill, Obstruction Point, 7 Lakes Basin, and more. 

Apart from the greenery, the trails also take you to many incredible viewpoints and attractions. Read my Olympic National Park hikes guide for more details.

Hurricane Ridge

Hurricane Ridge is one of the park’s most renowned attractions due to its ease of access and what it offers. Standing just a few minutes from Port Angeles, it has several hikes that spoil you with scenic viewpoints, wildlife viewing, and lush greenery.

View the famous Mt. Olympus in the distance and see deer, elk, and more wildlife here.

Mount Rainier National Park

mount rainier meadows

Mount Rainier is one of the nation’s oldest parks, being established in 1899 and is an active volcano that erupted a thousand years ago. It’s home to various flora and fauna and features 25 major glaciers that look incredible but make it colder than other Washington parks.

Many people consider it one of the best national parks in Washington state when you’re looking for an easy Seattle day trip. This is also a popular stop when people drive from Seattle to San Diego.

How to Get to Mount Rainier

This park is one of the closest national parks near Seattle. If you’re visiting Mount Rainier, there are a few ways to get there from the city. Each route will offer you scenic views on your way to the park’s natural beauty.

By Car

Getting to Mount Rainier by car provides flexibility as you can enter from the east, west, north, and south sides of the park.

Choose from the Nisqually Entrance, Carbon River, or Mowich Lake. You can also select between White River and Stephens Canyon; I don’t recommend this route when visiting Mount Rainier in winter as the road may be covered in snow, making it impassable.

Alternative Ways

With a lack of public transport from and to the park, one of the most reliable modes of travel is hopping on an organized tour from Seattle or sharing a ride with other travelers.

You can also take a bus to Enumclaw from Seattle, then connect with an expensive taxi ride to the Carbon River entrance. I recommend that you book your ride back with the driver as soon as you arrive, as cell reception can be spotty.

Best Time to Visit Mount Rainier National Park

day trip to mt rainier

Like most WA state parks, the best time to visit Mount Rainier is summer (July to August). The weather lends itself to a great experience spent on the various activities offered by the park.

Spring (May to June) is also a great time to visit as you come before the summer crowds. The snow is melting away, opening up many trails and letting the natural beauty flourish.

Fall (September to October) is when conditions get colder but aren’t reaching the extreme points. Rainfall begins to pour, and the snow starts draping over the mountains, making for fantastic imagery and leading to partial closures of roads and facilities.

Winter (November to April) is perfect for anyone who’s a winter sports enthusiast or simply wants to see the snow-capped mountains in their full glory. There are some amazing spots to go snowshoeing around the mountain.

However, many facilities and roads may be closed due to extreme snow, so contact the park before making your way down. You will also need to have chains in your car during the winter and part of the spring to enter the park.

Where to Stay in Mount Rainier National Park

Wooden House On Mount Rainier

If your visit to Mount Rainier isn’t a single-day trip, there are many places to stay that make your stay as incredible as your visit. 

Nisqually Lodge

Nisqually Lodge is a charming spot that ranks high on best places to stay when visiting one of the best Seattle National Parks. Guests are spoiled with free continental breakfast, while their rooms are fitted with cable TV and free Wi-Fi. 

Mountain Meadows Inn

Mountain Meadows Inn is a quaint rental that accepts a maximum of eight guests in the heart of the woods. The place comes with free Wi-Fi, toiletries, and a TV with satellite channels. Soaking in the sun is pretty easy as you can sit on the terrace that spoils you with views of the garden.

Creek-Front Cabin

This Creekfront Cabin sleeps four and boasts a spacious living room with large chalet-style windows that offer views of Osborn Mountain. Plus, it also has all the amenities you need. Make your favorite dishes in the fully-furnished kitchen, pass time watching Netflix or reading books, and heat up in the shower or tub. 

Best Things to Do in Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier is as vast as the Seattle, Washington national parks come, and as such, it’s home to a ton of activities – all of which you can find below when looking for things to do at Mt. Rainier.

Paradise Area

The appropriately named Paradise is arguably the most popular area at Mount Rainier National Park, thanks to its breathtaking beauty. There are several trails you can take to reach this area, and they all boast gorgeous flora along the way.

I’d recommend the Skyline trail to Panorama Point; the apex spoils you with views of Mount Rainier and Nisqually glaciers as well as forestry.

Visit the Waterfalls

Like Olympic Park, Mount Rainier National Park is home to some rather amazing waterfalls. You can access them by various hiking trails that bless you with natural splendor along the way.

Myrtle Falls is located in Paradise and requires an easy walk to reach. Narada Falls is nestled on Paradise Valley Road and also requires a short and easy Washington hike to reach. 

Hiking in Mount Rainier

skyline trail

To enjoy Mount Rainier in all its glory, I recommend hiking around the park on the various trails on offer. There are trails of varying distances and difficulties, great for all hikers, and I have a list of the best Mount Rainier hikes if you want to research them more.

Apart from the Skyline Trail, you can venture along the Silver Falls Trail (3.4 miles) that has Silver Falls as a highlight, Eagle Peak (7 miles) that offers views of Mount Rainier, and Spray Park Trail (6 miles) for flower enthusiasts. 

Try the Summerland Trail to Panhandle Gap (12 miles) or the multi-day Wonderland trail (93 miles) for a more strenuous hike.

Sunrise Point

Sunrise is another popular location in the park that offers mesmerizing views. You get treated to views of Mount Rainier, and at its highest elevation, Sunrise overlooks the Cascade Range. It’s the highest elevation you can reach by vehicle.

It has many trails, of which I’d recommend the Mount Fremont Fire Lookout for great views.

North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park

North Cascades is one of the best Washington State national parks, thanks to its natural beauty and many activities on offer.

The park spans over 500,000 acres covered by enormous mountains and has been a national park since 1968. The park features the most recorded plant species of any park and has over 300 glaciers, one of the more astonishing North Cascades National Park facts. 

It’s also called home by various animals, including bears, wolves, cougars, fish, and birds. You’ll love taking a road trip from Seattle here.

How to Get to North Cascades

Getting to North Cascades from Seattle can only be done by car as there are no public means of transport there.

Driving to the park from Seattle by car is easy and just requires a GPS. Just drive up Interstate 5 north and follow the easy directions, and you’ll get there in around two hours.

Best Time to Visit North Cascades National Park

River At North Cascades

As has been the case, summer (mid-June to mid-September) is the best time to visit North Cascades National Park. All facilities, campgrounds, and roads are open. However, temperatures can soar into the 90s during this time, so be sure to pack sun protection and bring plenty of water.

Spring (mid-March to mid-June) is the second-best time to visit as the weather is warmer, and you won’t always have to bring a rain jacket. Flora starts to bloom, making for great photo opportunities.

Fall (mid-September to November) is also a decent period to visit as it gives you the chance to see the fall foliage, and winter hasn’t really crept in with extreme colds. My personal favorites are the larches in North Cascades during this time of year.

Winter (December to mid-March) is limited, as Highway 20 is also regularly closed between November and April due to the risks of an avalanche and strong rainfall. You can see some parts like Diablo Lake, but many facilities are closed. As always, check the park’s website for updates before you go.

Visiting Mount Rainier in the winter is another fun area to go to if you like the snow.

Where to Stay in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades Park

For an equally great stay during your visit to the park, consider some of the following rentals.

Gateway to North Cascades National Park

This cozy waterfront property sleeps nine and is conveniently located just a few minutes from the park. Cook up a storm in the kitchen, then enjoy your meal in the seating room in front of a fireplace. Apart from the river, you’re treated to sightings of wildlife like deer and bald eagles.

North Cascades Skagit River Retreat

North Cascades Skagit River Retreat sleeps six adults and two kids and has a complete kitchen and optional laundry. It’s conveniently located within walking distance to many amazing trailheads. The chalet faces a river in which you can catch some fish or just watch the salmon run.

North Cascades Comfort in the Woods

This cozy cabin is perfect for anyone looking for a secluded rental, and it sleeps four guests. The property is surrounded by lush greenery and features a TV, kitchen, fun games, a fireplace, and more.

Best Things to Do in North Cascades National Park

With the park being so big, you’ll struggle to run out of things to do. These are just a few that I recommend.

Diablo Lake Viewpoint

diablo lake north cascades

To start, I recommend enjoying some of the scenic viewpoints that the park offers, and perhaps none are as great as this. This viewpoint overlooks the calm turquoise waters of Diablo Lake. It also provides an amazing view of the greenery the water is nestled within. You’ll find this viewpoint along Highway 20.

Hiking in the Park

washington larches

Like the other two national parks near Seattle, there are plenty of hikes in the North Cascades to go on.

I recommend Maple Pass Loop (7.2 miles and moderate) for an inclusive hike as it spoils you with flora and dramatic views of the park. Other good hiking trails include the 2-mile Rainy Lake and the 0.4-miles Ladder Creek Falls leading to a waterfall. 

For a long one, consider the 12-mile Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm that encompasses all that makes North Cascades amazing.

North Cascades Highway Drive

washington pass overlook

For exploring with little to no effort, I recommend this picturesque drive on Highway 20, full of incredible stops. The road trip passes along the Skagit River and exposes you to several lakes, hiking trails, and viewpoints. It’s easily one of the best drives in Washington state.

Gorge Lake & Falls

Gorge Lake Overlook

Yet another viewpoint, but what makes this one different is seeing the glorious waterfall in addition to great views. The viewpoint not only showcases the beautiful turquoise-watered lake but also has a short half-mile loop trail showing you Gorge Dam and the forestry surrounding it.

Visit Nearby Stehekin

Quaint and quiet Stehekin is a nearby village that’s a perfect getaway for anyone looking for a secluded location. You can only get here by foot, plane, or boat. I recommend taking the boat because I’m not sure you’re interested in a 12-hour walk.

However, you’ll love all the things to do in Stehekin, like horseback riding, kayaking, bike riding, and discovering the quiet town.

Now the question is which of these national parks in Washington are you going to visit first?

4 thoughts on “How to Visit the 3 National Parks in Washington State

  1. Titin Tan says:

    Hi Marissa,
    your TIPS are amazing. Thank you for sharing it.
    My husband and I are going visit MT. Rainer on December 2 before heading to Alaska And checking in Organized tour for Seattle is not available. Is it correctly?

  2. Marissa says:

    Thanks so much! And correct, the mountain will be covered in snow during December and some of the roads are closed, so the only tour you might be able to do is a snowshoe tour.

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