Washington State is filled to the brim with stunning natural sites to explore. Olympic National Park and Mt. Rainier National Park are two of the three national parks located in the state (the third being North Cascades National Park). They are also the two most popular destinations for those seeking to get outdoors. Both parks offer visitors one-of-a-kind experiences with no shortage of places to explore.
When choosing whether to visit Olympic National Park or Mt. Rainier National Park, there are a few characteristics to take into consideration. Climate, hiking, accessibility, location, affordability, and more should all be measured. One offers fields of mountain wildflowers while the other boasts the largest rainforest in the Pacific Northwest.
If you’re torn between visiting Mt. Rainier or Olympic National Park, keep reading. We’re taking a look at everything you need to know when selecting between the two national parks.
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is a treasure trove of natural spaces. The park is located on a peninsula and its mountains can be seen across Puget Sound from downtown Seattle.
The Olympic Peninsula boasts three unique ecosystems: subalpine forests, Pacific coastline, and temperate forest. President Franklin Roosevelt deemed the Olympics a national park in 1938 and became a World Heritage Site in 1981. Olympic National Park offers a little something for all its guests.
The best way to experience Olympic National Park is by car or foot. Two bus lines run in and out of the park. Olympic Bus Lines serve the Greater Puget Sound area and the Clallam Transit System stops at popular park sites along Highway 101.
The park can also be accessed via ferry from Seattle. It’s advised that visitors rent a car (check out Rentalcars.com for options) or camper (you can rent one from Outdoorsy) to explore the park. Doing this gives you complete freedom in choosing where you want to go and when. There are several trailheads leading to incredible views that are not easily accessible by bus.
Visiting a national park means you have the freedom to craft your own vacation based on your budget. There is a $30 per vehicle day fee for those entering the park that applies to all guests. Those staying in hotels and dining in park restaurants spend an estimated $650 per person for one week.
However, Olympic National Park offers several campsites and campgrounds to park a camper van or pitch a tent. Those who opt to camp and cook most of their meals will spend far less than $650 per week.
Compared to Mt. Rainier National Park, the Olympic Peninsula is surrounded by small towns. Visitors can opt to stay in a hotel or Airbnb and dine in one of these towns.
Port Angeles, Clallam Bay, Forks, and Aberdeen are three nearby cities with several options for lodging. Keep in mind that staying outside the park will require visitors to rent a car to access the park.
Things to do in Olympic National Park
Hike the Hoh Rain Forest
The Hoh Rain Forest is one of the seven wonders of Washington and walking through these trees will quickly reveal why. Dense fog and mist that falls over the rain forest lends itself to the iconic vibrant green color. In fact, the forest sees around 14 feet of rain each year.
Keep your eyes out for famed trees like the Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock, which can reach over 3,000 feet high and seven feet in diameter. Large clumps of moss, ferns, and vines hang from the trees making the Hoh Rain Forest a favorite hiking destination for visitors to Olympic National Park.
Visit Kalaloch and Ruby Beach
Walk the beach, explore tide pools, and watch an incredible sunset at Kalaloch and Ruby Beach. The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary offers over 135 miles of coastline and is home of several species of birds, including common murres and tufted puffins.
There are several places to camp along the beach, but visitors should plan to make their reservations long in advance as these shores are some of the most sought after sites in the park. The beach here has less traffic than most others along the northwest coastline, making it ideal if you want to avoid crowds.
Climb Hurricane Ridge
Hurricane Ridge is a renowned 3.4-mile out and back trail located in the northern section of the park. Thehike is ranked as moderately difficult and best completed from July through October. Once hikers reach the top of the ridge, they are rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding Olympic mountain range.
Snow-capped peaks and steep green valleys are visible on a clear day. Hikers should start their journey at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center to get updated information about trail status from park rangers prior to setting out.
Explore Lake Crescent
Lake Crescent is located in the northern foothills of the Olympics. Millions of years ago massive glaciers carved the valleys seen in the park today. This gives the valleys their steep walls and provides park lakes with their pristine appearance. Several hiking trails are also available.
Some circumnavigate the lake while others climb nearby mountains for impressive views. Marymere Falls and the Spruce Railroad trail are two other popular hikes located nearby. During the warm summer months, visitors also enjoy kayaking and paddleboarding on the lake.
Visit Sol Duc Valley
Located in the northwest part of the park is Sol Duc Valley. Hikers trek through old-growth forests and near subalpine lakes to earn views of snowy peaks. There are also several shorter hikes, giving hikers options depending on their desired difficulty.
The trail to the overlook of Sol Duc Falls is just one mile from the trailhead. Lover’s Lane and the climb to Mink Lake are two more popular hikes. During October and November, visitors come to the Salmon Cascades overlook to watch coho salmon leap over the falls as they travel upstream to spawn.
Where to Stay in Olympic National Park
If you’ve decided that Olympic National Park is the place for you, then you’re going to need to find a place to stay in or around the park. If you’re not keen on camping, then you will find that there are lots of accommodation options near the park entrance for you to choose from. If you’re wondering where to stay, then have a look at these suggestions:
Olympic Lodge — Located in Port Angeles, this is a perfect place to stay if you’re looking a luxury accommodation option when exploring Olympic National Park. They have a number of plush rooms available, a beautiful location, a swimming pool and even a restaurant on site. Click here to see their availability
Emerald Valley Inn — Situated in Port Angeles within easy access to the park entrance, this cosy inn makes for a fantastic base near Olympic National Park. They have a range of quaint rooms available, provide free parking for guests, and there is a restaurant on site. Click here to see their availability
Greenhouse Inn by the Bay — Located in the town of Sequim, this convivial bed and breakfast is the perfect place to stay if you’re looking for something cosy and comfortable near Olympic National Park. They have a number of lovely rooms available, an inviting garden to relax in and a great breakfast is included in the nightly rate. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental — Another great accommodation option near Olympic National Park is a private rental. There are countless great options near the park to choose from that will suit any personality, budget or travel style. For instance, this charming cottage in Port Angeles is an excellent option for a base! Click here to find the best private rentals near Olympic National Park!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other places to stay in Olympic National Park!
Mt. Rainier is the largest mountain in the Pacific Northwest. On a sunny day, the mountain can be clearly seen from downtown Seattle.
The Wonderland Trail is one of the most popular backpacking trails in the Northwest and wraps around the base of the entire mountain. Mt. Rainier stands at an impressive 14,410 feet above sea level and was established in 1899.
Visitors to Mt. Rainier National Park is met with meadows of wildflowers, waterfalls, and unforgettable views of this eye-catching mountain.
As one of the most popular destinations in Washington, Mt. Rainier National Park is usually brimming with guests. Planning to visit mid-week is usually a good option for those whose schedules allow. Packwood is where visitors find most lodging and restaurants.
The park itself has four different entrances, each with a booth that requires vehicles to pay a $30 day pass fee. Yearly passes are also available.
Like most national parks, having a car is the best way to experience the park. There are no shuttle buses available in Mt. Rainier National Park. A car gives visitors access to all the trailheads.
Keep in mind that parking on the weekends can be tricky. Weekend traffic crowds parking lots at Paradise, Sunrises, and the Grove of the Patriarchs.
When it comes to affordability, Mt. Rainier National Park is similar to Olympic National Park. Visitors can choose to stay in lodges or hotels and eat in restaurants then expect to pay more per person. A more affordable alternative is camping in the park or staying in a yurt or lodge outside of the park.
Mt. Rainier is much closer to Seattle and the airport than the Olympics. Most visitors arriving by plane or visiting the park from Seattle will have less travel time to reach Mt. Rainier.
Things to do in Mt Rainier
Paradise is one of the most famous sites to visit in the park. These subalpine meadows with stunning views of the mountain offer visitors a truly unique experience. Visitors in summer are greeted with fields of wildflowers while visitors in winter can snowshoe or cross country ski through Paradise.
The name stems from when James Longmire’s daughter first saw the site and remarked, “Oh, what a paradise!” The park’s main visitor center, the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, is located in the Paradise parking lot. It’s also the start of several popular day hikes.
View Myrtle Falls
While visiting Paradise, make sure to stop by Myrtle Falls. This 72-foot waterfall is located at the southern part of the park and is a cannot-miss site if you’re in the area. Visitors hike along the Skyline or Golden Gate trails before arriving at a small footbridge that spans across the top of the falls.
By taking a left off the path, hikers capture a beautiful view of the falls with Mt. Rainier in the background. The trail is an easy hike and just half a mile from the Paradise parking lo.
Stop at Reflection Lake
Just as the name suggests, Reflection Lake is known for its still waters that reflect Mt. Rainer. The best time to visit the lake is June through September as it’s located on Stevens Canyon Road, which is only open to the public during the summer months.
There are several trails around the lake, however, the Lakes Trail is the most popular. It’s a three-mile loop that wraps around Reflection Lake.
Walk the Grove of the Patriarchs
The Grove of the Patriarchs is one of the most famous hikes in the park and for good reasons. The hike is only 1.5 miles roundtrip and takes hikers through dense forests, across suspended bridges, and near crystal clear streams.
Visitors to the area remark that the Grove of the Patriarchs feels like walking through a magical forest. These ancient Douglas firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars are towering trees visitors marvel at.
Ride the Gondola to Crystal Mountain
If you’re interested in fantastic views with no hiking, consider riding the gondola to the top of Crystal Mountain. Have lunch or grab a drink at the Summit House Restaurant, the highest elevation restaurant in Washington. The view from the patio is unbeatable.
Visitors should try to visit during clear days for the best views, but the summit is open during summer and winter. During the winter, visitors can ski here – Crystal Mountain is one of the most famous ski resorts in the state.
Where to Stay in Mt. Rainier National Park
If it’s Mt. Rainier that’s taken the top prize for you and you want to visit for more than a simple day trip from Seattle, then you’re going to need to find a great accommodation option. Fortunately, there is lots to choose from near the park. If you’re wondering where to stay near Mt. Rainier, then have a look at these suggestions:
Mountain Meadows Inn – Situated in the town of Ashford very close to the Park entrance, this inn is the perfect place to stay near Mt Rainier National Park. They have a range of rooms to choose from and an absolutely beautiful location, as well. Click here to see their availability
Alexander’s Lodge – Located within walking distance of the Park entrance, this lodge is another fantastic option to stay near Mt. Rainier. Located in Ashford, as well, they have a myriad of rooms available and a restaurant on site. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own private place to stay rather than a hotel or inn, then a private holiday rental may be a good choice for you. There are countless options available near the national park, such as this cosy cabin in the woods. Click here to browse private rentals near Mt Rainier
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to see more options near Mount Rainier!
Olympic National Park or Mt Rainier: The Verdict
Whether visiting Mt. Rainier or Olympic National Park, visitors are welcomed with stunning natural sites. Both parks offer accommodations for any budget, ranging from stays in historic lodges to camping in park campgrounds.
It’s recommended that visitors have a car at their disposal. Olympic National Park offers minimal public transportation and Mt. Rainier has none. Both destinations boast incredible hikes with fields of wildflowers, mountainous views, and various outdoor activities. All this said, which national park is better to visit?
Those who want a diverse set of ecosystems, choose Olympic National Park. The park boasts three unique ecosystems, including dense forests and sprawling subalpine meadows, giving visitors plenty of unique settings to explore.
Olympic National Park also tends to see fewer visitors each year. Those who want more opportunities to break free from the crowds should also choose to visit the Olympic Peninsula.
While a visit to Mt. Rainier National Park requires a car, the park is more accessible from Seattle than Olympic National Park. Mt. Rainier is less than 60 miles from downtown Seattle whereas the Olympics are about a three hours drive from Seattle. This proximity to the city leads to Mt. Rainier being far busier than the Olympic Peninsula.
However, passionate backpackers will love having easy access to the famed Wonderland Trail. Whether they’re taking two weeks to complete the entire trail or choosing one section, the Wonderland Trail has much to offer.
It’s also easier for visitors to see much of Mt. Rainier in a single day trip. By driving around the mountain, visitors can indulge in several opportunities for incredible views without stepping out of their car.
Whether you choose to visit Mt. Rainier National Park or Olympic National Park, you will be treated to beautiful natural scenes unique to each park. By keeping in mind what you hope to gain from your trip, you’ll be able to craft the perfect experience in either park.
Are you struggling to choose between visiting Olympic or Mt. Rainier National Park? Have you been to either? Let us know in the comments!
Thank you for writing this article! I have a 7 day trip for my birthday in August and I am trying to determine if I should spend 3 days at Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park and 4 in Olympic Nat’l Park or vice versa.
I am leaning towards giving the extra day to Olympic because we want to hike and go to the coast and that seems like it will be a bit of driving.
Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!