Get ready for sensory overload. Olympic National Park is an area of such variety in climate and terrain that it's hard to believe it's just one park. Here you can view white, chilled alpine glaciers; wander through a green, sopping-wet rainforest; or soothe your muscles with a soak in a hot springs pool. Or perhaps you'd prefer to ponder the setting sun from the sandy Pacific coastline, or disappear from the outside world altogether in the deep green forests of largely untouched mountains.
In the Olympic Mountains, remnants survive of 20,000-year-old glaciers that continue to grind and sculpt the mountains now as they did then, albeit on a smaller scale -- the glaciers have been shrinking rapidly in the past half-century. Farther down in some of the peninsula's west-facing valleys are some of the best remaining examples of temperate rainforests in the contiguous United States. In addition, Olympic National Park contains one of the longest stretches of uninterrupted coastal wilderness in the country, 73 miles in all.
Water is serious business here. Precipitation in the peninsula's rainforests is measured in feet, not inches, with some areas receiving over 12 feet each year. Contrast this with some parts of the drier northeastern section of the peninsula, which receive a comparatively paltry 15 to 20 inches on average. Again, variety is the rule. If the crystalline, jade waters of the glacier-fed lakes feel a little too cold for comfort, you have the opportunity to warm your bones in hot springs in the northern section of the park.
Despite its inherent ruggedness, rainy, and mysterious nature, the interior of the park has long been known to native peoples, as well as white settlers since the mid- to late 1800s. Unbridled curiosity and the inevitable desire for timber, mineral, and tourism dollars played a part in its recent exploration. Homesteads had been established by westward-moving pioneers on the periphery of the peninsula as early as the mid-1800s. However, the first documented exploration of the interior by white settlers didn't occur until 1885, and it was no easy feat. One group of explorers spent a grueling month hacking through dense brush to get from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge. (Today the trip takes approx. 45 min. by car.)
On the advice of some of these adventuresome explorers, Congress declared most of the peninsula a national forest. Then, in 1909, just before leaving office, President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, established Mount Olympus National Monument. It was set aside to preserve the summer range and breeding grounds of dwindling herds of Roosevelt elk (flatteringly named for the president himself in a brilliant piece of prelegislative public relations). In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill that turned the national monument into a national park, and in 1953 the coastal strip was added. In 1981, the park was declared a World Heritage Park, and in 1988, 95% of the park was designated a wilderness area.
Today Olympic National Park encompasses more than 900,000 acres of mountains and rainforests, crystalline lakes, and Pacific shoreline. By a fortunate stroke of planning or a fortunate lack of money, no roads divide the interior of the park. Consequently, large sanctuaries exist here for elk, deer, eagles, bear, cougars, and other inhabitants and visitors to its interior.