Guide To Visiting 3 Beautiful Washington National Parks From a Local

Kayaking on Crescent Lake

Known as the Evergreen State, it should come as no surprise to discover that Washington State is stunning. But despite all of its natural beauty, Washington surprisingly has just three national parks: Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, and North Cascades National Park – and all of them are worth a visit.

I live in Washington, and I’m sharing more about each of these parks to help you plan a great trip.

Mount Rainier National Park

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Mount Rainier National Park is undoubtedly the most recognizable of Washington’s national parks. Named after the famed Mount Rainier, the highlights of this national park revolve around this iconic mountain peak.

Best Things To Do at Mount Rainier National Park

Mt Rainier

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Mountains, trees, and lakes – oh my! Mount Rainier National Park is filled with outdoor fun.

Hike the Skyline Trail

No visit to Mount Rainier National Park would be complete without the Skyline Trail hike. Known for its incredible views of Mount Rainier, this 5.5-mile trail is one of the most popular paths in the park (if not the most popular). Depending on the weather and visibility, you may see all sorts of glaciers, lakes, and even a couple more mountain peaks, like Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens.

Tackle the Fremont Lookout Trail

Check out the Fremont Lookout Trail instead for a different angle of the famed Mount Rainier. At 5.7 miles long, this path is a smidge longer than the Skyline Trail, although it’s generally considered a little easier than the Skyline Trail. At the end, you’ll be greeted by a lookout tower that’s so close to snow-covered Mount Rainier that you’ll feel like you can touch the summit!

Pay a Visit to the Reflection Lakes

While Mount Rainier is great and all, it’s certainly not the only thing to see in this Washington national park. There are also the beautiful Reflection Lakes! While you can’t swim, fish, or boat in these lakes, you can still admire the pristine water with a lovely lakeside hike (the 3-mile Lake Trail is a good one.). And just in case you were missing it, you can see the lovely Mount Rainier from this part of the park too.

Climb to the Top of Mount Rainier

Given that Mount Rainier is the most iconic landmark in the park, you’d think climbing to its peak would be at the top of the list of things to do. But in actuality, it’s very rare for people to make their way to the top of Mount Rainier, and that’s because it’s a trek.

This journey takes two to three days of hiking up steep slopes, along icy paths, and in high altitudes. In other words, it’s for very experienced hikers (with the appropriate permits) ONLY. And even if you’ve done your fair share of hikes, I still recommend taking a guided tour with Alpine Ascents if you plan to summit Mount Rainier.

Best Time To Visit Mount Rainier National Park

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As with most of Washington, the best time to visit Mount Rainier National Park is in the summer – particularly July and August. Not only will you be greeted with sunny skies and warm weather, but loads of beautiful wildflowers will also be in full bloom. It’s quite a treat!

Getting to Mount Rainier National Park

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Out of all of the Washington National Parks, Mount Rainier National Park is the easiest one to get to. From the heart of Seattle, it’s just a two-hour drive, and from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it’s a smidge shorter at an hour and 45 minutes.

2024 Update: A timed-entry reservation is required May May 24 through September 2 to access the Paradise Corridor. 

A timed-entry reservation is required July 4 through September 2 to access the Sunrise Corridor.  

Where To Stay Near Mount Rainier National Park

Since Mount Rainier National Park is semi-close to Seattle, many visitors opt to stay in the city and take a day trip to the park. But if you’re hoping for a more nature-focused getaway, there are some excellent accommodations close to the park.

The cozy Copper Creek Inn is a crowd favorite. Hotel Packwood is the perfect combination of both rustic and chic. And the adorable Paradise Village Hotel is a hidden gem.

Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park

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Surprisingly, while Mount Rainier National Park is the most recognizable Washington national park, Olympic National Park is the most visited one. With an average of three million visitors every year, it’s definitely a popular spot!

Best Things To Do at Olympic National Park

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Olympic National Park is surprisingly ecologically diverse – which means the things to do in the park are varied.

Explore Hurricane Ridge

Hurricane Ridge is an entire section of Olympic National Park, and it’s so wonderful that I just couldn’t narrow it down to one specific thing to do. It’s basically the best place in the park to take in the views of the beautiful Cascade Mountains. If it’s clear enough, you might be able to see all the way to Canada!

Now, onto the actual Hurricane Ridge activities. The Hurricane Ridge Road drive is stunning if you want to take things easy. This road may be closed in the winter due to inclement weather, so be prepared with a backup plan. And if you’d prefer to get your blood pumping, there are a few different hiking trails to choose from, including the 3.4-mile Hurricane Hill Trail and the 5-mile Klahhane Ridge Trail.

Regardless of how you reach the top of Hurricane Ridge, it’s an excellent place for a summer picnic. With sunny skies and mountain views, it’s picture-perfect.

Pay a Visit to Hoh Rainforest

Hoh Rainforest is, without a doubt, one of the coolest spots in the Pacific Northwest. After all, who would’ve expected a rainforest in the Evergreen State of all places?

As for how to experience this greenery-filled landscape, there are a few things that you can do. You can hike along part of the popular Hoh River Trail (it’s a long trail – don’t do it all), check out the lesser-known 0.8-mile Hall of Mosses Trail, and even keep an eye out for wandering elk.

Make Your Way to Rialto Beach

So far, on this list of things to do in Olympic National Park, we’ve already included rainforests and mountains. And now we’re adding beaches to the mix with Rialto Beach! I told you that this Washington National Park was ecologically diverse.

There are so many wonderful things to do at Rialto Beach. You can take it easy and watch the waves or catch the sunset. Or you can be a little more involved by going on a beach walk, searching through tidepools, or finding the secret Hole in the Wall (stick to low tide for your safety).

Best Time To Visit Olympic National Park

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Just like with Mount Rainier National Park, the best time to visit Olympic National Park is July and August. After all, sunny skies make for some of the best views!

Getting to Olympic National Park

Rialto Beach

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Getting to Olympic National Park can be a bit of a journey. Assuming you’re coming from the city or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the first option is to drive around Puget Sound (that inlet in the heart of Seattle filled from the Pacific Ocean), which can take three to three and a half hours, depending on where you’re coming from.

The second option is to take a ferry. That’s right! You can load your car up on one of the Seattle ferries and take it across the Sound. It doesn’t matter which ferry you take as long as it takes you from one side of the water to the other (so docking in Kingston, Bremerton, Southworth, or Bainbridge Island will all work).

All in all, the ferry option will take you about the same amount of time as driving around the Sound will. But you’ll get to do less driving, and you’ll get to take a boat, so it might be worth it.

Where To Stay Near Olympic National Park

With the long journey it takes to get there, you’ll likely want to spend at least a night (probably more) near Olympic National Park. Luckily, there are quite a few great places to stay. With its cozy cafe, adorable farm, and elegant rooms, the Emerald Valley Inn is a top pick. And if you want a hotel with a familiar name, the Holiday Inn Express Suites in Sequim won’t disappoint.

North Cascades National Park

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Not far from the U.S.-Canada border lies North Cascades National Park, the last of Washington’s incredible national parks – and arguably the most underrated one.

Best Things To Do at North Cascades National Park

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While you might have to worry about crowds at the other Washington National Parks, North Cascades National Park is the least popular of the three. That means as you explore the park’s beautiful mountains, thriving greenery, and sparkling lakes, it’ll feel like you have your own little slice of paradise all to yourself.

Take a Drive on the North Cascades Scenic Byway

While on-foot is usually the best way to explore a national park (or any particularly stunning landscape), the North Cascades Scenic Byway is arguably the best way to discover North Cascades National Park. This 140-mile loop drive is filled with viewpoints for you to stop at and explore. You can easily spend hours stopping to admire snow-capped mountains, tucked-away lakes, and so much more.

Hike the Maple Pass Loop Trail

To add a little activity to your day, hike the Maple Pass Loop Trail. Without a doubt, this 7.4-mile path is one of the best hikes in Washington State. But be warned – with 2,200 feet of elevation gain, it’s not an easy trail by any means. That said, if you can complete the trek, it’s certainly worth the effort. The epic mountain and lake views are truly out of this world.

Pay a Visit to Diablo Lake

Diablo Lake is one of those places that, when you see a picture of it, you’re sure it’s been heavily edited. But Diablo Lake’s bright turquoise water is completely real!

You can see this beautiful lake at one of the North Cascades Scenic Byway overlooks. Or you can take a closer look with a hike on the 7.6-mile Diablo Lake Trail. Either way, you’ll be gaping in awe the entire time.

Travel Tip: In the summer and fall, there’s a ferry that sails on Diablo Lake. While technically, this ferry is supposed to be for Ross Lake Resort guests, the crew will let non-guests aboard for $10 a piece, assuming there’s extra space. So if you get this chance, take it! This scenic boat ride is an absolute dream.

Best Time To Visit North Cascades National Park

El Diablo Lake

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As you might’ve guessed, the best time to visit North Cascades National Park is July and August, just like the other two Washington National Parks. After all, you can’t go wrong with sunny skies and comfortably crisp weather.

That said, fall in North Cascades National Park is pretty dreamy too. The fiery fall colors light up the landscape in an exciting way that you can’t see any other time of year. The area has some of the best fall hikes in the U.S.

Getting to North Cascades National Park

North Cascades Scenic Byway

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The main downside of North Cascades National Park is the journey to get there. From Seattle, it’s about two and a half hours by car. Depending on where your home base is, it may actually be easier to travel from Vancouver, Canada, which is about three hours by car.

Where To Stay Near North Cascades National Park

If you plan on exploring North Cascades National Park for more than one day (which I recommend), you’ll need a place to stay. Grab a room at the rustic North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin or stay in fun floating cabins at Ross Lake Resort.

Have Fun Visiting These Washington National Parks

When visiting, keep in mind that each national park requires an entrance fee. If you plan on visiting more than one national park soon, you may want to consider purchasing the America the Beautiful Pass Annual National Park Pass. Depending on how many national parks you plan to visit, it could save you a good amount of money.

Clearly, the national parks in Washington State are filled with stunning natural landscapes – from postcard-worthy beaches to snow-capped mountains to even lush rainforests. While it might take some time to explore them all, these Washington National Parks are definitely worth exploring.

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Sarah Etinas

Sarah Etinas is a full-time travel writer and avid adventurer. She has written for dozens of renowned publications, including Time Out, Insider, Honolulu Magazine, and TripAdvisor. When she's not writing, Sarah practices what she preaches by traveling to new destinations, hiking to beautiful waterfalls, and exploring her home. You can find more of her professional work on her portfolio website and follow her adventures on her Hawaii travel website.