The 3 Best Washington National Parks to Visit in 2022

Beach in Olympic National Park, one of the best Washington National Parks

Washington State is home to some of the best natural landscapes in the United States. From skyscraping mountain ranges to mystical rainforests to arid desert terrains, there’s no shortage of incredible things to see.

The Evergreen State has plenty of beautiful state parks and three national parks often ranked as the best of America’s 63 national parks.

The parks here – Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades – offer unparalleled opportunities to explore every type of landscape.

If you’re new to the Washington National Parks and the Pacific Northwest, don’t miss this guide!

This post covers everything you need to know about the three national parks in Washington, including exclusive tips on when to visit, where to stay, how to get to the parks, and the best things to do

Looking for more ideas for your national park bucket list? Don’t miss this Ultimate National Park Checklist, complete with the best things to do in all 63 USA National Parks!

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How many national parks are in Washington?

There are three national parks in Washington State: Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, and North Cascades National Park. These national parks are routinely rated as some of the best in America. In addition, Washington is home to 20+ national monuments, historic sites, and more.

Things to Know Before Visiting Washington National Parks

Before going over all the incredible national parks in Washington, here are a few essential tips for your trip:

  • Get the America the Beautiful National Park Pass. It covers your admission to every Washington national park and monument for an entire year. If you don’t go with the pass, you’ll need to pay the entrance fee at each park (usually $30 per park!). Get your America the Beautiful Pass for $80.
  • Book your trip in advance if you want to stay inside the park. Campsites tend to fill up when reservations are released on a rolling 6-month basis. If you’re staying in a park lodge, plan to book around a year out when reservations open.
  • Remember to Leave No Trace. The Washington parks are lovely, and we want to protect them for future generations. You can practice the “Leave No Trace” principles by packing out all trash and staying on the trail.
  • Dogs are not allowed on most hiking trails. While the exact rules vary by park, the general rule is that dogs are allowed where cars and bikes can go. These include parking lots, picnic areas, campgrounds, and paved walking trails. Dogs are forbidden on hiking trails.

Are you visiting multiple national parks in the next year? The America the Beautiful National Park Pass gets you into 400+ national park sites, including all 63 national parks, for 12 months!

Get your national park pass ahead of time for only $80.

Map of National Parks in Washington State

Map of Washington National Parks

Best Washington National Parks

Are you planning a national park trip but don’t know where to start? Get my free 28-page national park ebook where I break down everything you need to know to visit all 63 USA national parks.

Download your free ebook here.

1. Olympic National Park

  • Closest City: Port Angeles, Washington
  • Size: 922,650 acres
  • Annual Visitors: 2,718,925
  • Founded: 1938
Sunset beyond rock at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park
Rialto Beach

Olympic National Park is the most visited national park in Washington, with nearly 3 million visitors yearly. The expansive park covers massively diverse terrain, from snow-covered mountains to old-growth temperate rain forests to 70 miles of wild coastline.

There are several distinct regions of Olympic National Park: the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean, the temperate Hoh Rainforest, and the alpine in Hurricane Ridge.

The unique landscapes here have earned Olympic designations as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

The Olympic Peninsula’s diverse ecosystems provide many exciting things to do. There are also plentiful opportunities for hiking and backpacking in Olympic National Park. From coastal trails like Second Beach to panoramic mount summits like Mount Storm King, there’s a trail for everyone.

Best Time to Visit Olympic National Park

The best time to visit Olympic National Park is in July or August, when temperatures are warm and all park facilities are open. Spring is wet and rainy, providing lush, green landscapes by mid-Summer.

That said, Olympic National Park is open year-round. Visiting from October to May can be a great alternative if you want to avoid crowds. However, this is the rainiest time of year.

In the winter, alpine areas like Hurricane Ridge are snow-covered, and roads are closed.

Bright green trees in Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park
Hoh Rainforest

How Many Days to Spend in Olympic National Park

You’ll want to spend at least three full days in Olympic National Park to see the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to explore the three distinct regions: the Hurricane Ridge alpine, the Pacific Ocean coastline, and the temperate Hoh Rainforest.

If you have less than three days, focus on visiting the coastal region around La Push and Hurricane Ridge. 

Getting to Olympic National Park

If you’re flying to Washington, Seattle is the closest major city to Olympic National Park, about 2.5 hours away from Lake Quinault and Port Angeles.

Flying into Portland also provides another good option, about 3.5 hours from Lake Quinault at the park’s southern end.

Two main ways to access Olympic National Park are from the southern end near Lake Quinault or the northern end near Port Angeles. From there, most visitors gradually loop around the Olympic Peninsula to see each park area.

To Get to Port Angeles from Seattle (~2.5 hours):

  • With Ferry: The Bainbridge Island Ferry from Seattle is the fastest option. The ferry departs from Seattle’s city center, crosses the Puget Sound, and arrives on Bainbridge Island. From there, you have about a 1.5-hour drive to Port Angeles.
  • Without Ferry: To avoid the ferry, you can instead drive south from Tacoma on I-5. This route adds about 55 miles but takes roughly the same time. 

To Get to Lake Quinault:

  • From Seattle (~2.5 hours): You’ll drive south from Seattle through Tacoma and Olympic. The route mainly follows major highways and doesn’t include any ferries.
  • From Portland (~3.5 hours): You’ll follow I-5 north from Portland through Washington. Before reaching Olympia, you’ll exit onto Highway 12 into the park.

Where to Stay in and Near Olympic National Park

It is best to stay inside the park at one of the lodges to be closer to popular places. However, to stay inside the park, you’ll need to book lodging around a year in advance.

There are five lodges in Olympic National Park: 

If lodges inside the park are booked, or you are looking for more budget-friendly options, consider staying outside the park in Port Angeles or Forks instead. Port Angeles is closest to Hurricane Ridge, while Forks is closest to the coast.

These are the best hotels near Olympic National Park:

If you’re interested in camping, Olympic National Park has plenty to offer, with more than ten campgrounds inside the park. The best campgrounds in Olympic National Park include:

Read More: 15 Best Campgrounds in Olympic National Park

Clouds and trees in Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park
Hurricane Ridge

Best Things to Do in Olympic National Park

  • Hurricane Ridge is one of the most scenic areas of Olympic National Park, providing must-do alpine hikes. Don’t miss hiking Hurricane Hill for incredible views.
  • Hoh Rainforest is a temperate rainforest located in the heart of the park. It’s also one of the most popular areas of Olympic National Park. Don’t miss the Hall of Mosses trail!
  • Rialto Beach is the most accessible beach in the southern area of the Olympic’s coastline. Don’t miss the short hike along the coast to Hole-in-the-Wall!
  • Second Beach Trail provides excellent views of the Pacific Coast, especially at sunset. First Beach is a bit more accessible, but Second Beach is great for those up for a short hike.
  • Cape Flattery is the northernmost point in the contiguous United States and provides excellent views of the Pacific Coast.
  • Lake Crescent, along the park’s northern side, offers plenty of activities, like visiting the Lake Crescent Lodge or taking a hike to Marymere Falls or Mount Storm King.

Read More: 21 Best Hikes in Olympic National Park

2. Mount Rainier National Park

  • Closest City: Tacoma, Washington
  • Size: 236,381 acres
  • Annual Visitors: 1,670,063
  • Founded: 1899
Sunrise at Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier is one of the most iconic views in Washington, rising above the clouds at 14,410 feet above sea level. Rainier is the tallest volcano in the contiguous United States and the highest point in the Cascades by more than 2,000 feet.

On clear days, the peak can easily be seen from Seattle.

Mount Rainier National Park centers around this stunning mountain peak, protecting the five major rivers spurring from the glaciated mountain peak.

Mount Rainier is the most beautiful alpine park in Washington, with plentiful wildlife, scenic meadows, and subalpine lakes. The park covers over 230,000 acres and is home to more than 250 miles of hiking trails.

You could easily spend days hiking and driving around Mount Rainier National Park with plenty to see and explore.

The park’s two central regions are Sunrise and Paradise. The Sunrise area, home to Mount Fremont Lookout and the Burroughs Mountain Trail, sits at a high elevation and is only open in the summer.

The Paradise area is home to the most popular day hikes in Mount Rainier, like the Skyline Trail and Naches Peak Loop.

Best Time to Visit Mount Rainier National Park

The best time to visit Mount Rainier National Park is in July or August, when the snow has melted and all park roads and visitor centers are open.

Typically, snow lingers in the Paradise area until around mid-July, making mid-July to early September best for hiking.

Visiting in early fall can be an excellent time to avoid crowds. The fall foliage peaks in late September or early October, but the weather can be variable, and snow is not uncommon.

Some parts of Mount Rainier are also open in the winter for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

Wildflowers in front of Mount Rainier
Summer wildflowers in front of Mount Rainier

How Many Days to Spend in Mount Rainier National Park

You’ll need to spend at least three days in Mount Rainier National Park to see the highlights. Three days gives you time to see the best of the Paradise and Sunrise regions and all the top things to do.

If you only have time for a day trip to Mount Rainier from Seattle, you’ll only have time to visit one region, Paradise or Sunrise.

Getting to Mount Rainier National Park

If you’re flying to Washington, Seattle is the closest major city to Mount Rainier National Park, about 2.5 hours away from Paradise and Sunrise. You can also fly into Portland, about 3 hours from Paradise.

You can’t reach the park from the north from November to April since the sunrise area is closed.

To Get to Paradise:

  • From Seattle (~2.5 hours): You’ll drive south of the city on various highways until you reach Eatonville. You’ll then continue onto Highway 706, through Ashford, and into the park.
  • From Portland (~3.5 hours): You’ll follow I-5 north from Portland through Washington. Before reaching Chehalis, you’ll exit onto Highway 12 and then towards Highway 706 via Highway 7. Finally, you’ll follow that route into the park through Ashford.

To Get to Sunrise:

  • From Seattle (~2.5 hours): You’ll drive south of the city on I-15, exiting before reaching Tacoma. You’ll follow Highway 164/Highway 410 into the park, approaching from the north.
  • From Portland (~4 hours): You’ll follow I-5 north from Portland through Washington. Before reaching Chehalis, you’ll exit onto Highway 12. Instead of taking Highway 706 as you would for Paradise, you’ll continue to follow Highway 12 north to Sunrise.

Where to Stay in and Near Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park is enormous at nearly 250,000 acres. To be close to the best things to do, you should try to stay in the park at one of the lodges or campgrounds.

However, to stay inside the park, you’ll need to book lodging around a year out or campgrounds six months in advance.

There are two lodges inside Mount Rainier National Park:

  • Paradise Inn is a 3-star lodge with a restaurant in Paradise near the best hikes in the park
  • National Park Inn is a more rustic lodge in the historic Longmire District
Paradise Inn in front of Mount Rainier
Paradise Inn

If lodges inside the park are booked, or you are looking for more budget-friendly options, consider staying outside the park in Ashford instead. This small town is 45 minutes from Paradise and 2.5 hours from Sunrise.

These are the best hotels outside Mount Rainier National Park in Ashford:

There are lots of opportunities for camping in Mount Rainier National Park. It’s one of the best ways to stay near the Sunrise area. Rainier has three campgrounds. The best campgrounds are:

Early morning light on the Skyline Trail in Mount Rainier National Park
Skyline Trail

Best Things to Do in Mount Rainier National Park

  • Skyline Trail is the most popular destination and most scenic hike in Mount Rainier National Park. The 5.5-mile trail provides spectacular views of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens from Panorama Point.
  • Naches Peak Loop starts along Tipsoo Lake and provides some of the best views of Mount Rainier across ponds and wildflower-filled meadows. 
  • Mount Fremont Lookout Trail is one of the best hikes in the Sunrise area, climbing to a lookout tower close to the peak of Mount Rainier. The first part of the hike shares a trail with the Burroughs Mountain Trail, which also provides incredible views of Mount Rainier.
  • Reflection Lakes is a beautiful, serene spot for sunrise or sunset photography. Mount Rainier is perfectly reflected in the still lake.
  • Wonderland Trail is a bucket-list-worthy 90+ mile hike that circles the base of Mount Rainier. This long backpacking route is so popular it requires hikers to enter a lottery each May.

Are you planning a national park trip but don’t know where to start? Get my free 28-page national park ebook where I break down everything you need to know to visit all 63 USA national parks.

Download your free ebook here.

3. North Cascades National Park

  • Closest City: Sedro-Woolley, Washington
  • Size: 504,654 acres
  • Annual Visitors: 17,855
  • Founded: 1968
Viewpoint of a lake in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is the least visited of Washington’s three national parks since it requires a bit more effort. However, the park provides incredible alpine hikes and jaw-dropping views of the Cascade Range.

The national park partners with two national recreation areas, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, to form the North Cascades National Park Complex. Together, these parks cover over two million acres, 90% of which is designated wilderness.

The easiest way to see the beauty of North Cascades National Park is on the North Cascades Scenic Byway, the only route through the park’s heart. You’ll need to venture out on a day hike or multi-day backpacking trip to see glaciers and the rugged Cascades up close.

Hikes like the Maples Pass Loop or the Cascade Pass Trail provide excellent access to North Cascades’ alpine landscapes. In the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, you’ll find Stehekin.

This isolated community requires a passenger ferry to access but is well worth it for a quiet retreat.

Best Time to Visit North Cascades National Park

The best time to visit North Cascades National Park is July and August when the snow has melted on hiking trails and the weather is warm.

However, many hiking trails at high elevations have snow until early-to-mid July, so visiting after mid-July is best for hiking.

Visiting North Cascades from September to early October can be a great way to avoid summer crowds. However, compared to other national parks, crowds in North Cascades are minimal, even in the summer.

Snow typically falls by mid-October, and roads usually close in early November.

That said, some park areas are open year-round for winter sports, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

View of Cascades in North Cascades National Park

How Many Days to Spend in North Cascades National Park

You’ll want at least two days to see the highlights of North Cascades National Park. Two days gives you enough time to do a few popular hikes and drive the North Cascades Highway. 

While you could make a day trip to North Cascades from Seattle, it is about a 3 hour drive each way, and your time in the park will be limited. If you only have one day, consider doing a hike directly off North Cascades Scenic Byway.

Getting to North Cascades National Park

Seattle is the closest major city to North Cascades National Park, about 2.5 hours from the North Cascades Visitor Center in Newhalem. North Cascades is also about 3 hours from Vancouver if you are visiting from Canada but requires a passport to cross the United States-Canadian border.

To Get to the Visitor Center in Newhalem Along the North Cascades Scenic Byway:

  • From Seattle (~2.5 hours): You’ll take I-5 north from Seattle to Sedro-Woolley before taking Highway 20 into the park.
  • From Vancouver (~3 hours): You’ll follow Highway 99 out of Vancouver, crossing the border in the United States along the coast near Blaine. Then, follow I-5 to Sedro-Woolley before taking Highway 20 into the park.

Where to Stay in and Near North Cascades National Park

North Cascades is more remote than other national parks, with few lodging options, aside from campgrounds, inside the park. If you want to stay inside the park, there are two options for lodges:

If you are looking for hotels outside the park, the best places to stay will be on the east side of the park in Winthrop or Mazama, about 45 minutes from many of the park’s best views and trails.

These are the best hotels outside North Cascades National Park:

  • Mt. Gardner Inn is a mountain hotel with 11 guest rooms just outside of Winthrop
  • River Run Inn is a hotel with 17 cabins and an indoor pool just outside of Winthrop
  • Methow River Lodge is a ski hotel also open in the summer with 31 guest rooms in Winthrop
  • Sun Mountain Lodge is a ski lodge open in the summer with an onsite restaurant outside of Winthrop

Camping is the best way to stay in North Cascades near the most popular trailheads. Several campgrounds inside the park offer both reservable and first-come, first-served camping.

The best campgrounds in Mount Rainier National Park include:

Teal blue Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park
Diablo Lake

Best Things to Do in North Cascades National Park

  • North Cascades Scenic Byway is essential for every visitor to North Cascades. It’s the main route through the park and provides incredible views of the park’s landscape. Don’t miss stopping at Diablo Lake Overlook! This viewpoint offers views of the bright teal Diablo Lake.
  • Maple Pass Loop Trail is a stunning hike providing views of wildflowers, alpine lakes, and the Cascade Mountains. It’s easily one of the best hikes in Washington.
  • Blue Lake Trail is another incredible hike with mountain views in the Cascades. The trail leads to a bright blue-green alpine lake.
  • Lake Chelan & Stehekin are more challenging to reach than other areas of North Cascades. You must take a ferry across Lake Chelan to get to this quiet, remote area. A visit to Stehekin is best done as a day trip.

Frequently Asked Questions About Washington National Parks

What are the names of the three national parks in Washington state?

There are three national parks in Washington state. These national parks are Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, and North Cascades National Park. These three parks are spread across the western part of the state, all within a three-hour drive of Seattle.

What is the most visited national park in Washington?

Olympic National Park is the most visited national park in Washington, with nearly 3 million annual visitors. For comparison, Mount Rainier gets roughly 1.5 million visitors annually, while North Cascades gets only 20,000-30,000 visitors annually.

Is North Cascades National Park better than Olympic National Park?

Olympic National Park is better for those looking for easy hikes and activities closer to the car. However, for those looking to hike into the backcountry or for more challenging day hikes, North Cascades National Park is a better choice.

Which is better: North Cascades or Mt. Rainier?

While both parks offer incredible views and hikes, Mount Rainier National Park is better because it is easier to access and has more amenities and attractions. Hikes and views here are accessible on shorter hikes or simply a scenic drive. However, if you’re looking to explore the backcountry, consider North Cascades.

What national parks are closest to Seattle?

Mount Rainier National Park is the closest national park to Seattle, around a 2.5-hour drive from the city. However, Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park are within a three-hour drive, making all three of Washington’s national parks accessible on a road trip from Seattle.

When should I visit Washington national parks?

The best time to visit the Washington national parks is in the summer months, from mid-July through early September. These are the warmest and driest months. In addition, Mount Rainier and North Cascades both have snow lasting until mid-July. From late September through June, many park amenities and roads are closed.

Where should I stay when visiting national parks in Washington?

The best places to stay when visiting national parks in Washington are inside the park at the lodges or campgrounds. Staying inside the Washington parks puts you closer to the best things to do and saves driving time. However, you can also base yourself in Seattle and make a day trip to each park.

Final Thoughts on the Best National Parks in Washington State

There are more than 20 incredible parks, monuments, and historical sites protected by the National Park Service in Washington State. But the three most iconic are the Washington National Parks. These parks offer unparalleled natural beauty and hiking, camping, and scenic drives.

The three best Washington national parks are:

  1. Olympic National Park
  2. Mount Rainier National Park
  3. North Cascades National Park

If you’re planning a road trip to visit these national parks, this guide is an excellent start to learning about the best time to visit, how to get to the park, where to stay, and the best things to do.

Looking for more ideas for your national park bucket list? Don’t miss this Ultimate National Park Checklist, complete with the best things to do in all 63 USA National Parks!

Discover more incredible national parks in the western US:

Are you planning a national park trip but don’t know where to start? Get my free 28-page national park ebook where I break down everything you need to know to visit all 63 USA national parks.

Download your free ebook here.

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