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The Best In the World – A Helpful Guide to Washington’s National Parks

We’ve ranked all of Washington’s national parks and included a helpful guide to each one including photos, videos, tips, and more.

Make no mistake, Washington’s national parks are the best in the world.

After traveling to most of the national parks in America, I can confirm that the hype around these national parks in Washington is warranted.

In fact, we recently ranked all of America’s 63 national parks and two of Washington’s three national parks made it into the top 3 – no easy feat!

It’s not hard to see why, the diversity of landscapes is breathtaking! You’ll find everything from glaciated mountain peaks, lush rain forests, rugged coastlines, healthy river valleys, pristine alpine lakes and incredible wildlife in Washington state’s national parks.

In the post below, we provide detailed information about all three of Washington’s national parks – Mt. Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park.

You’ll also find helpful hiking tips and additional information like the best time to visit, where to stay, things to see and more.

Without further ado, let’s cover the BEST national parks in Washington.


About My Travels to Washington’s National Parks (& beyond)

You should probably know that I didn’t just make this list up out of thin air. Spending the past 5 years living in Portland, Oregon I’ve made it my mission to spend as much time as possible in the surrounding (stunning) public lands. I have been to Mount Rainier National Park more times than I can count. Olympic is my absolute favorite national park in the world (where I proposed to my wife).

I’ve spent my entire adult life exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands. Along the way I’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues.

My work (along with my brother) has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.

olympic national park engagement
A super grainy screen capture of my engagement photo at Olympic National Park featured on The Weather Channel.

I’m Will Pattiz, and along with my brother, Jim, we’re collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers. Our goal here at More Than Just Parks (MTJP) is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.


How I Scored the Washington National Parks

I’ve included a scoring system for each of these parks to give you an idea of what to expect in each one and to compare/contrast them. Have a look at the scoring breakdown below:

  • Accessibility – Is this national park easy to access? We analyzed vehicle access, transportation options, proximity to major airports, lodging and accommodations, conveniences, and other signs of civilization.
  • Recreation – Recreation opportunities found in the park like hiking, biking, boating, climbing, etc.
  • Crowds – How crowded is this national park? We considered traffic, crowded overlooks & trails, limited campsite availability, lines, etc.
  • Amenities – Developed amenities in the park like visitors centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, lodges, etc.
  • Scenery – The scenic beauty of the park. Purely subjective of course, but has to be taken into account.

Things to Know Before You Visit

Entrance Fees: $30 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.

Sunscreen: Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which we never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂

Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.

Insect Repellent: We carry around an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us, especially in the redwoods, as mosquitoes can be a bit crazy in the parks.

Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check before taking your pooch on your trip to the park!


Best Washington National Parks

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Olympic National Park | Best Washington National Parks

1. Olympic National Park

Score: 48

  • Accessibility – 10/10
  • Recreation – 10/10
  • Crowds – 9/10
  • Amenities – 9/10
  • Scenery – 10/10

Description

Olympic National Park is the most diverse national park in America, hands down. This park has everything from lowland forests, striking mountain ranges, pristine alpine lakes, sparkling rivers, temperate rain forests (the largest in North America), iconic wildlife, and over 50 miles of wild coastline!

Oh, and it’s a stones throw from Seattle! Olympic National Park truly has it all and without the crowds that have become so insidious in other US national parks in recent years – which is why we rank this Pacific Northwest gem as the best national park in America.

READ: Complete Guide to Olympic National Park


Olympic National Park Map & Location

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Olympic National Park Map | Washington National Parks Map

Getting to Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park is located on the Olympic peninsula in northwestern Washington State. The closest airport to Olympic National Park is Sea-Tac which is located just south of Seattle in Tacoma, Washington. From Sea-Tac to Hurricane Ridge is a 3.5 hour drive.

If you are driving from Seattle (or north of the city), getting to the park can be done one of two ways. Option one is driving through Seattle, Tacoma, and around the Puget Sound which takes about 3.5 hours.

Olympic National Park Ferry From Seattle

Option two is taking the ferry from Seattle across the Puget Sound to the Olympic Penninsula. This route takes about the same amount of time as the drive around the sound but requires less driving. The ferry costs $15 for a standard vehicle each way.


Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit Olympic National Park is during summer when the entire park is open, trails are clear, and days are long. The downside to visiting Olympic in summer is crowds but there are still plenty of areas in the park where it’s just you and the natural world. Summer sees wildflowers and marmots emerge from their winter slumbers as well.


Video – Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park Video | Washington National Parks

Highlights

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Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park | Washington National Parks

Hurricane Ridge is the best place to experience the majesty of the Olympic mountains. This is a must-see for first time visitors.

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Rialto Beach in Summer, Olympic National Park | Washington State National Parks

Rialto Beach is a prime example of the rugged coastal beauty of Washington state. This rocky beach is home to bald eagles and beautiful off-shore rock formations.

Hoh Rain Forest is a mossy wonderland with the title of the quietest place in North America. The Hoh is home to an elk population, streams, and pure rain forest magic.


Where to Stay


skyline trail, mount rainier national park washington, best national parks
Skyline Trail, Mount Rainier National Park | Best Washington National Parks (courtesy embracesomeplace)

2. Mount Rainier National Park

Score: 43

  • Accessibility – 7/10
  • Recreation – 8/10
  • Crowds – 7/10
  • Amenities – 10/10
  • Scenery – 9/10

Description

John Muir referred to Mt. Rainier as “The most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings”.

This most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous US is downright mesmerizing. Similar to the feeling one gets when looking into the Grand Canyon, you can gaze upon this mountain for hours without fathoming what exactly you’re looking at.

This park has so much more to offer than the magnificently glaciated mountain surrounded by carpets of the most beautiful wildflowers you’ve ever seen. It has vast old growth forests, clear blue rivers, abundant wildlife, countless vistas, and so many wonderful hiking opportunities.

Summer crowds can be troublesome and wildfires seem to be more present with each passing year, but plan accordingly and you’ll be amazed by this immensely beautiful national park.


Mt Rainier National Park Map & Location

mount rainier national park map washington
Mount Rainier National Park Map | Washington National Parks

Getting to Mount Rainier National Park

Mt Rainier National Park is located in the western part of Washington State and looms large over the Seattle landscape. The park itself is located just 2.5 hours south from Seattle. The closest airport to Mt Rainier is Sea-Tac which is just 2 hours from the park’s Longmire entrance.


Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Mt Rainier National Park is in Summer, particularly late July and early August to see the most spectacular wildflower display on the planet. Each summer this kaleidoscopic array of beautiful blooms showers the Paradise region of the park with dazzling carpets of bliss.


Mt Rainier Highlights

Skyline Trail is the most popular and perhaps most spectacular hike in Mt Rainier National Park. This trail takes you right up to the mountain itself offering unparalleled views of the massive glaciers and alpine beauty that exist here.

Mt Fremont Lookout Trail is a great hike located in the “Sunrise” section of Mount Rainier National Park. This hike leads to a lookout tower that is so breathtakingly close to the mountain you can practically reach out and touch the peak!

Reflection Lake is a beautiful lake located high up in the Paradise section of Mt Rainier and is frequently featured in Washington State promos.

For more check out this Things To Do Mt Rainier post.


Where to Stay


north cascades national park washington mt shuksan
North Cascades National Park | National Parks Washington

3. North Cascades National Park, Washington

Score: 37.5

  • Accessibility – 6/10
  • Recreation – 8/10
  • Crowds – 9/10
  • Amenities – 5/10
  • Scenery – 9.5/10

Description

Here’s a park I’m sure will be moving up our overall national parks list in the coming years. Referred to by some as the “American Alps” with mountain beauty that rivals any range on the planet, North Cascades is the crown jewel of the mighty cascade range.

One of three Washington state national parks, North Cascades is the least visited, the most difficult to access all around, and perhaps the most rewarding for those who dare. A backpackers paradise to be sure, but it’s just not very approachable for the average national park/outdoors enthusiast. For that reason we had to dock it on amenities as there really aren’t any.

That said, the park’s interior is absolutely stunningly beautiful as a simple Google image search will show you, and its lack of crowds and backcountry offerings are a major plus. If you’re interested in getting off the beaten path and seeing some amazing scenery, here’s your chance.


North Cascades National Park Map & Location

north cascades national park map washington
North Cascades National Park Map | Best Washington National Parks

Getting to North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is located in northern Washington state on the Canadian border. The closest airports North Cascades are Sea-Tac to the south and Vancouver to the north. Both airports are a 2.5 hour drive from the park.


Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit North Cascades National Park is in the fall when crowds are minimal and the larches turn a vibrant yellow. Fall hikes in the park are spectacular and you’ll practically have the run of the place! Summer is also a good time with wildflowers and turquoise lakes.


North Cascades Highlights

Maple Pass Trail is a steep but beautiful trail in North Cascades National Park. This hike ascends up from the valley into the land of the peaks and is passable in summer & fall.

Diablo Lake is one of the most mesmerizing lakes in the Pacific Northwest known for it’s deep turquoise color in the Summer.


Map of Washington’s National Parks

See below map with the locations of all 3 of Washington’s National Parks.


List of Washington National Parks (ranked from best to worst)

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

See Our Full National Park Rankings

We actually ranked ALL 63 National Parks from best to worst using the same point system featured in this article here. Curious to see how Washington’s parks stack up against the rest of the parks nationwide? Click here!


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Catch up on all the latest posts from the crew at More Than Just Parks.

Will Pattiz

Co-founder of More Than Just Parks. Husband. Conservationist. Currently living in NYC.

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