Olympic National Park is not the easiest place to get to due to it being surrounded by water on three sides and a fairly undeveloped area to its south. If coming from Seattle, expect to take a ferry to get there unless you are planning to spend your stay in the southern portion of the park. If you were to do that, it would take you close to 4 hours to drive the 180 miles to Ruby Beach or Kalaloch Lodge.
Most people visit the northern sections of Olympic and that will take you 3 hours to cover the 100 miles of driving along with a ferry crossing. Check ahead as ferries vary depending on which ports you are using. We paid $21 in one direction and only $14 on the way back. I would assume it depends on the distance you are traveling and of course on the size of your vehicle! There are quite a few so plan your route accordingly, check schedules and enjoy being out on the water. It's gorgeous.
You will need a car to get there as there is no mass transit to the park and travel within the park is spread out and there is no shuttle. Distances in the park: Olympic Visitor Center to Rialto-3 hours/80 miles. Olympic Visitor Center to Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center-3.5 hours/100 miles. Olympic Visitor Center to Ruby Beach or Kalaloch Lodge-3 hours/100 miles.
Olympic National Park charges a very reasonable $15 per carload to enter for up to one week. People on bikes or foot pay $5 for the same privilege. We were using the America The Beautiful Pass which cost $80 and is good for one year at any National Park or Federally Administered Land for a carload. It is perhaps the best value in travel.
Not in the Park, but if you are in Port Angeles, why not take advantage of the opportunity to visit the foreign port of Victoria. The MV Coho pushes off everyday from Port Angeles to cross the sometimes bumpy Starit of Juan de Fuca. It is an easy daytrip though you can take your car and really spend some time. The ride can be a bit choppy. You can see the occasional marine mammal as well.
This is the fun way to get to Olympic! The Washington State Ferries carry 26 million passengers a year across the Puget Sound to work in Seattle or to visit the the Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands. We chose the Seattle Main Terminal/ Bainbridge Island route and the handy website helped us figure out sailing times and approximate cost. Fares vary depending on season (high season costs a bit more), the length of your vehicle and number of passengers. Our standard-sized rental cost around $15 for the car and driver and another $7 or so for 1 adult passenger; yours truly. Kids and seniors are less.
The website has directions to the terminal from whatever direction you're coming from:
• Be there 30-45 minutes ahead of departure time and even earlier during peak season when the ferries are very busy; the website can give you an idea how long wait times may be.
• Once there, drive up to the toll both, buy your ticket, pull ahead into one of the boarding lanes, shut your engine off and wait until boarding time is indicated by a crew member. Stay in the lane you're in, unless an attendant directs you to a different one, and drive slowly onto the ferry - pulling as close to the car ahead of you as possible.
• Then kill the engine, deactivate your car's alarm (mandatory, if you have one), wait until all other cars around you have stopped, take your valuables, and climb the stairs to the upper deck or cabin for nice views of the Sound during your 35-minute journey.
• An announcement will be made when it's time to return to your vehicle for disembarking. As you see the cars in front of you start leaving the ferry, turn your engine on and follow them out; easy!
You can buy tickets in advance but no real need to - they'll help you figure out the proper fare at the toll booth and pre-payed tickets don't put you in front of the line. We bought one-way tickets as we were returning to Seattle via the southern land route but if just taking a day trip to explore the little towns of the northern coast, go for the round-trip version. There are restrooms, food and beverages aboard the ferry but this route is pretty short so grab a latte before arriving at the terminal and enjoy it while waiting in line.
The easy-to-use website will tell you virtually everything you need to know including frequency of ferries, fares, rules and regs and other good stuff. There are additional terminals and ferry routes to other locations around the Puget Sound so again, see the website if planning to explore places other than just the park.
It should not be that difficult to go between Seattle and Olympic National Park. After all, you just take the most direct route, right?
Wrong! The most direct route, and the route that Google Maps and your GPS is most likely to send you, is north to Edmonds and the Edmonds - Kingston Ferry. This would be the fastest route - if it were not for the fact that everyone else's maps, GPSs and phones are sending them this way too. It is not unusual, especially during the peak tourist season, for there to be more than a 90 minute line for the ferry here. Furthermore, this route lacks a lot of the scenery that some of the other routes would take. For example, it skips the entire western edge of Olympic National Park that faces Seattle, as this route delivers you to the north side of the Olympic Peninsula.
Those who are the most familiar with this web site should be already well aquanted with the quandry that faces the pleasure traveler: the best way is seldom the fastest way. This is the case for this route.
Here are some alternative routes:
Downtown Seattle -> Bremerton Ferry and west from Bremerton to the section of highway 101 that runs from Olympia north to Port Townsend (note: do not continue west to the Highway 101 on the coast unless you want to skip Olympic National Park entirely - take a look at the map to see what I mean!!! - Highway 101 is an upside down U on the Olympic Peninsula.) Bremerton has some odd little museums and attractions that are worth half a day of diversions - especially the fountains if it is a hot summer day. See my Bremerton page. From here, you can go west and north and hit such places as Staircase and other scenic sections on the west side of Olympic National Park. Highway 101 is very slow through here, and is more like a 1930s era highway than a straight, fast road. You might want to stop and at least look at one of the small shelfish stores through here.
From Bremerton you can go north on highway 16 directly to Port Townsend and the north side of the Olympic Peninsula main tourist areas. However, I suggest instead taking highway 3 to the south side of Hood Canal and the continuing to highway 101. This is a slow but scenic route, and there are sections of highway 101 that have not changed since the 1930s through here - which means if you are driving a recreational vehicle or motor home, or get stuck behind one, you are most likely going to take a while on this section of road. However, it was never intended that this part of the highway be fast. It is where you go to look at the scenery, and if you want to get there fast take highway 16 directly north.
Downtown Seattle -> Burlington -> Deception Pass -> Whidbey Island -> Port Townsend. This route really sends you off in the wrong direction at first - halfway to Canada! However, Deception Pass State Park is one of the most spectacular state parks in Washington. Along the western edge of Whidbey Island, there are other state parks with beautiful views of the Olympic Mountains on a clear day, and this gives you a perspective of the scale of the area you will be entering. Plus, many of these parks are attractions in their own right. From north to south, see my Deception Pass State Park page, my Fort Ebey State Park page, and my Fort Casey State Park pages. From Fort Casey you can take the ferry to Port Townsed, which is a reasonably well preserved older town. When you visit Olympic National Park, you do not really get a good sense of the sheer size as it is all much too close. However, from the distance of, say, Fort Ebey or Deception Pass it is possible to really appreciate the sheer size of the mountain range. On this route, you may also wish to make a slight detour up to Anacortes, if odd small towns interest you.
Downtown Seattle -> Bainbridge Island Ferry -> Bainbridge Island -> Port Townsend doesn't really give you anything more than what you would see from the Edmonds -> Kingston ferry, except that it gets you out of downtown Seattle much quicker, and it avoids the very unattractive drive northward on Interstate 5. Bainbridge Island has become a bit of a suburban center of sprawl too, but for now it has at least retained more of its rural charm than the mess along Interstate 5 north of Seattle has. Also, this route allows you to visit Poulsbo, should eccentric small towns be of interest.
Downtown Seattle -> Tacoma -> Tacoma Narrows Bridge -> Gig Harbor -> Highway 101 up to Port Townsend. This route runs you through the ugly suburban mess south of Seattle. However, it also allows you to visit a few places that may be of interest in Tacoma. These include the Museum of Glass (you can watch them make real glass artwork in their shop) and the Tacoma Art Museum and the Washington History Museum. Various things also exist in Point Defiance Park, which is close to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. This is the second generation of bridge that existed here - the first bridge collapsed due to a resonant frequency problem that was built right into the bridge, and activated when wind of a certain speed hit the bridge from the wrong direction. Gig Harbor has a reputation of being an interesting place to stop on your way through, but I have not yet been there. Some of the people on Puget Sound prefer this route as it avoids any of the ferry crossings.
Downtown Seattle -> Tacoma -> Olympia -> Highway 101 north to Port Townsend. This route gives you the maximum exposure to the ugly suburban sprawl along Interstate 5. However, along with the above attractions in Tacoma you can also visit the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and downtown Olympia, and allows you to get on Highway 101 as it goes north out of Olympia - right at its northern starting point - meaning it is the only way from Seattle to say that you have driven the entire length of highway 101. (If you don't understand why a highway that goes north out of town has its northern terminus in a city that is an hour south of Seattle, you have to look at a map to understand).
Variations: Once you have crossed Puget Sound from Gig Harbor or Bremerton, I suggest taking route 106 west to the southern end of Hood Canal before going north on highway 101. This is a slower route than highway 16 directly north from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but it gives better scenery and allows you to visit more of the western edge of Olympic National Park. To do this you would go on highway 106 just after getting out of Gig Harbor, or take highway 3 southwest out of Bremerton.
As a general rule, it is best to get around on the Olympic Peninsula by driving, as there are many areas of the park that are not accessible by public transit. However, if you are put off by the horrific prices for car rentals, don't like driving on the wrong side of the road, want to hike through the park and get a bus back to your car, or just don't like driving when you can be looking at scenery, there are a few options for public transit. It should be noted as well that most of these services listed here operate through sparsely populated areas. Thus, in many places service is only several times per day. It is, however, at least possible to get around somewhat without a car:
You can get from Seattle to Port Townsend on the Bainbridge Island Ferry, then taking Kistap Transit to Poulsbo, then taking Jefferson Transit to Port Townsend. The price for doing this is less than $10 one way. I did this several times, and mention this in my Seattle to Port Townsend without a Car tip and my Seattle to Port Townsend Travelogue
Jefferson Transit serves the Port Townsend area, with some routes going almost as far west as Sequim. Bus services also go south out of Port Townsend to Quilcene.
Clallam Transit operates transit services along the north side of the Olympic Peninsula, going from a connection near Sequim with Jefferson Transit all the way along highway 101 to Forks. Areas served are primarily along highway 101, but there is a branch route that goes northwest to Neah Bay.
Local services in Neah Bay, and connecting Neah Bay with the Makah tribal center and museum outside Neah Bay, are operated by the Makah Transit Service.
The west and south sides of the Olympic Peninsula from Forks going south to Aberdeen and Hoquiam is served by a mixture of Gray's Harbor Transit and Jefferson Transit. Jefferson Transit "Olympic Connection" runs south of Forks to Amanda Park at Lake Quinault. Gray's Harbor Transit operates a connection south from Crane Creek through Amanda Park to Aberdeen, and also operates regular service from Aberdeen and Hoquiam all the way into downtown Olympia, across the southern side of the Olympic Peninsula. There is an occasional service offered several times a day on Fridays and Mondays only that connects Aberdeen with the Centralia Amtrak station.
Completing the loop around the Olympic Peninsula is Mason Transit, which has a set of bus routes centered around Shelton. Routes from here run north to connections with Kitsap Transit routes to Bremerton and the Washington State Ferries and north to Brinnon and connections with Jefferson Transit routes to Port Townsend. Routes to the south operate into Olympia, where they connect to Gray's Harbor Transit.
So, the major highways as well as some out of the way places are covered by public tranit routes that completely encircle the Olympic Peninsula. This does leave a vast area of the interior that has no public transit service, but then again most of this huge area inside the National Park also lacks paved roads, or in some cases roads of any sort. There are many areas you will not be able to get to using these bus services, but at the same time these bus services plus a little bit of a walk will get you to at least a few of the wonders that the Olympic National Park and Olympic Peninsula offer.
Seattle to Port Angeles services are also offered by Olympic Bus Lines, which is quite a bit more comfortable and somewhat faster than the local transit lines, but also quite a bit more expensive. They are the local Amtrak and Greyhound connecting bus service to the north side of the Olympic Peninsula, so that you can purchase tickets for their bus on the Amtrak and Greyhound web sites to allow through ticketing from Seattle to Port Angeles, Sequim and a few other locations on the Olympic Peninsula.
If you are heading south on the I-5 from Canada and want a short way to reach the Port Angeles area you can take a ferry from Edmonds, just south of Everett, and take a 30 minute ride over to Kingston, and around the peninsula from there. It is much more scenice than the I-5, trust me! The ferries run at least once an hour and it's a pretty trip. You can also reach Port Angeles via ferry from Victoria, BC. There are a number of other ferry routes available, info on the WA gov website.