Geological History of Olympic National Park

With an area so diverse as Olympic National Park, where on earth do you start? Olympic National Park has got just about everything going . . . it’s got mountains, it’s got lakes, it’s got a beautiful coastline, it’s got rain forest. Probably best just to look at the geology of Olympic National Park in sections.

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Mountains of Olympic National Park

The mountains in Olympic National Park are not very high by some mountain standards, the highest one is Mount Olympus (must be where the name of the National Park came from) and that’s just a little less than 8,000 feet, but what is unusual in some respects is that they rise clean up from the water’s edge which has quite an effect on the weather. The mountains intercept the moisture moving in from the Pacific, and as the air is forced up and over the mountains it cools down and is released as either rain or snow. At lower levels this rainfall nurtures the forests, whereas higher up the mountains of Olympic National Park it falls as snow.  The northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula actually get very little rain, but only 30 miles away Mount Olympus gets around 200 inches every year . . . although it mostly falls as snow.

A view of the summit of Mount Olympus from the...

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But where did the mountains come from? Well, they rose from the sea . . . many millions of years ago fissures and vents opened beneath the sea and the lava spewed out forming mountain ranges beneath the water known as Seamounts. The plates which actually formed the ocean floor began to move towards North America around 35 millions years ago, give or take a year or two, and much of the sea floor was squished beneath the land mass, but a portion of the sea floor was scraped up and became jammed against the land creating domes which were to eventually become the Olympic mountains of today. And that’s where it all began!

The Coast of Olympic National Park

The Olympic National Park can also boast 57 miles of glorious Pacific coastline which has remained remarkably unchanged over the years, except, of course, from the relentless beating of the surf and storms. It actually looks very similar to the way it did thousands of years ago when the American Indians built their villages, long before the European explorers landed. The coastline is pretty dramatic with sculptured sea stacks and arches shaped by the crashing waves.

Olympic National Park, Washington, USA.

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 The sand is a mixture of many shades, colors and shapes, and the tidepools which are left at low tide are teeming with a great variety of small sea animals. You can sometimes spot Raccoons feeding on shellfish, as well as the trackers amongst you identifying other footprints like deer, bear and river otters . . . to name but a few.

Mmmm, is it me or was that just a little bit eerie?

Forests of  Olympic National Park 

Olympic National Park can boast some whopping trees . . . okay, the mountains might not be the tallest, but some of their trees reach record heights for the species. In some areas the forest canopy is so darned thick that the falling snow never gets through the branches to reach the ground, it just gets caught in the trees and stays there. Basically, the Olympic Peninsula is home to four very different types of forest;

  • Temperate rain forest – along the Pacific Coast at low elevations, as well as in the western facing valleys where there’s lots of rain and moderate temperatures, although it can get pretty foggy in the summertime. The dominant tree in the temperate rain forest is Sitka spruce, although lots of other stuff grows too, particularly western red-cedar.
  • Lowland forest – is further away from the coast and higher than the rain forest valleys. There ain’t no Sitka spruce here, but there are plenty of other trees like grand fir.  Probably the most common is actually western hemlock, although there are also lots of Douglas fir particularly in the areas of rain shadow or in areas which have been ravaged by woodland fire.
  • Montane forest – is pretty difficult to spot unless you’re a bit of a forest expert, but in the Montane forest you’ll notice things like silver fir. The montane forest actually looks very much like the lowland forest but without the western red-cedar.
  • Subalpine forest -occurs as the elevation increases and the temperatures decrease, with the majority of the moisture falling as snow. Subalpine forests have a much shorter growing season, you could notice some silver fir, mountain hemlock and Alaska cedar, but as you get higher the forest definitely starts to thin out. The subalpine fir is the only tree which can grow because it’s so well adapted to the severe weather conditions, heavy snows and very cold temperatures.


There’s one thing for certain, wherever you go in the Olympic National Park you’ll be amazed at the richness and diversity of the environment, the plant and animal life. It’s awesome!


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