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Olympic National Park is ecotourist favorite

From Stephanie Oswald
CNN Travel Now

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Washington (CNN) -- Visiting Olympic National Park is like going on three very different vacations.

"We almost have three parks here," says park superintendent David Morris. "A wonderful wild coastline. We have the largest temperate rainforest in North America -- and, of course, a superlative alpine zone with a lot of plant species."

From rocky beaches to rugged mountain peaks on more than 1,400 square miles of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, this is a jewel in the crown of the United States' federally designated and protected parks.

Olympic -- about three hours from Seattle -- is considered a World Heritage Park, in part because it's home to 20 types of animals and eight types of plants that can't be found anywhere else on Earth. Ninety-five percent of it is designated as wilderness.

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Founded for animals

The effort to save one species from extinction brought about the park's existence.

"This park was not set up to preserve the mountains and the glaciers, it was set up to preserve the elk herd," park ranger Jack Hughes says. "It was originally Mount Olympus National Monument, to preserve the Olympic elk."

That was in 1908. Three decades later, the area was declared a national park. Today it attracts more than 4 million visitors per year.

More than 60 miles of rugged Pacific coast embrace the peninsula. Its distinction as the largest section of wilderness coast in the 48 contiguous states helps attract not only marine life but also ecotourists looking for an escape.

But for many, the forest is the highlight. About 12 feet of rain fall there each year, making it one of the wettest areas in the United States.

Olympic also is the finest example of preserved temperate rainforest among the national parks, serving as added motivation to protect its ecosystems.

Best seen on foot

So far, education seems to be the best weapon in the fight for preservation.

About 12 feet of rain fall in the park's rainforest each year, making it one of the wettest areas in the United States  

"People would come in with frying pans, big axes, and they'd build fires and they'd have cans of stuff and they'd throw their cans down and hike on ... and we don't see that anymore," Hughes says.

The rainforest is about an 18-mile drive in from the highway, and fewer than a dozen roads lead to the park's interior. That means much of its beauty can be seen only on foot, something eco-friendly tourists don't seem to mind.

Since many park roads are closed from October through June, now's the time to plan for a trip during the busiest seasons -- late summer and early fall.

Whenever you choose to explore Olympic National Park, you'll find challenging terrain for the adventurous at heart, and relaxing solace for nature-loving souls in this place where Nature has created its own trinity of beauty.

• TravelGuide: Pursuits
Northwest passage through the Puget Sound
• Destination: Fremont, Washington

• Olympic National Park (National Park Service)
• World Heritage Sites- Olympic NP
• Olympic Peninsula -- The Official Guide
• Olympic Peninsula, Resource Guide - Washington State

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