People who love Olympic National Park say they are attracted not only by what it has — mountains, ocean, glaciers, archaeological sites, rain forests — but by what it lacks: traffic jams and crowds.
"Disneyland's not out there," says John Hill, 42, an instructor for the federal government from Charleston, S.C., who visited often when he and his wife, Maggie, lived in Tacoma, Wash. "If you want to stop in the middle of the road to take a picture, you can."
There is plenty to photograph, says Bob Jameson, 56, a retiree from Anchorage who regularly treks to the park with his wife, Debora, 55, and hopes to live near it one day. "It's different every time you go." His favorite spot? "There are a hundred of them."
Olympic National Park, located in the northwest corner of Washington state, includes a 73-mile strip of Pacific coastline, connected by a stretch of the Queets River to a vast inland area that includes Mount Olympus, temperate rain forests on the west side and dense forests in the east.
The 922,651-acre park has more than 3,000 miles of rivers and streams, 60 named glaciers and plenty of space for hiking and camping. Besides its diverse ecosystems and wildlife, it is home to more than 650 archaeological sites.
People who visit now can glimpse the second-largest ecosystem-restoration project in the history of the National Park Service. Two dams are being removed to restore Pacific salmon and steelhead trout to the Elwha River.
Bobby Buit, 28, an information technology worker from Orlando, visited Olympic for the first time last July. He and his wife, Crystal, "would absolutely love to go back," he says.
They hiked Hurricane Ridge on their first day, reveling in "views the entire way," and on the second explored Lake Crescent and hiked from there to Marymere Falls. They made it to Cape Flattery off the tip of the Olympic Peninsula and drove to the small town of Forks, a busy tourist spot for fans of the Twilight book series, which is based there.
On their final evening, they watched the sun set over the ocean from Rialto Beach. "It was unbelievable," Buit says. "I don't think you can really understand it or appreciate it until you see it."
Evans McGowan, 29, a Presbyterian pastor from Ann Arbor, Mich., has visited Olympic National Park twice and would love to return. Before he and his wife, Emily Presley, embarked on a road trip that included a stop at the park, a friend told her "that it's our greatest national treasure," he says.
"We would return in a heartbeat," he says.
His list of must-see attractions: Hurricane Ridge, with its "intimidating but just awesome" views of the park's interior; the Hoh Rain Forest; the ocean beaches; and the town of Port Townsend. "There's a great little pizza shop there," he says.
Joel Smith, 31, of State College, Pa., visited last fall with his wife, Silvana, and son Alan, who was 15 months old at the time. "Almost no one else was there. It was like having the park to yourself."
They drove around the perimeter and took many of the small roads leading to the heart of the park. "Every time you go in, it's a little bit different than the last road you took," he says.
His son, Smith says, "had a blast walking around in the forest. He wanted to touch every different plant he could" and loved the pebbles on the beach so much that "he lay down on them. He was in heaven."