Olympic National Forest vs Olympic National Park (Info and Details)

National Park and National Forest Managed Lands

At first glance, our nation’s National Parks and National Forests may appear to be the same thing, with both being federal public lands. Under closer comparison though, each has their own unique history and priorities. Perhaps the greatest difference between the two is the multiple use mandate for National Forests. While National Parks are highly vested in preservation, barely altering the existing state, while National Forests are managed for many purposes—timber, recreation, grazing, wildlife, fish and more.

Olympic National Park vs Olympic National Forest

Think of Olympic National Park as a huge chunk of mostly pristine wilderness. The total area comes to almost a whopping 1,500 square miles! Which additionally includes the longest strip of wilderness coastline in the US. Some rangers say the Park is in the shape of a pig. After you look at my beautiful creation below you will never forget it when you see maps of Olympic National Park. But seriously, all of the green that you see below belongs to the National Park. There are very few roads that peek into the edge of the Park, making most of the park accessible only by foot.

olympic national park map
Olympic National Park is a Pig

Olympic National Forest on the other hand is a bit smaller, but still sizeable at about 980 square miles. It is also a bit more scattered and split up into two ranger districts (as shown below) that hugs around the National Park. A fun fact is that the whole National Park in the center used to be a National Forest. With only about 15% being wilderness areas, much of the National Forest has a maze of dirt roads going through it.

olympic national forest map
Olympic National Forest Surrounds the Park

Olympic National Park (Mostly Untouched) Land

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the Olympic National Park for enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. Remember that when you see their symbol above in the shape of an arrowhead. National Parks are located in unique natural places and developed to serve a large number of visitors focused on recreation. The main visitor center for Olympic National Park is located in Port Angeles on the northern tip of the peninsula.

olympic national park logo
Olympic National Park Logo

Facilities for cars and walking are given priority, with hunting and off-road vehicles generally prohibited. This is why you will notice that the National Park roads are in much better condition than on the National Forest. Many of them are paved and have beautiful signage and facilities with easy to understand maps.

Forests are left, for the most part, untouched and preserved. Car camping must be done in designated campgrounds. You can't just park and camp on the side of the road or at a trailhead. Wilderness backpacking requires a permit and proper food storage either by hanging or using a bear canister. Your permit must have the date and location of where you will be each night and number of campers is restricted in certain locations with reservations only to prevent overuse. Rangers patrol and ask each passing backpacker for their permit, and if needed to see their bear canister. Need permit info? Read this Olympic backcountry permit guide.

olympic national forest logo
Olympic National Forest Logo and Smokey the Bear

Olympic National Forest (Pro Accessible Recreation) Land

I included Smokey Bear in my picture above to help you remember that if you see him or the Shield featured above you are in a National Forest. The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. As said by Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the Forest Service, National Forest land is managed, “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

In Olympic National Forest there are no wilderness backpacking permits or fees, your dog is allowed on trails, target shooting is allowed in designated areas, hunting & fishing is managed by the state’s Fish & Wildlife regulations. If you have a dog or don't want to pay for and plan out a night by night backpacking trip this is where you want to go. Also if you can't find any open campgrounds during the busy season there's always Forest Service roads! You can drive up and do dispersed camping anywhere as long as your vehicle isn't blocking traffic.

Forests are conserved, and made more resilient to climate change while trying to enhance our water resources (with sustainable logging practices outside of designated wilderness). National Forests also issue special forest product permits for medicinal herbs, fungi, edible fruits/nuts, and other natural products. Many times there is no permit required or they can offer you a free use permit.

Unlike National Parks, cars and pedestrians visiting for recreation are not given top priority since National Forests are managed for multiple uses. On National Forests you will find many more winding gravel roads with limited access for the average car. Forest Service roads are labeled with road numbers. For example: FS Road 2204, 2258, 2160. Usually if a road number only has two numbers (i.e. FS road 22) that means it is a main artery that other roads branch off of. Proceed on all Forest Service roads with your own caution because many are so rough they're not safe to drive on. Also you might want to bring a saw if you are set on driving deep in the woods during stormy conditions. Olympic National Forest doesn't see nearly as much recreation and it can be days before someone like a wood cutter find you and can cut a log out of the road. Remember there's usually zero reception for all carriers and limited reception with Verizon!

Olympic National Park vs Olympic National Forest (Brief Summary)

Olympic National Park Details:

  • You must (car) camp in designated areas

  • You must follow strict wilderness guidelines at all times

  • 95% pristine wilderness

  • Fewer roads

  • Better roads & signs

  • Backpacking permits required (backcountry)

  • 99% of trails are no dogs allowed

Olympic National Forest Details:

  • Dispersed camping is free on any of the roads

  • Much fewer people recreating

  • Recreation information not as readily available (online)

  • Lots of winding dirt roads

  • No backpacking permit required (backcountry)

  • Not all areas are pristine (untouched)

  • Dogs are OK

  • Safe target shooting OK

  • Fishing and hunting regulated under WA state (Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Article by Barefoot Jake