Over the years, the proceses of nature and geology sculpted and defined the Olympic Peninsula, creating the natural beauty that makes Olympic National Park renown. However, amidst the layers of land and sea is another story to be told. The Olympic Peninsula and the park itself have provided hearth and home to thousands of years of human development. These stories form together to create our park's diverse history. See a graphic that incorporates many photos of some of the park area's highlights from 1855 to 2013 when it was commemorated for Olympic's 75th anniversary.
Find links within some of the dates to further in-depth reading at the bottom of this page as well as links to further information from outside sources throughout the text.
Geology to Humanity: First Inhabitants
14,000-500 Years Ago
Early Contact, Exploration, & Expansion
1700s - 1800s
Creating a National Park
Preserving a National Park
14,000 - 500 Years Ago13,800 Years Ago: The Manis Mastodon Site, located near Sequim, WA, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Emanuel Manis, a local farmer, discovered the remains of the ancient animal while he was digging on his property. Upon closer inspection to the skeleton, researchers noticed something lodged in one of the mighty mastodon's ribs. It appearedd to be a projectile point shaped from the bone of a separate mastodon! Researchers believe that this may have been a hunting weapon which had been thrown at the animal by early humans. The wound, however, did not kill the animal, as the ribs of the mastodon seem to have healed around the lodged spearhead.
Approximately 1560/1969-1970: According to carbon dating, approximately 500 years ago, a shift in the land caused a mudslide to let loose and cover a large portion of an Ozette Makah village near Neah Bay. For centuries stories were passed down of a "Great Slide" which swallowed part of the Ozette area. For hundreds of years, the site remained covered with earth and untouched by humans. As the storm battered sea continued to wither away at the coastline, the shore continued to weaken. Finally, in the winter of 1969 a large coastal storm caused the historic site to become exposed. Two months after discovery, excavation took place on the Ozette Archaeological site, and years of oral tradition were confirmed! Over the span of 11 years, over 55,000 artifacts, along with several longhouses were rediscovered. The immense historic significance and sheer amount of items found led to the Makah Cultural & Research Center, including the Makah Museum, to be established.
200-500 Years Ago: Stories etched in stone, rock carvings such as petroglyphs have long been a source of understanding previous cultures. One such site, located near Cape Alava, displays a variety of images which were important to the earlier inhabitants of an Ozette village. Carved into the boulders strewn along the shore are depictions of orca whales, clam shells, the sun and the moon, and even what appears to be masted ships, possibly that of early Spanish explorers. The area, now known as Wedding Rocks, was later added to the National Register of historic Places in 1976.
1700s - 1800s
1790s: While potatoes may seem commonplace throughout the United States today, they actually are not native to this country. The potato was first introduced to the Olympic Peninsula in the late 1700s, and is believed to have been brought from South America by early explorers. As the potato was cultivated not only by European settlers, but Native inhabitants as well, it came to be known as the Ozette potato. This variety is the oldest known potato in the Pacific Northwest.
1855: The Treaty of Neah Bay, signed with the Makah Nation, did more than establish the Makah Reservation. Along with the land set aside, the Treaty also preserved certain tribal rights and culture such as whaling. In total, 300,000 acres of historic tribal land was ceded to the United States government.
Established the same year, the Point No Point Treaty was signed with the Klallam, Chemakum, and Skokomish tribes to establish the Skokomish Reservation. Within this treaty, the S'Klallam tribes traded land and resources for hunting and fishing rights on their historic cultural lands.
1855-1856: The Quinault River Treaty, otherwise known as the Treaty of Olympia, was signed with the Quinault, Hoh, and Quileute tribes. This treaty established the Quinault Reservation on historic Quinault land. Despite the treaty establishing the reservation of one nation's land, it required the Hoh and Quileute people to move there as well; however, only a few did.
1885 & 1890: The first O'Neil Expedition, led by Lietenant Joseph P. O'Neil, set out from Port Angeles, WA to explore the interior of the Olympic Peninsula. In the span of nearly a month, the party had made its way up to what is now Hurricane Ridge. From there, the men separated in two directions, some heading down into the Elwha River Valley, and the rest heading southeast towards Mount Anderson before the expedition ended. Returning to the area again in 1890, O'Neil set out to conquer Mount Olympus itself. This first known ascent of Mount Olympus was achieved on September 22 when O'Neil and the Olympic Exploring Expedition ascended Athena, Olympus's South Peak.
1889-1890: The article in the Seattle Press searched for "hardy" individuals who seeked "famed by unveiling the mystery whichs wraps the land encircled by the snow capped Olympic range." A party of six, organized by James Christie, followed the call, and set out in January down the Elwha River Valley. Six months later, the group of men reemerged from the Quinault Valley, tattered and torn, having navigated much of what is now Olympic National Park. This route, known as the Press Traverse, is still hiked to this day as a 49 mile point-to-point which bisects the park North to South.
1897-1909: Olympic National Park has seen many names as well as many designations. Originally established as a Forest Reserve and 1897, the land later became a National Forest in 1907. Only two years after the Forest designation, it became Mount Olympus National Monument. But why all the changes? Each designation comes with a different extent of protection and different reason for use. National Forests are used for a variety of purposes such as recreation, fishing, hunting, timbering, and grazing; whereas National Parks (including Monuments) are given another layer of protection. They are meant to be preserved in their natural and unaltered state.
1900s - Current1933-1942: The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asked for men aged 18 to 25 to spend time in the wilds of the nation helping to further develop natural areas and public lands. In Olympic National Park, those men worked largely on constructing and maintaining roads, campgrounds, and other buildings. This included the park's headquarters which were completed in 1941. Members of the CCC stayed within camps. The largest of these camps in Olympic was Camp Elwha which housed between 180 to 220 workers.
June 29, 1938: Redesignated from Mount Olympus National Monument to Olympic National Park, the park joined the list of 22 other National Parks which existed at that time. There are currently 62 National Parks in the United States. However, combined with National Monuments and other federal lands belonging to the National Park Service, the list is much longer. In total, there are currently 420 NPS sites nationwide!
1988: Thanks to The Wilderness Act of 1964, passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson, there are over 106 million acres of designated wilderness throughout the United States. These Wilderness areas are meant to be left unspoiled by humans. Because of this designation, much of Olympic National Park's wild interior is untouched by roads and other infrastructure. These backcountry areas are reachable only by hiking trail, map, and compass.
1992 - 2012: The Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, or The Elwha Act, was enacted in 1992. The main focus of this Act was to return the Elwha River Valley to its natural state largely by the removal of the two dams along the river. The removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams began in 2011. The loss of these structures was meant to help not only revegetate areas formerly covered by reservoirs, but also naturally redistribute built up river sediment which historically would have been dispersed at the river mouth along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The natural restructuring of the river would also help distribute a variety of river life, as well as positively impact salmon spawning and fish populations.
One unexpected affect of the dam removal was found in August 2012. An area that had previously been underwater and then drained during the dam removal projects exposed sites of great cultural significance to the Lower Elwha Klallam community. Members of the tribe rediscovered their sacred creation site along the Elwha Valley. A nearby site revealed 8,000 years of human activity. This remains the oldest archaeological site within Olympic National Park.
2015: Over the course of an exceptionally warm and dry year, a major glacial melt event took place within Olympic National Park. Over the course of only 35 years, Olympic's glacials had drastically reduced in size. Between the years 1980 and 2009, the rate of glacial receding had doubled, and between 2009 and 2015 the rate had quadrupled! Approximately 35 million cubic meters of water have been lost from the glaciers. That is about 130,000 olympic-sized swimming pools!
In May of this same dry year, a thunderstorm over the Queets Rainforest sparked an ember. Over the following 170 days the Paradise Fire spread, ravaged, and scorched over four miles of rainforest. By late November, the fire smouldering and exhausted, finally succumbed and was extinguished.
Last updated: September 12, 2022