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updated 6/22/2006 2:59:41 PM ET 2006-06-22T18:59:41

Rapids, waterfalls, sapphire lakes, craggy peaks, moss-hung rain forests, lonely seacoasts — Olympic National Park’s 1,442 square miles offer a constellation of landscapes that no other national park can match. Ninety-five percent is wilderness, accessible only on foot or horseback, but spur roads still deliver car-campers to 16 campgrounds with 910 sites. The rain — 134 inches annually in the Hoh Rain Forest — goes on vacation itself in July, August, and September, but wait if you can: The best camping is in early fall, after summer’s crowds evaporate.

Camping
Kalaloch. Try to nab D25, a corner site with a stunning 160° view of Pacific surf and sunset. No neighbors here — adjacent sites have been closed by bluff erosion. 169 reservable sites Jun 23–Sep 4; $18. 800/365-2267.

Also great
Deer Park. Just below Blue Mountain’s 6,007-foot summit, the remote camp offers rim-of-the-world views of craggy peaks and clouds skulking in the valleys below. To reach it, head up the mountain’s narrow gravel road. 14 sites spring–summer; $10. No RVs or trailers; no running water. 360/565-3130.

Hoh. Moss and really-big-tree enthusiasts will love this rain-forest area. There’s also a resident herd of Roosevelt elk. 88 sites year-round; $12. 360/565-3130.

Mora. Not quite as in demand as Kalaloch, campsites here lack immediate ocean views. But the otherworldly natural “litter” of Rialto Beach — craggy sea stacks and monster driftwood — is just 2 miles west. 95 sites year-round; $12. 360/565-3130.

Sol Duc. Hiking 2.5 miles from the campground gets you to awesome Sol Duc Falls; making a loop scores a warm soak in the Sol Duc Hot Springs pools ($11, $8 ages 4–12). 82 sites year-round; $14. 360/565-3130.

Staircase. A riverside campground in a beautiful old-growth forest near the Staircase Rapids of the North Fork Skokomish. 56 sites year-round; $12. No running water in winter. 360/565-3130.

Outside the park
A surprising abundance of campgrounds — operated by the U.S. Forest Service, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and private landowners — relieves the pressure on park sites. Remarkably, the Washington DNR sites are all free. Visit www.nwsource.com/outdoors for a comprehensive list and ratings of Olympic Peninsula campgrounds.

Falls Creek, Gatton Creek, and Willaby. Three Forest Service campgrounds huddle in a majestic old-growth forest by Lake Quinault. $12–$15. Falls Creek (May 29–Sep 4) has 31 sites. Gatton Creek (May 29–Sep 4) has 5 sites; no running water. Willaby (May 29–Oct 31) has 34 sites. Quinault Tribe permit (fee varies; available at Quinault Mercantile, 360/288-2620) needed for hiking, boating, and fishing; boat ramps at Willaby and Falls Creek. 360/288-2525.

Lyre River. A quiet campground operated by the Washington DNR; adjacent to a lovely small river. 9 sites year-round; free. 360/374-6131.

What camp hosts say
• Arrive on a Thursday (or earlier) to improve your odds of finding a weekend spot. All park campgrounds are first come, first served except Kalaloch.

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• None of the park’s campgrounds offers showers, so take advantage of private concessions just outside park boundaries.

• Bring firewood. The National Park Service urges campers to bring their own so dead wood can recycle itself as nutrition for the forest.

• Steer clear of campgrounds near U.S. 101. Heavy logging trucks ply the highway, so stay off the beaten path if you crave forest silence.

Get ready to go
Get Great Pacific’s Olympic Peninsula Recreation map or Green Trails maps (206/546-6277) in Olympia or Port Angeles — plus a Pacific Coast tide table, essential for beach hiking.

Info: Seven-day pass $15 per vehicle. www.nps.gov/olym or 360/565-3130.

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