The Essential Olympic

Olympic National Park
* The anchor of Washington State's peninsula, Olympic is perhaps the most multi-faceted park in the entire system. From its beach-front campgrounds to its high, glacier-coated alpine backcountry, this park offers three distinct personalities that can making packing for a vacation here most challenging. Do you head to Olympic to enjoy the cobble- and log-strewn shoreline with its towering sea stacks, seals, and tide pools? Or do you come to explore the emerald Hoh Rain Forest with its dense Sitka spruce and Western Hemlock forests draped in mosses and epiphytes? Maybe you prefer to sling pack onto your back and head to the high country.
Olymrainforest_copy * Weather-wise, July and August are the best times to visit if you like dry, warm weather with a reasonable amount of sunshine. September's not too bad, but the rainy season is approaching. If you're after winter mountaineering, December and January typically bring the heaviest snows.
* Time for just one hike? The head to the Hoh Rain Forest and patch together the three-quarter-mile-long Hall of Mosses and 1.25-mile-long Spruce Nature Trail. Together these paths lead you through some of the densest temperate rain forest in the continental U.S. and along the Hoh River, which runs milky thanks to the glacial flour it carries down from the high country.
* Best Adventure? An overnight trek along the three-legged Cape Alva-Sand Point Loop trail on the park's northwestern corner. This 9.25-mile-long trip leads you through rain forest and along the Pacific Coast, past petroglyphs and to the western-most point on the Lower 48, Cape Alva.
* For kids, little is more fun and interesting than an afternoon spent in the Hoh Rain Forest. Unless, of course, you spend an afternoon at Rialto Beach searching the cobble beach for wave-pounded and polished agates or looking for tide pools swarming with marine life.
* To flee crowds, either head inland along one of the park's many trails, or try one of the six beaches along the coast between Ruby Beach and South Beach.
* Best dinner? I found it at Lake Crescent Lodge, where the chef has created an eclectic menu built heavily upon fresh seafood, game such as elk and duck, and beef.
* Best breakfast. That also can be found at the Crescent Lake Lodge, with its omelets, grill items, fresh fruit and array of cereals.
* Best lodging, price not an option? A Roosevelt Cabin at Lake Crescent. Located on the lakeshore, these cabins have gorgeous log walls, plank flooring, and rock fireplaces. There are only four, though, and they can book up years in advance.
* Best bargain lodging? The cabins at Kalaloch Lodge overlooking the Pacific. They can accommodate up to seven, have woodstoves and a small kitchen area, and allow you to fall asleep to the crash of the surf.

Comments

Although the beauty of the Olympic National Park and surrounding Olympic Peninsula is most gloriously showcased during the sunny days of late summer and fall (the region has a fairly reliable annual drought (and with a bit of luck, 'Indian Summer') during this period), the true character & soul of the country isn't to be found in drenching sunshine.

If you find yourself with one extra day in the vicinity of western Washington State (Seattle) during the majority of the year when weather conditions are ensuring the verdant health of the magnificent forests, mosses and ferns (i.e., it's raining), consider spending the day driving the largely undocumented (but obvious) Olympic Loop. A glance at the map shows that a single main road leads around the perimeter of the Peninsula. It's about a one-day car-tour.

Don't drive too fast ... or too slow ... watch for logging trucks, the occasional off-season gawking RV-tourist, the unfathomable bicyclists in brightly-colored rain-slickers ... and let the true Olympics soak in, ridge by river, clearcut by towering colonnade.

The Olympic Park & Peninsula is wet country. Even the rain-shadow part. Gray, drizzling, cloud-decks, mists & fogs. Saturated atmospheric pulses - "The Pineapple Express" - from across the Pacific Ocean rolling into the North American continent, stalling, banking against the taller ridges & mountains, revolving slowly in place to give us a sample of it from all points of the compass.


Lower part of Happy Lake Ridge Trail, late winter.

You know, we lost the best of the Olympics. The original primal lowland forests are gone; surviving old-growth stands in the Park are their worthy but lessor kin. We still have the more durable of the old stumps - 8 foot Douglas Fir, 10 foot Western Red Cedar. Typical, on the west/wet side. Keep your eyes open (while driving carefully), and pull over on likely wide spots. Push into the brush and peer beneath the canopy. Of course, clearcuts put the behemoths on display - but the ones that will hit you the hardest are standing hidden within second-growth.

The Olympic forests weren't quite Sequoia or Redwood country - they are the arboreal champions - but here the entire biome grew in a dripping-cool greenhouse.

There is a real human-people side to the Olympics, little towns, hamlets, and scattered homesites. And always was, actually, even (or 'especially') before the Europeans. There are 9 Native Tribes distributed around the perimeter of the Olympics. (Olympic National Park is the only member of the NPS with a full-time dedicated staff anthropologist.) All of whom made extensive economic & cultural use of the interior mountainous districts - now the main Park.

You can get a better & fuller feel for the Olympic country - and the Park that it encloses - in a single wet day on the road, clouds of spray plastering your windshield as vehicles pass, than you would in several days along one of the standard Park hiking trails, enjoying the sun in tank-top & shorts.

To know the Olympic National Park & Peninsula, is to know it wet.

“.. one can recall that “rain is only water and the skin is waterproof” and go walking in the forest, and find that after completing the initial process of getting soaking wet, all the way to the skin, there is no more pain remaining in the rain, or the water-heavy brush, or even knee-deep streams, and one can then proceed pleasurably through the water wilderness with a sort of swimming motion, winking the excess rain out of the eyes, blowing drips from the upper lip, and lulled by the rhythmic squish in the boots.”
- Harvey Manning -