Today we travel as far northwest in the continental U.S. as possible to take a tour of Olympic National Park. With creeping glaciers, silent rainforests, and vast beaches all within its boundaries, there is no shortage of awe to be had.
How to get there: Head to Seattle, then either take a ferry across Puget Sound or drive south to Tacoma and head back north once you reach the Olympic Peninsula. A trip to Olympic can be easily rolled into a national park trifecta, as Mount Rainier National Park is a short drive to the southeast and Pacific Rim National Park is a quick ferry ride north to Vancouver Island. The park itself is a kind of rounded-off square shape, and although no roads cross the park fully, numerous spur roads—intermittently sprouting off of the main highway that circumnavigates the park—take you in far enough to reach some of Olympic’s finest gems.
Where to stay: While hotels, motels, and lodges are dotted around the park and in the nearby communities, I strongly suggest making your temporary home in one of the park’s 16 campgrounds. Not only will camping in the park save you time and money, being immersed in such wild grandeur also turns ordinary loafing around your campsite into a scenic adventure. If you choose to stay in a tent, make sure it is 100% waterproof, for much of Olympic is a rainforest and its incessant rains will find and exploit any weakness in your tent’s fabric. And if you’ve ever had the misfortune to spend a night in a wet sleeping bag, you know how utterly miserable it can be.
Highlights: Let’s start with the Olympic Mountains. Although they are relatively short, the peaks of the Olympic Mountains are host to 60 glaciers. The western slopes of the ranges receive skyloads of precipitation each year (Mt. Olympus itself gets 34 feet!), providing the necessary beverages for the crowds of western hemlock and Douglas fir that populate their flanks. As your eyes scan up the mountainsides, this deep green of treeness immediately gives way to the bright white snows, creating an arresting contrast that you can stare at for hours. The best vantage point for viewing the range is at Hurricane Ridge. With a visitor center and picnic tables, it is a great spot to sit and eat while gazing at the Olympic peaks—unless the occasional 75 mph winds are whipping up that day (usually in winter only). Fortunately when I visited the wind breezed by gently, allowing me to soak in the view for over an hour.
As we descend from the mountains, we hit the most enchanting part of the park: the rainforests. The Hoh Rainforest, located on the west side of the park, isn’t just a living cathedral of verdant beauty, it is also one of the quietest places in the U.S. Take a hike on the Hall of Mosses Trail or one of the other nearby trails and sink yourself into a silence you just can’t find anywhere else. In the Hoh, peace is as abundant as the plant life.
In the rainforest, the trees grow shaggy green beards as epiphytes find the limbs a perfect place to call home. These club mosses and licorice ferns are in no need of soil; all the nutrients they require are delivered right to them courtesy of the mineral-carrying Pacific breezes blowing inland.
The trees in Olympic will make your eyes bug. Huge red cedars, Douglas firs, and Sitka spruces grow to ridiculous heights and girths. With so much rain to feed their expansion over the centuries, Olympic’s rainforest trees are a dendrochronologist’s dream. These woody veterans were here long before you and I and will remain long after we are gone, so a nod of respect is due them. Grow on, my friends.
While in the Hoh Rainforest, stay at the campground there and enjoy some time listening to the rushing ribbon of sapphire known as the Hoh River. It is a brilliant blue with a hint of milkiness, indicative of its glacial origins in the Olympic peaks beyond. If you are lucky, as I was, you can snare one of the campsites right next to the river and be cradled off to sleep each night by the river’s natural lullaby.
If you are looking to take a dip and glacially cold water isn’t your favorite, head over to Lake Crescent and hit the public swimming beach. Feel your stress dissolve as you float in the cool purity while studying the surrounding mountains that tower overhead. There are also plenty of rainbow and cutthroat trout patrolling the lake’s depths (which is over 1,000 feet), so the fisherperson will also find rewarding recreation.
Olympic is also home to a varied and sometimes exclusive collection of wildlife. Roosevelt Elk, named after national park hero Theodore Roosevelt, are the largest subspecies of elk in the U.S. These regal ruminants are unmanaged and roam free, often finding places such as the Hoh Rainforest perfect for going about their daily elk business. They are fetching but they are also huge and territorial, so keep your distance.
While there are elk, black bear, and cougars in Olympic’s wilderness, strangely enough none of these animals are responsible for the only recorded death by animal attack in the park’s history. The mountain goat that gored an unfortunate victim three years ago is part of a herd that isn’t even native to the park; well–meaning morons transplanted them to Olympic back in the 1920’s. And it turns out that these goats have a history of being dicks, as they have also been guilty of mowing down fragile meadows and of harassing other park visitors. These transgressions have forced the park service to “manage” the herd (i.e. shoot them), so maybe the goats’ recent anger is justified.
The final part of Olympic that warrants your appreciation is the coast. With over 60 miles of shoreline within the park boundaries, finding your own tranquil stretch of sand isn’t too difficult. Be mindful of the tide, however, as when it comes in, the previously motionless drift logs scattered about the beach are animated into rolling death traps by the powerful ocean waves. As you stroll along, keep your eyes open for breaching gray whales or frolicking harbor seals.
Summary: Olympic National Park has something for everyone. Whether you prefer beaches, forests, or mountains, this park provides breathtaking examples of them all. The only unpleasant thing about a trip to this living jewel is having to say goodbye.