Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.
I just returned from a wonderful trip to the Pacific Northwest where I had two main goals – visit Olympic National Park, and try to see Orca Whales. The first part of the trip was to the incredibly diverse habitats of Olympic National Park. The park brochure touts it as being three parks in one, and I wanted to visit all three major ecosystems – the mountains, the primeval forests, and the coast. Looking at the park map you see that there is no road that cuts through the park. Instead, Highway 101 skirts around the outer edges of the park, with a few spur roads penetrating to some of the more scenic spots. The central interior of the park is thus isolated from roads and contains impressive wild lands. In fact, 95% of the almost one million acres comprising this magnificent park is designated as wilderness.
It seems as though the park was designed for folks that want to hike, to experience the environment in the simplest fashion, the one way to truly immerse yourself in the wildness of a place. First stop was one that I had read could be very crowded – Hurricane Ridge. There is a partially paved trail heading up slope from the Visitor Center that traverses a ridge line offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. At an elevation of about 5200 feet, the habitat here is considered sub-alpine, with species such as Douglas-Fir and Subalpine Fir dominating.
The ranger had said the crowds thinned considerably late in the day, and so it was. Surprisingly so, since the sunset scenery was pretty spectacular, and set the tone for the next several days in the park.
The first stop the next morning was along the road to Sol Duc. Since it was early, there were almost no cars to be seen (or heard). A pull out signaled a trail head and it turned out to be a short magical loop trail through a forest of giants. These lowland forests are found in a few of the park’s river valleys like Sol Duc. They have a mild climate, abundant rainfall, and deep soils. This produces a multi-layered forest with huge old growth trees of Western Hemlock, Western Redcedar, and Douglas-Fir. The walk through the aptly-named Ancient Groves Nature Trail, was silent, solemn, and spell-binding. I didn’t want to leave this green cathedral, but it was still a long drive to the campground.
One site remained after driving the several miles of dirt road to reach the Queets campground. But what a campsite! Near the river and surrounded by the giant trees of the temperate rainforest. Huge Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlocks, Douglas-Fir, and Western Redcedar towered skyward, with a blanket of sprawling Sword Ferns covering the ground beneath.
The temperate rainforests protected in this park are among the few survivors of old growth forests that once stretched from coastal Oregon to southeast Alaska. Forests like these are found in only a few other locations in the world, so to walk beneath their canopy is a privilege. These unique environments are the result of some very special factors brought on by their westward facing location along the coast – abundant rainfall (up to 12 to 14 feet per year from storms rolling in off the Pacific) and moderate temperatures (rarely going below freezing or above 80 degrees). Many of the trees are hundreds of years old, attain heights of over 250 feet, and may be over 50 feet in circumference. With the lush ground cover and profuse coating of lichens and mosses on the tree trunks and limbs, I felt as if I was back in the tropical rainforests of Belize or the Amazon, but with the air conditioning turned on.
After soaking in the beauty of the forests in several locations, it was time to experience the unique coastline of the park. It is separated from the bulk of the park by private lands, several Native American reservations, and state and national forests. One of the more accessible beaches is Ruby Beach, so a quick stop was in order when the sign appeared along the road. Due to the easy access, it was predictably crowded, but it was stunning nevertheless.
And I experienced what was to become one of my favorite sounds in the park, the clacking of rounded rocks being washed by incoming ocean waves. That set the stage for what was probably my favorite experience in the park, a backpacking/camping trip starting at Third Beach.
While it was my favorite, it certainly wasn’t the easiest. Turns out that tides along these beaches are a lot greater than I am used to – up to 8 feet, making it impossible to simply walk along the beach to most campsites. Instead, you must climb and hike over the many headlands that just out to meet the ocean, often climbing steep inclines with the aid of knotted ropes put there for that purpose.
After questioning the decision a few times, it soon became apparent why it was worth it as the sun started to drop into the ocean.
Low tide exposes rocks and tide pools and a host of associated life.
Scattered amongst the rocks and pools were so many creatures and plants that I was not familiar with…but one organism was quick to catch your attention – the Ochre Sea Star. The variety of colors in this common species ranges from bright purple, to maroon, and, to what seemed to be the dominant color morph, bright orange.
As beautiful as sunset was, the sunrises along the coast were even more breath-taking. The early morning fog bank played cat and mouse with the sea stacks giving the entire scene a mystical feel.
When the first light hit the sea stacks, the contrast with the dark waters and rocks at low tide was stunning.
In addition to the tidepool creatures , there was a lot of other wildlife along the beach, although my lack of a telephoto lens prevented photographs. A pair of Bald Eagles graced the sea stacks, as did numerous Double-crested Cormorants, and Western Gulls. A family of River Otters came out onto the beach from Scott Creek and played in the ocean under the watchful gaze of thirty or more distant Harbor Seals lounging on the rocks at low tide. And one morning, one of the Raccoons they warn you about as possible camp raiders, picked its way along the rocks at low tide looking for an easy meal. The return hike was timed to coincide with low tide, eliminating the scramble over one small headland. The others required a climb – but it turned out to be worth every weary step.
The fog gave the whole scene the feel of a soft painting.
Then the sun rose high enough to pierce the grayness with shafts of light streaking through the looming tree trunks…unforgettable.
It was a long drive to the last campsite in a totally different environment – the treeline in the mountains at a place called Deer Park.
At an elevation of 5400 feet, Deer Park is reached by a long, narrow, winding gravel road that leaves you wondering if you will ever reach your destination. The quiet of the space and silhouettes of the trees against the receding waves of mountains made for a beautiful sunset. The sky was clear, so the stage was set for an incredible night sky.
It did not disappoint. Wish I had learned about night sky photography before this trip, but I am definitely going to learn now for the next time I am in such an amazing skyscape.
The next morning, the view seemed endless, and the combination of mountain peaks and the fog-covered waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca was spectacular.
Over the span of several days it it would be easy to think you had traveled hundreds of miles to a variety of stunning landscapes from the coast to the mountains. But, instead, it was a series of short drives and walks in some of the most stunning places I have been and all in one awe-inspiring place, Olympic National Park.
Here are a few more images from this beautiful park.