WA: Washington State; Olympic National Park, Sitka Spruce
WA: Washington State; Olympic National Park, Sitka Spruce
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by Lee Foster

While world environmental attention focuses on tropical rain forests, we sometimes forget that there are also a few temperate region rain forests.

One such forest, presenting a good travel opportunity, is on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. As in all rain forests, the plentiful water has produced an abundant flora and fauna that delights the naturalist in all of us. Fortunately, this rain forest has also been set aside safely, in perpetuity, as a National Park.

On June 29, 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt designated 900,000 acres of snow-capped mountains, rain forests, and conifer wilderness on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula as Olympic National Park.

The Olympic Peninsula, with the National Park as its centerpiece, offers rugged beaches, moss-and-fern-filled forests, lacy clouds drifting over the mountain tops, and 600 miles of diversified trails.

The 1,420-square-mile Park lies on a peninsula of manageable size, just 75 by 85 miles, with a cluster of mountains of moderate height, topped by Mt. Olympus at 7,965 feet. The most unusual feature of the region is its rainfall, which is heavy enough to nurture a climax rain forest on the west side, although agricultural fields need to be irrigated on the east side “rain shadow.” The town of Sequim on the east side gets only 17 inches of rain per year. Sunny Sequim is a favorite retirement spot in the region. The presence of so many older people caused one visiting grandchild to dub the area Wrinkle City.

Unrelenting gray, rainy winters make most of the region more hospitable to visit in summer than live in year around. At Quinault there are 134 inches of rain annually, but little falls in July and August. The west side of the mountain at the tree line receives roughly 190 inches of rain per year.

About 60 remaining glaciers at the 7,000 foot level, excellent beach combing at La Push on the west side, and rivers teeming with trout and salmon entice visitors to the landscape around Mt. Olympus.

The Path to the Park

There are several ways to arrive at the Park.

A total fly-in approach brings the traveler to Seattle’s SEATAC airport, followed by a commuter flight to Port Angeles, where a rental car can take you into the main interpretive and access area, Hurricane Ridge.

A total land route would take a traveler from Seattle down Interstate 5 to Olympia. After a pause to view the state capital, make the loop drive around Mt. Olympus on Highway 101.

A third approach is special to the Seattle area. From Seattle, take the ferry, with your car, to Winslow on Bainbridge Island. From Winslow, make a leisurely trip across the top of the Peninsula, passing the Scandinavian town of Poulsbo, the historic lumber community of Port Gamble, and the lovely Victorian legacy of Port Townsend, before arriving at Port Angeles for a drive up to Hurricane Ridge.

Regardless of your path to the main Park interpretive area at Hurricane Ridge, consider two further explorations. Drive west in the Park to see the Hoh rain forest and the Park beaches at Rialto. Also, consider a two-nation vacation by spending a day taking the ferry (minus your car) across the short distance to Victoria, British Columbia. View the city and its outstanding Provincial Museum, then return to Port Angeles.

A drive-in visit to the Park will require at least two days from Seattle, though a week could easily be devoted to this remarkable natural resource.

The Indians and Port Townsend

Two aspects of the history of the Peninsula are especially compelling for a traveler.

The first is the long Indian era, now celebrated in a first-rate museum. The second is the brief Victorian splendor, when the settlers of Port Townsend assumed that their city, not Seattle, would be the metropolis of the state.

The Makah Indians have organized the Makah Museum at Neah Bay on the northwest edge of the peninsula. This is a remote site, but the museum is an excellent resource. The Makah festival in the last week of August is the best time to visit. The Indians lived easily on fin and shell fish, supplemented by berries and game. Today there are ten tribes on the Peninsula with some 6,200 members.

After the period of European exploration, Port Townsend became the first permanent white settlement, in 1851. By the 1880s, just before the railroad era, men of vision were convinced that Port Townsend would be the great city of Washington state. Little did they guess that the railroads, which were built west to Seattle, would make that railhead the terminus of commerce.

Port Townsend people invested in lavish homes, the most outstanding collection of Victorians north of San Francisco.

In 1890 Port Townsend was a bay filled with ships of commerce and military power. Today, a visitor can stay in any of a dozen Port Townsend Victorian bed and breakfasts. The great houses have been recycled as lodgings.

The View from Hurricane Ridge

To understand and enjoy the Park, begin with a stop at the Visitor Center south of Port Angeles, at 600 East Park Avenue, and continue on the Park road to the one promontory from which you can view the innards of the Park–Hurricane Ridge.

At the Visitor Center the conservationist qualities of the Park becomes apparent. Overhunting of the world’s largest herd of Roosevelt Elk caused the first alarms from environmental activists. Protecting the rain forests on the west side of the Park from rapacious logging that occurs on all the adjacent National Forest land was another rationale for the Park. When you drive to Rialto Beach, for example, you will see that clear-cut logging occurs literally to the edge of the Park. Preserving the mountain scenery for visual appeal and for hiking was an added interest. Incorporating the strip of rugged coast along the west side of the Park provided an unparalleled hiking and camping opportunity along a 57-mile beach wilderness. Aside from exhibits on geology, flora, and fauna, the Visitor Center shows an Indian whaling canoe and a logger’s bunkhouse.

After this orientation at the Visitor Center, drive your car to Hurricane Ridge. From that promontory you can see the snowy ranges and glacial extravagance of the Olympic Peninsula mountains. Many of these mountains are of approximately the same height, creating a multi-peak perspective, which contrasts with the visual dominance of Mt. Rainier, for example, to the east. In summer, Hurricane Ridge offers good hiking opportunities.

WA: Washington State; Olympic National Park, Sitka Spruce
WA: Washington State; Olympic National Park, Sitka Spruce

After Hurricane Ridge, drive west along Highway 101, the Park road. Stop at lovely Crescent Lake, where the Crescent Lake Lodge presents picturesque Park accommodations. The lodge dates from 1916, but was thoroughly renovated in 1985.

Continuing west and south, drive out to Rialto Beach. The prominence of rounded stones, tumbled by the ocean, and the huge drift logs of Sitka spruce, make rugged Rialto beach unlike other beaches. At low tide you can see green anemones and sea stars in the Rialto tide pools.

Then turn south and inland to the Hoh Rain Forest. The drive inland parallels streams whose gravel banks provide good opportunities for seeing elk, especially in the early morning hours. Hoh offers another excellent Visitor Center, acquainting you with the huge Sitka spruce, hemlock, and Douglas fir that dominate this landscape. The major arboreal phenomenon here is the rapid growth rate of the trees. A cross section of douglas fir from the Hoh rain forest, compared with a section of same-age Douglas fir from dry environs, shows that the rain forest growth is two to three times as fast. Pine trees do not flourish on the Peninsula because the weather conditions are too moist.

As you walk the Hoh trails, such as the Hall of Mosses Trail, you see epiphytes hanging on the tree branches. Epiphytes are airborne plants that use the trees as a location, deriving their nutrients from airborne particles. Epiphytes, commonly described as “mosses”, create a loose, diaphanous effect of compelling beauty. These draperies of moss are particularly attractive on the big leaf maples, trees whose extended branches provide ideal positions for the epiphytes.

Huge nurse logs of Sitka spruce, some 190 feet long, provide in their fallen, dead bodies the legacy of nutrients that allows new trees to sprout and flourish. A walk along the trails reveals the succession of trees here, starting with alders in any open sunspace. The alders nurture the shade-loving hemlock, which in turn eliminates the alders by shading them with a canopy of branches. Finally, the Sitka spruce provides a final or “climax” forest of the tallest trees, dominating the forest, until the giants crash with age to clear a new sunspace in the forest.

There is more in the Park to see, but these initial encounters give you a beginning perspective on the area.

Olympic Park Loop

An entire loop of the Park would add for your enjoyment two more rain forests on the west side, the capital city, Olympia, on the south side, and several appealing state parks on the east.

When driving on the Olympic Peninsula, allow plenty of time between destinations. The roads are narrow and curvy. Logging trucks and fellow travelers savoring the scenery keep driving speeds to a prudent 40 miles per hour.

Making the loop drive around Olympic National Park provides a pleasant three-day trip. The better travel choice would be to plan a week for such a loop trip, allowing reasonable time to explore the beaches, rain forests, and hiking trails. Be sure to pack warm clothes and rain gear.

The most interesting stops northeast of the Park, along the most-traveled route, are these four diversions:

*The Kemper Brewery is typical of the many micro-breweries that flourish in Washington State. These breweries make beers on a small scale, exercising a control over taste that the large breweries can’t match. Thomas Kemper makes three types of lager beers.

*Port Gamble is a picturesque 19th-century company logging town with 19 remaining Victorian-era houses, the most prominent of which is the Walker-Ames House. The logging operation persists, making this one of the oldest continuous logging mills in Washington State. Stop in at Port Gamble’s cavernous General Store. Also, see the well-wrought museum of the Pope and Talbot lumbering operations.

*Sluys Poulsbo Bakery is the stop for Norwegian baked goods, including the famous Poulsbo bread. Poulsbo is so Norwegian that 2,500 of its 4,200 residents are members of the Sons of Norway Lodge.

*Many wild animals that figure in TV series and in commercials can be seen at the Olympic Game Farm in Sequim. The most exotic creatures here are the Kodiak bears, including a bear named Max, who weighs in at 1,600 pounds. The most famous animal here is Gentle Ben, the bear in the Grizzly Adams TV series.

These four attractions can be located easily in the compact area northeast of the Park.

On the east side of the Peninsula, you’ll find several state parks giving access to the mountains.

Also on the east side lies the brawny Navy port of Bremerton, where you can visit the USS Turner Joy.

The other rain forests that could be visited on the west side of the Park are the Queets and the Quinault forests.

Include the state capital of Olympia if your outing proceeds to the south edges of the Park. The main appeal of Olympia is the great dome of the capitol, with its Tiffany chandeliers. Some 55 acres of landscaped grounds exhibit rhododendrons and azaleas, typical moisture-loving plants that flourish in western Washington.

Visit the State Capitol Museum (211 West 21st Street), which has a distinguished collection of artifacts from the Northwest, all lodged in an aging mansion.

Nearby, in the town of Shelton, an appreciator of oysters can tour the Olympia Oyster Co., largest of 15 producers here.

The Olympia Brewery in nearby Tumwater also offers tours and a sample of the product.

Wherever you go on the Peninsula, the temptation is strong to wet a line in the streams or launch forth in search of fish in the ocean. Fishing in streams of the Olympic peninsula is good for winter steelhead. The true fisherman endures an iced reel and numbed fingers to net the scrappy sea-going rainbow trout.

Charter boats leave Port Angeles for prize salmon. Five species of salmon inhabit the Washington waterways, with the Chinook as the largest, commonly weighing 20 pounds. In winter and spring the salmon gather in Puget Sound for their spawning runs up the rivers and streams of Washington. Charter boats do brisk business. Smaller skiffs, locally called “kickers,” can be rented. When the fish population is low, the salmon season is sometimes closed. Licenses can be purchased locally.

Clamming is also popular with many Washingtonians. At minus tides you’ll see some choicer beaches covered with harvesters, armed with gunnysacks, shovels, and the expertise required to detect the clam’s snout. Physical determination is needed to dig out the retreating clam. At seafood restaurants, be sure to taste the gaper, razor, rock cockle and other clams.

Olympic National Park and the Olympic Peninsula are a rewarding destination at any time. Rain forest splendor is not confined to tropical climes. This temperate region rain forest, safely preserved as public land, will fascinate the naturalist for the millennium.

***

Olympic National Park: If You Go

For more information, see the National Park website on Olympic National Park at http://www.nps.gov/olym.

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