Olympic National Park is made up of many separate, unique areas. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss them. The park covers a large part of the Olympic Peninsula, across the Puget Sound from Seattle, plus a narrow strip of land along the Pacific Ocean. Roads enter into the main section of park, but none go through, so there’s quite a bit of driving involved. 95% of the park has been designated wilderness and the park is also a biosphere reserve, like the Great Smoky Mountains. No matter how many people drive along the edges of the park, the center will never change, as long as our laws remain applicable. Anyway, like I said, it’s easy to miss pieces of the park. We missed the first two sections, the ones that climb up for good views of Mt. Olympus and the surrounding peaks (weather permitting). These peaks aren’t high by Rocky Mountain standards, but when you’re standing near sea level, looking up at a glacier-covered peak over 7,000 feet above you, you’re not thinking about the fact that it’s many thousands of feet shorter than the Rockies or Mt. Rainier. You’re thinking…wow.
We got our first glimpse of Mt. Olympus south of Seattle. On clear days from Seattle, Mt. Olympus stands impressively behind Puget Sound. On cloudy days, you forget the mountain is there. This was a cloudy day, but we were able to make out the outline against the clouds. I ensured Paul we’d have much better views in Seattle. We didn’t. We didn’t get another good look at the mountain until we paused in Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge to contemplate the Dungeness Crab. Then we may have seen the mountain, but we also may not have seen it. I don’t really know.
Then we plunged into the forest at Sol Duc and didn’t see the mountain again for days. Parts of Olympic are “named” rainforests (like Hoh, or Quinault), but all parts seem wet and forested, so it feels like a minor distinction. Sol Duc is a hot spring resort set in a mystical-feeling grove of huge trees. The hot spring is privately owned, which means it’s been ruined (IMO). Everything is green, except for hot pink foxgloves, which everywhere line the road.
After some forested hikes, we made for the beach, where we hiked some insane trails (Paul will be sharing his favorite in another post) and were kept awake at night by the sounds of logging trucks as they engine-breaked down the two-lane highway … and vampires (more to come on that too). Sea stacks, former headlands whose softer parts were long ago eroded away, stand off the coast, looking foreign. I wanted to find the place I’d camped with my family as a kid. I wanted to see something familiar. We found it, eventually (Third Beach). We had enough time to hike down a few wrong paths. The coast is covered with huge drift-trees — trees so big you can’t believe they were carried out to the ocean by a river.
After a healthy dose of beach, we again headed into the rainforest. At night, mist hung in the air, illuminated by our headlamps. Mosquitoes hovered all around us, but they weren’t yet ready to bite. Maybe they had just hatched and weren’t yet sure what to do with their lives. I’ve never seen so many mosquitoes and had so few bites. Trees grow on fallen “nurse trees,” which look like they’re being sucked for all they’re worth by the parasitic new roots. Growing upon a rotting tree usually destabilizes the new tree, which will soon fall and become a nurse tree for the next generation. The circle of life.
Hiking in Olympic is wonderful. Trails are mystical, magical, with mosses and streaky sunlight (when the sun decides to shine). The lush green of the forests contrasts sharply with the monochrome of the beaches on cloudy days (i.e. most days). Paul commented that his beach pictures looked like they were all shot in black and white instead of color. The trails are also filled with hazards like deep mud, slimy banana slugs, and spiderwebs that always seem to hit you squarely in the face. Also good things, like salmonberries, which look similar to raspberries and are just as tasty.
Eventually, we’d had enough of the rain and damp and decided to leave Olympic. And that’s when the sun came out, the sky fully clear. Paul took a picture of the blue sky; it’s something we hadn’t seen for days. But once you’ve decided to leave, it’s hard to change your mind. Once you’ve passed something, it’s hard to turn around and go back, no matter how much time you have. Driving south, we finally got a view of what is inarguably Mt. Olympus, but we didn’t stop. After almost two weeks in the area, we wondered if we were only being permitted to see it because we were leaving.