A Gem at the Northwest Tip of the Continental US
Story and photos by G.I. Wilson…
How would you like to vacation in a beautiful, lush, green area with a backdrop of snow-covered peaks and glaciers?
How about breakfast in a bright cozy little town, in the rain shadows of the mountains, that only gets 16 inches of annual rain. After breakfast, you can leave this warm sunny area and in one and a half hours be in an area that receives 12 feet of precipitation, yes feet.
It can happen on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. My wife Jo and I did it. We dig out the old, faded bucket list, set aside six days and head for the Olympics.
After studying brochures we decide to begin our exploring in Port Townsend. Although Port Townsend actually is not on the peninsula, we find frequent reference to “plan your getaways in Port Townsend.”
Who could argue with beginning in what MSN City Guide named “A charming Victorian seaport, one of the top 8 Port Cities in the US.”
We explore the historic water front district. Stately buildings from the 1870s house a wide range of businesses that seem to be flourishing. Both working and pleasure boats share the harbor with Washington State ferries.
The driving tour of the town is most enjoyable. Elegant historic Victorian homes are on an easy to follow, self-guided map.
We decide on a condo on Discovery Bay for our stay. Discovery Bay is 16 miles closer to our planned getaways.
While unpacking there is a cold, steady rain. Our hopes are high. Predictions are for an improvement in weather with temperatures in the 60s and 70s in two days.
GETAWAY #1 SUNNY SEQUIM
We head west on Hwy 101 for Sequim (pronounced “Skwim”) in a steady downpour.
Flora is lush and green. Wild rhododendrons and the ever present bright yellow scotch broom add some color to the dismal morning.
As we draw closer to town, the rain seems to become lighter. We dash into the visitor center and are greeted by a pleasant and knowledgeable staff.
Five minutes into our visit, the clouds part and we are bathed in warming sunshine.
We had read about this “sunny little community” in the rain shadow of the 8,000 foot Olympic Range.
The manager of the center is a wealth of information. It seems that pilots flying over Sequim have named it “The Blue Hole.“ They fly into the area from any direction, through heavy clouds, turbulence, rain or fog, and there is blue sky and sunshine. The Blue Hole.
Sequim receives an average of 16 inches of rainfall annually, while a few miles to the west, double that amount. The Hoh Rain Forest, 110 miles southwest, gets 20 feet of precipitation.
A friend worked in Port Angeles for three weeks. “It rained some, every day we were there,” he explains. “Drive over to Sequim and they are irrigating.”
Sequim is pleased to be known as “Sunny Sequim,” as they are blessed with 300 days of sunshine. It is also known as the “Lavender Capital of North America” and draws 30,000 to its Lavender Weekend in July.
After two days of rain, e soak up a day of sunshine. Jo hits the lavender shops while I sit in the warm sun and “people watch.”
We fill the day with a drive out to the Dungeness Recreation area, gateway to Dungeness Spit, and spectacular vistas of Vancouver Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We watch a heavily loaded cargo ship makes its way through the Strait headed for the Pacific Ocean.
A trail leads down to Dungeness Spit, the world’s longest natural sand spit, growing at a rate of about 20 feet per year.
Pay a $3 fee to enter the refuge. The spit is six miles long with the New Dungeness Light Station at the tip. Hikers must arrive and depart between sunrise and sunset.
Feed the Animals
We succumb to all the teasing ads, “Get face to face with wildlife,” and visit the Olympic Game Farm.
The “Catch” for us is to see and feed animals used in Disney and other productions. You learn fast these critters have become aggressive panhandlers. Leave a window open very long and you have a critter slobbering on you.
Where else are you going to have a massive 1,000-pound grizzly wave at you for a slice of bread? Grizzlies are huge and appear to be slow. Their moves belie that under all that heavy coat of fur and fat is a well-tuned machine that can chase down–and kill–an elk or moose.
We got our wave from behind the fence.
GETAWAY #2 HOH RAIN FOREST
Weather predictions are for scattered showers. We will have a long day, one and a half hour drive each way.
As we head south from Port Angeles on Hwy 101, we have actually circled the northern tip of the Olympic Range. We have left the rain shadow of the mountains and head into the “wet zone.”
This is not your ordinary drive. We are soon winding along the west side of steep, forested mountains. We get brief glimpses of glistening snow-covered peaks.
Our first major point of interest is Crescent Lake. Our highway curves along the shoreline. Fed by countless ice-fed creeks, the water is so deep blue it appears to have been dyed.
As we drive south, we begin to see more evidence of annual precipitation. More gentle terrain, towering spruce, and stately Western Red Cedar. Demand for red cedar in the lumber industry has led to heavy logging outside park boundaries.
Steelhead and Salmon
We cross over blue-green rivers like the Bogachiels, Hoh, Calawah, and Sol Duc, roaring out of the Olympic Range. Fishing these rivers is a dream of steelhead anglers. Anglers come from all over the world to do battle with trophy steelhead and salmon.
We arrive at the small town of Forks for lunch. Forks has a rich history of logging. It has served as the hub of the area for years.
Folks at the visitor’s center are friendly and eager to share a wealth of information about the area. The logging museum shares the history of one of the great logging eras in our history.
A few miles south we leave Hwy 101 for the 17-mile drive up the Hoh River to the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor’s Center.
The Wild Hoh
Within a few miles, we are struck by two things. The swift blue-green river meanders through miles of devastation from yearly floods. In places, the flowing river may be only 20-30 yards wide but a gravel bar 100 yards wide. Gravel bars are strewn with logs of all dimensions that have been violently ripped from the banks upstream.
In places, log jams almost totally clog the river. Trees, still green with root wads, have come to rest in the middle of the river. An awesome testimony to the flow generated by powerful rainstorms at a higher elevation.
Next, we realize we are driving through tunnel-like groves of towering spruce that seem to block out the light. Then, groves of giant broad leaf maple draped in moss, some hanging two to three feet from heavy limbs. It is both beautiful and somewhat eerie.
And we are still in an area of private ownership. Evidence of recent logging is near by.
We arrive at another Olympic visitor’s center and join probably 40 cars at the well-groomed and attractive center.
We study the wide array of hiking trails and choose one of 1.8 miles of moderate difficulty. One with hand rails for the steep inclines.
Pick Your Trail
Regardless of your age or abilities, there is a trail for you. We see some with strollers and wheel chairs on one of the short gentle trails. Serious packers load up packs and head for the tough stuff.
We ask the ranger about fish habitat.
“If you go to the first bridge across the creek, there are tiny coho fingerlings there,” she explains. “Coho spawn right here.”
We spot the little guys, no more than an inch long, hovering among the safety of branches and moss. We are witnessing one of the true marvels of nature.
A Wonder of Nature
Here we have gin-clear water bubbling out of the earth.
A few yards away is a mating pair of adult coho salmon who have battled their way some 30 miles, against unbelievable odds, to reach this place of their birth, to repeat a spectacular life cycle. Hundreds of people pass by without a clue of what they are missing.
To look and realize what is unfolding right here before us is almost mind boggling. These little guys may spend months or a year making it to the ocean. They actually back all the way, letting the current push them. No current, they are lost.
They are the smallest fish in the river. Multiple predators will feed on them.
In the ocean, they will feed for two to three years, face multiple predators–including man–and struggle to return to this same spot to repeat the process.
Century Old Giants
If we had thought we had already seen big, lush growth, we were wrong. Now we are walking among spruce and Douglas Fir 300 feet tall. Three to 500 years old.
This is a working forest where wood fiber products are replenished faster than any place on earth. Hundred-year-old conifers have grown out of decaying nurselogs.
Broad leaf maple branched out like some gigantic octopus struggling to reach for the sky. Limbs, larger than many trees, wrapped in moss, look like giant, green snakes.
One of the most interesting is the tangle of vine maple draped in sheets of moss, some, several feet long.
With a little imagination, you can find numerous creatures from today’s horror films.
Stop, take some time. Think about it.
You are standing in some of the lushest, unique growth in the world. This place receives 12 feet of precipitation a year–thirty inches of it in MIST.
If this doesn’t arouse something deep within your being, you should head back to the city and your video games.
People are funny. We watch hikers that must have driven many miles to get here, at considerable expense. Yet, they hit the trail walking as if their goal is to finish the trail as quickly as possible. We frequently have to move to the side to let them storm past.
How rewarding to catch up with two young ladies, down on knees feeling the texture of decaying wood. Or, individuals with a small fortune in camera equipment, who have obviously been in the same spot for a good period of time, hoping to catch everything right for that perfect image.
We finish our trail tired and yet exhilarated. We have experienced one of the most unique ecosystems in the world.
Our drive back to the condo is long but surrounded by nature and its splendor.
A Rare Dry Day
We later realize we have spent a great day in one of the wettest places in the world, and not one drop of precipitation.
We visited Forks, that averages over 130 inches of rainfall a year, a rain forest that receives over 12 feet–including 30 inches of mist–and we only experienced a trace of mist on the windshield. Has to be a scoop.
We would advise visitors to spend a night or two in Forks. You will have an easy drive to the rain forest. More time to experience the beauty.
Forks has a rich history and easy access to some interesting areas. Folks at the visitor’s center are a wealth of information.
Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the rain forest. Be sure and come with quality rain gear and footwear.
GETAWAY #6 HURRICANE RIDGE
Our last getaway. We are awakened by brilliant sunshine streaming through the window. Mother Nature has smiled upon us.
We have been anxiously watching the weather. We need sunshine to burn off the shroud of clouds covering the snow-covered Olympic mountain peaks since our arrival.
We head for Port Angeles and Hurricane Ridge. Our excitement escalates by the time we reach Sequim, the half way point. Skies are clear.
Rolling hills slowly give way to mountains, mountains become glistening, snow-covered peaks of 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 feet, like giant stairs leading to the top of Mount Olympus at 8,000 feet. Mother Nature’s staircase.
At the National Parks Visitor’s Center in Port Angeles we view a “must see” informative film on the Olympic National Park.
We leave Port Angeles at sea level and follow the serpentine highway that climbs to over 5,000 feet in 17 miles.
These Olympic mountains are among the most rugged in North America. It is unbelievable how such beautiful, stately conifers can grow on such steep terrain.
We reach the visitor’s center and it is a whole different world. Countless snow-covered peak and glaciers as far as the eye can see.
We enjoy another “must see” video of the Park. While we are people watching, a park volunteer comes over to share a photo album of the visitor center during peak snow seasons. It was almost unbelievable. Park rangers were skiing off the roof, and this is a tall building.
As the sun begins to slip behind the snow-covered peaks, it signals the end of our sixth and final day in one of the most special places we have been.
Only regrets, wish we could stay.
The Olympic peninsula could be your magnet.
How about a trail reaching from La Push, on the ocean, to Port Townsend, 130 miles away. Over 60 miles is blacktop, wheelchair accessible.
More than 250 miles of trails could fill your calendar for the rest of your life.
Want to hike in the most unique rain forest on the North American Continent? One brochure lists trails to 24 waterfalls. Maybe then you will want to dry out, move to the other side of the Olympics and hike in the dry rain shadow. Explore the world’s largest remaining old growth forest, over 633,000 acres.
A wealth of information is readily available. All you have to do is slip into your Buck Naked unders from Duluth Trading, buckle up your Danners and hit the trail.
GET AWAY TO REMEMBER
We filled six days exploring the spectacular scenery of this northwestern tip of our Continental United States.
We had to choose the ones that appealed most to us. There were countless more we missed. For example; 73 miles of pristine beach. We were never on a boat in this boater’s paradise.
The Olympic National Park has been recognized internationally as a World Heritage Site. Few places on earth have such a variety of terrain and habitat in such close proximity. It is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.
Outdoor opportunities are truly unlimited for campers, bicyclists, hikers, boaters and “gawkers.” We are self-proclaimed gawkers. We love following maps and guide books, stopping to gawk.
Numbers and statistics are off the charts; 663,000 acres to explore, over 250 miles of trails, 60 glaciers, the world’s largest remaining old growth forest with trees 500 years old.
All this, just two and a half hours west of Seattle.
Olympic National Park and Peninsula are truly user-friendly. We found visitor centers knowledgeable and eager to help you enjoy one of the most spectacular outdoor experiences in the world.