Even more so than Glacier, which actually exceeds it in terms of acreage, Olympic feels extraordinarily massive upon arrival. The Park encompasses most of the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle in Washington State, including sections of the coastline (which serve as some of its most picturesque and biodiverse areas). I have always been fascinated by the prospect of temperate rainforests in the United States, and paired with snow-capped mountains and the sweeping, rocky beaches of the Pacific Northwest, my level of excitement to visit this Park was paramount. Of the 35 National Parks across the US and Canada I am visiting this Fall, Olympic was in the top three (the others being Jasper in Alberta and Hawaii Volcanoes in Hawaii) of which I was most looking forward to experiencing, and I thus planned six whole days there. Although six days ended up being an excellent decision (and the bare minimum number of days I would recommend), I am ashamed to admit that I managed my time very poorly…
Desiring to see as many different sections of the park as possible (of which there are roughly 10), I planned one day in each of six different areas: Sol Duc in the north, Mora along the coast, Ozette along the coast, Hoh in the west, Quinault in the southwest, and Staircase in the southeast. Arguably, any area of the park, which themselves are often larger than many other whole National Parks elsewhere in the country, requires at least three days to fully explore and appreciate. Only allowing for one day in each location is the equivalent of watching the first half hour of six different movies; you glean enough of the plot, setting, and characters to pique your interest, but it isn’t enough time to get into the meat of the film. Before getting into the day-by-day breakdown my Olympic adventures, I would ask the reader to, upon executing their decision to travel to the Park, make a firm decision on what it is they want to do there. Do you like long walks on rocky beaches, discovering starfish and hearing the distant sounds of seals as they congregate on nearby islands? Check out Rialto Beach in Mora. Care to replace your white noise machine with the sounds of waves lapping the shore as you drift asleep? Ozette offers beachfront backpacking against the azure backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. Is your heart set on swimming in crystal clear lakes near old growth forests and waterfalls (with access to a hot spring resort to boot)? Sol Duc is your happy place. Feel the need – the need for green? The Hoh Rainforest offers more hanging moss than your camera’s memory card can handle. Want to get off the grid and into the wild? The Quinault Rainforest provides spectacular rainforest trails leading directly to the base of glaciers with fewer crowds than elsewhere. How about a lazy lakeside afternoon, low-key loop hikes, and cedar trees 14-feet in diameter? Get yourself to the lesser-known Staircase region. Instead of one day apiece, I would implore you to choose two areas to commit three days apiece (provided you are, like me, committing six days total to the Park). Were I to do the trip over, I would have done three days backpacking on the coast and three days backpacking in the Quinault Rainforest. Not that there is anything wrong with the other sections of Olympic, as they are all spectacular in their own ways, but having lived in Dallas, TX for much of the past five years, both ocean and thick, green forest with the promise of glaciers was such a novelty to me that I relished in every moment spent in those environments.
Day 1: Sol Duc
The drive into the Olympic Peninsula from the west is admittedly beautiful, but doesn’t give you a very accurate representation of the striking diversity of the Park. In fact, most of the meandering state highways along the Peninsula are lined by tall trees on either side, creating a refreshingly green but otherwise underwhelming driving experience. However, along Highway 101, the serene and transparent Lake Crescent breaks up the monotony on your way west to Sol Duc. Arriving in the mid-afternoon, due mostly to road construction delays along the highway, I quickly set up camp at Fairholme Campground near the shores of the lake. More than any other campground in which I have stayed thus far, Fairholme made me feel guilty. Campsites are nestled amongst incredibly old growth forest, with twisting limbs and mosses straight out of a fantasy novel setting. I almost immediately regretted only planning a single night at this singular accommodation. Dozens of other campers, mostly with RVs or towing camping trailers, had already set up campsites much more complex than my small tent and folding chair, and the sounds of children playing, family meals being prepared, and general activity permeated the forest. I would also note that my arrival coincided with the last week of August, and many families were likely squeezing in one final vacation before the impending start of the school year.
While Fairholme offers immediate lakeside access to Lake Crescent, a 40-some minute drive to the Sol Duc region, just down the road on Highway 101, is required to reach the trailhead to Sol Duc Falls, my destination for the afternoon. Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, a high-end accommodation near its eponymous hot springs, also lies along the road to the trailhead, and it became evident upon reaching the trails that many hikers were staying at the resort based on their luxury vehicles, lack of proper gear and apparel for true trail hiking, and the fact that many appeared far too elderly to effectively tent-camp. Forgive my prejudices, but as my 35-year-old brother-in-law sometimes struggled to emerge upright from our tent after a night spent sleeping on a thin pad against hard ground, I tend to doubt that the octogenarians along the path to Sol Duc Falls were ‘roughing it’. Nor do I blame them, as I aspire to have accumulated the funds for such luxuries by the time I reach that age.
The path to Sol Duc Falls is only 1.7 miles, and remains fairly flat and easy to navigate. About a score of hikers and photographers were huddled around the viewing platform to catch views and shots of the famous waterfall. Most hikers turn around at this point, but another four miles down the trail likes Deer Lake, a popular destination for one-night backpackers in the region. Confident in my hiking prowess and unconcerned with the time of day (it was nearly 4:00 p.m. at this point), I made for Deer Lake without a moment’s hesitation. Two-and-a-half miles in, with the trail a bit rockier than I anticipated and the sun beginning to set, I was forced to turn around. Overall, it was an enjoyable, if somewhat simple hike that I would recommend to anyone interested in a low-intensity trek through beautiful old-growth woods.
Day 2: Mora
From Fairholme, the drive out to the coast at Mora/La Push takes a few hours. The beauty of beaches in the Pacific Northwest is that you are often completely unaware of how close you are to the ocean until you come within sight of it. The thick coniferous forest grows right to the edge of the rocky coastline, and the largest ocean on the planet can seriously sneak up on you if you aren’t careful. Deciding to spend two nights at Mora Campground, a cozy, quiet site with surprisingly luxurious bathrooms. There were a number of sites available when I arrived in late morning, but the campground had filled by early afternoon. Only about a five-minute drive to Rialto Beach, it is a perfect area for those not willing to backpack on the beach itself and prefer a hotel-quality flush toilet to digging a cat-hole.
Rialto Beach, while known for its quintessentially PNW rocky shores, the famous ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’, and abundance of wildlife, was not as crowded as I would have expected upon my arrival. Sure, the parking lot was nearly full, but the turnover rate seemed high, as I noticed multiple cars coming and going in the 20 minutes or so that I prepared for my beach excursion (this involved sun screen application, filling my hydration pack, making a sandwich, and going back and forth on whether to wear open or closed-toed shoes). The tide was high when I arrived, and the waves lapped at the dark sandy shore. Immediately removing my shoes after crossing the rockiest part of the beach, I walked along the surf up to my calves in ecstasy as the icy salt water splashed across my skin. It had been years since I had really been in the ocean, and I was not about to let the frigid temperatures of these waves ruin my experience.
Hiking a few miles up the beach away from the families (and past the popular ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ photo spot, pictured), I found a small rocky cove in which to eat my sandwich in peace and contemplate things like whether this crab would taste good were it given more time to grow or exposed to the same hormones we give to most livestock…
On my return hike, I walked closer to the treeline among the larger rocks, and saw a large piece of what appeared to be driftwood out of the corner of my eye. Upon closer inspection, it was, in fact, a seal. Unfortunately for the seal, it had recently… expired.
***WARNING – PROCEEDING PHOTO CONTAINS A DEAD ANIMAL***
Needless to say, I was shocked at finding this unexpected corpse and quickly vacated the area. I was far enough up the beach from any families that no young children would risk being traumatized by the necrotic seadog, and I left it in peace. There were, however, plenty of beautiful living creatures along the beach – here is a sampling to lighten your spirits after dampening them with the aforementioned seal anecdote…
Day 3: Ozette
The state highways here do not run north-south, but instead have long stretches of east-west, connected much further inland. Picture the number 3, with the top point being Cape Flattery, the middle point Ozette, and the bottom point Mora. Early that morning, I drove from Mora up to Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the contiguous 48 United States (Alaska can take a back seat for once…). While it proved to be a pretty crowded hike, the views at the end did not disappoint. Secluded sea caves inhabited by cormorants, the sounds of seals barking offshore, and a solitary lighthouse on an equally lonely island make this geographical marvel well worth the time invested in getting there.
I spent just over an hour on this hike, including the time it took to admire the views, but as far as geographic visitation spots go, it’s stunning. Unequivocally a hundred times more beautiful than the Four Corners, which I learned upon visiting last year are essentially a concrete tourist trap in the middle of an ugly desert…
Ozette is a bit more remote than Mora and Rialto Beach and fair distance further up the coast. From the parking lot there, a 3.1-mile hike (each way) is required to reach the shore. Fortunately for avid hikers like myself, this weeds out a great many visitors, so that only the few dedicated day hikers and overnight backpackers. As I noted earlier, these beaches are an unbelievable backpacking location, and allow you to wake up to both the deeply-hued greens of the towering trees on one side and the radiant blue cresting waves of the Pacific Ocean on the other.
In the distance, a cacophonous group of seals could be heard congregating on one of the many gorgeous islands that dot the coast, close enough to examine with the naked eye but far enough away to seem wholly inaccessible. A Park Ranger chatted gaily with some beachfront campers as some adolescent children played frisbee a few hundred yards down the beach. My heart sank as I realized how much more fulfilling an experience I could have had here if I’d just done more research on obtaining a backcountry permit and chosen to forego the comforts of my developed campground. Alas, there’s always next time…
Day 4: Hoh
Visiting the Hoh Rainforest in just one day is akin to a half-hour coffee date with the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen. Couple that with visiting on a Sunday in August, and it’s like she’s also speed dating with 20 other guys in the same room… You really need three days (of backcountry hiking and camping) to fully immerse yourself here, as the most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, envy-of-all-your-shutterbug-friends landscapes are far enough up the trail to require a wilderness camping permit. This is not to say that incredible sights do not await you near the trailhead, as the Hall of Mosses trail and first few miles of the Hoh River Trail have much to offer.
Not wanting to push more than about 13 miles that day, I hiked the two 1.5-mile loops near the trailhead, frequented by the elderly and those just passing through the Hoh region, then set out on a 10-mile roundtrip out-and-back on the Hoh River Trail. The trail extends all the way to Mount Olympus, supposedly one of the true gems of the Park, but I in my hubris did not plan accordingly, thinking I could absorb this entire rainforest in one day…
I probably encountered more hikers in the Hoh Rainforest than anywhere else in Olympic National Park, and quite possibly anywhere else on my entire trip thus far. With widespread notoriety comes widespread visitation (just ask Half Dome in Yosemite or Old Faithful in Yellowstone), and the Hoh River Trail was no exception. This increased level of human activity also seemed to have scared off most wildlife, as I encountered very few creatures over 13 total miles of hiking. Just another reason why I will need to return to the Park, hopefully during a slightly less touristy time of year.
Day 5: Quinault
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – one day in the Quinault Rainforest is not enough… Much like Hoh, the trailhead does not get you quite close enough to the real wonders of this area of the park for a simple day hike. I’d read a great deal about the Enchanted Valley, supposedly a 13.5 mile hike that was more breathtaking than anything out of the most picturesque fantasy novel. Apparently, however, those 13.5 miles were one way… Not wanting to kill myself on a borderline impossible 27-mile day hike, I could only do seven out and seven back for a paltry sum of 14.
On my drive up to the trailhead (which consists of a windy, gravel road on which I frequently apologized to my car’s tires), two college-aged girls rushed into the road, waving me down. Slamming on my brakes and rolling down the window, they hurriedly informed me that they had suffered two flat tires, only possessed a single spare, and had been stranded on this stretch of road since 7:00 p.m. the previous evening. It was 9:30 a.m. After offering them a ride back to town, which they refused due to a desire to stay with their car, I turned around and drove the 25 minutes back to the Ranger Station alone to ask for a tow for the stranded young ladies. The Ranger, a bit condescendingly, chuckled and said it could be a couple hours before a tow truck could reach them. I thanked him for calling on their behalf and returned to the wayward travelers. Again, they insisted they would be fine staying with their car and waiting for the tow, and that they had enough food and water. I wished them luck and proceeded to my hike.
I don’t know if it was because it was a Monday, or that Quinault does not have quite the same reputation as Hoh, but I only encountered roughly 10 hikers on my whole journey here. The juxtaposition between this and the previous day’s hike was striking, and the feeling of serenity that washed over me while alone in this rainforest was ethereal. Mother Nature also seemed to be smiling on me that day, as a number of strange and interesting forest critters appeared right along the path in full view of my camera lens:
I was so enthralled by the landscape and excited to delve deeper into the forest that I ceased to pay attention to my pace or how much water I was consuming. It only dawned on me halfway back from my turn-around point at the seven-mile mark that I’d been hiking at almost 3.5 MPH (a very speedy clip, even with just a day pack), and had exhausted my hydration bladder. The dry air I sucked through my pack’s tube seemed to immediately slow my pace, and the last couple of miles seemed like an eternity. Just as I was beginning to drag my feet and groan to myself about how lunkheaded I was for only filling my bladder to two liters instead of the maximum of three, a kindly retired gentleman crossed my path on his way to Enchanted Valley. We exchanged a brief conversation about how both of us were on wilderness journeys after leaving our jobs (he left his after a full career or working, however), and the reminder that, despite my innate desire for solitude, I was not alone in either that hike or my larger journey, put an extra pep in my step to get me back to my car and a cooler full of cold Gatorade.
Driving back into town, I wondered what had become of my unfortunate friends from earlier that day. It had been about five and a half hours since I’d left them, and to my great surprise, their car was parked in the same spot! A note on the windshield left for the tow-truck driver stated that they’d gotten a ride back to town, but contained no information as to where they’d be or when. Upon my return to the town of Quinault, I found the Ranger Station closed for the day and no sign of the girls. Realizing I had no recourse to find them, I resigned my search and drove on to Staircase, wondering how things had turned out for them and how their day could have gone differently if they had accepted a ride from me six hours prior. I can only hope that they ended up safe and sound…
Day 6: Staircase
Arriving at Staircase Campground in the southeast corner of the park, just as the sun was setting, I hastily set up my tent, brushed my teeth, and laid down for the night in a somewhat boring campsite. What I failed to realize when I bedded down was my proximity to no less than three families with young children. These children proceeded to begin playing ‘lumberjack’ at 6:30 a.m. by attempting to break large sticks with smaller sticks. You can imagine just how thrilling this game was to yours truly, who had just hiked 27 miles in two days and is, in general, very much not a morning person…
Being my last stop in the Park, it was bittersweet to hit the trail that morning, however six days of constant driving and hiking was beginning to take a physical and mental toll, and the idea of a shower and access to food other than Clif Bars and plain turkey sandwiches started to creep in, making me crave civilization again. Lake Cushman, most of which the Staircase region surrounds, is a very popular swimming destination, and there were even a few boats out on the water. I was interested to see that many of the groups of teenagers heading into or out of the water appeared to be Native American, as growing up in Pennsylvania and spending a number of years in Dallas, TX did very little to expose me to their culture. Making a mental note that I should do more research on the histories of the local tribes before my next visit to Olympic, I drove up to the North Fork Skokomish River Trailhead and set out to explore parts of a popular loop trail, as well as a lesser-known offshoot, taking me almost straight up a mountain. This trail became steep to the point where I was pulling myself vertically on exposed tree roots, and I decided it may be best to turn around.
A large number of retired couples seemed to be hiking on the main loop, and I believe that I am likely lurking in the background of a number of vacation photos as I tried to pass them on the trail. Only wishing to subject my feet to six or so miles after the two lengthy hikes in Hoh and Quinault, I returned to my trust Subaru and returned to society mildly disappointed with myself for having not planned a single backpacking excursion in a Park so well suited for it. Perhaps one of my readers will indulge me in an accompanying return journey where we can strike out into the backcountry and dive headlong into the Olympic Wilderness…