“He prayed for clear skies and discovery, for danger and heartache and laughter, for a life beyond fear, a life that got bigger, really got bigger, as it receded.”
-Jonathan Evison, West of Here
While in Olympic National Park, we traveled to the soundtrack of:
The One That Got Away by The Civil Wars
Towers by Bon Iver
Fire-Scene by S. Carey
You’d be missing out if you didn’t check out the links above and listen to these songs while you read along.
Looking west across Elliot Bay and the Puget Sound from Seattle’s shores, the Olympic Mountains gash the evening sky, sharks teeth inverted into a bloody red-orange sunset, faint gray glaciers and late-season snow fields melting into purple silhouettes. The view has become familiar, though no less fantastic, whether shrouded in the dense, low cloud cover of winter and spring, shaking off barrels of summer morning fog, or etched in sharp, craggy lines across crystal July and August skies, ever emerging above Bainbridge and the misty chop of the southern Salish Sea. Even when the gray blanket of winter smothers the peninsula out of sight, sometimes for days at a time, they remain present, dutifully guarding the city from the vicious Pacific, and we eagerly anticipate their return to the skyline.
The Olympic Peninsula, or OP, is the end of the earth, in a very real sense. The beaches of Shi Shi mark the furthest northwest corner of the United States, stretching a limber finger into the ocean, unshielded from the pipeline of winter storms that roar northward along the Pineapple Express while, further down the coast, the Hoh and Quinault Rainforests languish under up to 200 inches of rain, annually. Verdant mosses, muddy trails and dripping leaves dominate the southwest of the park while, at higher elevations, massive glacier systems, like the one atop Mt. Olympus, benefit from incredibly heavy snowfall. Shielded by the “Rain Shadow,” a phenomenon wherein the majority of the moisture brought onshore by Pacific storms falls as rain or snow in the mountains leaving dry spots to the east and north, Port Angeles perches along the Straight of Juan de Fuca, a wide channel separating the Salish from the open Pacific. To the north of the straight, the outlines of Victoria and Vancouver Island can be seen on clearer days, marking some of the last significant human settlements before the British Columbian wilds begin their interminable march north towards the Arctic.
Kelly and I set out for the peninsula late last August for a 3 day trip to the north side of the park, trailing Vibby southward along I-5 through Tacoma, then west across the Narrows Bridge, north through Gig Harbor and Bremerton, and onward onto US-101, which loops around the park. Occupying about the same land area as Massachusetts, the peninsula is sprawling and the 101 offers little room for speed. Freeway is scarce and the roadways tend to bend and roll ungraded, contouring the landscape. A few miles south of Port Angeles, we found a secluded site in the half-empty Heart O’ the Hills Campground and started a fire while the day’s fog and clouds finally burned off into a brilliant blue through the canopy above us. Thick mats of moss and giant Big-Leaf Maples drained in the warming afternoon and we decided to head the remaining twelve winding miles up to Hurricane Ridge, a popular drive-up vista at 5,200 feet. We shared our sunset view with no one else, snapping dozens of photos of Mt. Olympus and the rest of the range westward toward the Pacific, until we shivered from the chill mountain breeze.
We woke the next morning to spotless skies and a warm, summery breeze wending its way through the pine forests around our camp. After a breakfast of essential bacon and eggs, we set out along the Elwha River, past a lakebed that looked like a French field in World War I, barren and shell-shocked, the result of the first stages of an extensive dam removal project. They’d finally drained the lake shortly before we arrived, taking down the 100 foot dam that has long thwarted the millions-strong annual salmon runs that used to grace the northern part of the park. The Elwha now meanders through the muddy, barren lake basin before careening down the precipitous mountainsides to the straight below.
We set off through thick, tall pines along a trail halfway up a mountainside above the river on a dusty track, golden sunlight filtering through the branches, dappling our faces and clothes. A loop trail, we decided to hike counter-clockwise, descending to the Elwha during the heat of the day and returning in the cooler evening along the elevated upland route. The trail emerged from the denser woods along a scoured bank just above a narrow canyon where emerald waters frothed as they smashed against razor-sharp granite. Early pioneer expeditions into the Olympics underestimated the torrid pace of the river through this area and generally found the Elwha River route impassible.
Above the falls, however, we found a more gentle, though no less frigid, river and a huge stretch of sandy bank from which to choose our picnic spot. A few sandwiches and chilly dips later, we were ready to continue the route back up the mountainside through a few old homesteads, an apple orchard and fields of golden grasses dotted with backcountry camping sites. Whether because of the day’s impeccable weather or just the general look of the landscape, this hike was very reminiscent of our foray into Los Padres National Forest, just over the coastal Santa Lucia mountain range from Big Sur.
On our final day in the Olympics, we opted for a more strenuous route that would take us into the heart of the range, reveal vistas of Mount Olympus’ juggernaut glaciers, lead us along paths where we were guaranteed (by a park ranger) to see black bears gorging themselves on huckleberries, and terminate above the expansive Seven Lakes Basin. We pounded our way up a set of steep switchbacks through dense forest until we reached Deer Lake, a bustling hive of backpacking activity. Numerous sites ring the alpine lake and the trail was congested as we passed through. We also failed to spy a single Black Bear in the meadows of ripe berries interspersed between stubby pines (fortunately, this left us more berries with which to fatten ourselves). Above the lake, the trail emerged from the forest into a series of beautifully exposed meadows accented by craggy peaks. To the north and west, the azure Pacific stretched out below a layer of hazy mist, while to the south and east, the glacier-topped Olympics expanded into the distance.
The heat of the day and swarms of black flies attempted to thwart our sortie deeper into the park, but the life-list views and endless fields of mountain wildflowers gave us ample motivation to press on. At the bottom of a massive bowl, we noticed what appeared at first to be an oddly stacked pile of logs. Suddenly, one of the logs, then another, moved. We realized it was a herd of about 100 Roosevelt Elk seeking shelter from biting insects in a massive group. From 3,000 feet up, however, it seemed more like their leader had taken a wrong turn, leading the herd tumbling down the mountainside into a heap at the bottom of the valley. Around the next bend in the trail, we caught our first up-close views of Olympus. Though not huge by Washington standards, Olympus is massive and stands out from the rest of the range. Its extensive glaciers make it an unmistakeable peak and it dominated the horizon. Taking a spur to the east from the trail, we crossed a short saddle and found ourselves along the edge of the Seven Lakes Basin, a huge alpine valley containing (you guessed it!) seven beautiful lakes. Cerulean skies lingered above the peaks around the basin while we paused in the shade, reluctant to turn back.
One of my favorite things about getting outdoors in Washington is that the wild doesn’t seem to leave you, even when you’re heading home. I remember numerous trips home from New Hampshire, the Berkshires or Maine where I dreaded every moment of perpetually increasing flatness, the inevitable crescendo of traffic, the ever expanding sea of concrete. In Washington, the wild comes to your doorstep. Mt. Rainier, the Cascades and Olympics, the Sound, all linger in view, reminding us that they’re always there, beckoning us from our urban somnambulism. And on cue, as we descended the road from our campground on our trek back to Seattle, Mt. Baker stood at full staff in the setting sun, hovering over the San Juans, Vancouver Island was clear as day to our north, and Rainier greeted us to the southeast, the omnipresent sentinel of the northwest, glowing like roses and lilacs in the twilight.
Here are a few more photos from our trip into Olympic National Park: