After our 2-night stay at Seaquest State Park we were ready to move on. Less than a 4-hour drive away, we entered the Olympic National Park, located on (appropriately) the Olympic Peninsula. Shaped like the thumb on a baseball mitt in the northwest corner of Washington, the OP has a sprinkling of small towns around its edges, several Indian reservations, the Olympic National Forest to the west, the national park at its heart with a half dozen wilderness areas surrounding it. It is one of the wildest, least penetrated areas for its size to be found south of the 49th Parallel.
The very scenic Highway 101, part of the Pacific Coast Highway, encircles the peninsula. The road takes in miles of misty coastline fringed with conifers and wildflowers, passes spur roads that lead inland, and gives occasional glimpses of the mountains, their foothills cloaked with dark green, seemingly impenetrable forests.
Like crossing a threshold into a totally different room, we passed from a bright, sunlit day into gray foggy mist, suddenly softening the scenery. Okay, this seemed appropriate for what we expected the environment of a rain forest to be.
The Olympic National Park is made up of four very distinct regions: the Pacific coastline, the temperate rain forests, the centrally located alpine region, and the drier forests of the east side overlooking the Hood Canal. Due to ongoing lumbering operations, by the turn of the last century there was concern over the region’s disappearing forests. In response, President Cleveland designated most of the Olympic Peninsula’s forested land as the Olympic Forest Reserve in 1897. Though the preserve helped to better manage the forests, the elk were not protected. By 1900 their population had plummeted to less the 2,000 animals, mostly from hunting for hides and the valuable incisor teeth which were used to decorate watch fobs. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt designated part of the reserve as Mount Olympus National Monument to protect the elk. But setting aside so much productive forest was controversial, and consequently monument acreage was cut in half within a decade, leaving much of the lowland forest available for harvest. To help preserve the awesome forests, a national conservation organization campaigned to establish a national park. After a visit to the area, President Franklin Roosevelt added his support, and signed the 1938 Act establishing Olympic National Park. An extensive strip of wild coast was added in 1953.. In 1988, Congress designated 95 percent of the park as the Olympic Wilderness. In 1976 the park became an International Biosphere Reserve and in 1981 it was designated a World Heritage Site.
Our route took us over to the western coastline. Splitting the distance between the park’s two rain forest areas, Kalaloch FS Campground had a convenient location. Located on bluffs overlooking the ocean was a big added benefit. With thick forest pushing right up to the cliff edges, we had a nice isolated, albeit totally shaded site. Think deep, dark, primeval forest.
Three days to spend . . . two rain forests to check out. We got down to business first thing next morning.
Cutting off from Highway 101, park roads head east toward the interior mountains. The park protects the Quinault and Hoh Valleys, which are dominated by Sitka spruce, Western hemlock, Coastal Douglas fir and Western red cedar. As a prelude to sights yet to see, the lead-in road had its own scenic appeal.
I thought I was prepared for this destination. I had certainly researched it enough. I had read about its bio-diversity, its unique climate, the trails and the best time to capture its special qualities. The Rain Forest of Olympic National Park is a world apart; there is no better way to explain it. I was well blown away.
Even low-key, not-one-to-get-carried-away Chris, exclaimed, “This is like something out of Jurassic Park!” on his first look.
And so, our first day had us driving into the rain forest along the Hoh River. The area gets something like 12 feet of rain a year and everything grows bigger. The four types of trees (previously mentioned) can live for hundreds of years and reach immense heights. We were reminded of the coastal redwoods of northern California.
There were many record-setting, world’s largest tree species to be seen here. With conditions so favorable to their existence and health, these spruce, firs, cedars and hemlocks just grow and grow and grow.
After awhile, we became so accustomed to seeing these humongous guys, we found ourselves simply walking past “just another big tree.”
The term “rain forest” might conjure an image of thick, steamy jungles alive with plants, exotic birds and animals, and creepy, crawly insects. A temperate rain forest is similar to its tropical counterpart, only cooler. One criteria for the determination of a temperate rain forest is that the amount of moss and other epiphytes exceeds the weight of all the foliage (leaves and needles) per acre by at least two times. The world only has three temperate rain forests; along with the Hoh, the other two are found in Chile and New Zealand.
Mosses coat the bark of these trees and even drip down from their branches in green, moist tendrils.
Ferns flourish here . . anyplace else this would be a record-setter. But here, it’s just one of many.
Amazingly, amidst all the undergrowth and vegetation, wildflowers and berries can be found. We didn’t need to search them out—these plants were right there along the paths.
In her book Deep South, author Nevada Barr explains what nature is like along the Natchez Trace. One descriptive passage states that if a person were to stay in one place too long, the forest vegetation would be winding up their legs. Those words came to mind when encountering sights like these.
The Hoh Rain Forest is the remnant of a rain forest which once spanned the Pacific coast from southeastern Alaska to the central coast of California. The Hoh is one of the finest remaining examples of temperate rain forest in the world and is one of the park’s most popular destinations.
Two trails are very doable on the same day.
The Hall of Mosses and Big Spruce Nature Trail have names that speak for themselves. Taking in different aspects of the rain forest, we found them both excellent hikes to take.
The Big Spruce is the record-setting, biggest-in-the-world Sitka Spruce (so says the plaque). An easy trail leads the way through the forest.
(Can you say gargantuan?)
The next day brought a chance for yet another rain forest experience. Going south on 101 this time, the drive in was appropriately green and mist-enshrouded.
Today the focus of our attention was the Quinault Rain Forest. Same vegetation, but this one had a lake within its boundaries. A very big one, for that matter. It was a more civilized location, having a great old lodge built along the shore.
Different trails . . . same vegetation. How many shades of green can there possibly be???
The experience we had for these two days never did become mundane. The days were pleasant—what? No rain in the rain forest??? (July through the fall are its driest months) and the hiking felt great. No bugs, no knats, not even a bear or elk to be found. Just remarkable vegetation to marvel at.
We took in the lodge’s dining options later that day. Welcome back to civilization! A very nice menu accompanied by an equally pleasant view looking out over sapphire-blue waters of Lake Quinault.
Built in 1926, the Lodge has an ambiance of those days long ago. Recently restored, it has just the right amount of antiquity. Adorned with many an elk head in the main lobby.
Chris took good advantage of the outdoor seating. Who would have thought just a few steps away lies another world of ancient trees and vegetation-choked trails?
Late afternoon left one last trail still beckoning. This one had a treasure waiting at its end.
What is a rain forest without a waterfall or two? And, more pertinently, how could Melinda ever pass one by???
Loaded with gear, it wasn’t too hard to access . . . but finding the exact perspective was another issue. Chris was a big help navigating up and over the boulders. Now the results are in—the prize was attained! Merriman Falls was a winner.
We ended our rain forest experience just a little damper for the effort! We soon learned that nothing dries out very quickly here—if at all. But what an experience we had. The photos surely give evidence of that. And for those of you who might never make it out here—maybe the pictures will make it seem that you did!
For now, we head out, but not very far up the coast. The Rain Forest is behind us now . . .
but the wild Pacific Coastline lies up ahead!
Airstream Travelers, just a little soggy,
Chris and Melinda