For almost two weeks we had been encircling them . . . traveling around their periphery, but never quite close enough. We would have occasional glimpses, a quick sighting through tree branches. Just enough of a glance to know that they were out there, but we hadn’t yet approached them. Until now. The day had arrived. We had danced around them long enough. It was time to head inland and also upland. There was one more fragment to Olympic National Park that we had not experienced. Today we were headed into the Olympic Mountain Range—the core of this national park. Some would say it was the crown. Rising majestically into the clouds, their rugged peaks towering above rainforests, beaches and lakes, the Olympics are easily seen from afar—Vancouver Island, the San Juans and Whidbey Island, as well as mainland Washington, all have views of them. Beginning at sea level, we took the one paved road leading into the interior. We would be camping along the mountains’ flanks.
The road ends at a mile-high elevation; the Heart O’the Hills Campground was based at half that altitude. Hidden away in yet another old-growth forest, sites were positioned between the Doug-firs hemlocks and cedars. No reservations taken, the various loop roads twisted sharply around ancient trees, with few places spacious enough for us to fit in. An early morning arrival probably helped to obtain one of the few pull-through sites. We made it in with the help of Chris’ careful maneuverings. Base Camp was established!
We made a preliminary drive up to the Visitor Center later that day. Needing to get our bearings, learn more about “Life on the Edge,” and catch the good evening light as it highlighted peaks to the east, we had our first look at Hurricane Ridge. Our initial exploratory trip paid off..
Named for the intense gales and winds that can sweep over this high vantage point, conditions can change on Hurricane Ridge at the drop of a hat. Maybe we were lucky, but all we experienced was sunny weather, cloudless skies, and very comfortable temperatures. Perhaps it was a rare day, but it sure felt like paradise to us. Not wandering too far astray, we enjoyed soaking up the scenery and getting insights on when and where to take the best hikes. We would be back early tomorrow to hit those trails.
So dense and rugged is the Olympic interior that it was only successfully traversed and recorded in the latter part of the 1800s. One early record has a 5-member party choosing to cross in winter, hauling a boat with all their provisions up the Elwha River, whose headwaters begin within those high peaks. By stages, they were forced to relinquish the boat and most of their equipment. After 5 months, during which they lost their remaining gear and nearly starved, they emerged at the mouth of the Quinault River at the Pacific Ocean.
Although Mount Olympus, the highest peak in the range, tops out at 7,980 feet, which doesn’t sound all that high by mountain standards, consider that it begins at sea level. It has one of the steepest reliefs in the world. Unlike the Cascades, the Olympic Mountains are not volcanic in origin and contain no granite. But what they do have in abundance is precipitation, receiving over 200 inches each year, most of that (80%) as snow. It has the third largest glacial system in the contiguous U.S.
If you know us well enough, you probably realize that our hearts truly belong to the mountains. Before expanding our travels to more distant destinations, we spent many years in the Colorado Rockies; occasionally branching out to peaks in Wyoming and the Tetons. Here in Washington we had already had a couple of brief mountain moments, as well as enjoying the forests and beaches. Those were the preliminaries, the stops along the way. It was all leading up to these mountains and no one has said it better than the illustrious John Muir . . .
“Going to the mountains is going home.”
The views are truly magnificent up on Hurricane Ridge. The actual fact is you really don’t need to go much farther than the parking area to take in some of the famous postcard images. But we needed to get the more intimate perspective, experience those trail side moments and look out over a higher elevation. We hit the early morning trail out to Hurricane Hill.
And the wildflowers paved the way.
It was slow-going for Melinda, who rarely passes by a flower she can’t resist.
When the Olympic Peninsula was formed, thrusting out from the ocean floor, it was isolated from the main body of land through periods of glaciation. As it developed and evolved, many species of plants and animals originated here that are not found anyplace else in the world. We had a few intimate encounters with the Olympic wildlife and soon came to see that they apparently had little, if any, fear of humans.
Seemingly oblivious to us, all the critters just went about their business and took our presence as natural. One little marmot, determined to use the same path, simply charged right by us as we were striding down a trail. It truly seemed to be The Peaceful Kingdom.
It’s always nice to strike up a conversation with a fellow hiker along the trail. This guy was an avid hiker and knew the mountains well. Now in his late 70s, he’d summited Mt. Rainier several times. Many times he’d hike up to Hurricane Ridge from the Visitor Center, 17 miles away and over 5,000 feet lower. With a background like that, he kept us enthralled most of the way to the trail’s end. Oh, and he knew all the wildflowers by name.
Our kind of guy!
Our hike progressed and the trail turned steeper. Being a popular one, the path was well-trodden and hard packed. With views that opened up and flowers to enhance it, the morning was well spent.
Once the “Hill” had been attained, we had views in all directions. The Olympic Range spread out on one side, on the other were the distance hills of Vancouver Island. The Strait itself was blanketed with a thick layer of morning fog. Nevertheless, the air was clear and views went on for miles and miles.
As beautiful and enjoyable as this day was for us, we should also be mindful that this landscape has another side—it is the antithesis of what we see today. For most of the year it wouldn’t be a friendly place to visit. The name itself should give a good clue—Hurricane Ridge is shaped by wind and snow. Within the Visitor Center we watched a film entitled “Life On The Edge,” illustrating what it requires for trees, plants and animals to survive here year around. The illustration made its point and stuck with us. We’re leaving this place with gratitude . . . for the opportunity to see it at its best and for having a few short hours to be immersed in it. And having the pictures that will bring it to mind.
From the high peaks of the
Melinda and Chris