Switzerland or Washington?
[Olympic National Park, July 17, 2018]
The Olympic peninsula is on the Western edge of Washington state, across Puget sound from Seattle. Its home to the northwestern most point in the United States, Cape Flattery. At about 3600 square miles, the peninsula remained largely unmapped until the late 19th century. The Olympic mountain range sits in the center. It blocks the passage of rain-producing systems and casts a dry “shadow” in the northeastern part, the so-called shadow effect. The difference in rainfall and elevation across the peninsula results in three different ecosystems on the peninsula – temperate rainforests in the west, subalpine forests and meadows in the mountains, and the beaches along the Pacific coast.
Olympic national park preserves a large area in the middle of the peninsula. It got its start as a national monument when Theodore Roosevelt created it in 1909. Franklin D. Roosevelt made it a national park in 1938. UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in 1981.
In order to explore the park as much as we could, we planned on staying three nights in Port Angeles, not far from the northern part of the park, and one night in Lake Quinault, on the western side. Most visitors come to Port Angeles in order to visit the park, but the town does not feel like a tourist area at all. It is a commercial harbor and a lumber-milling town first and foremost, so it feels a little rougher than Port Townsend or Sequim, which we passed on the way here. There is nothing really to do in town, and the accommodations are quite basic. You might have more choices in Port Townsend or Sequim but keep in mind they will add at least 30 minutes to the park entrances.
For our first full day, we decided to check out Hurricane Ridge, one of the park’s most scenic and most easily accessible mountain area. The 17-mile long Hurricane Ridge road will take you up to the mile-high visitor center (5,200 ft / 1585 m). The road is steep and windy. On the day of our visit, part of it was down to one lane for road repairs.
But once we got past that part, we enjoyed the increasingly gorgeous views, the blooming wildflowers and the wildlife. B put some classical music on and it was just perfect!
The views even just from the parking lot were pretty astounding. We took many many photos of this scenery.
Once we managed to pry ourselves away from this view, we headed for the visitor center.
Once there, we discovered the visitor center deck, which also had great views of the snow-capped peaks. A deer and its young were frolicking in the meadow, not minding the commotion nearby. The picture taking commenced as if these views were completely different from the ones in the parking lot (they weren’t). People were picnicking at the tables that were scattered close to the parking lot and on the observation deck.
We had our eyes set on the Hurricane Hill Trail. At 1.6 miles one-way with 700 ft of elevation gain, this trail takes you up to a ridge with views of the Olympics and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, the body of water that separates the peninsula from Vancouver island in Canada. Alas, that trail was closed for maintenance, so we headed for the next best thing – a half-mile loop with a spur trail to a viewpoint called Sunrise. On the way back to our car to change our shoes and grab some water, we took even more photos. I mean, can you blame us? The visitor center with the Olympics as the backdrop almost made us feel like we were in Switzerland.
As we started the short climb on this trail, we could see Hurricane Ridge road, a paved trail below us near the visitor center, and several longer trails in front of us.
At Sunrise point, we got great views of the strait. What a great pay off for such a short and easy hike!
On the way down, we took a spur to a paved loop that took us to the other side of the visitor center.
We reached another great viewpoint. The sign helped us orient ourselves and understand what we were looking at.
By the time we got back down, it was well past lunch time and we were getting hungry. We decided to drive to Lake Crescent, which was just a 20 miles west of Port Angeles. As we were leaving the parking lot, we saw a couple of bikers head down Obstruction Point road – an eight-mile gravel road with great views of the mountains. We inquired about it at the visitor center, and were advised that it would take a good part of the day, it was wide enough for only one car in most places, and flat tires were a common occurrence due to all the pot holes. It definitely looked amazing though. I tried to get the bikers in the photo, but I wasn’t quick enough. You can still see the top of the head of one of them if you look closely.
Lake Crescent was beautiful and tranquil, even this late in the day. It’s a glacier-carved lake surrounded by old-growth forest. We settled for lunch on the patio of Lake Crescent lodge with great views of the lake.
After lunch, we took a walk to the end of the pier. It was too late in the day to grab a kayak or paddle board (lasts rentals are at 4:45), but even still, it was definitely worth a visit.