The Olympic Peninsula is a scenic peninsula just east of Seattle Washington. It is filled with steep, glacier-clad mountains, a conifer rain forest, rushing streams, and waterfalls. Most of its area is wilderness and devoted to Olympic National Park. In its million acres, the park contains three primary, ecologically interlinked ecosystems: mountains, rainforest, and lakes
Olympic National Park Mountains
The Olympic Mountains are topped by Mount Olympus, a rugged 7,980-foot mountain. It and its neighboring cliffs contain steep cliffs, waterfalls, many types of trees (spruce, fir, cedar, and hemlock), and amazingly for this relatively low elevation and latitude, glaciers which are continually fed by the park’s average of 140 feet of snow per year.
The ocean created the Olympic Range. Underwater hot spots spewed lava which hardened quickly underwater. Then eons of ocean residue fell atop the basalt, hardened over the basalt, and then subducted beneath the continental plate to form the mountains. Glacial ice of up to 3,800 feet scoured the land and brought granite erratics to the area. While most of the glaciers have long since melted, a few do remain at high altitudes. However, they are fading rapidly, losing about 30 percent of their ice since the 1970s with several smaller one disappearing entirely.
Hurricane Ridge Road leads up into the mountains providing spectacular views in all directions. After a stop at the visitor center we took two of the several mountain hiking trails:
- Hurricane Hill is a paved 1.6 mile one-way round trip trail with a 700-foot elevation gain. It begins with spectacular views that only get better along the wildflower-lined trail. Tall, snow-capped mountains to one side and dramatic U-shaped glacial valleys to the other. Some of the valleys are densely populated with hemlocks and spruces and others after lightning-ignited fires and avalanches are grassy meadows. Both are dramatic and lovely. Then, at the summit, one has views over Port Angeles and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca to Canada’s Vancouver Island and on clear days, to the Cascade Range.
- High Ridge is a short, steep, 220-foot elevation gain loop that takes you to a 360-degree view. Note, that while both sides of the loop are steep, the one on the left (going clockwise) is irregular (pretty going up) and the one on the right, while equally steep, is much more graded and therefore safer going down.
Olympic National Park Rainforest
The rainforest was our primary motivation (although certainly not sole) motivation for visiting the park. The lush, moss-draped temperate rainforest consists of spruce, cedar, maple, and alder as well as many types of ferns and lichens. An average of 200 inches of rain per year falls in the area. The snowmelt from mountain streams and rivers and fog condensation that drips from the canopy adds the equivalent of another 30 inches of water. This results in a totally different landscape and ecosystem than the alpine and sub-alpine ecosystem atop and surrounding Hurricane Ridge. Other than the portion of the forest that was denuded by clear-cut logging before it was designated a National Park, the ancient, primeval forest is characterized by huge spruce, hemlock, and cedar trees that are often 200 to 1,000 years old. The forest has multi-layered canopies and lots and lots of moss—moss that encircles tree trunks, falls from branches, and covers rocks and much of the soil. Beneath and surrounding the nearly ubiquitous moss are lichen, fungi, and ferns. Wildlife ranges from black bear to elk, cougar, gray wolf, and river otters, not to speak of bald eagles, numerous other birds, and innumerable insects.
These incredible forests can be best explored in two primary sections of the park.
The Hoh Rainforest has a visitor center and interpretive trail dedicated to this unique ecosystem. Right outside the park boundaries, you drive through a second-and third-growth forest that has gone through a series of clear-cutting and replanting. Note: The rainforest is so popular that the park only allows so many cars in at a time. We had to wait over an hour in our car to enter the park entrance. From the signs on the road, we were lucky as people often have to wait longer during busy times.
As you enter the park itself, you enter a primeval forest that is populated by a range of huge, first-growth trees, especially big leaf and vine Maples whose trunks are covered and limbs draped with mosses and other epiphytes. The forest floor is littered with fallen giants that serve as nurse logs for new cycles of life. The milky, turquoise-colored Hoh River, which originates 7,000 feet above the glaciers of Mt Olympus, which flows through the park, is continually blocked by logjams from decaying fallen trees.
Hall of Mosses Trail
The forest has several trails. The Hall of Mosses trail is a short, flat, roughly one-mile interpretive trail goes through one of the most dramatic sections of the forest. Trees of 200-300 feet are draped in moss. Their shallow and widespread root structures grow inside and around the tree and can reach four or five feet above the ground. A combination of Western cedar, Sitka spruce, Douglass fir, and Western Hemlock form the forest’s upper canopy while species including alder and cottonwood, often near the riverbank, form the lower canopy.
The ground is so covered with ferns, mosses, and lichens that new seeds often rise above ground level to get their fair share of light (with a side benefit of additional nutrients) by taking root on fallen, rotting “nurse logs” on which several seedlings of different species take root. Some of these nurse log seedlings grow in straight lines called “colonades”. Others are so close to each other that they appear as a single trunk which often separate as they grow taller.
The real magic of the rainforest, however, is often below the surface. Rotting plant material and nitrogen-rich bodies of salmon who die after spawning leech into the soil. Insects picked up the nutrients and feed them back into the soil when they die or are left in bird or rodent poop. Tree roots and fungi whose complex mycelial root structures connect with and indirectly feed nutrients into the tree roots also feed the soil. Although the entire trail is covered in moss, the most beautiful section is a short spur to a Maple Grove whose big leaf maple trees are almost totally covered in thick layers of moss.
Spruce Nature Trail
The 1.2-mile Spruce Nature Trail is a 1.2 mile mostly flat train that traverses a moss-draped primeval rainforest covered in moss and ferns. It also has a lowland area that had recently been covered by the Hoh River and is now a grassland that will soon sprout species such as alder and cottonwood and eventually mature into a mature coniferous rainforest. Another beautiful, and very easy trail to take.
The Quinault Rain Forest
The Quinault Rain Forest is in the southwest area of the park. It rivals the Hoh’s rainforest and indeed, beats it handily as being the home for of giant trees. In fact, the Quinault’s Valley of the Rainforest Giants, which circles Quinault and the nearby section of the Quinault River is home to the largest trees in the world of four conifer species and the largest in the country for two others.
- The largest (and one of the oldest at over 1,000 years) Sitka Spruce in the world at 191 feet tall and more than 55.5 feet in circumference. We took the half-mile round trip to the tree, whose height is marked by dozens of stumps that mark the locations of lower branches that fell off whenever higher branches deprived them of light.
- The largest Douglass Fir in the United States at 302 feet tall and 40.9 inches in circumference;
- The largest Western Red Cedar was the largest tree in the world outside of California redwoods and sequoia. It stood for hundreds of years at 174 feet tall and 63.5 feet in circumference, despite having a hollow trunk, the diminished support finally took its toll in a storm in 2016. The trail to the Western Red Cedar was closed after the tree fell.
- The largest Mountain Hemlock in the world at 152 feet tall and 20 feet in circumference is also the largest by total volume;
- The largest Western Hemlock in the United States at 172 feet tall and 27.9 feet in diameter;
- The largest Yellow Cedar in the United States at 129 feet tall and 37.5 feet in circumference.
We took a couple of very short hikes in the Quinault area.
Maple Glade Nature Trail
This trail is billed as a “mini-Hoh”. It is a short, 0.5-mile interpretive trail that takes you through all the highlights of a temperate rainforest in a short distance. And unlike the packed Hoh Forest, we didn’t have to wait in a one-hour queue to visit it. In fact, we were the only ones on the trail. And this one, which is next to a seasonally dry streambed and is set around a couple of pretty beaver-created ponds, this trail is more open (which provides more scenic views), has red alders near the pond, and more dramatically, several large, moss-draped big leaf maple trees among the larger Sitka spruce and western hemlock conifers.
The interpretive trail pointed out and explained many of the same features as the Hoh Forest trail, including:
- The variety of mosses and other epiphytes which get support from the tree in return for contributing some of the moisture they collect from the air;
- Fallen, slowly decaying nurse logs and the colonnades that eventually grow from them; and
- Stumps of fallen trees in which new generations have begun to grow and the elevated root structures of the younger trees when the old stump decays.
Olympic National Park Coast
The park has over 70 miles that alternate between steep rugged cliffs, tidal estuaries pristine sand beaches, pebble beaches, and secluded, driftwood-strewn beaches and coasts with sea caves, sea towers, and sea stacks. While we couldn’t explore every inch, we did explore some of the areas.
- Rialto Beach. We planned a 3-mile round trip hike to Hole-in-the-Wall with its sea caves and sea stacks and pinnacles. However, time constraints forced us to ”settle” for a roughly one-mile walk along the driftwood-filled Rialto Beach, The three-tier beach had sand at sea level, small pebbles above that, and larger rocks up to the high-tide mark which is littered with bleached white tangles of driftwood including large trunks and roots. The shoreline provides a lovely view of a line of sea stacks that stretch in a line from a short rock peninsula out into the sea. It is a lovely unspoiled scenic beach.
- Ruby Beach, with its garnet-covered sand, is another dramatic beach. This sand beach has tidal pools in the middle. It is framed with a number of eerily-shaped sea stacks and a near-offshore island.
- Kalaloch Beach certainly has its share of driftwood at the high tide line. But in the evening, the beach has attracted far more than its share of hundreds of birds that take over the long sandy beach.
- A number of long, less dramatic beaches that line the shore with such evocative names as Beach 1, Beach 2, Beach 3, and so forth.
The park also has a number of scenic lakes including:
- Lake Crescent, a lovely, 12-mile long, turquoise-colored body of clear water whose north shore is lined with an old rail track that has been converted into a walking trail.
- Lake Quinault, a 9-mile lake that can be circled with a 31-mile long drive with views of the Olympics, several waterfalls, and giant trees. It even has its own museum which highlights the history of settlement around the lake. The lake itself has a dramatic setting against a backdrop of the Olympic Mountain foothills. The valley around the lake and the Quinault River meanwhile, form the Valley of the Rainforest Giants which, as discussed above, contains the largest trees in the world of four conifer species and the largest in the country for two others.
Ssnowmelt of the Olympics, its glaciers, and its alpine lakes feed the many streams and rivers that help water the trees, provide spawning grounds for salmon, and ultimately flow into the Pacific. While the park has literally hundreds of waterfalls and cascades, we visited only a few, including:
- Madison Falls, which is virtually impossible to find without explicit directions for the ranger station. It is a pretty 50-foot waterfall that is accessible by a short, roughly quarter-mile trail.
- Maryvale Falls is located near the coast of the pretty Lake Crescent. It is a lovely roughly 2-mile round trip hike. The first half is flat and the second half is steep with steps. The walk is through a dramatic old-growth forest with giant, moss-draped trees, ferns, and several cedars with tangles of roots that extend well above the ground and occasionally, wrap around the lower few feet of the trunks. The falls themselves are beautiful—a 90-foot, two-stage cascade that is a narrow ribbon at the top but halfway down, begins flowing over rocks which spread the water in both directions, creating a lovely, curtain of water against a background of grey rock. The falls can be viewed from two viewing stations, with the lower one offering the most dramatic views.
- Merriman Falls is unmarked and is not especially rewarding when you do find it. It is a thin, ribbon-like flow falling into a fallen tree-littered glen.
- Ludlow Falls is a short (roughly 1 mile), scenic, interpretive loop through an old-growth cedar and hemlock forest to a small, pretty waterfall. Although it is outside the borders of the national park, it is still a worthwhile stop.)
Nor do these even include the native Quileute villages, mineral hot springs, salmon hatcheries, logging and beachcombing museums, logging sites, a lumber mill, fishing villages, or ancient petroglyphs that one can visit.
We were as enthralled with the park on this visit as we were on our first. Even more so since we had somewhat more time (although we would have loved to have had another full day) and had a chance to take more trails and explore a few remote sites. Our only major disappointment—we didn’t see a single of the parks’ iconic Roosevelt elk.
Olympic National Park Food and Hotel
Food choices are limited in the park. We stopped at a roadside shop that specializes in smoked salmon. We picked up two types of smoked salmon (smoked coho and our favorite, a barbequed smoked) and a box of crackers for a late lunch/afternoon car snack.
Our only sit-down meal was at the Roosevelt Room at Lake Quinault Lodge. We shared four dishes: an organic mixed green salad with lemon thyme vinaigrette, a quite nice wild king salmon fillet with Chinese black rice, and Meyer lemon vinaigrette, an overly salty parmesan polenta with roasted wild mushrooms, grilled asparagus, and roasted cherry tomatoes. Our dessert was a house-made Marian berry pie with vanilla bean ice cream. After sampling a Columbia River Chardonnay and Merlot, we selected another of only three reds that were available from a list of six red wines: a 2018 Erath Oregon pinot noir.
We also stayed at the Lake Quinault Lodge. We were a little nervous as the reviews of the property were not always glowing. However, we didn’t have many lodging choices in the area. While rustic, our lakeside renovated king room was fine. The bed was very comfortable and our room had a small balcony overlooking the lake. The bathroom looked like they installed a new bathtub liner but little else in the renovation. The sink was outside the bathroom. We had a small 1 cup hot pot for coffee and tea. And the beautiful lawn outside the lodge made one want to sit outside and enjoy the view. It was fine for a night.