The most Northwesterly section of the United States, the Olympic peninsula is a totally different kind of world. The temperate rainforests around the central mountains are the wettest area in the continental states. The Pacific Coast is lined with sea stacks and the breeding grounds for thousand of seals each year. The eight thousand foot summit of Mt. Olympus and it’s surrounding range range rise literally up into the clouds, which normally hang at about the same elevation, obscuring the peaks and forests above from view. The Olympic Mountain range is home to some sixty active glaciers, the largest of which is over three miles wide, and as ancient as the mountains themselves. With almost a million acres of land to explore, this park dates back to 1938, when Mt. Olympus was just a National Monument. It’s temperate rainforests and glacial summits bring in almost three million visitors a year, and in 1981, it was designated as a World Heritage Site. The Olympic Mountains are in fact so ancient that much of them is comprised of ocean sediment, the seabed from millions of years back shoved up out of the water by a wedge between two tectonic plates.
Before you go rushing in however, you should know that getting anywhere in the park can be a bit of a struggle. There are no roads able to cut through the heart of the park, due to the massive canyons and glaciers, so the only way to get from end to end is to drive around the entire outer length of the Olympic peninsula. The southern section of the park is mostly forests, where the park boundaries run into that of the Olympic National Forest, and various other national conservation areas. From the south entrance, you will have to drive two and a half hours north through the forest if you wish to reach the actual visitor center. Once you reach the northern visitor center, you will have the option of driving either, A: About an hour south again to reach Hurricane Ridge, where you are afforded some amazing views of the Olympic Mountains and their glaciers. Or B: Another two and a half hours west to reach the Pacific Coast and the denser rainforest on the west side of the mountains. If you have the time, attempt to see both, but also note that most places to stay are at least two hours from the south entrance. Hikes into the Olympic Mountains are also possible, but incredibly time consuming, so plan accordingly.
We chose primarily to see Hurricane Ridge, and I would recommend the same for anyone who wants a more atypical experience in the park. The pacific coast is what you see in photos of Washington meant to enthrall tourists at online travel agencies. The coast, the forest, the sea stacks, its gorgeous to be sure but its also the thing a majority of visitors come to see. The Hurricane Ridge route on the other hand, takes you thousands of feet into the air through temperate rainforests as you climb through a mountain range opposing Mt. Olympus. The top is covered in a large portion of the park’s more than three hundred thousand acres of old growth forest. Gigantic red cedars which rival the sequoias of Northern California populate the highest areas, while coniferous rainforests dominate the lower sections of the mountains.
We came on a cloudy day, though thankfully not a rainy one. As we approached the Olympic Mountains from the north end, occasionally we would catch a glimpse of this gargantuan disc of clouds, which had formed about five thousand feet up in the mountains and enclosed the entire range. Hovering over the rainforest like a nervous parent, it was constantly twisting and rolling across the sky, circling the center of the park. After a while driving through the forest, we began to notice the shift from the younger deciduous growth which surrounds the park exterior, to the much older rainforest which lies at its heart. The trees got bigger, the sun became covered, moss started to grow across the entire landscape, hanging from the branches of trees and painting the walls of the mountains to our right. One of the first things I noticed as we traveled into the park boundaries was how the pines grew out instead up up. Their tops were sparse and withered, but at the bottom they had what almost resembled something of a topiary hoop dress. Huge carpets of pine needles spread out around their base, falling down the sunny side of the mountains. Here though, in the rainforest, the trees formed layers. The smaller conifers grew inbetween the trunks of the old-growth giants, catching what little sunlight made it through the treeline. The second and third tallest species of tree in the world, the coastal Douglas Fir and the Sitka Spruce, make up the taller section of the rainforest, standing up to four hundred feet tall and five hundred years old, some even making it to a thousand.
The smaller conifers only grew to about one hundred and fifty feet, which resulted in the forest being split vertically into two different sections of green, divided by a couple hundred feet of space where no branches grew whatsoever. The interior of the forest was incredibly dark, all possible space up above had been covered by the trees, not a single beam of sunlight was wasted on the forest floor below. As we drove past, you could look in and see the light just disappear, slowly fading back into a maze of wooden pillars. Ferns covered what small sections of ground still had access to sunlight, and waterfalls snaked down the walls of the mountains as we rose up into the clouds. After about thirty minutes, it came to the point where all we could see above us was an endless sea of grey, slightly shifting in hue as it waxed and waned over our heads. Another thousand feet and it wasn’t just above us, it was everywhere. No matter which direction you looked all that could be seen was clouds, and the walls of mountains who’s peaks had gotten lost in the atmosphere.
Finally, we rounded a corner and expecting to see more clouds on the other side, imagine our surprise when instead we received the Olympic Mountains. The clouds had parted for a brief instant, and there before us was Mt. Olympus, eight thousand feet tall and slathered in ice. We spent at least half an hour out on the various ridges lining this small stretch of the road, taking as much photo and video as we could before the clouds inevitably swooped back in to hide the view. The four peaks of Olympus formed a bowl of sorts, holding the Hoh glacier and it’s younger brothers in a wintery cradle. The harsh spines of the Olympic Mountains etched a jagged path along the horizon, the larger summits warping the atmosphere around them, claiming chunks of cloud as their own. Crowns of fluffy white adorned these higher peaks, rising just above the rock as the wind blowing upwards off the sides of the mountain pushed the clouds up in the center, forming the beginnings of a halo.
While the mountains and glaciers are absolutely breathtaking, it’s in the forests that I believe this park truly shines. It’s like someone lifted the Redwoods into the sky, covered them in moss and then hid it away from the world in an ocean of clouds. We spent as much time as we could gazing at Mt. Olympus and it’s counterparts, but before too long the clouds obscured it once more and we moved on towards the summit. Fast-forward another thousand feet and we’re at the Hurricane Ridge visitor center. The parking lot is so high up, we we’re no longer seeing the clouds right over our heads, but rather in absolutely every direction. Standing amidst the them, we watched as they drifted through the lot like a colossal fog, reducing visibility to about twenty feet, and creating an illusion of isolation in which you could well believe you were no more than a hundred feet above sea level, near some lake or shore. Black-tailed deer wandered within feet of us, appearing through the clouds to graze on something ahead before meandering back through the veil of white. The trees changed too, from the dense rainforest below to a slightly more open, dry environment.
Deciding to hike to the very top of the mountain behind the visitor center, we struck out and walked forward into the hazy forests which led up to the summit. As we rose, patches of ice and snow began to appear out of the grey, hinting at our elevation. The air was chilly but about as fresh as you could ever ask for, much like Yosemite, it’s the kind of smell air fresheners dream about. Wildlife was everywhere, Black-tailed deer especially. At one point we ended up face to face with a buck who had been grazing loudly just feet away from us, concealed in the foggy trees. Looking down the sides of the mountain, it looked more like we were on some giant hill than anything else. The slopes were gradual, and littered with valleys and forests, so no matter where you looked you could only see the next lowest tier in the cascading peaks, creating the facade that we were actually just on a foggy mound of Earth. Every so often though a break in the clouds would appear, and a sliver of sun would slip through the crack, illuminating the true depth of the steep declining rock below us. After walking for about half an hour though, we began to break through the clouds onto the very top of the mountain, which was in a constant state of flux between the wispy tops and the clear blue sky, looking out onto a great mesa of white.
One last time the forest shifted as we neared the highest elevated areas, the last Sitka Spruce giving way to the Coastal Redcedar, an ancient cousin of the Redwoods of California. The pale husks of their ancestors dotted the Cedar forest, the trees gnarled from age and twisted by the wind. Their life long search for sunlight had resulted in the oddest shapes you can picture, trees winding up and around each other in an eternal struggle for domination of the sky. The ground was a light reddish brown, covered in the decomposing remains of thousands of Cedars, springy to the step, and contrasted by the occasional bright green of a fern. The remnants of an old ski slope gondola adorned the peak, an overgrown ski patrol cabin could be seen off in the distance, buried in the woods. A small herd of Mountain Goats roamed past us, their young in tow. Casually they walked across the path right in front of us as they scoured the peaks looking for ever more appetizing patches of grass, feasting on the rare varieties of wildflower that grow nowhere else in the world. A mother Black-tailed deer led her two fawns across the meadows hidden up here in the sky, none of them even the least bit perturbed by our presence, coming as close as eight or nine feet without so much as a twitch of the ear. We could easily have explored these forests for hours, but as I mentioned, the drive out here is quite a long one, and we we’re forced to move on.
It’s an amazing place, for countless reasons. Mt. Olympus and the Olympic Mountains are breathtaking, their glaciers span for miles and date back to the last ice age. The rainforest is mind boggling, with the density of a jungle but an appearance unlike anything found anywhere else in the world. The coastal sea stacks are some of the most iconic structures in all of Washington, and it’s one of the few places in the United States where you can find seals in the wild. A massive population of Black-bears and Cougars roam the mountains, and rare species like the Olympic Marmot and Winter Wren hide in the confines of the park. It’s about as unique as they come, and you’d never guess it from the roads leading up, or even just from looking online. Most images of the park highlight it’s most obvious attraction, Mt. Olympus, which is staggering enough as it is, but it’s hardly why you should come to the park. To walk in the clouds through a rainforest of prehistoric giants, touch a glacier, gaze at the jagged coast of the Pacific from thousands of feet in the air. These are the reasons to come to Olympic National, to see things that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s a place removed from time, removed the the boundaries of the modern world, which exists in a bubble of wilderness, some of the last old growth forest of it’s type. It’s glaciers and pines tell a story of the Earth’s history like no other, from the ocean floor to the ancient forests high in the mountains. It’s not an easy place to get to, that’s for sure. It’s also not an easy place to forget.