National Park Number: 7 of 59
Olympic is the most varied national park we’ve visited yet—it might be one of the most varied in the whole park system. Olympic protects the largest old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, contains over 70 miles of undeveloped wilderness coastline, and everywhere you look, the mountains of the Olympic range tower above. We spent five days here and barely scratched the surface.
The park was actually originally established by Teddy Roosevelt to protect a species of elk found primarily on the west side of what is now the park. Before the area was established as a national monument and, later, a national park, the elk population had been hunted down to 150 animals. Now the Roosevelt elk are the largest species of elk in North America. Gotta love a good comeback story.
We drove to the Olympic peninsula via highway 101, which leads up the coast, then inland a bit to Quinault Lake at the southwestern tip of the park. Quinault Lake is a gorgeous forested area with an impressive historic lodge (one of three in Olympic) and lots of good hiking. We took our time exploring a few loop trails and checking out the temperate rain forest that surrounds the lake.
We stayed right on the beach that night, eating huevos van-cheros and hanging out in the hammock, figuring we’d spend a good chunk of time on the beach itself the next day.
But of course when we woke up it was pouring rain. We are no slouches about rainstorms, but really, this was A LOT of rain. We headed to Ruby Beach anyway, and within a few minutes we were soaked to the bone. This in spite of our rain gear: between carrying kids and camera, we couldn’t fasten everything just right and the rain seeped in at our necklines, our sleeves, anywhere it could find an opening. Truly a determined rain. But we were undeterred (or maybe a bit deterred) and we climbed down the short path to the beach.
The beach was covered in driftwood and cobblestones, and everywhere were rocky sea stacks—remnants of the old coastline. Tide pools surrounded the sea stacks and we explored them as best we could in the downpour. Mostly we watched the surf pummel the shore, picking our way around puddles, wondering if we would ever be dry again (spoiler: we were, eventually. But it took us a few days and our boots even longer.)
Our next stop was the Hoh Rainforest, the most famous and well-visited part of Olympic. Since it was still raining hard, and since we’d already peeled off our Ruby Beach clothes, we decided to embrace the wet and wear swimsuits while we walked around the Hall of Mosses loop. This place is incredible—old-growth Sitka spruces, Douglas firs and red cedars draped in moss and covered with lichen. The temperate rain forests of Olympic are home to the highest density of living organisms in the whole world, all fed by up to 150 inches of rainfall every year. So being there in the rain felt appropriate. It also made the whole place smell mind-bogglingly good. I’ve realized since leaving New York that I mostly turned off my nose while living there—if you’ve ever walked down an NYC street on garbage pickup day in the swelter of summer, you’ll understand why. Now I’m smelling again and it’s so good; we’ve had some pretty fantastic olfactory experiences so far. Honestly, and perhaps weirdly, it might be one of my favorite parts of our trip.
That night we drove through Forks and stopped to grab dinner at the diner. Not having seen the Twilight movies, this place was lost on us as anything other than a pretty dreary town (still with that downpour; I’m sure it’s down-right charming in the sun). The diner featured a Bella burger and some kind of vampire-themed mocktail or virgin daiquiri or what have you, along with a guestbook containing some fairly entertaining notes from grown women who’d made a pilgrimage. Since its already gotten its share of shade, I will refrain from hating on Twilight here, except to say that it’s one of the most poorly edited, unimaginatively written set of books I’ve seen come out of a major publisher, and that the messages of the book are unequivocally terrible, especially considering the audience. But that’s all :). No shame if you liked it, though. Let’s just all thank Suzanne Collins for launching the YA bestseller series back into the realm of the thoughtful and moral-driven in the post-Twilight years.
Back to something more relevant (and that doesn’t make me sound like a pretentious brown-nose-nugget): the next day the sun was back and turning the water on Lake Crescent perfectly, deliriously blue, so blue that I nearly drove the bus into it by accident every time a break in the trees on the bank gave us a view.
We drove around the lake after spending most of the day at Sol Duc hot springs. We didn’t intend to stay there so long, but the springs were divine, the setting was scenic, and they charged us $15 a piece to get in, so we had to get our money’s worth. And because there’s not much to do at a hot spring aside from soak, we ended up talking to loads of people on trips of their own, many of whom ended up having tips for our journey to Alaska. The kids were, as always, clutch as icebreakers, which we love because it gives us a lead-in to talk to pretty much everyone. And talking to people is one of the other things I’ve liked most about our trip so far.
The other, stranger thing, if you’ll recall, was smells, and the hot springs helped us out there by having free, hot showers, something we don’t get to experience often. So in addition to enjoying the outdoorsy smells, I could also, on this day, enjoy the smell of my own family.
Maybe our favorite part of Olympic was our visit to Hurricane Ridge. When we left Port Angeles to make the drive, we weren’t sure we’d be able to see anything at the top of the mountain; it was rainy and foggy, and stayed that way for 16 miles of the 17-mile road. At one of the lookouts, the fog was so thick we couldn’t even see the sign until I almost ran into it—the sign that explained how you could see Canada from that spot. We plugged on, figuring we’d scope out the road at least and try our luck with the weather the next day. But right before we reached the top, we popped above the clouds and drove into a scene so snow-capped-peak-filled, so alpine-meadows-covered-in-wildflowers-y, so dotted-with-languid-deer-esque that we thought we’d driven into a set from “The Sound of Music.” We drove to the end of the road and set off on foot up Hurricane Hill.
This hike is both short (3 miles roundtrip) and mild (950 ft. elevation gain), though it took us plenty of time (our pace is so kid-fluenced that I have no idea what kind of actual hiking shape I am in, whether I could hack it with your average sporty adult or if Graham’s speed really is my peak performance.) Because the trail is paved or gravel the whole way, Graham wanted to take his scooter; I thought this might speed us along, but mostly we ended up carrying it, since the inclines were tough to scoot on and a good third of the trail was still snow-covered.
On our way up, we spotted a black bear on the next hilltop and a herd of deer in the field below us. A bald eagle flew overhead while we were eating our trail snacks and near the summit, a group of marmots scampered around in the grass. The peaks of the Olympic range loomed next to us—Mt. Olympus was even briefly visible through the clouds—the air was cold, and we felt, even a mile from the parking lot, like we were deep in the backcountry.
We’re not always feeling super peppy on every hike—we have our good and bad moments (though mostly good) and we do a fair bit of coaxing Graham to keep going (the boy has yet to make it through a hike without complaining at least some of the time)—but on this particular day, having spent the drive up belting out Bette Midler tunes, being surprised with the sunny weather, with a perfectly conquerable peak ahead of us, we were almost giddy.
And giddy we stayed for the hike and then the drive down the mountain, through our first night sleeping in a WalMart parking lot, and into the next morning, when we joined up with a whale-watching tour in Port Angeles to try to spot some marine mammals in the bay.
We went out early in the morning and cruised the water for four hours, watching humpbacks feed on bait balls and sea lions lolling and plopping on the rocks. None of the whales breached, but one did twist his head out of the water while catching some fish right next to our boat and showed off his huge baleen, which was amazing to see. I don’t know if there’s any more epic animal than a whale and I’ve wanted to see one in the wild since I was a kid, so this tour was a dream come true for me. I may have teared up a few times while watching. Seeing whales (at least where we saw them) has nothing to do with Olympic specifically, but it was still one of my favorite parts of our visit to the area.
And then the most glamorous part of all: we took the kids to a McDonald’s play place to burn off some energy and then we all went to see Cars 3, which we loved and which actually, full-stop made me weep.
So that was our visit to Olympic. If you come in late June through September, catch a ranger program! Definitely spend a good chunk of time at the beach (and hope it’s not pouring), definitely definitely take a soak at Sol Duc, and absolutely don’t miss the hike at Hurricane Hill. And if you’re driving up Hurricane Ridge in dense fog, like we were, push through! Apparently our experience is pretty common and a lot of people can’t see much till they’re almost to the top. Which is a pretty good metaphor, I think.