Olympic Peninsula Redux

Last June I spent a few days driving around the Olympic Peninsula. I made it up to Hurricane Ridge, to the Hoh Rainforest, and the beaches, and even though the weather wasn’t always great, I enjoyed it immensely.

Later, relaying the details of the trip to my Dad on the phone, I mentioned that it would be a good place for us to go exploring and hiking for a few days. Dad and I have made plenty of similar trips before– in 2003, we went hiking in Wales, and in 2008, we spent a week together in Europe, taking the train from London to Berlin and stopping in Normandy for a few days to pay our respects at the D-Day sites. Not to mention all the trips we took when I was growing up.

Dad and I don’t get to see each other much these days– we live in opposite corners of America, and Dad’s work and travel schedule have kept him busy. So last Friday, May 3, when we met up to go exploring the Olympic Peninsula, it was the first time we’d actually seen each other in over 2 years. Not due to avoidance or anything…. just due to life. (Side note: one really shouldn’t let life do that.)

Anyway, our trip consisted of lots of driving, lots of hiking through the woods (and in snow, and over sand), lots of eating in greasy spoons, lots of talking and catching up, and (perhaps most surprisingly for the Olympic Peninsula) lots of sunlight. There were snow-capped mountaintops, clear views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and deep into Canada, vibrant sunsets over the Pacific, and warm sunlit beaches bearing more resemblance to the South Pacific than Washington state– at least until you stuck your foot in the water.

I’m really pleased with the entire set of photos I got from the trip (the full set can be seen here on Flickr), but here’s a few of my favorites:

Looking from the Dungeness Spit across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Mt. Baker in the distance:

Seagulls nesting on a rocky stack off Cape Flattery, at the very Northwest corner of the United States:

A Coast Guard cutter crossing La Push Harbor at sunset:

The Visitor Center at Hurricane Ridge:

Deer along the road near Hurricane Ridge:

The stacks at Rialto Beach (with my Dad in the foreground for comparison), with the famous hole-in-the-wall in the distance:

A sea anemone surrounded by pink lichen:

Starfish in the intertidal zone:

Ferns (and a spider) in the Hoh Rainforest:

An oceanside waterfall, at Third Beach near La Push:

Looking south from Third Beach toward The Giants’ Graveyard:

Marymere Falls:

A bald eagle high up in a treetop, overlooking the beach:

Looking from Port Angeles toward the Olympic Mountains:

I’m sorry, did I say “a few?” I meant fourteen. It’s just that the number of environments and ecosystems we crossed was so huge– from the ocean (above and below the water), to the coastal forest, to the inland rainforest, to the snow-capped mountaintops and everything in between– that it’s difficult to capture the range of what we saw in just a few pictures. And we had perfect weather the whole way, which is pretty extraordinary, given that most of the Olympic Peninsula is absolutely inundated with rain (the Hoh rainforest gets 140 inches a year).

And to get to spend four days catching up with Dad in the midst of all this cool wildlife and weather and scenery? Made it just about the best trip ever.

Mountains and Forests and Beaches, Oh My

There were a lot of events going on in Seattle last Saturday: the presentation of the Locus Awards (congrats, winners!). The Seattle Solstice Parade (which I took part in last year). My bi-weekly writing group. Throw in other interesting-sounding events like the Seattle Iranian-American festival and there was simply going to be no way to do everything I wanted to do.

Sometimes, the only way to win is not to play.

So instead of picking between various events in Seattle, I went on a road trip. I hadn’t been a good road trip since September of last year, and besides, I had a long weekend coming thanks to my night-to-day shift change at work. So on Thursday I packed up clothes, hiking gear, and camera, and caught the ferry, heading to Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula.

The Olympic Peninsula, for those of you unfamiliar with Washington state geography, is the huge chunk of land between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. It’s surprisingly remote, despite its size and proximity to Seattle. The Olympic Mountains take up the vast majority of the interior, and pretty much prevent travel through the middle of the peninsula– except for forest service roads, all the roads circle the perimeter.

When I set out, I didn’t have a specific plan in mind. There were a couple famous spots I wanted to see, but other than that, my plan was how my travel plans usually go: get there, explore, and see what there is to see.

My plan paid off almost right away, when I happened upon Dungeness, home to a rather stunning spit of land that juts out five and a half miles from the coast, steep oceanside bluffs, and some spectacular ocean views:

I spent the night at a little motel in the town of Port Angeles, and then on Friday headed into the mountains. Deep in the Olympics, almost twenty miles away from the highway turnoff along a winding, uphill road, lies the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, at 5,242 feet. It’s high enough that my ears popped plenty of times on the way up from sea level, but still well below the tallest mountains, which top out near 8,000 feet and are covered in snow 12 months a year. Even at the Visitor Center, there was still plenty of snow around the parking lot.

Walking along a short path and cresting the ridge, you could look north, all the way across the Salish Sea to Victoria, Canada, and even further, to the San Juan Islands and the British Columbia coast range many miles beyond.

Here’s a panorama of the view south from the Visitors Center (click for much larger):

Afterward, I headed all the back down out of the mountains and continued my loop around the perimeter of the peninsula. The whole area is rainy, especially the west side, which gets 140+ inches of rain a year. But even the dry side of the peninsula is still wet and lush, and all around the base and valleys of the mountains is dense, green rainforest. At the Sol Duc River, I stopped and hiked about a mile in to see Sol Duc Falls.

Afterward, I headed back out of the rainforest and drove all the way out to Cape Flattery, which is the Northwestern tip of the continental United States. Once again, utterly spectacular, albeit in a totally different way.

There’s a lot of Native American history on the peninsula as well, and several reservations, including the Makah Reservation, which consists of about forty square miles around Cape Flattery. The major town on the reservation is Neah Bay, and there’s a really good cultural museum there, although it was too late in the day to pay a visit. But I wish I had. There’s a tremendous amount of history on the peninsula, but unfortunately it’s easily lost in the current day poverty. Neah Bay was one of the most impoverished places I’ve ever seen, and the signs placed every hundred feet along the road saying things like “Meth equals Death” and “Drugs are not the Makah way” suggested that there are a lot of modern-day struggles that threaten to destroy a proud and ancient culture. It did, indeed, make me sad, although it also made me want to come back and learn more.

Here’s a panorama of Cape Flattery, and the view from the far Northwestern corner of the continental U.S:

I spent the night in a little motel along the north shore road, and on Saturday woke to a dreary, misty day. My plan had to do some beach hiking on the Pacific Coast, but the dramatic sea stacks that line the coast were barely visible in the mist, and the wind was fierce. Plus, the water was too high to see any of the area’s famous tidal pools (starfish and other such critters are apparently a common sight, when the tides are right). Alas, because of the weather, I didn’t stay long.

Instead I drove through the town of Forks. The town’s biggest claim to fame these days it that it’s where the Twilight books/movies take place, and it’s exploited that to boost its tourism industry, although it’s really too isolated to take great advantage of it. It’s a five-hour drive from Seattle, and the fact that it’s gained fame through a book series doesn’t change the fact that it’s a rainy, dreary place.

Clearly not all the residents feel the Twilight love, as seen in the window of one particular trailer:

Stopping at Forks just long enough for lunch, I made my way further south to the Hoh Rainforest, which is probably the rainiest place in Washington state (that’s saying a lot) at almost 150 inches of rain a year. It’s in a valley on the western side of the mountains, where all the Pacific weather gets trapped, and the result is a lot of rain, and an incredibly dense forest. There’s not a square inch of ground that doesn’t have something growing on it, and the air is so rich with nutrients and moisture that certain mosses are able to subsist directly off the air. In the second picture below, there are Hemlock trees that have grown so dense that they’ve actually fused together.

After about an hour hiking through the rainforest, I headed back out to the beach to see how things looked at low tide, but still didn’t have much luck. Not surprisingly, the coast was as rainy and windy as ever.

I had been planning to stay on the peninsula one more night and head back, but it was early. Thanks to the poor conditions on the beach, I hadn’t stayed long, so I headed back to Seattle early. I definitely want to come back, though. There’s all sorts of cool day hikes and multi-day hikes out there, and I want to give the beaches another shot later in the summer.

For those interested, here’s the full photo set from the trip.

Now I’m back in Seattle, back at work (on the day shift now, yay!), and shifting gears to focus on the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Life goes on, but pictures remain… and, I hope, hint at more adventures to come.

Camping on Lake Cushman

After seven months living in Seattle, I finally went on a West Coast camping trip. One of my original motivations for moving out here had been the wide mix of outdoor destinations: from Puget Sound and the islands, to the Olympic Peninsula, to the Pacific Ocean, to the Cascade Range. But a long, wet winter didn’t exactly make me enthusiastic about getting outdoors for multi-day stretches.

So when I finally got a good opportunity for a camping trip into the midst of the Olympic Mountains, I jumped at it. However, the trip was unusual for me in that it wasn’t a backpacking trip. Instead, it was a car camping trip, to a place that was essentially a small RV resort on the shore of Lake Cushman.

For me, there are pros and cons to car camping instead of backpacking. Here’s a quick summation:

Cons: Noisier campsite (including stereos blasting ’til the wee hours). Less natural setting. My camping skills (largely learned through backpacking) are not as useful.
Pros: It’s easier to bring beer.

So in the end, it evens out. It was a really fun group of people, though, and we ate well, drank well, and entertained ourselves well. The weather was pretty good– we only had a few showers’ worth of rain, although we didn’t exactly have a lot of Sun, either. It was also, according to longtime Seattle residents, unseasonably cold, even for the Pacific Northwest. The weather sort of reminded me of November camping in North Carolina: not exactly the dead of winter, but still plenty cold. On the first night, one girl started to go into hypothermia, and had to finish the night in the car.

As for me, I basically just threw all my camping clothes into my backpack and went– at first, I was thinking that I had brought too much, but I was glad I had it all. The temperature probably got down close to 40 degrees at night.

During the days we went hiking, although on Sunday one other person and I elected to rent a motor boat and take it out across the lake instead of going on the hike. This was pretty cool– I had never driven a motor boat before– although we had some drama when the motor died on us, and we resorted to paddling with the oars for a good fifteen minutes. (As it turns out, paddling a motor boat is much harder than paddling a canoe.) But after we got fed up with paddling, I tried the motor again, and with considerable fidgeting, was able to get it started– huzzah! Just call me “Cap’n Andrew.”

So all in all, good times. One other benefit of the trip: a couple of the guys I met on the trip are avid backpackers, so hopefully I made some connections that will lead to more serious backpacking excursions later this summer. Maybe some hiking around Mt. Rainier? Here’s to hoping.