A vast wilderness encompassing nearly a million acres; with several distinctly different ecosystems
We arrived in the Seattle area mid-afternoon on a sunny summer’s day to start our exploration of the Olympic peninsula. The plan was to camp and enjoy the wonders of the great outdoors so we set out to find our campsite and get organized for what we anticipated would be two wonderful days of trekking and beach-combing.
We had bought two tents, one for grown-ups and one for Jack and Emily. Unfortunately, when we got the tents out it turned out that one set of poles was missing! This tent had been last used by our children, Jack and Emily, and somehow between there and here had gone missing. As responsible, mature adults we try not to operate a blame culture in the Hobbs household but it was clearly Jack’s fault! Anyway, rather than spending the morning exploring the fabulous Olympic mountains we explored for tents in Wal-Mart. Luckily we found an inexpensive and spacious tent, which turned out to be much better than the one we planned to stay in – so Jack was forgiven. The tent was nice and easy to put up so in no time at all we had set-up camp.
There was not much time left in the day so we thought we would take a drive up into the mountainous area of the Olympic National Park, to the view point and visitors center at Hurricane Ridge. We left the warm, calm surrounds of our campsite at the base of the mountains neighboring the sea and climbed the several thousand feet to the top of the mountains. Arriving at Hurricane Ridge we discovered how aptly it is named. The wind was blowing, if not a hurricane then certainly a gale. It was also very chilly. From the Park visitor’s center there were spectacular views across green pastures to the snow tipped mountains beyond. We were joined by a number of very tame deer, who were more likely there for the lush grass than to enjoy the view. A short trip along a trail over the crest of a hill gave us a view across Puget Sound towards Vancouver, Canada. Up at this altitude, despite being the height of the summer, there were remnants of the winter with several patches of snow still remaining. The cool wind soon blew us into the visitor center to watch a short movie on the geology and ecology of the Olympic Mountain region, after which we made a dash for the car to make our way back down the calm and relatively balmy haven of our campsite.
We woke today to a cloudy and misty morning. Our plan was to take Route 101, following the coast around the peninsula to the western side of the Olympic range. This is one of the wettest places in the United States and not usually the place to consider visiting on a cloudy misty morning. This is the home of one of the world’s few temperate rain forests. As luck would have it as we closed in on our destination, the Hoh Rain Forest, the clouds broke and we were greeted by lovely warm sunshine. Most unusual in these parts! Our first stop off was the National Park visitor center. We were amused by a sign posted by the Park Rangers warning that some visitors who had approached the local Elk had been charged. I could only wonder how much had they been charged. Has the world gone mad? Even the Elk had gone commercial! Anyway, the amusement was over and it was time for some serious tourism!
We were a little too early for one of the Ranger tours so we took ourselves onto one of the self-guided tours along the trails. The sun was by now streaming through the canopy, illuminating the iridescent greens of the forest. One of the most amazing features of this rain forest is the thick, trailing mosses hanging off of the limbs and trunks of the densely packed trees! Our path took us down to the river, which carved the valleys to which the forest clings. Truly magical!
Returning to the starting point of the trail we arrived back near to our car and just in time for a spot of lunch before the Ranger led tour. The tour took us on a different trail through the forests. We were introduced to the common trees of the forest including the Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western hemlock, Western red cedar, the black cottonwood, red alder and the big leaf and vine maples. The Ranger explained the distinguishing features of each tree and by the end of the tour we could easily identify each species. The forest is dominated by the coniferous trees, particularly the Douglas fir and Hemlocks and the Cottonwoods in the riparian areas by the creeks and rivers. There were some exceptions where the deciduous trees had gained a significant foothold and had been able to maintain their territory gain. One magical example of this was a grove of big leaf maples, which had a high canopy of translucent leaves, allowing the dappled sunlight down to the forest floor. The almost constant damp atmosphere of the rain forest had allowed the lichens and mosses to grow rampantly across the tree limbs, which hung down like fine lace shrouds from the trees. This sanctuary had a spiritual quality which even the most agnostic of visitors must surely appreciate.
The weather remained remarkably good throughout our trip to the rainforest; rain free days are such a rarity in these parts. We decided to chance our luck with a visit to the rugged coastline of the Olympic peninsula, and traveled a few miles further south to Ruby Beach. On this part of the coast the trees descend down to the cliffs that look out across the great Pacific Ocean. These cliffs are battered and eroded by the pounding of winter storms causing complete trees drop into the ocean which are then carried away out to sea. These trees, stripped of foliage and bark, eventually end up washed on the beaches as smooth, and often contorted driftwood sculptures. Ruby Beach provided a glorious backdrop to the power of nature. Its shores are strewn with huge trunks of trees, often piled up by the action of the waves. We spent some time walking among the driftwood, which inspired Jack and Emily to turn into modern day Robinson Crusoes and build shelters from the wood on the beach. This allowed us grownups to have some alone time and enjoy the sounds and smells of the beach. After an hour or so the children had to be dragged from their ever so important endeavors so we could make our way back home to Port Angeles.