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The National Park System’s hidden gem
Redwood, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon–these are all truly great American national parks where I've been privileged to hike, fish, paddle, sleep, swim and revel. But there's one more that almost never gets mentioned in the same breath: Olympic National Park. It should be. The federal government created this million-acre treasure of rock, woodland and seacoast in 1938 to preserve "the finest example of primeval forest…and provide permanent protection for the herds of native Roosevelt elk."
A scenic two-hour car and ferry ride (across Puget Sound) from Seattle, the 6,500-square-mile Olympic Peninsula is larger than Connecticut. At its heart, a stunning symphony of white-crowned ragged mountain peaks top dense, fragrant forests of every shade of green imaginable. The highest mountain is called Olympus. It rises 7,980 feet above sea level, a winter magnet for a pileup of 50 feet of snow.
On the immense mountain's northern slope lies a glittering blue glacier whose ice-melt forms the beginning of the Hoh River, cascading and rushing downhill at a vertical drop of nearly 4,000 feet before slipping into the Pacific Ocean. Along its hurried descent, this thoroughly wild river courses through one of the most remarkable temperate rainforests on Earth: a quiet, brooding otherworld of Douglas firs soaring 300 feet into the sky and groves of thick-trunk western red cedars hundreds of years old–all draped with spectral garlands of hanging moss and cloaked in carpets of lichen. This lush emerald valley is one of the wettest places in the continental U.S., deluged with nearly 12 feet of rain annually.
But it's beyond moist mostly during winter. Summer brings long, warm, sunlit days with almost no humidity: perfect for a walk in the woods. And these are some woods! July, August and September are glorious months for exploring.
I like to start at the park's visitor center, up the hill from Port Angeles, where spending a little time watching the introductory film and perusing the interesting exhibits about the area's flora, fauna, geology and history will give you a good perspective on what you are about to experience. Friendly rangers are knowledgeable and ready to point you in the right direction. Tell them what you wish to see (choose from waterfalls, high mountain meadows and rugged ocean beaches), being realistic about how far your legs and windpipes can comfortably take you.
There are hikes for everyone, ranging from easy strolls through the ancient forest on carefully maintained trails to overnight backpacking adventures requiring glacier-scaling skill and equipment.
Since you are at the visitor center, I suggest you continue driving south and uphill on Hurricane Ridge Road, reaching another visitor center and a sizable parking lot. Here you'll find short paths leading to rustic tables where you can enjoy a picnic with spectacular views of Mount Olympus and adjoining peaks. Afterward, pass through the lot and take the road to the end. Put on a light pair of hiking shoes and grab a bottle of water and some suntan lotion.
Give yourself three hours to hike the 1.6 miles to Hurricane Hill. The gain in elevation is 700 feet. You're starting above 5,000 feet, so take it easy and stop several times along the way to catch your breath. You'll be rewarded with the sight of magnificent alpine meadows festooned with exquisite wildflowers, eagles, blacktail deer and the unique Olympic marmot.
When you get to the top, look down to see a miniature Port Angeles and–across the broad Strait of Juan de Fuca–Victoria, B.C., on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Don't forget your camera.
A Bit of History
Remarkably, the Olympic Mountains remained a mystery to European settlers of the Pacific Northwest until an expedition in 1890 crossed the roaring rivers and ascended the sharp peaks.
The expedition team included Louis F. Henderson, a 37-year-old graduate of Cornell University, who was a botanist, linguist and Shakespearian actor. Henderson continued climbing into his 80s and at age 70 swam across the Columbia River at Hood River, Ore.
"A more magnificent scene had never presented itself to my eyes, and I doubt whether anything in the higher Alps or the grand ice-mountains of Alaska could outrival that view," Henderson wrote of the Olympics. "Canyon mingled with canyon, peak rose above peak, ridge succeeded ridge, until they culminated in old Olympus far to the northwest; snow, west, north and south; the fast-descending sun bringing out the gorgeous colorings of pale-blue, lavender, purple, ash, pink and gold. Add to this the delightful warmth of a summer sun in these altitudes–the awful stillness broken every now and then by the no less awful thunder of some distance avalanche…"
Information: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/olym, (360) 565-3130; Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau, www.olympicpeninsula.org; Olympic Mountains Trail Guide by Robert Wood (Mountaineers Books, 2000); Olympic Mountains: A Climbing Guide by Olympic Mountain Rescue (Mountaineers Books, 2006)
Airports: Boeing Field, Seattle; William R. Fairchild International, Port Angeles, Wash.
Lodging: North Olympic Peninsula Convention Bureau, (800) 942-4042; Kalaloch Lodge, www.visitkalaloch.com, (360) 962-2271