Olympic National Park
|Olympic National Park, Washington (Purestock/Getty) (John Clet Jones, Greater West Images)|
Olympic National Park's true distinction lies in its stunning diversity. Few places on earth have so much of everything: human and natural history, unusual flora and fauna, utter wilderness, and spots for every kind of outdoor recreation.
The park divides neatly into three major areasthe glaciered mountains and highcountry of the interior; the lush rainforest of the west-facing valleys; and the rugged wilderness coastline. It's a landscape that renders a quick visit nearly impossible. Since no road cuts all the way through the vast interior of the peninsula, the park remains a vast and subtle wilderness, suffused with a primordial and mystical spirit.
Magnificent waterfalls, wide alpine meadows sparkling with avalanche lilies, larkspur, and Indian paintbrush, eerie moss-bearded forests dripping with fog, and cliff-lined beaches await today's adventurous explorer, just as they awaited native peoples thousands of years ago.
Backpack the Strip
Over 60 miles of rock, seawater, and sand, the Olympic Coastal Strip holds some of the most rugged and picturesque coastline anywhere. It's also the longest wilderness coastline in the United States, accessed by roads at only a few points. Backpackers willing to negotiate the tides, waves, and treacherous headlands on foot are treated to unique payoffs: blissfully remote stretches of sand; misty vistas of huge "sea stacks"some topped by miniaturized forestscarved out of the coast by the power of the waves; sightings of bald eagles, sea lions, and gray whales. Along the way there are plenty of spots to camp, either right on the beaches or tucked away into the trees on the headlands. The most popular section is the 20-mile trek between Ozette and Rialto Beach, but a more remote and challenging route runs from Third Beach to Oil City.
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Climb Mount Olympus
At 7,980 feet, rugged Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in the Olympic range, but don't let its relative lack of stature fool you. Mount Olympus is the first major peak that Pacific storms encounter. A lot of snowand harsh weather in generaloccurs here. In the continental United States, only Mounts Rainier and Baker have more extensive glacial formations. Mount Olympus receives over 200 inches of precipitation each year, and most of that falls as snow. To safely climb the mountain, you need high-alpine and crevasse rescue experience. Ascents of Mount Olympus usually begin at Glacier Meadows, 17 miles up the Hoh River Trail. From here on, much of the remaining climb is on glaciers and along craggy escarpments. Most people make the ascent from June to early September, the peak weather window, although adventurous souls begin to climb as early as April.
Run the Rivers
Given the regular drenchings the ramparts of the Olympics receive, it shouldn't be a surprise that there are an astonishing number of runnable rivers here. There's a stretch of whitewater here for every level of paddler, from the low-risk whitewater of the Elwha and floats through the eerie, primordial rain forest that lines the Humtulips, to Class V steep-creeking that only a grizzled adrenaline junkie should hazard. These can be tricky waters, beset by logjams, sweepers, and strainers. Only the Elwha, which drains the range's long central valley, can be floated year-round. The stretch of the river between Altaire Campground and U.S. 101 contains six Class II rapids, enough whitewater to make this a thrilling introductory whitewater trip for novice rafters. Along the way, you'll catch glimpses of the Elwha River Range and pass old homesteads and outcroppings of weathered basalt.
Hiking the Hurricane
There are two high-country trailheads in Olympic National Park that can be reached by road: Hurricane Ridge and Deer Park, set fairly close together in the park's northeast, but accessed by separate road systems. Everywhere you look along trails in this region is jaw-dropping scenery: in the foreground, brilliant wildflower displays and lazing marmots; far below, the dark-blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca; in the distance the snow-clad peaks of the Canadian Cascades or the Olympics. The entirety of the Grand Ridge Trail, which links Hurricane Ridge to Obstruction Point, is above tree line, and most of its length is along a knife-edge ridge with huge views spilling in either direction.
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A Hot-Springs Soak
There can't be many pleasures in life more satisfying than slipping into a hot springs-fed pool after a long hike, and there are several places in Olympic where you can try it for yourself. One is the popularand disarmingly modernSol Duc Hot Springs Resort. The hot mineral waters that rise to the surface along the Soleduck River banks here have been channeled into tiled pools; it all seems a little out of vernacular for this mossy valley, but hikers will be thankful for a soak in the steaming water. A more rustic option is Olympic Hot Springs, a 2.2-mile walk in from trailhead; the six sandy pools here are set amid lush deep-emerald lowland forest.
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Kayak the Wild Coast
With its truly wild feel, it's easy to grasp that the Olympic Coast would be a premier sea-kayaking destination. This last 40-mile stretch of Washington's oceanfront is a succession of scalloped, sandy beaches separated by monumental sea stacks and spectacular wave-cut arches, all backed by high-cliffed headlands. However, these are, by and large, extremely difficult and demanding waters to kayak. The full force of the Pacific beats against this coastline; high, unpredictable seas and the maze of offshore rocks keep these paddling grounds the province of veteran ocean kayakers. If you've got the skills, you'll see otters, seals, and abundant bird life camping on remote beaches. Keep an eye peeled for ill-tempered wave trains. The usual put-in for such trips is at La Push, about 13.5 miles west of Forks.
Watch Migrating Salmon
The riotous biodiversity on parade at Olympic includes Roosevelt elk, cougars, black bears, sea otters, marmots, and of course a huge array of flora. But one of its more uniqueand accessiblewild spectacles is the annual salmon run. In early September and late October, coho salmon make the arduous journey from the ocean upriver to their spawning grounds, and you can see them leap up small waterfalls at spots like the Salmon Cascades along the Soleduck River and the Hoko River (at the bridge five miles south of WA 112).
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication