A Fascinating Visit to Olympic National Park

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

HAVING been raised close to the original Mount Olympus in southern Europe, I was naturally curious about the Olympian qualities of a thumb of land thousands of miles away that extends into the Pacific from the edge of North America. A friend's mention of rain forests in that remote area—5,000 miles [8,000 km] northwest of the Amazon—was enough to lure me to Olympic National Park.

A little homework before the visit revealed that the 900,000-acre [350,000 ha] park, located in the northwest corner of the United States in Washington State, is an intriguing array of natural wonders. Here, beneath the Pacific mist that enfolds shoreline and timberline, one can discover large trees, jagged coastline, and some of the wettest weather on earth. The park has tall mountains, snowcapped and overrun with slow-moving glaciers, and a rain forest as mysterious and dark as any in the Amazon region.

In 1788 an English captain named the highest peak—rising to just under 8,000 feet [at just under 2,500 meters]—Mount Olympus, after the legendary home of the mythical gods of Greece. To preserve this untamed wilderness, Olympic National Park was established in 1938.
Rain Forests in North America?
Hoh rain forest
Glacier-capped Mount Olympus descends to the Hoh rain forest

On a pleasant autumn morning, Mike, a native of the area and a guide, waited for my wife and me at the park headquarters, in Port Angeles. A tall, barrel-chested man, Mike takes pride in showing the treasures of the rain forest to visitors like us. "The rain forests are perhaps the most extraordinary phenomena at Olympic," he said with evident exuberance. "The term is usually applied to tropical forests. Ours here are among the less extensive rain forests in temperate latitudes." When I ask for an explanation, Mike is quick with the math: The forests are fed by the abnormally high rainfall on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains, ranging from about 80 inches [200 cm] a year near the coast to 150 inches [400 cm] or more along the river valleys in the foothills. Three valleys contain most of the rain forests: those of the Hoh, Queets, and Quinault rivers.

Our footsteps on the nearly two feet [.5 m] of duff on the forest floor are muffled. The thickness of the trees keeps out wind; even the rain that so frequently falls here filters down as a sort of green mist. The sun reaches us at the forest floor only in tiny, blurred patches. The softest birdsong seems loud, and occasionally deer flit like brown ghosts among the moss-laden trunks.
Why So Much Rainfall?

Moisture-laden clouds blowing inland from a warm Pacific coastal current are forced to rise by the high barrier of the Olympic Mountains. As the clouds ascend, they cool, and their moisture condenses into heavy rain or snow. Thus, the western slope of the mountains receives upwards of 140 inches [350 cm] of precipitation per year. Mount Olympus receives some 200 inches [500 cm], falling mostly as snow. However, land on its eastern side lying in what is known as a rain shadow stays comparatively dry.
Where Trees Sprout on Other Trees

Since the ground cover is so dense, seeds rarely get a chance to grow—which is why most of the biggest trees in the forest sprouted from nurse logs. These are fallen, decomposing trees that act as a fertile host to seeds that drop onto them. It is not uncommon to see several great trees growing in a line along one fallen giant, and the prevalence of nurse logs accounts for the occasional occurrence of colonnades of trees—as if they had been carefully planted in rows.

As we leave behind the level trails and climb higher into the Olympics, the forest changes, with record-size Pacific silver fir and alpine fir being the predominant species. Mount Olympus has 7 glaciers on its flanks, with ice 900 feet [300 m] thick in places, and there are more than 50 glaciers in the high country.

Flowers and deer
In the alpine meadows, there are many deer and unique plants, such as the Flett violet

Jagged Peaks and Glacier-Mantled Ramparts

The calories burned on that strenuous hike had to be replaced. Thus, our next day started with a hearty breakfast at a diner in Port Angeles. Arlene, our friendly waitress, was thrilled not so much with the rainfall in the area as with the snow. She insisted that we would see nothing of the wonders of the Olympics if we didn't visit higher ground toward the eastern snowcapped slopes of the park.

As we followed the road east of Port Angeles to Deer Park, we soon found ourselves on mostly steep unpaved roadway with a succession of hairpin turns. We were rewarded with a magnificent view both to the north and to the south, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island and toward the lofty, icy heart of the Olympic Mountains. In the alpine meadows, we could see numerous deer and some delicate plants that grow nowhere else on earth, including the piper bellflower and the Flett violet.

Next we came to Hurricane Ridge. It is easy to see why the road leading to it is a popular mountain highway in the park. It is a good road, starting near park headquarters and finishing at an altitude of 5,757 feet [1,755 m] in flowering meadows right on the edge of the Olympics. From there, the mountains extend into the distance to the south, a succession of snowy peaks with glaciers filling the valleys between them. As we gazed at the view, piled masses of clouds scurried across from the west.

The first avalanche lilies bloom as the snow withdraws from the meadows, and for the next three months, there is a succession of colorful flowers. Browsing deer can be seen against the splendid mountain backdrop, and sometimes mountain goats can be spotted clinging to the steep cliffs above the highway.
The Pounding Surf of the Pacific
Rialto Beach
Driftwood along Rialto Beach

Access to the very best of the Olympic beaches is for the hiker rather than the driver. Hiking through the woods from the eastern town of Forks, we reached beaches with tide pools that were full of endlessly fascinating marine life. Beyond Teahwhit Head, we came upon the Giants Graveyard, a confused offshore jumble of contorted rock formations that break the huge Pacific surges into foam. Trees along these shores are bent almost flat by the constant push of the battering wind off the sea. As we walked down into the gale, we were surrounded by beautifully shaped driftwood and smoothly polished stones.

For us the Olympic National Park experience was essentially one of wildness and timelessness. It filled us with awe for the Creator, "he in whose hand are the inmost depths of the earth and to whom the peaks of the mountains belong; to whom the sea, which he himself made, belongs and whose own hands formed the dry land itself.

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