On the Road Summer 2021 Days 17-24 Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park
I didn't plan to stay so long, but I didn't want to leave. Seafoam green anemones waving sticky antennae. Thick burgundy starfish sliding slowly, reaching for a foothold to better weather the splashing tide. Fat orange starfish crawling carefully, reaching for a foothold to better weather the mighty incoming tide. Earthy ochre anemone reaching toward brothers of burnished sunshine splashed with pink. All of them, thick slow sea stars and colony upon colony of anemone, mushroom buttons of color and life, seaweed and mussels all of them clinging to this granite, ebony now in the dark water light, this rough rock of the sea stack with its streaks of gravel and pearl, its patches of forest green moss, as the ocean pounds and sprays, dripping into sandy pools as the icy tide pulls out, only to wash in again with a new surge of life.
The ranger is talking. The sea stars are also experiencing a pandemic. This world has always been the same. I look away. Into the tall pines on the steep hillside above massive piles of driftwood. An eagle flaps and settles down into her nest. This world is enchanting.
I have two weeks to get to Stanley, Idaho. Crater Lake has made it to the itinerary: the bluest lake in the world I'm told, pure glacial water in a deep bowl. As has Mt. Rainier of course. Not as many folks are familiar with Crater Lake. But Mt. Rainier is hugely popular. When I run it by them it is a notion that excites everyone who has visited even just once. Most folks I've come across on this trip laughingly confess they are addicts. None can hold back on recommending trails and oddly, they seldom duplicate.
Still, I think I’ll just stay here. On my bluff above the Pacific.
Olympic National Park is mammoth: 1,442 square miles (3,375 square kilometers). It offers a kaleidoscope of terrain to explore. I want to see everything, but seeing only happens through a slow immersion for me. I have to stay long enough to feel a place. I have to look high and low, distant and near, microscopic and panoramic. I need to plumb my senses and sit with them. I look at the map and determine what is most important this trip: Whales, sea otters, sea lions, sea birds, eagles, the crashing tide. Second: rain forests.
Day One I received a plethora of bonuses. River otters running quickly from tide to the driftwood mounds just below my bluff where they swiftly disappear.
These very mounds of driftwood to climb through: bleached skeletons of lives, some ancient, some not, all washed up together.
I walk the beach. An eagle glides along with me, high above. His nest is not far from the campground.
Three whales swim north, not far from the shore.
Now it's sea otters. Playing merrily in the surf through the long evening.
The tide pounding all night long, its rhythm unmuffled as it passes through the mesh veil above my lowered windows.
I make friends with the guardians of the desirable bluff campsites, though they are cliquish and selfish, smug with self-righteousness, protecting their God-given right to these sites. They arrogantly cheat, remaining longer than the allowed two weeks and busy themselves with the politics of who will replace those leaving. They’ll probably be there when you visit. Ignore them. Make your own deals and trust no one. The campsite hosts are in their game. Ignore them too. Watch and slide in as the former camper leaves. Do know however that if you only have a tent, the bluff campsites are not ideal. Your tent will get soaked from the sea's condensation. If you have a large RV, please don’t park there and block the ocean view of everyone else in the campground. If you have a small camper, park vertically or at an angle for the same reason. Be thoughtful.
Day Two: I explore the nearby temperate rainforest bordering the Quinault Indian Reservation. There are two rain forests in the park roughly equidistant to South Beach, where I am staying. The Quinault Rain Forest is south on 101, and the more popular Hoh Rain Forest is north on Washington State Highway 101. A ranger tells me that she prefers the southern one in terms of beauty. It is also less likely to be congested. I’m in. Thinking that I will take Quinault Loop Road around the glacier-formed Lake Quinault, I take South Shore Road. Respecting that I was having a low-energy day, I figured I’d take a couple short hikes, maybe to a waterfall, stop and see the Big Sitka spruce tree as I’ve got a thing for old and giant trees, and then surrender myself to the embrace of the rain forest. The ½ mile Rain Forest Nature Trail and the two-mile Falls Creek Loop provided the perfect orientation, their trailside bushes offering generous handfuls of tasty raspberries. After a few miles, the South Shore Road is no longer paved. It spews clouds of dust that smother the roadside ferns no matter how slowly I crawl. I stick with it, but I wouldn't do it again. Instead, I’d recommend turning around when the pavement ends and then entering the North Shore Road, taking it until the pavement ends. You will see just as much.
The rain forest is nothing short of magical. I can’t begin to name the emotions its ancient beauty evoked in me.
Linger among trees coated so profusely in soft moss that it drapes from their branches, and then coats the nubs when those branches at last drop from their very weight.
Giant trees growing amid beds of lush ferns waving gently in the dappled sunlight. Yes, beds of ferns. If you are with a lover, park and wander in out of sight from the road.
Then, on your return down North Shore Road, pull into the parking lot of the Quinault Rain Forest Ranger Station and take the serene ½ mile Maple Glade Rain Forest Trail.
Go back to your campsite overlooking the ocean and think about it all as the surf pounds in synch with your heartbeat.
Day Three: I woke early so I could make it to a Ranger Program at Beach Four at 8 a.m. The campground was still asleep, so I set up breakfast on a picnic table overlooking the campground and the ocean. For its prominent station, it was delightfully secluded. I ferried my coffee and oatmeal from the parking space near the road down a winding path leading to the bluff. The sun was rising from behind me, filling the clouds with a pink glow that reflected in the pools of water the tide was leaving in the wet sand.
The two others joining the ranger were familiar. Turns out I’d met them earlier in the week on the Two Medicine Trail in Glacier National Park. Mo and Daryl were on their way to a Phish concert in the Gorge. This is when they told me that a grizzly crossed the path right after they saw me last. The grizzly was on his way down to the lake. Oddly, I ran into them again the next day at a ranger station. Even though I am 3,000 miles away from the Olympic peninsula as I write this, I feel like I will see them again somewhere soon.
I'd vacationed at the shore and watched every episode of Blue Planet, but never understood sea life as the ranger presented it that morning. I'd never watched sea stars or anemones react as the tide was pulling out. Never grasped the life of mussels clinging to rocks. Nor had I seen so many exquisite varieties of sea grass plucked by the violent ocean currents and thrown against rocks or washed up on the shoreline.
I wished then and there that I’d devoted my life to studying marine life. The ranger said her favorite beach was Ruby Beach, the next beach north. Duly noted.
I'd save that for tomorrow morning when I could catch the tide just coming in. Today I’d continue northward and explore Third Beach. Did I mention the confused naming of beaches?
Entering Olympic National Park from the south, the beaches along Highway 101 are South Beach, where I was camping, then Beach 1, Beach 2, Kalaloch Beach, Beach 3 and Beach 4. Thus far I had been to South Beach and the one at Kalaloch, just behind the lodge. I had once considered working at Kalaloch Lodge because, looking at a map its location calls, and now that I’ve seen it, I believe that spending an entire summer there would probably be amazing. After spending a couple hours at the beach, wading in tidal pools and such, I sauntered into one of the cabins to talk with a housekeeper about her experience there. The interior of the cabin was welcoming. Work opportunities aside, I would consider staying in one of the cabins or possibly even at the lodge there on a future trip. The convenience store at Kalaloch had reasonably priced beer and decent post cards too. To the north of Beach 4 is Ruby Beach. Highway 101 veers inland from there, following the Hoh River. Just after the river does an oxbow, a right turn will take you into the Hoh Rain Forest and onward to its Visitor Center. However, I stayed on route 101 up to the town of Forks. At Forks, I turned west onto 110, then La Push Road. Cannabis Coast is a sweet little dispensary along the way on La Push Road. I went to the very end of the road at La Push because I wanted to try the fish and chips at the Rivers Edge Restaurant run by the Quileute Indian Nation. I’m glad I did because it was quite tasty and filling. Too, a hand painted sign directed me where to find smoked salmon. The Quileute Tribe runs a hatchery at nearby Lonesome Creek where they raise salmon for release into the wild streams of the north coast.
The smokehouse was smokin', and I was to find the smoked salmon I procured no less than divine in flavor and texture.
The currents were turbulent and pulled wildly in cross-directions among sea stacks and rock pillars.
South of La Push, and still in the Olympic National Park, the beaches are numbered from north to south: First Beach, Second Beach and Third Beach, not to be confused with Beaches One, Two and Three running north further south. Right? I understand that there are yet more gorgeous beaches as you travel north up the coastline. Shi Shi Beach and Point of the Arches are on my bucket list.
South Beach is one of those campgrounds where, perhaps because the sites are so open, folks feel comfortable simply walking into your site to chat. I was especially vulnerable as my site bordered a trailhead to the beach and I didn’t have any privacy screening. Accordingly, when I returned with zero warning I looked up from my picnic table as someone spewed anti-Asian rhetoric along with some Covid conspiracy theory and realized he was talking to me. Is it true that these people with crazy on their front porch represent half of the voters in the US? He didn’t seem capable of intelligent debate. And who changes their mind anyway? I politely asked him to leave.
I understand there are lonely people and I try to accommodate them, but often others project that I am lonely too. That is seldom the case. I don’t tend to become either lonely or bored. I love extracting every bit out of the moment and have an infinite cache of places I’d like to visit. And projects I’d like to work on. Occasionally, I wish I had an interesting partner to attend the theater or opera with, but it’s more for company during an elegant meal before and drinks after. If you stop to think about it, watching a play or enjoying an opera are very individual experiences anyway. Everyone is quiet and in their own head. What difference if someone you know is sitting next to you? Well, I guess it might rule out the variable of having to sit next to a talkative or smelly stranger, or someone so fat he spills over the armrest and into your space.
I had no strong desire for companionship. I just wanted to stay and be one with the wild, icy Pacific. It seemed I had never seen waves grow so high nor take so long to curl over. I texted a surfer friend and asked him what it felt like to barrel surf, to be inside the wave. He answered that it felt like the earth was giving hm a hug. And sometimes, like he was dancing with the water. Now that guy I could hang with awhile.
Crater Lake and Mt. Ranier dropped from my itinerary as time closed in for the wedding and I sat letting the surf pound through my cells. In fact, it was with a bit of dismay after breaking from my m.o. of paying for only one night in advance and paying for two that I realized I would not make it to Stanley in time if I stayed the second night. Especially if I planned to visit the John Day fossil beds in Oregon, as a neighbor I admired convinced me was imperative.
A trip through Olympic recommended by my favorite ranger there that I will take next time is this: Proceed past Forks on 101 North through the Olympic National Forest. Turn right onto Sol Duc River Road (or some name close to that – it follows the Sol Duc River south. Stop at Salmon Cascades and the hot springs. Maybe stay at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. There’s camping there if it's full. Go to the end of the road and hike to Sol Duc Falls and Mt. Appleton. Turn around and return to 101. Make a right and head east toward Nature Bridge Campus on Lake Crescent. Park here and take a short jaunt to Marymere Falls. Return refreshed to 101 and drive past the Storm King Ranger Station and Lake Sutherland. Just where 101 makes a hard left to again head north, turn right down the road running south long the Elwha River just a short way to the trail head for Madison Falls. Feeling exhilarated again, return to 101 and follow it north to the Olympic National Park Visitors Center. After checking out its offerings, proceed south along its road to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, which also houses the ranger’s favorite gift shop and has a lovely picnic area.
I was done driving though, and instead spent the next few days at my picnic table on the bluff with binoculars scanning the ocean for whales and otters and whatever else would swim or fly by. I took long walks on the beach, compelled at one point to take refuge in a romantic hand-built beach bar when a fast-moving storm swept in.