A quick trip to Olympic National Park


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Sep 3, 2003
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Gorham NH
After our PCT section J backpack we did a quick visit to Olympic National Park. This was far less planned than the PCT. One member of the group had been there a couple of times and figured we could string together some short introductory hikes. He had access to significant discount on a rental vehicle so we got a GMC terrain and loaded up for phase two of the trip. The ferry versus drive from SeaTac was about equal in time so we elected to drive to the ONP headquarters in Port Edwards. One thing we learned driving over was living in Washington State is expensive. Gas was routinely $5.50 a gallon reaching up to $5.89. Using a credit of debit card usually meant a 3 to 3.75% fee. Food at grocery stores was also higher, my guess was 10%.

When we got to Port Angeles, we headed to the ONP headquarters. It was mostly day visitors but we talked with some backcountry specialists at the park headquarters who were quite helpful. Effectively a lot of the reservation requirements normally required for camping were no longer in effect as the park had transitioned to off season mode. We did need a no cost hangtag but that was about it. In general, they were pretty sure we were not going to run into crowds. After our planning session we headed up Hurricane Ridge Road using a senior pass. It is a one-way park road to an exposed ridge with views of much of the park. It was mix of sun and clouds. Mt Olympic and its glaciers were hiding in the clouds but eventually peaked out on occasion. The visitor building at the end of the road burnt down last year and was just being carted off but the views were still good. ONP is both mountains and Pacific coast and sticks out into the pacific so the weather is very much ocean driven. A ranger said one side got 180 inches of rain a year while the other side gets thirty. It was cold up there so we headed down to large NP campground with flush toilets and marginally heated rest rooms with 50% discount for a senior park pass.

The next day was a long slow drive to Forks Washington, the setting for the Twilight movies. The main road getting to it is quite narrow with little or no shoulders populated with large logging trucks. 60 MPH is fast and 45 is more typical. Forks is not a real tourist town but the Twilight movies seem to draw in a few folks. We headed on to our destination, the Hoh river about an hour south. The Hoh valley is known as rain forest. Outside the national park its mostly managed forest but once we got to the end of the road visitor center we got into the big trees. Mostly Douglas firs, but big spruces and cedars. We hiked in along the river to 10-mile camp ranger station (10 miles in) and camped on the banks of the river. My friend brought his tent body and that made the tent warmer by a few degrees and the bathtub sides deflected the breeze, the others toughed it out with just the fly and hammock.

We got an overdose of big old trees walking in. Many six to 12 feet in diameter, with lots of big dead ones on the ground called nurse trees with two-foot trees growing on them. The Douglas firs are quite tall with long sections of straight trunk. In some spots enough sun gets in that large very distorted maples grow covered with moss. It is considered a rain forest. As soon as we were set up, we started to hear elk whistling across the river in the woods. The ONP was founded to protect the habitat of Rosevelt Elk rather than the forests but they like deep old growth so the trees got protected at the same time. The next day three of us headed up out of the valley on side trail but our week of backpacking had all gotten to us to some extent. We got some great views but missed out on the alpine zone by a couple of hours. After we headed down our fly fisherman reported various fish caught and showed us pictures, he took before release. Some were of an odd type of trout. One of others in our group who fished on occasion joined him and caught an estimated 24” odd looking trout with a barb less hook and wooly bugger lure. We speculated that not a lot of bugs in the air so the fish rely on eating other fish. The yellow jackets were around and an annoyance and one of our crew got bit but around supper they tended to go away.

We heard from some newcomers that rain was coming in overnight. We were after all in a rain forest. The rain held off until the AM. As we got on our backpacks to head out it started raining. We did 10 miles quite quickly with one person’s watch reporting a 19-minute mile. Pretty good with wet trail and full packs. It had been raining a couple of hours but the Douglas firs act like umbrellas with dry soil under them but a lot of rain on the drip line. Once the fishermen got cell service they researched the fish, including a fish biologist they knew and it turned out the Hoh river is the most intact river system for Bull trout. They can either live all their lives in the river or go out to sea. The sea run gets huge but the river ones also get quite big. It helps that its a catch and release river. They are species of concern elsewhere.

Our plan for the night was to head for a coastal camp site and do a bit on recon on the coast but the forecast was for rain and we needed a break so we ended up in Ocean City. We did stop at an ocean beach way down a steep shoreline that was loaded with washed in driftwood logs but it was raw and cold. The coast outside the park as it approaches Grays Harbor turns into one long strip development of hotels condos and private homes on what is really a flat coastal dune system, not the place to be in a Tsunami and complete with evac routes and warning sirens. We got an off-season rate and had a dry night. The next day we headed back to Seattle and spent the afternoon in Seattle with a visit the REI flagship store where I confirmed that my instore shopping gene is well spent having been replaced by on line shopping and then a trip down to the fish market. We used the light rail again. In general, we used both the Link and the local bus systems on our trip in the Seattle area and it looks to be quite a safe and viable method of getting around. The equipment is modern, they have route information systems in place and tickets are easy to get.

Turns out our timing was spot on, our last rainy day in ONP was the start or 10 day stretch of what may be the Fall rains, pretty much on schedule. A few comments on ONP from just a “toe in the water visit.” ONP is quite large with no highways running through the center of the park. Highway 101 runs around it but its quite slow. Services are spread a bit. There is private shuttle firm serving the park but the rangers at headquarters observed that in most cases its quite expensive due to the distances and times to get around. A couple of folks from our group talked to our “neighbors” up the river at the campsite one night and they were two old pro hikers of ONP having backpacked and bushwhacked all over the park. They observed that the “best parts” are all a couple of days in from the road. In dry weather, it may be not a bad backpack but factor in a potential for rain either on the way in or out and camping at higher altitudes is more interesting. Mount Olympus is the highest at 7980 feet and some of the recent rain was starting to turn to snow up high. The town of Forks may not have much, but it has a great hardware/outfitter/supermarket for rainy weather gear. Planning in general for a major trip is going to require a lot of time and my guess it will cost more due to getting around.

Here is sample of the base of an average tree at our campground.

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