An Abridged Guide to the Olympic Peninsula

as if from the clouds themselves, the Olympics exude nature supreme

Photograph by Matthew Kuhar

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Editor’s Note: This is a walk through of the Olympic Peninsula in farthest Pacific Northwest America, as told by truly one of my deepest, and at 19 years of knowing, oldest friends, the impressive Mr. Matthew Kuhar.

When vacationing with the family or road tripping with friends, it can be a tough task to choose a place to go throughout the US. With all its amazing National Parks and Forest Lands, picking one to suit everyone’s needs can be challenging. One thing is for sure, whatever your wild interests are, you can find it all here and more: on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Olympic National Park and National Forest lands are where we’ve preserved natural lands of the past in order to teach us how to conserve ancient wonders for the future. Here your passions for the Earth will be met with three major diverse and complex ecosystems: subalpine forest, temperate rainforest, and wild coastline. It boasts nearly 100 million acres of some of the wildest natural terrain in the lower 48 states, and contains some of the most jaw-dropping and humbling scenery for your eyes to feast on: from jagged glacial-capped mountains with pristine alpine lakes reflecting wild skies, to cascading and raging white rivers snaking and carving their way through deep glacial valleys of the past that are blanketed in a mosaic of greens from lush old growth forest covered in the interconnectedness of the mosses, ferns, and lichens. All while being surrounded by the pounding surfs of the wild and untouched Olympic Coastline. It’s a paradise for the ecological mind, a cleansing for the heart and soul, and a gift to all of your senses.

what would appear to be a natural heaven on earth, mountains rise from the smoke of cloudy passings by, elk drink from a creek, life prevails

Whether your spirit seeks the adventures of backpacking and summiting 7,980-foot Mt. Olympus (the parks highest point), or perhaps leisurely hiking and exploring the complex and amazing diversity of flora and fauna, not to worry here for you can naturalize the aesthetics and beneficial values of over 1,450 different types of vascular plants and hundreds of animal species, including birds, land and marine mammals, fish, aquatic species, and macroinvertebrates. Or, maybe you just want to connect with nature and the web of life by simply sitting between the setting sun on the coast of Rialto Beach and the rising moon behind massive stands of Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce banking the estuary of the Quileute River. You might be inclined to research the indigenous cultures, who were one with this land for thousands of years. (There are over eight different Native American tribes who hold strong and sacred ties to the land.)

With so much to choose from, planning your trip will help you maximize your potential to experiencing all of the awesome wonders the peninsula has to offer. With one major highway, US 101, circumnavigating the National Park, it’s good to keep in mind that it is a curvy, two-laned road; so give yourself some time to drive from place to place (30 miles can sometimes be about an hour!). But that is the beauty: with each turn and cardinal direction the ecology of the land changes before your very eyes.

Everyone has a favorite spot to go to, and so do I; I am always finding new ones. So here I put together a car-camping trip that starts in the northeast corner of the park, and makes its way over the northern tip of the peninsula to the Hoh Rainforest. Keep in mind, this is just a slice of a variety of experiences that could lay before you.

quinault rain forest old growth trees .....doug fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, sitka spruce..
Old Growth Trees in Quinault Rain Forest.
view from mt. townsend at sunrise this is a phenomenon known as the brocken spectre  the low stratus clouds reflect your ghostly shadow in a prism of colors for what looks like miles away!!!!
The view from Mt. Townsend at sunrise. This is a phenomenon known as the Brocken spectre. The low stratus clouds reflect your ghostly shadow in a prism of colors for what looks like miles away!
the smoke and haze of the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula
Forest views of the Olympic Peninsula.

Catching an early ferry out of Seattle to Bainbridge Island is the way to start! From the ferry you can get a great view of the majestic spires of the eastern part of the Olympic mountains. Formidable peaks such as the Brothers (6,866 ft) and Mt. Constance (7,743 ft) assume their daunting presence, felt from afar. When you disembark the ferry on Bainbridge Island follow Rt. 305 north to Rt. 3 N, turn left onto 104 W where you will cross the Hood Canal Bridge and land on the sacred grounds of the Olympic Peninsula. Keep an eye out for 101 North, where your journey will begin. Bypassing the great Buckhorn Wilderness, you will start to head west through the rain shadow and its dry oak savannah-like setting in the town of Sequim, which receives an average of only 18 inches of rain per year!

Continue towards the city of Port Angeles (where you can stock up on any last minute essentials you might need). When here, make a left towards Hurricane Ridge and The Heart O’ the Hills Campground, where you will be spending your first night. If its clear and still light out, get heading up to Hurricane Ridge to catch the sunset! If not, settle in to a nice camp spot, surrounded by old growth Douglas fir, Silver fir, and Western red cedars and a mixed understory of Pacific rhododendrons, Devil’s Club, and Goat’s Beard.

a massive tree, wounded at the base, covered in moss, like an old king in his last days
Like an old king in his last days, this tree lingers on into history untold.

Light a fire from some locally bought wood, and fall asleep to the sound of Varied Thrushes or the intricate bugle of the Pacific Wren. With the sunrise, head to Hurricane Ridge and drive through a beautiful example of a montane forest. As you climb the ridge, watch as the Alaskan yellow cedars replace the red cedars, and the Western hemlocks are replaced by Mountain hemlock. The ground is covered by evergreen Salal and Oregon Grape, and at the right time of year the Huckleberries, blueberries and thimble berries will be bountiful.

When you summit Hurricane Ridge and enter the Visitors Center, you will get your first look at the interior portion of the Olympic Mountain range and its most famous (and largest!) peak: Mount Olympus. This mountain has over 266 separate glaciers and permanent ice fields, including the infamous Blue Glacier, which is nearly 1,000 feet thick and 2.6 miles long, carving solid rock as it moves up to 3 feet per day. These glaciers produce precious (and necessary) cold melt-waters that are perfect for the arrival of spawning salmon and native bull trout.

male bald eagle
A Male Bald Eagle

Taking a hike here at Hurricane Ridge, you just may hear the whistling of the endemic Olympic Marmot (a large rodent!), sunning among the scree fields and boulders of surrounding avalanche chutes. Clustered in some of these boulders is another endemic species, the Piper’s Bellflower, clinging to life with other common wildflowers (such as Avalanche lily, Bear grass, lupines, paintbrushes, Red Mountain heather, and penstemons), creating a rainbow of colors all while being shadowed by the Subalpine Firs, Sitka Alders, and Krumholtz White Bark Pines. The Gray Jays and Ravens patrol the area as the Clark’s nutcracker spreads the seeds for the White Bark Pine (a necessary component for the survival of the tree). Catching the sunset and/or sunrise here is a must, and be sure to check the visitor’s center and all of the hikes around the area (which all offer awesome scenery), and if you’re lucky you just might see the introduced Mountain Goats charging about the scree fields or Black bears eating some lupine roots!

Or, just perhaps, you will hear (and feel in your chest) the beating drum of the Blue Mountain grouse. Hurricane Ridge is a must see!

a sooty grouse, a brown bird with obvious attitude
Sooty Grouse, Hurricane Ridge.

Heading back towards the 101, the Elwha River valley awaits, where the great Elwha River Restoration is underway: the largest dam removal in US history. Because of this removal, salmon and steelhead can once again spawn upstream and deliver the essential marine nutrients from the sea to these fresh cold melt waters. This process is necessary for healthy and complete forest ecosystem life cycles, and the continuum of the web of life. To learn more, check out the national park website for information about this amazing project.

As you continue west along the 101 you will approach the majestic Lake Crescent tucked among the mountains, which is 300’ deep and glacially carved. This cold, clear beautiful lake was separated from the smaller Lake Sutherland about 7,000 years ago by a massive landslide. Here you will find beautiful specimins of a lowland forest, including Pacific madrone, Douglas fir, Western hemlock, Grand fir, Red cedar and Big Leaf Maple.

You may also see eagles calling and cruising for hopeful catch of one of the two unique fish that dwell here: the Crescenti and the Beardslee trout that have adapted to this isolated environment. There are some great hikes here as well: Marymere Falls, the Spruce Railroad Trail, or a lunger and a lung-er up 4,534-foot Mt. Storm King! The weather atop Storm King can be quick and shifty (hence the name!) so be prepared! If it’s a hot day, certainly jump into the lake and revitalize the spirit! Not far up the road you will approach the Sol Duc valley on the left hand side, where you will spend the night (one of my all-time favorite car-camping spots!). Here you can hike the Sol Duc Falls trail, one of the “poster-boys” of the Olympic National Park.

one photo of a hand compared to a cougar track in the snow, the other of a vibrant forest below a smokey covered mountain
Left: Cougar print. Right: The Olympics.

You will hike through massive, old-growth Douglas firs, Sitka spruces, Western hemlocks; this lowland forest is littered with snags that provide life, and nurse logs that give root to young saplings. Shrubs, such as the Huckleberry, Red Elderberries, Oregon Grape and Salal cover the understory, made up of Pacific Bleeding Heart, Western Trilliums, Vanilla Leaf, Twinflowers, Maidenhair fern, Sword fern, Deer fern, and so many more.

Also, keep a watchful eye and ear out for Spotted Owls, Red-breasted sapsuckers, and Northern Goshawks. Or, maybe you will get scolded by a chipmunk or a Douglas squirrel! Continue along the trail and marvel as Sol Duc waterfall rushes from many different angles, smashing its white, rumbling torrent across the sheer rock cliffs.

Standing on a mightily-constructed bridge you can feel the awesome power of the waterfall beneath you, and bask in its cold mist flitted with beams of sunlight casting through the canopy up above.

elk drinking from the hoh river
Elk, Hoh River

Next, we are on our way to one of the wildest (and rarest) undeveloped shores of the Pacific Ocean. Rialto Beach is one of my favorite beaches, and here the prevailing westerly winds shape this enchanted coastal forest: Sitka spruces, Red alders and Red cedars, flagged and snagged, as if they are petrified from another time. The understory here is lush with Salmonberries, Evergreen huckleberries, Deer ferns and Skunk cabbage. The coast itself hosts many tidepools that are full of red, purple, green and orange sea urchins, sea stars, anemones, barnacles, limpets, whelks, muscles, and thousands of other marine organisms living in crowded, city-like communities. Grab your binoculars and look out over the vast Pacific Ocean, and hopefully you will spot one of the many marine mammals that migrate through here annually: seals, sea lions, orcas, sea otters, gray whales, and even humpback whales! Or you could watch the large abundance of flocks of sea birds making homes on the monoliths: hardened sea stacks that are eroded over time. Double crested cormorants, Oystercatchers, Ospreys, Tuft Puffins, Bald Eagles, and hundreds of other birds thrive and survive in this marine sanctuary.

There are two options for camping here at Rialto: backpack along the wild coast or continue with the theme of car-camping and stay at Mora Campground. If you decide to do the former, be sure to get a backcountry permit and a bear canister at the Forks Ranger Station down the road. And, certainly check the tide tables for there are some unforgiving areas that you must respect with your life. Always pack the 10 essentials for wilderness travel, and most certainly leave no trace on this precious ecosystem. But, hey! If you want to keep it simple let’s head two awesome fuckin’ miles up the road to Mora Campground; a beautiful, lush inland coastal forest awaits you. The Quileute River is just a stone’s throw away in the woods, and you can still hear the roar of the Pacific ocean putting you to sleep with its ebbing and flowing rhythm of the Earths pulsating heart.

Rialto beach.... wild olympic coast..... massive drift logs, sea stacks , humanoid ..........
Rialto Beach, the wild Olympic Coast. Massive drift logs, sea stacks , humanoid...

Our next destination is to the ancient, primeval, temperate rainforest of the Hoh River Valley, where its cold waters cascade from the glacial melt waters of Mount Olympus. This lush and complex forest is so diverse one can be immersed just feet from the trail and feel as if they have stepped back into time to the land of dinosaurs. The Hoh Temperate rainforest can receive up to 140-167 inches of rain per year; that’s 12-14 feet! The trees and understory are blanketed in a vibrant sea of green, including: mosses, spike mosses, ferns, fungi and lichens. Here you have a great chance to see Roosevelt elk grooming through the understory of lady fern and vine maples tucked under the canopy of rigid red alders. Look out to the river for American Dippers and Harlequin ducks that cruise these raging icy waters with expertise, surely to the envy of all kayakers! Or maybe, just maybe, you can spot a bobcat searching for a late salmon run. Or, the elusive cougar, who makes this diverse habitat his home; I have seen cougar tracks and scat out there in the snow, and it can definitely keep you aware of your surroundings. But hey! Don’t be so vain, a nice healthy elk tastes way better than you, and with the largest wild population of Roosevelt elk in the US…they have a lot to choose from!

Tide pool.   sea star and anemones amongst eelgrass.
Tide pool. Sea star and anemones amongst eelgrass.

Not only are there Big Leaf Maples, but also Cottonwoods and Pacific yew festooned in epiphytes; all of these are shadowed by massive 250’+ old growth Sitka spruces, Douglas firs, Western hemlocks and Western red cedars (some that are up to 800 years old!). These living time machines and their co-inhabitants produce biomass (living or once living material) that is three times that of a tropical rainforest. Massive trees like this produce clean drinking water, as well as filter the very air that we breathe by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in their woody tissues; making our lives a lot healthier. Everyone benefits from old-growth trees! Here in the Hoh rainforest there are over 100 different species of lichens, mosses, and liverworts. So grab a seat next to a stump with a guide book, and start naturalizing and see just how many you can discover on your own.

Camping in the Hoh river campground you can get a spot next to the gravel bars of the Hoh river, and watch (or catch!) spawning salmon. And if you are really lucky you just may see a 90 mph flying baked-potato with wings: the Marbled Murrelett! This is a tiny sea bird that makes its bedding of cattail mosses, high in these giant trees upon one of the massive trunk-like branches. This habitat is essential for the survival of this bird, and so many other precious organisms.

the strange phenomena whereby long stemmed plants freeze, resembling a tuft of downy hair made of snow
A beautiful display of feather frost exploding out of a Red Alder branch.

This is the end of my journey with you, but I can’t emphasize enough that this is just a tiny glimpse of what the Olympic peninsula has to offer. As you finish your journey, you can continue on highway 101 to complete the loop through even more coastal, temperate, and subalpine ecosystems. On the other hand, even if you retrace your steps, there are many glorious moments and hidden treasures that you might have missed on the way out. It’s hard not to speak of them all or do them justice. But, just like an old favorite record, this loop just gets better and better with time, and certainly gets you wanting to visit again and again. One thing I always say when I get here is that I would love to stay for a year. In reality, that probably means a lifetime. So go get lost in the wild, America, only to find yourself and connect (or re-connect) with the interwoven fabrics known as the web of life.

a backpacker stands at the foot of a waterfall, the camera lens is covered in water droplets
Kuhar amongst the Olympics

Photograph by Matthew Kuhar