Saturday, September 3, 2011

Olympic National Park--Three In One

There is more to Washington than its infamous volcano. In the state's northwestern corner, quite outside of the crabby St. Helen's reach, stands a mountain range that has never witnessed smoke plumes nor worn mud-blast scars. It is called Olympic.

Unlike the Cascades, the Olympics are not old volcanoes. Born of mud and sand, then glaciated into a tangle of peaks, the rugged domes rise sharply above the Olympic Peninsula. Grandeur preserved. For the highest and harshest of these mountains lie within the 1,400 square miles known as Olympic National Park.

Though nearly circled by U.S. 101, the park itself is 95 percent roadless. Ten spur roads lead for short distances into the interior; none cross its wilderness. This park will forever belong to the one willing to walk and its more than 600 trail-miles can be hour, day, or week segments.


The Hoh Rainforest
Three of the spur roads on the park's west side follow along the Quinault, Queets, and Hoh river valleys, penetrating the creme-de-menthe maze called rain forest. The Quinault and Queets roads are mostly gravel, unsuitable for trailers. Upper Hoh River Road is paved. All areas offer campgrounds, trout fishing, and rare sights of the park's Roosevelt elk.

Summer months on the valley floor are usually fair and warm as the heaviest precipitation--145 inches annually--falls between October and March. The abundant rain, combined with the mild coastal winters, has produced an optimum forest, unequaled on this continent.

Naturalist, Roger Tory Peterson said, "...the Olympic rain forest contains the greatest weight of living matter, per acre, in the world." It  must be so for it is near impossible to find one square inch of soil not supporting life. Spruce, hemlock, fir, and redcedar dominate the realm, with a vast understory of deciduous trees and shrubs.

Mantles of thick clubmoss upholster everything in sight, creating an emerald world mostly devoid of sound. Light is diffused from leaf to vine to fern until even the air seems tinged with green twilight. Little wonder this coniferous kingdom was the determining factor in UNESCO's decision to declare Olympic National Park a World Heritage Site. Forests like this will never be common again.


Ruby Beach
The park's seacoast strip is one mile wide and fifty long. Within that stretch are two campgrounds, two Indian Reservations, a world reknown archaeological dig, and a coastline labeled one of the wildest in the nation.

The entire strip lacks development and is practically roadless. The southern portion is easily accessible with U.S. 101 paralleling 12 miles of shoreline from Kalaloch to Ruby Beach. Access roads at the strips mid-point lead to the Hoh and Quileute Reservations and at the colorful Indian village of LaPush, salmon charters are plentiful. The season usually runs from May through August, with no license required.

Both Kalaloch and Mora-Rialto Beach afford lodging, dining, and camping. The area harbors a horde of razor clams along with crab, smelt, and surf fish. Though a license is not needed, all are subject to season and limit.

Toward the strips northern end lies Cape Alava, the most westerly point in the contiguous United States. Centuries ago mud slides buried the Makah village built here. Since 1970, Washington State University archaeologists, in conjunction with the Makah Tribe, have excavated this 500 year-old "Pompeii in mud." Today, the Ozette Archaeological Project conducts free tours, interpreting the site's history.


Hurricane Ridge
Two spur roads just east of Port Angeles bring the interior Olympics within easy view. The road to Deer Park is mostly one-way dirt; Hurricane Ridge Road is well paved two lane. Deer Park offers camping; Hurricane Ridge does not. Yet both areas provide sweeping panoramas of glaciered peaks, sloping meadows, whaleback ridges, and ice-honed valleys.

Hurricane Ridge is popular summer and winter. Approximately 30 minutes from Port Angeles via the park's main Visitor Center and Pioneer Museum, the summit rises from sea level to ski level. Road's end consists of a parking area, hiking trails, picnic areas, and a day-use lodge featuring light meals, gift shop, and authentic Indian crafts.

December to April, the ridge provides weekend skiers with full facilities. Memorial Day to mid-September, it is a painter's palette of wildflowers, meadow grasses, and gnarled firs.

Because the Olympics are not a true mountain range, the 180 degree southward view is one of jagged peaks apparently having no rhyme or reason. Seeming more a jumble of sawtoothed pinnacles, they lie smothered in unfathomable snow and ice.

There are more then  60 glaciers on these mountains, covering an area in excess of 25 square miles. Most are not as large as those on near-by Mt. Rainier. Some are bigger than any within Glacier National Park.

Northward vistas revel the Little River Cirque, Port Angeles, and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca with Vancouver Island across the channel--sometimes clearly visible; most often fog-shrouded.

Within Olympic's wilderness miles, mountain goats scale the crags and marmots dine amidst flower fields. Black bear prowl coastal tidepools and bald eagles soar out to fish. Waves continue crashing against the cliffs and spindly-legged sandpipers scoot along the spindrift. Sea clouds billow inland, dropping their staggering rainfall. Tumbling streams and rivers return the moisture seaward.

Times here seems little changed. Within the diversity of Olympic's undeveloped expanse, the life-cycle continues. Neither searing mud blasts nor ash storms have fractured the fragile eco-system. In this snug corner of Washington, the web remains unbroken.

No comments:

Post a Comment