Looking for a unique driving trip, complete with variety, simplicity, and history? How about the diversity of visiting rain forests, mountains, glaciers, coastlines, lakes, and rivers all in one place. Impossible?
Look no further than Olympic National Park, located on the Olympic peninsula in Washington. At almost one million acres and encompassing several different ecosystems, Olympic seems to have it all.
Hunters, whalers, explorers, and at least eight different Olympic Peninsula tribes of Native Americans have called this area home for a long time…over 2,900 years, at least. We now call it Olympic National Park…since 1938, that is.
Driving past and through an old growth temperate rain forest is humbling to say the least. Stop and experience a piece of that rain forest up close. These massive conifers stand over 25 stories tall. That’s hard to comprehend, even when you’re standing at the bottom, trying to find the sky above. Look closely to distinguish different shades of green from forest floor emerald green to treetop Christmas green. Listen to the quiet. Step over fallen trees that look like they contain enough lumber for a good sized house.
Continue driving and the Pacific Ocean appears, complete with fog and gray skies. With about 75 miles of wilderness coastline and 490 offshore islands, Olympic National Park contains one of the longest and most dramatic stretches of uninterrupted coast in the United States. While you can’t exactly drive all of that coastline, take the time to stop at strategically placed view points along the highway. Most likely, you’ll pull out your camera to capture the rocky headlands, eroded arches, and off shore sea stacks. But, it just doesn’t do it justice.
Don’t forget your rain gear, either. They don’t report inches of rain here…they talk in feet. Fourteen to eighteen feet of rain every year is impressive and important to the green carpet beneath you and the canopy above you. Could be that’s why this is a rain forest, huh? This primeval temperate rain forest is unique in many aspects. Rain forests like this one used to exist from southern Oregon to southeast Alaska. Not so much, anymore however. Now, they only exist in Chile, New Zealand, and southern Australia. We’re fortunate to be able to visit up close and personal here.
Okay, you’ve seen the Pacific with its wild coastline and the trees just don’t stop. Looking for lakes?
One favorite is Lake Crescent, the result of glacial action. It’s deep, over 600 feet, and cold. Bluish-green in color, it’s also so clear you can often see at least 60 feet down. Why? The lake has very little nitrogen, which limits the growth of phytoplankton, the algae found in many lakes. Weaving along the highway in and out of the forest offers glimpses of Lake Crescent, often postcard perfect. From a distance, blue-black trees huddle up next to the shoreline and seem to disappear into the dark water.
Want to explore some more? Hike one of the eight trails around the lake and depending upon your level of hiking, you can climb up to a 90 foot waterfall, you can step over previous landside areas, you can wander through old growth forests, or hike to some ridge views that make you feel like you’re on top of the world.
With this much diversity and seemingly countless opportunities for exploring, Olympic National Park is more than a one day trip. Especially if you want to get to know this grand old park. US Highway 101 takes you around the entire park and you could hurry your way around it. Would you see rain forests, unspoiled coastline, glacier carved lakes that make you feel like you’re in northern Italy, miles and miles of old trees, and countless logging trucks? Sure…but not well.
Instead, take some more time to really get to know and explore this special piece of America. Visitor centers offer maps, exhibits, and rangers who will answer questions and give information. A great place to stop is at the one located in Port Angeles. Others are located in the Hoh Rain Forest area and Hurricane Ridge.
Why visit now? Our National Parks turn 100 years old in 2016, so this is the perfect time to visit Olympic National Park. Watch out, though…it will steal your heart like no other park. After all…it’s not like any other National Park we have. I think Einstein was correct…there is simplicity here.
If you go: Olympic National Park is open 24 hours a day, year round. Some roads, campgrounds, and trails are only open seasonally, however. Check the National Park Service website for additional information, http://www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm.