Our National Parks: Olympic National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Olympic National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362
Established 1938
922,653 Acres

The Big Picture: Its soggy reputation and inauspicious location on a horn-shaped peninsula south of Seattle conjure up images of Big Mossy--which is fine, since this keep most visitors from realizing that Olympic might be the most magnificently varied park in the system, a miniature New Zealand without the sheep. To the west, there's a craggy 57-mile strip of coast; in the middle, there are prehistorically thick stands of hemlock, fir, and spruce; and to the east are alpine meadows, glaciers, and shy Roosevelt elk whose loud bugling suggests a comparison to their namesake, Teddy, who got things started by creating a national monument here in 1909. These boons come at a price, of course, the most vivid example being the clear-cuts that surround the park. Since it was named a national monument, Olympic has shrunk by half because of persistent lobbying by timber interests, and the original old-growth rainforest that once blanketed the peninsula's western half has been almost eradicated. Still, there are plenty of good places that Seattle weekenders haven't discovered, and in some of them you won't even get rained on. Honest.

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 3,368,182 total visitors, 78,000 backcountry visitors

To Hurricane Ridge, a winding 17-mile road with numerous switchbacks, or to the three mineral pools at Sol Duc Hot Springs. Many camp at Enchanted Valley, the beach at Kalaloch and Seven Lakes Basin, each of which turns into a thronging tent-city from June to September. Of the park's rainforests, Hoh Valley is the most visited, and for good reason: Its thick canopy makes it seem like you're utterly and completely alone. Even when you aren't.

Where You Should Go: Unlike some parks, where you have to plum-out pockets of backcountry, the rule at Olympic is to sidestep the pockets of crowds and make your choice based on whether you prefer coast, rainforest, or mountains--and be aware that rain need not always be a part of your plans. Though Mount Olympus is the rainiest spot in the Lower 48 (200 inches a year), you need only travel 40 miles to the east to get to the hamlet of Sequim, which receives a grand total of 17 inches a year.

Along the coast, head north from Kalaloch to the less-crowded shores of Ozette Lake and Cape Alava, where you can camp anywhere along the coast and watch northwestern crows crack clams by dropping them on the rocks. To get the feel of the rainforest, head for the Bogachiel region, reached via an unmarked logging road about six miles off U.S. 101, ten miles south of Forks. Be warned: This is the real McCoy, complete with daily cloudbursts, 90 species of epiphytes--fast-growing underbrush that frustrates trail maintenance--and, thankfully, a well-maintained shelter 17 miles from the trailhead (that's three to four days of hiking). Pick up a backcountry permit at any ranger station or trailhead, and if you need a guide, try the ironically-named James Watts (206-942-5239), who offers llama trips for $85 a day, including food but not tents or sleeping bags. Of course, you can always entertain yourself by taking advantage of those creatures that are wetter than you: The Bogachiel River is full of hungry trout. And should you arrive at Olympic to find the major campgrounds full, as they sometimes are during summer peak periods, you can overnight at Lake Crescent, where there's open ground and a good sunset view. Try the North Shore or La Poel picnic areas, or just anywhere--the park owns 90 percent of the shoreline. And, wherever you choose to go, bring insect repellent with deet. Though many parts of Olympic are dry, the mosquitoes don't seem to have noticed.

Don't Forget: To pick up a tide book if you plan on doing any beachcombing. The shore is craggy and remote, and the moon's pull can quickly make hikers overly aware of the fact usually known only to hydrologists: that "wave shock" along the Olympic coast is higher than almost anywhere else on the continent.

Where to Bunk: A cabin with a fireplace and a view of the ocean at Kalaloch Lodge ($90-$125 for a double; 206-962-2271) or the recently restored Lake Crescent Lodge, which has good views of, yes, the lake ($100 for a double; 206-928-3211).

Food Is: Pretty tasty and relatively plentiful--especially if you're having the patty melt with extra onions and cheese at the Hungry Bear, a roadhouse on Highway 101 about 20 minutes east of the Dosewallips park entrance.

Park Lore: One of the park's highest peaks is named after Matt Mathias, a prolific logger who fought establishment of the park in the thirties and at the time was noted for his remarkably thorough timber plan, which entailed cutting down every tree on the Olympic Peninsula. According to the Park Service, Mathias warranted the honor because of his "contributions to the park."

Your Park Service at Work: Though much hue and cry has been raised about the Park Service's halfhearted attempts to remove the 500 mountain goats that were introduced by hunters in the twenties and are now denuding vegetation and causing erosion (an estimated 40 tons of silt in one wallow) at a record pace, Olympic's rangers are not always so indecisive. Last year, upon realizing that a Kiwanis Club youth camp was located on Park Service land and not on private land as had been previously thought, Superintendent Maureen Finnerty decided to take seriously the Park Service doctrine that its lands be "unimpaired." After the Kiwanis failed to bring the buildings up to health and safety standards, a squadron of Olympic's finest torched the counselors' quarters and the mess hall that had served 300 local youth each summer since the fifties. "It was like a strategic hit during the Gulf War," said one witness. Afterward, park officials admitted that they had failed to conduct a historical review of the buildings--usually standard procedure--before burning them. As a result, Congress administered a firm slap to Finnerty, directing her to issue a ten-year special-use permit for continued operation of the camp. Of course, park rangers not only take from the land--they can give back as well. Ten years ago, park officials paid $100,000 to acquire a piece of private property, asserting that it was important elk habitat. It was, but upon purchasing the area they changed their minds and turned it into a dump.

Where the money goes:
Budget: $6,094,800
Science: 2.4%
Visitor services: 18.5%
Maintenance: 51%
Other: 28.1%

Flashlight Reading: Footprints in the Olympics: An Autobiography of Chris Morgenroth, by Katherine Morgenroth Flaherty (Ye Galleon Press, $14.95); Olympic Mountains Trail Guide, by Robert Wood (The Mountaineers Books, $12.95).

Fun Index: Rain? What rain? 4.5

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