Washington's Coolest Rainforest

May 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

The thick foliage of Olympic National Park

Established 1938
922,651 Acres
FEW NATIONAL PARKS make picking your poison so gut-wrenching: Should you light out for the 7,000-foot-and-higher peaks, glaciers, and sparkling lakes of the Olympic Peninsula's interior? The rugged headlands and tidepools of the 57-mile Coastal Strip, the longest ribbon of primitive coastline in the Lower 48? Or the moist air, gushing cascades, and brooding old growth of the temperate rainforest? Tough call, but this should help: For a gratifying combo of remoteness, adventure, and greenery so lush you'd almost swear you can hear the plants breathing, set aside three or four days to BACKPACK a portion of the 31-mile out-and-back Queets River Trail, in the park's southwestern spur. To reach the trailhead, coax your jalopy 45 minutes or so from mile marker 144 on U.S. 101 along a one-lane gravel washboard, and then strap on your Tevas to ford two rivers, the shallow Sams and the trickier Queets, one of 13 major streams that drain the Olympic Mountains. (Though the distance isn't long, take caution crossing the Queets; the riverbed is rocky, uneven, and slimy in spots.) From the far bank, mostly level trail meanders through a wonderland that contains about as much biomass as anywhere on earth: hypertrophic Sitka spruces, Douglas firs, hemlocks, red cedars draped with epiphytes, and ferny undergrowth. Plus you'll find riverside sandbars inviting quick dunks in the martini-cold Queets and many a well-situated tent site. Elk herds have been known to make a cameo. Words to the wise: Pay close attention the last three miles before the trail turn-around, because the path is easily lost here; rainfall during your journey could swell the river and strand you on the wrong side; and bear-resistant food canisters are yours to borrow from any ranger station ($3 suggested donation).
WHEN TO GO: After Labor Day, when summer crowds have ebbed and the weather's still relatively unsoggy.
ANNUAL VISITORS: 4.18 million. (High: August, 732,335. Low: January, 158,250.)
MORE CHOICE ADVENTURE: Take a full-moon HIKE in the mostly treeless Obstruction Peak area off winding Hurricane Ridge Road (if you luck into clear skies); SOAK yourself at Sol Duc Hot Springs in the park's northern quarters.
HEADLAMP READING:Olympic Mountains Trail Guide: National Park and National Forest, by Robert L. Wood; Cascade-Olympic Natural History, by Daniel Mathews
LOCAL SPECIALTY: Many a hiker has replenished his lipids with a greasy burger and a blackberry shake at Granny's Cafe, on U.S. 101 between Port Angeles and Lake Crescent.
INSIDE SCOOP: As national-park corpse stories go, it's hard to top this one: In 1937, a local waitress named Hallie Illingsworth vanished unaccountably. Three years later, two fishermen on Lake Crescent, a 600-foot-deep glacial reservoir along the park's northern boundary, discovered her floating body. It had risen from the lake's sunless bottom, where in the 44-degree water it had saponified—changed to the consistency, as eyewitnesses put it, of Ivory soap. Shortly thereafter, her third husband was convicted of her murder.
PARK HEADQUARTERS: 360-565-3130, www.nps.gov/olym