We love something about every national park we have visited, but some parks are so dazzling that they become imprinted in our memories, and we could return again and again. Olympic National Park is now one of those parks. Just ten years ago, I was not even familiar with the existence of Olympic National Park. In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that the first time I learned about the Olympic Peninsula was from the National Geographic Channel show The Legend of Mick Dodge! After seeing that show, I began to hear from colleagues about their visits to the park. When we decided to start our travels in the Pacific Northwest, the Olympic Peninsula became a priority destination.
We couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit. We explored the Olympic Peninsula for a little more than two weeks from late September into early October, and we enjoyed multiple mosquito-free clear and sunny days, some light rain in the rain forests, and a taste of the intense storms on the west coast as the stormy wet season began. We spent one week on the north side of the park, camping at the KOA in Port Angeles and ten days on the west side of the park exploring from our basecamp at the Riverview RV Park in Forks. We hiked dry mountaintops, walked through wet forests packed full of life, explored one of the world’s longest naturally occurring sand spits, and marveled at the stunning landscapes of the peninsula’s west coast. Words can hardly do justice to this incredibly diverse, brimming with life, and stunningly beautiful corner of the world, so I will let our photographs guide you through our journey with a story here and there. If you have not yet visited the Olympic Peninsula, we urge you to add it to your list.
This post began as one long post, but we had so many fantastic photographs to share that we decided to divide it into multiple posts. In this post we’ll share with you our explorations on the north side of the park.
Sol Duc Falls Trail
This was our first taste of the rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula. Every surface was soaking wet and supporting multiple colorful life forms from mushrooms to mosses to lichens. The trailhead is a good hour and a half drive from Port Angeles, but a scenic one with views of Lake Crescent and the forest along Sol Duc River. The falls are an easy mile-long walk through the rainforest, but the slick, muddy trail requires some caution. The impressive Sol Duc Falls can be viewed from a bridge over the river and a path along the river. We enjoyed the walk through the rainforest so much that we just had to explore a little further. We saw a sign for Deer Lake and got ambitious and started hiking in that direction. The plant life was diverse and colorful. It was continuously changing, egging us on to see what was around the next corner. However, the trail was mostly composed of wet, slippery rocks, and searching for steady places to plant our feet was making us exhausted. We realized that the lake was just too far for an afternoon hike, so we reluctantly turned around. The extra hike beyond the falls was worth our time though, for the variety of plant life, the taste of huckleberries on the trail, and the giant, green banana slug we found in the moss on the way back.
Hurricane Ridge to Klahhane Ridge
Because we stayed in Port Angeles for a week, we were able to choose the clearest day for the views from Hurricane Ridge, the most accessible mountain ridge on the northern side of the park that provides expansive views at an elevation of 5,242 feet. A 40-minute drive from Port Angeles takes you to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center on the top of the ridge. You can hang out and take in the views from there or take one of several hikes along the ridge. We took the hike to Klahhane Ridge, which totaled 7.54 miles round trip with a total ascent of 2,300 feet. The hike follows Hurricane Ridge and then drops down and back up a series of switchbacks to the top of Klahhane Ridge.
We could not have picked a better day for the hike! The temperature rose to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit by the afternoon, the sky was clear, and there was a light breeze. Up on the ridge the habitats consisted of dry coniferous forests and open meadows, very different from the rainforests down in the valleys. Along the entire trail we took in views of the Olympic Mountains, the Cascades, Port Angeles, Sequim, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the impressive Mt. Baker and even Canada in the distance.
It was a challenging hike for both of us, considering we are not in the best of health, but we put one foot in front of the other and kept a focus on the present moment and enjoyed every bit of it. We rested halfway up the switchbacks to Klahhane Ridge and watched as a male black-tailed deer foraged on the slope directly above us. As soon as we reached Klahhane Ridge, the wind blasted us in the face. We stood rigid against the wind and took in the impressive views as our hands began to freeze. After a few moments of awe, we took refuge again by hiking back down the southern slope into the warm sun and out of the wind. On our return trip, we ran across a chatty group of gray jays and watched a glorious pink sunset from the ridge top as clouds began to roll in. Near the end of the trail in the twilight, we spooked a snowshoe hare still in his brown summer coat, and he flashed out of sight and down the hill. The winds picked up, and the chill settled in as we slowly pushed our achy legs and feet to carry us to the finish line and the warmth and protection of our truck.
Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge
One of the world’s longest natural sand spits, Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge juts out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the coast of Sequim (pronounced skwim). This five-mile-long spit creates a calm bay behind it along with extensive tidal mudflats and rocky and sandy habitats important to resting and foraging migrating shorebirds. Although some people enjoy the challenge of walking five miles in the sand to the lighthouse at the end of the spit, we were there for the birds. Hiking the spit is best at or near low tide, because high tide will push hikers up onto the large driftwood that has collected on the sand, which can be difficult to navigate and can be dangerous if the tide reaches it.
We enjoyed the forested walk along the bluff above the sand spit as well as the views of Mt. Baker, the lighthouse, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the beach. We saw lots of surf scoters, common and red-throated loons, and a pair of marbled murrelets as well as the usual seashore suspects. Although this was a good spot to find birds to add to our life lists, it turned out to be a rather quiet day. Still, it was a peaceful, scenic beach walk.
For our last day on the north side of Olympic National Park we chose to challenge ourselves with another uphill hike, this time to Lake Angeles. This hike begins just at the north edge of the park boundary off of Hurricane Ridge Road. It starts off winding through a moist forest full of foliage and crossing the creek on bridges cut from downed trees. The trail then ascends from the moist valley to the dry side of the mountain, and the monotonous switchbacks begin. This part of the forest is composed of younger, densely packed conifers, and the forest floor is completely covered in downed trees, branches, and needles. The detritus is piled so high that there is no understory growth whatsoever. It is dark and cold, and the switchbacks seem to go on forever. We were hungry for a snack about halfway up, and we kept going, thinking that we might find a patch of sun to sit in around the next bend. We eventually gave up and parked ourselves on the steep slope next to the trail for a quick snack before our fingers froze.
The scenery finally changed when we emerged from the dark switchbacks and reached the top of the mountain. Here there were patches of sunlight and all sorts of colorful vegetation again. We followed the trail to the left, and there it was, deep blue and green Lake Angeles, surrounded by steep mountain slopes on three sides with a forested island in the middle. Just another breathtaking view on the Olympic Peninsula!
On our way back down we caught a glimpse of a bobcat climbing around the downed trees in the creek corridor. Michael exchanged stares with the cat before he disappeared into the vegetation. He was a different color than the bobcats of southern California – a reddish brown that blended well with the bark of the conifers.
Since I was planning to start my next antibiotic treatment for SIBO the following day, I decided it was an excuse to feed the bacteria and eat a pizza for the first time in a year and a half! Actively metabolizing bacteria are more susceptible to antibiotics than dormant bacteria, so it is best to feed them during a course of antibiotics. I did my research and selected a local pizza joint with rave reviews in Port Angeles called Gordy’s Pizza and Pasta. We had an “Extravaganza Pizza” that was simply loaded with toppings. I figured if I was going to get just one pizza, it ought to be a good one, and Gordy’s did not disappoint!