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In recent years, the entire Olympic Peninsula has become a much more busy tourist attraction compared to what it once was. It has certainly become a very discovered place now, especially since the "Twilight" series focuses on Forks and other areas on the wet side of the mountains.
However, despite the level of traffic to the National Park, there are still many areas on the Olympic Peninsula that are lesser visited places. While many of these are not strictly inside the national park boundary, they are on the Olympic Peninsula and thus not that far away, and really should be visited all as a single Olympic Peninsula / Olympic National Park trip or trips.
+ The Makah Indian Reservation and its Museum and Cultural Center. This is as far northwest as you can go without a boat and still be in the state of Washington. You can't get there on highway 101, as it takes a shortcut very far inland. Instead, you must take a series of local roads that end at this furthest tip of the rock we call the Olympic Peninsula. The Makah claim to be the only First Nations people in the lower 48 states that still live on their ancestral lands. The location was so unattractive to settlers that they decided to make the reservation here, where the Makah already were living. http://www.makah.com/exhibits.html
+ Ozette: Ozette also has a First Nations Museum and tribal center. It has been said that the one in Ozette is better than the one at the Makah tribe itself, but the fact is that both are important places. Approximately 500 year ago, a huge landslide destroyed part of the village of Ozette, burying several of the very large cedar longhouses that made up the village, and preserving in a mud casing all of the wood artifacts from the pre-contact age of the tribe. Many of these have now been moved to the Makah center near Neah Bay (above). I have not been out to the far reaches of the Peninsula for a very long time, but I highly suggest examining the possibility of visiting both locations. http://www.makah.com/ozettesite.html
Olympic National Park is not as noted a wildlife viewing park as Yellowstone but actually has one of the most diverse ecosystems of any park due to its many terrains. While many associate the park primarily with the coastal region and therefore have images of sea-based animals, the park is home to many inland mammals such as the Roosevelt Elk. In fact, the park was originally established primarily to protect them and remains home to the largest herd in North America. Olympic Elk bulls can weight up to 1100 lbs and feed on a variety of plants depending on their habit. Often found grazing in the Hoh Rainforest, they often move up to higher elevations in the heat of summer to cool off.
One day while hiking on the High Divide Trail, we stopped to have a drink of water. The trail was narrow so we stood sideways next to each other to share the bottle. Admiring the view, I noticed what looked like logs on a huge snowy patch across the valley. I pulled out my camera with its zoom and was surprised to see a huge group of Roosevelt Elk smartly lounging on the snow. I guess air-conditioning has been in use long before we “invented” it.
When you go to Africa, there are certain animals you want to see. Some are common, some less so. Everyone wants to see an elephant and they generally do. Not everyone sees a leopard. Sea otters are perhaps the most sought animal sighting in the Pacific Northwest. The rare and illusive creature is generally active at dusk and dawn which accounts for its not being seen by many park visitors. Though they are making a comeback from near extinction thanks to conservation efforts, they are still nowhere near their peak population of 300,000. Sadly, they were hunted down to a mere 1000 by 1911 when the practice was internationally banned.
Living near shore but almost entirely in the ocean, the largest member of the weasel family can reach up to 100 lbs and feeds by diving to fetch crustaceans, mollusks, and sea urchins. Though shaped a bit like sea lions, they do not have a layer of blubber for insulation, relying on the thickest fur coat in the animal kingdom to stay warm in their frigid water habitat.
We had spent the afternoon walking the full length of Second Beach. The weather was gorgeous and we were very satisfied with our two days at the Olympic National Park beaches. We had gotten lucky with the weather, seeing Rialto in its typical atmospheric fog before it burned off in time for late afternoon light for photos followed by a stunning sunset.
Second Beach had been a bit anti-climatic but was a pleasant place for a late afternoon stroll. It was now low tide once again and we meandered over to check some tide-pools but after seeing so many sea stars the days prior, it no longer held the same excitement. I joked that all we hadn't seen was a sea otter which would make our visit perfect. Just then, a couple nearby motioned for us to come over. We did as quickly as we could in lieu of the slippery terrain. Once there, they pointed over to a pair of sea otters playing on a rock. I was never so happy to have a 450mm image stabilized lens in my life. They played on the rocks, jumped in and out of the water and if anyone believed animals do not have the emotion of enjoyment, just watch a sea otter frolic. We should enjoy ourselves that much. Sea otters' numbers have rebounded but they are still considered endangered. Consider yourself lucky to see one and hopefully the experience will make you realize how man is just one creature on this planet, one meant to be shared by all.
One of the things that makes the Olympic Peninsula beaches so rugged is the preponderance of driftwood. I grew up on the groomed beaches of New Jersey and anything that man didn't need on the beach was just taken away, including much of the dunes before they realized the devastating effect that had on beach erosion. Driftwood was something they sold in gift shops on the boardwalk. I could barely believe my eyes when I saw the real thing, often massive trunks of trees dried with salt from the sun and wind. While it can be a nuisance for man on public beaches, posing great danger to swimmers and a lack of space to spread out the old beach towel, it does provide shelter and nutrients as shipworms and bacteria decompose it. It is very much part of the natural order of things and this being a National Park dedicated to preserving such order, the driftwood belongs just where it is. Along with providing natural benches to sit on and make-shift bridges to cross engorged streams running to the sea, it makes for some very haunting photographic opportunities.
The mountain goat seems to elicit much debate with regard to it belonging in Olympic National Park. Park officials argue that the animal is wrecking havoc on a fragile ecosystem and threatening to destroy one endangered plant in particular. They have used chemical sterilization but on an animal that rose from a group of 11 introduced in the 1920s to over 1000 in the 1980s, they claim perhaps rightly that the only way to eradicate them is to kill them. Proponents of the goats say the plants are not at threat and that the goats play a role in the changed landscape of the park. Animal lovers everywhere are up in arms and pretty much anyone who has seen one while hiking can't imagine the park without them.
I think the goats likely do no more harm than do humans in the park. It would have to be proven irrefutably to justify their mass extermination. I remember my first time seeing one and to the novice I assumed it was a native animal. It sure didn't look like any goat I had ever seen. These beautiful and powerful animals are so well-suited for the mountains that even the best human climber would admit their right to share the peaks.
Backpackers may find the goats a bit of a nuisance as they come into camps looking for anything salty, including surrounding vegetation that has been urinated on. It is fairly typical for backpackers in need for such relief to pee outside their tents rather than walk often a fair distance in the dark wilderness to a pit toilet. I have to admit to doing it myself on occasion. On telling a ranger about a goat coming all too close to our tent one night, he explained that the goats are just looking for salt and that urine has a high concentration of it. By peeing around the tent, we're basically putting out a welcome sign for the goats to stop by for a midnight snack! Of course, without such offerings, goats may look for their salt fix elsewhere like on the straps of your backpack or in your boots, all full of your tasty sweat.
My take is we put the goats here not exactly of their own free will and just because we didn't like the way the experiment worked out, they shouldn't be wiped out on what to them is certainly a similar whim. Maybe we need to think about our effect on the environment before acting. That goes for more than just the National Parks.
Salt Creek Recreation Area may not be part of the national park system but it lacks not for scenic beauty. It's actually a county park on the northern side of the Olympic Peninsula, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Vancouver Island. They have a nice campground very suitable for families with a good size kiddie playground. Rangers at the Olympic National park suggest the park not only for tide pool exploration but also for taking showers. The showers at the campground are pay by coin and open to the public. We used the facility a couple of times and it's clean and quite pleasant. If the camping in the Olympic NP was not so great we might have stayed here. For those seeking a less natural and more organized campground, Salt Creek is a great choice.
There are a few trails and a number of tide-pools to explore. While we were there for our showers, we decided to check one of them out and it was a truly beautiful place early in the morning. Tides vary from place to place and rangers at Olympic will give you a free tide chart with times for various spots on the peninsula. They will make suggestions on where to go and when which is very handy if your time is limited. If you only have between 10 and 12 to check out tide-pools, you want to give yourself the best opportunity to find one at low tide.
It is 15 miles or a half hour west from Port Angeles, WA. Follow Highway 101 to Highway 112, fork to right. After approximately 9 miles turn north onto Camp Hayden Road (near milepost 54). Travel approximately 3 miles, and the Park entrance will be on your right.
Entrance is free. Showers are timed by amount of quarters. $1 each was more than enough for us.
While not as spectacular as the sea star, the sea anemone is another interesting and color predator. This seemingly harmless creature looks like a blob of jelly and for good reason, they are closely related to the jellyfish though have none of its cousin's bad reputation for stinging us. Though they are quite adept at stinging and paralyzing their prey, some species seem immune to their powers like the clown fish who seek refuge in their host's tentacles. They luckily have no effect on us either aside from a sticky feeling produced by the nematocystes released to stun prey. It's a strange feeling to stick your finger into one and see it close on it but not an altogether bad one. Go on, try it. It evidently does not harm the creature as park rangers demonstrate it and tell you to give it a try yourself.
Sea stars are a favorite of children and adults alike with their more than fitting name. Very much from the sea, there is something from outer space about them beyond their five pointed name. These colorful creatures vary greatly with over 2000 species living in all the world's oceans. They can reach sizes of up to 10 inches and over 10 pounds. Their bony calcified skin is quite rough to the tough and protects them well from predators which they are very much themselves. These carnivores eat their prey in a most otherworldly fashion, prying clams and oysters open with their formidable suction-cupped feet, oozing their stomach into the mollusk, and digesting them outside their body. Sounds like a marine flying saucer to me.
If you have never seen one in the wild, you are in for a treat. If you go to tide-pools on the Olympic Peninsula at low tide you are bound to see hundreds of them. Orange and purple seem to be the flavor of the day.
Lake Quinalt Rainforest is a smaller rainforest than the Hoh Rainforest, but worth a side trip. The road goes all around the lake for several miles but you don't have to go far to see some amazing rainforest. Fairly near to the entrance on the north side of the lake you will see a signpost for a 'Big Cedar'. A 10 minute hike mostly uphill through mossy trees and ferns will bring you to a huge cedar.
I'm an early morning person by nature. When I'm on the west coast, I never seem to shift over to the Pacific Time Zone. So my natural inclination as an early riser combined with my biorhythmic belief that its 3 hours later make for some really early mornings. I'm grateful for this. There are few people out and about and I always manage to catch a killer sunrise somewhere.
This glorious morning was a perfect example. I managed to pull over and catch a few glimpses of the sun rising over Storm King and lighting up the waters of Lake Crescent. I suppose I should have pulled over before shooting the first picture so that it would be a little less lopsided. But there's just something about the sunrise on a clear day over beautiful scenery that captivates me. So much so that I have camera in hand before car is in park. I guess it was a good thing that there were no cars on the road.
After a full day of hiking, the shores of Lake Crescent are a great place to relax. The are a bunch of pullouts along the road which offer great views and the opportunity to relax by the shore. The water is freezing, but we didn't mind much after some hot and sweaty hiking.
In this picture, its pretty clear that Guy now understands what 1,000 feet per mile really means.
Heading west from Port Angeles, Elwha is one of the first turn-offs you will see. Many people speed right past it because its not Hurricane Ridge or the rain forest. That is a mistake.
Elwha is a mist shrouded valley with a short road which provides spectacular views of the Olympics. What many people may not know, and I was one of them, is that there are few opportunities to see the Olympics once you pass Hurricane Ridge unless you're doing some backcountry hiking. That alone is reason enough to stop here. Near the entrance, a short trail leads to a not so spectacular waterfall. The road continues on and branches off at Whiskey Bend. This is a five mile one way road with turnoffs so that you can move aside if someone is coming in the other direction. Since I did not realize that all the good hikes started from the top of this road, I decided to skip it since I've had many troubles on one way roads. Hopefully, you won't make that same mistake because there are some great hikes up there. The road continues and eventually becomes a winding gravel road with little of scenic value. Just before the turn towards the gravel road, you'll come to the base of the lake, which has the best unobstructed view of the mountains.
There is also a campground here which might be a good bet if you're looking for a spot on a crowded summer weekend, as the main campgrounds fill up pretty quickly.
Deer Park may be one of the worst 11-mile drives in the world. It's one-lane all the way, with a steep dropoff while going up. At the end of the road, you can stroll the Rainshadow Trail for views of the area, as well as summit Blue Mt. If I ever go again, I'd hike in from Hurricane Ridge.
This beautiful river valley is rarely visited, but contains beautiful and dense rain forest as well as a few trails. During my visit, I only spent a few hours here, but if I come back in the future, I'll spend more. One the dirt road leading into the valley, there are many points where you can view the river and the high peaks of the Olympics in the distance.
As you drive in and around Olympic National Park, watch for signs pointing to big trees. For example, the World's largest Alaska-cedar tree is in the southeast end of the park. Watch the roadsigns carefully, and look at the map (which you can get from the enterance to the park or at ranger stations) and, for these overlooked giants. There are several on the southeast side of the park near Hwy 101.