Saturday, July 11, 2009

Olympic Peninsula

Originally published in the Post Register.
The name of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula conjures imagery worthy of Greek gods and such.

In great measure, it delivers.

Beyond the natural grandeur, the peninsula feels so… remote. Most of the coastline and much of the interior are inside Olympic National Park and beyond the reach of developers and loggers, preserving the feeling of wilderness. The lodging tends to be spartan or, at best, rustic. The trails and beaches are nearly eerily bereft of people by Yellowstone or Grand Teton standards.

Don’t go there for the cuisine (save, perhaps, the occasional smoked salmon), and be prepared to look past the logged out areas outside the national park boundaries (Olympic’s interior and coastal sections are separated by miles of private and Forest Service land). But if it is relative solitude and unmatchable scenery you seek, by all means go.

This is not a day trip, even if your starting point is Seattle. Getting to the heart of the peninsula requires a ferry trip and a meandering drive of two or more hours. Anything less than three days won’t get the job done.

Our visit starts with a hop up I-5 from Seattle to the ferry in Edmonds. Ferries leave for Kingston, just across the Puget Sound, about every 45 minutes for the very reasonable cost of $18.25 for two people and a car. It’s a 25-minute smooth glide across the water, where we drive off the ferry and head toward our destination, Sol Duc Hot Springs inside Olympic National Park.

My wife, Kathleen, and I are disappointed to find that in an immense ancient forest, the Sol Duc Resort’s cabins are in a clearing devoid of any trees of consequence. The rooms are, even by national park standards, bland. After sweeping cobwebs and the odd critter or two from each corner of the ceiling, we head off to the trailhead for Sol Duc Falls.

Less than two miles up the trail we find the falls. The pictures don’t do it justice. Pouring in four separate torrents off a rock shelf, the Sole Duck River (yes, the springs and falls are spelled sans the “e” and the “k” – don’t ask me why the difference) drops 20 feet into a narrow chasm, spraying mist and sending a roar echoing into the forest. It’s a grand scene.

On day two, we head to the coast through mile after mile of logging country that, according to the signs, has been cyclically harvested and replanted. Being a serious consumer of wood (this newspaper has cost countless trees their lives), I’m not opposed to cutting down trees. It’s just that the aftermath is a tad disconcerting.

We spend the day under a heavy marine layer hiking and generally wandering two of the region’s most beautiful beaches, Second Beach (named, no doubt, by the same unimaginative person who named First Beach, Third Beach, and Beaches One through Six stretching along the park’s coastline) and Rialto Beach. Each is rugged, gorgeous, windswept, unspoiled, and punctuated by seastacks, needles and arches.

We dine in Forks, a logging town where flannel shirts may not be required attire, but they’re clearly highly recommended. The smoked salmon at the Smokehouse Restaurant on the edge of town is as advertised – delectable.

We spend the night between Forks and the coast at Manitou Lodge, a comfortable bed and breakfast inn where our host is Ed Murphy – a former cancer researcher who, on this night, is bemoaning the fact that the Forks area has received only 41 inches of rain for the year by late May – about two-thirds its year-to-date average. On his property stands a 900-year-old hemlock tree surrounded by younger but no less imposing flora.

In the morning we make the 45-minute drive from Forks through alternating forest and clear cuts to the Hoh Rainforest visitor center in Olympic National Park. The Hoh, a rare temperate rainforest that receives as much as 200 inches of rain a year, is a World Heritage Site.

It mists intermittently as we walk the two interpretive loop trails originating at the visitor center. We are surrounded by fir, spruce, maple, alder and hemlock, some towering more than 300 feet. It’s a yeasty environment in which anything organic seems to thrive – indeed, aerial plants such as spikemoss live by hanging onto tree limbs and grabbing nourishment that floats by. Honest.

Hiking in the Hoh Rainforest, one can’t help but expect a hobbit – or perhaps the odd wizard or elf – to appear just around the next turn. The highlight is the Hall of Mosses, which is truly something Tolkien could have imagined for Bilbo and Frodo. Our afternoon at the Hoh Rainforest is as splendid a time as can be spent.

We reluctantly depart and dine on the world’s freshest halibut (the fishing boats dock next door) in the tiny Quileute Indian Reservation coastal town of La Push.

A night of drizzle gives way to pockets of sunshine as we drive south out of Forks for our final stops, the southern stretch of Olympic National Park’s remarkable string of beaches.

Even though we miss low tide by several hours, the tide pools at Beach Four are accessible and seem like a saltwater aquarium. Everywhere we turn are starfish, anemones, crabs, and dozens of other creatures and plant life we can’t begin to identify. It’s fabulous.

We backtrack up the highway a few miles to Ruby Beach, which takes its name from its garnet colored sand. In truth, we find only a single 20-foot strip of the colored sand – the rest is brown. By now the sky is mostly blue as we wander the beach, which is dominated by a large seastack on its north end.

Back on the road near the southernmost part of the park’s coastal section is Kahlalock Lodge, a handsome accommodation with an elegant dining room just steps from the ocean. We vow on our next visit to give it a try.

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