• Michael O'Keeffe

National Park Series: Olympic National Park, WA


Enjoying a misty sunset deep in the wilds of Olympic National Park.

"The silence is unlike any I have experienced before. Clouds manifest into existence in a matter of moments in the valley below me. They make no sound as the grow and fall. There is no wind, no birds, only silence. The sun fades on this perfect late September evening deep in the wilderness of Olympic National Park. There is an energy here, subtle yet powerful. What it is I can't quite say, yet it is undeniable."

That is a quote from a journal entry I wrote during a backpacking trip (photo above) in Olympic National Park several years ago. After many more visits to this magnificent park it is safe to say this is one of my favorite places in Washington. Located west of Seattle on the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park protects over 900,000 acres of the rugged Olympic Mountains. As you can see they got creative with the naming of these places (*eye roll*). The park is unique in that it protects three distinct ecosystems, the coast, the forest, and the mountains. Each of which are impressive enough to be worthy of their own park designation let alone all three together in one.

What I love about Olympic that separates it from many other national parks is the diversity. You could wake up on the beach, eat lunch in an ancient temperate rain forest, and finish the day watching the sunset on an alpine meadow above the treeline. The park's dramatic elevation change (sea level to nearly 8,000 feet) opens the door for year round opportunities to explore this wonderful slice of Pacific Northwest awesomeness!


COAST

Sea stars cling to a rock at low tide on a remote stretch of the Olympic coast.

"When I stood back up I realized water had gotten into my boots soaking my socks. I had lost track of time watching a tidepool. The magic of tidepools is that the longer you watch the more you begin to see. Anemones, crabs, snails, and sea stars go about their day. A sculpin darts out from a rock just to hide behind a different rock. Looking back toward the beach my tent sits at the edge of a battered salt soaked forest. Bald eagles roost in the tallest snags. I carefully navigate the slippery rocks back to camp passing several hulking sea stacks. A few lucky (or unlucky) trees cling to the precarious slopes. Back at camp, I lay back in the sand lazily watching the clouds roll on by. The sound and smell of the sea fill the air. Not a care in the world."


Sea stacks glisten in the sun during low tide on the Olympic coast.

Olympic National Park protects 73 miles of rugged coastline along the Pacific and nearly all of it is pristine untouched wilderness. It is the longest stretch of wild coastline left in the United States outside of Alaska. Here, condos and vacation homes are replaced by sea stacks and tidepools. Black bears and river otters wander the beaches, bald eagles patrol the skies, while whales and seals cruise the waters. To wander this wonderful coastline is taking a step back in time, witnessing the Pacific coast as it once was. Just as my experience backpacking on the Olympic coast (excerpt above), there is a genuine wilderness feel that is absolutely unmatched anywhere in the Lower 48 with the exception of maybe the Lost Coast in northern California. To be able to backpack through the forest and step onto a beach with no roads, houses, or people in sight, set up a tent in the sand, and get lost in time exploring the marine rich tidepools and sea stacks. It is magical.


Enchanting sea stacks on a wild stretch of the Olympic coast.
Admiring the stars on a rare clear night on the wild coast of Olympic National Park.
Trees grow on a massive sea stack on the Olympic coast.

FOREST

Chyna catches the sun in a fairy tale like old growth forest in Olympic National Park.

Between Olympic's rugged coast and mighty mountains there lies the park's defining feature, the forest. In 1988, 80 years after the park was first established by Teddy Roosevelt, Olympic received federal wilderness designation. Over 860,000 acres or 95% of the park gained an even newer level of protection. The majority of that 95% lies within Olympic National Park's seemingly endless old growth forests. These forests contain some of the oldest and largest trees on Earth. Several different tree species largest specimens can be found within the park. They are also some of the rainiest spots in the country.

For people who have heard of Olympic National Park, many immediately think of the Hoh Rainforest. The Hoh Rainforest is infamous for being the rainiest spot in the United States outside of Hawaii. On an average year, between 140-180 inches of rain falls in the steep walled valley on the Olympic Mountains' windward side. Why so much rain? A unique combination of conditions come together just right to allow this forest to receive so much rainfall each year.

One aspect is the orientation of the Hoh River Valley which faces the west. In the middle latitudes, where we live, almost all the weather we get comes from the west (or some variation, southwest, northwest, etc.). What this means is that as storms move in from the Pacific they are funneled directly into the Hoh River Valley providing the adequate moisture necessary for heavy rainfall. Another important aspect is the Hoh River Valley's topography. The Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center sits at about 640 feet above sea level. However the peaks directly above the valley floor rise to over 4,000 feet in spots making for dramatic relief in a short stretch. When moisture flows off the Pacific Ocean, which is only about 25 miles west of the valley, it collides with the steep mountains. The mountains act as a barrier that force the moisture upwards, as the moisture rises it cools quickly condensing into clouds and eventually precipitation. While the mountains force the moisture upwards it also effectively slows the moisture down which then enhances rainfall over the Hoh River Valley. While the coastal plain outside the valley may receive 1-2 inches of rain, the Hoh may get 4-6 inches. We call this atmospheric process orographic lifting. I hope to write a more detailed blog post on this topic in the future.


The Olympic Mountains' steep walled valleys enhance precipitation in a process known as orographic lifting.

Now that we know why the Hoh Rainforest gets so much rain lets dive into what it means to be a rainforest. There are two types of rainforest, tropical and temperate, these have to do with where they lie on the Earth and not so much with the temperature. The tropics lie between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, any climate within that zone is considered tropical (tropical desert, tropical grassland, tropical alpine, you get it). The temperate zones, where we live, are above that and stretch to the Arctic Circle or Antarctic Circle, depending on which hemisphere you're in. At the end of the day however what truly defines a rainforest is the amount of annual precipitation the forest receives. Generally, it is accepted that any forest that receives over 80 inches of precipitation per year is considered a rainforest.

Using that information, the Hoh Rainforest safely falls in that category of a temperate rainforest. In fact, most of the Pacific coast from the Redwood forests of northern California to southeast Alaska qualify for and contain temperate rainforests, though sadly many of these areas have been significantly altered by humans. There in lies another reason Olympic is so special, the park contains some of the largest intact old growth temperate rainforest left on Earth. The forests in the park are dominated by conifers like many parts of the Pacific Northwest. This is due to the park's short dry summers which make it challenging for a deciduous tree to get all of its nutrients before they lose their leaves in fall and winter sets in. Conifers on the other hand don't have to worry about losing their leaves so they can photosynthesize all winter long. Some of the park's dominant tree species, especially at lower elevations, are Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). As you get higher in elevation, the forest transitions to more snow tolerant trees such as Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis). Eventually being traded for Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) at the highest elevations approaching the treeline.

When it comes to Olympic National Park you may come for the coast or the mountains, but you stay for the forest. The magical, enchanting, haunting wood filled with a thousand stories and hopefully many more.


The forest meets the wild Olympic coast.
95% of Olympic National Park is designated wilderness, most of which is pristine old growth forests.
Gnarled trees grow high on a subalpine ridge in Olympic National Park.

MOUNTAINS

Light filters through dramatic peaks in a remote portion of Olympic National Park.

At the highest reaches of Olympic National Park, also lie the most dramatic. The mighty peaks of the Olympic Mountains. Interestingly, almost the entire range is contained within the boundaries of Olympic National Park. What doesn't fit inside the boundaries are either protected within smaller wilderness areas bordering the park, such as the Buckhorn Wilderness, or have been extensively logged. Hurricane Ridge is the most popular spot in the park to access Olympic's high country with a nice paved road to the top leading to a killer view of the park's wild interior. There is much to explore here beyond the confines of visitor centers and viewpoints if one is willing to work for it. Many of the trails to reach the high country are steep and long requiring miles of slogging through deep forest up many switchbacks, but the rewards are great.

Treeline in the Olympic Mountains sits between 5,000-6,000 feet, above that features wide open views and craggy basalt ridgelines. On a clear day the views are nothing short of spectacular! If not being stalked by the resident mountain goats (a non native species currently being relocated to their native Cascade Range), take a gander from a summit to look out across the endless vista of rolling ridgelines and jagged peaks. You may spot the icy crown of mighty Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in the range at 7,979 feet. Don't forget the Olympic Mountains sit on a peninsula so there is a good chance you have got a good look at some water, whether it is the Puget Sound to the east, the Juan de Fuca Strait to the north, or the mighty Pacific to the west. Wandering Olympic's high country is where you will most be humbled by massive scale of the park's wilderness. Like in my journal entry, there is an energy here, subtle yet undeniable.


A mountain goat enjoys a colorful sunset in the Olympic Mountains.
A deer poses under the icy crown of the Olympic Mountains.
Sunset from a ridge deep within the Olympic Mountains.
A misty evening in the rugged alpine of the Olympic Mountains.
Looking east from the Olympics across the Puget Sound. Seattle is somewhere out there.
A mountain goat poses under mighty peaks in the Olympic Mountains.
Looking north from Hurricane Ridge towards the San Juan Islands.
Misty snow covered peaks rise steeply from deep forested valleys.
An endemic Olympic marmot soaks in the view high above the Juan de Fuca Strait.

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