Olympic National Park, WA – High, Low and Very Wet

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November 27, 2012 by Deborah W. Trotter

Olympic National Park entrance sign
Olympic National Park, in the far northwest corner of the continental United States, in a part of Washington State that is surrounded by water on three sides, is the most naturally diverse Park in the National Park System.


Within its boundaries you will find alpine forests, lakes, meadows and mountains with glaciers (the “High”), Pacific Ocean beaches (the “Low”), and a temperate rain forest (the “Very Wet”).

When we visited Olympic in July of 1996 with our four children, we approached from the coastal south on Highway 101, the roadsides alight with magenta fireweed and foxglove.

Kalaloch Beach – lodge and driftwood

Soon we came to Kalaloch Beach where there is a historic Lodge and a wild coastline. We parked and headed down to the beach with the kids, only to have access challenged by a horizontal forest of driftwood logs, haphazardly tossed by the powerful ocean waves. Our kids had a ball climbing, jumping and sliding in this natural playground, not even noticing the chill wind off the sea that certainly promised precipitation.

Farther north along the coast, just before Highway 101 turned back inland, we stopped at Ruby Beach, so named because it is said to have a rose-colored tinge, added by gemstone fragments sprinkled in the sand. Perhaps sunshine is required to see the tint, though, as the sand was a neutral monochrome on that gray and drizzly day.

Ruby Beach

But we hadn’t stopped there for the color, so no one judged our experience by

Ruby Beach

its lack. There were more piles of driftwood to conquer, rocks to climb on, a cave, creeks flowing from the nearby forest that were obviously there to use for sailing driftwood “boats” out into the ocean, and monolithic sea stacks offshore, home to varieties of birds.

From Ruby Beach, we followed the road east along the milky, glacial blue Hoh River to the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center. The rain forest gets an average of 135 inches of rain annually, and in 1995, the year previous to our visit, they recorded 175 inches of rain. So anyone who thinks that Seattle, less than 75 miles to the east, gets a lot of rain at about a third of the average in the rain forest, must remember that everything is relative!

Busy squirrel in the Hoh Rain Forest

Flora in the temperate Hoh Rain Forest

Rain forest flora and fauna!

This corner of Washington is one of only three places in the world with a temperate rain forest, the other two being southern Chile and New Zealand. In the Hoh, the dominant species are Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees, and there is moss, lichen or ferns in a variety of shades of green thriving on almost every surface.

The Olympic Mountains to the east of the rain forest protect it from extreme temperatures. They rarely drop below freezing, and the highs in the summer seldom go above 80 degrees F.

Now, I must make a confession: we never saw the Olympic Mountains (the “High”) that day. Unlike most National Parks we have explored, there is no Park road that would take you through the mountains and afford close up views, and the low clouds, drizzle and rain shut out the possibility of scenic vistas from anywhere we did drive. The dearth of roads allows about 95% of Olympic National Park to be federally designated Wilderness, and as such it is a backpackers’ paradise. I’m not much of a backpacker, but there are also trails suitable for day hikes into the high country to absorb the beauty, the solitude and the sounds of nature’s peace. Just writing this makes me want to do it. I only have to make the time.

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