Three distinct ecosystems define Washington’s vast Olympic National Park

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By Bob Difley

Three distinct ecosystems define Washington’s vast Olympic National Park
Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Forest photo by Bob Difley

The imposing Olympic Mountain Range rises from the Pacific’s continental shelf like a great wall, whose presence affects the entire Olympic Peninsula, and is the first line of defense against the unimpeded Northern Pacific storms marching ashore like advancing armies. These features produce Olympic National Park’s extensive biodiversity and its three distinct ecosystems: coastal beaches, rain forests, and high mountain wilderness.

However, no roads cross or loop through the formidable center of the park – or from one side to the other. Picture the road system as a wagon wheel, with the outer rim the perimeter road (US 101), circling the 300-mile perimeter of the park. Spur roads, like the spokes of the wheel, branch off and enter the park at various intervals, all meeting at the central hub.

Except, the hub of Olympia’s wheel is non-existent, so you have to follow the spoke out the way you came in, turn along the perimeter road to the next spoke and repeat. National park as well as private, national forest, and Indian Reservation campgrounds are scattered along the way so you can dilly-dally for days.

Go online or stop at one of the visitor centers to pick up campground and trail guides, maps, and anything else you want to know about the park.

A good place to begin your tour is at top center nearest the major peninsula population center of Port Angeles and the main Olympic National Park Visitor Center. Directly south, Hurricane Ridge, which also has a visitor center, rises to 5,242 feet and provides the best views of the snow-capped, indomitable mountain peaks.

Stretching across the horizon a great jagged wall of mountains spans the middle of the Olympic Wilderness, rivaling Glacier, High Cascades, and Rocky Mountain National Parks. More than one million acres on the Olympic Peninsula have been designated by Congress as Wilderness Areas.

To the east, in the rain shadow of Olympus and her sister peaks, lie the dryer forests, only 40 crow-fly miles from the Hoh rain forest, and the “banana belt” town of Sequim (S’Kwim in the S’Klallam language means “quiet waters”) that receives less than 17 inches of rain annually.

The wet west side

Talk about a far-flung park, the coastal strip section stretches in the north from the southern border of the Makah Reservation south to the border of the Quinault Reservation at South Beach, more than 60 miles.

For a short trip to the beach, follow 101 to SR110, then west to Mora Campground and Rialto Beach on the north side of the Quillayute River or to La Push on the south side at cleverly named First Beach. And just south of First Beach are, you guessed it, Second and Third Beaches.

Rain forests and river valleys

Seventeen miles up Upper Hoh Road will immerse you into the Hoh Rain Forest and the signature scenery of the park, the moss-drooped big-leaf maples, Sitka spruces, and western hemlocks. The lush, ethereal forest of huge trees, epiphytes (plants that grow on trees), shrubs, ferns and mosses filling every available spot, even growing on top of each other, thrives here in the heaviest annual rainfall in the nation, more than 150 inches.

Typical of a temperate coastal zone, the year-round weather, though wet, is quite mild, seldom dropping below freezing and with little if any snow, ranging to summer highs that only infrequently reach 80 degrees.

Here you will find record-setting tree sizes, including a mammoth 298-foot Douglas fir, a Sitka spruce almost 60 feet in circumference, as well as immense cedars. In addition, the park’s vast wilderness areas provide safe habitats for wildlife, like a large Roosevelt elk population, black-tailed deer, mountain lions, black bears, marmots, squirrels and the flashy yellow banana slug.

Coast

Return to 101 and follow it southwest along the Hoh River to the coastal section of the park for some beachcombing and long beach walks. Here you will also find Kalaloch Campground (175 sites, dump station), the park’s most developed. Just below Kalaloch (means “safe place to land” in Quinault), primitive South Beach Campground perches on the bluff overlooking the driftwood strewn beach and rolling waves of the mighty Pacific.

Once you leave South Beach, 101 turns again inland through the Quinault Reservation to Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rain Forest with a nature trail winding through the forest.

Check out Bob Difley’s RVing e-books on Amazon Kindle.

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