Vivacious Variety in Olympic National Park (by Mike Baker)

Vivacious Variety in Olympic National Park (by Mike Baker)

Established in 1938 by Franklin D Roosevelt, Olympic was the nation's 21st National Parkfounded on Washington's rugged northwest peninsula and named after 7,980' Mount Olympus. It is an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, two designations granted to the park due to rich geography that includes hundreds of species of animals (including over 300 species of birds) and over 1,100 species of plants. The park's distinct ecosystems create a range of diversity rarely found elsewhere: a rugged coastline, glacier-capped mountains, forests, and rivers.

The peninsula's diversity attracted and kept– pre-historic humans, who hunted mastodon with stone-tipped spears as far back as 12,000 years ago, supplementing their diet with deer, elk, and gathered plants. Fish, marine mammals, and shellfish were provided by the lowland rivers and lakes while western red cedar provided shelter, waterborne transport, and tools. Today, eight Olympic Peninsula tribes still live on the peninsula, their waters and lands now protected by the National Park Service.

Olympic's narrow coastline spans 73 miles of tide pools and sandy beaches. Seabirds nest atop off-shore sea stacks coastal headlands that have eroded due to ocean waveswhich also provide shelter for sealssea lions, and over 800 sea otters that feed and play among the kelp. The sea stacks also offer a dramatic frame for viewing previously endangered gray whales or killer whalesIts tidal pools are nutrient-rich communities of life that contain hundreds of animals, ranging from sea urchins and sea cucumbers to crabs and starfish.

Of the many good placeto explore Olympic's coast, the Ozette area in the park's far northwest corner is good bet, mostly because it isn't as frequently visited as the Kalaloch/Ruby Beach area farther down the coast to the south, and because it's right off highway 101At the Ozette Ranger Station, you can take one of the coastal trails (Coastal Trailout to Cape Alva, where a 2,000 year-old prehistoric culture was unearthed or enjoy a separate trail to Sandpoint, both of which pass through coastal forest and link up between the two via the Ozette Loop trail on a rocky and sandy beach.

One of the reasons Olympic is so special is because its ecosystems overlap, creating an “edge” effect that generates diversityThis is certainly the case where the coast meets the forest. A canopy of western hemlock, red cedar, and Sitka spruce are supported by a web of life, care of huckleberry and salmon berry shrubs, which grow from a spongy carpet of deer fern and moss that cover the forest floor. Sand-blasted by the wind, some trees provide lookouts for eagles while others that have succumbed to flooding upstream from the park’s rivers find their way to the ocean in massive jumbles. The park is simply one massive organic matter stew.

Thirteen rivers expand from the park's center, fed with melting snow and ample rainfall, forming arteries of life that pass through all of the park's other ecosystems. The valley sand floodplains formed by these waterways provided natural pathways for ancient peoples hunting game and now for later explorers aching to discover the park's interior. The Elwha River in the park's north is currently being restored to its former natural state by removing dams that blocked sediment flow to re-create the fish run habitats that once supported five species of salmon and two species of trout. It is hoped the restoration will kick off these migrations once again from the park’s rivers to the ocean and back, bringing back Chinook, Steelhead, Coho, Sockeye, and more as far inland as the park's southeastern Godkin Creek. These fish contribute to the food web for bears, otters, and eagles while at the same time deliver marine nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous upstream. But not only fish live in the waters of Olympicyou might be lucky enough to spot a rough-skinned newt by visiting a quiet pond or one of six salamanders!

Olympic today still containsome of the most dramatic old-growth forests in the world. Classified by ecologists according to elevation, the park's four forest types each have their own special characteristics and each can be experienced in-personBut the most readily accessible are the iconic temperate rainforests on the park's west side.

For most visitors, the Hoh and Quinault rain forests are likely to be on a must-do list. Rainfall can amount to between 12 and 14 feet per year, creating a lush jungle of moss-covered big leaf maples, spruce, and hemlock that is literally dripping with life. Nurse logs give birth to new saplings while epiphytes such as lichens and ferns grow literally from the branches of trees. This is the home to Sitka spruce and western hemlocks that are 100s of years old, nearly as tall as a football field, and are almost 60' in circumference. It is also here that the Roosevelt elk roams the moss-covered ground under the cover of a thick canopy that they often open with regular browsing. Black bears thrive within the park's boundaries, but are not bound to just the forests, as they range from the lowlands all the way to subalpine region. Smaller animals thrive here, too, such as the banana slug which contributes to the forest ecosystem by breaking down fallen trees.

Though the Hoh Valley might be considered the more popular, the Quinault Valley boasts the largest (determined by circumference, diameter, and height) Western Red Cedar, Sitka Spruce (estimated at 1,000 years old), Douglas Fir, and Mountain Hemlock in the world and the largest Yellow Cedar and Western Hemlock in the United States. Renting a canoe at the Lake Quinault Lodge provides a peaceful gliding along the tree-lined shore. The nearby forest trailsthe Quinault Loop Trail and Quinault Rain Forest Interpretive Trailalso provide ample berry-picking, even though one encounters just as many invasive Himalayan blackberry bushes as one does salmonberrybut they're both equally tasty. A drive up the valley next to the Quinault River yields views of some of the most stunning symbioses: trees entirely covered by moss.

The Sol Duc and Elwha areas are classified as lowland forestsknown for Douglas-fir and Western hemlock old-growth stands which contain trees older than 200 years, thanks to deeper soils and plentiful rainfall. The multi-layered canopy will also contain snags standing dead trees that provide perfect homes for owlsas well as elderberry and Oregon grape, all with trillium and twin flower undergrowth.

At higher elevations from 1,5002,000’, the montane forest zone begins. The soil conditions are not as favorable as the lowland, temperate forests, but there is still a 12' wide Alaska yellow cedar that grows  near the north fork of the Quinault River. This is good habitat for blacktail deer, which benefit from the cover the forest but can then venture out to graze the bordering subalpine meadows which begin to appear at around 4000' in elevationTrees find it much more difficult to live up this high due to strong winds, ice, and snow.

When Joseph P. O'Neil first ventured into the region in 1885 to get closer to Mount Olympus, his journey from Port Angeles southward brought him to what today is considered one of the park's iconic sights: Hurricane Ridge.

Situated at nearly one mile in elevation, the ridge is within the subalpine region  and renowned for unpredictable weather that includes wind gusts over 75 mph and snow that can fall at any time of the year. Given good weather, accessing the ridge is possible via the Hurricane Ridge Road which starts at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles. It’s the home of the Olympic marmot, which feeds on plentiful lupines well-suited to the climate and elevation. There are eight trails that provide plenty of hiking during decent weatheryou might see a sooty grouse on the ground or a golden eagle flying above.

For those with the courage to drive on a barren ridge on a gravel road, Obstruction Point Road from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor's Center leads to the Obstruction Point Trailhead, where a 7.4-mile trail leads to the Deer Park Campground in the park's northeast corner (where it's drier thanks to the Olympic Rain Shadow). At this elevation and above, look for Piper's bellflower, an alpine wildflower endemic to the Olympic Mountains that grows in the cracks of rocks.

Whether you prefer sandy shorelines, lush rainforests, cathedrals of trees, or wind-swept ridges above timberline, Olympic National Park is one of the rare places on Earth that provides some of the best natural wonders to be seen.

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(Photo by National Park Service) Sea Stacks (By Brian W. Schaller-Own work, FAL,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30527924

Ruby Beach (ByAdbar-Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27301905)

Hurricane Ridge (By Dllu-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41139839)

Obstruction Point Road (By Ron Clausen-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70680716)

Piper's bellflower (By Dog Walking Girl-Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29964552)


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