Here I go again, flying by the seat of my pants.
As I stood staring at the makeshift park trail information board, my heart sank a little. For the privilege of hiking this particular trail, the Elwah Trail just east of Lake Crescent, I needed the America the Beautiful Pass. But what was that? The board offered little more information. I already paid $25 for the Olympic National Park pass (the vehicle fee), but this was a State park, so a separate fee applied. This was supposed to be a budget weekend for me, and frankly, $25 was already pushing my fee spending limits.
Weighing My Options
Even though I had already driven over an hour north from Forks, it was still before 9:30 am. I peered ahead a few yards towards the trail head as the sun rose up over the tree line. This trail, although picturesque and following a lovely stream, did not hold the promise of fantastic moss-covered canopies’ of my hikes the previous day. In addition, part of the trail and the entire campground was closed due to mudslides from recent rains. Only a couple of other hikers were among me here this chilly September morning. If I skipped this trail I would have more time for the more adventurous hike of the Staircase Trail with fantastic scenery that was sure to await me further down the road. I turned around and headed back to my car.
The weekend had started out in much the same vein.
Two whole days to drive the roughly 270-mile loop around Olympic National Forest for some epic hiking was plenty of time, right? And I was going solo, so I could get up as early as I pleased, and stay as long on any trail as I wanted. The only small caveat is that rain was predicted for the whole weekend. I should have known. A rainy forecast for the weekend when I planned to explore the nation’s largest rainforest equals:
A LOT of rain.
My misadventure started when I left two hours early from work on a Friday to drive up to Olympia, Washington’s illustrious state capital, to spend the night in a treehouse. I was a mere 20 minutes from my destination and traffic suddenly came to a standstill on I-5, where I proceeded to sit in my car, unmoving, for over an hour. (Cue the 80’s music and bad singing to pass the time.) Someone had decided to run across the road during rush hour…so yeah, an accident happened No one was hurt, but a couple of vehicles were. Police were diverting all traffic off of the road. No worries, what’s one little hour lost in my fabulous “me time” weekend?
Bright and early the next morning, the rain began in earnest. My plan was to traverse the Hwy 101 loop from the west, drive north to spend the night in Forks, then drive east around the peninsula. I lapped up my instant oatmeal and coffee, and set off. I was eager to get my solo hiking on, so as soon as I saw signs through the morning fog for highway 101, I followed them. A few minutes later I began to see mileage signs for Port Angeles. Hmmm, that’s odd. Port Angeles shouldn’t be that close. Then it dawned on me. I was going the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I should be taking highway’s 8 and 12 to get to Aberdeen, and THEN hop on the 101 to go north. Whoops!
With the windshield wipers on full blast and the morning fog lifting, I finally reached Aberdeen and the famous 101. Less than an hour north from here was my first scheduled stop, Lake Quinault.
A Lovely Resort Outpost
Lake Quinault is owned by the Quinault Indian Nation, and is a gorgeous spot located in a temperate rain forest that offers fantastic hiking, torrential rains and some lovely waterfalls. As I reached the tiny resort town, also called Lake Quinault, I made a pit stop at the information building. A nice young Australian lady behind the info desk had the cutest nose ring I had ever seen. (Do nose rings look good at my age? Should I get one? Nevermind.) I asked her where the River Trail was.
“I don’t believe I’ve heard of that trail, but then many of these trails go be different names, depending on who you talk to.” She did give me lots of literature of every trail in the area, including the ones with the best waterfalls. Falls Creek Trail started just behind the info center, and offered a waterfall, so I opted for that. This was a good hike, with plenty of inclines to get the blood pumping, but as I approached the waterfall, the light rain graduated to bucket-size torrents.
A little further down the road is the world largest Spruce tree. Can’t miss that! Just a ¼ mile hike off of the main road at the general store, right next to an RV campground.
Coming out of Quinault Lake and back on the 101, my next stop was the Hoh Rainforest. By now the rain had dissipated to almost nothing. Yay! The Hoh Trails have a huge parking lot, and for good reason: I encountered A LOT of people on this hike. Not surprising, because the Hall of Mosses were simply stunning. There is also a 17 mile hike here for those who choose to delve deeper into the rainforest.
A few miles north of the Hoh is the lesser-hiked Bogachiel Trail. This trail is located in the park of the same name, and offers the equally stunning rainforest views as the Quinault, with hardly any tourists. However, I didn’t have time to hike much of it, as it was getting late in the day, and I wanted to be in Forks by sundown.
As I rolled into Forks and approached the front office to check into my room for the night, a scrolling neon sign greeted me, advertising their Twilight rooms! It seems Forks is still benefiting from the vampire franchise many years later, even though not one scene was actually filmed here (most of it was filmed around Portland and Vancouver, B.C.) As I struggled to park in the tiny lot, the proprietor came out to great me. She was afraid that she’d missed me and thought I was leaving, as she was in the back canning salsa! Turns out she lived on the property, and my room was actually connected to (but separate from) her house. Ah, charming Forks!
The only real attraction in this logging town seemed to be…wait for it…the logging museum. Yes, when the last of the Twilight-fanatics have ceased to be inspired to come here, Forks will always have its logging industry.
Fair Weather and Missed Opportunities
The following day turned out to be sunny and warm…but unfortunately I spent most of it in my car driving. Let’s see…where did I leave off at the beginning of this story? Oh yeah…
Back on the road after NOT hiking the Elwah Trail (sigh), I passed through the charming town of Port Angeles. I took a few moments to get off of the main drag and drive along the waterfront. There were a couple of large tanker ships bound for a Pacific crossing, and a passenger ship ready to board on its way to Victoria, B.C. Just past Port Angeles is Hurricane Ridge, another major trail head with picnic areas and information center. But that would be for another time, as my destination was the Staircase Trail. This hiking promised more challenge and much better scenery.
Two and a half hours and many badly-sung-in-the-car 80’s pop hits later, I arrived at Big Creek, the turn off to Staircase trail.
Uh-oh. The dreaded fork in the road…a very rough GRAVEL road…both ways. I turned left.
The Last Hurrah
Ever sledded down a country road with nothing but a piece of think plastic between you and rocks so sharp they’d take your skin off? This is what the road felt like.
My poor little Toyota Scion. It’s low-to-the-ground chassis was screaming for relief, to the point where I seriously believed I would damage SOMETHING before I was through. So…I made the difficult decision to turn around. This particular hike would have to wait for another day — and a more worthy form of transportation.
So, what did I learn this weekend? It turns out, lots of things, some of which I already knew, but failed to put into practice:
- Plan about twice as long as you think you’ll need (never easy when you have a job to return to on Monday) A comfortable time frame to really savor Olympic National Park is one week.
- Research park fees BEFORE the trip, so you’re more informed, as the park information boards tend to offer incomplete information
- Drive a car that’s not afraid of very rough, unpaved gravel roads. There’s not many of them, but for the lesser-hiked trails, the roads are not as developed.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions, before AND during your adventure. My introverted ways tend to try and figure things out for myself, but asking questions will more often than not save time!
The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for.” – Louis L’Amour
Despite all of this, the weekend wasn’t a total bust. Far from it. It was a delightful crash course in everything this majestic and awe-inspiring national treasure has to offer. In Washington there are National Parks, U.S. Forest Service Lands, and State Public Lands, all which require their own fees for hiking, camping, fishing, and camping galore.
And I WILL be back.
Have YOU been to Olympic National Park? What were your best hikes?