Crossing the muddy banks of the Wishkah River, we entered a nirvana of natural wonders on the Olympic Peninsula of Western Washington. Simply known locally as the “Olympics”, the Olympic Peninsula is the northwesternmost and wettest place in the 48 contiguous United States.
Like the Pacific storms that lash the peninsula, the track of our visit began along the wild and tempestuous coastline, ascended inland into lush old-growth rain forests, and culminated in the lofty peaks of the Olympic Mountains.
Early each morning, during the full moon low tides, we set out from our initial base in the logging town of Forks for the nearby Pacific beaches. On the uncovered rocky points at Kalaloch Beach 4 and Second Beach near La Push, we found a myriad of tide pools teeming with giant green anemones and multi-colored ochre sea stars.
Standing prominently offshore, sea stacks cleaved from the mainland by wave erosion were also accessible during the receded tide. We explored several of these steep rocky islets, ever wary of the rising sea level and the prospect of becoming marooned.
Back up along the wrack line, colossal drift logs unable to escape the Pacific currents lay high and dry like thousands of crestfallen castaways. Most of these sun-bleached logs originated as ancient giants carried by raging rivers from the rainforests of the peninsula’s western foothills.
Like the storm clouds that blow inland with the rapidly rising topography, we drifted into the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula. We visited both the luxuriant Quinault Rainforest and celebrated Hoh Rainforest, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
Hiking the rainforest’s sodden trails, we observed a lush primeval canopy filled with coniferous and deciduous trees. Below, ferns thrived in the shaded undergrowth, and mosses and lichens carpeted the forest floor. Along the way, we paused to admire monumental Sitka Spruce, Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Western Hemlock trees, some over 300 feet tall.
While Pacific storms annually drop over 12 feet of rain in the rainforests, the saturated air continues to rise overland, and releases another 30 feet of snowfall in the Olympic Mountains. To access this high country, we drove up to Hurricane Ridge inside the Olympic National Park.
From the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, we hiked to the top of Hurricane Hill and out along the Klahhane Ridge Trail. From these panoramic vistas, we counted hundreds of mountain glaciers, including those adorning Mount Olympus, the highest point on the Olympic Peninsula.
Whether falling as heavy snow in the high mountains or as profuse rain in the foothill rainforests, soaking Pacific weather systems shape the peninsula’s varied landscapes and distinctive ecosystems. From the exposed beaches and verdant rainforests to the soaring mountain highlands, we encountered a nirvana of natural wonders while storming the Olympics.
Feature Photo: Wishkah River Bridge in Aberdeen, Washington, “Gateway to the Olympics” and hometown of the late Curt Cobain, founder of the grunge rock band Nirvana.