Four Days in Olympic National Park

“I’ve been to a rainforest,” Grandma said, “There are so many trees and the moss just drapes from them with all the rain.”  I was a child and this statement surprised me.  My grandparents were campers not travelers of exotic locales.  To me, this statement just didn’t make sense.  This is when I first learned that temperate rain forests were not limited to South American jungles.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to learn we had them here in the United States, albeit without monkeys or parrots, but still, rain forests nonetheless.  These mythical rain forests that I was determined to some day visit were nestled among the million acres Washington’s Olympic National Park.

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It took a couple of decades before this dream came to fruition and I was able to proudly make a check mark on my bucket list.  When I finally was able to see where the ferns grow in wild thickets and how the moss hangs from trees like curtains I was mesmerized.  It was a surprise to discover that the park encompasses a several diverse ecosystems.  In addition to the temperate rainforest, there are beaches, mountains, and lakes.  In other words, this national park had it all.  After I experienced them there would never be a moment where I did not physically ache to return.

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The trip to Olympic would be my first solo road trip with both the kids.  For a dash of additional responsibility I brought along our dog who had recently been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.  This was going to be a bittersweet trip as Grandma, the catalyst for my desire to see Olympic National Park, had passed away the year before.  I desperately wanted to walk in her footsteps through the magic of the Hoh Rainforest.  I had the challenges of being a single parent on the road, a dog with special dietary needs, and some grief over missing my grandparents.  This would be easy right?  Right?!?!  During this trip the kids were ten and four, and it was the height of Twilight fandom.  Forks, Washington was busting at the seems with all things Twilight.  It’s a well-known fact that moms are suckers will do anything for their kids, even submitting themselves to a local tour of Twilight landmarks. So one more addition to our Olympic road trip.

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I planned to explore the park counter-clockwise from Seattle as we made our way south to the Oregon coast.  The first stop on our route was the 17 mile drive to Hurricane Ridge atop the mountain region of Olympic National Park.  It’s not the tallest of mountains at only 5,242 feet, but on a clear day you can see Victoria, British Columbia. The ridge earned its name due to its frequent gale force winds.  The wind may not have been that strong during our visit, but it was definitely far stronger than a breeze and left me fiercely wishing I had worn pants.  Our time here was limited and we were unable to fully immerse ourselves in the ridge with a hike or a visit to the visitor’s center.  That’s the reality of traveling with littles.  Sometimes you simply can’t fit it all into your timetable, and as disappointing as that it is, you just have to roll with it.

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In our determination to get to the top of the mountain we had not spent much time paying attention to the scenery.  Now, as we made our descent, I noticed the hillsides were a riot of color bathed in wildflowers.  The tiger lilies danced in the breeze as the lyrics to Alice in Wonderland’s, All in a Golden Afternoon, danced through my head… “Tiger lilies love the dandelion, in the golden afternoon…”  Nestled in among the grasses were lupine, paintbrush, larkspur, and buttercup ready to wow their audience with a summertime show.

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That night the kids and I lodged at Crescent Lake in one of the dog-friendly cabins.  When traveling with a dog your options can be very limited and leave a little to be desired.  This place was a shining example.  Rustic but not necessarily in a charming way, more like a tired and depressed rustic.  Through the years, road tripping had taught me to make the best out of a situation and that was what I intended to do with our modest accommodations.  Therefore, we adsorbed the serenity of the lake, watched the wildlife from the porch of our cabin, and cooked an outdoor dinner on our camp stove.  Those moments alone would bring me back here in a heartbeat.  Although now we would not bring the dog and opt for a room.

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Lake Crescent is what dreams are made of.  Carved by glaciers and filled with the most vivid blue water, it reaches depths of 624 feet.  The lack of nitrogen in the water and clarity of the lake lends is the cause of its deep cerulean hue.  I took a moment to breathe it all in as I sat there and listened to water gently lapping the shore, and the sound of families easing into their evenings after a long day in the sun while my kids took the dog for a stroll.  We picked dandelions, and blew our wishes into the evening sky each hoping this moment would never end. As we watched the sun set behind the mountains, the  trees to look like dark silhouettes against the warm cotton candy sky.  This was a moment no one would ever be able to take away from us.

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We savored those sweet thoughts of Crescent Lake as we began our drive to Forks the following morning.  On this day our goal was to just find a beach, any beach.  We had no plan, no goals other than to visit the Olympic coastline, and best of all, no agenda.  Rialto Beach was the first one we stumbled upon and it made a grand impression.The rugged coast of Washington is always impressive, but really we had no idea how much we had underestimated Rialto Beach.  The shoreline had become a tree graveyard of old growth Sitka Spruce logs over the years. They that had been weathered and bleached but the volatile coastal weather.  These towering logs were the perfect playground for the kids, the only limit to their creativity were their imaginations.

As I sat there, feeling like I was on the edge of the world, I relaxed and took it all in.  I gave into the moment, which for me is a daily struggle.  Most days I am filled with anxious energy and want to see and do it all.  As a result I like to go, go, go.  But this moment, the time here on this mystical beach, sitting with my dog and watching my kids, well, I paused and told myself to just stop going.  Overcast moody skies, the rough edges of the rocks smoothed from years of tumult by the unforgiving waves, and the wind rustling through my hair, all the things I may not always see when I am on the go.  For  my kids sticks became mystical wands, felled trees were pirate ships, and the rocks just begged to touched, their polished patina rubbed in the palm of their hands.  This wasn’t like our California beaches, and it was in stark contrast to the soft pastel beaches of the tropics.  But in many ways it was so much better.  One has to respect the majesty of Mother Nature to appreciate Rialto Beach because like a fine wine, it is meant to be savored.

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If Rialto Beach was like a fine wine, then the Hoh Rainforest was our dessert.  We had saved the best for last.  Our memories the rainforest were destined to be carved from moss laden trees and wild ferns.  We felt as if we had left the edge of the world and arrived into an enchanted forest.  Everything was green:  emerald, sage, lime, Chartreuse, Kelly, and olive greens.  The curtains of moss ranged from sage to olive green depending on their moisture content, while the ferns were a deep forest hue.  The streams’ aquatic plants were a lime green, while the Sitka spruce and Hemlock were ablaze with chartreuse and Kelly green, and the forest floor a rich shamrock green carpet of oxalis.  Aside from the khaki of the park rangers’ uniforms the only other colors were the brown earthen pathways and the bright bluebird sky above.

As we hiked the Hall of Mosses I began to understand that the rainforest is a study in the cycle of life.  Seedlings sprout from the soil, young and vibrant, while they compete with their mammoth companions for sunlight and nutrients.  The more established old growth trees provide shade for the ferns and moss that grew along their trunks.  The ancient trees had long come crashing down and are now slowly being reclaimed by the Earth they grew from, returning to the soil they fed off of for so long.  Their decaying trunks now feeding the young plants they formerly competed with.

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In those four days we had explored so much, yet still only scratched the surface of Olympic National Park.  So many other beaches to walk along, trails to hike, lakes to dip our toes in, and hot springs to soak our weary bodies in.  All these adventures would have to be saved for a future trip.  A trip where I would now have experience as a solo parent on the road or one where we shared some of our favorites with Dad while we explored the ones we had missed.  Like all travels, there is never enough time, but that just serves as a catalyst for future road trips.  In the meantime, I could now be like Grandma and say “I’ve been to the rainforest too.”