The first family camping trip I remember was at Kalaloch, an Olympic National Park campground perched just above a wave-pummeled Pacific beach.
My parents somehow snagged an oceanfront campsite. By day, swarms of kids played on the sun-warmed sand and in tangles of driftwood. In the evenings, we lined up at the water’s edge to watch the sun slip into the sea, then cheerfully burned marshmallows at our campfires.
Fueled by those sunny memories, I returned recently to camp at Kalaloch. Oops.
I was lashed by rain and wind as I hiked a park beach on a mid-June day. Changing my sodden clothes in the car, I drove to the campground. My home for the night was to be a dank, muddy, cramped campsite back in the trees, where my tent would be dwarfed by my neighbors’ big (and enviably snug) RVs.
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“Well, honey, it is a rain forest after all,” said a gift-shop attendant at nearby Kalaloch Lodge, where I squelched through the inn in search of a hot cup of coffee.
This far side of the national park, on the west coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, is indeed rain forest. Its Hoh River valley is drenched with a dozen feet of rain a year. Think 50 shades of green in a wondrous tangle of trees, moss, ferns.
Yet Olympic National Park is so vast — almost a million acres of mountains, forest and ocean beaches — that you can find drier sides and your own natural haven, rain or shine.
Heart of the hills
At Hurricane Ridge, in the park’s northeast corner, I drove up the winding road to the 5,242-foot viewpoint on a gloriously sunny afternoon. The park’s wild heart stretched as far as the eye could see, a maze of snow- and ice-tipped peaks.
Hurricane Ridge is one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest for easy access to the high country. Gentle, short nature trails — some even paved — radiate from the parking lot, through flowery meadows and along ridges. Or the intrepid could hike for hours or backpack for days deep into the wilderness.
Walking along a short but steep trail to Sunrise Point, I paused on a high ridge and found 90-year-old Marjorie Major already enjoying the view.
“This park is on my bucket list,” said Major, of Vermont, enviably spry and agile for any age. Major recently did a 35-mile charity bike ride and she works out daily on a treadmill. (Note to self: Hit the gym so I can hike like her in my old age.)
Walking and chatting along with her daughter Jackie Goss, we rounded a clump of rocks and stopped, gasping. A big, sharp-horned, mother mountain goat and her baby stared back at us, grazing 10 feet away along the trail.
We backed up slowly, too surprised and fascinated to remember to do what park rangers recommend — scare off mountain goats by shouting, waving arms, throwing rocks — so they don’t become habituated to humans and turn into a threat (a hiker was gored to death by a goat in the park in 2010).
Perhaps it was just as well we didn’t threaten the mother goat. A curious deer approached; the mother glared, lowered her head and charged, sending the deer bounding off at breakneck speed. The goat strutted back to her kid; we backed up farther and, fortunately, the goats ambled away.
To the coast
Mesmerizing as the mountain scenery and trails (and wildlife) are, it’s the wild Pacific Coast that keeps luring me back to Olympic National Park. The narrow 73-mile strip, much of it roadless, is a glory of long sandy beaches and wind-bent trees, of brimming tide pools and sea stacks, dark columns of rock that jut out of the waves.
I go to the coast during winter’s fierce storms to see the waves smash at Rialto Beach, the wind sometimes so strong it snatches your breath.
I go in summer to hike the boardwalk to Cape Alava, through blissfully tranquil marsh and forest to the lonely coast where an ancient native village once stood.
I go any time of the year to Second Beach, a magical forest walk to a sandy beach tangled with driftwood and framed by sea stacks and sheer rocky headlands.
I stay in cabins, motels, sometimes camp. And I’m always gleeful, as I was when a child, if I get a sunny day to play in Olympic National Park.
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times
If you go
Olympic National Park
Get information at nps.gov/olym or phone 360-565-3130.
$15 per vehicle or $30 for an Olympic annual pass. Discounted or free passes for seniors, military personnel, people with disabilities.
Visitor center, ranger stations
The main visitor center is on the outskirts of Port Angeles, on the way up to Hurricane Ridge, at 3002 Mount Angeles Road. It’s open daily, currently 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Smaller visitor centers and ranger stations are scattered around the park, including at Hurricane Ridge, the Hoh and Kalaloch.
Be ready for long drives (Highway 101 circles the park; no roads cross it). For example, it’s 95 miles from the main visitor center near Port Angeles to Kalaloch on the coast.
What about your dog?
Pets are not allowed on park trails, in wilderness areas or on most beaches. They are allowed in campgrounds and the following areas (on leashes):
• Rialto Beach (the first 0.8 miles to Ellen Creek, not to the popular Hole in the Wall rock formation)
• Kalaloch-area beaches
• Spruce Railroad Trail (by Lake Crescent)
• Peabody Creek Trail (by the visitor center in Port Angeles)
• Weather can change quickly. Take warm, rain-protective clothes with you.
• Creatures, from chipmunks to bears, could be attracted to your food. Store it in your vehicle if car camping. If backpacking, bear-proof canisters must be used in many areas.