Mt Hood bade a silent goodbye as we left the land of food trucks, books, and weirdness. It was overcast and raining ever so slightly, which felt right.
An easy dash up Highway 5 (then 12) (then 101) deposited us onto the oceanfront portion of Olympic National Park. The park is named for Mt Olympus, which is the highest peak of the peninsula on which it's located. The peninsula itself was only mapped out at the start of the 20th century, and is the furthest north and west one can travel in the contiguous United States. Even with the cornerstone location and iconic area, I was astounded by the varied climate and landscape.
The green of the trees in our campsite contrasted with the dark sands of the beach. Moss and vines curled around every rock and tree, and ferns burst from the leaf litter. We searched for the fabled banana slugs, but didn't have any luck. It was magical all the same. We joked that we had stumbled into a home for fairies, and it wasn't difficult to believe it.
We were in an unusual position, arriving at a national park in the daytime. Given this little blessing, we found a proper campsite by the ocean on Kalaloch Beach. After spreading out our Oregonian bread and cheese along with a bottle of cider from Treebones, we sat on the driftwood scattered about the beach, waiting for the sun to set.
Gray Whales breached in the distance, just visible. Seagulls congregated on the damp sand. Ocean-smoothed rocks glistened around us. And the sun hung in the air above us. We watched a man and his son make a fire, then heat up some chicken and rice. Clouds rolled in from the northern shores. The tide rose slowly. And still the sun barely moved.
It wasn't until 9:30 at night that we began to realized how bright it still was. An hour later, the sun was behind the horizon, but the sky stayed alight. We were so far north, and so close to the summer solstice that the light sky easily stayed up later than we did. So much for stargazing, I guess.
In the morning, we broke camp. We had a bold itinerary for this day, so we rose early. The goal was to go from our cozy beach into the heart of the western half of the park, an area consumed by a huge temperate rainforest. After the jungle, we would drive north and west, back to the coast to see the rocky northern coastline, before heading due east, straight into the glaciated Olympic Mountains.
It was about an hour to drive from the beach into the rainforest. We watched the trees glide by the van, eagerly awaiting a change that would hearken our entrance to this new ecosystem. We stopped by a massive cedar tree, 66 feet around. As we drove further into the park, the water in the air became obvious. A thin mist covered everything, necessitating windshield wipers and cautious driving. We stopped for gas at a remote, un-manned diesel pump. Needing to relieve myself, I stepped into the brush behind the station. When I returned, I was soaked, muddy, and coated in spider webs. We were getting closer to the rainforest. I also had a terrifying experience when I thought I hit a small bird with the van. Fortunately, the little thing managed to fly out of the way, which is great, because my gentle constitution would have been badly shaken.
Twisting and turning, the precipitation gradually grew as we ventured further. The rain would start, then stop suddenly. Sun would stream in our front window, and we could see the edge of the rain ahead of us on the road. It was so strange! More than once, we turned to each other in incredulity, unsure of how to react to the jarring shifts in weather. Finally, we arrived at the Hoh Rainforest in the midst of, appropriately enough, a steady rain.
We took a quick hike, no more than a few miles, along a trail called the Hall of Mosses. We didn't want to be behind schedule for the rest of the day, so we tried to hike quickly. It was hard to do.
With the heavy rain in this area, the trees grew to gigantic proportions. But it was the minute cornucopia of life bursting at every seam that captivated us. Anywhere they could, thousands of mosses and lichens flung themselves from the fertile, nutrient-rich undergrowth. All around were signs of life and death intertwined in verdant harmony. Oh, and we found a few banana slugs. Turns out they could be a whole host of different colors, depending on the environment and their diet.
When a tree would fall in this forest, it clears valuable real estate for the growth of other trees. Seedlings grow from their fallen comrade, known as a nurse log. You could see when a nurse log was successful - perfect rows of trees with risen cathedral-style roots were signs of a former nurse log that had cradled them long ago. Because of the thick vegetation covering every available surface, this is one of the few routes for young trees to gain a foothold in this environment.
It was hard to believe that anything could top the circus of life that was the rainforest, but we journeyed on. Another hour through the forest, and we burst onto another beach.
Unlike the beach upon which we woke, this one was rocky and wild. Dark stones formed a carpet for huge logs of driftwood. After running into an older couple from Wisconsin in the parking lot, we stumbled onto the coast. The first thing we saw? A washed up sandal, covered in... what?
We climbed around huge logs and slick rocks that served as a backboard for the tossing tide. The cold northern wind was refreshing after the humidity of the rainforest.
Shorebirds flew about the sheltered inlets. I could have sworn that I saw an Arctic Loon about 5 times, but I wasn't even close. Turns out they don't even live in this area. Oh well.
It was starting to feel late, but the sun was still plenty high in the sky. Or at least, we assumed it was. The clouds came in quickly as we rose and rose. Fog rode in on the cold breeze from above, and the trees around us changed yet again. They thinned as we ascended, making room for small mountain flowers and shrubs.
Deer watched us from the roadside, and on we went. We passed people stopping to take photos - we were passed as we stopped to take photos, and continued our way up. At the end of the steep, winding road was Hurricane Ridge.
The ridge itself was a visitor's center atop a grassy hill. As we sat and watched the sun strain mightily against the dynamic cloud cover, we were privy to deer wandering about the hillside. It was brisk, still, and beautiful.
Of course, I found a way to break the beauty of the scene. Running into the center (which was closed save for the restrooms) to use the toilet, I found that the facilities were in very slight disrepair. Nothing major - the door on the stall simply didn't latch closed. There was a sign requesting that you use a makeshift lock on the door to the restroom itself instead. I shrugged, figuring that the only one behind me was Jenn, and sat upon the porcelain throne without locking the outer door. No more than thirty seconds later, I saw the door swing ajar. I ridiculed the opening door, poking fun at my friends inability to give me a moment to myself and laughed. I shouted a few other things, just in case she hadn't heard me correctly. Quite satisfied with myself, I finished up, zipped up, washed up, and pushed open the door to find a shame-faced family of four in the waiting room. Jenn was nowhere to be seen.
I quickly apologized to the poor people, who had no idea that I was using the facilities, and had no right to be jeered as they were for attempting to relieve themselves. I stomped out of the center and found Jenn lounging in the passenger seat of the van, waiting for her poloroid films to develop. I sheepishly told my tale and we laughed as we succumbed to gravity and drove back down the mountain. A fitting end to a stunning day.