Tidepools, Waterfalls, Moody Beaches ~ Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park, encompassing 1441 square miles of the Olympic Peninsula, is known as “a gift from the sea” by its native residents.  It has three distinctly different ecosystems – jagged, glacier-capped mountains, more than 70 miles of rugged Pacific coastline, and majestic stands of old-growth trees and temperate rain forest.

Although we had carved out a month to visit the Olympic Peninsula, time became elusive.  The Pacific Northwest weather can be a fickle gal so staying put awaiting a clear day can quickly find you rushing to catch up to your fleeting schedule.

Leaving South Beach on a clear, cloudless day, we hoped for a clear view of one of the more scenic beaches, Ruby Beach. Beaches on this craggy coastline have as many moods as do we, sometimes bright and clear but other times dark and brooding, laden with fog.  Our initial visit to Ruby Beach was the latter, but I so love all the many moods of these coastal beaches.  Misty, foggy days, a freshness to the wind as if it had been infused with ozone…oh my!  The light mist seemed to heighten smells, enhancing the richness of the sea air.

Mora Campground, just north of La Push was our next stop in Olympic NP.  Like many other national park campgrounds, unless you are packing a tent or pulling a small RV, you may want to seek camping outside the park.  We had scoped out this campground to visit Rialto Beach and hike to the sea-carved arch, Hole-in-the Wall, at low tide.  Two trips to Rialto were needed as our first attempt brought us to an invisible beach of dense fog.  Later that evening she was still a brooding beach but with enough visibility to make our way up to Hole-in-the Wall.  Low tide revealed little interesting sea life but made for a nice three-mile out-and-back walk near sunset.

Bleached driftwood strewn along the beach reminded me of prehistoric bones picked clean by the sea, enhancing the eerie feeling.

Then it was on to the mystical land of vampires and werewolves, thanks to Stephanie Meyer’s successful “Twilight” series.

This sign did the trick. No vampire or werewolf sightings in the area.
This sign did the trick. No vampire or werewolf sightings in the area.

Many travel to the north Olympic Peninsula to retrace the footsteps of some of their favorite “Twilight” characters, the epicenter being Forks and La Push.   Although none of the movies were filmed in either of these small towns, tourists still flock to the area to visit sites such as the Forks High School, where Bella and Edward met, and La Push, where Bella visited her werewolf friend, Jacob.  Click here to see where the movies were filmed.

Forks is one of the region’s logging capitals and Washington’s wettest town, charting 100+ inches of rain per year.

We had read that Second and Third Beaches were both great for tide pooling. As our time was short we chose one, Second Beach, and hit the jackpot at low tide. The area was bursting with ochre sea stars, green sea anemones, and aggregating anemones.

Stepping away from the coast for a few days, we moved east to Sol Duc Hot Springs Campground, where we hiked the six-mile Sol Duc Falls/Lovers’ Lane Loop. The Sol Duc Falls is a segmented waterfall, quite the stunner, and the old-growth forest we hiked was lush.  The Sol Duc River that meanders through the forest serves as a key waterway for coho and chinook salmon.  It is one of the few places where salmon run in every season.  This area is also home to the Sol Duc Hot Springs, which has an interesting Native American legend tied to it.  You can read all about it here.

This forest, like others, had a smell reminiscent of cotton candy, transporting me back to my childhood. Images of sticky smiles, colored pink and blue, danced before me as I dodged tree roots in the path, while the smell of spun sugar teased my memory.

Smoke-filled Lake Crescent

After one night in Sol Duc Valley we were on the move again, stopping at Fairholme Campground on Lake Crescent.  This lovely lake is known for its brilliant teal-colored waters and extraordinary clarity, due to a lack of nitrogen in the lake that inhibits algae growth.  Instruments have recorded depths in excess of 1000′, although many records reflect a maximum depth of 625′ in this glacially carved lake.

Kayaking was on the agenda but two fires nearby caused smoke to settle over the lake.  Biking the Spruce Railroad Trail made the list instead for a nice 15-mile bike ride.

We then took to the forest and hiked 2 miles to little Marymere Falls, where a side trail ended at Historic Lake Crescent Lodge.  We both agreed this would be a great place to come back and stay.

This rounded out week two of our enchanting time in Olympic National Park.  It was time to  get back to civilization.

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Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and a Little Wildlife ~ Mt. Rainier National Park, Part III

“…the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountaintop wanderings.” ~ John Muir 1889   

We had seen some lovely wildflowers in our travels this summer but nothing prepared me for Mt. Rainier National Park’s subalpine meadows bursting with color.   Trails were lined with multiple varieties of flowers, as if a master gardener had lovingly selected and planted each. Every path we stepped onto seemed to be more colorful than the last, a grand mosaic of diversity.

Pungent smell of living trees and soil surrounded us. Air so pure and sweet that our lungs eagerly expanded to drink in the delicious nectar.

The glacier lily, aka yellow avalanche lily, may be one of the most resilient of wildflowers growing on the slopes of Mt. Rainier.  It can generate its own heat, melt a hole in the snow, and poke through the snowmelt, giving it a distinct advantage over the other meadow plants that must await the melting snow.  In all our wanderings I was not able to find this beautiful little flower.

Snow dominates much of the landscape here, blanketing the earth for several months at a time.  Many of the evergreen trees have a contorted shape, twisted by ice and wind.  These subalpine trees grow very slowly and are called krummholz, German name for “twisted wood”.

Paths were spongy, carpeted by countless layers of fir needles and bark. Lichen and miniscule mosses attached themselves to everything that stood still – fallen logs, stately Douglas fir, Western hemlock, and river-polished boulders. Tiny fir trees begin life here in this fertile soil, fallen trees acting as nurseries, adding to the varied shades of green seen along the trails. Heavily scented forests intoxicate, while the roaring rivers busily rush to their terminus, simple, magical experiences found in nature.

The sound of running water can be heard throughout the park, sometimes soothing, sometimes almost deafening, always rushing to get to an unknown destination.  Waterfalls are plentiful due to snow and glacial runoff, and misty spray dances as sunlight caresses water droplets, sparkling like jewels, no two waterfalls alike, each uniquely their own.

Other than the sounds of whistling marmots heard almost non-stop, this is the only little bit of wildlife that we spotted, and he was certainly a cute little guy.

Mt. Rainier speaks to the vastness of a world intense with growth and birth. It was the perfect time to experience this wonder, the season of life between the sleeping winter and autumn’s move towards dormancy.

Next Up:  The Wild, Rugged Olympic Peninsula

Hiking Extravaganza~ Mt. Rainier National Park

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” ~ John Muir

He could be the perfect specimen, this “King of the Cascades”, with those chiseled features, that steely cold gaze, and that red-hot core. Seeing him clearly for the first time, I was smitten! And we were blessed with several clear days where Mt. Rainier’s imposing form rose above the surrounding peaks. Our hikes found me time and again under his spell, as Terry left me trailing far behind, taking photos.

With a total of six days to experience Mt. Rainier National Park, we managed to squeeze in four good hikes and a couple of shorter treks. Hikes were chosen to allow us views of glaciers, some of the park’s most sought after waterfalls, and subalpine meadows bursting with color.  Here are our top four ranked hikes:

1) Skyline Loop, via the High Skyline Trail

Length: 5.5 miles   Elevation gain: 1700′   Rating:  Strenuous

Prepare to get your heart pounding the moment your feet touch the trail. Even if the elevation didn’t take your breath away, the views certainly would.  Hiking up to Panorama Point, you can hear the mountain groan as you pass by constantly shifting glaciers.  Bring binoculars and you may glimpse climbers at the overnight camp preparing for an early morning summit or a group making their final ascent.  We saw both and silently cheered them on.

And at the end of the trail one final surprise as a beautiful bouquet is strewn beneath the glacier-shrouded throne of Mt. Rainier, like a Monet canvas.

The trailhead begins at Paradise, known for its grand views and wildflower meadows. An average of 680” of snow falls here each winter and it typically lingers until July. The National Park Service says that this is the snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is regularly measured. A world record snowfall of 1122″ was set here during the winter of 1971/72.  This exceptionally warm winter changed the landscape, leaving Paradise with less than 5 feet of snow in March instead of its normal 14 feet.

Paradise Visitor Center is the most popular destination for visitors to Mt. Rainier and the only center open when we visited the park.  The orientation film was great and the exhibits very informative.

On the same grounds is the historic Paradise Inn, built in 1916 and opened for business in 1917. The timber used for the interior décor of the inn and the furniture was cut within the park.

2) Comet Falls/Van Trump Park Trail

Length: 5.6 miles, out and back   Elevation Gain: 2200’   Rating: Strenuous

Located near Longmire in the southwestern part of the park, this trail takes you by one of the tallest waterfalls in the park – Comet Falls, plunging 320’ into Van Trump Creek. We sat along the Nisqually River on the return trip, basking in the glow of summer sun and serenaded by rushing water. Boots were off and feet plunged into the icy water…heavenly!

3) Sunrise Rim Trail/Burroughs Mountain

Length: 6.5 miles   Elevation Gain: 2000’   Rating: Strenuous

Located at Sunrise, the highest point accessible by vehicle at 6400’, this was a recommendation by a Park Ranger.  I must admit that sections of this hike left me a bit weak in the knees as the trail became narrow on the side of Burroughs Mountain, steep and sloping precariously towards a 2000’ drop-off down a shale strewn cliff.  It is one of those hikes where it is wise to focus on every step, but it was oh so exhilarating.  Clear views of glaciers and glacial-fed lakes obliterated all other thoughts.  When we were stopped from going any further due to snow and ice, we took a side tour past Frozen Lake and onto Sourdough Ridge for our return back to Sunrise.

Sunrise Point, on the way to Sunrise, offering 360° views of snow-capped peaks.

4) Glacier Basin Trail

Length: 7.5 miles, hiking part of the unmaintained trail   Elevation Gain: 1700’   Rating: Strenuous

Trailhead located at the White River Campground, south of Sunrise. Beautiful wildflowers waved in the breeze as we hiked the trail, with views of White River, and on this day, shrouded views of Mt. Rainier.

All trails we hiked were rated strenuous as the elevation gain occurred within  a short distance, which made the trek back sweet!

Those that didn’t make the cut:

Silver Falls Trail – From the Ohanapecosh Campground, where we stayed, this 2.5 mile hike takes you to Silver Falls and past a small hot springs area.

Wonderland Trail – 93 mile trail encircling Mt. Rainier.   We hiked 3 miles of it while staying at Cougar Rock Campground to visit a small NPS museum at Longmire.  On our return trip we met a woman who had one mile of the Wonderland Trail left to hike. To say she was on a high is an understatement as she shared her near accomplishment with us, Terry got a high-five from her.

Next up:  The colors and sounds of Mt. Rainier National Park

Gateway to the Cascades ~ Sisters, OR

You know you’re in for a special treat when the view that greets you as you approach town is an impressive skyline of snow-capped peaks.   Welcome to Sisters, where the town’s namesakes, North, South, and Middle Sister Peaks, all towering over 10,000 feet, grace the horizon, literally rising out of her backyard.   Complimenting this imposing panorama are Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, Broken Top, and Three-Fingered Jack, quite a sight to behold.

As Oregon’s highways better developed, Sisters became known as the Gateway to the Cascades. She has retained her Old West flair while having a healthy tourist side, sporting specialty shops, antique stores, galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants.  Our favorite store was Jeffrey Murray Fine Art Photography. His landscape photography drew us in and we learned after visiting with Jeffrey that many of the photos in his gallery were taken during his 5-year sojourn as a full-time RVer. This talented young artist now calls Bend home. You can check out his artistry here.

Since we began our summer travels on May 1st, I have marveled at the places we have been able to squeeze our little Fox into, roads we have traveled, and stops we have made that we would not have attempted with our 5th-wheel. But there are places that even a truck camper should not venture, as we learned during our time in Sisters.

We planned to hike Black Butte and our home was coming with us so decent forest service roads to the trailhead were a must. After only one mile of a 5-mile drive, having been sufficiently bounced around by potholes and constant washboard surface, we reluctantly turned around and moved to Plan B, which became the 82-mile loop drive from Sisters, the McKenzie-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway.  It sounded wonderful, and it was, with a few little twists and turns. 😉

The initial phase of our drive took us to two beautiful “classic” Oregon Cascade waterfalls, via an easy 2.5-mile hike. The McKenzie River plunges over Sahalie Falls in an angry torrent, twists down a boulder-strewn canyon before once again throwing herself off the Koosah Falls cliff. Both falls are breathtaking and have been used in scenes for several movies.

We continued east onto Highway 242 and soon saw signs strongly advising against continuing over McKenzie Pass in vehicles longer than 35 feet.  Terry hesitated, but being well within the limit we chose to carry on, and this is where things got rather interesting.

The road began to narrow, with several sharp turns, but before too long we arrived at our next stop, Proxy Falls. An easy 1.25-mile hike took us to the base of one of the most photographed spots in Oregon. This spectacular waterfall is nestled in a deep, heavily shadowed forest that seemed to evoke ancient myth. Many photos later we continued our slow crawl up the mountain.

The road leading up to McKenzie Pass continued to narrow, with no shoulders and hairpin turns so tight the road seemed to nearly fold back on itself in many places. Vertical rock formations edging the road added to the thrill.  At one point a cyclist came flying down from the opposite direction, barely missing our bumper.  If that wasn’t exciting enough (and it was), moments later a skateboarder, sans helmet, propelled himself down and around a turn, with a car right on his backside. Did I mention there are few guard rails on this road?

You can imagine our relief when we saw the sign for the pass, our final planned stop. On this windswept site sits Dee Wright Observatory, which offers a sweeping panorama of the Cascades and the lava flows that dominate the pass.

The remaining drive back to Sisters was uneventful. Needless to say, our second hiking choice along Highway 242, Black Crater, was crossed off the list as well. Scenic or not, we would not be venturing up that road again.

When we settled into our campsite, Terry pulled out his Mountain Directory book to read their interpretation of McKenzie Pass.  “The “highway” on the west side of this pass is so narrow that in many places a regular-sized vehicle, such as a pickup or van, will be over the center line….A small motorhome might make it over this pass, but there is risk of damage”. This stretch of highway was aptly named Deadhorse Grade.

The hike we finally chose was more sedate than our drive, but no less thrilling, the Tam McArthur Rim trail. This 5-5-mile out-and-back hike, with 2400’ elevation gain, provided lovely views of Three Creek Lake and ended at the base of Broken Top Mountain. The vistas at the top were magnificent.

Our Sisters’ visit, like many, seemed far too short.  We would love to stop back in the fall sometime for the nationally renowned Folk Festival. We hear it is an event not to be missed.