The first family camping trip I remember was at Washington’s 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 roamed 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 1 million acres of mountains, forest and ocean beaches – that you can find drier sides and your own natural haven, rain or shine.
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 of Vermont already enjoying the view.
“This park is on my bucket list,” said Major, who recently did a 35-mile charity bike ride and 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.
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.