The rugged and remote Olympic Peninsula, located in the extreme northwestern corner of Washington and home to Olympic National Park, was one of the last places in the continental U.S. to be explored. Its impenetrable, rain-soaked forests and steep, glacier-carved mountains effectively restricted settlement to the peninsula's more accessible coastal regions.
In 1897, much of the Olympic Peninsula was designated a National Forest Preserve that, in 1909, became a national monument. The heart of the peninsula -- the jagged, snowcapped Olympic Mountains -- became Olympic National Park in 1938. The region was originally preserved in order to protect the area's rapidly dwindling herds of Roosevelt elk, named for President Theodore Roosevelt (who was responsible for the area being designated a national monument). At the time, the elk herds were being decimated by commercial hunters.
Today, however, Olympic National Park, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island, is far more than an elk reserve. It is recognized as one of the world's most important wild ecosystems. The park is unique in the contiguous United States for its temperate rainforests, which are found in the west-facing valleys of the Hoh, Queets, Bogachiel, Clearwater, and Quinault rivers. In these valleys, rainfall can exceed 150 inches per year, trees (Sitka spruce, western red cedar, Douglas fir, and western hemlock) grow nearly 300 feet tall, and mosses enshroud the limbs of big-leaf maples.
Within a few short miles of the park's rainforests, the Olympic Mountains rise up to an alpine zone where no trees grow at all, and above these alpine meadows rises the 7,965-foot glacier-clad summit of Mount Olympus. Together, elevation and heavy snowfall (the rain of lower elevations is replaced by snow at higher elevations) combine to form the numerous glaciers within the park. It is these glaciers that have carved the Olympic Mountains into the jagged peaks that mesmerize visitors and beckon hikers and climbers. Rugged and spectacular sections of the coast have also been preserved as part of the national park, and the offshore waters are designated as the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
With fewer than a dozen roads, none of which leads more than a few miles into the park, Olympic National Park is, for the most part, inaccessible to the casual visitor. Only two roads penetrate the high country, and only one of these is paved. Likewise, only two paved roads lead into the park's famed rainforests. Although a long stretch of beach within the national park is paralleled by U.S. 101, the park's most spectacular beaches can be reached only on foot.
While the park is inaccessible to cars, it is a wonderland for hikers and backpackers. Its rugged beaches, rainforest valleys, alpine meadows, and mountaintop glaciers offer an amazing variety of hiking and backpacking opportunities. For alpine hikes, there are the trails at Hurricane Ridge and Deer Park. To experience the rainforest in all its drippy glory, there are the trails of the Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets, and Quinault valleys. Of these rainforest trails, the Hoh Valley has the more accessible (and consequently more popular) trails, including the trail that leads backpackers on the multi-day hike to the summit of Mount Olympus. Favorite hikes include the stretch of coast between La Push and Oil City and from Rialto Beach north to Lake Ozette and on to Shi Shi Beach.
The restored Victorian seaport of Port Townsend in the northeast corner of the peninsula offers a striking contrast to the wildness of Olympic National Park. A restored historic commercial district on the waterfront is packed with interesting shops and good restaurants, while on the bluff above, the streets are lined with stately Victorian homes (several of which are bed-and-breakfast inns). Together, the town's two historic neighborhoods have made Port Townsend one of the state's most popular destinations.
The rural community of Sequim (pronounced Skwim) has also been developing quite a reputation in recent years for a very different reason. The Sequim area lies in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and receives fewer than 20 inches of rain per year (less than half the average of Seattle). Sure, the skies here are still cloudy much of the year, but anyone who has lived very long in the Northwest begins to dream of someplace where it doesn't rain quite so much. In Sequim, these dreamers are building retirement homes as fast as they can. The dry climate has also proven to be an ideal environment for growing lavender, and fields of purple blossoms are sprouting all over the Sequim area.
Long before the first white settlers arrived, various Native American tribes called the Olympic Peninsula home. The Makah, Quinault, Hoh, Elwha, and Skokomish tribes all inhabited different regions of the peninsula, but all stayed close to the coast, where they could harvest the plentiful mollusks, fish, and whales. Today, there are numerous Indian reservations, both large and small, on the peninsula. On the Jamestown S'Klallam Reservation, you'll find a casino, and on the Makah Reservation, a museum of culture and history.
While at first it might seem that the entire peninsula is a pristine wilderness, that just isn't the case. When the first white settlers arrived, they took one look at the 300-foot-tall trees that grew on the Olympic Peninsula and started sharpening their axes. The supply of trees seemed endless, but by the 1980s the end was in sight for the trees that had not been preserved within Olympic National Park. Today, U.S. 101, which loops around the east, north, and west side of the peninsula is lined with clear-cuts and second- and third-growth forests for much of its length, a fact that takes many first-time visitors by surprise.