Notes on the Olympic Peninsula

Mother Nature is making up for last year by providing us with yet another sunny day. Today I had some time to read through the booklet in our cabin about Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades national and state parks. Here are some of the nuggets of knowledge I picked up.

The western side of the Olympic Mountains receives an average of 140 inches of rain every year. There are three reasons why the area is so wet:

  • Cool ocean currents
  • Prevailing westerly winds
  • The Olympic Mountains

On the Olympic coast, the greatest rainfall occurs during December and January, with daytime temperatures averaging in the 40s.

The top of Mount Olympus receives 200 inches of rain annually, while the town of Sequim (pronouced squim), located on the northeast side of the mountains, receives 16 inches or fewer in a year.

Almost the entire Olympic Peninsula is protected land as part of either Olympic National Park or Olympic National Forest. Highway 101 follows the edges of the peninsula, but there are no roads that cut across the full width of the peninsula. Spur roads off of 101 provide access at several points to interior areas, but the only way to get from one side of the peninsula to the other is by following 101 around. Some areas are closed in winter.

Several tribes have traditional ties to this land: Lower Elwha Klallam, Hoh, Jamestown S’Klallam, Makah, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Quileutae, Quinault, and Skokomish. They originally lived in communal homes called longhouses. They fished and gathered most of their food during the spring and summer. During the winters, which are mild near the coast, the women wove baskets and clothing from red cedar bark. The men carved dugout canoes and made ceremonial items from wood.

In 1788, John Meares, an English sea captain, named Mount Olympus after the mythological home of the Greek gods. Four years later Capt. George Vancouver made the name official when he entered it on his map and referred to the whole mountain range as the Olympic Mountains. Mount Olympus is 7,980 feet high. By comparison, Mount Rainier, in the Cascade Mountain range, is 14,410 feet high.

Throughout the late 19th century pioneers moved into the Olympic peninsula to fish, farm, and cut lumber. In 1885 and 1890, the U.S. Army came through the area to survey and scientifically document the interior. In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt created Mount Olympus National Monument. In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill designating 624,000 acres as Olympic National Park. In 1953 most of the coastal wilderness was added to the park. The 1988 designation of Olympic National Park as a World Heritage Site protects the area by forbidding road building, mining, lumber cutting, hunting, use of off-road motorized vehicles, and other types of development within the designated wilderness area.

Happy Thanksgiving & Three Things Thursday

For the third day, we awoke to clear, sunny weather. We cook most of our meals in the small kitchen in the cabin, but on Thanksgiving we treat ourselves to the buffet at the lodge’s Creekside dining room:

It took us a little over an hour to eat our way through both tables of the buffet.

Three Things Thursday


You never know what you might find if you keep your eyes open while walking along the beach.

1. Decorative Little Doll

china doll on beach

I found this little china figurine, about an inch long, among the stones on Ruby Beach yesterday. What might she represent, and where did she come from? Is some little girl missing one of her personal treasures? Or has the little doll’s disappearance gone unnoticed; if so, why?

2. Forest Reminders

Strewn across Ruby Beach were these reminders that we are not far from hundreds of acres of coniferous forest:

cone and needles

3. Holey Rocks

The holes in these rocks at Beach 4 were made by piddock clams, which use a rocking motion to burrow into the sandstone:

rocks with holes made by piddock clams

Beach Day

Once again, we awoke to beautiful sunshine. There was frost on the cars and on the sides of the driveways where the sun hadn’t yet reached, but the cabin’s heater and the comforter on the bed kept us warm throughout the night.

We drove the short distance north on U.S. Highway 101, toward Forks, to Ruby Beach (see map ). After we left Ruby Beach to drive back to the lodge, we stopped at Beach 4, also on Highway 101. I had been to Ruby Beach before but never to Beach 4. I’m glad we stopped at Beach 4 on the way home because the two beaches are quite different and I learned a bit about the Washington coast.

(Click on any photo to see a larger version.)

Ruby Beach

I had been here twice before. It’s beautiful because of the rocks, called sea stacks, that jut out of the water not too far out from shore. The stacks, remnants of eroded coastal cliffs, provide a place for birds, including cormorants, murres, pigeon guillemots, and petrels, to breed and raise their young.

sea stacks

Because we arrived just a few minutes before high tide, the sandy part of the beach was hidden by the waves. The area open for walking was covered by stones. Looking at the stones reveals that some have been in the water longer than others. Most of them have been tumbled into smooth discs or ovoids by being in the water so long, but occasionally one appears that still has an irregular shape with some jagged edges. Walking across the beach on the stones is a challenge because the stones give way and shift underfoot.

rocky beach

Ruby Beach, like the beach here at Kalaloch Lodge, is also covered with logs that have been tumbled around by the water and have eventually washed ashore.

logs on beach

Together, Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest protect a huge old-growth forest with trees between 200 and 1,000 years old. Nearly one million acres on the Olympic Peninsula are protected as wilderness—95% of Olympic National Park, five areas in Olympic National Forest, and more than 600 islands in national wildlife refuges. The logs on the beaches serve as a reminder that most of the area is covered with trees.

Beach 4

About 73 miles of coastline along Highway 101 are protected as wildlife refuge. Many of the beaches are accessible only on foot or by boat, but Beach 4 offers a parking lot and a walking trail..

The path from the parking lot down to the beach terminates in this wooden walkway:

boardwalk at Beach 4

From here you can venture out onto the rocks, if you’re brave enough. We weren’t brave enough, but there were some younger people there who were.

guys on rocks

When we arrived, the tide had recently begun to ebb. There are not as many logs on this beach as there are at Ruby Beach and at Kalaloch Lodge.

Beach 4 has few logs

Here the rocks take center stage and demonstrate how the coastline formed over the last 15 million years:

rocky coast at Beach 4

Earth’s outer crust consists of vast mobile plates carried along by convection currents. As the ocean floor collided and dipped beneath the land plate, the rocks which form the Olympic peninsula were skimmed off and added to the continent.

Hoh Rain Forest

We drove through the rain for the last hour or so of the trip yesterday. Since we had rain for the whole week we were here last year, I expected that the rain would continue, but we awoke this morning to bright sun.

We decided to take advantage of the good weather by visiting nearby Hoh Rain Forest. We had hoped to go last year, but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. It’s about a 30-mile drive from the lodge to the visitors’ center. (See the map in yesterday’s post.)

(Click on any photo to see a larger version.)

Located 30 miles from the coast on the west side of Olympic National Park, Hoh Rain Forest receives about 140 inches of rainfall annually. Some of the largest trees in the world grow here. Western red cedar and western hemlock grow up to 200 feet tall, while Sitka spruce and Douglas firs can reach 300 feet.

Types of trees in Hoh Rain Forest
Types of trees in Hoh Rain Forest

The rain forest environment is also perfect for ferns:

Ferns love the rain forest
Ferns love the rain forest

We took the trail called the Hall of Mosses. Mosses cover the trees, making trunks and branches look like green fuzz.

The heavy moisture in the air muffles sounds. If you look up, you’re likely to see the tops of the evergreens swaying in a breeze that you neither hear nor feel.

Elk scat
Elk scat

Roosevelt elk live here, where they find a rich food source of all the plants that grow on the forest floor. Elk are especially fond of salmonberry bushes, which they keep trimmed well below their growth potential of 15 feet. We didn’t see any elk, but we did see evidence of their presence:


Three Things Thursday

Here are some photos from our recent trip to Winthrop, WA, in honor of Three Things Thursday, the purpose of which is to “share three things from the previous week that made you smile or laugh or appreciate the awesome of your life.”

Click on any photo to see a larger version.

1. Floyd


This North American bison from Wyoming greets visitors just inside the door at Sun Mountain Lodge.

2. Mule Deer

mule deer at lodge
mule deer at lodge

The Methow Valley has one of the largest herds of mule deer in the country. A good portion of them gather to graze on the lawn of Sun Mountain Lodge.

3. Stunted Pine

Stunted Ponderosa pine
Stunted Ponderosa pine

Just a bit behind the deer in photo #2, this Ponderosa pine sits atop a hill. Because it is growing from a crack in the rock, it has remained small. It reminded us of a bonsai tree.

Road Scholar Program: Day 2

Today began with more of Dana’s presentation “How Nature Works.” He emphasized the way that fire serves to maintain nature’s balance. This is a salient issue because the recent wildfires in Washington burned close by but were stopped before reaching downtown Winthrop.

According to Dana, Ponderosa pines have developed thick bark that protects them from fire. Brush fires burn quickly, and when they sweep through a forested area, they are gone before they can burn through the bark of a Ponderosa pine and harm the interior, living part of the tree. These fires burn low-lying vegetation that competes with trees for nutrients from the soil. When allowed to burn freely, these fires keep down the growth of vegetation on the forest floor. But when the fires are routinely extinguished, low vegetation builds up so that, when a fire does arise, there is plenty of fuel for it to burn through. This is why the recent fires were able to spread across the area so quickly.

(Click on any photo to see a larger version.)

Later, on a walk along the trails near the lodge, we saw the tall Ponderosa pines, with their distinctive orange bark:

Ponderosa pines
Ponderosa pines

Dana also took us to the nearby beaver pond. Despite the name, beavers no longer live there because the owners of the land now trap and relocate them when they show up. The reason, Dana told us, is that beavers would cut down all the aspens that surround the pond within about 10 years.

beaver pond

Although we didn’t get to see beavers, we did see both ducks and geese swimming on the pond.

The second part of today’s program was the introduction of “Northwest History in Story and Song” presented by Hank, a singer, historian, and storyteller. Hank discussed the European exploration of the Pacific Northwest. He punctuated his slide presentation with songs that capture the spirit of the people who manned the ships that came looking for the Northwest Passage. Such songs represent the oral history tradition that prevailed before most people could read and write. On the ships, the shantyman sang songs that provided the rhythm necessary for whatever job the men were performing: The more rapid the action, the more lively the song.

Road Scholar Program: Day 1

Since our move to Washington State, we’ve done most of our exploring along the coast, between northern Washington and San Francisco. Now that summer is over, we decided to head east over the Cascade Mountains. This is not a trip for summer, as the temperatures east of the Cascades are often in the 90s, sometimes even more than 100. We signed up for the Road Scholar (formerly ElderHostel) class called Nature at Work in the North Cascades, Northwest History in Story and Song, and Life in Methow Valley.

(Click on any photo to see a larger version.)

This morning we set out on our trip over the Cascade Loop:

Cascades Loop map

We decided we’d take the northern route out today and the southern route on our way back home. Highway 20 goes through the North Cascades in an area often referred to as the North American Alps. You can see the pointed, rocky mountaintop typical of this area in the photo at the top of this post.

Our destination was Sun Mountain Lodge, a resort on 3,000 acres with miles of hiking trails, on the outskirts of Winthrop, Washington. This area is known as the Methow Valley. Methow is pronounced MET-how. The river and its surrounding valley take their name from the Native Americans who originally traveled the land fishing, hunting, and gathering wild foods such as berries and roots.

The program began in mid-afternoon with a lecture entitled “How Nature Works” by Dana, a local botanist. His focus was on how plants convert energy from the sun into food. After his talk he lead us on a nature walk on one of the trails closest to the lodge. He showed us how to use a botanist’s loupe (small magnifying glass) to look closely at flowers, leaves, and seeds.

My big discovery on this walk was quaking aspens, which I had never seen and heard before. Or at least I’m not aware of having seen them before. According to my book about plants of the Pacific Northwest, aspens cover New England, where I grew up, but I don’t remember them. Perhaps I lived in an area that wasn’t high enough for them. Because aspens like cool weather, they are usually found at elevations between 5,000 and 12,000 feet (1,500–3,700 m).

The flat leaves of these aspen trees, Populus tremuloides, shake or quiver in the slightest breeze in an effort to take in as much carbon dioxide and to expel as much oxygen as possible. This behavior has given the trees the name quaking or trembling aspens.

If, like me, you’ve never seen and heard quaking aspens, here’s a short video for you (it really is short, just 17 seconds; be sure to turn up the volume on the video player so you can hear the quaking):