Dear Olympic National Park,
It’s not you, it’s me.
Usually, I like knowing something about my destination before I get there, especially when I’m planning to visit a National Park. I’ll make a point of scanning the internet or paging through some travel books, gathering information about your geography and your attractions before my arrival.
For starters, it gives me a better sense of how close we can get to you, which is important to me, considering I have little interest in a long-distance relationship.
But this time around, I didn’t do my homework. I suppose I could blame it on solar eclipse fever— my frantically searching for totality-zone accommodations in Oregon—such that I skipped an Olympic step and planned without thinking clearly.
Instead of settling by Port Angeles—at the north gate of your park—we arranged to camp by Lake Cushman on Skokomish tribal land near your Staircase entrance. At the time we made our reservations, it looked like a good fit. But in hindsight, it turns out we were too far from many of the features that make your park so formidable and special.
I realize now how different things could have been between us. Given another chance, I would gladly coast across the coarse black sands of your rugged Pacific shore to admire your infinite tidepools, or marvel at the sea stacks and arches stretching across a sunset-lit horizon. I would have loved to stroll through your lush forests by the Hoh rain forest just to gape at the massive cedar and spruce trees that serve in the company of Mt. Olympus (your highest peak) and the many glaciers that ring her summit. Ahh, what could have been!
But things being as they are, the powers of Mt. Olympus had a different plan for us. It wasn’t terrible… it was just different.
We approached you from Olympic National Forest, with views across the east bank of Lake Cushman.
You probably don’t remember me—since you’re the seventh most popular park in the nation, with nearly 3 million visitors a year—but we first met after I passed your tiny isolated gatehouse powered by a whirring 1500 watt Honda generator.
I know I shouldn’t have sworn at you when I realized my mistake. Please consider it more of an over-reaction to a situation that I couldn’t correct after your ranger informed me that Staircase was a remote access point without roads to any other part of you.
However, she graciously told us of a nifty loop hike through an old growth forest that followed Skokomish River. And so, with few other options on the table, we set out to hike the Rapids Loop Trail as a way of discovering something about your ecosystems.
The bridge to the trailhead was a fitting place for lunch, providing river views north…
… and south of us.
Walking upriver, we encountered the remains of an ancient cedar,
and an active cedar that pierced the sky.
Along the river, the pace quickened…
… but had little impact on the chunky boulders crowned in moss,
or a fallen giant we passed on our return.
We completed our afternoon at the Visitors Center in Hoodsport, grateful for an internet connection and the advice of a local outdoorsman who persuaded us to explore the Hood Canal from a higher perspective the following day.
The park map offered few details of our route, but the turnoff to Duckabush Road was clearly marked. Seven miles in and we were surrounded by Olympic National Forest. The further we penetrated the backcountry, the more isolated we felt.
“At least there’s no crowd where we’re going,” I reminded Leah.
NF-2510 split just past Collins campground, providing us with a fresh choice. According to the map, the fork to the left ran into the Duckabush River. But the right fork—a one-lane rutted road disappearing into the Brothers Wilderness—was precisely the challenge I needed to shake off my mistake.
At first, the road meandered through a dense forest, until we began our ascent. As the F-150 climbed higher and higher, I was inclined to drift closer to the mountain wall in defense of the unstable cliffside that had given way in places from repeated flood damage. It felt so risky, and we were giddy with fear. Seeing a huge fallen tree stump ahead in the road initially caused concern. Would the road be wide enough to pass it?
“This was a huge mistake! What if we’re stuck here?” Leah panicked. “There’s no room to turn around, and there’s no way fucking way you’re backing out of here!”
Creeping towards the barricade, I engaged the 360° camera view on the dashboard monitor while Leah coached from the right side. Holding my breath, we cleared the obstacle by inches on the right, as the left side of the truck kicked gravel over the open side of the road.
But it was too soon to celebrate. There was more road in front of us, and we were still climbing. As the elevation rose, the trees eventually gave way to a valley view of Hood Canal.
Leah was emphatic. “I think we’ve gone far enough,” she expressed. “And you finally have a place to turn around.”
“What’s the fun in that,” I overruled, “when we’re so close to the top.”
After fifty minutes of driving six nail-biting miles, I needed a bigger reward than the view at hand. I was hoping for wide open spaces at the end of the road.
It was only another mile of switchbacks to the top, and perhaps the easiest mile traveled—most likely the result of a recent forest fire that groomed the hillside of old growth pines.
We arrived to a field of maturing fireweed, firing off thick bursts of puffy seeds that floated through the air like a bubble cloud over our heads.
We roamed around the damaged summit, finding crushed beer cans, campfire rings filled with debris, and shell casings one-hundred paces away from target practice paper. It must have been a wild and crazy party that we missed.
The ride down the mountain (what I believe was Mt. Jupiter) was uneventful, although this time the tree stump was on my side, and Leah got a chance for a glance down the cliff.
An hour later, we were driving up a paved road to the lookout atop Mt. Walker, with views from the north face…
…and views to the south, and the contrast couldn’t have been more startling.
And so, Olympic National Park, I think we got off on the wrong foot. It might have been the right time, but it must have been the wrong place. Still, I hope it’s possible for us to hang out together in the near future, now that I’ve been to the mountaintop and seen the light.
Neal and Leah