I thought I knew the basic risks and thrills of hiking in a national park. I have never held an ice ax or worn a set of crampons, mind you, but I have spent many weekends climbing modest mountains, from the Black Hills of South Dakota in boyhood days to the Appalachians as an adult. Also, I have seen Yellowstone and the Rockies through a car window. None of this prepared me for a walk in the Olympics.
The million-acre park in northwest Washington was everything I wanted in a mountain range, and more _ vertigo-inducing ridge trails, rain forest, rocky coastline, and in places a wilderness of such startling scenery that I laughed aloud in delight and disbelief.
Blue Mountain was one of those places. A friend and I went there on an overcast day in the valleys. We spent the afternoon hiking alone in the clouds on Blue Mountain's ridge, glimpsing fields of wildflowers that plunged into invisible canyons. A bewitching mist enveloped us, casting halo-shaped rainbows about our shadows and prisms of blue light through the cliffs overhead. I half expected to find angels waving at us when we reached the summit.
Instead we found clear skies and a new surprise. Around us, a fantasyland of jagged, snow-collared mountains poked through an otherwise endless meringue of clouds. As the sun sank, pink wisps of mist strayed uphill and floated slowly by our faces. It seemed we had come to a place of unearthly stillness, truncated from the living world below.
On this mountain, the view from the campground outhouse was finer than any I could remember from years of trudging up Appalachian trails.
Now for a few precautions about Olympic National Park:
A) It would not be a fun vacation spot if precipices give you anxiety attacks. Hurricane Ridge highway, a popular drive in this park, ascends 5,200 feet in 17 miles from sea level to the mountain ridges. It's spectacular, and almost bereft of guardrails. From there a narrow unpaved road winds eight miles along the edge of a canyon to the ridge trails.
B) The weather is always a gamble. Some mountain trails remain blocked by snow into July, and the western side of the Olympic range is the wettest place in the continental United States, absorbing up to 160 inches of rain annually. Late summer or early fall are the best times to bet on good hiking conditions.
C) Don't plan a vacation here if you're looking for resorts: The Olympics are a hiker's paradise. The park has beautiful campgrounds, many of them free, and some pleasant bed-and-breakfast places, but it's no Lake Tahoe. Poor, industrial towns surround the park, and their main livelihood is cutting down the giant trees that tourists come to see. Outside the park boundaries, vast stretches of a temperate rain forest have been clearcut.