HARDEST WAY TO SEE OLYMPIC National Park ON A MOTORCYCLE
Sometimes its nice to not plan, to just go wherever the road takes us and put our trust in the journey instead of our schedules. Any seasoned rider knows that rarely do things go as planned on a trip and that’s why you sometimes have to just go at it blind because worst than not being able to see is having no vision at all.
That’s what a recent trip to Olympic National Park in upstate Washington was like for me this summer. It was coming to the end of my 12,000 mile ride around the U.S. and I have to admit I was tired and kind of wanted to get home to take a real shower and sleep in my own bed. My boyfriend and I had just left Glacier National Park and was planning our route back to California. We had acquired a good amount of National Parks on our ride this summer and when we saw there was another one only 500 miles out of the way we thought we would take the chance to see what it was all about. Plus when you’re this close to the border of Canada and you live as far south in the US as you can go you can’t miss a opportunity like this up.
Olympic National Park is almost 1 million acres of land, 73 miles of coastline, three distinct ecosystems, four rainforest and was formed over 30 million years ago. That whole “Ice Age” isolation led to the 15 animals and 8 plants that evolved and are found nowhere else in the world other than here. In fact, the land is so diverse and unspoiled, the United Nations has declared Olympic both an international biosphere reserve and a World Heritage site.
It has 13 rivers that radiate out like the spokes of a wheel yet no roads traverses the park. Instead a dozen spur roads lead into it from US 101, making it easily accessible from anywhere outside the park.
We had no idea what we were getting into when we made the decision to visit this strange and spectacular land. We rode all day from the east in Montana, through rush hour traffic of Seattle and made it to the town of Port Angeles just before sunset. The cold wet air was just starting to set in and we quickly set up camp at a KOA, built a fire and grabbed a brochure to plan our day. It’s hard to describe Olympic and even harder to understand the brochures about it. I didn’t quite understand why that was until we started exploring it ourselves the next morning.
We headed into the Park from the Port Angeles entrance looking for Madison Falls. It wasn’t far into the forrest that we found the trailhead to the falls and the Elwha River that runs along the road to it. Riding into the park was like being in a fairytale. The trees were old and tall. They felt protective like a kind grandfather and seemed as if at any moment they would open mouths to tell you stories and coddle you with their branches. The sky was a greyish blue and filled with a gloom that left dampness everywhere and faded off into the darkness that only a thick forrest could produce. Uncertainty and curiosity is the dichotomy of a place like this and never have I felt more alive or afraid on a ride before.
The river is home to the most robust native salmon runs in the country and the falls are only a .1 mile hike into the woods from it. For those of you who want to experience the most of Olympic but have little time it’s defiantly a place worth visiting. You can walk up to the water and wade your feet in if you want. In fact most of the park seemed unmanned, leaving you to truly explore this fairytale and allowing your inner imaginative child come out.
Since I didn’t really plan this trip I relied on my iPhone map and decided to ride down what appeared to be roads on GPS when I had service available. We decided to ride on the small paved road farther into the park and I thought I had found the only way through the entire forrest. For a while the road stayed paved but soon started to break away into sections of dirt and gravel before finally becoming all rutted out dirt. It was still a road though and we had committed this far (about 20 miles give or take). The entire time we road we were ascending up a mountain and eventually the trail stopped at an actual trail, the “Appleton Pass”. What we had been riding on became a fire road and then a mountain bike trail and I was on a FXDLS and my boyfriend, Preston, was on a Road King. Both to big to be ridden like dirt bikes. I had a fresh dislocated knee with an ACL tear and shouldn’t even be riding period which is why this was the most challenging terrain I had road to date. The forrest, which stayed permanently in twilight only added to the doom that could easily arise if a miscalculation occurred and down the side of the mountain one of us went. I know you’re not suppose to think of those things but in some situations it’s impossible and this was one of those. We had to turn back. I no longer had the use of my map, didn’t see a soul in sight or knew where the hell I was going. Why am I telling you all this? Because not planning is fun but also dangerous and I want you to understand that going into it.
When we made it back to smooth paved roads I felt like I could breathe. As cool and rewarding as it was to ride like that and come out unscathed, it was also something I never want to do again…unless I was on an adventure bike.
Next up was Lake Crescent. No matter where you enter the park you always go in and come back out onto route 101. Going west a short distance the 17 miles of lake can be easily spotted. Its crystal clear blue waters are due to glacier rocks and the lack of nitrogen which prevents algae from growing. Its maximum depth is 624 feet and you can see almost all the way down it’s so clear. There’s a wide wooden dock that extends out into the water offering up the perfect place to have a picnic lunch. We decided to bask in the warmth of the sun for a bit since it’s the first time we saw it out since we got to Washington before heading on our way.
Between the lake and a town called Forks, best known from the movie Twilight, there’s a diner called the Hungry Bear Cafe. It couldn’t have come at a better time to, rain set in as heavy as our appetites and a warm cup of coffee is just the motivation we needed to keep pushing onward. On this route you will see places to eat far and few in between so make sure to either bring food or stop in for a salmon burger. You’re in the best state to eat it after all! Just keep in mind that this is a very old school cafe where service is slow, a little brash and up front. It’s old, ran old and been that way for years and impatient minds aren’t going to change it so just enjoy the slow pace, good food and warmth. We took the time to suck up the wifi and plan the rest of our trip a little better.
A break in the rain came and we headed out to Hoh Rainforest as if we didn’t get enough of the rain already. By comparison Seattle gets 36 inches of rain a year and the Hoh Rainforest gets over 14 ft which creates a florescent and lush green landscape blanketed in a smokey fog. Normally you want to go explore and hike when it’s nice out but this place is best seen in ugly weather, that's when the moss is the most green and alive. Since it’s also known as “the wettest place in America” seeing it in the rain is the easiest thing about this trip. The “Hall of Mosses” trail is only 3/4 mile and is the next closet thing to feeling like a hobbit on set of Lord of the Rings. The place is truly magical and one of those locations that cameras will never do it justice. Here trees become unison either by the moss that grows together connecting them or the roots and fallen trees that tangle together creating a greenhouse tent of wood and peat. It’s easy to get lost in the moment but the sun was setting and things can get dark quick in this part of the country so we headed out on our last stop of the day, Ruby Beach.
Every few miles, the mood of the coast in Olympic National Park changes; just a few minutes’ walk can transform a flat section along the grayish sands to a landscape filled with sea stacks, tide pools and whale sightings. Because of this unpredictable variation Ruby Beach is where you go when you want to explore like the settlers before instead of flaunting the latest trends in bikinis. You don’t go here to swim, or sunbathe or even surf. You go here to hike, explore tide pools, watch for birds, seals and otters or catch a glimpse at whales swimming by. You go to Ruby Beach for the same reason you visit Olympic National Park: for the wilderness, the isolation, and the incomparable beauty of the Pacific Northwest. I can’t think of a better way to end a trip like this then a place voted as having the best sunset in America.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to continue your trip you can take the entire 101 and PCH all the way down from Washington to Mexico. If you have more time to explore Olympic National Park I would check out Hurricane Ridge, a 360-degree view, north across the Straits of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, Canada or the southern view of the glacier clad Mount Olympus. Also warming up in Sol Duc Hot Springs is a great way to experience nature in a little more higher maintenance way.
The park is open all year around but the best time is during the “dry” season which is summer. Don’t let that full you though, dry means it’s still rains just not as much. Motorcycles get priority boarding on most Washington ferries to and from the peninsula so no getting up early and waiting in a long line on your bike. Weekends are always the busiest but honestly this was one of the least busy National Parks I’ve visited. Pack warm clothes and rain gear. You’re riding in three ecosystems so the weather changes frequently.
I recorded my entire route on Rever and you can download it and follow the same way or create your own here: https://a.rever.co/rides/621688
Ultimately you can see things in this park you can’t see anywhere else in the US. The park is huge and though you may not be able to see all of it in your life time, with enough vision you can feel like have.