We found ourselves leaving Glacier with the ambitious goal of crossing two states in one day, our naive itinerary assuming that Idaho and eastern Washington would fly by with the ease and brevity of highway exits, and by nightfall we would find ourselves camping on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. However, our hubris was tempered when we saw the sun set in Spokane, and a minor freak-out occurred upon realizing the nonexistent camping options in the ranch-land of eastern Washington. As Nora and Arthur dozed in the backseat, Will and Elizabeth pressed on through the night, keeping their spirits up with gas station coffee, aiming for Easton Lake State Park, a waypoint about 75 miles from Seattle. We set up our tent in the dark (by now we are able to choreograph the ballet of poles, stakes, lights and hatchets wordlessly), getting a good, if not exactly full, night’s sleep. We woke up to find that the campground had showers ($1 for 6 minutes), and scraped together enough for all of us to enjoy a half-dozen minutes worth of hot water.
We pressed on to Olympic, impressed by the return of mountain landscapes; the Cascades rivaling the Rockies in their beauty if not their vastness. We loaded the car onto the Bremerton Ferry to cross Puget Sound from Seattle, and enjoyed a spectacular view of Mt. Rainier rising through the southern clouds. We arrived at Heart O’ the Hills Campground in Olympic National Park that night, exhausted by another day’s hectic travel schedule, but excited to finally be at the end of the continent. In the morning we found that our campsite was surrounded by salmonberry and blueberry bushes, and after reading a sign that granted us permission to collect up to a quart of berries per person per day, we made pancakes with the local berries and universally declared it the tastiest breakfast we had cooked on the trip thus far.
Olympic National Park is covered in Old Growth and Temperate Rainforests, which flooded our altitude-adjusted lungs with heavy, oxygen-rich air and amazed us with flora greener than any we had seen before. Our two highlights were a trip to Ruby Beach on the Pacific coast, a wonderland of tidal forces and jagged cliffs, and the Hall of Mosses, an aptly-named loop trail through the Hoh River Rainforest crowded by ancient trees draped with dense mosses and lichens. More than any other park on the trip so far, Olympic seemed to value conservation over access, forcing visitors with automobiles to loop around the entire peninsula on Highway 101 to get from one side to the other , as opposed to a network of interior roads.
After Olympic we spent a night in Tacoma Washington before heading to Mount Rainer National Park. In Rainer we chose to stay at the Ohanapecosh Campground. This campsite was situated among Douglas firs, western red cedars, and western hemlocks in a complex old-growth forest. Although it was located within an old-growth forest this campground was one of the largest we have visited during this trip. Ohanapecosh was only 3 miles inside the north of the park boundary on highway 123 and 42 miles east of the Nisqually Entrance. This location allowed for excellent accessibility to the site, allowing hundreds of families to experience the beauty of an often unseen ecosystem. To facilitate visitors in understanding life in the old-growth forest, Ohanapecosh offered Ranger Programs. On our first night at the site Ranger Scott Coombs gave a presentation about the wildlife in the Ohanapecosh area.
The next morning we hiked through the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail, where we saw ancient Douglas firs, hemlocks, and western red cedars. The trail was quite similar to the Hall of Mosses in that it’s a swath of preserved old-growth forest. The trees are older but the mosses, the mosses and the lichens, are less incredible. Despite us insinuating the name of the grove as a glorification of heteronormative values, the concept of the grove is inspired by the abundance of “nurse logs” in the old-growth forest. Nurse logs are symbolic of the greater cyclical processes in play in nature where death fosters new life; the energy from the decomposing logs provides, in essence, the double-shot espresso for new trees. We left the Grove of the Patriarchs to drive to the highest accessible point on the mountain by car, Paradise. Along with the visitor center at Paradise is an intricate system of trails that climb along the alpine meadows, only stopping at a plateau where the meadows can no longer survive the harsh conditions of the altitude. Only rock, snow, and glaciers subsist above a certain point. We climbed along the Alta Vista trail, encountering beautiful alpine flowers, spectacular views of Rainier, and even snow mounds lingering from the winter. The day commenced with dinner at our campsite in the Ohanapecosh Campground.
We spent the next morning and early afternoon interviewing two rangers on their knowledge of the Park-to-Park Highway and perception of tourism in the National Parks. The first ranger, an accomplished historian of the National Parks claimed that the NPS had made a switch in its philosophy and approach to managing the parks about thirty years ago. The NPS had moved from the Stephen Mather inspired values of recreation and accessibility for the American public, towards the John Muir inspired values of preservation. The second ranger claimed that many parks, including Rainier, cancelled plans to build more trails and roads. Essentially, the parks work the maintain the already existing roads and focus more adamantly on protecting endangered species and reintroducing predatory animals that were once eliminated by the NPS to artificially increase the population of “fluffy” and “cute” wildlife for the public’s viewing pleasure. The ranger, to our dismay, told us that 85% to 90% of NPS visitors do not walk more than a quarter of a mile away from their cars. The roads, although truly American and significant towards democratic accessibility, have attributed to the personality of tourism of the park, which is a far less recreational and physical experience than one would think. After talking with these rangers, we continued on our way towards Portland.