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Transfixing moments under, in, and above the clouds at Olympic National Park

Even 10 days spent in campsites, a chalet, and a timeshare, and limited to the northwest part of the park, were not enough to absorb all the top attractions.

Mountain tops are transformed into islands in the clouds as an undercast descends over Puget Sound before daybreak. On the horizon, the predawn light bathes the Cascades, some 50 miles from Blue Mountain in the Olympic National Park.Michael J. Bailey

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — A foghorn from a sacred Quileute tribal island is the first to greet you.

Its long, low moan courses up your path through massive sword ferns and moss-cloaked Sitka spruces. The sound of the crashing Pacific next welcomes you at the top of a steep, stepped descent to one of the farthest western reaches of the continental United States, Second Beach.

If you time this three-quarter-mile hike for day’s break, a community of campers will still be asleep there, honeycombed among bleached, beached spires — shells of trees that once grew in the forest above. Hundreds of these massive trunks border the shore, uprooted from the mountains by river beds ever-widening from torrents of rain and glacial melt, then swept down and disgorged into the sea. The tides and surf deliver them back to land, shorn of life.


The trunks form a ghostly threshold from the forested path to the beach and to the dawn’s mingling of surf, light, and mist.

To walk here is to meditate.

A camper is embedded in the massive driftwood at Second Beach, Olympic National Park.Michael J. Bailey

In Olympic National Park, transcendent moments abound. From the mountain tops glistening with glaciers to well-maintained hiking trails along ridgelines and alpine campsites, from hardwood rain forests to a shimmering crystal lake and sea-stack-speckled beaches, this immense park packs many ways to steal your breath.

When planning your trip, that adjective, immense, is essential to remember. Even 10 days spent in campsites, a chalet, and a timeshare, and limited to the northwest part of the park, were not enough to absorb all the top attractions. Think of Rhode Island, with a range twice the heights of the Green Mountains stuck in the middle, and that’s the footprint of Olympic National Park.

A bird's eye viewing.Michael J. Bailey

And because no roads are allowed to traverse the interior of the park, you must approach each attraction from those that circumnavigate it.


The visitors’ center at the base of the road to Hurricane Ridge is a terrific starting point. The rangers are excellent with suggestions that meet most visitors’ needs and can point you in the right direction for backpacking permits and off-the-beaten-trail adventures if those are your pleasures.

The road from this center to the ridge can offer several got-to-pull-over-to-the-roadside views across the valley. “Can” is a key word. At one daybreak on the ridge, I watched a black-tailed doe and her two fawns munch breakfast in the foreground as light from the rising sun colored the shape-shifting clouds and stoic Mount Olympus beyond. Yet, within 20 minutes, a fog bank from Puget Sound feathered up the valley, devouring the views as the sun imbued the mist with unearthly yellows and blues.

Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park.Michael J. Bailey
Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park.Michael J. Bailey

Up here, the forces of wind, fog, and sun are dynamic. And the views are often transient.

If the ridge is not fogged in, one of the most popular hikes — and, in the summer, most crowded — is to Hurricane Hill. For those more adventurous who don’t mind driving a narrow, winding dirt road featuring sections of 2,000-foot drops from a soft shoulder with no guardrails, drive 8 miles to the trailhead for Obstruction Point. A 6.5-mile out-and-back hike to the saddle between Elk Point and Maiden Peak provides stellar views: to the south are Olympus, its brethren, and a range of jagged peaks extending easterly; to the north, a fever chart of black — the mountains of British Columbia ­ — is bracketed by the blue of the Salish Sea and the blue of the sky. Here, you’re more likely to encounter brazen, pot-bellied marmots than fellow hikers.


Even when the clouds steal the views, the light can dazzle near Obstruction Point, Olympic National Park.Michael J. Bailey

Campers have many options. For those seeking an alpine experience, take the long harrowing dirt road up to Deer Park. (Like the road to Obstruction Point, this is open only in the summer and early fall.) The campsites are spacious, the views thrilling. Make sure you arise before dawn and climb Blue Mountain. In fall, the rising sun summits Glacier Peak in the Cascade Mountains, 60 miles across Puget Sound. Some precious times, a fog bank will sheath the sound, creating an undercast — a carpet of clouds — extending from the black stiletto spires of Blue Mountain’s treeline to the coral-hued Cascades.

Beach camp options include Second Beach, which requires a wilderness permit, and more traditional sites at South and Kalaloch beaches. The wide Kalaloch Beach held several unique features, including a whale’s vertebrae embedded in the sand and scrub pines tenaciously clinging to a bluff, their roots splayed to each side as the ocean has gnawed away at the earth beneath.

A surfer and part of a whale's spine, at Kalaloch Beach, Olympic National Park.Michael J. Bailey

Above Second and Kalaloch beaches, high in the mountains, lay Hoh Rain Forest. Those expecting an experience like a tropical rain forest — lush and multicolored — will be disappointed. Instead, the rain forest features massive firs, pines, and spruces, many of them covered in moss or goat’s beard lichen. In spots, light can’t reach the bowels of the forest. Bathed in 140 inches of annual rainfall, the forest is nearly a monochromatic green,


If your idea of roughing it is more like taking your glass of wine out onto a sunroom, spend some time at Lake Crescent lodge, 15 paces from the glorious lake.

But if you are an intrepid, experienced, non-acrophobic climber and have one last adventure in you, nearby Storm King beckons. The first couple miles of the trail are well-maintained; the last half mile is a bit sketchy with five or six top ropes to help in the ascent; the final 100 yards is a knife’s edge. The end? The most spectacular view of Lake Crescent. (Rangers advise that a more popular and accessible hike nearby takes you to Marymere Falls.)

The payoff for a tough climb up Storm King is the most magnificent view of Lake Crescent. Michael J. Bailey

For the setting sun, return to the western beaches. They make up part of the Quillayute Needles National Wildlife Refuge, a 100-plus-mile swath of coast set aside by Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 as one of the nation’s first efforts to protect the habitats of seabirds. It takes its name from the tribe and the area’s 870 islands and rocks, many pointed and edgy.

The tribe believed the sun was placed upon the sky by the raven. As the day darkens in this fickle land, you can appreciate depending on a wily bird for tomorrow’s delights.

Kalaloch Beach, Olympic National ParkMichael J. Bailey

Michael Bailey can be reached at