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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Discover good campgrounds in North Olympic Peninsula


PORT ANGELES -- Seven a.m. and the campfire is crackling, coffee is dripping and the low morning sun is filtering through the maple trees and dappling the faint ripples on deep blue Lake Crescent.

Low tide at Salt Creek County Park reveals some of the best tide pools on the Washington side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The park -- the crown jewel of Clallam County -- has more than a mile of stunning rocky shore. The park is a reserve, so don't take anything away.

Could campground life be any sweeter?

Well, yes, thanks for asking -- it sure could be.

The fat fishermen in the next campsite woke us at 5:30 a.m. while banging around and packing up to go launch their boats -- this after drinking, partying and belly-laugh bellowing past midnight.

Furthermore, at the strike of 7 a.m. and the end of "quiet time," the elderly trailer folks just up the hill fired up their generator and raised their antenna, and our hoped-for campground serenity was shattered by an aggravating, endless "eeeeeeennnnnnnnhhhhhhhh!"

We wonder, is our karma that bad? Then rationality creeps through the drone: no, that's just camping. You get what you get in the way of neighbors, and there ain't a thing you can do about it.

At the same time, the price is right -- $12 a night at Fairholme, a forested campground on the shore of the prettiest lowland lake on the Olympic Peninsula. It's a prime spot for a morning hike along the enchanting Spruce Railroad Trail.

We had a relaxing soak the evening before at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort just up the road. That previous morning we explored the rich tide pools at nearby Salt Creek Recreation Area; we saw urchins and anemones and giant mussels, watched deer and raccoons, eagles and seals. Oh, yeah, we stopped and bought a wild blackberry pie so good it made us wanna sass our Mama at the coolest country market ever, the old Joyce General Store.

Jonas Ehudin serves burrito filling to eighth-grader Cort Jensen, 14, from Missoula, Mont., whose class was on a trip through Puget Sound that included a four-day sail.
Anyway, isn't camping called roughing it?

Here then, as campers all over the Northwest prepare to embark on the traditional Memorial Day weekend start of the season, are some details on campgrounds in a lesser-known but intriguing corner of the state, the north Olympic Peninsula. This is a thin strip of geography bounded by Olympic National Park and mountains on the south and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the north. It's an area of big trees, loggers and logging, steep slopes, tide-washed shores and glimmering streams and lakes.

The camping can be mighty fine, and all the campgrounds described here are open, ready for holiday weekend campers, and operated on a first-come, first-served basis. As always, arrive early if you want to secure a site for a weekend.

Just be wary of camping near boat-towing dudes with plumber's cracks and old folks in tricked-out trailers.

A lime-green sea anemone sits just below the surface of a tide pool, which offers a variety of spiny urchins, chitons, barnacles, crabs and limpets.
Salt Creek Recreation Area -- This 196-acre park is the crown jewel of Clallam County, with more than a mile of stunning rocky shore and the best tide pools on the Washington side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Go during a minus tide and you'll see spiny purple urchins, lime-green anemones, armadillo-like chitons, barnacles, crabs, limpets, etc.

Operated by the county, this is a preserve, so take pictures, but pick up nothing and keep nothing.

"It's a very special campground," says Dave Spurrier, who with his wife, Sandy, is serving as campground host in May. "It's pretty. It's right near the sea. We've had a number of campers tell us this is their favorite campground. A lot of people I think would prefer it not be discussed!"

Newly wired hookup sites line a grassy area overlooking the strait. A loop on a circular headland above rocky Tongue Point provides beautiful sites in the forest.

"One night we could hear the tide coming from both directions," says Spurrier. "We could hear it on the left side of the trailer and then the right."

Ballard resident Jon Wood, 28, wakes at the Fairholme campground and looks out at Lake Crescent, the prettiest lowland lake on the Olympic Peninsula. The campground is nestled in a mixed maple-and-fir forest with many sites providing tree-filtered views of the lake.
Campers are asked to keep their food secured in their vehicles at night. Aggressive bands of masked raccoon marauders wander the area. While we were dining on our visit, one critter walked up and attempted to panhandle not three feet away while his gang circled the site.

Whatever you do, DON'T FEED THEM! It just encourages invasive behavior.

A great trail heads east through big Sitka spruces to follow the shoreline for about a mile before it climbs nearby Striped Peak. A side trail drops down to a beautiful pocket cove. The park, a former coastal artillery site, also has a nice playground, volleyball court and horseshoe pits.

Lyre River -- This is a tiny campground run by the state Department of Natural Resources. It's in a pretty forested setting on the babbling Lyre River, and the campsites are nice. We know people who love it, but the two times we've visited it wasn't very appealing. Recently an abandoned utility trailer took up the corner of one site, and other sites were littered with garbage. Go during the week and it would probably be OK.

Fairholme -- This beautiful Olympic National Park campground is one of my favorites because it puts visitors in prime position to experience enchanting Lake Crescent. The very cool Spruce Railroad Trail along the uninhabited stretch of the north shore of the lake is close. Marymere Falls and Lake Crescent Lodge with its restaurant are a few miles down U.S. Highway 101; Sol Duc hot springs is a skip the other way.

The campground is nestled in a mixed maple-and-fir forest with many sites providing tree-filtered views of the lake. The campfire rings here are Park Service-grade, with grates featuring adjustable levels to facilitate cooking. The lake is cold, but on hot days there's plenty of space for swimming and a boat launch; a great canoe or kayak trip would begin here and follow the north shore west.

Sol Duc -- Two loops curl around a forested setting right along the gorgeous Sol Duc River, and there's lots to do. Within walking distance is the hot spring resort and the trailhead providing access to Sol Duc Falls and the stunning and popular Seven Lakes Basin in the Olympic National Park backcountry.

"Another attraction in the fall is the Salmon Cascades on the river," says fee ranger Karen Frisch at the Sol Duc entrance station. "The salmon run and you can see them."

Because of all that, however, this area is tourist central, and it can get busy. We asked Frisch the weirdest questions that she's fielded.

"One of the strangest was 'Is there buffalo in the park?' I've also heard people ask 'When do the deer turn into elk?' "

(Psssst, goofball: Buffalo roam the plains, not the forests; and deer and elk are separate species.)

There are bear here, though. You are asked to keep a clean camp and secure your food at all times.

Elwha -- I wasn't altogether impressed by the setting in this Olympic National Park campground, situated in a maple glade along the road; Altaire, father up the valley, is on the river and more cozy. But this spot does put you in the middle of the interesting Elwha Valley, not far from several trailheads to cool hikes such as Olympic Hot Springs, Appleton Pass, the classic Elwha River Trail, Wolf Creek and another approach to Seven Lakes Basin.

Altair -- The Elwha River downstream of this nice spot is rated intermediate, Class III whitewater. It's popular from spring to mid-summer among rafters and kayakers, since it's a pretty forested setting on the river.

Klahowya -- In big spruce and fir along the Sol Duc River, this Forest Service campground -- the name is Chinook jargon for "How are you?" -- takes overflow from Sol Duc and Fairholme campgrounds, but it's a sweet spot in its own right.

"Several of the sites are right on the river," says Molly Erickson at the Forest Service office in Forks. "Most of the folks who stay come year after year."

Heart o' the Hills -- A forested campground south of Port Angeles just inside Olympic National Park, this is a prime location for visiting Hurricane Ridge with its wonderful high-country day hikes and views, as well as exploring the Port Angeles area. It serves as a trailhead for hikes up to Klahanie Ridge and 6,454-foot Mount Angeles.

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