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Short Trips: Sol Duc area is good for the soul

Thursday, June 27, 2002

By JEFF LARSEN
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER PHOTOGRAPHER

When I plan a trip to the Olympic National Park, I always seem to focus on the Sol Duc River Valley and Hurricane Ridge. It's a huge national park that spans a mountain range and covers more ocean coastline than any other national park in the lower 48 states. Nevertheless, I can't help myself. There's just something special about those two locations.

Both spots are like old friends -- special to me for very different reasons. While Hurricane Ridge can be the most visually unpredictable place on the planet, the Sol Duc River Valley is the opposite. And because the two areas are only about 50 miles apart, it's relatively easy to visit both in a single day.

The predictability of the Sol Duc River Valley is what I like about it. Hundreds of acres are blessed with stands of some of the oldest of the old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest. To me, the trees look just as big and tall today and the valley overall looks just the same as it did 42 years ago when I first visited the region. Since 1988, 95 percent of the Olympic National Park has been designated wilderness and thus protected from old-growth harvest.

The only thing different about the valley now is that the road to the hot springs and campground is paved. In the 1960s, the same road was primitive at best.

The valley is laced with a number of popular day hike trails, including the very popular Sol Duc Falls Trail. It's an easy hike -- less than a mile long and one the whole family can manage easily. The falls are the most photographed in the Olympic National Park, so take your camera.

You'll find that, on most of the hikes, the extraordinary size of the trees and the associated growth inherent to the rain-forest climate blocks out most of the sunlight, so don't sweat the sun block. And regardless of the time of year, it's smart to bring a warm jacket and wear long pants and sleeves because of mosquitoes and ticks.

Lovers Lane Loop is a six-mile hike with little elevation gain that snakes through some of the best examples of old-growth forest. The trail also passes close to Sol Duc Falls. Again, it's a popular family hike -- scenic but educational as well.

You can access the other old-growth trail, the short but sweet Ancient Groves Nature Trail, from a roadside pullout a couple of miles from the hot springs. Rangers recommend that you return to your car on the trail rather than dodging motorists on the narrow road.

A number of backcountry wilderness trailheads start from the Sol Duc Valley road, as do some more difficult but worthwhile day hikes, such as the five-mile Mink Lake Trail. Because the lake is kind of shallow and marshy, it's a popular mosquito destination as well -- so be prepared.

One excellent roadside stop is Cascade Falls on the Sol Duc River where, if you're lucky, you might see a few salmon making their way to spawning grounds above the falls. Watch for the sign alongside the road.

I think a lot of veteran visitors to the Sol Duc Valley, whether it's for hiking or fishing, pick a favorite out-of-the-way spot to visit and stick with it. I'm no different. I have a favorite spot I may share in a future column.

Legendary in the valley is the Sol Duc Hot Springs, which, to me, has always seemed a little incongruous. Right smack in the middle of one of the wildest wilderness regions in the state is this resort with cabins, a restaurant, swimming pool, even a masseuse. It seems a bit too "Yellowstone," if you get my drift.

When I was a kid, my dad used to characterize the natural mineral pools at Sol Duc Hot Springs as a therapeutic spot reserved for seniors. The gurgling pools, he said, smelled just slightly better than skunk cabbage. In fact, I think we only visited the hot springs once and never went in the pools. True, the sulfur smell can be a little annoying. But my dad's characterization was a common misconception in the '50s and early '60s.

At the turn of the 20th century, the hot springs were conceived of as a health spa in what was called the European tradition. The attention that the therapeutic value of hot mineral springs got was enhanced during the Depression, when President Franklin Roosevelt frequently visited similar hot springs at Warm Springs, Georgia, for his polio therapy. Coincidentally, FDR signed the legislation in 1938 that created the Olympic National Park.

Today the Sol Duc Hot Springs resort is a modern facility that caters to the whole family. Sure, some folks still bank on the therapeutic powers of the 98- to 104-degree pools to ease aches and pains brought on by age. But the resort is much more than the European-style health spa it started out to be.

Single as well as duplex cabins with kitchens are available for rent, plus recreational vehicle sites with water and power hookups. There is a waste disposal site nearby for RVs.

The resort's restaurant, oddly enough, serves breakfast and dinner but not lunch. There's also a poolside deli, gift shop and grocery store. On summer weekends, the resort can serve as many as 750 to 800 swimmers and soakers a day. Early reservations are recommended. A large national park campground is walking distance from the hot springs as well.

Just 17 miles west of Port Angeles and 5,230 feet above sea level, the view of the Olympic Mountains from Hurricane Ridge has almost transcendental powers. One minute, most of the range might be covered by fog and clouds. The next minute, the fog and clouds might move to showcase one of the most spectacular views anywhere in the country. In a matter of seconds, the view might vanish again under a shroud of clouds and fog.

More than 3 million people from all over the world visit Hurricane Ridge each year. Aptly named because of its exposure to some of the most drastic weather conditions in the Northwest, it was first explored officially by white men in the late 19th century during an expedition from Port Angeles into the surrounding mountains by Army Lt. Joseph P. O'Neil and a band of enlisted men. It took the party almost a month to beat their way through 17 miles of forest and underbrush to the Hurricane Ridge site.

Today, the winding road that runs along almost the same route O'Neil took can test your driving nerves because of some precipitous drop-offs and no guard rails. The views can get pretty distracting, too.

The Hurricane Ridge visitor center has a gift shop and snack bar, plus some fabulous vantage points, and is open seven days a week during the summer. During the day, rangers offer slide shows and tutorials about the region. There are visual aids inside and outside to help you identify the surrounding mountains.

After the snow has melted, for the best panoramic view hike the 1.5-mile-ascent Hurricane Hill Trail. It's an easy, paved walk and the view is worth it. Because of an extreme winter, the snow may linger until the end of June or early July. Rangers discourage any excursions during the snow melt because of avalanche and rock slide dangers.

You undoubtedly will see a lot of deer en route. During the summer, a number of deer take up permanent residence at the ridge, and some even wander around in the visitor center parking lot.

P-I photographer Jeff Larsen can be reached at 206-448-8150. For personal e-mail contact:
jefflarsen@seattlepi.com. For general releases: shorttrips@seattlepi.com.


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