Hidden Treasures Abound On Olympic Mountains' East Slope
By RON C. JUDD
SEAL ROCK, Wash. - Nothing soothes the soul like glassy saltwater. Nothing lifts the spirit like craggy alpine peaks. Nothing beats finding those rare places in the middle, where the two come close enough to embrace.
One of the best in the nation is less than 50 miles from downtown Seattle, as the crow flies - and not much farther as the crow drives or rides the ferry.
The east slope of the Olympic Mountains, a mishmash of clearcuts, pristine wilderness, tall peaks and peaceful shorelines, remains a mystery to most Seattle-area dwellers. It's easy to see why.
You have to take a ferry or drive through Tacoma to get here. And once here, getting around can be less pleasant than a wet tent in November: Most of the area's sights are accessed by an ant-trail jungle of Forest Service logging roads.
Getting information can be equally challenging. Public lands here are controlled by at least a half-dozen public agencies, no single one of which has the wherewithal to do promotional justice to the region.
Despite those obstacles, negotiating the maze of treasures of this spectacular rectangle - bordered on the north by Quilcene, the south by Hoodsport, the east by the Olympic Crest and the west by Hood Canal - can provide a lifetime of thrills.
Few U.S. lands, with the exception of parts of Alaska, can compare. The striking arched brows of Olympic peaks such as The Brothers, Mount Constance, Mount Washington and Mount Jupiter are so close to sprawling, life-rich Hood Canal you can almost smell its sweet, salty aroma from their summits. The land between is a carnival of camping, hiking, cycling, wildlife-viewing and fishing treasures, with rivers flowing from the pure highlands of Olympic National Park drawing cold, clear borders between venues. Even their names suggest intrigue: Skokomish. Hamma Hamma. Duckabush. Dosewallips.
The rivers flow through lush, green forest - pristine old-growth in the national park, clearcut and recovering in the national forest - to the peaceful shores of Hood Canal (actually our nation's longest fjord), where jutting orange madrona trees separate the marine world from the mountains. Here, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, ravens and tourists fight over a bounty of shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels.
It's a splendid place, but lest we dwell too heavily on aesthetics, consider the pragmatic deal-clincher: More often than not, you can actually find a campsite over here. The shoreline and river valleys are dotted by a splendid mishmash of campgrounds, most managed by Olympic National Forest or Washington State Parks. All are better than average, but only some - primarily state parks on the Canal's south end - are well known.
On most weekends, sites are available at most Forest Service Campgrounds on Friday evenings, and some spaces occasionally remain open on Saturdays for the getaway-planning impaired. Better yet, four area campgrounds offer telephone reservations (for a nominal fee) for some or all of their sites.
Now that your last valid reason not to visit has been eliminated, consider an East Slope Olympic tour that winds from north to south. Take a ferry or drive to Kitsap County and travel west over the Hood Canal Floating Bridge. Turn south on US 101, adjust your shades, and drink it all in. Here are some thumbnail sketches of highlights along the way, from Quilcene south:
FALLS VIEW CAMPGROUND (Four miles south of Quilcene).
By the time you get here, your surroundings tell you you've entered serious forest. Falls View is a chance to camp in its midst. The small, pretty Forest Service camp has 35 sites, with reservations available by calling (360) 796-4886. Nearby activities include magnificent hiking trails with trailheads off Penny Creek/Lords Lake Loop Road, which exits to the north two miles up the road. Popular day hikes in the area include Marmot Pass, Tunnel Creek, Silver Lakes, Little Quilcene, Mount Townsend and Mount Zion. Mountain bikers are allowed on the Lower Big Quilcene Trail. Call the Quilcene Ranger District, (360) 765-3368, for information.
MOUNT WALKER (Five miles south of Quilcene).
Here's a chance for a fine view of the eastern Olympics, and you have your choice of driving or walking to the top. The trail winds two miles up through Douglas fir and wild rhododendrons to the summit viewpoint, 2,750 feet, where you can meet your friends in the car. Or, have someone drop you off at the top and walk down.
SEAL ROCK (Two miles north of Brinnon).
This Hood Canal shoreside campground near Dabob Bay is one of the most under-appreciated campgrounds in the region. Its 35 sites are spacious and wooded, with first-class (level!) tent platforms and room for all but the grossly overstretched RVs. Activities include beachcombing (and clam, shrimp and oyster harvesting in season), walking the new interpretive trail with the beach at your feet and madronas overhead, and the occasional Trident submarine sighting in unsettlingly deep Dabob Bay, where the Navy conducts tests. Campsites can be reserved by calling (360) 796-4886.
The Dosewallips River plunges headlong into Hood Canal here, and the state park near the mouth is a big, well-equipped family campground, with 87 tent sites and 40 RV spots. Good mountain biking trails can be found in the vicinity.
Turn up Dosewallips River Road near the State Park and drive up and east to two nice riverfront campgrounds, as well as this area's primary trail-departure site.
Guarded on the north by Mount Constance and the south by The Brothers, the Dosewallips is one of the Olympics' grandest river valleys. The glassy, shaded river flows by Elkhorn and Dosewallips, two fine campgrounds. Elkhorn, a Forest Service campground open from mid-May to September, has 18 sites and pit toilets. Reservations can be made by calling (360) 796-4886. Dosewallips, inside Olympic National Park and open from June to late September, has 30 sites, first-come, first-served.
Both are popular with hikers embarking on day-, week-, or month-long treks into the Olympics. The Dosewallips Trail begins near Dosewallips Campground and follows the river to its source, crossing Hayden Pass (on the mainstream Dosewallips Trail) and Anderson Pass (on the West Fork Trail) and ultimately connecting with the Quinault and Elwha river drainages of the western Olympics. Lower portions of the trail make excellent day hikes.
The Duckabush River Road leads five miles west to Collins Campground, a Forest Service camp with 16 sites. Nearby is the Duckabush Trailhead, where you can embark on a trek to Lacrosse Pass or O'Neil Pass. Nice, riverside backcountry campsites can be found along the trail's first five miles.
The Hamma Hamma River Road leads to Lena Creek and Hamma Hamma campgrounds, both small Forest Service sites along the river. The Lena Creek camp, near the confluence with the river, is near the trailhead for Lena Lakes, one of the most popular (and overused) backpack destinations in the Olympics.
The lake, actually a Tacoma City Light reservoir on the North Fork Skokomish River, is a beautiful setting for a feast of hiking and camping venues.
Campsites are found at Big Creek, a Forest Service campground; Staircase, an Olympic National Park site; and Lake Cushman on the lake's east shore. All are pleasant, but Staircase is a perennial favorite, both for its scenery and its proximity to the North Fork Skokomish Trailhead.
From the trailhead, you can walk up the spectacular North Fork Skokomish Valley to a number of excellent backpack campsites. The trail, which ultimately connects to the Duckabush River trail, is often hiked one-way by backpackers. Day hikers congregate on the Staircase Rapids Loop Trail, a pleasant, 6 1/2-mile round-trip loop. Other popular hikes in the area include Mount Ellinor, Mount Washington, Mount Rose and Dry Creek.
Call Olympic National Forest (360) 956-2400 or Olympic National Park (360) 452-0330.