The Olympic Mountains are not very high — Mount Olympus, the tallest is just under 8,000 feet — but they rise almost from the water’s edge. The mountains intercept moisture-rich air masses that move in from the Pacific Ocean. As this air is forced over the mountains, it cools and releases moisture in the form of rain and snow. At lower elevations, rain nurtures the forests, while at higher elevations snow adds to glacial masses that relentlessly carve the landscape. The mountains wring precipitation out of the air so effectively that areas on the northeast corner experience a rain shadow and get very little rain. For eons, wind and rain washed sediment from the land into the ocean. Powerful forces fractured, folded and overturned rock formations, which helps explain the jumbled appearance of the Olympics. Ice Age glacial sheets from the north carved out the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal, isolating the Olympics from nearby land masses. Surrounded on three sides by water and still crowned by alpine glaciers, the Olympics retain the distinctive character that developed from their isolation.
Glacial ice is one of the foremost scenic and scientific values of Olympic National Park. Because they grow or shrink in response to snowfall and snowmelt, glaciers are sensitive indicators of changes in regional and global climate. There are currently 266 glaciers crowning the Olympic peaks. The most prominent glaciers are on the 7,980-foot Mount Olympus, covering about 10-square-miles. The Blue Glacier, a 2.6-mile long glacier and also the park’s largest, contributes a significant amount of water to the Hoh River via Glacier Creek. Beyond the Olympic complex are the glaciers of Mount Carrie, the Bailey Range, Mount Christie and Mount Anderson. Over thousands of years gravel embedded in glacial ice has carved away at Olympic rock as the glaciers flow downhill, leaving behind smoothed rocks, sharp ridges and lake-filled basins. In the company of these glaciers are perpetual snowbanks that have the superficial appearance of glacial ice. Travel on the Olympic Mountains’ glacial ice is a specialized skill of mountaineering requiring the basic use of climbing rope, ice ax, crampons and good judgment by a climber accompanied by experienced leaders.
wildflowers often rewards your eyes.
There are four basic types of forests on the North Olympic Peninsula: temperate rainforest, lowland, montane and subalpine. Temperate rainforests are found at low elevations along the Pacific Ocean coast and in the western-facing valleys of the Peninsula, where lots of rain, moderate temperatures and summer fogs exist. The lowland forest grows farther inland from the coast and above the rainforest valleys. The lowland forest gives way to the montane forest. As elevation increases, temperatures cool and more moisture falls as snow; growing seasons get shorter and the subalpine zone takes over. The lower portion of the subalpine zone consists of continuous forest, but in the upper part of this zone the forest thins out. Increasing elevation causes even more severe climatic conditions. Trees become fewer, shorter and more misshapen. When the tree line is reached, beyond which trees do not grow, a profusion of
Land meets sea
More than 70 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline form a vital component of Olympic National Park. This coastline looks much as it did when Native Americans built their first villages thousands of years before Europeans arrived. The coast is where the land meets the sea, vibrating with life and energy — arches and sea stacks; the roar of crashing waves; the calls of gulls, bald eagles, cormorants and black oystercatchers; dramatic sunsets and the vastness of the ocean. At low tide, you can walk toward the surf, stopping at various tide pools along the way. If you squat down and spend some time just looking in a tide pool, you will be amazed at what you see; what first look like rocks are, in fact, small sea animals. Rialto Beach (p. 144) is an incredibly popular spot to view whales, watch surfers and enjoy the fresh, salty air.
OLYMPIC PENINSULA VISITORS GUIDE • SUMMER 2018