I knew within seconds that Olympic National Park was special.
It sounded different, smelled exotic, and looked like a mystical fairy-land that I used to imagine as a child.
My first stop was the coast, particularly Beach 4, where one of the locals promised me I’d be able to explore the tide pools when the tide was low. There were a couple other tourists on the beach, but most of them were clustered around the end of the trail. I ventured further north to a rocky outcropping that was being hammered away by relentless Pacific waves.
I scampered about, dodging ocean spray and scaring away seagulls with my presence. There were some amazing creatures: sea anemones, sea stars, mussels, sea urchins, and a host of other living things that I couldn’t identify. As I hopped from rock to rock, I grew in appreciation of this unique ecosystem. I was smart enough to keep an eye on the water level; it wouldn’t be fun to get stuck out on a high point unable to get back to land.
After I had exhausted myself at the beach, I entered the Hoh Rainforest portion of Olympic. Here, I viewed every shade of green conceivable. One type of lichen that clung to the large old-growth trees looked exactly like lettuce.* The mosses dripped down, hanging off of branches and twirled around trunks. There were waterfalls, creeks, and streams all within 2 miles from the Visitor’s Center parking lot.
I enjoyed the feeling of being in such an exceptional environment. Simply sitting and watching the world was engaging. A couple slugs came out to say hello, and some bugs that looked like mosquitoes hovered about (they didn’t try to chow down on my flesh like I expected, though). There was so much life and I was glad to be apart of it.
When I crawled into my trailer that night, moisture clung to everything. I didn’t mind, though – it wasn’t as annoying as the humidity back east. I fell asleep within the rainforest, feeling snug and cozy, and all wrapped up in green.
* I later found out that this is actually called Lettuce Lichen.
The big white mountain flickered in my peripheral and then was gone. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? There – again. Pieces of its formidable shape could be seen through the trees, reflecting sunlight and causing my eyes to squint. When I finally spotted an overlook labeled “Mt. Rainier Vista Point”, I happily pulled over and quickly followed the short trail to a lookout unobscured by the lush forest.
It was a snow-covered giant, rising up from the ground in a stoic manner. There was an ancient feel to Mt. Rainier, yet it was relatively young compared to many peaks in the surrounding Cascade Range.
I snapped a few pictures.
I studied the mountain.
It felt like something was going to happen, although of what, I am not sure.
I walked much more slowly away from the mountain, a feeling of fullness in my thoughts making my pace more relaxed. It was time to begin my drive to the top – a place appropriately named Paradise. Along the twists and curves that carried me up, I pulled over multiple times. Each perspective of Rainier was different. Sometimes it was framed by clusters of trees, the green color contrasting nicely against the white. Other times, Rainier stood alone in the distance, like a guardian of the park.
The half hour drive took over an hour as I hopped in and out of my car at each pullover. I knew that travel was limited around the park was due to snow, so it was important for me to take advantage of all the places and sights I could access.
Most people visit Mt. Rainier in the summer, when all the roads are clear and the short growing season demonstrates a spectacular show of blooms. Winter lasts long at elevation, allocating visitors to a certain area to experience the mountain.
It was so blue. The white snow surrounding the crater accentuated the deep cobalt color, its clarity taking on an almost surreal appearance.
I was standing at the edge of a volcano that had erupted thousands of years ago. The top collapsed leaving a gaping crater, or caldera, that gradually filled with snow, condensation, and rain runoff. The shifting clouds took turns hiding Wizard Island, a mini volcano within the greater volcano. Science is amazing.
I took off on snowshoes intent on exploring different parts of the lake. While the main Rim Drive was still closed due to massive amounts of snow, I wasn’t deterred. It was slow-going since the moisture in the air rendered the snow wet and sticky. I plodded on, using my poles to propel me ever upward and onward and to help me stabilize along the awkward sloping edge.
It’s easy to visit a national park to simply see “the thing” it is known for. Yes, the lake was beautiful, but I like to enjoy the whole package. The Oregon landscape riddled with evergreen trees made me pause in reflection. The creeping clouds were fun to trace with my eyes. The various shades of white found in the snow piqued curiosity in my mind.
The national parks are more than just one resource. In fact, in its very definition a national park protects entire natural systems, whereas a national monument safeguards a specific object of historical, cultural, or scientific interest.
Crater Lake wouldn’t be Crater Lake without the aggressive rise of the mountain, the snow-covered forest, and the unique rock outcroppings surrounding it.