Olympic NP: Backpacking the Southern Coast, Part I

In a world where nothing seems certain, it’s nice to know there are absolutes you can bank on. The sun will rise. The birds will sing. And in Forks, Washington? Sparkly vampires and hunky werewolves are as real as real can be.

Also, you can bet your bottom dollar that it rains in Hoh Rain Forest. A lot.

Our initial plan was to forge ahead to 5 Mile Island along Hoh River Trail before retracing our steps back to the Visitor Center. After a cold and wet night spent in the rain forest, however, we ready to be done with the elements. Inclement weather had followed us for the better part of a week now–in mid-July, no less–and our spirits (and patience) were worse for wear.

Forget the herd of elk grazing along river’s edge. To heck with boiling water for coffee and hot chocolate. We were bailing, and in a hurry. We broke camp in record time, hitting the trail just after 7 am. The trickle of a waterfall we’d passed yesterday more closely resembled a flood after last night’s heavy rains. Fresh moss carpeted the forest floor in a layer of slick green; speckled fungi sprawled skyward like mythical beanstalks. It was as if every living thing in the forest had vied overnight for the title of Most Alive.

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Making our way out of the Hoh
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Beautiful Hoh River
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Ten minutes to the parking lot…happy campers

Still, nothing could match the lure of our warm, dry car. Come mud or high water–or both, as it were–we were a family on an escape mission. What had taken almost two hours to hike yesterday took less than one this morning. No stops for ceremony or high-fives in the parking lot; we slammed our packs in the car trunk and piled in.

With fresh socks and heat came relief and then excited chatter, namely: how Adam Richman had nothing on our appetites and what was for breakfast? The soggy granola bars stashed in our bear canisters had lost all appeal. Conversation fixated on a restaurant we remembered passing on our way into the forest, the one with the clever name–Hard Rain Cafe.

Equal parts quaint eatery and mercantile, Hard Rain Cafe boasts a range of eclectic offerings from espresso and burgers to kitschy trinkets and backpacking essentials. As tempting as the souvenir racks were, every hungry hiker knows there’s nothing more enticing than a juicy burger post-hike–nine in the morning or otherwise. Hard Rain Cafe’s bacon cheeseburgers delivered the savory oomph we craved. Portions were small-ish and pricey, but thick-sliced bacon has a way of mitigating all ills.

The hour-long drive out of the rainforest took us past the coast and into the heart of Forks, the sleepy Olympic town immortalized in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying Twilight paved the way for many of us who’ve since landed agents and contracts in the young adult publishing industry. And the city of Forks? Consider it a living homage to all things Twilight. From billboards proclaiming the city’s current vampire threat level (red, of course) to the Team Jacob/Team Edward posters plastered across every shop window, it’s all great fun.

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The infamous sign featured in the movie Twilight
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When in Forks, you pilgrimage to Forks High School and scan for the Cullen family

Twilight fever aside, there were still chores that needed tending to before our afternoon coastal trek. Chief among these were showers and laundry. God, but we needed a shower! In the interest of keeping it real, I have to admit that we hadn’t showered since Glacier, five nights ago. Seriously gross, I know. We stopped at Forks 101 Laundromat (our clothes were so filthy, they practically stood on their own!) and Forks Outfitters Thriftway, where we stocked up on backpacking food for the next two nights. Our last stop was Three Rivers Resort, a rustic lodge and campground in La Push, for coin-op showers ($1 for the first three minutes, one quarter every minute thereafter). I literally could not pump those quarters in fast enough. It was the hottest, most glorious shower of my life. Slipping into clean clothes, I felt like a new woman, excited and eager for our final trek: the southern Olympic coast.

It was a short drive to Third Beach Trailhead parking lot. Even with bear canisters and packs strapped to our backs, everyone was in good spirits. We were headed to the beach, after all–what wasn’t to love? Having hiked earlier in the day, our planned mileage was minimal–just a mile and a half to Third Beach, where we would camp overnight and meet my brother and his partner in the morning to backpack to Toleak Point. More importantly, the rain had stopped, and though it wasn’t exactly sunny, it wasn’t pouring either–a win in our book.

The short hike to Third Beach took us through coastal forest reminiscent of the Hoh, albeit flatter and less lush. There were moments where I wondered if we were on the right trail–Isn’t this supposed to lead to the beach…?–but it wasn’t long before we heard the telltale roar of the ocean. We stopped at a bluff overlooking Third Beach and marveled at the the juxtaposition of forest and coast–behind us, only trees; ahead of us, nothing but ocean and salt air. Here, sand and soil gave rise to ferns and wildflowers that thrived in the unique coastal mix of mud and grit.

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Familiar but different. Coastal forest en route to Third Beach
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Third Beach Trail, Olympic National Park
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Our first glimpse of the beach

The descent from the bluff was steep, but we barely noticed, so mesmerized were we by the ocean. When our feet finally hit the sand, it took every ounce of self-restraint not to make a beeline straight for the water. Instead, we made note of the creek before us for water resupply and took stock of the massive driftwood pile blocking our path. Climbing over individual logs wasn’t overly difficult; scaling stacks of driftwood piled 8-10 feet high proved more of a challenge. Backpacks made balance tricky, but we all made it safely over to our first unobstructed view of the Olympic coast. 

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Driftwood logjam
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We didn’t realize how high the logjam was until we got there
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Balancing was tricky…
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…but the rewards were immense.
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Admiring the coast, Olympic National Park

The Pacific isn’t unfamiliar to us–it surrounds our tropical island home, informing our culture and way of life. But this Pacific was something else entirely, tempestuous and untamed. Here, horizon and water melded into an impermeable wall of gray. Wind-sheared trees clung to lonely cliffsides and sea stacks. And the thunder of crashing waves reminded us that we were but powerless spectators to Nature’s formidable display. The Olympic coast was every bit as wild as we’d hoped for and then some.  

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Giant’s Graveyard in the distance
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Watching eagles swoop across the headland
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Stark beauty, Third Beach
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The Olympic Coast
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Entranced by the ocean
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Solitude and wilderness along the Olympic Coast, Third Beach

From a driftwood perch, we watched an eagle swoop across the headland. We surveyed the tide–high at the moment–taking note of the tide’s reach and all it had veiled. Soon, all that was gray would darken to evening black, and we would retreat to the warmth of our tent. But for the moment, at least, finding a campsite could wait. For now, we would admire the forlorn beauty of the coast. We would memorize the wind and salt and sand in our hair. And though it would be impossible to hear each other over the roar of the ocean and the whipping wind, our contented smiles would need no translation.      

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Olympic NP: Backpacking Hoh River Trail

Camp mornings have settled into a familiar routine. Rise with the sun. Deflate sleeping pads. Sleeping bags in compression sacks. Disassemble the tent: boys on poles, girls on body and fly. And always, hot coffee. Coffee for bleary-eyed parents, cocoa for the littles.

It’s cold and gray again in the North Cascades. Yesterday’s beautiful weather was an anomaly; thunderstorms and 40 degree temps are forecast for the rest of the week. We zip our fleece pullovers and don rain jackets. Bid goodbye to Gorge Lake and snow-capped peaks no longer visible beneath the gathering gray. Today is a road day: 4.5 hours to Mount Angeles Wilderness Information Center, another 2 hours to Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.

Our first order of business? Fuel–for the car, yes, but mostly for the hungry humans within. There’s a gas station with a lone fuel pump just outside the park boundary in Marblemount. I step outside to stretch my legs and am immediately hit by a heavenly aroma: coffee. Good, strong coffee–the kind that immediately recalls past Seattle and Portland trips. I look at my husband and then at the coffee shack. “Please?” my raised eyebrows plead. He smiles his consent.

I wander across the parking lot and look back to see the kids’ eager faces glued to the rear window. Crown’d Coffee is eclectic, eccentric. There are plush blue couches and wind chimes that ring brilliantly in the blustery Skagit wind. Statues of Quan Yin and miniature glass-blown bird figurines. Organic, fair trade coffee. Soy, almond milk everything, but also real heavy cream, whipped into rich, buttery pillows for hot chocolate. I walk back with a heavy cardboard tray laden with Everything bagels, cream cheese, coffee laced with organic cream, too much hot chocolate.

The drive to Seattle is quiet. It’s the middle of rush hour traffic, but mentally, we are deep in vacation zone–not quite ready to head home, but physically fatigued. Conversation lulls, though there is an ease to the silence. We’ve spent 10 full days talking to each other. Now is a time to just be.

Seattle finds us halfway to Port Angeles and en route to Krispy Kreme. We indulge in glazed doughnuts, savoring the taste and hoping it will hold us till next year. Our youngest watches the assembly conveyor belt in amazement, waving to the baker who humors him with a wink and a thumbs-up. Soon enough, it’s back to the cramped Mitsubishi and another two hours on the road that takes us past Tacoma and Bellingham and eventually brings us to Mount Angeles Wilderness Information Center.

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Krispy Kreme pit stop, Seattle

It’s late–1:30 pm–and the line at the Information Center is a mile long. It’s another 2 hours to Hoh Rain Forest and a 5 mile hike to our campsite for the night. Packing bear canisters will take longer than we anticipate–we’ve learned this the hard way. Ranger Eddie advises us to stop short of 5 Mile Island and set up camp instead at Mt. Tom Creek, a little over 3 miles in. He issues us backcountry permits for tonight, as well as permits for our next two nights along the coast. Ranger Eddie shares my demented Far Side/Gary Larson sense of humor and scares the kids with cautionary tales of tiny raccoon paws unzipping tents in the middle of the night in search of stashed gum and granola bar wrappers. I laugh more than is appropriate, but he’s twisted, and I am tired and amused.

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Ranger Eddie, Mount Angeles WIC

The drive to Hoh Rain Forest takes us far past civilization. The car radio gives way to static, then silence as we rush past the coast and deep into the forest. At first, the scenery evokes memories of Thunder Creek Trail in North Cascades–old cedars and firs lined with patches of slick moss–but then the forest gives way to something else entirely. Hanging moss in browns and greens draped in floor-length curtains from tree to tree. Giant ferns that bed the forest floor in a wild carpet of green. And everywhere, the rain. Pelting. Sheeting. Drizzling. Pouring. We would experience it all before the end of our trip

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Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park

By the time we get our bear canisters locked and loaded, it’s 4:45 pm, and the rain is incessant. Walking through the parking lot means wading through streams, not puddles. Though not as cold as the Cascades, temps are in the lower 50s and dropping fast. We have rain jackets but no rain pants, and already, I can feel water running down the insides of my legs. I’m fairly certain my kids hate me. To be honest, I kind of hate me at the moment.

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Keeping it real: glum faces pre-hike
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Trying to find our happy faces…
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Hoh River Trail, Olympic National Park
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Hiking Hoh River Trail

“I’m sorry. This really sucks,” I tell my husband, as each step through calf-high puddles splashes mud up onto our arms and faces.

He shakes his head. “Don’t think of it that way. This’ll be an adventure we’ll always remember,” he says.

My oldest chimes in. “When will we ever get to camp in a rain forest again?” he says. Undeterred, he whips out his camera and waterproof casing and snaps a few photos. It’s enough to snap me out of my misery. True, it’s not my romanticized version of the rain forest, the “atmospheric” one I’d imagined at home. This is the real rain forest, complete with real rain and mud and cold for those who dare.

There’s a gritty beauty to Hoh River Trail. All is lush and green as one would expect, but there is also an untouched, almost mystical quality to the landscape. From the gray mist that cloaks the mountains to the pristine riverbed marred only by wind and time, there is a deep silence in the forest that speaks of past ages and our fleeting tenure here. We tread through the mud, voices hushed, listening to the sloshing of our shoes, the call of birds, rain dripping from moss to ferns.

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Hoh River pops in and out of view along the trail; mist clings to the mountainside
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Trekking Hoh River Trail
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Trekking poles help with the mud
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Brown and green as far as the eye can see; Hoh River Trail

When the rain slows, soft light filters through the trees, but these occasions become less frequent as darkness falls. Doubt fills my head–2 hours had seemed a reasonable time to hike a little over 3 miles, but what if I’d miscalculated? I knew hiking through rain in headlamps would be the straw that’d break this family’s back.

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Waterfall just before our campsite

We pass a waterfall and then a stake carved with a tent image, marking our campsite. There is an audible whoop from our younger two, who feared we’d wind up lost, on the news. We nestle our tent against a wall of ferns and quickly boil water for dinner.

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We made it! Home sweet home for the night
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Starting a fire to dry ourselves out
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It was tough building a fire with all of the recent rain

Couscous and chicken are on the menu tonight, but in our rush, we’d forgotten to empty the canned chicken into a Ziploc bag. Luckily, we have welcoming neighbors–a jovial group of college teens from the East Coast who are backpacking a week in the Hoh–who share their can-opener. We cut through swampy grass to dine along river’s edge, where our other neighbors–kindly newlyweds–share their driftwood bench with the kids.

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Parmesan couscous and lemon chicken for dinner
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Gathering water from the river
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Camp chores after dinner

There is no latrine at our site, so our oldest digs “pre-need” catholes for the family. The forest is saturated, but he builds a good fire. We sit outside until mosquitoes and darkness drive us inside. We play a rowdy round of Liar/BS by headlamp. Not one, but two decks of cards–we’re emboldened by the earlier deluge and the thrill of camping in the wild. Later, we switch off our headlamps and whisper in the dark.

“You know what? Today kind of sucked, but it was kind of awesome,” my daughter says.

Our youngest nods, hair rustling against his inflatable pillow. “Yeah. In a way, part of me sort of hates backpacking, but it’s kind of awesome, too,” he says.

I reflect on the events of the day–the suck-y parts and the awesome parts–and smile. There is no truer wisdom to be found than from the mouths of babes.