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Experience your own private playground at Olympic National Park

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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Photo by Deborah Stone Olympic National Park is a haven of natural beauty and grandeur.
I like visiting our country’s national parks when the masses aren’t present. I go to these treasured playgrounds to reconnect with nature and find inspiration. And crowds are a distraction I’d rather do without. Sometimes this means exploring these places when the weather isn’t optimal or when services are minimal.

I’ve always found, however, that the advantages of having such special havens of beauty and grandeur mostly to myself far outweigh any of the off-season disadvantages.

Take my recent trip to Olympic National Park as an example. My husband and I headed over there for a long weekend in late February when daytime temps average in the 40s and rainfall is at its most plentiful.

Many of the facilities are closed during this time, so there are fewer options for accommodations. But, there are two choice properties open year-round, Lake Quinault Lodge and Kalaloch Lodge, which offer two distinct landscapes for visitors. Historic Lake Quinault Lodge, which dates back to 1926, is located at the southwest end of the Olympic National Park.

This handsome timber structure sits on the banks of a majestic glacier-carved body of water, surrounded by the mossy old growth trees of the Quinault Rain Forest, one of only three temperate coniferous rain forests in the Western Hemisphere.

Based here, you’ll be able to roam the Quinault Valley, known as the "Valley of the Giants," where you’ll see the largest Sitka Spruce tree in the world, along with other recognized giants of Hemlock, Douglas Fir and the mighty Western Red Cedar.

Hike one of the fifteen well established trails in the area and keep a keen eye out for wildlife, like the stately Roosevelt elk and the black tail deer, while taking in awesome views of the surrounding Olympic Mountains.

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Photo by Deborah Stone Serenity abounds at picture pretty Kalaloch Lodge.
The Quinault Valley receives an average of 12 feet of rain per year, which is responsible for nourishing this complex temperate rain forest ecosystem.

So make sure to take your waterproof gear no matter when you visit. The lodge itself is a handsome property with comfy rooms (some which are pet-friendly), a cozy lobby, spacious outdoor veranda and the all-service Roosevelt Dining Room with its spectacular view of the lake.

This restaurant shines, particularly at dinner, when guests are treated to a variety of tasty regional specialties, ranging from salmon and other fresh seafood dishes to steak, chicken and pasta selections.

There’s also an indoor swimming pool, game room and sauna on site and a general store conveniently located across the street that sells everything you need for a picnic lunch.

People tend to congregate in the lodge’s lobby during the late afternoon and evening hours.

They read, play board games, plan their next day’s hikes or doze off in front of the crackling fireplace.

It’s a scene right out of a Currier & Ives picture. To experience a totally different environment, head twenty odd miles north of Lake Quinault to Kalaloch on the scenic coast off U.S. 101.

The lodge and its cabins are perched on a bluff above the ocean, where you’ll go to bed at night lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves outside your door.

In the morning, grab your cup of coffee and stroll right down the path to the beach. You can walk for what seems like miles along this wild coastline with its endless natural wonders.

And if you’re here off season, you’ll most likely have your own private beach.

Over the years, large logs and driftwood have piled up against the bluff, creating numerous ideal spots to sit and breathe the salty air while contemplating this exquisite landscape.

Sunrises and sunsets are especially poetic moments with scenes that rival Impressionist paintings. And the tide pools that form provide a fascinating glimpse of the diversity of marine life that lies beneath the surface of the sea.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see a whale or two breaching and maybe a sea lion sunning itself on the rocks.

I guarantee you’ll spot a few bald eagles soaring above.

At Kalaloch, the focus is the beach. And people choose to stay at the lodge because of its lack of pretense.

The charm of this property lies in its simplicity and naturalness. You’ll find rustic comfort in the cozy cabins, several of which come with kitchenettes and fireplaces.

And in each you’ll find a beach guide, tide tables and a pair of walking sticks. What you won’t see are any in-room TVs or telephones. In an effort to provide a serene escape, these "distractions" are purposefully absent.

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Photo by Deborah Stone Dramatic sea stacks appear as sentinels of the coastline.
Some folks bring food with them and prepare their meals in their cabins. Others take advantage of the lodge’s restaurant or on-site general store, which is stocked with groceries and assorted sundries, and also sells espressos and smoothies.

The restaurant is a bit on the pricey side, most notably at dinner, and the quality of the food isn’t anything exceptional, but the views of the ocean can’t be beat.

From Kalaloch, it’s only 20 miles to the Hoh Rainforest, a mecca for hikers. On your way, stop at picturesque Ruby Beach to see the dramatic sea stacks. Known as "ghosts of former islands," these mammoth rocks are actually remnants of eroded cliffs that loom out of the water and appear as sentinels of the coastline.

The beach got its name for its often garnet-colored sand. Once you’re in the Hoh, stop at the visitor center to learn a bit about the area and get trail advice from the helpful rangers.

For a quick and easy introduction to this unique ecosystem, take the Hall of Mosses path. It’s a short three-fourth mile loop that will lead you into the older part of the forest.

The primeval spirit is strong among these massive trees that seem as old as the earth. Moss hangs like beards off their shaggy branches and the light plays peek-a-boo in the leafy canopy overhead. Then head out on the Hoh River Trail to explore more of this verdant paradise.

You’ll meander past waterfalls and creeks as you follow the sometimes teal, sometimes gray river. And in the distance, you’ll see the snowcapped peaks of the Olympics.

We hiked for several hours and came across just a handful of people on the trail, giving us once again the impression that this natural playground was ours alone.

Although the Hoh Valley is known as one of the wettest places in the country with an average 140 inches of annual rainfall, we didn’t get any liquid sunshine during our visit. However, there’s always a condensed mist that can be felt when you’re in the rainforest. Somehow it only adds to the mysterious and eerie quality of this distinctive setting.

It’s no wonder that author Stephanie Meyer used this locale as part of the backdrop for her popular "Twilight" series. There are many other gems within the Olympic National Park. It’s a vast place with three distinct areas, the mountains, forest and coast, giving visitors a range of options to explore. Just don’t try seeing it all at one time. Like fine chocolate, it’s best appreciated and savored in small pieces.

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