Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 3, 2018

The Road or the Wilderness? Olympic National Park

I’ve been writing about a recent trip to Port Angeles, Washington. There’s a drive we should make from there. From downtown on U.S. Route 101, we turn south on Race Street. We soon leave the city’s commercial area, pass through a modest residential zone into a more rural setting, the road lined with mixed deciduous/evergreen woods. We’re climbing, and five miles beyond the edge of town, we reach the entrance station of Olympic National Park.

The road’s now named Hurricane Ridge Road, and that’s where we’re headed: Hurricane Ridge, at 5,242 feet elevation. As we ascend, the scenery looks promising.

Olympic view Brad Nixon 0292 640

19 miles from Route 101, about a 45-minute drive, we reach Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.

Hurricane Ridge Brad Nixon 0362 640

Let’s walk over to the railing and look south at the view:

Olympic range Brad Nixon 0293 640

That’s the Olympic Range. Those aren’t the tallest mountains many of you have seen. The tallest, Mt. Olympus, is 7,965 feet elevation. Partially covered year-’round in snow and glaciers, they have one distinguishing characteristic: They’re in a wilderness. There are no lodges, campgrounds or access roads. Beyond the viewpoint railing is, essentially, nothing but 20 miles of wilderness (straight line) between you and those distant peaks.

Olympic National Park is a marvelously diverse environment, and one of the most difficult to explore. From Hurricane Ridge, we see a rugged alpine world that gets some of the largest quantities of snow anywhere in the U.S., hence those large glaciers.

Just 15 miles of straight line distance west of Hurricane Ridge is the Sol Duc area of Olympic, a thick alpine forest with a different character.

Olympic NP Brad Nixon 7819 (640x480)

Then, if you drive two hours west and then south to Queets, where the park comes down to the Pacific coast, it’s not just a different area, but an entirely new climate: temperate rainforest. There, annual precipitation is about 150 inches per year, making it the wettest place in the continental U.S., covered with dense coniferous forest.

Olympic NP Brad Nixon 7701 (640x480)

At the coast itself, there are stretches of difficult-to-traverse wilderness beach, often strewn with driftwood and boulders. I haven’t been on those portions, but one can picture a wilder version of Ruby Beach, a little south of the park:

Ruby Beach Brad Nixon 7717 (640x476)

In the eastern portions of Olympic is yet another climate, determined by the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Range: still wilderness, but much drier, with harsh, craggy mountains bare of snow or glaciers.

Are We There, or Just Looking at It?

Olympic’s unlike many of America’s marquee national park destinations: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and the Utah canyons. There are no opportunities to drive through even a portion of it in the same way they offer, parking at convenient viewing spots enhanced with restrooms and interpretative signs.

Yes, those other parks have large wilderness areas beyond the roads, some of them far more extensive than most visitors ever realize. I’ve had the driving experiences through some of them. Glacier, in Montana, comes to mind. One drives across a southern portion of that park on the spectacular Going to the Sun Road, that affords views like this:

Glacier NP Bird Woman Falls Brad Nixon 2757 (640x480)

Even Alaska’s vast Denali offers one single route visitors can ride (unpaved, in National Park Service buses) 90 miles in to view at least some fraction of that immense landscape.

Denali Fall Brad Nixon 008_14A 300 680

Beyond that single road, the six million acres of Denali require wilderness hiking, period.


At just under a million acres (slightly smaller than Glacier), Olympic is no Denali, but it’s big, and the only way to see most of it is on foot: some of it requiring strenuous, multi-day trekking.

Pressure at the Contact Points

All you readers are travelers, most of you aficionados of the outdoors to some degree. You’re familiar with the burden we visitors, our vehicles, trash and sometimes heedless feet make on the wild lands the national parks are intended to protect. I’m confident you’ve all asked yourselves similar questions about the worth of going places to look at them without taking a step beyond the viewing area. Is “nature” becoming a spectator sport for 21st century people? Building roads, campgrounds, lodges and other facilities places enormous strain on wild environments and their flora and fauna.

The obvious response is to hit the trail. Nearly all the parks have numerous trails, and it would take a lifetime to explore even one of those parks thoroughly. Although there is no driving route far into — let alone through — Olympic, I’ve been a bit hyperbolic in suggesting it’s impenetrable wilderness. There are numerous trails throughout the park. One, Hurricane Hill Trail, isn’t far from the Visitor Center. It’s a moderate, excellent hike of a couple of hours, and the scenery rewards you at every step.

Olympic range Brad Nixon 0348 640

Within minutes, you’re there, in a way you can’t experience standing at the viewpoint with a hundred other visitors. On popular, close-in trails like Hurricane Hill, you’ll see other people, but suddenly they’re your fellow adventurers.

Hiking Olympic 0331 640

That experience is similar, and available nearly everywhere. I promise you, descend just a hundred feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon on Bright Angel Trail, and you will be IN the Grand Canyon, not just looking at it. The bustle of the parking lots, roads and lodges disappears. The jostling for selfies at the railing is forgotten. No restrooms, no trash cans, just the dust of the trail and the canyon all around. Carry your trash back with you. You may not make the trek to the river, a mile below, but you are there.

Olympic range pano Brad Nixon 350-351 640

I remember the experience of driving through the epic scenery of Glacier, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Chaco Culture and — just minutes outside Tucson — Saguaro. But in each one, it’s what I found off the road, on the trail, that stays with me. It’s not only vision: the smell of sagebrush or pine, or simply the sound: especially when the sound is silence. Even in daunting Denali, where I was unprepared to hike in a wilderness occupied by more grizzly bears than people, I at least walked part of a riverbed to put some distance between the road and me. There, it was the sound of cold water tumbling over rocks in a river as wild as the land.

Denali river Brad Nixon 1958 300 680

Spread the word. Park the car.

Licensable, high resolution versions of some photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. Olympic National Park is wonderful. I loved the Hurricane Hill trail and hope to return to explore more. There is no substitute for hiking boots on the ground!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Spectacular photos! Ansel Adams but in color. Really superb. Thanks.


    • Thank you. Not Ansel Adams or anyone like him, but that’s generous of you.


      • The fact that you don’t have a darkroom — like ol’ Ansel had — to permit you to change the tones of your prints makes them even more remarkable. 😎. You had to be right the first time, with no do overs. 👍


      • Thanks again. I won’t drag this out. What Mr. Adams could accomplish IN that darkroom is as good as it gets. And he recorded those images on massive sheets of emulsion. He had an enormously complex method for calculating exposure, because if he got the darks too dark or the lights too light, all the darkroom skill in the world (which he had) wouldn’t correct them. On a different plane entirely. One of the giants on whose shoulders we stand.


  3. Beautiful shots, I really like the mossy trees, and the trees with the ocean and islands in the background. Washington is a stunning state.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gorgeous photos Brad! Couldn’t agree more with the sentiment either, to really “be there” you need to leave the car behind and use your feet to get out and explore. Also the more you write about the US National Parks the more I want to visit!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your dissertation must CERTAINLY require you come for research!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Definately!


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