Lately I’ve been finding myself in the mountains more and more. Of all the places to choose from in Washington, I always find myself roaming around Olympic National Park. Its uniqueness is only surpassed by the solitude you find while walking its steep hillsides. You see, Olympic National Park (ONP) may be one of the most popular national parks in the United States, but venture more than a few miles from the trailhead and you’ll likely be the only one around, even more so if you know where to look. In a place where temperate rainforests give way to a vast expanse of rugged mountain peaks, it doesn’t take long to see why it’s so popular. The beaches are rugged and unforgiving with the sun showing its face only a handful of days out there. Take a hike anywhere in the park outside of July and August and you’re likely to experience every season in one day. GORE-TEX isn’t just recommended, it’s downright mandatory.
Along the northern edge of the park, Lake Crescent is the main attraction. Its size is evident almost immediately from the road, stretching 17 miles from end to end. Hike any of the peaks surrounding the lake, most notably Mount Storm King, and you'll see very clearly how it got its name. The lake is the perfect basecamp for many of the notable adventures in the area.
Mount Storm King is a 1.8 mile, one way calf burner that will leave you gasping for air. But just when you think “when will this end?” it’s over and you’re at the summit staring out at one of the most impressive fjord-like views this side of the 60th parallel. Take in the view; on clear days you can see our neighbors to the north, Oh Canada. Prepare your body after a break at the top, the descent is almost as bad the way up and will leave your knees aching by the end. If you’ve ventured this far, you might as well stop by the always-beautiful Marymere Falls. A short one mile round trip hike that will surely be full of people, even on the rainiest days. That doesn’t mean it’s any less beautiful though. You could spend an entire summer exploring the ins and outs around the lake; it truly is a magical place.
Do you like pain and suffering? Do you like questioning why you even hike in the first place? Then Lake Constance is the place for you. This trail comes with a warning, like a habanero pepper; consume at your own risk. People have been known to give up long before the lake. At a reasonable distance of 12 miles round trip, it’s not the length that will kill you. You see, over 4 miles of this hike is a washed out road that meanders through lush groves with babbling creeks often spilling right over the pavement. The last 2 miles though, like something out of a horror movie, ascends 3300 feet into the sky. The trail feels more like a scramble with roots, rock holds, and switchbacks woven so tightly it’s not uncommon to miss them completely and wander off trail. Don’t let any of this get in your way, though, because the end goal is something straight out of Narnia, a place that your mind has trouble comprehending. The lake is a deep blue that is so rich and vibrant, it seems to stare back at you. Impressive peaks tower above the lake, often holding snow until July. If you do this hike in a day, consider yourself crazy, but if you decide to overnight, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who truly get to experience the solitude this place has to offer.
Remember that part about hiking outside of July and August? Well, if you happen to do just that, head here. Even if you’re socked in, the trail up to Mount Townsend is quite possibly one of the most enchanting of them all. Make no doubt, it’s a leg burner as well, but much more manageable this time, only rising a meager 3000 feet in 4 miles. Child’s play, right? On a clear day, you get glimpses of some of most jagged peaks outside of the Alps. If it’s overnighting you’re after, the short jaunt over to Silver Lakes will suit your fancy. The scenery on both of these trails is breathtaking, which would explain their popularity. Don’t expect to have either of these places to yourself but have no fear, there’s plenty of wide open space to roam around and you’ll get brief glimpses of solitude.
I couldn’t talk about the Olympics without mentioning Grand Valley. Aptly named, you descend down into a valley with three large lakes that are flanked on all sides by towering mountains. This is a quota area, so snagging a spot in the summer can prove to be quite difficult. Head there early and prepare to stand in a long line of people vying for a reservation along with you. The furthest lake up the valley, and my personal favorite, offers a much quieter experience seeing as there are only four campsites to choose from. This lake is the last to fill up, so your chances of staying here are high if you manage to get a spot. What makes this hike unique is the fact that it starts in a very dry and arid part of the park and finishes in lush forest with waterfalls descending down from every direction. The weather can be quite unpredictable as well with inversion layers setting up overnight, and once the sun comes up, the clouds move into the valley and sock everything in. The hardest part about this hike is when you try and go home. You just don’t want to leave a place like this; teaming with life, the views abundant, and the fellow campers friendly as ever.
If you ever find yourself in the Pacific Northwest, you’re now well equipped to explore its crown jewel, Olympic National Park. Almost a decade of exploring later, I’m still finding new trails to explore. One could really explore this park for a lifetime and not run out of things to see. Arid alpine, massive glaciers, swollen waterfalls, and lush rainforest... All things you could see in just a day’s time out here. My personal recommendation, though? Spend a week out here to really immerse yourself in all of the park’s intricacies. There are lodges and campgrounds galore to accommodate everyone. Just remember two things before you head out on the trails: tread lightly and bring lots and lots of bug spray.
NATHANAEL BILLINGS is a freelance outdoor photographer from Washington State. His career in photography stemmed from the simple desire to document his outdoor adventures and he has been traveling the globe in one direction or another for nearly a decade.