Happy Centennial, National Parks Service!
August 25th 2016 marked the 100th year of the National Park Service, whose mission throughout its history has been to preserve, highlight and protect our nation’s most spectacular locations. There are a total of 58 such locations, and here in Washington State we are lucky to be within just a few hours of three of the most spectacular of these national treasures.
Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades National Parks are easily accessible from anywhere in the Puget Sound and together provide more than 2,600 square miles of wilderness to explore. I can’t begin to list all the possibilities in this article, but thought I would highlight a location or two from each park to help get your adventures started.
Whether you are interested in multi-day backpacking trips, or prefer to keep your explorations to paved surfaces, these three parks offer plenty of options to accommodate everyone. Also, something to note: The National Parks Service offers several free admission days every year and in 2016 there are two left on the calendar. National Public Lands Day on September 24th and Veterans Day on November 11th.
Mount Rainier National Park
At 14,400 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest and most recognized landmark in Washington State, but it is much more than just a stunning view from the Puget Sound. An active volcano, Mount Rainier is also the greatest single-peak glacial system in the United States and covers 369 square miles of alpine and subalpine terrain.
The glacier covers most of the park’s higher elevations, but the landscape transforms as you move down the mountain, from alpine glacier to subalpine meadows and then into the thickly forested lowlands. In these lower levels of the park you will find a lush forest with trees up to 1000 years old covering almost 58% of the parks landmass. There are hundreds of trails waiting to be explored in these old-growth forests.
If you venture to Mount Rainier National Park, one of easiest and most spectacular spots to visit is Paradise. At an elevation of 5,400 feet Paradise stays open year-round with many easy hiking trails, stunning views of the mountain, and all the fresh air you could ask for. During the spring and summer months the meadows are full of wildlife and gorgeous flowers. In the fall the foliage begins to change and the meadows that were once filled with vibrant flowers transform into an explosion of fall color.
If you are willing to brave the cold, Mount Rainier National Park offers a huge variety of winter activities as well, including snowshoeing, sledding, and winter camping. Visit https://www.nps.gov/mora to learn more about all the park has to offer.
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park, located on the Olympic Peninsula, has a wildly diverse variety of ecosystems ranging from snow-capped mountains, to old-growth rain forests, and more than 60 miles of beautiful northwest coastline. The park occupies the central portion of the Olympic Peninsula and covers more than 1,400 square miles. The variety of the terrain is SO varied, that it is often referred to as “three parks in one”.
The park contains such a variety of terrain that it is possible to visit Hurricane Ridge, sitting at 5,242 feet above sea level, and explore the coastline in the same day. As a result, the variety of activities available within the park is also varied, regardless of the season.
Hurricane ridge is the most accessible mountainous area to visit within the park and is a spectacular year-round destination offering sweeping views of Olympic National Park even from the visitor’s center or the comfort of your vehicle. For the more adventurous there are many trails varying from the paved hurricane hill trail to a large number of dirt trails of various difficulties and distances.
Another easy destination for just about anyone that could also be visited in the same day, is right along highway 101. Ruby Beach offers a short 1/4 mile walk through the forest before emerging onto the dark sand beach. Here you will find large rock monoliths emblematic of the northwest coast, and if you time your visit right the tides allow you to walk north on the beach to the mouth of the Hoh River.
On a hot summer day, the park can offer a cool breeze and a spectacular sunset. But a rainy day in the middle of the winter can be just as incredible, and we all know there are plenty of those days in Washington State. For more information on Olympic National Park visit https://www.nps.gov/olym.
North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is open year round and provides great Camping, Hiking, and Sightseeing. There are hundreds of trails in the park ranging from easy hikes through old growth forest with trees over 1,000 years old, to more difficult hikes on high mountain ridges with large mountain peaks all around. With more than 300 glaciers in the park, many of these hikes have stunning alpine lakes that offer spectacular views. If hiking is not your forte, there are many view points along the road offering easy locations to pull off and take photos or just take in the scenery.
One of my favorite outlooks is along the North Cascades Highway at Diablo Lake. The lookout has a pullout with an outstanding area for viewing. If you go when the weather and lighting are just right the lake is an amazing turquoise color. The lake is surrounded by soaring hillsides and evergreen trees. Diablo Lake is a reservoir and home to Diablo Dam which is responsible for providing a great deal of electric power to Seattle. When the dam was completed in 1930 it was the tallest in the world.
North Cascades National Park, while not quite as well known offers equally stunning scenery and is most definitely worth the visit. Learn more and plan your trip at https://www.nps.gov/noca.