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Park History: Olympic National Park

What is it that intrigues us so about Olympic National Park? To be sure, the park's multiple personalities are alluring. There aren't many national parks that can lay claim to not just seacoast and rain forest but also glacier-jacketed peaks worthy of mountaineering.

Roam the park today and you'll find a landscape that has resonated with humans for thousands of years. There's the cobble- and log-strewn shoreline with its towering sea stacks, seals, and tidal pools, an emerald rain forest drenched by more than 200 inches of rain a year that fuels the growth of Sitka spruce and Western Hemlock forests that are draped in mosses and epiphytes, and a rugged and challenging alpine setting that forms the roof of the park.

A visit to Olympic could be spent entirely within any one of these three ecosystems. Or you could experience them all in one fell swoop. Of course, attempt that and you best have more than a week if you want to do those ecosystems justice in terms of soaking up all that they offer.

After all, pitch your tent or park your RV at one of the tree-wrapped campgrounds that overlook the Pacific Ocean along the park's 73 miles of coastline and you'll have mile-after-mile-after-mile of beaches to roam. Some, such as Rialto Beach, have massive sea stacks that the waves have yet to fully dismantle. At low tide you can explore the marine life that resides in tide pools or search among the cobbles for treasures the waves might have tossed ashore. Around the clock you can listen to the steady rolling ashore of the waves and, in summer, enjoy the cooling breezes.

Descend into the rain forest, either by heading up the Hoh River Valley or into the Queets or Sol Duc or Quinault drainages, and you'll be surrounded by vegetation seemingly on steroids and crystalline streams that result from the wonderful in-ground filtration system.

Cast your eyes upon the mountains and you'll find it hard to believe they were born beneath the seas. Yet geologists tell us that the basalts and sedimentary rocks that form the mass of these craggy peaks were laid down 18 million to 57 million years ago offshore, then uplifted, bent, folded and eroded into the rugged peaks that stand before you today.

The incredible richness of this landscape -- both the biological as well as the aesthetic -- has attracted humans to Washington state's Olympic Peninsula for thousands of years. When a farmer unearthed the fossilized remains of a mastodon just outside the park's boundaries in 1977, among the bones was a spear point, undisputed evidence that hunters were stalking prey on the peninsula 12,000 years ago. Why wouldn't they? Rivers poured out of the mountains, providing fresh water and fish. The highly productive forests provided more food, shelter and thick, towering trees that could be hollowed out for canoes. Nearby, the coast proved bountiful with its shellfish and other marine life.

You might say the peninsula's modern history dates to 1592, when a Spanish galleon carrying Juan de Fuca entered the strait that today bears his name. His arrival kicked off 200 years of exploration of the Olympic coast, which was carefully charted in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver, who also left his name behind. It wasn't long before settlers descended on the peninsula, looking to benefit from its bountiful forests, fertile soils, and, perhaps, gold buried within its mountains.

Though there never was a gold strike, the tall trees carried plenty of value. So much so that President Grover Cleveland stepped in in 1897 to protect the forests some by creating the Olympic Forest Reserve. While that designation was intended to better manage the forests for timber production, there remained threats to the Olympic peninsula's vast forests. In his Olympic National Park, a Natural History, Tim McNulty tells us that the national monument became involved in a tug-of-war between the U.S. Agricultural Department and its Division of Forestry and the Interior Department. In fact, Gifford Pinchot, then the head of the forestry division, actually succeeded in seeing the national monument transformed into a national forest in 1905!

In 1909 another president, Theodore Roosevelt, came to rescue the peninsula's elk, which were under heavy hunting pressure, by creating the 800,000-acre (or so) Mount Olympus National Monument. (Is it surprising that the elk now are known as Roosevelt elk?)

Even still, the timber industry wasn't about to let the forests go without another fight. In 1912 there was a move to have all the commercially viable forests removed from the national monument. While this proposal would have turned the remaining lands into a national park, even then, points out author McNulty, the proponents of this change wanted a park in which logging, mining and dams would be allowed.

The battle over the natural resources of the Olympic peninsula raged back and forth until June 29, 1938, when national park status finally arrived courtesy of another Roosevelt, Franklin D., whose signature added Olympic to the National Park System and gave lasting protection to the remaining primeval forests and wildlife. That protection is even greater today, as 95 percent of the park is officially designated wilderness.

Still, this majestic landscape, believe it or not, continues to undergo change, both natural and human-caused. Park biologists are working to make whole Olympic's wild kingdom by returning fishers to its forests. Can wolves be far behind? Engineers also are tearing down the dams that backed up the Elwha River, while high above the warming climate is shrinking the park's rivers of ice. Those glaciers, by the way, constitute the third-largest glacial system in the Lower 48.

Using data from weather balloons released near Forks, a town on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula, glacier researchers discovered that average January through March temperatures at 4,700 feet (1,450 meters) have increased about 6º F (3.3ºC) since 1948. Precipitation at the snout of (Blue) glacier has decreased, and has shifted toward rain rather than snow. That means the Blue Glacier, like glaciers throughout the world, is shrinking. The snout is retreating and the glacier is less thick. Modern instruments revealed the surface of the glacier terminus thinned by about 100 feet in only 10 years between 1987 and 1996!


While the infrastructure of Olympic National Park today continues to struggle to recover from punishing storms that arrived in both 2006 and 2007, the park is very much alive and well when you keep in mind that storms are part of nature. It's an incredible place, one that merits more than just passing interest.

Olympic National Park

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide