Conifers of the Olympic Mountains

By Jack Christiansen

A Short but Magical Trip to the Olympic Mountains.

Text and Photography Jack Christiansen

The snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the distance.
The snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the distance.

My wife, Linda, and I had just disembarked from the ferry at Port Angles, WA, which had taken us from Victoria Island, British Columbia, where we had visited the ancient forest. We were on the final leg of our September 2019 vacation in the Pacific Northwest. I had wanted, for a long time, to visit the Olympic Mountains, with their high, year-round, snowy peaks and rain forest. The excitement was almost overwhelming. Here we were, at the gateway to a fantastical place.

The road sign stated that the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center was just 17 miles ahead, rising from sea level to an elevation of 5,200 feet. The ridge gets its name from its intense winds. The scenery along the way was simply spectacular. We stopped at various pull-offs to take photos and to enjoy the higher-elevation views and the cool breezes. The weather was very comfortable, and the sky was sapphire-blue, with traces of white, puffy clouds. All was perfect for taking pictures.

The time we had to spend there that afternoon was very limited. We had to be back to Seattle the next day to fly home. Still, we knew that this was going to be a majestic conifer adventure and we wanted to take in as much as we could in the time we had. We inquired inside the Visitor Center to ascertain where the highlights were. The place was very busy, with people going everywhere, all dressed in the latest hiking gear, all ready to start their outdoor adventure. We grabbed a quick lunch and then headed out for the trail to Hurricane Ridge that started just across the road.

Of all the species in the genus Abies, my most favorite one has always been Abies lasiocarpa (subalpine fir). At this elevation, it is the predominant conifer inhabiting the area. As we looked down to the lower elevations, we could see Sitka spruces (Picea sitchensis) and western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla), too. Needless to say, my curiosity was peaking.

Subalpine firs sculpted by the forces of Nature
Subalpine firs sculpted by the forces of Nature
Stripped of their branches, the subalpines keep only their lower branches.
Stripped of their branches, the subalpines keep only their lower branches.

As we hiked up the rocky, barren formation, we came across a small cluster of older, highly weathered subalpines, which had lost their tops. They showed the marks of their struggle to stay alive and still maintain their lower foliage. The dead tops had all turned a frosty-white color that starkly contrasted with the dark-blue skies overhead. As we reached the top, the trees and distant mountains suddenly all popped into view. I could have stayed there for hours. After taking a few photos, we moved farther on along Hurricane Ridge, viewing a forest of subalpine firs. These trees appeared to be younger and smaller in stature with their slender shapes. It was a forest like I had never seen before, with vibrant-green foliage clustered tightly to the trunks of the trees that reached skyward like narrow buildings that just kept going on forever.

We had first taken the Cirque Ridge Trail that allowed us to see scenic views on all sides of the ridge. To the north, the mountains in the distance were mostly devoid of trees, a sign that a forest fire had cleared the area, years before. Turning west, we saw the tallest snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountain Range, visible miles away in the distance. We couldn’t help but imagine what a captivating exploration that area would provide us on a future trip.

Clusters of conifers contrast with the golden grasslands.
Clusters of conifers contrast with the golden grasslands.
Off in the distance, evidence of the aftermath of forest fires.
Off in the distance, evidence of the aftermath of forest fires.

As we continued along Hurricane Ridge to its farthest point, we had to drop down to the High Ridge Trail, on the south side of Mount Olympus. This was a steeper descent, with fewer trees than on the north side. However, the trees showed even more signs of age and weather from high winds that had sculptured off their tops, leaving some with stripped branches on one side. I took a lot of pictures that day, mesmerized by the beauty of the area. Eventually, we found our way down to Big Meadow Trail. Here we could see golden grasslands, broken up by tight clusters of conifers, a beautiful scene that I’ll always remember.

As we slowly found our way back down the trail to the visitor area, we had completed a three-mile hike in about three hours. We stopped many times along the way to take photos, enjoy the trees, and view the diverse mountain scenes. When we left that afternoon, I came away with a catalog of photographs that we could enjoy later.

This was the last leg of our vacation in 2019, and I can’t imagine a better way to end it. Our visit may have been a short one, but it was a treasure we’ll remember.

Editor’s Note. Jack and Linda Christiansen visited Vancouver’s Ancient Forest prior to coming to the Olympic Mountains. I refer you to that account in the Winter CQ 2020, Volume 37, Number 1, pp. 10-12.

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