Olympic National Park

A Historic Look at Olympic National Park

On the western most tip of the State of Washington, west of Puget Sound and south of British Columbia and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca you will find Olympic National Park. The historical past of the area abounds in courage, faith and curiosity.

It was in June 1938 that the area became a national park, signed into existence by President Franklin D. Roosevelt however the Olympic region shows a richness of nature that has drawn humankind for millennium.  Animals, flora and fauna that do not exist anywhere else on the planet exist here.  Unique is also part of the history of the park.

The tip of the Olympic Peninsula that encompasses Olympic National Park covers over 1400 square miles, over 876,000 acres and contains three ecosystems side by side.  There is still 95% of the park that is considered a wilderness area, pristine and unchanged by man or animal since its conception.  At the highest points in the park you will find glacier, snowcapped mountains that, when coming down from the slopes, make way to meadowlands, a temperate rain forest and over sixty miles of Pacific coastline.

There are over 640 archaeological sites within the boundaries of Olympic that show evidence and proof of the historical past of the park. Native peoples lived in the area for nearly 10,000 years.  For around 200 years explorers and homesteaders lived and came through the region leaving their marks in time.   The Olympic Peninsula itself is the child of the great tectonic shifts that took place thousands of years ago.

The continental glaciers were the first to exist as they would retreat, reestablish themselves and retreat again.  Grand shifts in the plates caused the upheaval of the mountain ranges in the area while leaving the older rounded hills and marsh meadows from the glacial period.  Ancient elk and bison, as well as wolves and mastodons would wander the area with ancient man alongside.  The forests would come later. As a matter of fact, in the late 1970s a farmer found on his land just outside the park the remains of a mastodon with spearhead in tact showing us a glimpse of the life of the hunter-gathers that lived here so long ago.

Around 3,000 years ago or so the peoples of the Northwest lived in the lowlands of Olympic National Park and would hunt wildlife both on land and in the sea.  Some cultures still carry these traditions even to this day.  Food, medicine and shelter were collected from within the forest.  The people lived with the land for centuries and within the last two hundred years things began to change as the European descendants in America headed to the last frontier: the Northwest and the Olympic Peninsula.

The latter part of the 18th century showed the way for explorations of the area from the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound sides of the park and began the history of the second major group to live and settle in the region.  One of the sadder downfalls of such curiosity is the introduction of deadly diseases to the indigenous peoples.  Entire villages would die.  The newcomers would disallow native traditions and force upon the natives to live by the European community rules.  Eventually the Native Americans would be forced onto reservations like elsewhere in the country.   These foreigners would destroy the elk population, fish the streams for salmon almost to their destruction and mow down trees for their homesteads.  These new people had no care for the nature and history of the area.

Not all of the explorers and settlers were this destructive.  As far back as 1592 Juan de Fuca a Greek would name the straight between British Columbia and Washington.  Captain James Cook in 1778 and would name Cape Flattery for the view that flattered him.  A little later Captain John Meares named Mount Olympus thinking it looked as if it should be a home to the gods while sending a small party to check out the region.  This would little jaunt would be followed by a heavy investigation by a group led by Captain George Vancouver.  He’s actually responsible for naming such Olympic highlights as Discovery Bay, Olympic Mountains, Hood Canal, Dungeness and Mount Rainier.  Vancouver, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia are named for him.  Spanish in the Strait arrived at the same time as Vancouver and named the town of Port Angeles.

The interior of Olympic National Park is largely untouched with ancient growth and life remaining as it always has in its quiet splendor.  James Christie went into the interior in the late 19th century to explore the Elwha Valley and found Geyser Valley sponsored by the Press Party.  Many of the interior features are named after famous pressmen of the time. The Quinault Valley was also explored.  Army Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil led several expeditions into the region and his groups discovered much of the interior and was a prime proponent for turning the land into a national park.

Homesteaders would settle and find the land too hard to live on and by 1919 most of what was left behind is all but gone.  There are a few historic sites where you can still visit to see how life was.  Places such as the remains of Humes Ranch, for instance, which is located on a hiking trail up the Elwha Valley.  The Native American tribes, including the Hoh, Jamestown S’Klallam, Makah, Skokomish and Quinault still live along the Pacific Coast within the boundaries of Olympic just as their tribes have for centuries.

The forests are variegated as well.   There is a temperate rain forest found in the valleys of Olympic National Park.  Where you find the Quinault, Queets and Hoh rivers flowing you will find the Sitka Spruce, part of a community that reaches as far north as Alaska and as far south as Oregon right along the Pacific Coastal area.   Temperatures reach no higher than 80ºF and no lower than freezing in this rain forest.

You will also find Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Black Cottonwood and Maple trees on the Peninsula.  Several of the trees are still standing after centuries of growth and have record-breaking sizes as a result.  For instance, along the Queets River trails you will find a Douglas Fir boasting a 533.5-inch circumference and a height of 212 feet.  The largest tree to break records in the forest is a Western Red Cedar with a 761-inch circumference and rising to 159 feet.

Sorrel is a ground cover that will be found in the under carriage of the forest growing in fallen and decaying trees.  Moss, fern and lichen also join in on the undergrowth. 

Elk, Thrush, Western Robin and Winter Wrens abound as part of the wildlife that live within Olympic National Park.  Deer, cougars, black bears and river otter are also found within this natural community.

Glaciers and hot springs, two opposite ends of the spectrum exist in these valleys, hills and mountains.  The Olympic glaciers do not advance quickly; therefore it is not as easy to see with the naked eye as it is in other places such as Alaska.  Two hundred sixty-six glaciers cap the mountain ranges and Mount Olympus itself receives the brunt of many a Pacific storm.

Visitors to Olympic National Park will find the hot springs hugging Calawah, an inactive fault zone, travelling from the southwestern Olympic range into the Pacific Ocean.  For instance, Olympic Hot Springs has 21 seeps on the bank of Boulder Creek while the Sol Due Hot Springs is alongside the Sol Due Lake.

There is a serene paradise to be found here in Olympic, one that teleports the visitor beyond time into a cocoon of natural beauty.  Contemplate the peacefulness of the forests, mountain ranges and coastal lands by way of trail or car. Mother Nature still works her magic here for man and beast alike.