In his engrossing Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve, John C. Miles, professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University, traces the history of wilderness protection in the parks from their earliest days to the book’s present, 2008.
The history of the National Parks and other protected lands in the United States is the story of continually evolving ideas about how and why natural and historical areas should be protected for the common good. At its noblest, it is an acknowledgement that the people, collectively, own and administer the wildest, most beautiful and most historically important areas in the nation. The hows and whys of acquiring and administering these places is intrinsically tied to the concept of land held for the common good.
Almost 150 years ago, on June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting scenic Yosemite Valley to the state of California to be held in the public interest as a park (eventually the valley would return to federal control as part of Yosemite National Park). Eight years later, when Congress moved to protect the geothermal features around the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in a region that lay in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho territories, there was no state to give the park to, so by default it became a national park. The concept of the national park was born out of necessity.
Lake Crescent in the northern Olympics formed when a glacier-carved valley, whose river drained into the Elwha River, was dammed by a natural landslide some 8,000 years ago. Although it has since been stocked with alien fish species, the lake’s Beardslee and Crescenti trout evolved over millennia into genetically distinct populations found nowhere else on earth.
Lake Crescent’s official depth is 624 feet, but there are parts that are almost certainly deeper than 1,000 feet.
Highway 101 follows the southern shore of the lake, which allowed us to stop for a brief visit.
After Ruby Beach, we continued northeast on 101 out of the park’s coastal section and up the Hoh River Valley, which has been heavily logged. We turned east on Upper Hoh Road, and the walls of the Hoh Valley grew steeper around us. Shortly after reentering the park’s main section, the forest got denser and more otherworldly. The road twisted and turned along the river to our right.
We stopped to have a look at one of the largest Sitka spruces in the United States: over 270 feet tall and over 500 years old.
Ruby Beach lies just south of the Hoh River’s outlet into the Pacific. We parked in the lot on the bluff above the beach and made our way down the switchback trail. The trail emerges along Cedar Creek, which is flanked by piles of driftlogs. Sea stacks rise from the beach at low tide. Although they are massive, they are dwarfed by Abbey Island (to the left in the images above and below).
Low tide was at 12:15pm, and we arrived at Ruby Beach at ten after, perfect timing. Immediately in front of us was an unbroken stretch of sand, but we were hoping to see sea stars and other tide pool life, so Sean and I walked off hand-in-hand toward some of the smaller sea stacks and large rocks to the south.
After leaving Beach 1, we continued north on 101 until we came to a pullout on the inland side. Near Beach 5 was a short side road that led to one of the world’s largest cedar trees, boasting a girth of 66 feet.
From Quinault Rain Forest, Highway 101 descends through the Quinault Indian Reservation to the lower Queets Valley, a section of the park added by the Truman administration. From there, the road turns abruptly north and follows the coast for eleven miles, past seven specific beaches that comprise the southernmost coastal area of Olympic National Park.
The three of us spent two fun days exploring Portland from Powell’s Books to the Hawthorne District to food cart pods. Saturday morning, April 28, we returned to Seattle via the Olympic Peninsula. We rose early to get a head start on the three hour drive to the first, and southernmost, section of the park areas we wanted to see: Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rain Forest.
We woke up early, dressed, picked up our rental car (which we got upgraded to a Prius), and started down I-5 toward Portland. Almost immediately, we noticed how verdant the landscape was, from vines growing from overpasses in downtown Seattle, to moss on cut logs on the back of a lumber truck.
In January, my cousin Kathrin visited Chicago. She is looking to move on from our native Michigan, and while Chicago is on her list of potentially livable cities, so are Seattle and Portland. Kathrin suggested that Sean and I travel with her to both cities at the end of April. She and Sean had been to Seattle, but not Portland. I had never been farther north on the West Coast than Napa Valley. Sean and I were game for the trip, and soon we had our dates set.
That there are three National Parks within two or three hours of Seattle was not at all lost on me. And once we decided to fly in and out of Seattle and drive a rental car to and from Portland, it became obvious that we should stop at Mount Rainier National Park on the way. Rainier seemed an easy choice because it’s between the two cities, not out on the peninsula like Olympic or two and a half hours northeast of Seattle (the opposite direction from Portland) like North Cascades.