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Olympic National Park
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By John G. MitchellPhotographs by Melissa Farlow

Cloaked in fog and drenched by rain and snowmelt, a lush sanctuary at the northwest tip of Washington State safeguards some of Earth's largest trees.

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A name can say a lot about a place, or nothing at all. Olympic says a lot. It says that this is as good as it gets. Here, astride the pinnacle of excellence, stands the champion. Fitting, then, that mapmakers should borrow the modifier from mythology and stamp it upon this peninsula poking fist-like into the Pacific at the westernmost edge of the 48 contiguous United States. And if the word suits the peninsula, why not recycle it to the peninsula's national park, overlorded as it is by the mountain Olympus, named for the throne room of the Grecian gods?
The park is a throne room in its own right: More than 900,000 acres (4,000 hectares) of icy summits and alpine meadows, rushing rivers and glacial lakes, fog-shrouded sea stacks and surf-fed tide pools; a sanctuary for spawning salmon and rutting elk; a seedbed of spruce and fir and cedar soaring above a rain forest as grand as any in the world. Who knows? Among American landscapes, Olympic National Park just might be better than it ever gets.

For this you can cheer a circumstance of nature and an act of human restraint. The circumstance is water. Offshore the warm surface of the Kuroshio (Japan Current) heats the air, creating weather. Storm clouds scud ashore. Forced upward by the slopes of the Olympic Mountains, the cooling clouds lose their capacity to retain moisture. And down comes the rain and snow—lots of it. The west side of the peninsula shakes down more precipitation annually than any other spot in the lower 48—an average of 135 inches (343 centimeters) inland from the coast, more than 200 inches (500 centimeters), most of it as snow, near the 7,965-foot (2,428-meter) summit of Mount Olympus, the peninsula's highest point. Without this accident of ocean storms ambushed by coastal mountains rising practically straight out of the sea, there would be no glaciers here (there are more than 60), no perennially rushing rivers, possibly fewer salmon, and nowhere near the depth of rich alluvial soil needed to nurture champion conifers. That's nature's part in it. But without the intervention of people determined to protect these resources from commercial exploitation, there would be no Olympic Park.
Other parks may boast of mountains or beaches, but none has a forest to match the qualities of this one. A temperate rain forest, scientists and tree huggers call it, and possibly the finest swatch of botanical intemperance along an evergreen coast extending almost 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) from northern California to southern Alaska. Mosey by trail or spur road into one of the park's west-facing valleys and, for starters, keep your eyes to the ground. Here in the understory are mosses, horsetail, hedge nettle, sword fern, salmonberry, and sorrel, each species rooted in a floor of rotting wood—an accumulation of fallen trees and organic duff said to be the densest on Earth, exceeding that of any tropical rain forest. Lift your eyes to the midstory, and here are red alder and black cottonwood and vine maples festooned with mosses and other epiphytes. Then put a crick in your neck to behold the venerable columns of the big trees. 

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Online Extra
Get travel tips for exploring Olympic National Park.

How can the needs of environmentalists and the timber industry be reconciled following a federal proposal to ease rules that had restricted logging in the northwest forests?

Scroll through the fabulous images published in the print magazine.

E-greet a friend with a delicate bunchberry blossom from the forest floor of Olympic National Park.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Washington State has almost 50 national champion trees—the biggest in the nation. What does it mean to be called a champion tree? It means having the diameter and height to surpass all the other trees of a species.  And how do we know where these trees are and how big they are? Enter a big-tree hunter:  Robert Van Pelt. "You have to really know trees and their ecology, know how to measure them, and love to be outside," says Van Pelt, a forest ecologist and coordinator of the Washington State Big Tree Program. To determine the size of a tree, "Big Tree Bob," as Van Pelt is known, measures the diameter of the tree at chest height (usually about 4.5 feet [1.4 meters] above ground level) and the height of the tree. Then those measurements must be plugged into one of three mathematical formulas that account for whether the tree is straight, leaning, or standing on a slope.
Sounds simple, right? Not always. Just finding or getting to a tree can be difficult. Van Pelt recalls one trip in the early 1990s that involved a cold night spent in the woods without a tent and thick fog with less than 50 feet of visibility in an area with no trails. He and his hiking companion had traveled to the middle of Olympic National Park in hopes of finding and remeasuring the champion subalpine fir, originally discovered in 1963.  After two days of arduous hiking, they found it, remeasured it, and declared it to still be the reigning world champion subalpine fir, with a circumference of 21 feet (six meters) and a height of 124 feet (38 meters). Not huge compared with some other species, but a giant among subalpine firs. Finding them isn't always this difficult, however. "More often than not, you just stumble across them," says Van Pelt.
—Alice J. Dunn
Did You Know?

Related Links
Olympic National Park
Learn more about Olympic National Park and all it has to offer at the National Park Service official site.
Olympic National Park Information
Link to more information on the park, including history, lodging, hiking and camping guides, and recreational activities.
Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast
Discover the world and passion of a big-tree hunter.
Visitor Guide to the Olympic Peninsula
Planning a trip to the Olympic Peninsula? You'll find what you need to know about the communities, events, weather, places to stay, and more here.


Alden, Peter, and others, eds. National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Kirk, Ruth, and Jerry Franklin. The Olympic Rain Forest: An Ecological Web. University of Washington Press, 1992.
Lien, Carsten. Olympic Battleground: The Power Politics of Timber Preservation. The Mountaineers, 2000.
McNulty, Tim. Olympic National Park: A Natural History Guide. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.
Mitchell, John G. Dispatches From the Deep Woods. University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Morgan, Murray. The Last Wilderness. University of Washington, 1955.
Petrides, George. A Field Guide to Western Trees. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992.
Pojar, Jim, and Andy MacKinnon, eds. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine Publishing, 1994.
Schoonmaker, Peter K., and others, eds. The Rain Forests of Home: Profile of a North American Bioregion. Island Press, 1997.

Van Pelt, Robert. Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast. Global Forest Society, 2001.


NGS Resources
Davis, Wade. "Deep North." National Geographic (March 2004), 102-121.

Brandenburg, Jim. "Boundary Waters." National Geographic (June 2003), 32-51.

Gorman, Jim. "Wild in the Parks." National Geographic Adventure (May 2003), 82-8, 91-6.

Mitchell, John G. "Alaska's Giant of Ice and Stone: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park." National Geographic (March 2003), 56-83.

Nelson, Andrew. "Finding Middle-earth." National Geographic Traveler (March 2003), 36-41.
Howard, David. "Forests: The Uncut Version." National Geographic Adventure (June/July 2002), 32.
Gorman, Jim. "The Big 10." National Geographic Adventure (May 2002), 64-96.
Kaye, Russel. "Hail Cascadia! Exploring the Great Northwest." National Geographic Adventure (July/August 2000), 110-22, 124-6.
Hoffman, Cat. "Alien to Olympic Park, Mountain Goats May Go." National Geographic (June 1992).


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