National Parks Plus Kids, Week Three: Olympic–A Gold Medal National Park for Kids
Fresh after landing in Seattle and battling our rental car company to finally get the kind of vehicle we had reserved for a month on the road, we mercifully found ourselves in wondrous Olympic National Park. The massive trees enchanted us–towering, moss-laden rainforest wonders and carcasses littering the Pacific Coast as part of a massive jungle gym. So did the fascinating tide pools teeming with sea life and the easily accessible high country with remnant winter snowfields, looming peaks, and deer mothers and their new fawns. All of it produced a fantastic start to the next leg of our family adventure.
Lake Quinault was a hit. We kayaked the lake, circumnavigated the largest spruce tree in the world (Lucas said that was his favorite part), explored a historic homestead, watched baby salmon swimming in nearby creeks, and dined at the same table used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his visit to Lake Quinault Lodge (believe it or not, the kids made the request).
The first places that come to mind for many when thinking of big trees are national parks like Sequoia or Redwood, but Olympic and its surrounding neighborhood harbor jaw-droppers for kids and adults alike. The Hoh Rainforest has kid-friendly loop trails, bounded by numerous fallen trees nursing descendants than can outstrip their size. There’s nothing quite like crawling under a massive tree, in its own cavern of roots. In the end, though, the tree that stuck with the kids was that massive spruce.
The north side of Lake Quinault (which is in the park–the south side is not) includes a delightful, picturesque hike to the Kettler Homestead. We took it with a park ranger who handed the kids each a Junior Ranger packet and a magnifying glass for exploring the fern forest around us. Isabelle actually held a slug (very slimy!). Lucas seemed fascinated by the multitude of spores under the fern leaves. We all learned about the cedar tree, known as the tree of life. Rangers truly are the air that breathes extra life into park experiences.
The rainforests ultimately end along the Pacific Coast, which is scattered with miles upon miles of fallen trees that lost their battle with salt and sea and that now provide kids with a climbing and exploring paradise. The time we spent at Rialto and Ruby beaches showed these trees to be magnetic, captivating places for kids. Isabelle found a small shelter a prior visitor had fashioned out of fallen timber and made it her own, while Lucas honed his rock-skipping skills. I tried to get them to walk up the beach with me to see several seals, but couldn’t pull them away from their adventures. Leaving was hard to do.
The sting of leaving the Pacific Coast was soothed by our adventures on the north end of the park, particularly tide pooling. When Dad got everybody up shortly after dawn to hit low tide at Salt Creek along the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the park, the skepticism was palpable. But once they saw the countless crabs, urchins, starfish, barnacles, mussels, and even a dead octopus, Dad was off the hook. Salt Creek was a hit! And the breakfast we ate afterwards at a diner on our way to Port Angeles was just as popular with hungry stomachs.
Salt Creek is convenient to Lake Crescent, if you stay at the Lodge or sign up for a family program with a park partner like NatureBridge. While we were visiting, a group of families was enjoying a week-long NatureBridge program with their young children, and Isabelle was excited to learn that she, or anybody, can sign up. The kids also enjoyed the hike to Marymere Falls and the wonderful, musical, ranger/magician talk at Lake Crescent Lodge on the restoration of the Elwha River.
From there, we had yet another, completely different, Olympic experience. We visited Hurricane Ridge, where we reached the frozen alpine climate in a matter of minutes–enveloped by peaks, treading on snow, and staring down spotted fawns. Of course, on our way, we dropped by the ranger station for the kids to be sworn in as new Olympic National Park Junior Rangers, to rousing applause.
We spent four very full days in Olympic, and easily could have doubled down. I had been to the park many times before, but never fully realized what a powerful place it would be for kids.
- Do the coasts! Allow yourselves time to explore the beaches. Bring a picnic lunch. And bring a good windbreaker. The Pacific Northwest can be a bit chilly, even in summer, and the Pacific Ocean produces cold winds. Come dressed for the weather and your kids will love it.
- Check tide tables for low tide for the best tide pooling. Salt Creek is fantastic, though the Park Service can point you to other places in the park.
- Experience at least one of the rainforests with a ranger if you can. The north side of Lake Quinault tends to be more lightly visited and may offer more ranger time on your hike.
- Do the entire peninsula in a loop (or, more accurately, a letter C). You can drive from Seattle to the south/west end of the park, follow the coastal roads, and return to Seattle via the ferry from Bainbridge Island, or vice versa.
- Be prepared for rain–after all, this is a rainforest. We experienced rain, clouds, and sun. When it’s sunny, it’s glorious, but your pictures come out better when it’s overcast. The kids enjoyed everything, rain or shine.
More stories in this series:
- Read week one at Sleeping Bear Dunes (August 31, 2012)
- Read week two, On to Pictured Rocks and the Ice Age Trail (September 7, 2012)
- Read week four, Glacier–More than Ice and Snow (September 21, 2012)
- Read week five, On to Yellowstone! (September 28, 2012)
- Read week six, Inspiration, Perspiration, and Contemplation at Grand Teton (October 5, 2012)
- Read week seven, Volcanoes Are Cool (October 12, 2012)
- Read week eight, Adventures on Wizard Island (October 19, 2012)
- Read week nine, The Difference a National Park Makes (October 26, 2012)