Someone should cue the fairies.
That’s all I can think as four of us step onto the Hall of Mosses Trail at Olympic National Park in Washington state. Sitka spruce and western hemlocks tower 200 feet or more above us, while lush ferns circle tree trunks up to 50 feet in circumference. It would take more than 10 people to hug these trees.
Coming from Midwestern prairies and tame woods, my mom and our two friends, Christine Lanphear and her husband, Chris Kline, hike like we’re explorers on a different planet — stopping every few feet to marvel at the moss, lichens and shaggy plants that carpet every millimeter of bark and earth. It drips from arches of big-leaf maples like shaggy fur on ancient forest giants.
“I found another one!” a young boy ahead of us yells to his parents as his brother scampers ahead. “That’s 20!”
They are counting pickle-sized banana slugs and fat black ones oozing along branches, their mom explains. I wrinkle my nose and imagine something more personable and less slimy, like fairies or leprechauns, Yoda or Bigfoot.
The peninsula is best known for tree-scaling vampires and shape-shifting werewolves with Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” novels and movies set in the real coastal towns of Forks and La Push. The inland rain forest gets 12 to 14 feet of rain a year, creating the velvety branches and hushed, mossy ground where we barely hear our footsteps. Almost anything seems possible.
‘Bones of the forest’
In addition to the rare rain forest, the 922,000-acre national park’s eco-diversity led to its designation as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. It encompasses alpine and subalpine mountains, old-growth forests, deep river valleys, and a 73-mile strip of ocean shore.
“You can go from the ocean all the way to the mountains in one long day,” says Penny Wagner, public information officer for the park. “That is pretty spectacular.”
We head toward the Pacific shoreline with its rugged headlands, coves and conical offshore “sea stacks.” We opt for Ruby Beach near historic coastal Hwy. 101 as it angles from inland to briefly hug the Pacific Shore on its way to Oregon and California.
The four of us have to scramble over and maneuver around dozens of dead and weathered trees — supersized driftwood aptly referred to as “the bones of the forest” on one interpretive sign. Winter and spring storms take down the giants, which tumble into rivers and wash onto beaches.
We explore rock formations and tide pools, pointing out ocher sea stars, gooseneck barnacles, mussels and a hermit crab. Green sea anemones wave tentacles or pucker protectively inward as water levels drop with the low tide.
Walking through wisps of mist rising from a glassy shimmer of water, visitors on the vast hard-packed beach look disembodied. They seem to float in the blur of earth and sky.
Among the clouds
On the peninsula’s northern side, we drive 17 miles inland from Port Angeles, making a 5,200-foot climb in elevation. Overlooks give us views of the distant Strait of Juan de Fuca, Vancouver Island and British Columbia until we reach Hurricane Ridge, famed for its gusty gales that can reach 80 miles per hour.
For us, it’s calm as we gaze across the valley to snow-capped mountains and joke about mimicking Julie Andrews singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music!” with a hands-up-high twirl through the meadow. A deer scampers across, white tail flicking, eyes skittish yet accustomed to humans with close to 3.4 million visitors a year to this 80-year-old national park.
My mom, Lanphear and I wander happily and crouch down for photos of lupine, daisies and another deer that’s hunkered among shady tree roots, looking ready to nap. Within 15 minutes, clouds quickly smudge away the mountain range and erase the meadow.
“Fog envelops you,” says Lanphear, who moved with her husband from the Twin Cities to Washington state a few years ago. They settled in Sequim, a community on the peninsula’s northern coast and the mountains’ dry side. As another example of the area’s eco-diversity, it receives a scant 12 to 14 inches — vs. feet — of rain a year. The climate’s ideal for close to a dozen lavender farms that draw tourists to fragrant purple fields.
Here on the mountain, Lanphear and Kline advise us to ignore the fog and head down the popular hiking trail that eventually traverses a razorback ridge. While we can’t see far, we see the trail’s edge drops sharply into a white abyss.
Clouds eventually clear, and alpine views return. The scent of wild roses drifts on the breeze, and butterflies flit among Columbia lilies, scarlet paintbrush and deep-blue larkspur.
We take a last glance at some of the park’s more than 130 glaciers before heading down to ocean level, our memory cards filled with wildflowers.
Later, as we’re combing through and sharing photos — always our best souvenirs — I gasp in surprise.
“I caught a fairy,” I say excitedly, pointing out a Tinkerbell-shaped shimmer in the Hoh Forest treetops. We know it’s a trick of light. Of course it is. But, somehow, it’s fitting to capture a bit of fantastical sparkle from Olympic’s ethereal forest.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (@lisamcclintick) is a St. Cloud-based freelance travel writer. She is the author of the books “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”