Towering over the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Olympic Mountains are an impressive sight. Although the tallest peak, Mount Olympus, reaches only 7,965 feet, the steep manner they rise from the ocean gives the mountains the illusion of great height. While the athletes compete in the XXIII Annual Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, we can celebrate with our own neighborhood Olympics.
The Traveler is visible this week on the face of Mount Washington.
In 1788, the explorer Captain John Meares named the tallest peak Mount Olympus in honor of the Greek explorer Juan de Fuca who had first passed by the mountain and named it Santa Rosalia in 1774. Since then the range has become associated with the ancient home of the Greek gods in name.
In spite of their jutting appearance, the Olympic Mount Range are not volcanic. This is surprising given the proliferation of volcanic ranges in the Pacific Northwest, for example Mount Baker and Mount Rainer. As evidenced by the marine fossils found in the summits of the range, the Olympic Range once was part of the ocean floor. Approximately 120 million years ago, the Pacific Tectonic Plate crashed into the North American Plate and created the Olympic Range.
The actions of glaciers melting and freezing again created the “glacial horn” appearance of some of the more craggy mountains, a process that is also seen in heights such as Mount Everest and the Matterhorn.
Remnants of ancient Ice Age glaciers (from 26,000 to 13,300 years ago) are thought to make up portions of the larger existing glaciers in the park — specifically, those glaciers found on Mount Olympus and Mount Anderson. The smaller glaciers in the park were formed during the last “Little Ice Age” of only three to five thousand years ago.
The melting of these glaciers is a constant source of water for local watersheds. As well, the height and proximity to the ocean of Mount Olympus favors this mountain with an incredibly moist climate, making the Hoh Rainforest the wettest location in the United States. Contrastingly, parts of the rest of this horseshoe shaped range are in a rain shadow, creating a fairly dry climate.
Most of this range is protected within the Olympic National Park. This massive park system offers plenty of opportunities for excursions and many of these services are open in the winter. Why not plan a day trip to the mountains to sample the snow? Take the kids or friends and plan a mountain adventure. Build an igloo, go snowshoeing, or just have a snow ball battle. Although the lower reaches may be drowning in rain, if you head to the hills you might just find a drier, fluffier version. Pack a high protein lunch (such as cheeses, sliced meat and fruit) to keep you going and a thermos of your favourite hot drink to warm you up.
For the kiddies bring hot chocolate and for the more mature members try our hot toddy recipe. If you have a propane stove, or some sort of portable stove system, why not have a high altitude hotdog roast?
If you are searching for more organized activities, Hurricane Ridge offers ranger-guided snowshoe walks (snowshoes provided!) and economical ski day passes, as well sledding and tubing is free for children . The more adventurous seasoned camper may want to try their hand at “winter camping.”
Check the ONP website for road conditions before you answer the mountain’s call, as winter conditions can close areas (as is the case currently for the slide near Staircase Entrance at Lake Cushman). Be mindful that weather can be unpredictable and it is always better to be safe than sorry, as the Olympic National Park website warns - Always carry the 10 Essentials: map, compass, flashlight, knife, matches, nylon cord, extra food and water, and raingear with warm clothes. Let someone know where and when you are taking your hike. Make emergency plans for them to follow if you do not return. Be safe and have fun!