AT LEAST SINCE the mid-1800s the wooded, mountainous, coastal land of the Olympic Peninsula has inspired awe for its beauties and lust for its resources. In 1885, after U.S. Army explorer Joseph O’Neil ascended Hurricane Ridge, he reported to Congress that the perimeter of the mountain had practical value, but saw that the “useless” interior could “serve admirably for a national park.”
Indeed, major logging of the peninsula’s giant old-growth forests was well under way by the time O’Neil bushwhacked his way into the interior. But in 1897, President Grover Cleveland set aside two million acres as a forest reserve, limiting commercial logging on nearly half the peninsula. That didn’t sit well with the lumber barons.
Three years later, William McKinley gave a third of the land back to the logging industry, and a few years after that, in 1909, Theodore Roosevelt reclaimed it, designating part of the area as Mount Olympus National Monument. His aim wasn’t just to conserve forests but the dwindling elk population, prized by hunters for their hides and antlers, and by the members of the Order of Elks, who liked to fashion elks’ teeth into decorative watch fobs.
Over the next 10 years, the timber industry regained access to logging the lowlands while conservationists lobbied to claim the area as a national park. Meanwhile, a homesteader named Thomas Aldwell fixed his sights on the Elwha River on the north side of the mountains as an ideal source of power for Port Angeles sawmills. The two dams he built were just plain ugly and, worse, ignored requirements to allow fish passage. Not good news for the spawning grounds of the abundant wild salmon that thrived in the river.
Finally, in 1938, after paying a visit to the area, Franklin Roosevelt was won over to the park idea and established the area as Olympic National Park. Today nearly all the original forest outside the park has been logged. Inside the park itself consists of nearly a million acres that include one of the largest stands of virgin temperate rain forest, some of the biggest trees on earth, and the largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk in the world. What’s more, the Elwha dams are about to come down. Still, challenges to the park persist from the inside: Mountain goats brought to the park in the 1920s have nibbled away the plant cover and changed the delicate balance of endemic vegetation.
For our guide to the fifth most visited national park, Allison Williams hiked the trails and hung out with a park ranger, Bruce Barcott chronicled the saga of the Elwha dams, Portland expat Philip Cheaney illustrated our foldout map, and Andrew Waits ventured into the wilderness to capture the magic of the park in pictures. If you’re like me, you’ll be headed there in a heartbeat.
EDITOR IN CHIEF