Monday, May 30, 2011

Spruce Railroad Trail, Olympic National Park, Washington

Distance: 7.0 miles (11.3 km)
Elevation: 580 - 620 feet (177 - 190 m)
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: Anytime

Lake Crescent is one of the jewels of the Olympic Peninsula. Over 600 feet deep and with crystal clear cold waters, the lake shimers blue with cliffs that drop right from the lakeshore in the depths below. The lake is 12 miles long and about 2 miles wide. It was formed about 8,000 years ago, when a massive landslide blocked off Indian Creek and the valley filled with meltwater until it found an alternate drainage via the Lyre River. While most people experience Lake Crescent by driving on Highway 101 west of Port Angeles, the Spruce Railroad Trail offers people the chance to explore its beautiful shoreline in a more leisurely pace on the otherside and see some of the interesting features that makes this area so unique.

The bridge over Devil's Punchbowl

The Spruce Railroad Trail follows the old railroad bed that once followed the northern shore of this lake. The railroad was built to send spruce logs to the mills for World War I. However, the railroad was not completed until 1919, at which point the war was already over. The rails have been removed, but the grades make the trail wide and easy to follow in most places and the old railroad tunnels make for some fun exploration.

The trail on the old railroad grade

To access the Spruce Railroad Trail, take East Beach Road to the right off of Highway 101 about 25 minutes west of Port Angeles. Follow East Beach Road for 3 miles until you see the sign for "Spruce Railroad Trail" to the left. You will follow this road over the Lyre River and to the parking lot at the end.

Stonecrops clinging to the rocks

The trail will first start out through a forest of second growth Douglas fir and big-leaf maples for about 1/2 mile until it arrives along the edge of the lake. The first significant thing you will see is the spectacular "Devil's Punchbowl". This little exclosed "bay" is crossed by an arch bridge and the water is dozens of feet deep as the cliffs drop all around, making for a clear blue hole. This is a great place if you wish to go swimming. But, be warned the water temperature hovers around 45 degrees even in summer. Typically there is a thermoclime of a few inches, where the top layer is near 70 degrees and its freezing underneath. So, you may jump in and feel warm and then you realize your feet are suddenly numb!

A canoe parked at Devil's Punchbowl

The trail will then follow the shoreline, alternating between right along the rocky edges and up the slope a bit in forested patches. Along the rocky cliffs you will succulant stonecrops, indian paintbrush, and ferns clinging to the rocky crevasses. Another plant to watch out for in the exposed rocky talus is poison oak. Poison oak is pretty uncommon in Western Washington, but the south-facing slopes of Lake Crescent is one of the few places I have seen it. It is a reddish color in spring and fall, green in summer. Remember the old saying "If leaves of three - leave it be".

Poison oak

The trail will continue leisurely with views across to Barnes Point on the opposite side of the lake. Barnes Point contains Lake Crescent Lodge and is the primary spot for visitors to Lake Crescent on Highway 101 because the trail to Marymere Falls leaves from there. That peninsula sticking out into the lake formed when a massive landslide came down and piled debris into the lake. You can see the drainage where the landslide came down and formed Barnes Point clearly from this side of the lake.

Watch your step for banana slugs on the trail

The trail continues along steep rocky slopes, old landslide debris, in forested patches full of orchids, trillium, and ferns, and along the shores of the lake. Despite the highway across the lake, the trail is quiet with the only sounds being of towhee's singing in the trees, Douglas squirrels chirpping in disappoval of your arrival, and perhaps the sounds of oars of canoes on the lake.

The small hill in the middle is part of the the landslide that blocked Indian Creek and formed the dam that created Lake Crescent

The last 3/4 of a mile of the trail is completely in the woods until you arrive at the other trailhead at the end of the Camp David Jr. Road. This road leads to Fairholme Campground and Highway 101 on the western edge of the lake. If you wish to access the trail from the west (i.e. if you were camping at Fairholme), then you simply do the trail in reverse.

The azure waters of the lake from the trail

From here, you simply turn around and return the way you came. Going the otherway allows you a chance to look carefully for the little plants and animals you may have missed on the way out. While this trail can be busy on weekends, due to its low elevation it is available year round and if you go on a weekday in winter, you will have it all to yourself. The nice thing about its southerly exposure is that it gets a lot of sun, which is especially nice in those dark winter days.

The Douglas squirrels are never afraid to let you know what they think of your presence

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dungeness Spit, Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, WA

Distance: 10 miles (16.1 km)
Elevation: Sea Level
Difficultly: Moderate
Time of Year: Anytime

A pair of bald eagles

At 5.5 miles in length, the Dungeness Spit is the longest sand spit in North America. It is formed by longshore flow that takes glacial sediments from the bluffs of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and deposits it at the end of the spit as a rate of 13 feet per year. Since the lighthouse was built in 1857, the spit has grown 1/2 of a mile. The entire spit, as well as, its side branch Graveyard Spit and the Dungeness Bay is protected within the boundaries of the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is home to thousands of sea birds including gulls, brants, loons, sandpipers, plovers, curlews, bald eagles, and terns. In addition, numerous harbor seals hang out on the beaches and near shore waters.

The forests of the Dungeness bluffs

The trail begins within the Dungeness Recreation Area located on Kitchen-Dick Road about 5 miles west of Sequim. There is a $3 per family charge to visit the refuge unless you have an Federal Interagency Pass. The trail starts out as a 3/4 mile trail through a dry Douglas fir forest that will descend gently down the bluff to the beach. Near the bottom of the bluff there are some nice overlooks with telescopes for you to look out across the lagoon for birds.

The view of the 5 mile spit from the top of the lighthouse

Then, you basically turn right and follow the outer beach for the next 4 miles or so to the lighthouse. Officially only the Strait of Juan de Fuca side of the spit is open to the public, as the lagoon side is set aside solely for wildlife. But, you can walk up to the driftwood on the crest of the narrow spit to look over with your binoculars and spotting scopes to look for the 4,000 black brants in winter or diving terns in summer. Orca and even an occassional wayward grey whale have also been spotted in the lagoon.

A view from the crest down the length of Graveyard Spit

While the 5 mile route to the lighthouse has no elevation change, the hike is a little tougher than you might expect because you are walking on potentially loose sand and cobbles. Tides are not a concern here, as the beach is wide enough to walk anytime, but if you go during low tide you have more of the beach to walk on the harder packed sand, making it easier on your feet. Just be aware of potential rough seas in winter. Also, on an unusually hot day in summer it can be difficult due to the lack of shade and water.

On the way to Banger Submarine Base

In addition to the very interesting wildlife you can see along the way, for those interested in marine traffic, the Strait of Juan de Fuca offers a feast of options. Container ships, cruise ships, pleasure boats, and even nuclear submarines can be seen cruising toward Seattle and Vancouver. You can also look across the strait to the city of Victoria in Canada, as well as, the San Juan Islands and Mount Baker.

A juvenile bald eagle

The lighthouse is open to the public from 9am to 5pm every day of the year to welcome visitors. Throughout the year, volunteers come out from all around the country to operate the lighthouse and offer tours of the historic structures. The waiting list for occupying the lighthouse structure can be well over a year. Once you've gone up in the lighthouse and seen the 100+ year old structures, it is time to head back.

A group of 30 bald eagles were gathered around a porpoise carcass

Take your time enjoying the walk in silence and taking in the wildlife. There are not very many people after the first 1/2 mile of the beach, so for the other 4 miles each way, you will essentially have the spit to yourself. Enjoy that time and soak it all in.

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