Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hurricane Hill

Interior Olympics from Hurricane Hill
3 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Olympic National Park entrance fee required

Hurricane Hill is one of the most popular hikes in Washington's Olympic National Park, for good reason: rarely do paved and relatively easy trails reach such stunning views and traverse subalpine environments. The summit of the "hill" provides a sweeping panorama of the interior Olympic peaks, including Mount Olympus itself, and of the Salish Sea and Vancouver Island. This is a good place to see wildlife: over the past two visits, I've spotted marmots, mountain goats, black-tailed deer, and ptarmigans in the trail's short mile-and-a-half length. While there's still a bit of elevation gain to reach the summit of Hurricane Hill, I've classified this hike as an easy rather than easy-moderate due to the smooth condition of the trail the entire way and the relative ease of reaching the top. The main drawback? The trail is packed midday, so this isn't the place to find solitude; to avoid sharing the summit with many others, arrive early. During my most recent visit, I started hiking at 8 AM and had the summit to myself for a while.

I've hiked this trail multiple times- first during a visit to the Northwest before I was even a teenager, more recently at the beginning and end of a summer while living in Seattle. I'll recount my two most recent visits- one with two friends visiting from the Bay Area, the second on a dawn visit to Hurricane Ridge for stargazing and a short hike.

No matter whether coming from Seattle or from the western Olympic Peninsula, the approach to the trailhead is to follow US 101 into Port Angeles and then to follow Race St. south to the Heart o' the Hills Visitor Center; just past the visitor center, a road branching off to the right leads uphill 18 miles to Hurricane Ridge. The trailhead lies another mile and a half of driving past the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center; trailhead parking is often entirely packed, necessitating parking at one of two overflow lots and either following the road or the overflow trail about a quarter to a half mile back to the trailhead. I had to park in the most distant overflow lot when I came midday over the July 4 weekend but was only the second car in the lot when I arrived early in the morning on a Labor Day weekend.

Milky Way at Hurricane Ridge
My friends and I followed the paved road to the Hurricane Hill trailhead and then began following the paved Hurricane Hill Trail out from the parking area. The trail started out fairly flat, sticking to the south side of the ridge and occasionally meeting with the ridge at saddle points. The trail alternated between staying in a sparse forest and cutting through open meadows, delivering plenty of views at the start of the Bailey Range and the peaks around Appleton Pass. Just two or three minutes past the trailhead, we came to our first view to the north, at a small saddle where we could see Mount Angeles and low clouds filling the valley leading to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Mount Angeles
A little further on the hike, we passed a herd of radio-collared mountain goats. While mountain goats might look fluffy and friendly, be careful and don't approach them. Mountain goats often crave salt and may sometimes approach people or areas with people to seek salt from urine-soaked rocks or trees. Goats can be aggressive and even deadly: a mountain goat killed a man hiking near Hurricane Ridge in 2010. We continued on and passed the junction for the Little River Trail about a half mile in.

The trail was still relatively flat when it burst out onto a south-facing mountain meadow with grand views of the Elwha Valley and the Bailey Range. In early summer, this slope was green and littered with early-summer flowers; by late summer, the grass was green and only a handful of wildflowers were left. Surprisingly, Indian paintbrush bloomed for the entire summer; September weather was also still favorable for pretty blue harebell.

Elwha Valley views
The trail began climbing a bit as it traversed this mountain slope, a steady but not too aggressive uphill that opened views further to the east. At the end of this stretch of uphill, the trail (really a small road) reentered the trees, obscuring views for a bit. The trail stayed flat through the forested segment until reemerging into the subalpine meadows at the last saddle before Hurricane Hill.

Here, an interpretive sign noted the frequent presence of lingering snow into the summer. In July, we saw a snowpatch at the exact location indicated on the plaque; by September, Hurricane Hill's slopes were fully snow-free.

Past the sign, the trail cut along the south side of the slopes of Hurricane Hill and began a steady climb through a short set of switchbacks to the summit. The views of the interior Olympics grew progressively better as we ascended, with Mount Olympus poking its head above the Bailey Range as we approached the summit.

Just below the summit, the trail passed a junction with the trail down to the Elwha Valley and then came to a small spur trail on the left of the trail that led to a startlingly open view of Vancouver Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. During my September visit, I shared the views with a ptarmigan gazing out into the strait.

Ptarmigan gazes at Vancouver Island
Looking back from the viewpoint, I could see deep into the Elwha Valley. In June, the peaks surrounding the valley were snowcapped; in September, some snow remained but the valley itself was filled from smoke from the Godkin and Hayes Fires, which had been burning in the Olympic interior for much of August.

Meadows high on Hurricane Hill
Smoke from the Hayes and Godkin fires fills the Elwha Valley
After passing that spur, a final push brought us to the summit. In July, we saw two mountain goats along the upper slopes of Hurricane Hill, making their way through the green summer meadows.

Mountain goats on Hurricane Hill
Just below the summit, two information placards detailed the view of both the interior Olympics and of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The views here encompassed many of the most loftiest summits of the Olympics: Olympus, Carrie, Anderson, and Constance were among the most prominent spires along the Olympic skyline. From this viewpoint, the summit was within close reach.

Hurricane Hill summit
From the summit, we gazed across the mile-deep Elwha Valley to the glaciated peaks of the Bailey Range, one of the most rugged subranges of the Olympic Mountains. The glacier-coated slopes of Mount Olympus just barely poked above Mount Carrie's snowbound shoulder.

Bailey Range and Mount Olympus
To the north, we spotted Port Angeles and Ediz Hook at close range. During both of my visits, fog covered the Strait of Juan de Fuca; but in each case, Victoria was visible at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, although the city was much too far away to distinguish individual buildings. Further out, we could see the San Juans and Mount Baker; I'm told that on a clearer day it's possible to see much of the Pacific Range in British Columbia as well.

Port Angeles
One of the most notably beautiful peaks viewed from the summit was the rocky ridge of Mount Angeles, the backyard summit of Port Angeles. Early in the season, snow lingered in the bowl below Hurricane Hill's summit and a teardrop pond provided a stunning foreground to the peak of Mount Angeles rising in the distance. However, by September, not only had the snow melted: the lake had dried up as well. What a difference two months made!

Mount Angeles and pond, early summer
Mount Angeles and dried-up pond at summer's end
On my July visit, the peak was crowded with many day hikers: this is an understandably well-loved hike. As my friends and I recorded the scene with our cameras, we found it difficult to avoid capturing other people in our photos. By contrast, on an early Sunday morning, coming just barely after sunrise, I had the peak mostly to myself, with the exception of a couple visiting from the Czech Republic who also decided to beat the crowds and catch the softer light of early morning.

In both cases, I returned to Seattle later in the day via the Kingston-Edmonds ferry, the only ferry in the WSDOT ferry system that allows one to photography downtown Seattle and Mount Rainier in the same frame.

Seattle and Rainier from the Kingston Ferry
This is a sufficiently easy hike that most people in most physical conditions are capable of hiking to the summit (although you may not find it easy if you're out of shape). The views really make this hike worth battling the crowds, but you're better off visiting at an off-time of day or during the week to enjoy the mountains in solitude.

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