A Weekend in the Olympics

As a test-run for my extensive road-trip around America, I decided to drive up to the Olympic peninsula, in the northwestern part of Washington state, for the weekend and try out the whole “truck camping / GPSing / panorama photo / extreme geographer” thing. Just as important, I wanted to try out my new portable Coleman grill. My mouth was watering, thinking about all the grilled brats (as opposed to boiled brats – my standard camping fare) that I’d be enjoying on this road trip around America and I wanted to make sure the grill worked all right.

 
 
Above:  My weekend trip to the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington. I hoped to visit four of the 16 extreme geographic compass points in the contiguous U.S.:  the westernmost (Cape Alava), northwesternmost (Cape Flattery), north-northwesternmost, and west-northwesternmost points. I also hoped to eat a lot of grilled bratwurst.

My destination that weekend was the Olympic peninsula because it’s home to four of the 16 extreme compass points in the contiguous United States: 

  • The westernmost point (Cape Alava),
  • The northwesternmost point (Cape Flattery),
  • The north-northwesternmost point, and
  • The west-northwesternmost point.

Being able to visit four of the 16 extreme compass points in one weekend was a deal too good to pass up. I’d visited Cape Alava once before, in 1993, because I wanted to stand on the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. Yes, even at that tender age (um, 33?), I was intrigued with this whole “extreme geography” thing. Cape Flattery and the other two extreme compass points are only about 15 miles north of Cape Alava as the crow flies, but because of the remoteness of this northwestern tip of Washington and its dearth of roads, it would take me a few hours to drive from Cape Alava to those three other extreme points (NW, NNW and WNW). Fortunately though, those three points are all within a few miles of each other. 

The northwesternmost point, Cape Flattery, is a famous landmark that I’d heard about for decades, though I’d never been there because it’s really remote. The other two points (NNW and WNW) were less than a mile north and south of Cape Flattery. From studying Google maps and doing online research in Qatar, I knew I could get to Cape Flattery because there was a trail there – though, being on the Makah Indian Reservation, I’d need to buy a visitor’s permit in the nearby town of Neah Bay. The other two points, NNW and WNW, were close to Cape Flattery and also on the reservation, but there didn’t seem to be trails to either point. But if those points weren’t accessible, I’d get closer than anyone else, following the “rules” that I’d set up before undertaking this whole ridiculous endeavor.

I drove up to the Olympics on a rainy Friday morning, but the clouds parted a few hours after I left Portland and the sun broke out just as I reached the town of – get this – Humptulips, Washington. I’ve driven through Humptulips a dozen times in my life and have laughed each time, because it’s one of the funniest names in America. There are a host of places in West Virginia that could probably give Humptulips a run for the money – the town of Eye comes to mind (West Virginia has a lot of oddly-named places for some reason). But in the opinion of this extreme geographer, Humptulips is the winner by a nose (or an eye). 

Later in the afternoon I stopped for gas and a few snacks in the town of Forks, Washington. This was a momentous occasion because, standing there at the Tesoro gas station, I was actually filling Gigi’s tank for the very first time. Yes, the tank had been filled numerous times since I bought the truck a month earlier but always by someone else, since Oregon is one of only two states in the U.S. where self-serve is prohibited by law (the other state being New Jersey). Nope, you can’t fill your own gas tank in Oregon. So here in Forks, Washington, I had the great pleasure of filling up Gigi’s tank myself for the very first time.

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Above: On a beautiful Saturday morning, I hiked three miles through the Olympic rainforest to Cape Alava. (0:45)
   
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Young women and I know the significance of Forks, Washington, but for two different reasons. Forks, a rugged and drippy logging town on the Olympic Peninsula, apparently was the site of the vampire series, “Twilight” – though the series wasn’t filmed in Forks and, to my knowledge, none of the major stars (like Kristin what’s-her-face) have ever been to Forks. But that hasn’t stopped the local businesses from cashing in on the Twilight phenomena, like giving tours of supposed famous places from the series. 

But that’s not why I know Forks. To me, Forks is important because it’s the rainiest city in the Lower 48 states (sorry Ketchikan, I’m not including you or any of your soggy Alaskan brethren in this list). So to celebrate my arrival in this, the wettest city in the Lower 48, I filled up my tank with 87-octane gas and filled up my other tank with a 44-ounce Diet Pepsi and a Tesoro corn dog, which I found to be surprisingly good.

I continued on my merry way up Highway 101 but a half-hour later, I turned left onto a side road, Highway 113, a 35-mile dead-end road that extends all the way out to the fishing village of Neah Bay, Washington, which is located on the extreme northwestern tip of Washington. An hour after that, and well short of Neah Bay, I pulled off onto the Hoko-Ozette Road, another dead-end road (there are a lot of dead-end roads in northwestern Washington) this one going to an area called Ozette, near the coast. Ozette, ironically, is the westernmost settlement in the contiguous United States, but that’s not why I was going there. Nope, my destination was Cape Alava.

Twenty-one miles later, and not having passed a single car on the two-lane Ozette road, I crossed into the coastal portion of Olympic National Park, then pulled into the beautiful National Park campground at Lake Ozette, located at the very end of the dead-end road. There were 20 sites in the campground and only one was occupied – definitely my kind of place – so I picked a nice site away from the lake, tucked in the trees which provided lots of seclusion. When I camp, I’ll take seclusion over a waterfront site any day so, in my mind, I had the best campsite in the campground. 

I set up my camp in the late afternoon, as the sun was drifting below the towering firs, and broke out my new Coleman portable grill. The pictures on the box looked promising and had convinced me to pay $89 for it at Camping World in Portland, so I wanted to see if it worked as well as claimed. It sure did and my brats were delicious. Bratwurst sausages are my standard dinner fare when I take road trips but never on a road trip have I eaten grilled brats, just boiled brats. The grilled brats were truly scrumptious and, although it took me a while to clean up the grill afterwards, it was a sacrifice I gladly made. 

Nothing in the world beats eating grilled brats in a beautiful, quiet secluded campsite. To me that’s getting pretty darn close to heaven.

Heading to Ozette

 

Cape Alava:  The Westernmost Point of the Contiguous United States

Early the next morning, Saturday, I began my trek to the coast in search of Cape Alava and the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. First, though, I walked over to the Lake Ozette Ranger Station, which is deserted during this time of year before the summer season has really started, then I continued onto the Cape Alava trail. The dead-end road that I’d driven the day before ends here at Lake Ozette but there’s a three-mile trail through the dense rainforest that goes to the coast. 

Once at the coast, intrepid hikers can hike north or south along the rocky beach and around the craggy headlands – preferably at low tide – for an amazing coastal wilderness experience unlike any other in America. In fact, back in 1993, which was the only other time I’d visited this Ozette area, I took this triangular 9-mile hike one afternoon:  three miles through the forest, three miles north on the rocky beach, and three miles through the forest back to my truck. On this visit, however, the only reason I was here was to visit the westernmost point of the United States, so I hiked straight out to the coast.

The three-mile hike through the rainforest was just as spectacular as I remembered it from 26 years earlier. This is one of the wettest areas in the U.S., so the Park Service has constructed extensive plank boardwalks above the trail to keep folks out of the bogs, and bless them for doing so. 

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Above: Here's Cape Alava, in Olympic National Park, Washington. It's the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. (0:16)
   
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After an hour of hiking on the rainforest trail, during which I saw only two other groups of hikers, I reached the coast. The “beach” here is comprised of gravel, pebbles and cobbles – very little sand – and I scurried along it northward while consulting my GPS and the maps I’d created months earlier in Qatar. Using both my compass and GPS, I located the westernmost point of the contiguous United States, which is about a mile north of where I had emerged from the forest. Yes, I have a good GPS – a Montana 680t – but I always like to verify things the “old fashioned way” by using my compass. The tide was way out, perhaps a quarter-mile, so I found the westernmost point of land that was above the high tide line (again, one of my “rules” for coastal locations). 

This was it – the westernmost point of the contiguous United States!  And yet there was nothing to indicate it:  no sign, marker, survey point or anything else. As I watched occasional hikers stroll by, oblivious to the geographic significance of this location and doing trivial things (like enjoying nature), I mused, “These idiots don’t even realize that they’re walking right by the westernmost point of the contiguous U.S!”  OK, I was saying that to myself in jest and chuckled a bit. I’m serious about this Extreme Geography thing, but not that serious.

After sitting there for a few minutes and contemplating my accomplishment, visiting the first of the 16 extreme compass points in the contiguous United States, I took some pictures, did a panorama shoot, and recorded a short video clip of myself standing at this, the westernmost point. A half hour later, I headed back down the coast, found the trail back through the rainforest and had a pleasant hike through the trees and back to my campsite. And yes, I celebrated my accomplishment that evening at the Lake Ozette Campground by eating more brats. 

Were you expecting something else?

Cape Alava