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Thursday, January 14, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron C. Judd

Winter Olympics -- Wild, Sweeping Splendor Lies In Wait

Seattle Times Columnist

Wear a hat. And keep off the beach.

Two easy rules - the only ones you need, really, to enjoy the splendors of the Olympic Peninsula in the winter without freezing your stuff sack off.

The first is a no-brainer, which is exactly what you might be, as well, if you violate it. Legend has it that the last guy to go up the Hoh River in January-February without suitable headgear and still write home about it was John Huelsdonk, the "Iron Man of the Hoh." And when he did write home, several handwriting analysts determined beyond a reasonable doubt the letter had been "written by a person with a cranial cavity frozen harder than a block of granite."

Moral: Keep your ears warm.

The second is less obvious. The beach is tempting. Resist! Lots of people will drive to a place such as Rialto Beach, near La Push, get out of the car, cinch down their hood, and start strolling, searching for a moment of wild calm to soothe their stressed urban souls.

Ha. By the end of the day, most of them wind up tangled with kelp and assorted driftwood a hundred miles or more downwind, down by Tokeland, where they're eventually scraped off the sand by special work crews called "geeksweeps." (This phenomenon is nothing new. The Native term, "Humptulips," in fact, loosely translates to, "blown, cheeks over tea kettles, all the way down to Willapa.")

Moral: Nobody goes to the ocean beach in the winter. And there's a darn good reason.

We're suggesting you keep your head down. Stay in the trees. Cling to the rivers. Float on the lakes. And, oh, what an assortment you'll find here.

Winter truly is the best time to explore the Olympics' lowland forests. You'll most assuredly get muddy - but you'll be muddy in a land relatively free of people from New Jersey, talking amongst themselves about whether that antlered blacktail they just passed on the trail was "a boy or a girl."

Trails are quiet. Campgrounds are empty. And, OK, roads are washed out.

Big deal. You're a Northwesterner, for Pete's sake (Oops; everybody but you, Rick Neuheisel). Call ahead, and go for it. Some suggestions:

Elwha River Valley

Whether you want to walk 20 minutes or 20 miles, the Elwha River Trail takes you there. From the Whiskey Bend Trailhead southwest of Port Angeles, the trail follows one of the Peninsula's mightiest rivers upstream to its source, then drops into the Quinault drainage.

The trail often is snow-free for around 20 miles, before it begins to climb to Low Divide. Although few backpackers brave the harsh conditions to walk this trail in the winter, the five-mile round-trip walk to Humes Ranch and back is a good day trip.

Wet-weather campers can brave the elements all year at Elwha Campground.

Lake Crescent

You'll wish Lake Crescent Lodge was open all winter. Count on it. Short of that, though, there's plenty to keep you busy here, no matter the weather. Make the short (2-mile round trip) walk to Marymere Falls, just off U.S. 101. This 90-foot, graceful cascade is particularly beautiful in winter.

Consider a walk or mountain-bike ride down the Spruce Railroad Trail, an interesting, 4-mile (one-way) ride along an abandoned railway route on the lake's northern shore.

Water note: If you can stand the brutal cold, the crisp, clean waters of the lake make for a good offseason kayak or canoe jaunt. Fairholm Campground, open all year, is a good launch spot.

Bogachiel Valley

This one is for the more hardy trekkers only. A winter hike up the Bogachiel River Valley can be frustratingly fun. The trail usually isn't well maintained, and getting up it can be an adventure. But the Bogachiel, one of the least-visited of Olympic's fabled rain-forest valleys, is a great place to hike and camp, in any season.

Near the trailhead, just off U.S. 101 south of Forks, is Bogachiel State Park, which is open all year. It often serves as a base camp for steelhead anglers and other winter recreators.

Hoh River Valley

The famous (and infamous) Hoh is about as wet as it gets, but it can still be fun in the winter, provided you've got a good place to dry off afterward (the car will suffice.)

Recreation is limited to hiking, but it's tough to find a grander setting.

The first 13 miles of the Hoh River Trail are flat, muddy and snow-free all winter. Design a day hike of your own length, and go for it. For a short stroll, walk through the Hall of Mosses Rain Forest trail, at its wet best in winter.

Lake Quinault / Quinault River Valley

Your prescription for a classic out-there winter weekend: Haul yourself over to Lake Quinault, drive up North Shore Road and pull into July Creek campground. It's technically closed in the winter (no running water or fees). But you can still camp there. It's a gorgeous spot: Walk-in campsites, most of which are right on the shores of eerily still Lake Quinault. This is a great destination for canoeists or kayakers. You can pull your craft out of the water 3 feet from your tent, below a grove of massive Douglas fir trees. Bring a water filter and lots of Gore-Tex and goose down.

The valley offers plenty of snow-free exploration. Hike the Quinault Rain Forest Loop on the south shore, which takes you into a grand old-growth forest, or walk the East Fork Quinault Trail to Pony Bridge and back (5 miles) - or beyond, to the snow line. Watch the trees along upper valley roads for wintering herds of graceful Roosevelt Elk.

Lake Cushman / Skokomish R. Valley

On the eastern, leeward slopes of the Olympics, Lake Cushman Reservoir is an inviting stop for most of the winter. The area can become snowbound during relatively infrequent low-level snowstorms.

Staircase Ranger Station and campground, at the head of the lake along the North Fork Skokomish River, are a perfect starting point. The campground is open all year for extremely frigid (not much sunlight here, even on bright days) camping. The best way to avoid the onset of Fudgsiclehood is to keep moving. Luckily, the North Fork Skokomish Trail is nearby. It winds many, many miles into the Olympic interior (including great campsites at Home Sweet Home, 13.5 miles), but most winter visitors are content with a stroll up and down the Staircase Rapids Trail, a 2-mile loop.

More information: It's doubly important to check road, trail and campground conditions before departing on winter trips. For general information, call Olympic National Park's visitor center, 360-452-0330.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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