Story road: Olympic Peninsula highway is gateway to state's natural and human history
Seattle Times travel writer
Leonard Pierce looks past the logging trucks rumbling by his Joyce General Store, and sees snow-capped Olympic mountains and forested hillsides that have been cut and replanted three times since the nearly 100-year-old store has been in business.
Behind him are the blue waters of Crescent Bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Once the site of a booming logging town called Port Crescent, the area is now a marine reserve and home to one of Washington's most beautiful beaches.
Separating the two scenes is the road with the logging trucks — State Route 112, the Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway. The 61-mile coastal route stretches from Port Angeles west to Neah Bay along the strait that connects Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean.
Saltwater, mountains, forests. Highway 112, Washington's newest National Scenic Byway, has them all.
As for the logging trucks, they come with the territory.
"The idea is that all these roads tell a story," says Sharon Hurt Davidson, marketing manager for the Federal Highway Administration, the agency that recognizes American roads with special historical and cultural significance. Last year, Highway 112 was added to its list of 57 National Scenic Byways.
Twisting, turning, teaching
Highway 112 is best known as the gateway to Cape Flattery, at the northwest tip of the Lower 48 states. The cape is reached through the Makah Indian Reservation, literally at the end of the road. But, for patient drivers, a trip along Highway 112 can be much more than a geographical end point. Unfolding along its twists and turns are lessons in everything from Washington history to Native American culture, modern-day forestry practices and marine biology Pull-outs and parks offer access to scenic stretches of Washington coast.
"A good deal of the road is 40 miles per hour, good for sightseeing, more frustrating if you're trying to get someplace,"says Sandra Balch, president of the Clallam Bay-Sekiu Chamber of Commerce.
It's one reason the road is often overlooked by tourists in favor of Highway 101, which cuts southwest through Olympic National Park, connecting areas such as Lake Crescent with the Hoh Rain Forest and Pacific Ocean beaches.
A working road
Residents are counting on the Byways designation to boost the road's image and generate federal money for tourist-friendly improvements. For travelers, it's already paying off. There's a Web site with information about what to see and do along the highway and a new map showing scenic points of interest.
"Most people were reluctant to put any federal designation on the highway because people live and work here. A lot of it had to do with fear of regulation and control,"says Balch, who led local efforts to win the designation, and along with her husband, Herb, runs Herb's Motel & Charters in Sekiu. Some even questioned the definition of "scenic," making jokes about the views from behind the back of a logging truck and the amount of clear-cutting visible from the road. Most of the land skirting Highway 112 is industrial forest land owned by private timber companies.
"If someone's idea of scenic is virgin timber, this road is going to seem like devastation to them," Balch says. "This is a working community. A good deal of the highway goes through timber-company land, and those people need to cut trees to make a living."
Evolved from a footpath
Driving Highway 112 on a recent Saturday, my husband and I found ourselves behind more campers pulling boats, than logging trucks. Salmon runs are the best they've been in five years, and the communities of Clallam Bay, Sekiu and Neah Bay were crowded with sport fishermen.
Heading west out of Port Angeles, past bursts of yellow and purple wildflowers and signs for duck crossings and canaries for sale, we found Joyce, nine miles from where Highway 112 begins and 101 splits off toward Lake Crescent. The Joyce General Store and an old log-train depot, now a historical museum, are all that's left of a town built around the Milwaukee Railroad, which hauled spruce from the forests to the Boeing plant in Seattle in the early 1900s.
The story of the Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway began in the late 19th century, when the bays and inlets of the Olympic Peninsula were thick with evergreens and the region was home to a booming lumber industry.
Logs and people bound for the Puget Sound and Pacific moved mainly by water or rail; Highway 112 was a dirt trail whose main purpose was to connect communities, logging camps and homesteaders, some of whom traveled all day to reach a dance hall or a Sunday baseball game.
"Over time, the trail evolved from a walking path into a road for wagons, automobiles and school buses," says Joe Murray, author of a history on the road and the managing forester at the Merrill & Ring tree farm on Highway 112. In 1928, the various segments were consolidated as Clallam County Road 9A, and later State Route 112.
Spending the night
Short on places to eat or stay — the only espresso stand is at the end of the road on the Makah Reservation — the Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway can be driven in a few hours. But our goal was to visit two areas accessible only from Highway 112 — the Cape Flattery Trail on the Makah Reservation and Lake Ozette in Olympic National Park. And that required spending the night.
An overnight stay along Highway 112 usually means camping or staying in one of the motels catering to fishermen. We felt lucky to find Winters' Summer Inn, a bed and breakfast in Clallam Bay run by KC Winters and Don Gann.
The little cottage fooled us at first. The front entrance was a few steps off the road in the center of town. But the back deck opened to another world — the peaceful Clallam Bay River with the strait and Vancouver Island in the distance. A five-minute walk away was Clallam Bay County Park, with a wooden footbridge over the river and access to hidden picnic areas and a long stretch of saltwater beach.
"When we started this in 1991, fishing was the big thing,"said Winters. Now guests are just as likely to be Japanese or German tourists bound for Cape Flattery.
Wildlife and scenery
Over a breakfast of banana pancakes and eggs on her deck the next morning, we saw blue herons and eagles. This area of the peninsula is home to 250 species of birds, gray whales and sea lions; many can be seen along the part of the drive from Clallam Bay to Cape Flattery. Here, the road winds around steep cliffs, sandy beaches and blue waters dotted with tall rock formations.
While this stretch can be treacherous in bad weather, on our summer visit we found plenty of places to pull off and admire the scenery in the early morning light.
The highway officially ends in Neah Bay at the Makah reservation, but we continued on, stopping at the Makah Cultural and Research Center, which houses artifacts uncovered from Ozette Village, partially buried in a mudslide nearly 500 years ago. Several more miles, along a gravel road, we found the entrance to the 3/4-mile Cape Flattery trail.
A network of boardwalks have replaced what used to be a muddy path, making a walk to the edge of Washington a pleasant half-hour stroll through the woods and on top of cliffs, overlooking giant caves from which we could hear sea lions barking. At the end, we were rewarded with views of the Pacific and Tatoosh Island, the most northwesterly point in the Lower 48.
Doubling back along Highway 112, we detoured along the Hoko-Ozette Road, four miles from Clallam Bay, to Lake Ozette for a six-mile round-trip hike through Olympic National Park to the ocean. That evening, relaxing over a dinner of fresh salmon and strawberry pie at the Winters' Summer Inn, we felt as if we'd discovered a secret corner of Washington state.
The next morning, we plunged back into reality as we headed back to Seattle, sharing the highway with the logging trucks we missed over the weekend. Along the way, we noticed the mosaic patterns of the hillsides, formed by trees cut and planted at different stages.
"The challenge" in promoting Highway 112 to tourists, says Merrill & Ring's Joe Murray, "will be in helping people from Boston or New York who drive out here understand what they see."
We found some explanations at Merrill & Ring's 103-year-old Pysht Tree Farm on Highway 112 near the Pysht River, about 30 miles west of Joyce. A 3/4-mile self-guided tour takes visitors through a wooded area planted to illustrate different stages in the forest growth cycle.
"When we applied for the (highway) designation, they asked, `How are you going to protect the people from seeing what's done as a result of logging?' " Balch recalls. "I said, `We're not. We're going to educate them.' "
Carol Pucci can be reached at 206-464-3701. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.