The drive from Portland to Seattle is pretty short, but we decided to extend it by stopping at Mt. Rainier National Park along the way, lengthening the ride from 3 hours to 5. On the way, we thought a police car was pulling us over, but he turned out to be ticketing the car in front of us for passing us in a no-passing zone when we were driving the speed limit. Recovering from the suspense of thinking we were in trouble, we drove past Gifford Pinchot National Forest, named for the first head of the forest service and one of the heroes (along with Teddy Roosevelt) of The Big Burn, the environmental history audiobook we’ve been listening to about the creation of the forest system. Timothy Egan has a good writing style and the book’s very well-researched, so definitely worth reading if you’re interested! Thanks to my sister Abby for the recommendation.
Mt. Rainier is a huge (14,500 ft!) dormant volcano with glaciers on its snowy peak. But the lower area of the park is filled with gorgeous forests and waterfalls. We drove into the park (past a black-tailed deer, our first of several) and started up the trail to a 320 foot waterfall, taking a picture of the sign that called for ice axes (which we assumed applied to winter). About half a mile up the trail, however, we ran into someone coming down who said that further up the trail it got icy and you needed proper equipment. We decided to keep going until that point, so we continued the ascent, up past red cedars and hemlock trees. The trees were identified by Bill, who is fresh off his senior spring “Trees” class and thus a font of arboreal knowledge. After some great views of the mountains across the valley, we hit the snow and turned around.
Rushing water everywhere:
The sign — not a joke!
Mountains across the valley:
We continued driving down the park’s main road towards Paradise, the name of the high point where a bunch of park service buildings are clustered. On the way, we stopped at a viewpoint and waited for a few minutes while the clouds shrouding the mountaintop blew aside, affording a fleeting opportunity for pictures. We stopped again for a huge, rushing waterfall. Then we made it to Paradise. Normally, this time of year, you could take some nice hikes from Paradise. But Mt. Rainier, like Tahoe, saw record snow this year, so we were not getting up any further without snowshoes. I laughed to think that we’d originally told our hosts in Seattle that we might ‘climb Mt. Rainier on the way.’ Greg Nickels had answered my email with the mild comment that that activity was usually reserved for mountaineers and ‘might require some rest afterwards.’ Standing at the highest point the car could reach, at 4500 feet, and gazing up 10,000 snowy feet to the peak, I realized how much I’d betrayed my East Coast, Mount-Washington-is-the-highest-thing-around-and-you-can-drive-up-it mentality.
A rare glimpse of the peak!
A huge waterfall:
View from Paradise:
From Mount Rainier, we drove straight to Seattle, arriving just before 7. Our hosts were Sharon Nickels and her husband Mayor Greg Nickels, the former mayor of Seattle, whom I’d had the pleasure of getting to know during his fellowship at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. As mayor, besides all his Seattle-specific projects, he headed up an effort to get cities and towns across the country (and maybe internationally as well?) to pledge themselves to the Kyoto Protocol on a local level. Now he’s President Obama’s delegate to the United Nations. But the UN is not currently in session, so he’s back in Seattle. Sharon works for the EPA, specifically in the division that focuses on emergency environmental disaster response (oil spills etc) in the Northwest region. So they both do really interesting, important work. When we arrived, they walked us down a couple blocks to a point of West Seattle (their neighborhood) from which you can see the downtown skyline and look out across Puget Sound. It’s really neat to be introduced to a city by a former mayor (and lifelong resident!), since he truly knows everything about the place. After getting a tutorial in the layout of Seattle, we walked to an Italian restaurant in their neighborhood and got dinner. Mayor Nickels runs into people he knows literally every block, so it was a slow walk, but fun! I enjoy being with people who are very embedded in their community.
View of Seattle from the point:
I got to try two Washington red wines, one at dinner and another later, while watching the baseball highlights for the day. I’ve felt terribly out-of-touch with the Sox, so it was great to see coverage of the game where they hit a billion home runs (against the Orioles, I believe, on the 7th). Back at the house, we continued to hang out with their two very friendly dogs (large, friendly dogs have been a theme of this leg of the trip, from Flagstaff to Claremont to Portland to Seattle) and plan the following day. The Nickels’ suggested that we take the car ferry out to the Olympic peninsula, rather than driving all the way there, and looked up the schedule before we went to bed.
The next morning, we were on the 7:55am ferry out of Seattle, headed for Bainbridge Island. No sooner had we reached the upper deck than someone said my name and I turned to see Cooper, a friend I grew up going to church with. She was on the ferry with a bunch of Stanford friends — including Kevin, who gave me a bicycle tour of Stanford when I visited as a high school senior — all on their way to a wedding on the peninsula. As my dad says, “Small world!”
Once the ferry docked, we drove towards the peninsula, using two bridges to pass through two islands on the way. Then we followed US 101, the same road we took most of the way up the Pacific Coast, along the edge of the peninsula to Port Angeles. We were planning to take the Hurricane Ridge road up into the park from there, but since the sky was cloudy and the road’s big draw is its views, we decided to save that for the drive back.
This is the point at which we made a critical error. And by ‘we’ I really mean me, since I was the one looking at the map. Further on, along the edge of the peninsula, was the road to the Hoh rainforest. The woods in Olympic National Park make up the largest temperate rainforest in the world, and our guidebook said it was really cool, so it seemed like a good idea to head that way. What I didn’t realize was that, as Mayor Nickels said later, the Olympic peninsula is about the size of the state of Connecticut. Glancing at the map, I figured the rainforest was at most an hour from Port Angeles. But a combination of longer distance and slower, winding roads made it over two hours one way. We didn’t realize this until it felt too late to turn back. But by the time we made it to the rainforest, we’d driven nearly four hours since disembarking from the ferry, making for an extremely excessive amount of driving for a non-travel day. Nonetheless, we accepted this reality and resolved to enjoy the rainforest. We ate a picnic lunch, then walked slowly down the aptly named “Hall of Mosses” trail. Pictures below!
The road to the rainforest and back took us through Forks, WA, an extremely out-of-the-way town on the edge of the forest that has been catapulted to fame due to its prominent place in the Twilight books and movie. The main street of town is now filled with restaurants and shops named after Twilight, and it’s amusing to think how unexpected this piece of economic good fortune must have been to the residents. I do have to admit that the consistently-clouded landscape does seem like a decent spot for vampires.
When we made it back to Port Angeles, the sky was as cloudy as before, but we decided to go up Hurricane Ridge Road anyways. As we climbed, we drove into the clouds, and the viewpoint pullouts were obscured by fog. For some reason — perhaps because we’re somewhat stubborn about sticking to a plan once we’ve made it — we continued upwards. This turned out to be fortuitous, since we were rewarded at the very top by a mysterious gap in the fog, a gap which allowed us to see the previously hidden Olympic Mountains in all their glory.
Miraculous view of the mountains:
The rest of the drive was foggy, but we saw a deer!
(Sidenote: the title of this post comes from the opening line of a 1969 Bobby Sherman song called “Seattle”. It’s wildly misleading regarding the Seattle weather…while we didn’t have rain, our stay was very cloudy! Not much blue sky.)
Back down from Hurricane Ridge, we were racing the clock to reach the ferry dock before the 6:30 ferry left. Kudos to Bill for driving safely yet very efficiently. We made it right at 6:30…fortunately the ferry was a few minutes late, so we got aboard. The view from the ferry as we approached Seattle was absolutely splendid.
Seattle from the ferry:
Out over Puget Sound:
Fortunately, it wouldn’t get dark that evening until quite late, so we still had some time to do a few of the things we’d planned to do in the actual city of Seattle. First, we parked and headed for the Space Needle. Like many of the cool-but-random structures we’ve seen on this trip (Birmingham’s Vulcan statue, Nashville’s Parthenon, etc), it was built for a World’s Fair. The top had incredible views. Back down on the ground, we headed for the Olympic sculpture garden, where we passed a bunch of strange people dressed like pastries for no discernible reason and read a number of entertaining plaques about the sculptures. I defended the value of conceptual art against Bill’s skepticism, though I’m honestly not a big fan. After wandering amongst the sculptures, we set off to find Thai food. The first place we looked was closed, and the second one had few vegan or vegetarian options, but we finally ended up at a third place with a very friendly bartender/waitress, who took our orders just before the kitchen closed at 9:30. Next door to the restaurant was Seattle’s new, very modern central library building, so we admired that from the outside before returning to the Nickels house and heading to sleep.
Mount Rainier and downtown Seattle from the Space Needle:
The flagship sculpture, with silly costumed people in the background:
Erin & a giant eraser:
That night and the following morning, we had the chance to chat a bit more with Mayor Nickels. From hearing him talk about his time leading Seattle, my takeaway was that the direct, problem-solving, constantly-interfacing-with-the-public nature of mayoral work makes big-city mayor one of the most interesting jobs around. After saying farewell, we drove back into downtown Seattle, where we dropped off the car for an oil change (7500 miles into the trip, so it was time!) and then wandered down to Pike’s Place Market, the permanent farmers’ market/shopping arcade that anchors the downtown waterfront. The knickknack stores weren’t open yet, but the part we really wanted to see, the fruit stands and flower sellers and fishmongers, was already going strong. We bought lots of fruit for the trip, then picked up the car and hit the road again, finally heading back East!