On a long list of Olympic National Park’s places not to be missed, Hurricane Ridge is at the top. A 17-mile drive from Port Angeles, at sea level, ends at “the Ridge” at ski level. Well, at least it does in the winter. In any season, however, the heart-stopping view, the sheer number of peaks and glaciers—big, small, near, and far—is the crown of the Park’s glory. Looking south the sight is enhanced to the west by Mount Olympus (the highest summit in the Park at 7980 feet) and the Elwha river valley stretching to the south. (It is the largest drainage in the Park and one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects in the country.) Wild flowers blooming in sub-alpine meadows, ravens and gray jays on the wing, and black-tailed deer browsing nearby add to the enjoyment of this very special place.
See the Park Roads page for directions to Hurricane Ridge from points east and west. Once on Hurricane Road, the views improve dramatically as the road climbs a gentle and twisting grade to the Visitor Center, every bit as big and interesting as the one in Port Angeles. Don’t miss the lesson in forest ecology that can be seen on either side of the road. The first five miles of it—between the city and the Heart O’ the Hills entrance station—was donated to the Park to increase a connection to Port Angeles. It is a very narrow corridor of cutover forest; all of the old growth trees in this swath went “the way of the sawmill” and what was left grew into a mixed forest of conifer and deciduous trees. At the entrance station, a line is crossed that is very evident as trees jump in size and Grand Firs begin to be replaced by Silver Firs. This is the Old Growth forest—trees that escaped the lumberman’s axe—and it marks the current Olympic National Park Boundary.
The road climbs 600 feet in the next three miles to an overlook aptly named Tunnel Overlook, and the forest begins to change in this section. As altitude is gained, fewer deciduous trees are present among the conifers and there are fewer Western Red Cedars. Along the edges of the road, pay close attention to the wild flowers that start to appear. The changing forest and a variety of flowers continue to be noticeable throughout the rest of the climb.
After passing through the tunnels, the forest becomes almost exclusively conifers. The exceptions are large swaths of slide alder. As its name implies, it marks avalanche chutes. Adapted to withstand cascading tons of snow and ice, their spindly flexible trunks are almost always bent or bowed downhill, evidence of their tenuous and tenacious hold on life throughout the winter.
After two more miles and an additional 720 feet of elevation gain, the geology becomes interesting. At milepost 11, the road winds first to the left and then sharply to the right, just before it crosses a small bridge. On this “S” curve, the rock face on the right is a great example of what is called Pillow Basalt, a type of lava. The name belies this rock’s creation. Millions of years ago the basalt was extruded from volcanic fissures on the sea floor and formed in rounded blob-shapes. Today this type of rock forms the Crescent Formation in the Park. Shaped as a double arc, the Crescent Formation roughly follows the Park Boundary from Mt. Storm King, near Lake Crescent, east and south to Mt. Washington, near Lake Cushman (see the Park Map). Nearly all of the major peaks in the Park east of Mt Olympus are made of Pillow Basalt. For more information, visit the Pillow Lava—Heart O’ the Hills Road, Olympic National Park page on the Northwest Geology Field Trips website.
Three more miles up the road, with a gain of 1080 feet, another unexpected sight may come into view. On the left side of the road is a large gravel area where the snow plows, used to keep the road open in winter, are often parked. These are not just big trucks with a blade in front—Au contraire!—these are behemoths of the “snow eating-snow blowing” kind, designed for the many challenges they face each winter. Despite their monstrous size and capabilities, they still, on occasion, find themselves out-matched by winter’s fury up on the Ridge. So heavy is the winter snow that it’s not uncommon after a big snow storm to drive from this point all the way to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center in what amounts to a wide-as-the-road hall with walls of snow at times ten feet high on either side. Keeping the road open in winter is no small feat, and Hurricane Ridge routinely earns its name several times a month, all winter long. When a storm event occurs, the road closes as a safety precaution for visitors and the road crew. The constant threat of bad weather and its associated whiteouts, blizzards, extreme wind, drifting snow, and avalanches are good reasons for caution. It’s these wintery conditions that demand that vehicles traveling the road in the winter season carry tire chains.
Between milepost 14 and 15, Where the road begins a long left curve around the next corner, a parking area is evident on the right. The stream there flows from spring thaw through the summer. The interesting thing about this stream is that it doesn’t openly flow over the ground from above, it erupts directly from of the side of Klahhane ( kla-ha-knee) Ridge, a short distance upstream from this parking area. This is characteristic of many mountain streams all over the Park. Snow melts high on the ridges and mountains, the water seeps into the ground—which is composed of loosely compacted rock debris—and follows the laws of physics as it is transported underground. This continues until it finds an opportune outlet, in this case the side of the ridge. As the source water dries up or freezes, the seepage slows to a stop and, in this particular case in the fall, so does this stream flow.
To the left of here is an example of what is called a Silver Forest. These tall, dead, silver-colored, barkless trees were left standing to weather away. Over time, their trunks were bleached to a beautiful silver by the excessive UV radiation at these elevations.
As the road ascends to the top of the ridge, there is a noticeable thinning of the trees; this is the start of the subalpine zone, which will continue and change from here to the end of the road. Nearing the top, the trees begin to grow in protective clusters, and so look less like the contiguous forest around Heart O’ the Hills. Between these islands of conifers exists ever-widening expanses of open meadow. In a normal year, the south facing meadows usually begin to melt out in late April to early May. However, a snowy, cold winter followed by a cold spring happens periodically, making a precise prediction of when melt-out will occur difficult. When that happens, the melt-out can be delayed by a month or more. As spring rolls back the blanket of winter’s snow, black bears can occasionally be seen foraging on the young plants which sprout profusely in the warming sun; they move on to feed in other areas shortly thereafter.
The Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center is open daily in the summer, and usually Friday through Sunday in the winter. The center’s focus is on the Park’s mountain environment. There are numerous displays; a self-service film of an environment highly affected by altitude and weather; Ranger led talks and walks; and an information desk with rangers and volunteers waiting to answer questions. In addition, in summer, there are restrooms, a food concession, a gift shop, an outdoor patio with tables and a telescope for up-close viewing of some of the wonder that is the Park. In the winter, on weekend and holidays, the gift shop area adds ski and snowshoe rental to its offerings, and the patio is buried under ten feet of snow making it really difficult to find—let alone get—an outdoor table. The Ridge is an extremely popular place, and in the height of the summer season (July and August)—and even in winter—parking can be a problem from late morning into late afternoon. The park discourages taking oversized vehicles to the Ridge because parking is even more limited for them, and big-rigs can find themselves stuck, waiting for enough space to maneuver among the many other parked vehicles.
A number of activities are available at the Ridge, which vary by season. Winter activities include:
- cross country skiing
- downhill skiing
- Ranger-led snowshoe walks which are both fun and informative.
Downhill skiing and tubing are available only on weekends (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and holidays, usually mid-December through March), when the road is open.
Daytime summer activites include:
- bird, wildlife and wildflower viewing
- biking (only on the Ridge road).
What is also available, but often overlooked, are the spectacular sunrises or sunsets that can be seen from the Ridge. Bring breakfast or dinner and make it a table for two with a world class view.
Don’t overlook the night, either. During the summer, the road is open 24 hours a day and nighttime is a perfect chance to stargaze from the Ridge. This is an exceptional experience to plan for on a cloudless night when the air is crystal clear and there’s no background light.
Hurricane Ridge is the largest page on this website for a reason. It’s a spectacular place in a magnificent setting and one can hardly say enough about it. Experience it, take special care to preserve its very fragile environment, but above all don’t pass it by!