We didn’t see any other cars on the drive from Quilcene to the Mount Townsend trailhead. The 15-mile Forest Service Road was narrow, winding, and potholed, but at least it was paved. Just as with the Ozette Loop yesterday, we were surprised to find a parking lot full of cars at the trailhead on a weekday. This is another popular hike.
We started hiking at 11:30. A cool breeze blew fair-weather clouds overhead. We walked through an old-growth forest of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and western red-cedar (Thuja plicata).
But the ancient trees were just a sideshow to the masses of pink blooming rhododendrons (Rhododendron macrophyllum) in the understory. It was magical hiking through the ancient, flowering forest.
As we climbed, we passed a few subalpine meadows, probably the results of frequent avalanches on the steep slopes. The meadow flowers had just started to bloom and I couldn’t resist trying to identify them. There were charming lupines (Lupinus arcticus), scarlet paintbrushes (Castilleja hispida var. hispida), and violets (Viola adunca). There were also checker lilies (Fritillaria affinis) and crimson columbines (Aquilegia formosa), two species familiar to me from the Bay Area.
The thinning trees revealed dark, steep cliffs with snowfields filling their cracks and gullies. The mountains above us disappeared into the clouds, leaving us to wonder how much higher they got.
As we gained more elevation, the forests became shorter and the trees became more sparse. The montane species gave way to scattered subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ssp. murrayana). It was interesting to see lodgepole pine, a familiar tree from our hikes in the High Sierra, in such a different environment.
As we topped the saddle below Mount Townsend’s summit, the Olympic Mountains were laid out before us: rank after rank of black peaks split by white snow fields and touched by white clouds. The peaks dropped down into U-shaped valleys filled with dark green forests and bright green meadows. So, I thought, this is what the forests we’d been hiking in for the last two days looked like from above.
The alpine meadows weren’t yet blooming as fiercely as the subalpine meadows. The higher elevation meant that summer was still weeks away.
Nevertheless, I identified the more obvious and interesting flowers. There was western anemone (Anemone occidentalis) with cream-colored flowers, prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) with fuzzy rose flowers, and cascade wallflower (Erysimum arenicola) with bright yellow flowers. Silky phacelia (Phacelia sericea) was the coolest, with purple flowers and long, dark filaments ending in yellow anthers. Finally, there were the more pedestrian small-flowered penstemon (Penstemon procerus) and white and pink phlox (Phlox diffusa).
We skirted the summit of Mount Townsend and continued on an irresistible half-mile along the summit ridge. Clouds rose up from the valley and blew across the trail. The views of the meadows, the stunted subalpine fir, and the surrounding peaks were spectacular.
We stopped for a snack on the rocky knob to soak in the views. The surrounding peaks were partially covered by clouds, but we were hardly disappointed with the dark crags and emerald valleys that remained unobscured.
After our break, we hiked to the summit so we could say we tagged it, and then started hiking back down. The trail’s easy grade was excellent for coasting downhill, and we made the 4.5 miles back to the car in 2 hours.
After the hike, we ate at Waterfront Pizza in Port Townsend. The pizza was great, but we still had leftover slices: lunch for tomorrow’s hike!
I used Erik Molvar’s thorough Hiking Olympic National Park guidebook to plan our Olympic Peninsula hikes.
I used the exhaustive but easy-to-use Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast to identify the plants we saw (Although prairie smoke’s not in there).