Pacific Northwest Explorations: Ferry Ride & Road Trip Part 1 Port Townsend & Sequim

Day 1

I’ve been wanting to return to and explore Washington State again ever since I spent a whirlwind week there on the back of boyfriend’s motorcycle nearly two decades ago. I recall that it rained nearly every day and was quite chilly, but somehow that didn’t dampen my spirits or my impression of the area. My boyfriend, a New Zealander, was quite fond of Washington because it reminded him of home—pristine, fresh and relatively underpopulated. Certainly, it was worlds away from the congestion, crowds and plastic vanity of Orange County, California where we both lived at the time. (Not that there aren’t gorgeous natural areas to enjoy in OC.)

I’ve been in Southern California for half my life and San Diego for nearly a decade. Yes, I live in one of the most beautiful, desirable areas in the country, (some would say, in the world), but that’s just the problem. Everyone is here and more are on their way. Don’t get me wrong, Cali-life has been very good to me. And it’s true, you can’t beat the weather, unless you go to Hawaii. I do love my warm, sunshiny days, but I also love mountains and time away from “civilization”. To feed my need for total nature immersion, I have to drive 8 hours to the Eastern Sierras—far too far for me. I’m craving a simpler life, closer to the nature, farther from the crowds, strip malls, traffic—you get the idea. If I could move to New Zealand, I’d do it in a minute, but unfortunately, that ship has sailed. While I’m going to pack my usual active adventures (hiking, biking) into this trip, it’s also a scouting mission for me. (As was my Prescott, AZ, trip. The trouble with these areas, a gallery owner in Prescott told me, is that too many Californians are moving into them, buying everything up, inflating housing values and creating traffic. She was a transplant from California to Prescott herself and she maintains that it has changed so much in ten years that she’s thinking of moving, but where to next?)

Where to next, indeed – that’s the conundrum. We can’t seem to escape ourselves, can we? In any case, I’m ready to escape, if only for a week or so.

First by plane, then by Bainbridge Ferry to the first stop on my PNW tour, Port Townsend.

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Vistas from the Bainbridge Ferry
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Golden light on the bluffs of Bainbridge Island

 

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Mountains on the horizon

 

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A road trip with promising views

In Search of the Rain Shadow

Another reason, I’m targeting the Port Townsend, Sequim and Port Angeles areas is because of the rain shadow phenomenon known as the orographic effect. Basically, as air is forced up the SW slopes of the Olympic mountains it condenses and vaporizes, resulting in copious amounts of rain. As the air descends the other side of the mountain, it warms and  evaporates, yielding dryer and sunnier climates than anywhere else in Washington State. Read more about this phenomenon and get the average rainfall of various PNW towns here.

Revisiting Port Townsend—somewhat disappointing

This little “artsy’ town has a certain rugged coastal charm, but I must admit that I didn’t find it quite as charming the second-time around. Famished from a long travel day, it was difficult to find an open restaurant at 7PM on a Monday. I walked in and ran out of a Mexican restaurant that had a terrible smell, filthy carpeting and grimy walls and counters. (Tip: Avoid Fiesta.) Settled on Sirens, a bar and restaurant with a great view from its outdoor deck. I’d been here many years ago. My salmon sandwich (just average) was delivered by a surly waitress who was obviously annoyed at the prospect of serving customers. The only other restaurant that was open other than fast food was a Thai restaurant. Next time, I’ll give it a try – heard good things about it. Lodging at the Port Townsend Inn was a disappointment as well. I went with “budget” because I got in late and wanted to walk to town. Rooms were dated and dingy. The mattress was lumpy and sagging. Camping would have been preferable. The indoor pool and jacuzzi looked decent and might be a draw for some. Many moons ago, I enjoyed a stay at the Swan Inn. and I see they’re still getting good reviews.

Day 2

After a poor night’s sleep, I went for a morning stroll and had a cup of Joe at Living Better Through Coffee, where I enjoyed spectacular views of the Puget Sound. Things were looking up.

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Port Townsend Town Crier
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Port Townsend, the Silent Type

Next, I stopped into PT Cyclery to check into the bike rentals and decide if I wanted to cycle a portion of the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) starting in Port T or continue driving through Sequim and Port Angeles. If you’re into vintage bikes, this is the shop for you. If you want to rent a bike – road or mtb, this isn’t the shop – very poor selection. After discussing various options, the gearhead at the counter asked where I was going next. I mentioned Port Angeles. He immediately started bad mouthing it. “Why go there? It’s a dump.” He relayed a story about how he stayed in hotel there and put his chair up against the room’s door handle for extra safety at night. Wow, that bad, really? (Yikes, I’m thinking.)

 Fort Worden Historical State Park       

Fun Fact: Officer and a Gentleman was filmed here.

I made a brief stop at Fort Worden Historical State Park, a former military base on the Puget Sound shoreline that offers hiking, 2 miles of beachcombing, a lighthouse, a conference center, camping and house rentals. There’s also a marine discovery center (limited off-season hours – was closed when I visited) and WWI-era bunkers to explore. I took in the coastal views and foraged for wild raspberries, before continuing on to Sequim.

 

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Yum-wild raspberries!

Sequim

I stopped in the Chamber of Commerce / Visitor Center first and spoke with the older clerk there. She asked what my plans were. Again, the minute I mentioned Port Angeles, she began to bad mouth it, suggested that I skip it. “What’s so bad?” I asked. She replied, “It’s the drugs and the homeless.” Yes, I’m getting that message loud and clear. After listening to her brag about the safety and desirability of Sequim, I headed over to Ben’s Bike Shop to check out their bike rentals. When I pulled into the Sequim Village Marketplace, a strip mall that could be anywhere in the US, I noticed a homeless person panhandling at the entrance. (Hmm, seems the problem is not limited to Port Angeles.) Since it was off season, the clerk at Ben’s Bike told me that they’d sold all their rental bikes and had none to rent. Interesting policy. Second strike out for bike rentals.

 Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge

The day was slipping by and I hadn’t had my nature fix yet. Luckily, the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge was on my way to Port Angeles. Extending five miles into the Strait of Juan De Fuca, the Dungeness Spit is the longest natural sand spit in the US. Its various habitats are home to 244 bird species, 18 types of land mammals, and 11 marine mammal species. Lots of opportunities to stretch the legs, take in some fresh air and perhaps get a glimpse of some wildlife. While I’d been here on my previous PNW tour (saw deer frolicking on the shore), it was worth revisiting. I have yet to make the 10-mile round trip trek to the Dungeness Lighthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. If you love this spot, you can apply to be the resident light house keeper for a week . How cool is that? May have to consider that for another trip. If you’re just visiting for the day, you’ll need $3 per car for the entrance fee.

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Illuminating reading on the trail, Dungeness  National Wildlife Refuge #hemigram

Back in the car, I braced myself for the squalor of “frightful” Port Angeles. Given my early conversations in Port Townsend and Sequim, my expectations were now rock bottom. I’d heard that Port Angles was a diamond in the rough – had no idea just how rough. I’d read about the drug abuse, associated crime and a growing homeless population and its lackluster reputation. (It didn’t make my previous tour, but it was high on my list for this one.) The draw, of course, is the incredible natural beauty that surrounds the town – this area is pure Pacific Northwest Wonderland as they say. It is the gateway to Hurricane Ridge and Olympic National Park, the Elwha River, Lake Crescent, Lake Quinault, rain forests, and a plethora of PNW adventures. Road cyclists may be familiar with the annual Hurricane bike ride in late August inside Olympic National Park, One of the most scenic bikes rides in the country, this 18.6-mile bike ride has over 5,000-feet of elevation gain at an average grade of 5 percent and is not is not for those faint of heart or knee (me – though I might be tempted to give it go one day. The descent scares me more). At the base of the Olympic Mountains and on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Port Angeles offers breathtaking views out to Victoria Island, Canada (a 90 minute ferry ride away) and flip-side views of the Olympic mountain range. With a population of about 20k, Port Angeles was hit hard by the recession and its economy continues to struggle. The timber industry was its original focus and it’s been a bit shifty ever since. As a deep-water port, Port Angeles continues to attract marine trades companies and the hope is that outdoor tourism will define its future. (If you’d like more than my opinion on Port Angeles, here’s a great Seattle Time’s article.)

Rolling over the crest of a hill, I caught my first glimpse of downtown Port Angles and its port in the distance. My first impressions were…To Be Continued…

Forboding beauty of Hell’s Half Acre, Idaho

A designated national natural landmark and wilderness study area, Hell’s Half Acre Lava Field is a basaltic lava plain found in the desert ecosystem of the Snake River Plain of Idaho.  It consists of about 150 sq miles of other-wordly terrain created by a lava flow from about 4,100 years ago. There’s a 1/2 mile trail marked by blue poles, you can follow those to the red poles that lead you out 4.5 miles to the central vent, where the lava broke through the surface thousands of years ago  (9.4 mile round trip).

Hiking across a lava field is not for everyone, especially not for the tender footed. It’s cool, but the novelty wears off fast. While the trail is flat and easy, the terrain itself is tough and unforgiving. Lava rock is extremely sharp – like glass shards- and fragmented and the field is a trap of open cracks, gaping holes, jagged rocks and uneven, tortuous footing. It’s slow and treacherous going. One misstep can land your foot or your body in a hole. And if you trip, you’re likely to be broken, bruised or bleeding. Sneakers are not enough, the lava will eat them up. I’d recommend sturdy hiking shoes even for the short stroll. Also, it’s easy to get lost in the vast monotonous beauty of the lava field, you really have to look for those trail pole markers. Not a hike to set the kids loose on. Do not attempt the long hike in the summer as this place gets hot as hades.

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Normally, I’m up for a hiking challenge, but I was happy to keep it short here, especially when I heard the rednecks firing shotguns close by…(sigh).

Road Trip: Pintler Scenic Route, MT

If you’re heading to Butte from Missoula or visa versa, the 64 mile Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway is a great alternative to Interstate 90. It starts  in Drummond, a not at all scenic, 1-horse town (population 309) that bills itself as the “Biggest Bull Shippers” in the country. I “ship” you not. We stopped for gas and nothing else there.

Our next stop was historic Phillipsburg, a charming 19th century mining town in the heart of Montana sapphire country (population 820 as of 2010). We strolled up and down the short main street in about 5 minutes, grabbed a coffee and indulged in some Montana bbq for lunch.

Main Street Phillipsburg, MT         Population ~820

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We enjoyed the lovely views Georgetown Lake and Silver Lake (see top feature picture) along the way.  Georgetown Lake is famous for its fishing in the summer and ice fishing in the winter. Unfortunately, the sky didn’t clear for a good pic at Georgetown Lake.

Georgetown Lake, 3000 acres, ~6000 altitude
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Roadtrippin by “Painted” Rocks on the Pintler Scenic Highway

We didn’t stop in Anaconda, nearly named Copperopolis, it was named after the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and at one time this small town was the world’s largest supplier of copper, just as electricity became ubiquitous.

Overall, it’s a pleasant drive with a backdrop of conifer-carpeted mountains and sage-brushed hills along Flint Creek.

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Flint Creek Meandering Near the Roadside

If you’re into historic mining towns, ghost towns (3), and a sapphire mine this is your route. (There’s a waterfall out here somewhere too.) In any event, it’s certainly more interesting than Interstate 90. If you have the time to spare, just do it.

Road trip: A quick stop in Sandpoint leaves a lasting impression

After a brief drive through and pit stop in Coeur d’alene  , we pushed on to the next town.

To be fair, we saw CDA through the lens of a rainy dusk and a long day, but nothing compelled us to stop and stay a while. My impression was that it’s a high-end resort town with lots of restaurants and shops, not unlike what we have in California. Granted we don’t have that lake and the mountains as a backdrop, but CDA was a little too polished / manicured for what I was seeking on this first timer’s exploration of Idaho and Montana.

The next “big town”,  Sandpoint, wasn’t even on our radar, but oh, my – what a charming little gem. Even in the dark, I could tell there was something special about this community.

We grabbed a bite at a local brewery where the locals were having a “snow making” party – cutting snowflakes and drinking the local IPA. Passed a wine shop filled with Halloween costumed oenophiles raising their glasses to toast each other.

In the morning, we strolled the town and the beach along the scenic shore of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake (148 square miles surface area and 43 miles long) and the nation’s 5th deepest (1,150 feet ) and 38th largest in the country.

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Sandpoint City Beach Park, Lake Lake Pend Oreille
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Sand Creek Park Area

Sandpoint was mostly a ghost town in the “early” morning. It’s the shoulder season -shops don’t open until 10:30 and the locals sleep in. Stopped at a coffee shop and spoke with the owners, a couple who moved here in 2001 after living around the country. They love Sandpoint and say that the weather is nice and temperate from about May until October, when Indian Summer usually hits. Apparently, the current cold front (30-40 degrees) was an anomaly.

Rand McNally must have a crush on Sandpoint as they named it the most beautiful small town in America in 2011 and #1 ski town in 2012. It’s easy to see why this town has earned so many accolades as an outdoor paradise. Summer sports galore – swimming, SUP, hiking,  biking – and it’s also on the famous road biking International Selkirk Loop.  (Sounds like I need to add that to my “to do” list too.)

Apparently, the  ski season invigorates the town as Schweitzer Mountain Resort (downhill & cross-country) is just a stones throw away. On our stroll, we ran into an avid skier from New York on a quest for coffee. He scouted this place for his ski club and liked it so much he came back to try it out for a month. Hmm, sounds like a good idea to me. I think I feel a crush coming for my Idaho 1 night stand charmer, Sandpoint…Definitely deserves a repeat.