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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…