Few places I have ever been come close to Olympic National Park in terms of sheer diversity of landscape. From snow covered alpine peaks, to lush old growth rainforest, to dramatic seascapes adorned with vertical sea stacks, Olympic National Park is both vast and dramatic.
Covering an area of nearly one million acres, the park consists of vast wildernesses ranging in elevation from sea level to 7,788 feet at the summit of Mount Deception. In addition to its diverse ecosystems, the park is home to a range of wildlife, including megafauna like black bear and Roosevelt elk, sea life such as starfish, anemones, and crabs, birds the likes of bald eagles and magpies, and smaller mammals including the state mammal of Washington, the endemic Olympic marmot.
Situated on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, the park represents an opportunity for photographers to try their hand at a range of subject matter and techniques. And this is precisely why Backcountry Journeys heads here each spring to witness and photograph the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Though known for its rainfall, spring and summer in the northwest are usually fairly dry, but also provide plenty of atmosphere to decorate the skies. And for this year’s second departure into the Olympic Peninsula, we would be chasing sunsets along a dramatic coastline, exploring the dense and mossed covered wonderland of the Hoh Rainforest, and breathing the cool mountain air of the Olympic Ranges.
Our week in this incredible region of the US began in the city of Seattle. To get to the park, we would head south along the shores of Puget Sound, through the town of Olympia (home of my alma mater The Evergreen State College), before skirting around the southern tip of the sound and heading north up the coast to enter the national park from the southwest.
This section of the park, the western section, is renowned for its epic seascapes. And it being on the west coast, provides excellent sunset opportunities. Our base of operations was a picturesque lodge, the Kalaloch (pronounced Kuh-Lay-Lock), perched on a bluff overlooking the crashing waves of the pacific. This put us in prime position for the exploring the dense rainforests to our east and the for exploring the coast to our north.
On our first afternoon in the park, we headed into the Quinault Rainforest, giving our group their first glimpses of the old growth forests that receive over 12.5 feet of rain per year, and the density of vegetation this produces. This area is perhaps the wettest region in the contiguous United States, but our days throughout the week were sunny and warm, with only small doses of precipitation.
That evening, we headed into the town of Forks, WA for dinner and then a drive to Rialto Beach. From the parking area, it is a one mile walk down a gravel beach to a collection of beautiful rock formations and sea stacks. We spent sunset here, exploring compositions of rocks formations, crashing waves, and a beautiful sunset as the sun dipped into the ocean.
We turned to make the walk out just as dark was approaching to find a world transformed. We had not seen any wildlife on the walk out, but now bald eagles and owls swooped overhead to the water, scooping herring and other small fish from the teaming waves. Sea lions cruised at the edge of the water, catching their fill of the same fish, and human fisherman also worked the water’s edge with dip nets, filling buckets with fresh seafood.
The following morning, we headed to spend our first morning in the Hoh Rainforest, seeking compositions that could convey the mystery of this moss covered world. Inside the forest, a new understanding of the color green begins to materialize. For in there, everything is green, and the mosses and ferns are even greener than green. In truth, I felt some apprehension about finding good compositions in such a busy landscape. But, once inside, it felt that everywhere I pointed my camera, I found an interesting form, a line, a story of the rainforest. It’s an area that a photographer could spend a lifetime exploring and never run out of compositions.
That evening, we would be heading just a few miles north of our lodge to Ruby Beach. This beach, much more accessible than Rialto Beach from the night before, was populated with other visitors and photographers, but we found camaraderie there amongst them, sharing tales of epic compositions and other locations. It was here that I found a cave that had been photographed by Matt Meisenheimer a few years ago. He kindly directed me to the spot via email a few days prior.
When I arrived there, I found large waves crashing through the cave mouth, making the experience of photographing it a wet and wild race of running into the cave between waves, grabbing focus, and trying to avoid getting slammed by big waves. I was successful in the first two steps of that process, but the waves were unavoidable. This is my kind of landscape photography, with a bit of adventure and cardio thrown in the mix.
Our third full day in the park would be our longest day out. At 6:00 in the morning, we left the hotel and headed an hour and a half north and then east to see the beautiful Sol Duc Falls. Situated less than a mile down a rainforest trail, the falls is a turbulent chute where the Sol Duc river plunges over 40 feet.
After lunch at the Sol Duc Lodge, we headed further north to explore Marymere Falls and then to our final destination of the day, Hurricane Ridge. Perched high in the alpine section of the park, Hurricane Ridge provides beautiful views on all sides. To the north, the Olympic Range, covered in snow, glistened with the setting sun. To the west, one can see the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and to the northeast Victoria Island in the great realm of Canada. Though it was a long drive back to our lodge, it was a trip filled with laughter as we exchanged jokes with spirits bolstered by having just photographed such a beautiful sunset in the most picturesque of locations.
Our last full day in the park, we headed to a grove of maples in the Quinault Rainforest for a morning mossy photo session. From there it was a series of two waterfalls, Merriman and Bunch Falls, which provided an array of lush rainforest scenery and flowing water to be smoothed by long exposures and small apertures.
For our final evening, we returned to Ruby Beach because our planned beach (dully named Second Beach) was closed due to Covid restrictions. But, it was a great return because we were rewarded with even more atmosphere and dramatic colors in the sky. And, it allowed us the opportunity to check out a spot aptly named Big Cedar Tree. Here, a cedar tree, though partially collapsed, stands still alive that dates back over 1000 years.
For our final morning in the national park, we would spend it back in the mossy dreamscape of the Hoh Rainforest in a section called the Hall of Mosses. This is one of the most picturesque parts of the rainforest and provided perfect punctuation to a week in this diverse and dramatic landscape.
This departure was a great trip to run, thanks in large part to a fun-loving group of clients whose passion for exploration was up to the task of taking on the vast expanse of Olympic National Park. So, a big thanks to them, and also to our amazing office staff at Backcountry Journeys who were elemental in running a smooth and successful trip. For those who are considering checking out Olympic National Park, it is a destination that I highly recommend and one that will keep your shutter finger busy on a range of subject matter in a diverse range of ecosystems.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as an video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com