Lake Quinault in Winter: Introvert’s Delight

Mosses cover the deep forest, blanketing rocks and fallen trees, clinging to the living spruces and firs like babies embracing their mothers. In some places a pale-green, stringy species dangles from branches like clots of witch hair. The vast, living coat absorbs sound and leaves the whole area in a hush. This is Lake Quinault in winter, and there’s no place in the world I’d rather be.

Lake Quinault in winter barely resembles its summer self, when tourists fill the area. In winter, the rain almost never stops. There are windows of sunlight here and there, always brief and always glorious, but for the most part it’s a persistently gray time. The upside of that is a region left in solitude and silence, perfect for those who yearn for those things as a break from modern life.

The hiking can be a slog. At times, it can be downright sloppy. But, the slog and slop keeps everyone else away, and even a short hike will leave you feeling like the whole of the rain forest is yours’ and the animals’ alone.

The Irely Lake trail, a short trek usually full of hikers in summertime, leaves you feeling continents away from the modern world. The trail is frequently flooded and blocked by fallen tree — great for keeping out the halfhearted. I’ve had conversations with trees there, and there wasn’t a single person (other than myself) to call me crazy for doing it.

You don’t even need to get on the trails, really. Very few people drive the “loop,” which is what I (and presumably others; it’s not all that unique or creative of a moniker, after all) call the North Shore and South Shore roads that will take you in a complete circle around the lake and a good portion of the river feeding into it.

Merriman Falls after a hard rain, just off South Shore Road.
Merriman Falls, right off the side of South Shore Road, part of the Lake Quinault Loop.

You can simply drive out along the road, park your car, and walk that. That’s nice way to do it, really, because the river adds a pleasant musical backdrop. There are also many things to see right off the road, including Merriman Falls and the Roosevelt elk.

My favorite place to stay in the area is the Quinault River Inn, but that’s just my personal preference. The Lake Quinault Lodge is a beautiful building with the best views of the lake.

No matter where you go, you’ll find a quiet place, perfect for silencing that mental cacophony that’s been driving you batty.

If you find yourself somewhere along the Irely Lake trail talking to trees, please tell them the Northwest Nomad said “hello.”

My Visit to the Wolf Haven International Wolf Sanctuary (Great Bald Eagle Views, Too)

Wolf Haven International

I still can’t believe that Wolf Haven International has been in my backyard all this time, and I’d never even heard of it before two months ago. Luckily, I did happen to stumble upon information about the site, and I immediately decided to visit. I would have done so already a dozen or so times if I’d known it was there.

Located in Tenino, Washington, just outside Olympia, Wolf Haven is a sanctuary for wolves that have been rescued from unhealthy or just unhappy situations. Some of the animals have dramatic stories of being sold into travelling circuses and living day after day hooked to a wall by a chain barely longer than they were. Others were taken in by well-meaning but ill-equipped adopters who didn’t realize that wolves can’t be domesticated the way that regular dogs can. Whatever the wolf’s particular story, Wolf Haven exists to give them a safe space to live in with dignity and a measure of freedom.

The Wolves

The sanctuary is located on a beautiful piece of land full of towering trees and mossy rocks. Even before you step inside the sanctuary itself, the area has a great energy to it, that deep, rich smell of untrammeled nature.

The sanctuary itself is located beyond a metal gate. Within that area are several fenced enclosures, ranging in size from 1/2 to 3/4 of an acre. Each one of the enclosures is home to two wolves, a male and a female. Each of these has a name, and each has a story, which the guide will you about during your tour. You have to make reservations to join in on one of the guided tours and can’t lead yourself through unattended.

This wasn’t exactly what I expected, to be honest. For some reason I didn’t research the details of the sanctuary, and I thought it was going to be a wide open space with the wolves ranging freely about.

Still, I wasn’t disappointed. What was most important for me was knowing that the animals had a safe place to call home, away from the abuses of their former lives. Besides, while these wolves are accustomed to their homes, they are still wild at heart. You can see it in their eyes. Even with the fence between them and you, the animals’ savage grace was apparent in every powerful movement.

There are Eagles, Too

Though it’s not advertised and not part of the sanctuary’s mission, there are several bald eagles frequenting the area. I watched one hunt a raven and attemp to snatch it out of a tree branch (the raven caught on and escaped in the nick of time) and watched three of them fly together for a while and then perch in treetops, crying out to the sky.

Two bald eagles flying together.

The trip would have been worth it for the eagles alone. Seeing them so close and hearing them calling out to each other was awe inspiring.

A Sense of History and Community

There was a real sense of history at the sanctuary, and the love that the volunteers put into the place is obvious.

Burial plot of a wolf named Tahoma. Outside the wolf enclosure area is a trail winding through a wolf graveyard, with each of the animals honored by a burial site and a stone with their name and time of passing.

The gesture made it clear how deeply and sincerely the people at Wolf Haven care about the animals under their care.

Nearly everyone in my tour group seemed touched by the energy of the place, and they asked for volunteer forms so they could help out, too.

There’s no way to know how many will actually follow up on those applications of course. I’m just happy I got mine before the office ran out of them.

Wolf Haven International is well worth the visit. I’ll be going back again soon.

Things to Do at Lake Quinault

Quinault River in wintertime.
Quinault River in winter time. The river empties into Lake Quinault.

The list of “Places I’ve Been in Washington” is pretty extensive, but one place stands out above ALL the others. You’ll find it on the western side of the Olympic Peninsula, right off State Route 101. It doesn’t get the press that Mount Rainier or Seattle gets, but for my money there’s no place in Washington I’d rather be. Even beyond the rugged beauty of a glacially-carved lake (as if that weren’t enough in itself), there’s just no shortage of things to do at Lake Quinault.

It’s an ideal destination for solo excursions, family trips, romantic getaways, and for introducing visiting family and friends to what Washington has to offer. Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rain Forest are like a second home to me. So hop on in and let me show you what Lake Quinault has to offer.

Things to Do at Lake Quinault #1: Wildlife Viewing

Bring a pair of binoculars and keep your eyes peeled for the critters and creatures you’ll encounter at Lake Quinault. Every season of the year offers excellent bird watching for the avian-inclined visitor. A basic guide book on bird identification is helpful for identifying species, but for the casual viewer, a keen eye and couple of hours is all you need.

Caterpillar seen on a fallen tree on the Wolf Bar Trail.
Don’t forget the little guys, too. Fascinating, beautiful stuff is everywhere.

For bigger game, consider checking out the Roosevelt Elk, frequently found off of the northeast section of North Shore Road. They’re a pretty reliable sighting, and chances are you’ll be part of a very small crowd; the elk get few visitors, practically guaranteeing a few minutes alone with some big-time wildlife.

If you want to try your luck at other big game, Lake Quinault is home to black bears, black-tailed deer, bald eagles, and mountain lions. I’ve seen them all on the back trails.

Things to Do at Lake Quinault #2: Relaxing Beside the Lake or ON the Lake During a Boat Tour

Few things are more soothing than the sound of Lake Quinault’s great blue expanse lapping up on shore. For some visitors, a day sitting on the shore and soaking up the sun and fresh air is what it’s all about.

Visitors who want to head out onto the deep and cool waters, however, will also be happy to learn they can sign up for boat tours through Lake Quinault Lodge.

The tours are set up on morning, afternoon, and sunset schedules. The morning and afternoon tours are informative expeditions. You’ll learn about the history of the lake and the surrounding environment. For those who prefer a more quiet and reflective time on the lake, the sunset tour is your best option. It’s designed to help you wind down after your day exploring Lake Quinault.

Things to Do at Lake Quinault #3: Drive the Loop

After my brother visited Washington and returned home, I asked him what his favorite parts of the trip were. The first thing that came out of his mouth was, “Driving the loop!”

Merriman Falls after a hard rain, just off South Shore Road.
Merriman Falls, right off the side of South Shore Road, part of the Lake Quinault Loop.

A total distance of 31 miles, the Lake Quinault Forest Loop Drive is a nice jaunt for the viewer, and you can enjoy it from the comfort of your car. Venture into the depths of the park and take a gander at the waterfalls along the road. All of the wildlife that calls Lake Quinault home is viewable on this trip, and the road takes you by some great places to get out and stretch your legs.

Things to Do at Lake Quinault #4: See Giant Trees

The second favorite part of my brother’s trip was seeing the giant trees. Dwarfing every other tree in the nation, except the sequoias in California, the giant trees of Lake Quinault are a “you’ve gotta see it to believe it” kind of experience.

First on the list is the Quinault Big Spruce Tree. A clear and relatively flat trail leads to the base of this monster. There isn’t much that gives you a sense of scale like the Big Spruce Tree.

The Quinault Big Cedar Tree is next to check out. It collapsed during a wind storm in the last few months of 2017, but champions like this are astonishing even in defeat. It’s still a great, short hike to take, and you’ll see some huge standing trees along the way. Besides, it takes more than a little storm to take away the grandeur of a tree like this. They’re like gods fallen to Earth.

Don’t let the unassuming names for these trees trick you; they’re immense and majestic, Grand Canyons of the tree world.

Things to Do at Lake Quinault #5: Day Trip Hikes

Lake Quinault has hikes for every fitness and interest level. For a quick out-and-back journey, check out the 2.2 mile long Irely Lake Trail. Dead trees rise up from the water in this secluded section of hiking trail. It can get a little muddy and washed out early in the season, so make sure to wear good boots.

The Quinault River-Pony Bridge Day Hike is 2.5 miles long. Hikers typically turn around when they reach the bridge, but the walk goes on considerably farther for those interested. Sections of the trail can be a bit rocky. Hiking poles aren’t necessary, but they’ll make the going a little easier for those inclined.

Not for the faint of heart, the Colonel Bob Trail is a serious undertaking. It’s a 14-mile trip that climbs to a height of nearly 5,000 feet. At the apex of the trail you’ll get a stunning view of the mountains and forests of the Quinault region. Prepare for rocky sections of the trail with loose footing. Hikers are advised to bring plenty of water; the final uphill battle of this hike is taxing and demands hikers be prepared.

Ready for More?

This article was meant to be a launching point for things to do at Lake Quinault, and by no means exhaustive. Talking about it has me jonesing for a trip there myself.

If you want any custom insider guidance, shoot me a message here on the Nomad. This entails no sales pitch or product push. I’ll happily help you out with any information you need. I don’t get any money from any of the areas I write about, and this is all straight talk about the places I’m passionate about. Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll get back to you with the information if I have it, or I’ll point you towards someone who does.

Get out there and enjoy Quinault!

Lake Quinault Birding: A Conversation with the National Audubon Society’s Mary O’Neil

A couple months ago, a friend asked me if I had any tips regarding Lake Quinault birding. I had no answer for her, so I decided to find someone who did.

My gumshoeing eventually led me to Mary O’Neil, secretary of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society. After graciously agreeing to talk with me about Lake Quinault birding, O’Neil gave me more information than I’d hoped for in my wildest dreams. My intention was to deliver an informative Lake Quinault birding guide, and I believe O’Neil helped me accomplish that.

O’Neil was introduced to birding by her sisters. Her passion for the hobby eventually led her to be an interpretive program worker at the Lake Quinault Lodge, a job she’s still doing today.

Though O’Neil vehemently insists that she’s no expert, I find it hard to believe there’s anyone else in the world who knows more about Lake Quinault birding than she does.

O’Neil also happens to be a good-humored conversationalist and a pleasure to talk to, and I look forward to someday getting a personal Lake Quinault birding tour from her. So, without further ado, here is my conversation with Mary O’Neil.

Lake Quinault Birding: A Conversation with the National Audubon Society’s Mary O’Neil

Northwest Nomad: What are some of the more common birds people can expect to see around the Lake Quinault Lodge area?

O’Neil: Steller’s jays are the dominant bird there. They raid the feeders constantly. We have the song sparrow. At the moment we have this dysfunctional song sparrow who thinks he’s competing with a bird in the lobby window.

Then we have our white-crowned sparrows during the summer months, and they’re having babies up there just having a wonderful time. In the summer months we also have ospreys that nest around the lake, and if you take the lodge’s lake tour you’ll quite often see a contest between the osprey and the eagles catching fish. It’s really cool.

Anna's hummingbird perched on a branch.
Anna’s hummingbird. Photograph provided by Reed Moss (https://www.instagram.com/yssom/).

They don’t have as many Anna’s hummingbirds. Well they may have them, but everybody takes their feeders down after summer, not expecting a winter hummingbird.

Summer months, the hummingbirds are just thick. They get so thick people can’t keep their feeders full. They do feed them there at the lodge, and everybody in the area has hummingbird feeders in their yards. You can walk in the woods and the hummingbirds will just buzz you. They’re everywhere.

Winter months we’re looking for the varied thrush. They should be returning quite soon, and if you look out to the water you’ll see the common common merganser and occasionally red-necked grebes; not so much, but occasionally. And, of course, the common loon hangs out there on the lake quite a bit.

The most common bird up there, probably, is the Pacific wren. I saw some just yesterday out on the trail. There was one, probably a male, chipping at us. A second bird was quieter in the background, and it was like the louder chipping one was trying to draw attention away from it.

Nomad: What are some of the rarer birds to have out there, or the more difficult ones to see?

O’Neil: Well, I don’t know how difficult it is, but we have grouse in the area. We have the ruffed grouse. Occasionally you’ll just see them walking on the trails around the lodge. In the summer months, if you drive the 31 mile loop road, they’ll be nesting in the dirt road in the upper end of the valley. It’s quite common to see them there.

It’s a little more difficult to bird among the trees. In the summer months, you can expect to see warblers. You’ll definitely hear the Wilson’s warbler, orange-crowned warblers, black-throated grays, but to see them is quite difficult, because they’re in the thick trees. You can get lucky, but it’s very difficult.

Black-capped chickadee hanging from a fir branch.
Black-capped chickadee. Image provided by @antlischio (https://www.instagram.com/antlischio/).

It seems year-round we’ve got the black-capped chickadees and the chestnut-backed chickadees. And if you walk the trails carefully you’ll run into them.

One of the more rare birds that I found and took great delight in identifying was the warbling vireo. I’d never run into one before, but I found it, isolated it, and identified it. I felt really good then.

It was up in an alder tree, and it was really hard to pull out of the tree. There was one year and then the next there were three in the area year-round. I think they may have reproduced in the area, but I don’t know.

Nomad: What are your tours like?

O’Neil: Well, it has been and will probably continue to be on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I just do a standard interpretive walk in the woods. But depending on the interests of the people there, I may turn the focus to a bird watching trip. But a lot of the times the people aren’t interested as much in the birds, so I talk more about the plants and animals and some silly stories.

Nomad: How about for newcomers to the area who want to bird on their own? There’s a lot of ground to cover out there. What would you say is the best place to start?

O’Neil: Definitely check out the lawn at the lodge. That’s probably got your best variety. They’re out in the open.

In the summer months, we have evening grosbeaks and black-headed grosbeaks. I think they nest in the area. They also hang out at the feeders quite a bit. You can count up to 10, 12 at a time, maybe even as many as 25. They’re really cool to see. That’s definitely a good place to start, just checking out the feeders there.

The further off the road you get, the more difficult it is to catch the birds, but around an area above the lodge some trees blew down rather seriously in 2007, so quite often if you get yourself in the right position you can look down over the shrubbery and the newly growing trees and then you’ll see the trees in the tops. That’s particularly where you want to look for the threshes. You can hear them with their upward, spiraling whistle.

Nomad: Do you know if there’s any particularly good time to see eagles?

Osprey perched in a tree branch.
A magnificent osprey on the lookout. Photograph provided by txbirdguy (https://imgur.com/user/txbirdguy; https://www.reddit.com/user/txbirdguy).

O’Neil: I don’t see that many, but they nest there in the summer months so that may be a good time, especially if they’re particularly bent on stealing from the osprey. I don’t see so many in the winter months, but there’s great opportunity for them because the fish run in the winter months.

Winter Lake Quinault Birding

Nomad: What about winter birding? Winter seems to be a time when few people take advantage of Lake Quinault, but it’s so great there during that time of year. So quiet.

O’Neil: I think you have quite a bit of opportunity because the lake birds will show up. I think there was a grebe out the other day. You have your western grebes and your red-throated grebes.

Swans winter near the Rain Forest Resort Village at Lake Quinault.

Song sparrow perched on a branch in the daytime.
Song sparrow. Photograph provided by Reed Moss (https://www.instagram.com/yssom/).

Along the sides of the roads there’s juncos and song sparrows. Then you’ve got fox sparrows out there. Winter we get the hermit’s thrush; summer we get the Swainson’s thrush. You may come across one of those.

If it snows, you can expect to see the varied thrush. The varied thrush likes to hover near the snowbanks. You’ll hear it singing all summer long, but picking it out of the woods is not so easy. You can hear it, but you can’t see it.

A couple years back the snow was real bad and I was doing a different job. I drove in several times early in the morning, after the snow plow had gone through, and the edge of the road would be so full of varied thrush you couldn’t go very fast because they’d fly up in clouds in front of you.

Nomad: And you don’t get to see them as much in the summer?

O’Neil: No. If you live there you might hear them, because I think they’re around all the time, but they do elevation migration. In the summer months, they’ll migrate up to the higher elevations where the snow is.

Making a Day of Lake Quinault Birding

Nomad: Are there any other tips you’d like to share about Lake Quinault birding?

O’Neil: The most extensive way to do it, is to take a morning and do a morning walk around the lodge area. Then get in the car and drive up the south shore road, up to the bridge area. Take it very slowly. Don’t rush it. The open fields just east of the lake area quite often will have hawks. That’s also where the elk like to hang out.

There are cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. That’s what you can expect to find if you troll slowly up through the valley. Of course you’ll find flocks of Canada geese and sometimes ducks in the upper valley. The common merganser’s the most common duck in the valley, but occasionally I’ve run into the harlequin duck.

Nomad: Well, I’m no good at identifying them, but I’ve seen lots of birds up at Irely Lake.

O’Neil: Did you run into Sasquatch up there? (laughs)

Nomad: Not yet, but I’m hoping! Do you have anything else to suggest? Anything I’ve missed?

O’Neil: Only that if you do plan on coming, check out the Lake Quinault lodge website and see what kinds of things they’re offering.

Nomad: Great. Well, Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge with Northwest Nomad and my readers.

Three Easy Hikes at Mount Rainier

You don’t need to be a great mountaineer to enjoy the grandeur of Mount Rainier. Intimidating as the mountain may appear, it’s accessible for everyone to enjoy. While summiting the peak certainly takes preparation and physical conditioning, there ARE easy hikes at Mount Rainier.

As someone who’s visited the mountain dozens of times without ever losing a bit of my sense of wonder at it, I believe everyone who gets the chance to visit Mount Rainier should do so. It’s an experience you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.

Easy Hikes at Mount Rainier #1: Box Canyon Loop

Above all others, the Box Canyon Loop (which is part of the Wonderland Trail) is the one short trek that I always make sure to take visiting friends and family on. When it comes to easy hikes at Mount Rainier, this one is hard to beat. It leads to one of the most fantastic sites on the mountain. I’m not talking simply “most fantastic easily accessible sights,”; I mean, “one of the most fantastic sights on Mount Rainier…period.”

The quickest route to the trail is from Mount Rainier National Park’s southeastern Steven’s Canyon entrance (the National Park Service provides concise driving directions). You can’t miss the Box Canyon Loop trail head, which is just off to the side of the main road and generally well-visited (you’ll see cars and pedestrians).

The Box Canyon Loop is only 3/10s of a mile long. The trail itself is to the east of the road and parking lot, but don’t forget to also check out the lookout to the west.

The lookout is just a few yards from the parking lot. Not only does it have a terrific view of the surrounding landscape, but the ground itself is interesting in that the stone was scoured smooth by the recession of the Cowlitz Glacier long, long ago. The glacier itself has retreated a couple MILES up the mountain, but the evidence of its influence on the terrain is right there at your feet. It’s always felt humbling to me to consider the unfathomable time scale that the mountain reveals.

The main trail to the east of the lot leads to a bridge that overlooks a very narrow and very deep canyon cut into raw stone. Blasting through this little canyon is the melt-water of the Cowlitz Glacier. This is, in fact, the very start of the Cowlitz River.

The sheer force of the water coming through that channel is amazing and one of my favorite sights on Mount Rainier. It gives a visceral sense of the magnitude of the natural forces that Rainier represents. I’ve gotten lost in a sense of sublimity while standing on that bridge and contemplating the power of that water and the scale of the glacier, which itself is dwarfed by Rainier itself.

Incredible stuff. Don’t miss it. (The trail shows up on Google Maps as the “Box Canyon – Wonderland Trail,” rather than Box Canyon Loop. The location is pinned to map below)

 

Easy Hikes at Mount Rainier #2: Reflection Lakes

While the Box Canyon Loop is my personal favorite easy hike at Rainier, Reflection Lakes would probably take that prize in most other people’s eyes. This spot shows up in nearly visitor’s photographs and in the bulk of Mount Rainier postcards. There’s good reason for this.

Even if you didn’t walk at all, just parking and looking at the lake is impressive. On a clear day when the sun is at the right position, you can see Mount Rainier reflected perfectly in the lake (hence the name). This area is also known to explode with color at the right times of season, with wildflowers blooming in summer and leaves changing in autumn.

The one drawback to the beauty and easy accessibility of this spot is that it gets visited a LOT. There are often no parking spaces left. You can see the lakes from the road, though, and it’s pretty likely that it’ll be enticing enough that you’ll wait for something open up. Visiting Rainier without stopping to look at the Reflection Lakes should be a felony, in my opinion.

The trail goes around the lake. There are also points where other trails branch off of that primary trail, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

There are apparently trout in the lake, as well. I haven’t seen them myself, but word is that the lake was stocked with trout years ago and that you can even see them jumping now and then.

Easy Hikes at Mount Rainier #3: Cispus Braille Trail

This trail is specifically designed for visually impaired hikers. The trail, which is a little under a mile long with no appreciable elevation changes, features a guide rope that hikers can touch or hold as they go around. The walkway is kept free of anything that might trip somebody up.

The trail’s design also allows for all hikers to enjoy a new experience of nature. Even if your eyes work well, you can close them and lead yourself around by the guide rope, focusing on the feel and the sounds and smell of the woods. It’s an experience of nature that you aren’t likely to come by in any other way. I did it for a short while and felt like a whole new dimension of nature had been opened up to me. Ever since then, I’ve tried to remind myself while camping or walking to stop, close my eyes, and focus on my other senses.

This is one the trails I most like to tell people about, because it opens up the wilderness experience to a community of people who otherwise may not be able to fully immerse themselves into. The Lions Club sponsors this trail. That information isn’t something visitors really need to know, but I want to mention because I feel they deserve kudos for that. Go Lions Club!

Enjoy the Hikes!

If readers happen to check any of these options out, please shoot me a message to let me know about the experience. I would love to hear about it.