“Does it rain a lot?” That’s the first question people ask about the state of Washington. It was our first thought before visiting the state, too … did we have enough rain gear for Washington? I don’t remember when I got the notion that Washington is wet – maybe Hollywood has always made it appear that way.
Well, it turns out that generalizing about the weather in Washington State is a fool’s game. There are more micro-climates in this state than you would believe!
We entered Washington from the eastern border with Idaho. Contrary to all that we imagined, the eastern part of Washington is high desert like so much of the West — rolling hills and farmland interspersed with fields of fragrant sagebrush, and rocky canyons framing the Columbia River. The weather was lovely the last week in June, warming to around 80° during the day and 60° at night. It felt great to sleep with the windows open again after being chilled for a couple of weeks in Montana and Yellowstone.
Moving further west, we transitioned into a hillier area of really rich farmland: the Columbia, Wenatchee and Yakima valleys where most of your grocery store’s apples and other fruits are grown. Columbia Valley is also Washington’s wine region; you can find well-known Columbia Valley labels like Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and 14 Hands in your local stores. Of course we stopped at an orchard and small family-owned winery on a beautiful, breezy summer day.
Continuing west, the Kitsap Peninsula is the lobe of land that sits across Puget Sound from Seattle. There are areas of the Kitsap that are very reminiscent of Cape Cod or South County, Rhode Island. Bainbridge Island, as well, was lovely and almost nostalgic. The sound gave us cooler days, and morning fog that burned off slowly.
As a side note, the body of water between Kitsap Peninsula and Seattle is called Elliott Bay; its part of Puget Sound (which is enormous and broken into countless bays and straits). I came across these fascinating facts about Elliott Bay: it is 600 feet deep and home to a species of octopus that can reach 300 pounds, squid twenty-four feet long, century-old clams of amazing size and starfish bigger than a large pizza. It is home to more than two thousand kinds of invertebrates. And in the summer, the water temperature rarely climbs above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Things really got interesting when we moved further west from Kitsap onto the Olympic Peninsula. This is big timber country, where Weyerhaeuser tree farms and logging trucks are a common sight. The snow-capped peaks of the Olympic mountains reach up 8,000 feet and grab the clouds. The combination of mountains, dense trees, and so much water is what makes the meteorological magic happen! The weather got cooler, breezier, and damper the closer we got to the mountains.
Most visitors to Washington expect to find horizontal rains and gray skies. Instead, they find the Blue Hole, a term used by pilots and sailors navigating around the peninsula. The warm, moist air blowing in from the Pacific Ocean gets snagged by the dense forest of super tall pine, fir and spruce in the Olympic Mountains. The moisture is trapped between the mountains where it rises as clouds that are wrung like a wet washcloth only to rise and rain again in a never-ending process.
The entrapment of clouds prevents them from moving beyond the mountains and creates a rain-scarce zone over the flat shoreland north and east of the Olympic Mountains. This zone is known as The Blue Hole. The San Juan Islands and the lower part of Vancouver Island are included in the zone. So, while the mountains receive 150 inches or more of rain every year, a few miles away, the towns of Neah Bay, Sequim, Bainbridge, etc., only get about 15 inches of rain, less than the national average. They also only get a couple of inches of snow in winter!
This environment of continuous moisture has created a temperate rainforest within Olympic National Park. Walking through the rainforest is other-worldly — seeing a hobbit or gnome creep out from under a moss-covered log wouldn’t have surprised me in the least. We visited the rain forest and camped on it’s fringes and found that the rain was not intolerable (at least while we were there). There were never soaking downpours. We’d have some clouds, drizzle and sun in short spurts throughout the days. Our explorations were never curtailed or even hampered by the drizzle, as it never lasted long and was usually followed by a little sun.
Far from Disappointing
Since the early 1700’s, explorers had been searching for a waterway that would connect the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic via inland river routes. Dozens of explorers tried to find that “northwest passage” and all failed. Some were so frustrated that they flat-out declared that such a waterway didn’t exist, even though Lewis and Clark had followed a large river thousands of miles from an inland position and eventually found themselves looking at the Pacific Ocean. Countless men expected to be the one to find the mouth of the waterway, and failed.
In 1788, a fur trader named Captain John Meares conducted his own search. He found the prominent rocky peninsula that others had written about, and a bay where the ocean churned up an incredibly dangerous surf with breakers, some as high as 40 feet, slamming into the bluffs. He wrote in his journal “Disappointment continues to accompany us. We can now safely assert that no such River exists.” He left the rocky point with the name ‘Cape Disappointment’ and the bay with the name ‘Deception.’
In 1792, Captain George Vancouver, exploring for England, made his third attempt to locate the river’s mouth. At the same time, Captain Robert Gray of Tiverton, Rhode Island, backed by investors from Boston, was also on a mission to find the river. The two met off the coast of Washington and shared information. Exasperated, Vancouver continued north exploring the coast and Gray remained at Cape Disappointment for nine days observing conditions at the bay. On the ninth day, the sea calmed to such a point that Gray was able to make his way past the sand bar and explore the bay. It wasn’t just a bay, he had found the mouth of the great river.
The Columbia River, as it was subsequently named, is a beast of a river, muscling glacial runoff and snowmelt more than a thousand miles in a rush to the ocean. In some spots, the Columbia is hundreds of feet deep and a mile wide, but just as the river meets the sea, the mouth expanded to four miles wide where a sand bar sticks out its big toe to trip the Columbia and send it crashing into the Pacific. The eastward push of the open Pacific meeting the westward charge of the Columbia creates a confluence of monsterous proportions.
The Columbia River sandbar has swallowed more ships than any other location in North America in it’s raging breakers. In the last 300 or so years, more than 2,100 shipwrecks have occurred here, from huge cargo vessels to personal fishing boats. There is a big Coast Guard presence here, and an assignment at Cape Disappointment is considered to be one of the most dangerous. The Coast Guard conducts one rescue mission each day, on average. During our stay, we heard about a fisherman who had fallen out of his boat just the day before, and visitors at the lighthouse watched the rescue. The following day, we watched a Coast Guard boat and helicopter as they appeared to be lifting someone or something out of the water. Today, a Coast Guard helicopter flew over the beach and around the corner, out of sight. It’s not called “Graveyard of the Pacific” for nothing.
The Columbia River bar is always shifting and so dangerous that vessels over a certain size are required to have a “bar pilot” on board to guide them through. The bar pilot will board the ship either via a Jacob’s ladder up the side of the ship, or by being dropped onto the deck from a Coast Guard helicopter.
We were lucky to find a campsite at Cape Disappointment State Park, but really won the lottery when we discovered that our site was less than twenty yards from the short path to the beach. We just gasped when we saw the size of this beach, and how empty it is!
Needless to say, this stop was the cherry on our visit to Washington. What a fanscinating, breathtaking state! We would love to come back here!