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Summer 2019 Road Trip to the Pacific Northwest, Part I

Back in late July/early August, my family and I took our first-ever camping/backpacking road trip. We drove a total of 3700 miles, from Albuquerque, NM to Port Townsend, WA and back in 18 days. Of course, I wanted to take some space pictures, too! Would the weather cooperate?

The Plan

My dad’s side of the family is from Washington state, and every two years, we all gather together somewhere between New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. Since we have a few family members with physical limitations who can no longer make trips far from their home in Seattle, we decided to meet closer to home for them this year, in Port Townsend, Washington.

Figure 1: Our road trip from Albuquerque to Port Townsend and back.

As for my wife and I, we’ve been on a couple of shorter road trips between Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, so we made a list of places closer to the Pacific Northwest that we had to see.

  1. Craters of the Moon, Idaho
  2. Mount Rainier, WA
  3. Olympic National Park, WA
  4. Mount Saint Helens, WA

Keep in mind that the point of this trip was also to spend a couple of weeks visiting with family that we don’t get to see very often. So this list might seem short, but adding 4 extra stops between a week of car camping, five days of backpacking, and six days of driving, all with our 8- and 10-year-old boys along for the duration, was no small feat! Huge kudos to my wife for handling most of the logistics of the trip 🙂

Heading Out

Our first stop on the way to Washington was Price Canyon, Utah (You heard that right. No, not Bryce Canyon). Roughly 500 miles from Albuquerque, Price Canyon Recreation Area is an inexpensive camping spot in the mountains between Price and Provo. It’s a surprisingly cool spot in the summer evenings with lots of Ponderosa Pine and Oak trees. We liked it so much that we made a point of staying there again on the return trip home.

Figure 2: The view from the road up to Price Canyon Recreation Area. The view reminded me of a game I used to play as a kid called Rivers, Roads, and Rails.

Our next stop was at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. I had been there once as a very young child (maybe 3 years old?), but couldn’t remember it, so we thought it would be a good idea to make some new memories! There’s a nice looping roadway that takes you around the most scenic areas in the monument, which made for a fantastic bicycle ride (we brought ours along, knowing we’d need some exercise after all that time in the car). The loop takes you to a nice 1.5-mile(ish) hike through some lava tubes and ice caves. We didn’t get much time to be there, but it was well worth the visit.

Figure 3: A few shots from a quick hike at Craters of the Moon before leaving for Oregon.

I’ve heard that Craters of the Moon is also a fantastic dark sky site, but the timing of our trip put us there when the moon was nearly full, so I couldn’t “test it”. I suppose that’s excuse enough to make another trip there sometime 🙂

After Craters of the Moon, we still had two more days of driving to get to Port Townsend. We made a stop at Emigrant Springs State Park in Oregon for a night along the way, but it was too heavily forested to get any night sky pictures (and, after driving three straight days, I was too tired to care). All in all, it’s a decent place to camp, if a little close to the interstate.

Mount Rainier

On our final day of the journey to Port Townsend, we decided to stop at our second national park/monument of the trip, Mount Rainier National Park. On the Decade Volcano list, Mount Rainier towers above the Washington landscape and can be seen from most places in the state. When I lived in Bremerton, I could see it from my bedroom window. We had made many a trip to play in the snow there when I was a kid, so I was hoping to give my kids a taste of it on this trip. We were able to visit it for only a few hours, but it was worth it, like seeing an old friend. Here’s the one shot I was able to get while we were there.

Figure 4: Mount Rainier. Prints available.

The mountain is still every bit as magnificent as I remember it. Unfortunately, the park has become so over-crowded that we had to park a mile down the road from the visitor center, which left it feeling less … wild. More like a line for an amusement park ride (gosh, I’m becoming one of those people!). Most of the dirt trails that were there in years past have been paved over, which makes sense from an accessibility and preservation standpoint (with the thousands of people being there), but for me, the allure of the mountains has always been closely tied to the difficulty in getting there; the experience feels less rewarding if you don’t have to earn it.

Alas, I digress. It was still worth it. After a few hours hiking around and taking in the sights, we left for Port Townsend and rolled into camp at about 10pm.

Port Townsend

This was actually the first time I had ever been to Port Townsend, which is odd, given its location. When I was growing up, my family made a ton of trips between Bremerton, Port Angeles, and Forks. We’d always pass by the turnoff for Port Townsend but somehow never went.

Figure 5: Bremerton to Port Townsend to Port Angeles.

Although we spent a week here, I took a lot fewer pictures than I normally do. Honestly, I did that on purpose. I wanted to get some quality time with my family during this week, and sometimes, the camera just gets in the way. So I made it a point to enjoy the moments as they came, rather than try to capture them all. I did get a few here and there, you’ll just have to trust me that we had fun in between 🙂

Figure 6: Playing at the beach near Port Townsend.

By this point in the trip, we’d been away from home for about 10 days, and everyone in my extended family was getting ready to head back to their homes and resume normal life. But, we still had another week in the wilderness to go!

Olympic National Park

Most of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State is occupied by Olympic National Park, with over 1400 square miles of rugged mountain peaks, dense evergreen forests, lakes, rivers, and coastline. As a kid, I did a couple of backpacking trips there with my dad but I hadn’t been again in the 20 years since. Our kids are just getting old enough to carry their own packs, so we planned to spend four nights backpacking in the Olympics together (we ended up doing three, more on that later). The backpacking portion of our trip coincided with the New Moon phase, so if the weather held out, it promised some incredible dark sky stargazing.

To get to the trail, we first had to drive from Port Townsend to Port Angeles, then up to Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. Just below the visitor center parking lot is where the dirt road to Obstruction Point trailhead begins. This 8-mile dirt road has spectacular views and takes 45 minutes to traverse, giving you plenty of time to see what you’re getting yourself into! We were treated to rolling clouds that sometimes made it impossible to see more than 20 feet in front of our truck, and then would take your breath away when a break in the clouds passed over.

Figure 7: A break in the clouds on the way to Gladys Lake.

Our plan was to hike down from Obstruction Point into Grand Valley, then head up the valley to Gladys Lake, about five miles from the trailhead. Along the way, we would see Moose Lake, where we would spend our third and final night in the park. The total vertical change on this hike would be about 1500 feet, starting at 6150 feet in elevation and working our way down.

With heavy packs and nervous excitement, we made off for our first night on the lake. Would the weather clear up? Find out in Part II!

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