Pristine wilderness just half a day from Expo 86

A lot of visitors to Vancouver's highly civilized, technology-touting Expo 86 will be glad to know that one of the last expanses of western wilderness is only a half day's trip away. In Washington's Olympic Peninsula to the west of Seattle and Puget Sound, travelers can lose themselves in a forest primeval straight out of Hansel and Gretel, scour uninhabited beaches for satiny driftwood, or hike snowy 7,000-foot crags just 25 miles inland.

The Olympic Peninsula, a squarish headland nearly 75 miles across, remains a wilderness because its rugged glacial peaks defy roadbuilders. It is accessible to motorists by US 101 -- a narrow ribbon of concrete thickly walled by Douglas fir, which encircles the Olympic National Park and National Forest. Outside the circle are communities peopled by hearty loggers, fishermen, mountaineers, and those who answer the call of the wild.

Though the entire loop can be driven in one day, many visitors will want to take several trips to discover the natural surprises along the peninsula's spur roads.

There are two approaches to the peninsula. From Seattle, the Winslow ferry and Hood Canal Floating Bridge offer a four-hour? trip. On the road to the bridge, the Norwegian community of Poulsbo affords a dramatic view of the Olympic Range above the sailboats in Liberty Bay. The other approach, from the south along US 101 as it hugs the shore of Hood Canal, abounds with clam and oyster beds and campsites. The forested, shoreline campgrounds at Lake Cushman State Park are especially lovely.

At the northeast corner of the peninsula, visitors encounter Port Townsend, a Victorian town saved from the neglect of the first half of the century by loving restoration in the second half. Its history centers on its waterfront, where youths were shanghaiedcq during the 1880s and '90s for service on ships.

Today Port Townsend is a haven for artsy types. Centrum, a summer festival of arts in Fort Warden State Park, attracts world-class performing and visual artists. In September, the nationally known Wooden Boat Festival draws nautical enthusiasts from both coasts. Victorian homes are open for tours in May and September -- and some have been converted into elegant bed-and-breakfast inns.

Dungeness, a town to the west just off US 101, is known for its crabs. At the Three Crabs restaurant, you can dine on fresh crab or clam caught off the beach just outside the restaurant. The greatest challenge for clammers is the geoduck (``GWE-duck''), a giant edible clam weighing over five pounds, whose fully extended siphons sometimes measure over two feet. It can bury itself deep in the sand in seconds. If you can't catch it yourself, you can order it in any seafood restaurant on the peninsula.

Still further west, Port Angeles is the gateway (via ferry) to Victoria, British Columbia, to the north or to the Olympic Mountain Range to the south. The Olympics, marked by rocky crags, are some of the world's youngest mountains, not yet rounded by weathering.

A 45-minute drive from Port Angeles up to Hurricane Ridge (5,229 feet) gives a heady panorama of the 60 glaciers that have carved the terrain. From the summit lodge, which is open daily but has no overnight accommodations, rangers give nature talks and lead short hikes to rocky outcroppings where mountain goats make their sure-footed way. A shrill piping echoes through the meadowed hillsides. It's the warning whistle of furry, waddling marmots.

In the summer, yellow glacier lilies, blue lupines, and deep purple larkspur fringe retreating snows. A more solitary vantage point offering the same dramatic view as Hurricane Ridge can be found on Deer Park Road off US 101 near Morse Creek.

Again to the west, Lake Crescent, a deep turquoise sliver in an emerald wilderness, is an active fishing and boating resort on sunny days, a romantic retreat on cloudy ones. Nearby, Marymere Falls is lush and liquid all year long, and Soleduck River Valley offers camping and hot springs.

Spur highway 112, a worthy detour, leads to Neah Bay, a Makah tribal community where Indian girls ride bareback through town. At the solemn and impressive Makah Museum, the Kweedishchaaht (People of the Cape) keep alive the culture of their ancestors who have lived along this rim of the continent for 2,500 years. Cape Flattery, at the very edge of the nation, is eight miles further on reservation land. A 1-mile trail through tangled growth leads to sheer, cave-dotted cliffs that tower above churning seas.

The loop road heads south through the rainy West End, the timber-working center of the peninsula. Here the main attraction is the Hoh Valley Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, where the annual precipitation averages 140 inches. Sitka spruce and western hemlockcq, towering to 300 feet, produce a Gothic stateliness. Big-leaf maples stretch to the light and create a dappled, chartreuse canopy. Ferns grow in profusion, and spongy moss carpets the forest floor, upholstering logs, rocks, and branches. Cream-colored fungi attach themselves to logs, and lichens resemble delicate, wilted lettuce. In a mysterious symbiosis, each life form nourishes others, and humanity seems the intruder.

Further south at Kalaloch, the coastal strip of the National Park, a campground and luxurious lodge on a windy bluff overlook miles of wilderness beach.

Just south of the Quinault River, a spur road off US 101 penetrates another rain forest near the fine old Lake Quinault Lodge, where canoers have the best look at the wide, glacially carved valley.

Although the Hoh Valley Rain Forest demands some walking, you can get the feel of the Quinault Rain Forest directly from your car.

The rain forest, indeed the whole peninsula, invites quiet reflection -- calls for time to feel the moss, to sit in silence on a drift log beached on an empty stretch of sand, to lie on your back and look up into the forest canopy. Consider what a piece of work is nature before or after going to Expo 86, which praises the accomplishments of man. Practical information

For a Centrum summer festival program, write Centrum, PO Box 1158, Port Townsend, Wash. 98368. For information about the September boat festival, write Wooden Boat Foundation, 633 Water Street, Port Townsend, Wash. 98368. For a list of bed-and-breakfast inns, contact Port Townsend Tourist Information, 2437 Sims Way, Port Townsend, Wash. 98368; (206) 385-2722.

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