2016-11-11 18:03:13
Frugal Traveler: An American Rain Forest and Its Charming Neighbor

I was motoring along Route 101 in northwest Washington State in my little rental car, getting a kick out of the fact that I frequently drive the same highway in Southern California, where I live. There were few other similarities, though: The air in Washington had a refreshing bite to it, cold and clean. The sweet smell of wet earth seemed to follow me wherever I went, indoors or out. And soon after I left Port Angeles — a small town on the 101 that’s a quick 90-minute ferry ride to Victoria, British Columbia, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca — and entered Olympic National Park, it began to rain and didn’t stop until I left the park seven hours later.

Which, in a way, was exactly what I’d hoped for. I was planning to spend a day in the Hoh Rain Forest, one of the only rain forests in the United States. (It was also my way of saying “happy birthday” to our national park system, which turned 100 in August.) Using the small, quirky coastal town of Port Townsend (roughly a two-hour drive from Seattle in my $25 per-day Budget rental) as my base, I set out to enjoy what Washington does best: some good hiking in a beautiful setting paired with an idiosyncratic hospitality. Even better, I was able to do all this without putting too much of a strain on my wallet.

“It’s raining!” I called out as I pulled up to the entrance of the rain forest, and immediately winced at how foolish I must have sounded. The friendly National Park Service employee took it in stride. “It does tend to do that here,” he called back. The Hoh gets a whopping 12 to 14 feet of precipitation each year. On the lengthy drive to the forest’s entrance I felt as if I were being consumed by wetness and foliage. The ferns on the ground became more lush and dense, and the mosses and lichens covering the Oregon maples, Sitka spruces and Douglas firs more varied and more intensely green.

I paid the $25 admission, which initially seemed somewhat steep, but less so when I learned the pass is good for one vehicle, and all its occupants, for seven days. (An annual pass is only $25 more.) “By the way,” the park ranger added, “this is a primarily coniferous forest. Some people come here expecting the Amazon; I’m not sure why.”

Potential visitors to the Hoh should remember to bring proper attire: a reliable waterproof jacket and hiking boots with good, thick socks at bare minimum. Do not underestimate the importance of the socks — your boots won’t be much use without them. A pair of gaiters, which keep your lower legs dry and keep debris out of your footwear, might be worth it, too (you can get a decent pair for less than $20). I learned these lessons the hard way — while my boots were solid (I got a great deal on Chaco boots for under $60 on Amazon), my light jacket was worthless. Within an hour in the forest, I was soaked.

Fortunately, the hikes themselves were so good, I was willing to work through any physical discomfort. I hiked the Hall of Mosses and Spruce Nature trails, each roughly a mile long — as well as a portion of the Hoh River Trail, an 18-mile trek to the base of Mount Olympus. The Hall of Mosses was particularly nice. Enormous conifers stretched to the sky, 200 feet or higher.

On the forest floor, new trees sprouted out of the moldering logs of their dead ancestors. Nearly every surface, living or dead, was shaggy with moss. That moss, it turned out, is a great sound absorber — the entire forest had an eerie calm to it.

I headed to Port Townsend to check in at the Old Consulate Inn on Walker Street (a reasonable $125 per night). Cindy Madsen, who owns the inn with her partner, Nathan Barnett, explained the rules of the house with a cool efficiency (They also dress in full Victorian garb). I was soon able to relax and look around — it seemed as if I’d more or less have run of the house, and that Cindy and Nathan would be hands-off hosts.

My room, on the top floor of the inn, was cozy with décor befitting its Victorian theme, and a very comfortable bed. There were interesting souvenirs and relics throughout the house: a suit of armor, old books, period musical instruments and a lovely restored pool table in the basement.

I needed to do some exploring, so I went for a walk. Port Townsend is, despite occasional lack of sidewalks on its streets, a great walking town. Water Street, the main thoroughfare, has plenty of cute and earnest shops and galleries. Also worth checking out: the Rose Theater, which opened as a vaudeville house in 1907 and today serves cocktails and shows first-run movies as well as art-house films (usually a $9 or $10 admission, depending on the show).

The Clothes Horse and Fancy Feathers, secondhand stores on different floors of the same Water Street building, have a high-quality selection of used clothing. Down the street, there’s a steampunk store called World’s End, which serves a surprisingly substantial niche within the community — there’s actually an annual steampunk festival in Port Townsend.

I walked past a skate park on Monroe Street and hung a right, passing moored boats as I headed to Doc’s Marina Grill, overlooking the water. I took advantage of Doc’s very generous happy hour by sitting next to a large fire pit on the outdoor patio and ordering a draft beer ($3.75) and a selection of small plates: ahi poke, popcorn shrimp and steamed mussels ($5 each).

I got to talking and sharing my food (I had ordered way too much) with Alanna Dailey, a young musician who grew up in town. Port Townsend “is great in a lot of ways, but it can really suck you in,” she said. Indeed, she had felt the need to escape, and had spent the previous year working in France. She added, kiddingly: “Be careful; before you know it you’ll be married and have four kids.”

She and I went to nearby Chetzemoka Park after finishing our drinks and chatted. We talked about the history of the town, and how it is, despite vacationing retirees, and a relatively recent influx of new money, a fairly blue-collar place. We stumbled through the darkened park, using my cellphone for light, down to a big tire swing. We swayed back and forth on it. “We were originally supposed to be Seattle,” she said. “Like, the main city in the state.” Port Townsend was once a booming 19th-century town, but growth slowed.

We climbed down a path to a small and rocky, but beautiful, beach. She told me a couple of funny and slightly embarrassing stories about things that had happened in the park when she was growing up. We stood and listened to the waves lapping the shore. It was almost completely dark. She wasn’t sure she wanted to stick around Port Townsend forever, she said, but there was a lot to like. It was hard to disagree.