Most of what I'd heard about the Storm King trail was 1) it's short, 2) it's steep and 3) it's got a great background story about how the mountain that towers above Lake Crescent was formed.
Thumbing through my new favorite book, Smitty Parratt's "Gods and Goblins: A Field Guide to Place Names of Olympic National Park," I came across that vaguely familiar background to the geologic oddity.
"According to Native legend thousands of years before the Mayflower brought Pilgrims to this country, a legendary battle took place between the Clallam and Quileute tribes along a small river where today Lake Crescent is located," Parratt writes. "After three days of furious fighting, Storm King, the great mountain ruler of the area, became angry at the foolish warriors fighting at his feet. He hurled a huge boulder into the valley, killing all of the tribesmen. The rock was so large that it dammed the river, which backed up the waters until all trace of the battle was lost as Lake Crescent was formed. For many years, no Natives went to the place where the warriors had been punished by death."
That's hardly the case now as peninsula residents and out-of-towners flock to Lake Crescent for a dip, a hike or a spin in the old family boat.
Storm King rises from 700 to 2,700 feet above sea level in less than two miles. I figure the only "punishment of death" here is a misstep at the top of the trail. By the time my hike was finished, I think my early assessment was pretty accurate.
A quarter mile along the flat Marymere Falls trail, the Storm King trail begins with a steep climb that continues for nearly all of the 1.7-mile path with persistent switchback after switchback, the path littered with tree roots and broken rock. On this hot summer day, my hiking partner (Patsene, my wife) and I got plenty of shade as evergreens blocked the sun for nearly the entire hike. Fifteen minutes in, the trail levels out into a small gully revealing a flat forest floor covered in expired leaves and needles.
It would be the last time the trail gave any kind of respite. Less than a mile in, the trail resumes the brutal to-and-fro switchbacks that had us gasping for breath at each turn. By now, the humming sound of the motorists winding their way around Lake Crescent began to be replaced by the hum of flies, wasps and other multi-legged flying creatures. Fortunately, the brains of the family (not me) remembered the "Off" and we slathered some on.
Unlike a lot of park trails, Storm King doesn't offer much in terms of fauna, although we saw plenty of ants, slugs, the aforementioned winged friends and the occasional butterfly. A co-worker reportedly bears a scar from a Storm King tick.
Mostly it was one-boot-in-front-of-the-other marching.
After 45 minutes, the trail's switchback turns start revealing eye-popping view of Aurora Ridge and Sourdough Mountain to the southwest and the vast pool of indigo that is Lake Crescent to the north. From up here, the boats crisscrossing the lake looked like miniature toys, like those little Micro Machines that the kids love these days. (Is that reference outdated?)
Just a few minutes from the end of the trailhead, Storm King's path finally zigzags to the north, revealing steep cliffs on either side of the path.
It was this aspect of Storm King that reminded me that I hate heights. Hate 'em. Not a big fan of elevation. I get dizzy on modestly tall ladders.
I was reminded of something else I read in Parratt's book, about the time forest service rangers tried to test mountain goats' adaptability to the sub-alpine regions of the Olympic Mountain range. They released four goats onto Storm King and the herd grew to 800, wreaking havoc on the area.
Apparently, goats had no problem with the dizzying heights. Further proof I'm not a goat.
With significant drops on either side, I focused on the trail ahead and pressed on.
The marked trail ends still several hundred feet from the true top of Strom King Mountain, as the steep path breaks down into broken rock. We stopped a few meters from the trailhead sign for a snack and a game of cribbage. (I won, thank you very much.)
I considered the path ahead. Considering my lack of coordination, my abnormal fear of heights and my adoration of, you know, staying alive, we passed on making the apex. Some might consider that like running 26 miles in a marathon and not finishing that 0.2 to the finish line. Hardly! It's more like running the 26 miles of the marathon, calling it good ... then running 26 miles back to the start.
I was thinking of a better metaphor for not quite getting atop the mountain when we began the somewhat trickier path down Storm King trail. Steep trails can be just as tough - or tougher - on the old knees, calves and ankles than going up. But it was a few minutes quicker and we had only a few fellow hikers on the trail to skirt around.
A few things I'd bring along next time: I'd take much more than the single liter of water, because although the trail is less than two miles long it was brutally hot and exhausting. I could have used some more hydration. Second, take a smaller camera. My Nikon was nice to have but I could feel the extra couple of pounds. Third, I'd bring some binoculars. Fourth, I'd design and build a robot that would crawl the last few feet of the trail to get me that shot from atop Storm King.
Hey, everyone needs a project.
Reach Michael Dashiell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Storm King trail
How long: 1.7 miles (one way)
How hard: Difficult
How to get there: Follow U.S. Highway 101 west through Port Angeles. About 20 miles outside Port Angeles, turn right at milepost 228, marked "Lake Crescent Lodge and Marymere Falls" sign. In two-tenths of a mile, turn right to parking lot. Trail begins at Marymere Falls Nature Trail near Storm King ranger station. Follow fork left up the mountain.