Wildflowers and Wanderlust on Olympic National Forest’s Mount Townsend

Some summits don’t need to be extreme to be breathtaking. While many of the world’s most stunning peaks stand alone, easily reaching heights of well over 12,000 feet above sea level, the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula are comparatively low-key and mellow. One of the classic mountains to climb, offering unrivaled views of the Puget Sound, Salish Sea and the Olympic Interior is the ever-popular, always beautiful, Mount Townsend. 

Mount Townsend stands at 6,280 feet above sea level, making it on the taller end of mountains on the Olympic Peninsula. The tallest mountain, Mount Olympus, is just 7,979 feet tall, not even tall enough to be visible from Seattle or anywhere else except on the Olympic Mountains. Six thousand feet above sea level doesn’t seem that tall, especially for those living in the Rocky Mountains, but for those living in the Puget Sound and Washington Coast, a 6,000 feet mountain is nearly 6,000 feet above our towns. The summits at that height offer ridiculous and drool-inducing views of the Pacific Northwest. 

At 6,280 feet above sea level, Mount Townsend offers 360 degree panoramic views of nearly all of Western Washington and southwestern British Columbia, reached on an 8.2 mile round trip trek. One day in late May, Mathias of the Outdoor Society and I decided to hike to the summit, with hopes of showing off the region’s breathtaking wonderland to one of his friends from Germany. The adventure would be stunning and serene, and would have us gaining 3,000 feet of elevation in 4.1 miles. While I had hiked this trail countless times, this trek up in May would show Mount Townsend in a whole new light, overflowing my soul with gorgeousness in wilderness and giving me an overdose of wanderlust. 

Climbing the switchbacks on the Mount Townsend Trail in Olympic National Forest.

The day was perfect, warm enough to hike in light clothes, but enough clouds to provide dramatic clouds over the taller peaks. I was super excited to start hiking, especially after the two hour drive from Olympia. As we started in the forest, we chatted and trekked on, eager to get above the tree-line. While the forest stretches of the trail are pretty, I get impatient on trails where I know I will soon get stunning views of the land and waters below. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the views from the top of Mount Townsend are second to none and are a classic for hikers and trail runners in the Pacific Northwest. 

The trail to the summit is pretty simple, gaining elevation in the most monotonous, but simple way possible- switchbacks. Over 30 switchbacks lead to the top of Townsend, giving off increasingly greater views with each turn. Sure, hiking straight up the hill might be the more direct route, but these switchbacks help to make this one of the more accessible mountains to climb on the Olympic Peninsula, letting numerous hikers of all abilities enjoy the panoramic wonderland at the summit. 

Mount Rainier from the top of Mount Townsend in Olympic National Forest.
A typical view from near the summit of Mount Townsend in Olympic National Forest.

As we sauntered onwards and upwards, we it a small patch of snow, the only one we would encounter that day. We easily hiked through it, post-holing all the way to the ground in sloppy, dirty snow. Once through the tiny snowfield, we reached the final push up, leading to the gradual incline that leads to the true summit of the mountain. The summit isn’t a precarious rocky. Instead, it is a huge summit area, looking more like a rolling hill than a true summit. Which is what makes this place so amazing. 

At the summit, we were dumbfounded by the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula’s public lands. To the east, one can see the city of Seattle, the entire Puget Sound and Salish Sea, the Hood Canal, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker and the mountains around Vancouver, British Columbia.  To the north, it is common to look at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Vancouver Island, the cities of Sequim and Port Angeles and the sandy outcropping known as Dungeness Spit. While views to those directions are impressive, one of my favorite views from the summit comes while looking southwest, toward the Olympic interior’s miles and miles of remote, snowcapped mountains.

Wildflowers atop the Mount Townsend Trail in Olympic National Forest.
Wildflowers atop the Mount Townsend Trail in Olympic National Forest.
Wildflowers atop the Mount Townsend Trail in Olympic National Forest.

The views, which are almost always impressive, were even better on that May afternoon. Contrasting against the partly cloudy skies and snow covered mountains in the distance, bright wildflowers popped out all along the trail and summit. Whites, yellows and purples sprung up from the green and brown ground, their colors nearly blinding all who gazed their way. Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but if you had just experienced the wettest winter on record in the Pacific Northwest, you would be full of hyperbole too. For months, we had endured gray skies and rain, but here we were, in Mid-May, witnessing the first round of wildflowers atop one of my favorite hikes. As Rainier rose up in the background, our group sat on rocks and took in the splendor of the Olympics.

It was yet another great day on the Olympic Peninsula, and one that I hope everyone gets to experience at some point in their hiking lives. 

This post was written in one hour for my #NatureWritingChallenge on May 10th, 2018.

The hike can be found in my guidebook, 52 Hikes Olympic Peninsula. 


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By Doug and Mathias on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State

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