QUILCENE — Washington’s state flower is best seen right now on the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula.
The wild Pacific rhododendron is blooming in all its pink glory from Port Townsend south along Hood Canal.
One of the best places to see this native shrub is on Mount Walker in the Olympic National Forest, a few miles south of Quilcene.
It’s a good weekend to make a day trip there. School isn’t out yet, Memorial Day is past and ferry traffic shouldn’t be too bad.
Leave early from Edmonds. West of Kingston, stay on Highway 104 through historic Port Gamble and over the Hood Canal Bridge. Near Chimacum, turn south on Center Road and head for Quilcene.
Make a stop there at the visitor center at 295142 Highway 101 to pick up hiking maps and suggestions about where to take a lunch break.
Drive south on 101 from Quilcene to Mount Walker Viewpoint Road on the left. If you want to walk up the 2,805-foot mountain, park across the road from the trailhead. A recreation pass is not required here. The elevation gain is a strenuous 2,000 feet, but the trail takes hikers through the beautiful thick forest dotted with native rhodies. It’s worth the effort.
If you have older folks or little children along, you can drive up the four-mile gravel road to the summit of Mount Walker where two viewpoints allow for views on clear days of Mount Baker to the north, Mount Rainier to the south and the inland waters and a lot of beautiful country in between.
When they’re in bloom, the rhodies are everywhere you look. The summit offers a chance to get out and see these delicate rhododendron blossoms up close. Sometimes leggy because they are searching for sunlight through the 100-year-old, second-growth forest, the native plant can grow 10 to 20 feet in height.
On recent visit, the weather was warm, but foggy, giving the forest an almost tropical look and feel.
The flowers of the Pacific rhododendron vary from rose pink to pale pink, but that pink is easy to spot in the dark woods. A few people at the summit wondered aloud if the state planted the rhodies on Mount Walker.
Nope, they really are native.
Our state rhody plays a role in state history. Eighteen years before Washington state women got the right to vote, they were allowed to pick the state flower. Women flocked to post office polling places to help choose the flower. Other plants nominated included the native dogwood, wild rose and purple clover. In 2010, on the 100-year anniversary of suffrage in the state, women used the rhododendron as a symbol of enthusiasm for the right to vote.
People can picnic at Mount Walker’s summit (there are restrooms, but no water) or drive back down the mountain for lunch in Quilcene or Brinnon.
On the way to eat, consider stopping at the Falls View Canyon Trail off Highway 101 not far from the exit to Mount Walker. Walk a short distance to see the waterfalls and more rhododendrons.
Back in Quilcene, eat and drink at the 101 Brewery at Twana Roadhouse, 294793 Highway 101. The oysters and chips are especially good and the brews have logging names including the Pecker Pole Pale Ale.
Other places to stop include the Quilcene Historical Museum, 151 E. Columbia St., where you can learn more about those early loggers, and the Quilcene National Fish Hatchery at 281 Fish Hatchery Road.
In Brinnon, the pie served at Half Way House Restaurant, 41 Brinnon Lane, is famous and nearby is the Whitney Gardens, a 60-year-old horticulture museum and nursery at 306264 Highway 101, where you can see a colorful display of cultivated rhododendrons, azaleas and laurels.
Don’t wait too long to make this trip. Spring flowers will fade soon.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @galefiege.
To contact the Olympic National Forest office in Quilcene, call 360-765-2200.