Story and photos by Patricia Haglin
For those who seek a relaxing, serene weekend getaway, they need venture no further than the gateway to Olympic National Park. ONP’s Lake Crescent, with its pristinely clear, teal-tinted water and majestic mountain views, is just a 20-minute drive from Port Angeles. To this day, the lake remains in a relatively natural state, thanks in part to the regulations and standards of Olympic National Park.
In the early 1860s, trappers John Everett and John Sutherland, of the Hudson Bay Company, canoed across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Port Victoria. After spending time with the Klallam Tribe, they settled and homesteaded the Freshwater Bay area in 1863, and are reputed to be the first white settlers to see the two lakes, nestled in the mountains. They now are known as Lakes Sutherland and Crescent. The larger of the two lakes, originally named Lake Everett, became home base to Everett and Sutherland, who spent their days trapping mink, otter, beaver and marten along its shores.
In the 1890s, Lake Everett was renamed Lake Crescent, though it’s unclear whether the name change occurred because of the lake’s shape or because the Port Crescent Improvement Company decided to affix the title to the company’s maps. Soon thereafter, settlers came upon the area and Lake Crescent experienced its first land claims.
John Smith, the first pioneer to develop the shores of Lake Crescent, took claim at Piedmont on the north side. Paul Barnes, a young marine engineer working out of Port Crescent and whose namesake would later grace one of the more popular fishing sites on the lake, homesteaded the level land north of Barnes Creek.
During the same era, nearby Port Angeles was booming. Adventurers flocked to the sleepy town in hopes of cashing in on the lumber trade, one that would deeply influence both the town’s economy, as well as leave a scar on the surrounding, previously untouched forests. The town soon grew into its own, fostering a busy and somewhat troublesome environment that tended to reflect the traders, trappers, gold miners and lumberjacks of the day.
Spruce wood, highly valued by the U.S. government for its lightweight yet durable qualities, was in abundance on the peninsula. During World War I, a railroad was built along the lakeshore, running from Port Angeles to Lake Pleasant, in an attempt to get the harvested trees to fabricators to make airplane propellers. The war ended two weeks before the railroad opened, but remnants of the railway bed can be seen along the Spruce Railroad Trail, a popular hiking route for tourists and locals.
Following the war, Lake Crescent became renowned as a retreat, a weekend getaway that was close enough to be conveniently accessible but far enough away to be exotic.
And so it remains to this day, preserved by a collaboration of both man and nature, and still as breathtaking as ever. Due to the protection of Olympic National Park status around the lake, building is no longer allowed on its shores. The houses and structures that remain today are remnants of a time passed, privately owned and quickly being bought up by the government in an attempt to preserve the lake from pollution and damage.
Steve Fradkin, Olympic National Park’s coastal ecologist and limnologist, stressed the importance of keeping the lake free of pollutants. Lake Crescent has a uniquely low nutrient level, which is the primary reason for its clarity. “Because it’s so nutrient-poor, the lake takes (available nutrients) up fast, which changes the water clarity, which can be unsightly,” Fradkin said. The underlying foundation of the lake prevents it from gaining nutrients naturally, as the lake’s basin is made up of rocks that don’t contain large levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, which tend to leak nutrients. In addition, the air that blows inland from the Pacific tends to be very clean and does not spread airborne nutrients into the lake.
At nearly 650 feet deep in some spots, Olympic National Park’s Lake Crescent is one of the deepest in Washington state. The bottom of the lake is 100 feet below sea-level. “Greater than 50 percent of the surface area overlays water 90 meters or greater,” Fradkin said. “You can stand on the shore and if you throw a stone out, it could easily hit in 100 feet of water.”
Geology plays a large role in the unique make-up of the lake’s physical qualities and its supported wildlife. For millions of years, Lake Crescent received sea-run salmon by way of the Elwha River. A series of earthquakes occurred 10,000 years ago, causing landslides and cutting off the lake from the Elwha, making it landlocked. As the lake slowly purged itself of salt water, steelhead and cutthroat trout survived. Today, what was once a common steelhead has evolved into what is now known as a Beardslee trout. Found only in Lake Crescent, Beardslees are so physically different from their steelhead ancestors that they’ve almost become their own species.
Today’s visitors to Lake Crescent get to experience the uniqueness of the lake in several different ways. Though personal watercraft have been banned on the lake since 1997, the lake offers an easily accessible boat ramp for motorboats for water skiers, fishermen and sailors.
Kayakers, row boaters and canoeists are welcome on the lake as environmentally friendly alternatives that match the peace and serenity of Lake Crescent’s setting.
Fishermen can look forward to seeking out Beardslee and cutthroat trout from most anywhere on the lake, though they should be aware that many homes along the lake do not belong to ONP and should be regarded as private property. The strict catch-and-release policy implemented by the park, along with selective gear restrictions, help to ensure that fishermen will be rewarded for years to come with the thrill of catching a Beardslee or cutthroat trout.
Formed with a divine grace, Lake Crescent remains a relic to be treasured and stands as a reminder of what nature is capable of creating. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the lake with a mindset of preserving it for future generations.