The history of the Ohanapecosh area could be described at treasures found, lost, and found again. Located in the southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park, the Ohanapecosh area and its treasures are found along the shores of the Ohanapecosh River as it flows south and out of the park. With a low elevation, snow rarely piles up here, allowing the trees to grow tall with lush undergrowth. Perhaps because of all this plant growth, finding the treasures of this part of the park takes a little more work than at the higher elevations.
With Douglas firs and red cedars hundreds and even a thousand years old, the history of this place goes back a long way. Human history has been a bit harder to uncover. Thanks to sampling done in the Ohanapecosh Campground in 2014, archaeologists were able to find the first ever, low elevation, pre-contact sites within the park. More field work followed in the summer of 2015, yielding more artifacts like chipped stone tool remains and hearth features dating to between 3,700 and 6,400 years ago. Conjectured that these sites acted as transit-stops on the way to and from high elevation summer sites, these finds greatly help to fill in some of the early human history of Mount Rainier.
Over the history of the Ohanapecosh area, other people have found treasure here as well. Sitting on the flanks of a volcano can have some positives and one of those is the presence of hot springs. Though the springs were naturally quite small, in the early 1900s, Mrs. R.M. O’Neal established a commercial tent camp to take advantage of the Ohanapecosh Hot Springs. It was short lived, but others followed in her steps. In 1921, N.D. Tower, with a Forest Service permit in hand, undertook to build a resort by the hot springs. A few years later, Dr. Albert Bridge would invest in the resort, now called the Ohanapecosh Hot Springs (OHS) Company.
A rough camp of tents and a few cabins, Bridge and Tower would work to improve the resort by building a road to the site from Packwood and then a hotel and bathhouses. Some folks took advantage of the new accommodations, but many choose to camp just outside the resort on national forest land for free and then pay 25¢ a day to use the pools and bathes. Despite adding more cabins over the years, the resort never did well financially and soon became dilapidated. Although initially outside the park boundaries, park rangers considered the unsightly resort to be a blight on the landscape.
In 1931, Congress extended the park boundaries to include the Ohanapecosh area and the resort. Superintendent Tomlinson allowed the OHS Company to continue operating the resort on contract. With Dr. Bridge’s stroke in 1944, management and ownership changed and eventually ended up in the hands of Martin Kiliam. A man known to have issues with alcohol and violence, several incidents led him to have negative contact with park rangers. Along with the poor condition of the buildings, these interactions led the park management to terminate the contract of the Ohanapecosh Hot Springs Company. After a law suit and settlement, Kiliam was bought out in 1961 and the dilapidated buildings were torn down within the year.
With a history of camping in the area, it was natural that a campground and visitor center were built at the Ohanapecosh site. Through rehabilitation and re-planting the hot springs were restored to their natural state. Although bathing is no longer allowed (or even possible due to the small size of the springs), these amazing little signs of the active volcano beneath are available for all to admire on the short Hot Springs trail. Also accessible through trails from the campground or from the Stevens Canyon Road, are some of the other treasures of the Ohanapecosh area such as Silver Falls and the Grove of the Patriarchs, where visitors can appreciate trees 1,000 years old.
There are many treasures to be found in the Ohanapecosh area. The crystalline waters of the Ohanapecosh River run through the Grove of Patriarchs, over Silver Falls and through the campground. The awe-inspiring Douglas firs and cedars abound through the area but are especially impressive along the trail at the Grove of the Patriarchs. Hot springs fed by Mount Rainier bubble up on the trail behind the visitor center while archaeologists study the artifacts unearthed throughout the area. Over the centuries, people have treasured this area time and again. Hopefully, you can enjoy these gems just as much.
Please remember that all historic and archaeological artifacts you might find must be left in place. This allows archaeologists to learn much more about our cherished history. Report anything you might notice to the nearest visitor center or park ranger. Thank you.
For more information on the Ohanapecosh area, please use this link.