By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News
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AT OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, visits to traditionally snow-related park areas were down in January, but visits to warmer-weather activity sites were up.
Official January recreation visit counts were down at Hurricane Ridge by 17.9 percent — 6,492 recreation visits compared with 7,908 in 2014.
For the same time period, Lake Crescent-area visits were up 4.5 percent, from 29,250 in 2014 to 30,553 in 2015, and at Lake Ozette, district numbers were up 16.6 percent, from 157 in 2014 to 183 in 2015.
Those who work at the visitor center at 3002 Mount Angeles Road have found a mixed reaction from visitors: disappointment over the lack of snow and excitement about hiking and camping early in the year.
Areas normally under snow are getting some use, said Bryan Bell, Wilderness Information Center supervisor for the park.
However, even without the snow, the weather in the mountains in winter is less than inviting, resulting in a fairly typical number of hikers, Bell said.
There were no data available for how many hikers were registering to head into the backcountry, he said.
Area visitor centers reported a moderate jump in numbers.
The Forks Visitor Center's numbers jumped from 855 visitors in January 2014 to 960 visitors this past January, said Lissy Andros, executive director of the Forks Chamber of Commerce.
Similarly, the number of visitors is up at Port Townsend Visitor Center, said Lorna Mann, director of that visitor center.
In January 2014, there were 357 who checked in, and in January 2015, that number jumped to 393, Mann said.
Those who check in are a mix of locals, visitors and an unusual number of new residents, she said.
Russ Veenema, executive director of the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce, said there were 3,000 visitors at the Port Angeles Visitor Center in January, which he said was about average.
The lack of snow in the Olympic Mountains because of spring-like warmth has led to an early outbreak of hiking, biking, surfing and kayaking on the North Olympic Peninsula.
“It's been sunny and 60 at the beach. The water is actually warmer than it was in July,” said Frank Crippen, owner of North By Northwest Surf Co., 902 S. Lincoln St. in Port Angeles.
A similar lack of snow for skiing in the Cascades may be driving Seattle-area residents to the Peninsula, where hiking trails are open and accessible at most elevations and the surf is good at the coast, Crippen said.
His shop usually rents ski equipment in winter and surf gear and skateboards during the summer.
But this year, Crippen said, visitors have given up on the concept of renting ski equipment for visits to the Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area, and weekend visitors are instead renting surfboards.
“Summertime tourists were here in January,” he said.
The ski area at Hurricane Ridge does not typically attract a large number of visitors from out of town and primarily serves skiers who are from the North Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, he said.
The Northwest Avalanche Center has been keeping track of snowpacks since 1979.
While the Olympic Mountains have had plenty of rain this winter, snowpack is at a record low at 3 percent of average, the lowest in the state.
Crippen said he is happy his store offers more than just ski equipment.
“You get some years like this,” he said.
The last time the mountains were bare and ski season essentially nonexistent was a decade ago in 2005, he said.
The past five years, the opening date for the Hurricane Ridge ski season was Dec. 19 for the 2009-10 season, Dec. 26 for 2010-11, Jan. 15 for 2011-12, Dec. 21 for 2012-13 and Feb. 15 for 2013-14.
The ski area requires 3 to 4 feet of snow before slopes can be groomed and lifts opened.
People are also getting out on bikes and kayaks, and starting their spring early, said Vicki Heckman, owner of Sound Bikes & Kayaks, 120 E. Front St. in Port Angeles.
“They're getting out and going,” she said.
Heckman said most of her new business is coming from local residents and new residents, but she expects to see visitors from the Puget Sound area as long as the pleasant weather continues.
In Sequim, Brian's Sporting Goods and More, 609 W. Washington St., is seeing a major increase in sales of hiking and fishing gear.
“We're having the best weather in the nation for the second year in a row,” said Brian Menkal, owner of the store.
Normally, the region's residents are “hunkered down” because of cold, unpleasant weather, but the moderate rainfall and warm temperatures are encouraging people to get out and start their spring activities, Menkal said.
“We're selling lots of hiking shoes and fishing poles,” he said.
Pygmy Boats, which sells kits to build ocean kayaks at 355 Hudson St. in Port Townsend, also saw an increase in business in January.
“Our January business was definitely better than last January by a notable amount,” said Jim Argites, an employee at the business.
Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at email@example.com.