PORT ANGELES — Olympic National Park was the backdrop to Tommy Farris’ life growing up in Freshwater Bay and attending Crescent High School.
It was the inspiration for a project when he was a student at the University of Washington.
Today it’s the foundation of his business, Olympic Hiking Co., which offers guided tours, backpacking trips and shuttles for those who want to trek in the nearly 1 million acre park.
“I didn’t grow up exploring Olympic National Park camping or hiking,” Farris told the Port Angeles Business Association at its Tuesday meeting.
“Hurricane Ridge was a fun sledding hill and Lake Crescent is a great place to swim, but I didn’t know or really appreciate the economic driver that Olympic National Park was growing up here.”
At college, he was struck by how many people he met had never ventured west of Seattle, so as part of an assignment in one of his classes, he built a website on where to go and what to do on the Olympic Peninsula. He continued working on it after the class ended and developed it into a business plan.
After earning an undergraduate degree in business and a master’s in accounting, in 2014 he returned to Port Angeles, where he got a job with First Fed.
In 2016, he reached what he called a “tipping point.”
“I said, well, I either continue this path I’m on or I give this business a shot, and so I decided to go all in,” said Farris, who is president of the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce board and serves on the board of State of Washington Tourism.
Farris listed his house on Airbnb, navigated the red tape of applying for a commercial operator permit with Olympic National Park, purchased a passenger van and registered it with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, and assembled the required insurance and legal documents to get Olympic Hiking Co. off the ground.
“It was basically just me and a 12-person van and a whole lot of zeal,” he said.
What really helped get his company off the ground, Farris said, was a partnership with Black Ball Ferry Line. He had seen a need for guided tours in the park and Black Ball was looking for just such a service it could promote to passengers and be timed for ferry arrivals and departures.
The following year, Olympic Hiking Co. hired its first naturalist hiking guide who helped develop what Farris called its “tour curriculum.” This approach toward the outdoor experience has become the company’s hallmark, he said.
“When we take folks out on a guided tour, we’re not just hiking them from point A to point B,” he said. “We have local naturalist guides that really dive into the natural history of the area, speak to the ecology and identify the various trees and plants and things that they’re seeing.”
About half of Olympic Hiking Co.’s 3,000 yearly customers use its trailhead shuttle, which solves the logistical problem of what to do when the hike or backpacking trip you want to take begins and ends at different trailheads.
Customers park at the ending trailhead and Olympic Hiking Co. drives them to the starting trailhead from where they hike back to their vehicle.
Olympic Hiking Co. operates year-round, with May through September the company’s busiest months. This year it began offering overnight guided backpacking trips in addition to the day backpacking trips it had added in 2021.
To be able to expand its services, it has hired more staff, expanding from 13 employees last year to 18 today.
Success has not been without its challenges, however, particularly during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“A big step back was when we got into March 2020 and all of a sudden we had hundreds of refund requests on the same day. It was definitely a scary time,” Farris said. “We persevered through that, got lean and mean and kept it a really tight program that year.”
Unsure how the business would rebound after COVID, Farris said the last two years have been its strongest.
The fire that destroyed the Hurricane Ridge Day Lodge on May 7 and delayed opening of the road until late June has had minimal effect on Olympic Hiking Co. so far, Farris said. Its vans are not subject to the daily private vehicle quota of 345 vehicles the park imposed and the closure of the road to traffic Aug. 15-17 for debris removal from the site of the fire won’t significantly impact its operations.
“Thankfully, Hurricane Ridge isn’t only access to the mountains, so if someone was really wanting to experience a mountainous experience, we could then take them up to Deer Park to explore or comparable trips,” Farris said.
However, the park has not yet announced if there will be winter access to Hurricane Ridge, where Olympic Hiking Co. provides the only shuttle service that time of year and leads guided snowshoe tours.
“In the wintertime, that’s where I have the most apprehension,” Farris said. “We’re all kind of holding our breath knowing what winter access will look like.
“For right now, we’ll play that waiting game to see what’s going to be Olympic National Park’s decision in terms of reopening Hurricane Ridge and what winter access will look like.”
Farris said that when and if Olympic Hiking Co. expands, it would likely be leading hiking tours on Mount Rainier and the North Cascades, but for now, he wants to focus on this side of Puget Sound.
“Olympic has changed so much from when I started in 2016 when I never had a two- or three-hour wait on a Thursday in the summertime to get into the Hoh Rain Forest, but that’s a new reality,” Farris said.
Promoting the area as a beautiful, year-round destination and recommending sites and experiences that spread visitation beyond the summer and the most popular sites will be key.
“I think that is going to be our best way to make the Olympic Peninsula a great place to visit and experience,” Farris said.
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.