Miles of adventure and buckets of rain await thousands of feet above sea level on the Olympic Peninsula
Although the Olympic Peninsula is a short day’s drive from the Inland Northwest, it’s a different universe for local backpackers and hikers.
The contrast isn’t simply about the fact that Olympic National Park and adjoining forest receives anywhere from 2 to 12 times as much rainfall as most inland hiking destinations. It’s about the environment all that water from the sky creates.
For example, you can put on your pack and hike in our neck of the woods without following a boot path. Try that in parts of the Olympic wilderness, and you’ll end up floundering around in a tangle of slide alder and assorted brush, like a stinkbug caught in a spider web.
And you’d be a wet stinkbug. That water has to go somewhere, so it rushes down 7,000-foot-high mountains, forming thousands of streams and rivers not always easily crossed.
Why, then, would anyone want to sling a fabric house over his back and struggle up muddy trails while Olympic rainfall mocks their Gore-Tex?
You’ve undoubtedly heard the answer before: On those rare, wondrous days when the sun glows golden, few places on the planet seem so splendid. Until you’ve backpacked in the Olympic Mountains, you can’t really appreciate a bluebird day.
Of course, there are other reasons to hike in the Olympics.
The scenery inspires poetry from illiterates, steelhead and salmon still cruise the rivers, and abundant wildlife lures both observers and hunters.
But don’t take our word for it. Grab your backpacking gear and try any of the following Olympic overnight hiking opportunities.
Two- to three-day hikes
By far, the most popular overnight hike in Olympic National Park is the 18.8-mile High Divide loop. Unbeatable scenery and wildlife-watching make the crowds and required wilderness campsite reservations tolerable. If you’re able, take this hike after Labor Day for greater solitude and bug-free camping.
The hike begins and ends at the terminus of the Sol Duc Hot Springs Road, a mile beyond the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and big auto campground. The steaming pools offer a rewarding soak after your hike.
The trail climbs to Deer Lake before heading up to 5,000-foot High Divide between the Sol Duc, Bogachiel and Hoh rivers.
You’ll pass alpine Seven Lakes Basin before descending past Heart Lake and following the Sol Duc River downstream to the trailhead.
If above-timberline hiking is your liking, try the 4- to 6- mile one-way trek to Grand, Moose or Gladys lakes. The alpine scenery is spectacular and the farther you hike, the fewer hikers you’ll encounter.
The trail begins at the end of the Obstruction Point Road, 8.4 miles from beautiful Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, above the city of Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The rough, narrow road follows a ridgecrest more than 6,000 feet above sea level, and is rarely free of snow before July.
The path to Grand Lake drops from a high point of 6,450 feet in 3.5 miles to the Grand Lake junction, 4,750 feet above sea level, then traverses to Moose Lake before climbing another 2 miles to the nicest campsites at tiny Gladys Lake.
Big trout in the Mildred Lakes above the Hamma Hamma River might reward anglers who sweat the rugged and steep climb 4.5 miles, one way. The sometimes difficult-to-follow trail starts at the end of the Hamma Hamma River Road (Forest Service Road 25), about 6 miles upstream from the Lena Creek auto campground and 14 miles from U.S. Highway 101 on Hood Canal.
The trail to the lakes climbs a forested ridge and descends on broken rocks to Huckleberry Creek, where the way becomes indistinct and climbs steeply over a forested ridge before dropping to the largest of three Mildred Lakes, 3,850 feet above sea level.
Other short backpacks worth considering are the 14-mile up-and-back to Royal Basin or the 13-mile round-trip hike up the slide-closed Dosewallips River Road to Dose Forks. Backcountry anglers might like the 4.1-mile, one-way hike up the Duckabush River to Five Mile Camp, perhaps named by an exhausted backpacker who overestimated the distance by surviving the 1,500-foot climb over the notorious Big Hump.
Two longer hikes define Olympic Peninsula backpacking better than all the rest combined: the Pacific Ocean coastline and the Hoh River Trail to the Blue Glacier on 7,965-foot Mount Olympus.
A 9-mile loop hike from Ozette, near the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula, is a good introduction to coastal hiking. But for the real deal, you can backpack the 26 miles from Ozette along ocean beaches and over steep headlands to Rialto Beach.
Just because it’s a beach walk doesn’t mean you can do the whole thing in flip-flops. Some of those beaches are covered by slippery cobbles, and you’ll be scrambling up sand ladders and over muddy trails around headlands at high tide.
Killer raccoons lurk at every beach campsite, where Olympic National Park officials now require bear-proof food containers. Some backpackers tote combination locks, insisting that killer raccoons can pick any padlock with a stolen hairpin.
The trailhead begins at the Ozette Ranger Station and auto campground, 21 miles southwest on the Hoko-Ozette Road from state Route 112. From there, you’ll hike 3 miles on mostly fake wood-plank trail to the beach at Sand Point, then turn south along the coast to the end of the hike at Rialto Beach.
The backpack to Glacier Meadows on Mount Olympus starts at the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, where you’ll find an auto campground 18.6 miles east of U.S. Highway 101 on the Upper Hoh River Road.
The first 11 miles are flatter than Avista field. The remaining trail is a steep uphill grind to campsites at Elk Lake and Glacier Meadows, where you climb another mile to the frostbitten toe of the Blue Glacier.
The river of ice is nearly 3 miles long and the major climbing route to Mount Olympus, the summit of the Olympic Peninsula. The trail starts at 578 feet above sea level and climbs to the Blue Glacier at 5,000 feet.
Backpacking off established trails in the Olympics is largely restricted to high alpine hikes because the river valleys are jungles of the slide alder and assorted entangling brush.
Two of the most well-known hikes – though rarely if ever crowded – are the Bailey Range Traverse and the Skyline Trail.
The Bailey Traverse is regarded as the premier wilderness backpack in Olympic National Park, leaving the High Divide Trail at its end at Cat Peak and regaining the maintained trail on the Elwha River, 28 miles upstream from its trailhead.
The off-trail portion spans about 19 miles, crossing 6,000-foot peaks and permanent snowfields before dropping into pristine Queets Basin.
Though you’ll find the Skyline Trail on a map above the Quinault and Queets rivers, it is often more difficult to find on the ground.
It begins on the Irely Lake-Three Lakes Trail and follows a high ridge for 22 miles to Low Divide, where it rejoins the maintained trail down the North Fork of the Quinault River to the trailhead.
The trail passes through some of the wettest country in the Olympic Mountains, where rain dumps as much as 12 feet of water every year.
Why would anyone hike in such a biblical-proportion deluge, you ask?
You’ve undoubtedly heard the answer before.
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