Chris, Randy and I sat at a local brewery, a map of Olympic National Park spread across the table. We had climbed in the Olympics for decades, but now we were attempting something different – a thru hike from one side of the park to another. You might have thought planning to cross using established routes would be simple, but it was proving anything but.
“Even the freaking rain forest is on fire.” Chris traced a route with his finger. The Pacific Northwest was suffering through one of its hottest summers on record, and our choices were dwindling. Park rangers had nixed the north-south high route, telling us the Elwha Snow Finger – the path leading from the mountains to the central river valley – had disappeared with climate change. Descent would require a rope and rack of climbing gear. As Chris noted, the western exits were threatened by the Paradise Fire, burning for months in the upper canopy of the Queets Rainforest.
After a month of planning we decided to come in from the east, up the Dosewallips River Trail, over 5800-foot Hayden Pass, and then out to the north, along the Elwha River. Even this route reflected the consequences of a changing climate and aging park infrastructure. We’d be out for six days and travel 60 miles, but 11 miles of that total would be on what were once access roads. A 310-foot section of the Dosewallips River Road had washed out in a flood in 2002, and cost, competing views of wilderness, and the likelihood the river would continue running higher essentially meant the road – the traditional eastern approach to the park – would never be rebuilt. We would end our trip the same way. On exiting the trail system at Whiskey Bend, we needed to trudge six miles along a road that was frequently blocked by flooding and was crumbling away one chunk of asphalt at a time.
The trip began, then, with our staggering along the Dosewallips Road. The temperature topped 90 degrees. The steep rise to the abandoned ranger station angled us into the sun’s glare, bleaching the road bed white and burning the outline of my pack along my shoulder blades. Drenched with sweat, we dropped our packs at the base of a towering cedar. I sucked in a breath and looked at what remained of the ranger station and campground. The place felt haunted. The river’s white noise might have blended with voices, as families came to picnic beside the sparkling water. Now plywood covered the windows and doors of the park service buildings. Modesty at the toilet was provided by a shower curtain hung where the door had once been. Waist-high grass swayed, overgrowing the picnic tables, and the informational signs – “Dosewallips Trailhead/Mountain Wilderness” – and a host of others had been blown over, the plastic facings shattered and their bases smothered in weeds.
On the trail at last, we fell into a familiar line: Chris leading, Randy next, and me anchoring. Our goal was camp on Deception Creek, 8 miles and 1500 vertical feet away. Our time on the sun-drenched road had wasted us. Even sheltered under the cedars and firs, I couldn’t catch a full breath in the heat. We dropped onto the mossy carpet beside the trail at ever-shortening intervals. At each stop we’d gulp water and then guiltily check our bottles, evaluating whether what remained in them would last till camp.
Finally, mercifully, a bear wire appeared, tracing a line from a fir’s branches to the ground. The camp was just below the trail, a big dusty circle with the creek trickling quietly along one side and the river giving a full-throated roar on the other. I dragged myself down the path and walked out beside the river. The Dosewallips cascaded by in blue-white arcs smooth as Chihuly glass. We had 13 miles behind us and 47 left to go.
“These long hikes, you get faster each day,” I said over dinner.
Randy, ever the cynic, caught Chris’ eye and bobbed his head my way. “Does he ever stop lying?”
“Well, the weather is supposed to break soon,” I replied, trying to fight the leaden mood exhaustion brought on.
But the next morning supported Randy’s negative world view. The trail climbed the valley, popping out of forest and into meadows of head-high grass and Russian thistles, the plants holding heat like a sauna and disguising chuckholes deep as tiger traps. I remembered the first book I’d ever read about the Olympics – a 1970 edition of the Olympic Mountain Trail Guide by Robert L. Wood – and thought how this day contrasted with his telling. Mt. Fromme, described as “crowned with snow cornices”, now shimmered at the valley’s head, a series of naked cliffs that seemed to float, detached from the earth. Near tree line, Dose Meadows opened before us, acres of grass and lupine burning with light. At Woods’ writing, the meadow had teemed with wildlife, marmots, deer, and bears among throngs of backpackers, but we hadn’t glimpsed an animal, human or otherwise, in a day and a half, the three of us alone on the once-popular trail.
A boot path led around a low dirt hill to another gorgeous site on the Dosewallips, the river here placid and shallow. Once the tent was up, Chris and I hastily repacked for our side trip up Lost Peak. We might be thru-hiking, but peaks rose all around us, and the climbing bug couldn’t be easily shaken. “You sure you’re not coming?” I asked. Randy stood beside me with a book under one arm. “Swear to god, man, just two miles up. No farther than that.”
But Randy snapped his book open, and the two of us headed up the Lost Pass Trail, so primitive and steep we had to kick our boot edges in to hold the slope. We reminisced along the way. One goal of this trip was to slow life down and refocus. “I feel like the last twelve years went by like a dream, Doug,” Chris said. “Like I lost them. Where’d they go?” Once, we climbed three weekends a month, but we all settled down and had kids, and while their young lives flew by, our trips to the mountains had become rare and manic in turn.
Harsh alpine country surrounded us at Lost Pass. We headed toward a rounded dome to the east, kicking over talus and through krumholz. The mountain was parched. Heather snapped as we pushed through, and every broadleaf alpine plant was burned a brittle red. Lost Peak was a rubble pile about 100 feet higher than the dome, and we scrambled the boulders to the top. We looked back the way we’d come. The river’s canyon wound away, slopes darkening with firs until everything vanished in the haze.
Randy was still reading when we returned, reclining against a log in the meadows and bathed in sunset light. The scene was blissful, and, next morning, the universe picked that same joyous tune. High clouds rolled in and the heat wave broke. For day three we’d maintain our basecamp, go light to Hayden Pass, and then follow a climber’s trail to Sentinel Peak. The river breathed its last beneath a final bridge, just a sheen of water trickling down rock steps. We hiked through tundra and followed the looping switchbacks to the pass, just a sharp notch in the ridge. A strong trail south wound up Sentinel, crossing talus basins and squeezing through clumps of alpine firs. Views opened on the rock slabs just below the summit – far off, the smoke plume from the Paradise fire and, nearer, clouds building behind Mount Anderson, a tortuous ridge-run away, its twin summits separated by a glacier and a rock pillar thrust skyward like a knife blade.
We settled back in camp early. I’d planned on an afternoon nap, but we shoveled down snacks and chattered away, and I couldn’t keep my eyes closed, afraid I’d miss the next story though I’d heard each one a dozen times.
That evening, a buck stepped from the shadows across the river, the first animal we’d seen in four days out. Heedless of us, he lowered his head to drink, his neck and shoulder muscles rippling. He picked his way soundlessly through the brush, glowing in front of that dark forest like Zeus come to earth in animal form.
The next morning we hiked to the pass again and took the Hayes River Trail down, coasting nine miles to the banks of the Elwha. The views of Mount Anderson’s intimidating glaciers disappeared. We navigated a trail washout, and shortly after that entered a gentler world. Hikers appeared in clusters. The forest rose and moss painted earth and blow downs a delicate green, every image softened as though viewed through a gauze-covered lens.
On the porch of the Hayes River Patrol Cabin we took a break before strolling to yet another perfect river camp. Compared to the Dosewallips, the Elwha was mellow, its water clear and the gravel-lined bottom symmetrical as though a pool boy had taken a rake to it. Our final two days of hiking had a dreamlike quality to them after the battering we’d taken at the outset. On day four, the valley broadened as we passed the Elkhorn Guard Station, deciduous trees draped with moss in a scene out of the Mississippi bayou. After one last camp, on the Lillian River above the Elwha, we passed increasing numbers of hikers and reminders of the human history in this valley: the weathered cabin grandiosely named “The Elk Lick Lodge” and the equally-dilapidated Cougar Mike’s Cabin a couple of miles further up the trail.
Half an hour past Cougar Mike’s came trail’s end at Whiskey Bend. We swung around the road damage and hiked the pavement the final six miles to one last barrier, the gate closing the road to traffic. There we encountered a scene of intentional destruction, all in service of this beautiful country we’d just traversed. I dropped my pack and followed my friends onto an overlook platform. Across the river, a matching platform was filling with tourists exiting a bus, but on our side we stood alone.
A century ago, the Glines Canyon Spillway had been erected to dam the Elwha at a cleft between rock walls. Now the dam was gone, removed in 2014 to restore the river and allow a vanished ecosystem to be reborn. In all honesty, it didn’t look like much – the spillway was just two weathered cement walls caked with moss, old metal channels hanging loose above the rushing water. Back in the direction we’d come, manmade Lake Mills had drained. The ground it once covered looked like a construction site, braided channels flowing through a mudflat and patches of scrub. But the point of it, I told myself, was what this scene symbolized. With the park’s roads crumbling, the high country parched and the forest on fire, at least this attempt was being made to return one river valley to its pristine state in a way everyone could enjoy, whether or not they chose to hike the whole darned park to get there.
Information: As the park service says, “Wilderness Camping permits are required for all overnight stays in Olympic National Park wilderness (backcountry) year-round.” All of the areas on this trip were considered “non-quota”, which makes getting a permit easier, but the process is still fairly complicated and appears to be changing from an in-person or phone in to an online system. Best recommendations are to check out the wilderness sections of the park website, call the park at (360) 565-3130, or stop into a wilderness information center at Hoodsport or Port Angeles. One possible complication is that the Hayden Pass Trail was damaged (fire again) in 2016, and right now the NPS doesn’t recommend it. If it is not reopened, you might consider taking the primitive Lost Pass Trail north and exiting at Hurricane Ridge.
Best Time to Go: Obviously, the weather has been warming, but from the end of July through September, weather in the Pacific Northwest remains as close to perfect as you can imagine. While it’s always a necessity to pack rain gear, days are long and nights are temperate.
Getting There: The Dosewallips River Road leads west off Highway 101, just north of the tiny town of Brinnon, Washington. If you’re coming from the Seattle area, the coolest way to make the trip is via the Edmonds/Kingston ferry (reserve your spot through the Washington State Ferry system), and then take Highway 104 till it ends at Highway 101, at which point you head south toward Brinnon.
Maps and Books: Olympic Mountain Trail Guide by Robert L. Wood – last edition available out in 1970 is the book I still use for general park info since the author knew every trail well. A lot has changed, but for the basics, with reliable info on backcountry camps and distances, it’s still great.
If the idea of bagging a few peaks along the way appeals to you, be aware that the Climber’s Guide to the Olympic Mountains is known to have some interesting route descriptions for obscure peaks. The guide lists both Lost Peak and Mount Fromme as Class 1, trail all the way to the top, excursions. Lost was a thrash that became a light scramble at the summit; Fromme appears to be a Class 2 that begins with a steep unpleasant stomp through krumholz. Most of the other allegedly 1.1 climbs in the Dose Meadows area are probably of a similarly mixed character. The book does give an overview of all of the approach trail systems, so it has its uses.
There’s also a newer Falcon Guide, Hiking Olympic National Park by Erik Molvar. For navigation, the waterproof and tearproof National Geographic Trails Illustrated Olympic National Park Map is suggested.