Growing up in Washington State we had access to some of the best hiking and camping areas in the world.
Back in 1980 as a new Boy Scout I completed my first 50 mile hike, a Summer rite of passage and tradition for our troop. The trip was a seven day adventure into the Olympic National Park on Washington’s Western peninsula. By comparison to other 50 mile hikes I did with my father, Robert, as a scout this was by far the easiest. Being my first and the only one I completed that was 100% in my home state of Washington it holds a special place in my heart.
1. Twilight and Nirvana
This has nothing to do with hiking in the park but it is fun to note that the Olympic Peninsula is home to Aberdeen (Kurt Cobain’s boyhood town) and Forks (Twilight setting). Note that you will not run into vampires and people wearing flannel shirts are not making a fashion statement…they just like to keep warm.
2. Preparation and planning
Packing for the “50 milers” was as much about preparation as it was hitting the trail. The better the planning the smoother and safer the trip. We split up the gear we would use as a group and planned for our individual needs, only taking what we could carry on our backs. The rule was you had to carry one third of your weight which included three meals. Each person had to carry one breakfast, one lunch and one dinner. We held a food lottery as a way to fairly divide up the meals so nobody would choose three early meals and quickly reduce their pack weight. We loved and feared the lottery at the same time. Each group member would pick one card from the dinner hat, one from the lunch hat and one from the breakfast hat. Each card had a day on it. Whatever you chose you carried. The lucky person of any trip drew first dinner as it was the heaviest. On this trip my friend Jay drew the lucky card.
3. The Olympic Mountain National Park
The park was designated a national park by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1938. The park features a fabulous network of hiking trails. Most require more than a weekend to explore the high country (our hike was a seven day journey) while there is also opportunity for backpacking along the beach. Rafting is available on both the Elwha and Hoh Rivers.
The park is currently undergoing the second largest ecosystem restoration projects in the history of the National Park Service. According to the Park Service the Elwha Ecosystem Restoration Project “will remove the 210 foot Glines Canyon Dam and drain its reservoir, Lake Mills, and remove the 108 foot Elwha Dam and its reservoir Lake Aldwell from the Elwha River.” The purpose of the project is “to restore stocks of Pacific Salmon and Steelhead to the Elwha River, which have been denied access to the upper 65 miles (105 km) of river habitat for more than 95 years by these dams.”
Very cool and music to a Northwesterner’s ears, but this also means check the status of the area before heading out as certain roads may not be accessible during the course of the project.
4. Diverse Ecosystems
Washington is the only state in the Union that has every type of ecosystem within its borders. The park contains four basic eco-regions which are the Pacific coastline, alpine areas, the west side temperate rainforest and the forests of the drier east side. Truly fascinating when you consider the relative size of the peninsula.
5. Elwah River Trail
The Elwah River Trail is a 30 mile stretch starting at Whiskey Bend and connecting with the Low Divide Trail. It is a very well maintained and beautiful trail that runs along the Elwah River. The trail is moderate difficulty with great campsites along the way and connects with the Low Divide Trail at Chicago Camp.
6. Fresh fish
When we talk about fresh fish these days people usually think about fish just shipped in overnight to their favorite restaurant or new prisoners in the Shawshank Redemption. Both are wrong.
There are many great lakes, rivers and streams to be found along the trails and campsites. Fresh Rainbow Trout twenty miles and three days in to a hike is epic. We had our best success fishing in Chicago Camp along the Elwah River Trail just before heading up to the Low Divide. A small stream with some logs and natural pools supplied our group of twelve with a wonderful feast. Pan fried over an open fire with some butter and a few spices from the famous REI spice wheel the fresh grilled rainbow trout filled the air with wonderful smells and our bellies with our first non freeze dried meal in days.
7. Low Divide Trail and Low Divide
The Low Divide Trail is a short stretch going from Chicago Camp up to the Low Divide. The 2.6 miles sound like a quick dash up the hill but the trail ascends over 1500 vertical feet starting at the base of Mount Seattle. A challenging climb for most hikers carrying a full pack. A brutal one for a ninety pound ten-year- old boy on his first 50 miler. The trail is well maintained and a memorable challenge. Switchbacks trails climb sharply up the peak past beautiful forest, waterfalls and eventually Lake Mary and Lake Margaret before entering a meadow that passes the Low Divide Ranger Station. Check in with the rangers and even invite them to dinner. They are great storytellers and resources for information about the trail and park.
8. Polar bears
No, you will not find Polar Bears in the area. This is just a term for anyone brave enough to swim in the glacial water found in the lakes and rivers. A cold dip will wake you up faster than a Red Bull Latte but take care to respect these waters and observe safe swimming practices including the buddy system.
9. High adventures and glacier luging
There are many day hikes you explore from the Low Divide campsite. Mount Seattle and Mount Christie offer much to explore. Bring a day pack and of course bring essentials and again observe the buddy system in case you run into trouble on the trail.
We spent a day climbing Mount Christie. In August there is still a lot of snow at that altitude as well as the famous glaciers. After reaching our destination we took the easy way down. Being Boy Scouts we were prepared with pre-cut plastic tarps to sit on and luge down the glacier. What fun. Sunny day, on top of the world and speeding down the mountain. There were many laughs and smiles that day!
I would strongly recommend checking out and back in with the rangers so they know that you are on a day trip, where you are going, and when you return. Safety first!
10. North Fork Quinault Trail
The North Fork Quinault Trail connects with the Low Divide and a 17 mile stretch that descends from 3000 feet to 500 feet through the beautiful Old Growth rain forest. Again the trail is very well maintained and of moderate difficulty although hikers should take descend with care to prevent slipping on the switchbacks and of course stay on the trail.
The Olympic Peninsula is unique in that it is isolated and contains wildlife that are found only in that area. Another interesting fact is wildlife that should reside in the mountain range do not. Animals that are found in other western mountains such as ground squirrels, lynx, red foxes, coyotes, wolverine, grizzly bears, and bighorn sheep do not reside in the Olympics. This community is noteworthy not only for its endemic animals (found only here), but also for species missing from the Olympics, yet found elsewhere in western mountains. Unique to the parks are the Olympic marmot, Olympic snow mole and Olympic torrent salamander. They are found here and nowhere else in the world!
Of course if you are not from the Pacific Northwest you have to see a Banana Slug if you visit the park.
12. A word about water
I hiked the trails of the Olympic National Park in 1980. At that time any cold running water was relatively safe to drink but we still used iodine tablets to kill bacteria. Today, giardia is a bigger concern and it is common practice to use water filters and boil water before drinking. Trust me when I say it is better to be safe than sorry. Some of the parasites in water wherever we hike can have some nasty and uncomfortable effects on the body.
The 50 mile route we hiked three decades ago was made up of the three trails mentioned above…a fabulous journey. The Olympic National Park is so vast anyone can plan fun day hikes or week long journeys and I highly recommend visiting at least once in your lifetime. You will have an amazing time and amazing memories!
Images courtesy of the United States Parks Service unless otherwise noted.