Aug 03
View south from the low Divide

The Olympic National Park is huge, rugged, and nearly impenetrable, the interior of which has only recently been greeted by the foot of man. O’Neil took a military troop up Hurricane Hill in 1885, forming what is essentially the road that we now use to get to that location. Washington State became a state 1889, and the desire to have a deeper look into the interior of the Olympics prompted the Seattle Press, a local newspaper, to sponsor an expedition across the Olympic Mountains. A group of 5 people signed up, and with a mule, 4 dogs, and lots of supplies, headed off into the mountains, intending to take a route up the Elwha River, and then down the north fork of the Quinault River. They were successful, though the expedition took them 6 months and many trials. This expedition is nicely chronicled in a number of books and online. We essentially repeated the fundamental track of the expedition, though going in a reverse direction (south to north) and having the pleasure of trails, bridges, and precise routes nicely laid out for us. What we still had to contend with was the fiercely rugged nature of the Olympic Mountains, along with the need to ford both the upper Quinault and upper Elwha Rivers. The Seattle Press expedition could not have picked a worse time of year to do their expedition, which probably could have been done in far less time during the spring/summer season. In the trail books, we hiked a total of two trails, the north fork of the Quinault to the Low Divide, and the Elwha River trail from the Low Divide to the trailhead at Whiskey Bend.

Day #1 – 6.6 miles, North Fork Quinault Trailhead to Elip Creek. The day started with me meeting Russ at his house, and together with his wife, we drove two cars to the completion trailhead on the Elwha River. The road was washed out, and so the completion trailhead lay about 7+ additional miles (which we would have to walk) to the car. I then got into Russ’ car, and we drove around the Olympic Peninsula to the starting trailhead on the north fork of the Quinault River. Wishing Kim goodbye, we started our trek about 2 pm, leaving us only a few hours of hiking. The trail started out somewhat flat but quickly changed into progressively more and more climbing. After passing a group of kids close to the trailhead, we ceased to see anybody on the trail. Once settled into camp, a group of two guys descended the Elip Creek Trail from the Skyline Trail to settle into camp with us.

Rather fresh and clean in appearance
Trailhead sign
the lower north fork of the Quinault River, suggesting hills in the distance
Russ, chilling out for our first night at camp, the Elip Creek flowing in the background

Day #2, Elip Creek Camp to Low Divide Camp, 10 miles. The climbing progressively got steeper, but was characterized by multiple ups and downs. The Quinault River could be seen frequently to our right, until we reached 16 mile camp. Here, we had to ford the Quinault River (i.e., no bridge across the river), had lunch at 16 mile camp, and then proceeded to much more vigorous climbing to ascend to the top of the Divide. All the while, the mountains could be more and more clearly seen. At 16 mile camp, we saw a man and his son who were doing a prolonged ramble through the Olympics, and eventually was greeted by a hiker who was just behind us on the trail, and then camped on the Low Divide. In essence, there was almost nobody on the trail.

Mountains appearing to the south as we climb out of the Quinault River valley
A blessing that the Press Expedition did not share. Without bridges, the trip would have been immensely more difficult, since many of the streams cut deep canyons into the mountains
The thinning of vegetation as we near the low Divide
Waterfall cascading off of the face of Mt Seattle
Another view of Mt. Seattle
Large meadows on the Low Divide
Russ settling in on the Low Divide. The mosquitos were not too bad.
My tent settled in on the Low Divide
A bear sauntered just 20 feet from our camp. I saw one other bear the next day down along the Elwha

Day #3, 18 miles; Low Divide camp to Elkhorn Camp. Coming off of the low Divide in the northerly direction proved a little more challenging than expected. We were on the trail by 7 am, and was soon greeted by a sign announcing the actual low Divide, representing the watershed between the Quinault and Elwha systems. There were two beautiful lakes that we passed high up on the Low Divide. We were warned that the trail was not too good on the other side of the Divide, and our experience proved that to be completely correct. The trail definitely needed serious brushing as it descended very rapidly off of the Divide, and there was much windfall across the trail, forcing us to crawl under, crawl over, or hike around the fallen trees. Toward Chicago Camp (at the base of the descent) there was windfall that was so extensive that a trail could not be found without extensive searching and crawling around the dense forest bed. Ultimately we reached the Elwha River, where a fallen tree permitted us to walk dryly across the upper Elwha, which is usually a river ford. We reached the Chicago Camp at about 9:30, taking 2.5 hours to descend 4 miles. We then needed to make up time to arrive at Elkhorn Camp before nightfall. There was still extensive brush obscuring the trail, as well as river fords, and obstructions from windfall. We arrived at Elkhorn Camp at about 5:30 pm quite exhausted. Elkhorn Camp was a ranger station with other buildings but otherwise was not the nicest camp to stay at.

Yup, the actual Low Divide
Lake Margaret high on the Low Divide
The other side of Lake Margaret, looking back at Mt. Seattle
Russ, carefully fording the Elwha
A beautiful bridge across the Hayes River, with a steep rock canyon
A cabin at Elkhorn Ranger Station
The Elwha from my tent site

Day #4, 18 miles, including 11 miles from Elkhorn Ranger Station to the trailhead at Whiskey Bend, and then 7 miles of road and detour trail walking. I expected the remaining 18 miles to be a flat river walk, somewhat akin to the Hoh or the Quinault Rivers. It was everything but that, attesting to the wild rugged nature of the Olympics. The only thing common to the Olympics is that everything is green, and everything grows well within the peninsula—after all, it IS a rain forest. We were up at 5:30, and after a relaxed breakfast of oatmeal, a granola bar, hot chocolate, coffee, and medications, we were off and running. We passed a number of different campsites, many of which looked quite appealing for camping, but some were run down with downfall owing to the challenge of park access with the road being washed out. We stopped several times for meal breaks, which included either peanut butter and jam, or tuna fish, rolled up in a tortilla shell. Bread will squash, and so tortillas make the perfect alternative that will last a long time and still taste well. Of course, vitamin S (Snicker bars) or a similar treat continues to fuel the walk and enjoyed while resting beside a creek or river, delighting in God’s handiwork. We passed an old homestead along the river, and then reached Whiskey Bend, the end of the trail, at about 11:30. Russ and I took a long break here. Everything was eerily quiet. Since leaving the Low Divide campground, we had seen only one person. We were in our own little wilderness thanks to the road washout. After walking five miles of gravel road (which was actually quite beautiful), we arrived at the now flatter pavement and continued the road walk another 2 miles to the detour. It was here that we now started to encounter many tourists. To our dismay, the detour forced us to do much more climbing, and in 0.8 miles eventually arrived back to the pavement a short distance from our cars. It was a quick trip back home, and to a sweet wife and warm welcoming shower.

Very dense rain forest. Everything was intensely green
Humes Ranch building
At Whiskey Bend trailhead, but with 7 more miles to go to reach our car
Remnant of the upper Elwha Dam
Looking down the narrow canyon which housed the upper Elwha Dam. Both the upper and lower Elwha dams were removed in order to allow the salmon to again run upriver. both the lower dam, built in 1910 and this dam, built in 1927 have since been removed.
Russ and I have now reached our vehicle along the lower Elwha. Motivated by a careful diet of spoons over forks, we have been able to nutritionally power our bodies to perform such super-human acts like walking across the Olympic Mountains and still come out smiling! For only $37.99 Russ and I will gladly impart our knowledge of this simple but special diet for avoiding disease and maintaining health and vigor well into old age.

Was the backpack worth it? Of course. I felt a little bit like I was back on the PCT, with all its daily routines and planning contingencies. I had dreamed for years of doing this hike. There is great joy when exploring an unknown area of the world, and on this hike, the sights and terrain were completely different than what I anticipated.

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3 Responses to “Backpacking the Olympics”

  1. Nicollette LeTellier says:

    My sister and I are looking forward to this hike next week. Thanks for the detailed itinerary.

  2. Lindsey says:

    Thank you for this report! I’m doing this trip next week and really appreciate this detailed summary. Also, love the term Vitamin S. For me it’s “Snickers for morale.”

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