OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Hiking in Olympic National Park is flat, until it’s not.
With steep terrain covering most of the park, backpackers can be in for quite a haul.
But the remote treasures in the high country are worth the effort. Late summer and early fall offer a window to reach these normally snowbound areas.
The high country above the Hoh River Valley showcases alpine lakes, berry-filled meadows that sustain the park’s healthy bear population and glaciers protruding off the north slope of the park’s citadel – Mount Olympus.
Getting there, however, takes a little work.
To reach Hoh Lake, the goal of my recent three-day backpacking trek, hikers must scale the steep walls of the Hoh River Valley. It’s an ascent marked by a 2,500-foot elevation gain in just two miles, during which the trail has 22 switchbacks.
So don’t be fooled by the flat route to the park’s heart along the Hoh River Trail. The well-traveled path through one of the world’s most vibrant temperate rainforests is a mere warmup.
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The Hoh Rainforest is one of the main attractions on the west side of Olympic National Park. To reach it, travel about 90 miles north of Aberdeen on U.S. Highway 101. From Clark County, you should allow six hours of travel time, including a stop at the Wilderness Information Center at Lake Quinault to secure backcountry permits.
After leaving Hwy. 101 and traveling east on Hoh Valley Road, you’ll reach the popular Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center and its large overnight parking lot. In the summer, expect dozens of people to be exploring the short loops through moss-draped groves of old-growth cedar and Douglas fir.
It doesn’t take long to leave the crowds behind. After a few miles on the Hoh River Trail, your company will be the towering trees supported by trunks that are sometimes 15 feet wide. Fallen “nurse logs” decompose on the forest floor, giving birth to the next generation of trees. Myriad fungi flourish in the moist microclimate, which receives up to 14 feet of rain per year.
The destination on this first day is the Olympus Guard Station, which is just over nine miles up the Hoh River Trail. A campground sits near a cabin built in the 1920s by a homesteader, then taken over by the National Park Service in the 1950s to be a shelter for rangers.
I set up camp along the Hoh River and its wide gravel bars, which held ample driftwood for campfires. This would be my base camp to launch my five-mile climb to Hoh Lake the following day.
Looming above was the north wall of the valley. The weathered gray remains of trees burned in a wildfire 41 years ago stuck up from the slope like toothpicks.
It was an imposing sight and, as I would discover the next day, stood as a stark warning to anyone wanting to scale those heights.
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The ascent out of the Hoh River Valley begins suddenly and severely. Within a half-mile of the river’s bank, the first of 22 switchbacks begins to lift a hiker out of the valley.
It was hard work and despite the cool, misty weather I quickly broke a sweat. Had the weather been clear, the stunning views across the valley would have been available through a forest still recovering from the 1978 wildfire.
It took nearly two hours to reach the ridgetop, which stood at an elevation of 3,300. A brief downhill reprieve followed, but it didn’t last long. Hoh Lake sits at just over 4,500 feet, so there was more work to do.
After maneuvering over and under several blown-down trees and a final set of switchbacks, I finally reached Hoh Lake. With so much of my trek there done in dense forest, it was a treat to see the spacious view across the water to the natural amphitheater serving as the backdrop.
I unpacked my lunch and took my water filter to the shore for a fill-up. The shoreline was teeming with hundreds of dark tadpoles, a common sight in the park’s high lakes. On the slope across the lake, a mother black bear and her cub foraged for berries.
If I had more time, I could have hiked an extra mile to the High Divide Trail at the ridge above Hoh Lake. There, hikers can access the beautiful Seven Lakes Basin and its gray alpine moonscape pock-marked with small lakes. The High Divide also offers a perfect perch to view Mount Olympus, which was still hidden in the clouds.
I walked the 5.4 miles back to my base camp the same way I came. The descent into the Hoh River Valley was much quicker than the journey up, but no less tiring.
Had I an extra day, I would have continued eight miles up the Hoh River Valley to Glacier Meadows, at the foot of Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus. But with the nine-mile hike back to my truck and the long drive back to Vancouver, my third day of the adventure was more than full.
A hallmark of Olympic National Park is its diversity of landscapes. From rainforests to beaches to high alpine meadows, it’s all within a hiker’s reach.
Getting to some of the best sites takes a lot of work. But in this case, it was more than worth it.