FEBRUARY 2000 HIKE O' THE MONTH
Olympic Hot Springs
Seabury Blair Jr.
Here's a cold-weather outing where you can kick Old Man Winter in the seat of his pants: Olympic Hot Springs.
You'll likely be able to try out your snowshoes or cross-country skis on this 7.6-mile round-trip hike up an abandoned Olympic National Park road. And once you get there, you can soak your cares away in one of only two natural hot springs on the Olympic Peninsula.
In winter, the old Olympic Hot Springs Road is usually closed with a gate at the Lake Mills Overlook, about 3.8 miles from the Elwha River Bridge at Altaire Campground. The route is up the closed road about 1.3 miles to the spot where the summer trailhead is located.
From there, you'll follow the old roadbed another 2.3 miles to the old auto campground, then cross the raging Boulder Creek to the hot springs. The pools at Olympic Hot Springs are built by users, who often disregard Olympic National Park's rule about bathing suits.
If you are offended by naked humans, perhaps the best advice is: don't look.
You'll probably find at least five pools, isolated in the woods and brush uphill from the trail, and in the winter, you can probably find one all to yourself.
Since the start of this hike is only 1,700 feet above sea level, you'll probably be able to walk on pavement for part of the way before encountering snow. Some hot springs visitors ride mountain bikes, even in winter.
Snowshoers and skiers may find that the snow is deep enough on part of the road to enjoy their sport, too. Because the road isn't maintained, any snow that falls on the road stays until the spring thaw.
I've seen anywhere from 3 inches to 3 feet of snow on the road in the winter.
Best time to try skiing or snowshoeing is when you see snow collecting the Olympic foothills to the west.
It's about a 2-hour drive for most West Sound residents. Take Highway 104 across Hood Canal Bridge to Highway 101 and follow it to Port Angeles. If you wish to bypass the downtown area, turn left on Race Street and follow it to Lauridsen Boulevard. Hang a right on Lauridsen and rejoin Highway 101 at the west end of town.
Drive another 8.7 miles west of Port Angeles on Highway 101 to the Elwha River Road. Turn left on the Elwha River Road and follow it to the Olympic National Park entrance.
Depending upon the day and time you get there, you may be asked to pay a $10-per-carload entrance fee for a 7-day park pass. Stay on the Elwha River Road past the entrance booth and drive another 3.1 miles past the Elwha Ranger Station, crossing the Elwha River and passing Altaire Campground on the right.
For the most part, the route climbs gently through splendid old forest.
Boulder Creek crashes and rumbles in a steep canyon below, sometimes visible at switchbacks where Mother Nature has clawed parts of the road away.
You're still on the "dry" side of the Olympic Mountains, where the growth under the huge Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar is primarily salal. Deer often rattle the leaves of this evergreen as they run through it.
Skiers will have the toughest time navigating a couple of steeper downhill sections of the road on the way to the hot springs, where the road drops to cross Hell and Crystal creeks. Watch for washouts here, and be prepared to take your skis off if the water crosses the road.
Allow about 2 hours to get to the hot springs if you start from the Lake Mills overlook. The last time I was able to ski from there, it took me about 1.5 hours to get to the hot springs and about 30 minutes to get out on an exhilarating, mostly downhill run.
Campers wishing to make a weekend winter outing will find the Elwha Campground open but without running water and one loop of the Heart O' the Hills Campground open, with running water. Heart O' the Hills Campground is located on the Hurricane Ridge Road and can be reached from the Elwha Road by taking the Little River Road when snow-free past Lake Dawn.
Don't soak too long. Remember: you've got almost 4 miles to hike out.
The Olympic Hot Springs hike and 13 other Olympic cross-country ski and snowshoe routes are among 70 trails and hills detailed in the Sasquatch book, "Backcountry Ski! Washington," by Seabury Blair Jr.