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December 25, 1997
Elwha Trail offers holiday glow without much snow


Once, a friend and I celebrated Christmas backpacking up the Elwha Trail. Christmas in the city just felt like a bad idea that year. In a low-snow year, the Elwha is perfect for a long, philosophical backpacking hike or a holiday stroll with the family, as the trail is often snowfree for several miles.

Camping in the Olympics that winter was the best gift we could have given ourselves. The wilderness had a holiday glow of its own -- it hadn't rained for days and the forest was bathed in soft, golden light. We cooked a spartan dinner in the shelter at Elkhorn, as the red eyes of raccoons peered at us from the deepening dusk.

The Elwha Trail begins from Whiskey Bend. You may wonder about the story behind that name. According to local legend, when the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a roadway from the Elwha Ranger Station to Hurricane Ridge, they encountered steep slopes, and the work proved difficult. As the road neared the location of a sharp bend, the foreman told the crew he would buy them all whiskey if they'd extend the road to that point.

The Elwha provides a natural pathway into the interior of the Olympics and though it is an easy trail to walk today, there was no trail in 1885 when Lt. Joseph P. O'Neil sent part of a military expedition up the river to explore, followed by the Press Expedition in 1889-90.

The valley was formed by glaciation, plus erosion caused by the Elwha on its roller-coaster descent to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The river has its source in the Elwha Snowfinger near the center of the mountain range.

Winter is a good time to view wildlife, especially Roosevelt elk (visit Elk Overlook, a rocky outcrop with a view). Incidentally, the park and Vancouver Island harbor the only pure stock of the native subspecies of elk. Elk populations were nearly decimated, but due to the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt the elk were allowed to recover.

A good turnaround is Camp Lillian, 4.5 miles from the trailhead, but if you are backpacking, this camp is dark and damp and there are better camps farther on. Strong hikers can continue on to Elkhorn Camp at 11.5 miles, without significant elevation gain. If the weather is decent, allow three days to fully savor the experience. We made it all the way to Hayes River Ranger Station (17 miles) without a trace of snow.

If you have only a day or are hiking with small children, we recommend the Krause Bottom Trail or Rica Canyon Trail -- both begin from the Elwha Trail. Humes Ranch is reached from the Krause Bottom Trail, a worthy destination any time of the year. Humes Ranch is now a historic site, named after William Humes, who explored the area early in the century. When he left the area in 1914, his brother, Grant, maintained the 120-acre homestead and orchard, making his living by hunting cougars and leading groups (including Mountaineers) into the mountains.

Getting there
Catch a ferry and drive to Port Angeles. Drive through Port Angeles, stay on U.S. Highway 101 and turn left on the Elwha River Road, 8.5 miles west of Port Angeles. Drive four miles to the Elwha Ranger Station, elevation 300 feet. The road to Whiskey Bend (it once went all the way to Hurricane Ridge) branches to the left near the Ranger Station and climbs to Whiskey Bend 4.3 miles, elevation 1,198 feet.

Trail detail
The Rica Canyon Trail (also known as Goblin Gates Trail) leaves the Elwha Trail 1.1 miles from the trailhead and descends to the head of Rica (or Goblin Canyon). The trail intersects the Geyser Valley trail above Goblin Gates and turns right following the river to end on the brink of the canyon. Here the river flows alongside a cliff and suddenly stops, whirling in a deep basin before passing through a break in the rock wall. It is called Goblin Gates because the broken rocks resemble the faces of goblins.

Krause Bottom Trail: The Krause Bottom Trail is accessed 1.5 miles along the Elwha Trail. The trail drops to a small clearing with gnarled fruit trees and to a junction below a clearing. The right branch (Geyser Valley Trail) leads to Goblin Gates. The Krause Bottom Trail continues left, descends to Geyser Valley and another junction. Again stay left as the trail traverses river bottoms before reaching Humes Ranch in about a mile. Campsites are below the cabin, which has been restored and preserved by the National Park Service. Ancient fruit trees add ambience to the scene.

The Elwha Trail: The trail begins at Whiskey Bend, passing through second-growth forest and sections of old-growth for several miles. A spur trail descends to Elk Overlook in less than a mile. Beyond the overlook the trail passes through the devastation of a forest fire. Midway through the burn (about 1.1 miles), you'll intersect the Rica Canyon Trail. The Krause Bottom Trail is reached at 1.5 miles.

Beyond Camp Lillian the trail climbs to a high point of 2,000 feet before descending to the banks of the Elwha. Pass several camps -- Mary's Fall Camp at 8.8 miles, Camp Baltimore at nine miles, and Canyon Camp at 10 miles. Elkhorn Camp is at 11.5 miles, situated in a grassy meadow with a good view of the Elwha and mountains to the west. This is probably as far as you'll go this time of year as the trail is 28 miles long before ending in the meadows of Elwha Basin, 2,700 feet.

Trail data
Elwha River Trail to Camp Elkhorn -- 11.5 miles one way, elevation gain 1,150 feet. Elwha Trail to Camp Lillian -- 4.5 miles one way, elevation gain about 950 feet. Rica Canyon Trail -- less than four miles round trip (from the car). Krause Bottom Trail to Humes Ranch about 5 1/4 miles round trip (from the car).

See "The Trail Guide to Olympic National Park" by Erik Molvar (Falcon Press, 226 pages, $14.95).

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