Cedar Lake - Graywolf Pass: one scenic traverse!
Jul 16 '00 (Updated Jul 16 '00)
Gorgeous views, few people
Steep, rugged: even the access road!
Full Review A note about wilderness travel: for safety's sake, travel in groups of four. If one person gets hurt, a partner remains with the victim and the other two travel together to get help. Know your abilities and remain within them, be in adequate shape, and carry the right gear for the job.
Having said that, I usually travel solo. I know the risks and I prepare for them. I nearly always carry an ice axe and crampons. As an anti-bear measure I always hang my food at night, and maintain a clean camp. I sterilize my drinking water religiously. I leave an itinerary with friends, which I stick to. I also carry USGS topographical maps on every trip. Still, I assume a great deal of risk that I find personally acceptable. I do not advocate solo wilderness travel in any case. To do so is your personal decision. Make it wisely.
Cedar Lake lies at the upper end of Olympic National Park's Graywolf Basin. Getting there is a bit of a challenge. The drive to Deer Park Campground is as death-defying as any part of the hike. The gravel Deer Park road switchbacks steeply up from U.S. 101 near the town of Port Angeles. Hugging the sides of steep ridges, it gains 5400 feet of elevation in 16 miles. The road is narrow, may be blocked with snow until mid-summer, and rockfall is frequent. Turnouts are few, making it a challenge for two vehicles to pass. Still, the view from Deer Park Campground is incredible--a vast sweep from Hurricane Ridge to the ocean.
My car and I finally reached the Deer Park Campground in early afternoon. Since it was late summer, I'd been lucky enough to bring some softball-sized, eastern Washington peaches. The ranger ambled by, cadged a peach, and we yakked about trail conditions over lunch. Backcountry rangers are always great sources of trail information and should be consulted whenever possible. Full of lunch and fresh trail information, I shouldered the pack and headed down the Three Forks trail.
The descent to Three Forks is dropping into a deep hole. One descends 3300 feet in only 4-1/2 miles. I'd once gotten flooded out at Three Forks by late season rains. I had to pack a soaking wet sleeping bag UP that 3300- foot climb! Never again. There isn't much to say about the views here, except that it's a "backwards" trail. It starts in pretty alpine meadows and descends through forest into a deep, timbered canyon.
Three Forks itself is a junction of Grand Creek, Cameron Creek, and the upper Graywolf River. Needless to say, a lot of water funnels through here and the streams can rise quickly from rain that may fall several miles away. Never, ever camp next to the water at Three Forks!
Once at Three Forks, I stopped at the old trail shelter--a badly dilapidated, garbage-strewn affair that I found thoroughly depressing. Much nicer camps may be found on level ground throughout the area. Don't bother with the trail shelter. I left Three Forks, travelling through thick timber along the Graywolf River toward Falls Camp, another old shelter. The route is strenuous and broken as it ascends about 1700 feet in 5-1/2 miles. Frequent winter avalanches push trees and debris into parts of the trail. Stands of beautiful, old-growth timber are interspersed with tangles of slide alder and nettles. As one approaches Falls Camp, the trees become subalpine and the grade improves.
Falls Camp Shelter is home to one big pack rat. As usual, I had the shelter to myself since few people travel the upper Graywolf. The shelter boasts a wood floor and good bunks, and sits in a little meadow near a small stream. Horse packers use the site fairly often, as evidenced by the abundant "meadow muffins" in the camp area. Good tent sites may be had in several small meadows beyond the shelter.
About the pack rat: these critters are sort of an animal extension of IRS. They 'tax' you by running off with anything and everything: small tools, pocket change, car keys, and utensils have all fallen victim to pack rats. The Falls Camp rat lives in the shelter. Life must be good because this is one fat, sleek rodent. I unpacked my gear and ate a late dinner by lantern light, as darkness fell on the Graywolf Basin. Later, snuffing the lantern, I sacked out. That's when IT got up. I'd hung my food in a tree, and my pack from a nail in the ceiling of the shelter. The unmistakable sound of rodent claws on nylon woke me up. A rat! I'd gone so far as to leave every pack pocket unzipped (to prevent chew holes) and I could hear my furry friend rummaging for souvenirs. I aimed a flashlight beam and caught a blur of fur speeding toward his nest. Me, 1. Rat, 0. The night was still young and I had to sleep sometime.
Next Round: it felt like a house cat walking on my leg. Since I didn't bring a cat, that left few possibilities, none of them pleasant. I kicked both legs, sending Mr. Rat for an impromptu meeting with the wall. Back to sleep. Next, the little devil started chewing on my stove parts so I "beamed" him with the flashlight again. He left. Back to sleep. He'd run around on the upper bunk, eating bits of granola or raisins from the last occupants. He finally left me and my gear alone, or so I thought. Morning found me still in possession of all my keys, eyeglasses, and tools but the little b****** chewed up the brim of my favorite hat and left a hole in the knee of my pants. Nothing I could do but smile and get dressed.
Not far beyond the shelter lies the beginning of the Cedar Lake "trail". This unofficial path, beaten out by the boots of countless fishermen is rough, overgrown, and hard to follow. I pushed my way through short, thick stands of evergreens, slogged across several subalpine marshes, and dealt with the ever-present stinging nettles that obscured the trail. The route stair-steps up several old moraine piles, crosses intermittent meadows filled with lupine and other wildflowers, and nearly disappears in stands of subalpine firs and cedars. I finally broke out of the timber, crossing Cedar creek near a pretty waterfall. From here the route began to open up as it ascended to the treeline.
The alpine basin that surrounds Cedar Lake is simply spectacular. The eastern flank of Mt. Cameron rises steeply from the lake, forming the solid western wall of the old glacial valley. The lake, a tarn, fills the depression created by a long absent glacier. Small snowfields can be found even in late summer, keeping the lake filled with crystalline waters. Rainbow trout, stocked with no small effort, cruise the lake, feeding on abundant mosquitoes. Fish here, but release your catch. At only 24 acres, Cedar Lake must be treated with care.
I camped on an old, well used site near the outlet of the lake. A stand of rather tall alpine timber provides shade while allowing constant breezes to keep the mosquitoes away. Few campsites exist at Cedar Lake, so plan a visit during weekdays, or after Labor Day. Otherwise, you'll likely be picking for a campsite some distance back along the trail. I pitched my tent, an old Eureka! Crescent (great tent for solo hikers) on a slab of rock, secured the pack in a tree, and headed to the lake for a little trout fishing.
Cedar Lake trout are survivors. They spend much of the year looking at the underside of a thick patch of lake ice, while the sterile waters support little aquatic food. Summer melts the ice and brings throngs (and I mean throngs) of mosquitoes. The fish feed voraciously in the limited growing season, but grow little. They rose readily to my dry flies but often struck short. I caught a few, lost a few, and released all. I hadn't come equipped to cook fresh fish anyway. Growing bored with the fishing, I ambled around the lake in warm afternoon sunshine.
The next day found me picking my route carefully along the eastern shore of the lake. I was headed for the steep ridge that formed the upper end of the glacial cirque. I planned to scale the ridge, descend its far side, and regain the upper Graywolf trail where it ascended Graywolf Pass. This route, although short, is steep and very strenuous. Glaciers always leave behind a terrific mess of broken, unstable rock. I ascended this carefully, gaining the ridgetop in a few hours. The view from here is unbelievable. Cedar Lake and its valley fan out in one direction. Mt. Cameron rears one massive shoulder straight out from the ridge, seemingly close enough to touch. On the opposite slope, small ponds dot the obvious route to the upper Graywolf trail. Beyond them is the steep, switch-backed ridge that forms Graywolf Pass itself. These are some of the highest routes in the Olympic mountains, and far below lies the treeline.
Because of the steepness, I used a long-handled ice axe for support as I descended the ridge to the Graywolf trail. Loose, sharp-edged scree demand careful going. On my left hand is a long scar, a cut from a fall on a scree slope. I've learned the hard way to travel carefully here. Within an hour I'd regained the Graywolf trail and began the difficult ascent to Graywolf Pass. No trees or water lie on this part of the trail. It's hot, dusty, and steep. A slip here means a long slide down loose rock, so be careful. I'd traded the ice axe for my usual walking stick, and stick and I tapped a slow rythm up the pass. Amazingly enough, horse tracks and droppings testified to the fact that horse packers use this route. Reaching the 6150 ft. pass (so proclaimed by a signpost), I shed the pack and wandered the hills to either side of the pass, taking in the amazing views. Then I sat down for a well- deserved lunch break before making the drop to the popular Dosewallips trail.
Best time to go: Aug-Sep