Outdoors Q and A - September 2000
Seabury Blair Jr.
Sept 28, 2000:
Sept 1, 2000:
Q - I am planning a 6 day backpacking trip in the northeastern Olympics in late September. My tentative route is as follows: Obstruction Peak, south to Lost Pass, east to Gray Wolf Pass, north to Deer Park, west to Obstruction Peak. My buddy and I are in good shape and are very experienced in the eastern US. mts. but, I am looking for some local advice on how tough a loop this is really going to be... ie...Is this a reasonable route for a 6 day trip? My rig is 40 lbs.
- Mark LeMaster
A - Your proposed hike has a special place in my heart because it was my honeymoon hike, way back in September, 1970. The only difference was that we started at Deer Park instead of Obstruction Point. We planned a 9-day outing, with 3 days at Cedar Lake, where I'd heard the fishing was good (my single reason for shouldering a backpack in those days was to catch fish).
We had a wonderful time, even when our tent was lifted off the ground while we were inside by an incredible wind and storm at Cedar Lake. Like everyone who backpacks, I suppose I've forgotten the truly miserable parts.
Anyway, the backpack turned out to be a good deal farther and more difficult than I thought. I have since learned that it is much easier to hike on the map than it is once you're on the trail. I'll bet that's a lesson you've learned, too.
Let's take a look at your proposed route:
Starting at Obstruction Point, the trail first climbs 300 vertical feet in a half-mile, crosses a plateau and drops 300 feet to contour to the ridge above Grand Lake, where it alternately climbs and drops in 1.5 miles before finally switchbacking steeply down to the Grand and Moose Lake Valleys. Your goal would be Moose Lake, 4.1 miles and 1,175 feet below Obstruction Point.
From Moose Lake, you begin to climb again past little Gladys Lake (where there a couple of excellent campsites) towards Grand Pass. Grand Pass is 6,450 feet above sea level and 6 miles from Obstruction Point. You climb about 1,400 feet from Moose Lake. It is not uncommon to find lingering snowfields at the top of Grand Pass, even in September.
From Grand Pass, you will drop in steep switchbacks to a junction with the Upper Cameron Trail, 2,300 feet and 1.9 knee-busting miles below. You are now 8 miles from the trailhead - more than 9 if you count the vertical mile you've climbed and dropped.
At the Upper Cameron Trail Junction, you again begin to climb more gently towards Cameron Pass, climbing 1,100 feet in 2.4 miles to Upper Cameron, the site of an old shelter, then another 1,350 feet in 1.3 miles to 6,450-foot-high Cameron Pass.
But wait! There's more!
From Cameron Pass, you drop into beautiful Lost Creek Basin, one of the most splendid and beautiful alpine valleys in Olympic National Park. The trail drops about 1,100 feet in about 1.2 miles before crossing the Lost Creek headwaters and climbing about 200 feet to Lost Pass, 5,650 fet above sea level.
The 0.8-mile section of trail -if it can be called that - that drops from Lost Pass to Dose Meadows is the steepest trail you'll encounter. You drop 1,200 feet in less than a mile on a rocky, root-bound path that will surely put your Vibrams to the test - not to mention knee cartilage.
Dose Meadows is another great camp, though likely more crowded than the high country of Lost Basin. It's also more civilized, with a bear wire and outhouse.
From Dose Meadows, you'll drop another 800 feet and 3.6 miles past Bear Camp to the Graywolf Pass Trail Junction. This is a fine, well-graded trail, with Bear Camp being the closest good campsite to the Graywolf Pass Trail Junction, 1.8 miles down the trail.
At the junction, you'll begin to climb again to 6,150-foot Graywolf Pass, gaining 2,500 vertical feet in 3.4 miles. There's one flat campsite about 1.2 miles up the trail from the junction, but you may not find water there at this time of year. There's another spot about 2.7 miles up with water and a great view, but your quarters would be cramped. There's also a camp at the pass, but water is about 0.3 miles down the pass on the other side.
From Graywolf Pass, you drop down the Graywolf River, passing Falls Shelter in 4.1 miles and 2,200 feet below. Falls Shelter is a great spot and the start of the 3-mile way-trail that climbs to Cedar Lake.
Continuing down the trail, you'll pass Camp Ellis 2.9 in 2.9 miles and another 1,000 vertical feet (not a great place to stop) and hike another 2.7 miles to Three Forks Trail Junction. This is the low point of your trip, at 2,150 feet above sea level.
It is all uphill from there, and I do mean UP. After crossing the Graywolf River, you start a 4.5-mile, 3,400-foot climb up to Deer Park. There is only one place to get water along this trail and it is certainly one of the longest, consistently uphill slogs I've ever made in the Olympics - a real killer with a backpack after all you've already done.
Once at Deer Park, you've only about 7.6 miles to hike back to your car at Obstruction Point. The trail drops 400 feet, then climbs about 400 before dropping steeply 500 feet to Roaring Winds Camp, about 4 miles from Deer Park.
At Roaring Winds (which is hardly a camp, without anything but snowmelt), you immediately climb back that 500 feet in steep switchbacks, then cross a beautiful alpine plateau (where you can look down into Grand Valley and across to Grand Pass) before dropping and gaining about 300 feet at the head of Badger Valley before reaching the Obstruction Point parking lot.
Hey. I'm exhausted just writing about it.
I make it 43.6 miles on my map, or just a little more than 7 miles a day. That can be done, as I say, but there's an awful lot of uphill and downhill to be reckoned with. You cross 5 major Olympic Mountain passes, including the two highest in the park.
When you factor in the possibility of bad weather - snow is a very real possibility in late September - and shorter days, you've chosen a mighty tough hike. Incidentally, check the Obstruction Point Road to make certain it is open (they usually close it at nights in September) before heading out. The Olympic National Park Wilderness Information Center (360) 452-0300 should have that information for you.
You asked about the possibility of a loop trip and said you might be willing to try a cross-country route. Here's a route that gets you into much the same country, but is shorter than what you propose. It takes you from Gladys Lake cross-country to Lake Lillian, then along the Cameron Ridge to Cameron Pass. You return via trail down the Upper Cameron Trail and over Grand Pass, then out past Gladys Lake. A good day trip might be to explore Lost Creek Basin from a camp at or near Cameron Pass.
Get out your USGS quads (McCartney Peak,Wellesley Peak, and Maiden Peak) and follow along:
You start at Obstruction Point and hike to Gladys Lake on the trail. From a spot just above Gladys Lake on the trail, you pass under an obvious low, flat saddle on the ridge to the west of the trail. The ridge, 5,920 feet above sea level, looks like shale and dirt at along the top.
Leave the trail and climb to the top of the saddle. There's a ramp in the dirt leading up to the saddle at the north end of the saddle.
Once on top, walk southerly along the ridge crest until you can see the remnants of a rockslide tumbling off the ridge to the west. Begin a descending traverse to the southwest, just under the cliff bands, across the rockslide, dropping into the Lillian River Valley. Aim for a rock outcropping just below steep shale and cliffs on the other side of the rockslide.
From the outcropping, drop in steep meadow down to the headwaters of the Lillian River. You should hit meadows at about 4,560 feet, just above the spot where the Lilian River branches.
The southerly branch tumbles from the southeast from the remnant Lillian Glacier, to the south. The branch to the southwest drains Lillian Lake.
Cross above the confluence of the two branches, then follow the southwest branch to Lake Lillian. Stay on the southeast side of the creek, climbing into a basin just below the lake at 5,440 feet.
Climb the steep, mossy headwall to the lake basin, where you'll find a beautiful campsite on a plateau at the north end of the lake. You'll find a second, smaller lake to the north of Lake Lillian, about 80 feet higher.
From Lake Lillian, climb the steep snowfield to the south to the obvious saddle just west of McCartney Peak. This saddle is about 6,240 feet above sea level.
From there, drop about 200 feet into the basin south of McCartney Peak. You'll probably be able to see signs of an old trail traversing this basin, heading southeast towards the Cameron Ridge. Traverse to the southeast, using parts of the trail as you can see them, until you see a tarn just below Peak 6,728.
At this point, the ridge above you to the east begins to flatten and you can climb to about 6,400 feet to a saddle where you can look down into the Upper Cameron and see the Upper Cameron Trail and basin below you. This 6,440-foot saddle leads southeast to Cameron Pass and the trail, less than a mile distant.
Follow the 6,400-foot contour under Peaks 6,687 and 6733 on benches before beginning a climbing traverse to Cameron Pass. Possibly the best camp is a mile down the trail to the south in Lost Creek Basin, where you cross the headwaters of the Lost River.
A more scenic camp is about a half-mile above the creek crossing in splendid blueberry meadows, with a view of Mt. Olympus to the west. You can follow Lost Creek to its headwaters and two splendid rockbound tarns - the highest surrounded by rock and broken quartz crystals at 5,900 feet.
If you camped at Gladys the first night, you could make Lillian the second and Lost Basin the third and fourth nights. Perhaps you could spend a day there, exploring Lost Basin or day-hiking down Lost Pass to Dose Meadows.
You'd likely have to drop into the Upper Cameron and stay at Grand Pass for the fifth night (there's a little tarn just west of the pass where you can get water); then hike out from Grand Pass.
Lake Lillian is also a great turnaround spot, with at least two day-hikes from camp; one to Cameron Pass and one to the top of McCartney Peak, then down the remnant Lillian Glacier and Lillian Creek to the confluence, then back up the southwest branch to camp.
For another description of the cross-country route from Grand Valley to Cameron Pass, see Page 169 of the "Climber's Guide to the Olympic Mountains."
Now, there's a price you must pay for this information: you must send me a complete report of your adventure, with photos if you get some, so I can post it on my Web site. Have a great trip!