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January 23, 1997
Take common sense, right gear when hiking Little River Trail

By KAREN SYKES
SPECIAL TO THE POST-INTELLIGENCER

Why do hundreds hike to Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness or Mount Rainier's Paradise Nature Trail and ignore the hidden gems scattered about Washington's backcountry?

The Little River Trail is one of those seldom-visited but beautiful hikes, one of the best kept secrets in Olympic National Park. And you don't have to be a world-class mountaineer to visit such places. Just pack some common sense, the ability to turn back when in doubt, and the essential hiking gear.

A few years ago, my spouse John and I were caught by a sudden snowstorm in Port Angeles and looked for a nearby hike we could drive to. We discovered the Little River Trail, which begins at only 990 feet of elevation and eventually climbs eight miles, with 4,000 feet of gain, to Hurricane Ridge.

Save the high stuff for summer. But you can wander the South Branch Little River for a few miles in winter before it starts climbing into heavy snow.

Fresh snow added to the beauty of this already beautiful trail when we hiked it, highlighted by several stream crossings and basalt boulders.

The trail starts in second-growth forest on state land, but once inside the park you'll enjoy majestic old-growth fir, cedar and hemlock, and there's even an abandoned mine if you feel like exploring.

The trail crosses the south branch 10 times or so, but around the sixth crossing you'll probably want to call it a day because the trail begins to climb into avalanche-prone high country.

You definitely will want to bring a camera. There are plenty of places to camp if you like to backpack in winter.

Getting there
Drive through Port Angeles on Highway 101 to Elwha River Road, 8 1/2 miles west of town. The Little River Road begins two-tenths of a mile south of 101. Pavement ends at the junction with Black Diamond Road in about 3 1/2 miles. Look for a small parking area on the left.

Trail detail
The trail descends to a bridge crossing the Little River and enters the park in about a mile. Rotting stumps with springboard cuts offer silent testimony to earlier logging days in this section. Once the park is reached you'll enter old-growth and reach the first of the stream crossings, all of which are spanned by foot logs except for the last three.

There is a campsite near the second crossing and a fork in the trail. The right branch leads to the old mine. Look for Gnome Rock and the basalt boulders between the fourth and sixth crossings. Each crossing is unique. I recall one log entirely covered with thick moss.

The sixth crossing is probably where you'll want to stop, at about 2-1/2 miles, which makes for an easy walk for just about the whole family.

Trail data It's a five-mile round trip to the picturesque stream crossing, with an elevation gain of about 300 feet. To Gnome Rock is a four-mile round trip. For more information, see "Olympic Mountains Trail Guide" by Robert L. Wood (The Mountaineers, 304 pages, $14.95).


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