June 11, 1998
By KAREN SYKES
SPECIAL TO THE POST-INTELLIGENCER
The first time I visited Royal Basin in Olympic National Park was not under the best of circumstances. It was a rainy Labor Day weekend and my hiking partner had taken a face-plant on the trail and was grumpy.
Worse, she dropped her camera in a stream, and having a malfunctioning camera in Royal Basin is almost as bad as not being there.
By the time we reached Shelter Rock near Royal Lake, an area blackened from hundreds of campfires (now banned in the park at elevations above 3,500 feet), the rain had stopped and mist hung in the valley. We had the place to ourselves.
We explored the upper basin the rest of the afternoon and found it bleak yet beautiful, an alpine mosaic of rocky moraines and hard summer snow. The lower basin is more gentle, with streams zigzagging across the meadows. Deception Peak sat like a king above the meadows and stony basins.
I returned years later with my husband, John. Deception Peak still ruled the domain, the meadows were in flower, and the glacier-fed lake where we camped was as quiet as jade. We ran out of film long before we ran out of weekend.
Mountain goats came to visit as we gazed at the face of Deception, where a recent fatality had taken place, and we watched in disbelief as a couple with a small child descended from the icy face. We were relieved when no one fell.
Other summits beckon climbers, too: the Needles, Fricaba, the Sundial.
While it can be done as a day hike, a backpack is recommended. It is sacrilege to race through such scenery, and the entire trail is rewarding. It begins in cool forest, follows the Dungeness River in a rich environment of moss, bracken fern and vanilla leaf, cooled by the shadows of big Douglas fir and hemlock.
The trail climbs through small meadows with views of Graywolf Ridge, and the conifers begin to disappear. Look for a huge fir on your right and say hello -- it's a friend of mine.
The trail continues to climb and reaches the lower part of the basin and Royal Lake at 5,100 feet. There are campsites in the woods and in the sedge meadow at the head of the basin. Shelter Rock, if not occupied, is to the west, reached by a path around the upper end of the lake. It is formed of pillow lava and overhangs on the west side.
Several paths lead to the upper basin and more glory: rolling meadows sprinkled with boulders, steep headwalls at the upper end and superb views of the surrounding peaks.
From Sequim, drive east on U.S. Route 101 to Palo Alto Road, about a 1.5 miles beyond Sequim Bay State Park, and turn right. Drive to the end of the pavement at 6 miles. The road becomes Forest Road 28. Drive 3 miles to Forest Road 2860, then turn right and drive 11.7 miles to the Upper Dungeness trailhead. Avoid Forest Road 2870.
The trail begins by following the Dungeness River and reaches a junction at a mile, elevation 2,700 feet. Take the right fork, on the Royal Basin Trail. At about 1.5 miles the trail enters Olympic National Park and begins to climb, crossing several small meadows. The valley bends in a southerly direction and at 6 miles the trail enters lower Royal Basin and meadows strewn with big boulders. Cross Royal Creek on a rickety bridge and reach Royal Lake at 7 miles, 5,100 feet.
Round trip to Royal Lake is 14 miles, with an elevation gain of 2,600 feet. The trail usually is snow-free by late June or early July. For more information, see "Olympic Mountains Trail Guide" by Robert L. Wood (The Mountaineers, 303 pages, $14.95).
Karen Sykes is a Queen Anne resident and avid hiker who has been traveling Northwest trails for 18 years.