Seabury Blair Jr.
January 03, 2001:
Q - Which do you think would be a better summer trip?
a) hike up the North Fork Quinault River and then making a loop using the Skyline Trail
b) a trip going up the East Fork Quinault through Anderson Pass and the Enchanted Valley and on to follow Dosewallips
c) going up the Hoh River, on to Glacier Meadows
I would like bearable crowds and a pretty diverse range of scenery that encompasses the temperate rain forests and alpine terrain. It would also be helpful to know the length of time that would be spent on each of these.
- John Allen, Greenville, SC
A - Thanks for your note about a summer hike in Olympic National Park. You've got three great potential backpacks in mind.
Here's a closer look at all three:
NORTH FORK QUINAULT-SKYLINE TRAIL
This is one of my all-time favorite backpacks in the Olympic Mountains. It starts almost at sea level (500 feet), follows the North Fork of the Quinault River for 12.2 miles before fording it and climbing to Low Divide, a splendid subalpine meadow at 3,600 feet and 15.8 miles from the trailhead where it joins the Skyline Trail.
The Skyline Trail is a "backcountry trail" that doesn't get much maintenance and is very difficult to follow in some places, especially around Promise Creek Divide, Kimta Peak and Lake Beauty. For this reason, it isn't as heavily used as many of the trails in the park. The last time I was on the Skyline Trail, there wasn't a single sign or trail marker from Low Divide to Three Prune camp, a distance of about 17 miles, although we found an ancient wooden sign on the ground that identified Mount Seattle.
The Skyline Trail climbs into beautiful alpine country from Seattle Creek Basin to Lake Beauty and Three Prune, alternately moving from wide meadows to alpine conifer forest. Elevations range from 4,500 to 5,100 feet the entire 17 miles.
The area is well-known for the wildlife you'll likely encounter along the way, with large herds of Roosevelt elk especially visible in the fall, black bear, deer and Olympic Marmot whistling everywhere. Once at Three Prune, you can follow the Skyline Trail 1.5 miles southwest to a trail junction, then descend 4.6 miles to the North Fork of the Quinault River, 6.5 miles upstream from the trailhead.
In the alternative, you can stay on the Skyline Trail for another 2.8 miles, then descend past Three Lakes, Big Creek and Irely Lakes to the North Fork Quinault Road, 0.7 miles downstream from the North Fork Trailhead.
Besides the difficulty in routefinding, I'd guess two other things might concern you: the weather and the snowpack. Because the Skyline Trail and Quinault are located on the wet west side of the Olympic Mountains, you'll be traversing some of the rainiest country in all of the Olympics. Rainfall along the Skyline Trail averages much more than 100 inches a year and even in July - the driest month of the year - a backpacker is fortunate indeed to enjoy 7 days of sunshine. Rainfall here means fog, too, which makes routefinding even more difficult.
All of that precip falls as snow in the winter, and that snow lingers long from Seattle Creek Basin to Three Prune. Unless you plan your trip in late August, you'll be hiking through several miles of snowpatches. I hiked the Skyline Trail once in September and found perhaps 15 percent of the trail under snow and to make matters worse, it snowed two inches on me at Low Divide.
Still, the scenery is incredible, the wildlife abounds, crowds are few and you will definitely get a wilderness experience. If you figure you'll average 8 miles a day, you should allow 6 days for the 44-mile hike, excluding rest days.
EAST FORK QUINAULT-ANDERSON PASS
This is one of my all-time favorite backpacks in the Olympic Mountains. It starts at near sea-level (575 feet), follows the East Fork of the Quinault for 13.2 miles to Enchanted Valley, then climbs to Anderson Pass at 4,400 feet in 5 miles, then descends the Dosewallips River for 10.5 miles. Enchanted Valley is truly impressive in the early summer, with waterfalls all over the place and snow-draped mountains hunkering over the valley. Anderson Pass is a magical place, where you can climb to the toe of a glacier or swim in an icebound lake, assuming you are really crazy. The Dosewallips River at Honeymoon Meadows is splendid subalpine scenery and Diamond Meadows make a great spot for lazing around in the sunshine.
Three things you'll want to check on if you choose this hike: the East Fork Road from the bridge to Graves Creek Campground, a distance of 6.3 miles, has been closed by massive washouts and may not be open by next summer; the Enchanted Valley bridge over the Quinault has washed out and the river must be forded (a woman drowned at that spot late last summer); and the High Dose Bridge (about 2.2 miles from the Dosewallips Trailhead) collapsed three years ago, but was due to be replaced this fall and next spring.
This hike is likely to be more crowded than the Skyline Trail, but if the bridge or bridges are still out, it could thin the crowds a bit. Your hike would be about 30 miles, excluding side-trips to the Anderson Glacier.
The weather on this hike would be more schizoid than the Skyline Trail. Expect a greater likelihood of rain while hiking the East Fork and a better chance of sunshine on the Dosewallips, especially around Honeymoon and Diamond Meadows. I'd allow 4 days, minimum.
HOH RIVER-GLACIER MEADOWS
This is one of my all-time favorite backpacks in the Olympic Mountains (by now you may have realized that any backpack in the Olympics is my all-time favorite). It starts virtually at sea-level (575 feet) and follows the Hoh River through spectacular rain forest for 11.5 miles to a high bridge over the Hoh, then climbs for about 6 miles to a rocky perch overlooking the mighty Blue Glacier, 5,000 feet above sea level.
It is likely to be the most crowded hike, too, with droves of backpackers and climbers making the pilgrimage to 7,965-foot Mount Olympus, the home of the Blue Glacier. You'll almost certainly see Roosevelt elk in the lowlands of the Hoh and will be traversing one of the areas where cougar sightings are frequently reported.
The first 10 miles of this hike are relatively unchallenging, with a total elevation gain of about 500 feet. Keeping out of the mudmires in the first 9 miles are going to be the biggest test. I'd say that this hike offers the greatest variety of scenery, from conifers that were a century old before Columbus arrived on our shores, to a glacier that was ancient when those trees were born. You should definitely be prepared for rain and I have encountered six inches of new snow at Glacier Meadows the last week of June.
The hike is about 35 miles, round-trip. I'd figure 4 days, minimum and would recommend at least 5 or 6.
I guess if I had to choose from the three hikes you suggest, I'd take the Skyline Trail. In the alternative, I'd suggest you take two backpacks: a 3-day trip up the Hoh to Olympus Shelter, with a day-hike up to Glacier Meadows (17 miles, round-trip) or Bogachiel Peak via Hoh Lake (16 miles, round-trip); and then a 4-day trip in the dry, sunny high country around Royal Basin (15-miles, round-trip) at the headwaters of the Dungeness River.
Finally, let me know if you need a sherpa!
- Mr. Outdoors