Updated: Nov 5, 2022
This week, I would like to share my story of backpacking through Olympic National Park in Washington State. This is one of my favorite National Parks in the USA, primarily due to how many diverse ecosystems are contained within the park’s boundaries. The park boasts beaches, rain forests, and mountain ranges. The closest city to this park is Seattle, which is where I flew into to start this trip. There are two options for getting to the park from Seattle. One option would be drive onto the ferry which will sail across the Puget sound towards the Olympic Peninsula. The ferry ride itself lasts for about an hour and provides a fun and scenic experience on its own. Once you arrive at the Olympic Peninsula, the drive from the dock to Port Angeles will take another hour. This town is the largest one in this region and will provide the most amenities in terms of lodging and dining; however, it would be considered a small town by most standards. I do not say this to take anything away from the town, I was able to find many excellent restaurants in the region that specialized in local seafood and the lodging I stayed at was immaculate. The entire town is extremely scenic as it is nestled near the front of the Olympic Mountain Range rising above it. But keep in mind, that this is not a large city so do not expect all the amenities that are usually found within larger cities. The second option for getting to Port Angeles from Seattle is to drive south from Seattle before swinging Northwest up the peninsula. This drive will take between 3 and 4 hours and will take you through scenic outlooks and a series of very small towns.
There are no roads inside the park boundaries that connect the various portions of the park. Instead, the primary road to get around the park circumvents the park boundary, and the drive can often take several hours, depending on what portion of the park you wish to see. I have had the privilege of visiting this park twice in my lifetime. This article focuses on one specific hike I took known on the Hoh River Trail. The trailhead that starts this hike begins an hour away from Port Angeles in the Hoh Rainforest Section of the forest and it took 3 days to complete this trail. The Hoh River trail begins in this Rainforest which is also the highest altitude rainforest in the world. The trees are covered in moss and vines and are vibrant green. The entire scene looks like it was taken out of a fairytale. In addition, there is wildlife abound with the largest being the elk herds that make their home in this forest, although the dense vegetation and tree coverage often makes them hard to spot even when they are within a few feet. My best advice for finding these is to keep your ears open. It may be hard to spot, but its very easy to hear animals that size rumbling their way through the dense undergrowth. This is the scenery I was able to enjoy on the first day of the hike, along with two friends who were accompanying me on this trip.
We left our car in the parking lot by the trailhead and began the 10-mile trek we had to finish before sunset. With all our gear on our backs, we took off towards our target, a portion of the Hoh River that is made up of large gravel and boulders that we were going to use as our camp site for the next two nights. Along the way, we passed waterfalls, giant trees, birds singing, and all manner of scenic rainforest views. The sun was beginning to set as we approached the camp site and we had just enough light left to setup our camps for the night. There were several groups already setup here by the time we arrived. Luckily, this portion of the riverbed is large enough to accommodate dozens of people while still allowing for plenty of room. Once camp was setup and a campfire was built, it was time to enjoy one of the key camping traditions, sharing a meal and stories around the fire. Dinner that night was made up of trail mix and sandwiches. After several hours sharing stories and reminiscing about life, we turned in for the night to make sure we got plenty of rest for the next leg of the hike.
The second day on this trail is the most difficult portion since it involves the longest single day distance covered as well significant elevation gain. The second day of this hike consisted of continuing along the Hoh Trail to the end of Hoh Valley before beginning to climb in elevation up the mountains at the end of the valley. The end of this trail is marked by Blue Glacier, one of the park’s largest glaciers. The entire second day hike is 18 miles roundtrip. While most of the hike is made up of a series of switchbacks descending the mountain side, the final mile of the trail gets a bit more exciting with chains drilled into the side of the mountain that must be repelled down before the final stretch of trail to the glacier. Right before we encountered these chains, we came out to a scenic overlook that looked down into the valley with Blue Glacier less than a mile in the distance and clouds of fog rolling past, a common site within the Olympic Mountains. This outlook wound up being the highlight of this hike. We repelled down the chains and progressed a little further towards our destination but unfortunately, we never arrived at the glacier itself. By this point, it was becoming mid afternoon and we knew that if we didn’t turn back; we would not make it back to our camp before dark. With our destination less than half a mile away, we knew we had to tread on the side of caution and turn around now. It was a good thing we did as well. We did manage to make it back down the mountain as the sun was setting but the final stretch of trail back to our camp site was done in complete darkness. Although not ideal, with flashlights this can be done reasonably safely. This stretch of trail was on flat ground and well-marked. Had we continued to the glacier, we would have had to descend the mountain in darkness. Between the slippery conditions of sloping terrain and the sheer drop offs right off the trail, this would have put us in a very dangerous situation. This highlights a very important fact regarding the National Park system. Every year, many visitors need to be rescued because of situations they put themselves into. The national parks are very wild areas and hiking through them needs to be done with caution. If proper planning and precautions are taken, then these places can be life changing trips, but their dangers must never be forgotten.
We arrived back at camp exhausted but still found the energy to build one more campfire and enjoy one more night of stories and trail mix before we called it a night. The next morning, we woke up, broke down our camp, packed up, and headed back on the Hoh River trail towards our car. Despite seeing this same trail on the first day, I couldn’t help but make frequent stops along the way to admire the scenery and take photographs. By mid-afternoon, we had arrived back at our car and were ready to continue our trip within Olympic National Park. We would go on to climb more peaks, swim in the Pacific Ocean, and camp on the beach during this trip. But those are stories for another day…