Well, here’s the other part of the story of Olympic National Park. After a lovely day hike and camping experience in the Sol Duc, we felt ready to take on a 55 mile loop, starting with the Graves Creek Trail, going up over Anderson Pass and then the First Divide, and then traveling along a primitive (un-maintained) trail up over the Six Ridge Pass and back to the trail head. Before our adventure, this post also includes some basics on backpacking at Olympic and bear canisters/wires.
Before I get into the story, let me give you a few basics about backpacking at Olympic. Permits were easy to obtain and cost $5 per person per night. On the June Thursday we went, there was availability everywhere. One interesting thing about Olympic is that most camping is not truly dispersed. Many areas have one or more small campsites, some even with pit toilets. We saw a lot more families and teenagers out on these trails, probably in part due to the more organized nature of backcountry camping. Trails are well marked and most large streams have nice bridges.
Again, if you are thinking about backpacking at Olympic, do yourself a favor and just hit up the Seven Lakes Basin Trail. It’s beautiful, it’s manageable, you’ll thank me afterwards.
Bear Wires and Canisters: The other really cool thing about these marked camp areas is that many of them have bear wires, with a clip and a pulley to suspend your pack. This is great not only for bears but also for rodents, which I realized after I woke up to find a mouse in my pack chewing through my favorite shirt. Depending where exactly you camp, you may be able to get by with only the wires. You can rent a canister for $3, and they’re easy enough to use, but we found it was tough to fit all the food in there (for 4 days). It would’ve been awesome to use the wires the first day, when you have the most food. The backpacking map details which campsites need wires and canisters.
Our Adventure: In order for you to really understand how we got into this mess, you need to understand a few things about Adam. In addition to being a reasonably big and strong guy, Adam loves to keep moving and push himself. Hiking, paddling, biking, whatever, once you get him out there, he’s like the energizer bunny. Keeping up with him is no small task, so setting appropriate pace and distances has been a topic of many of our discussions along the trip. (And by discussion, I mean me yelling and/or whimpering while Adam plods on ahead. It’s a sight to see.) Historically, we’ve completed multi-day paddling or hiking trips faster than expected, like on the Timberline Trail, or have had to really slow down or stop early in the day, which we did at Yosemite.
In many of our bigger hikes, we’ve covered 15 miles a day pretty easily. This usually takes about 7-8 hours of trail time, and maybe 8-10 hours of the total day when you add in a few breaks for snacks and lunch. We were excited for a trip that would take the full 3 nights, so the 55 mile loop seemed like the perfect trip distance. And, of course, there’s no reason you wouldn’t just tackle that trek the day after a long 18-mile day hike. What could go wrong?!
It started out well enough. We got up at our Sol Duc campsite, and spent almost three hours planning and measuring out all our meals. Our biggest challenge was getting all the food into the bear canister, and you want all your meals to be simple and organized, so we bagged oatmeal for each day and threw away excess packaging. I felt so good about how prepared we were! After a 2 hour drive including a quick coffee stop for internet access to send the emergency plan, we were off.
It continued well enough from there. The beginning of the trail was a relatively flat and shady stroll through the rain forest. It was definitely humid, and we were really sweaty, but there were a lot of places along the way where we could stop for a few minutes and duck our heads into the stream. Once we started on the trail and got a little warmed up, most of the aches and pains from the day before went away.
Since we’d spent so much time prepping at our campsite and then driving the 3 hours to the trail head, we didn’t have quite as many hours of daylight as we’d hoped. We set up camp at a spot called Pyrites creek. The official campsite there was quite crowded with three tents, but we found a secluded spot with creek access just a few more minutes down the trail. Specifically, I found a spot in a place Adam did not think looked very promising. It’s great to be right every once in a while. Things were going well enough.
Everything was fine that evening. We forgot the can opener so I bashed open the canned chicken with a knife and a rock, and we dipped our feet in the stream to cool off before going to bed. The sun sets really late out here. It is a bit weird to get into the tent at 9:15 and still have near full daylight. (Note: it’s not weird to get in the tent when it’s still light outside, I do that all the time. It’s weird that we were still up at 9:15, though.)
Day 2 was when I had my admittedly undeserved existential crisis of the trip. This was a huge mistake. By late Day 3, a full mental breakdown would’ve been deserved. I jumped the gun a little bit.
How did this happen, you ask? Well… backpacking is almost always a little bit uncomfortable. It’s usually some combination of hot, cold, tired, buggy, sweaty, sore, blistered, tired, or hungry. This is the price you pay to experience amazing natural wonders, without crazy crowds, while gaining personal satisfaction that you are a real bad ass.
But for some reason, that morning, I was not only sweaty and tired, I felt like I just didn’t want to hike anymore. And when you are only about 15 miles into a 55 mile loop, you should really feel confident that you want to hike at least a little more before you go any further. I did not want to go any further. I couldn’t imagine hiking 40 more miles in the next three days.
In a move that may have saved our trip, Adam handled the situation admirably. He made some strong suggestions such as hiking out and getting a hotel or hiking out and getting a flight to Mexico for the rest of the summer. I realized I didn’t want to do any of those things, either. Maybe it’s my rare tendency towards stubbornness, but I really, really hate to give up on anything. Especially when I’ve made such careful plans. Somehow, I decided we should keep going and finish out the loop. Adam was mostly relieved I had decided something.
So even with a little rain, things continued well enough from there. After our stop, we made pretty good time up to and over Anderson Pass and were rewarded with many stunning views. Most of the trail there was along the side of the mountain, and we had to focus on keeping our footing, but we did make good time. After only hiking 13 miles the first day, we covered about 18 the second day and ended up at a nice campsite also close to a river.
The third day, things still continued along well enough. We hit a few obstacles here and there, but were generally making good time. We were hurrying to some extent because we knew this was the day we’d hit the primitive trail. We should’ve read between the lines on this one. The ranger mentioned it was un-maintained, and therefore we might get lost, especially in open meadows. He mentioned this was the only part of the park he’d never hiked himself. We should’ve seen those red flags.
And then there was this…
Even worse, on our first stretch of the trail we ran into two college-aged kids who claimed they’d been lost in the woods for almost a week, after getting lost on the trail. They said they’d survived on salmon berries and huckleberries. Honestly, I thought they were just messing with us. They looked too clean and composed to have been in the woods that long and they were hardly carrying any gear. Adam gave them some crackers anyway and we moved on.
Based on the topographic map, we anticipated a brutal climb up to the top of the ridge, and a relatively flat portion along the ridge after that. We were wrong. Rather than hard, then flat, we got extremely hard, then no flat at all. The trail sneakily continued to climb up and drop down WITHIN the contour lines on the topographic map. There was not a single flat portion of the trail anywhere along the way. Worse, the trail had trees on both sides so we didn’t even get any good views.
This was about the point on the trail that even Adam agreed we’d signed up for too much. There’s a first time for everything.
From our last trail crossing, it was 5.6 miles to Belview, our targeted campsite. Usually we travel about 2 miles per hour, sometimes 3mph if the trail is flat to downhill and without obstacles. Sometimes we go as slow as 1.5 miles per hour. When we had been on the trail for 3 hours and we hadn’t found the campsite yet or seen any more water, I started to get worried. After 4 hours of the hardest hiking we’ve ever done, we gave up for the evening. It was about 8pm. Adam was so sweaty, exhausted and frustrated that he didn’t even want to eat. Things were looking really bad. I was desperately hoping we’d just missed the campsite.
The next morning, we continued to hike almost 30 minutes before we found Belview. At that point we knew it had taken us about 5 hours to go 5 miles. We just hoped the trail got easier from there. Spoiler alert – it did not. Before too long, we were tramping all over an alpine meadow trying to spot the trail on the other side. Finding these trails is a real art, since you often have to guess where you are on a topographic map in order to tell which way the trail should be heading. Fortunately we had plenty of practice on meadow navigation. In one spot, we even spotted a small black bear. He looked at us for a moment or two and took off before I could get my camera out.
After almost 5 more hours of hiking, including getting un-lost again, we found the path up to the Six Ridge Pass. While brutal, at least this one had some views. At this point, we were pretty much out of water, not speaking, and neither of us was eating.
From there, it was only 7.5 miles or so back to our car. It was about noon. I had assumed we’d be back at the car by this time, at the absolute latest, and here we were with about 4 hours of hiking left. While the trail from here was reasonably flat and wooded, and we were rarely getting lost, I was starting to hope we’d just make it off the mountain before dark
I am confident that the only reason we did actually get through this hike was that the thought of spending any further time in this wilderness was absolutely unacceptable. While the park is beautiful, I wouldn’t send anyone over the Six Ridge trail, ever! I do realize most people would not be silly enough to sign up for a backpacking loop like this in the first place.
We made it back to the parking lot and were happy to see our car was in one piece. We booked it down the mountain to find a shower and something to eat and began our recovery, both mentally and physically. I suppose looking back, I can be thankful we learned some new limits, and I learned that I should save my small breakdowns for when they are really deserved. Thank you Six Ridge Trail.