After our amazing and unique AmTrak adventure, we headed west from Seattle into the wilds of Olympic National Park. There, we camped at two front country sites, Sol Duc and Heart O’ The Hills, did a great 18.1 mile day hike through the Seven Lakes Basin, and THEN got even more crazy with some backpacking in the southeastern corner of the park. I’m still a little traumatized by the last stretch of backpacking, so there may be more on that later. For now, here’s the basics on the park, our great Seven Lakes Basin hike, then some thoughts on the two campgrounds.
Above, you can see the two places we hiked, the blue markers for the Seven Lakes Basin Trail, and then the red / pink markers for the Graves Creek Trail Backpacking Loop that we did later in the trip.
The Basics: Olympic National Park is the 4th most visited park in the country. It includes a mainland rain forest, regular forest, mountain area and also a small strip of the coast. We stayed in the central mainland area during our visit. The park is famous for having the only rain forest in the lower 48, though we heard that Great Smokey Mountains comes close. The park also has a wide variety of ecological areas and some endemic species.
Fees are $20 to enter and between $15 and $20 to camp. Prices have gone up significantly in 2015, one handout we saw showed $12 campsites increasing to $20. And to add insult to injury, those were the campsites where bathroom repairs were in progress so only porta-potties were available.
Perhaps because the park is so huge and campsites and trails are so spread out, we didn’t find it to be crowded at all. We easily found a first come first serve spot at campsites on a Thursday and Friday night at the two areas.
The Hike: One of the most famous hikes we heard and read about was the Seven Lakes Basin Trail, an ~18.1 mile loop. The whole thing took us about 8.5 hours, but we didn’t start until noon. Next time, I would at least take all day and probably backpack out here so we will have time to really enjoy the views and swim in the lakes.
If you do hike this route, you can use the map in the free backcountry handout, you don’t need to buy a detailed topographic map. The route is easy to find and well-marked. I would strongly recommend traveling counter-clockwise, and heading for Deer Lake First. That way, you will get slippery, rocky steep sections as an uphill climb, not a knee-ruining downhill trek.
Our adventure began at noon, since we’d began the day slowly. After visiting the rangers’ station at 8:30, getting lots of good ideas and advice, settling on a backpacking route for later, and planning to hike the trail that same day, we set off for Sol Duc. The drive took two hours, but fortunately it was easy to find a campsite at noon on Friday when we arrived. While this hike is 18.1 miles, I think we both mentally underestimated the challenge. We only each brought our CamelBaks, which hold 3 liters of water, and, we didn’t really consider that an 18 mile would likely take 9 hours, putting us pretty close to dark. Adam really enjoys surviving these kinds of challenges on our trip while I find them very stressful.
Along the way, we walked through forests and Alpine meadows. The path was easy to find, though the trail markers were occasionally confusing. In this case, the trail led right to the sign, and it was impossible to tell which way the trail continued. There were campsites in both areas, but I think someone looking for a spot would’ve figured that out.
About halfway through the hike, we reached the High Divide, where you can see the west peak of Mount Olympus. Once you get up to the High Divide, the path is gentle for a while as you walk along a ridge and look down into the Seven Lakes Basin. There are trails and campsites down near many of the lakes, but we didn’t hang out since we were worried about getting back to our camp before dark.
From the High Divide, the trail is generally flat to downhill. We passed some switchbacks and then wound our way down along the side of the mountain.
Oh, and I almost forgot, Adam bought his first new shoes of the trip and of 2015 and didn’t bat an eyelash about testing them on an 18 mile hike. Rather than heavy, traditional hiking boots, he chose a pair of trail runners. Like hiking boots, they have thick soles with good grip, but like running shoes, they’re lightweight and breathable and should dry quickly if they get wet. Fortunately for Adam, he survived the hike without any blisters, possibly thanks to a fancy new pair of super-thin wool socks.
OK, I admit it, I wanted him to get at least a tiny blister! Come on!
Despite the challenges of running out of daylight and water, we made it back to the car all in one piece. The last few miles of the trail were downhill and very rocky, which just does not feel good on the knees. Maybe our next big purchase will be a set of hiking poles to try and limit the damage.
After that slug of hiking, we were thrilled to find $3 showers at the hot springs on the way to our Sol Duc campsite. These hot springs are set up like a community pool, and if we hadn’t arrived thirty minutes before closing we might have gone for a real soak. It’s not really “nature”, and it wouldn’t have been my first stop in a national park, but after a huge hike I am never picky.
Campgrounds: One final note – we camped at both Heart O’ the Hills and Sol Duc campgrounds. With the exception of the bathrooms under construction at Heart, both campsites were nice, with wooded campsites that were generally shady and relatively private. I think that the fact that this park is so spread out around the mountain means that camping is generally more available, so I would be less concerned here about finding a good site when you arrive.