- Date: March 20-23, 2016
- Location: Olympic National Park
- Start: Hoh Visitor Center
- Distance: 35.1 miles
- Duration: 4 days
- Type: Out-and-back
- Map: Green Trails Map 133S: Seven Lakes Basin/Mt Olympus Climbing
- References: Washington Trails Association
Our Timberline Trail thru-hike back in October was the last time we packed up our Ospreys for an overnight adventure. We couldn’t wait to strap them on again and hit the trail for Spring Break. These past few months we considered various trip ideas (Zion Traverse, the Lost Coast Trail, Redwood National Park), but eventually settled on the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park. In all of our time growing up in the Pacific Northwest, neither of us had ever paid a visit to this nearby gem. It was time to change that.
Our original trip itinerary included the entirety of the Hoh River Trail, as well as the Seven Lakes Basin and Hoh Lake. Unfortunately, winter conditions only allowed us to safely complete about 30 miles of the intended 56.6 miles. Despite the setback, we enjoyed the low mileage days and came to appreciate them more as the weather became less and less ideal over the course of the trip. The title of this post really speaks for itself. Although the trail isn’t physically strenuous (with the exception of the last 4 or 5 miles up to Elk Lake, Glacier Meadows, and the base of Mount Olympus), I truly underestimated the mental toll the weather would take on us. What I thought would be an easy stroll through the woods (especially after we ixnayed the Seven Lakes Basin portion) ended up being our most challenging backcountry trek. However, as cold, wet, and miserable as the trip was at times, it never overshadowed the immense gratitude we felt at being able to experience such an incredibly beautiful place.
Day 1: Hoh Visitor Center to Lewis Meadow Camp (10.3 miles; 6 hours 9 minutes, breaks not included)
Although this was our first hiking day, we actually arrived the previous afternoon. Due to an incredibly busy work week, we weren’t even able to pack up our gear until the morning we left! Having the afternoon to unwind in Hoh Campground was exactly what we needed, especially after the long five hour drive. We set up our tent for the first time in five months and crawled into our sleeping bags before it even turned dark outside.
We began our hike at 7 am. This was a later start than we anticipated, but at least headlamps weren’t necessary. The trail is relatively flat, so our hike was pretty moderate. However, we had to navigate around numerous blow downs and washouts, which were generally comprised of massive old growth trees. Climbing over these giants, whose diameter often exceeded my height, was no small feat! Despite the obstacles caused by the storm damage, the trek through the rainforest was magical, especially while the sun was still shining, highlighting the various hues of green surrounding us on all sides.
We enjoyed breakfast at Five Mile Island Camp overlooking the Hoh River before continuing on. About a mile or so later, after filling up our dromedary bags from a nearby creek, I spotted a couple of bear tracks right on the trail! Needless to say, we were ‘whooping’ and clicking our trekking poles the rest of the way, though we didn’t see any more tracks the rest of the day (nor the rest of the trip). Part of me was hoping we might see a black bear (from a distance of course) at some point during our hike, but we never did. I imagine our obnoxious ‘whoops’ probably contributed to their absence.
As expected, our morning sunshine turned into on and off showers in the afternoon. This change in weather influenced our decision to stop at Lewis Meadow Camp rather than make the push to Elk Lake another 4.5 miles away. We found a spot with an incredible view of the Hoh River and the mountains in the distance. It also happened to be the one spot devoid of elk droppings, which had become increasingly frequent since Five Mile Island Camp. We tied our brand new bear canisters to some trees a little ways from our site and crossed our fingers that they would go undisturbed that night. We spent a little bit of time outside of the tent, however, the rain forced us inside for most of our stay. We fell asleep to the sound of rushing water and the pitter-patter of raindrops on our tent.
Day 2: Lewis Meadow Camp to Martin Creek, then back to 12.4 Mile Camp (6.3 miles; 4 hours 27 minutes, breaks not included)
The perpetual rain of the afternoon/night before continued on into the morning of our second day. A break in the weather finally happened around 7:30 am and we were able to get up and pack without having to worry about our stuff getting soaked. Of course the tent and rainfly were sopping wet, so complete protection was out of the question. The bear canisters appeared to have sat peacefully through the night. There were no new animal tracks around them, and the rope didn’t look like it had been chewed or gnawed. We hit the trail around 9:15 am, the latest we’ve ever started on a backpacking trip I think. But Elk Lake was only 4.5 miles away, so we weren’t concerned. Our spirits were pretty high, and I, personally, could hardly wait to get a glimpse of Mount Olympus.
Despite a few difficult blowdowns to get around, the first two miles of hiking were fairly easy. Then we hit 12.4 Mile Camp and the climbing began. Though not as steep as some of the other hikes we’ve completed, this section presented us with the first serious incline on the Hoh River Trail, and after 12+ miles of hiking! Our bodies weren’t ready for it, especially with the 30 lbs on our backs. “Just 2.5 more miles” was on repeat in my head.
Our day took its first sour turn just before we reached High Hoh Bridge. While crossing a tributary of Hoh River, Mack slipped and fell, soaking his socks and boots on an already wet weather day. In addition, he landed hard on his left hand and was nervous he might’ve done some serious injury to his middle finger. Mack makes a living as a guitarist, so this was cause for concern. Although there were no obvious signs of fracture or dislocation, we continued to keep an eye on it throughout the day.
We were still pretty hopeful about reaching Elk Lake after we crossed High Hoh Bridge. We had less than two miles of hiking left! The elevation gain after the bridge was brutal though and slowed us down quite a bit. But we pushed on, getting excited about setting up camp very soon. Then we hit Martin Creek, another bridgeless crossing. With no way across that was shallow enough for our boots, I donned my sandals and Mack crossed barefoot. It was painfully cold. Like ‘knives stabbing your feet’ cold. And there was just untouched snow (save for some elk tracks) on the other side. No trail in sight. I knew that Martin Creek Camp was just past this crossing, so picking up the trail wouldn’t have been difficult. But heavy snow here meant heavy snow the rest of the way up, and winter camping with our current gear would’ve been stupid. After one last longing gaze ahead, I reluctantly let go of my hope of seeing the mountains and we turned around.
Although I knew we had made the smart decision, it was incredibly disheartening to turn back, especially since Glacier Meadows and Mount Olympus were what I’d been looking forward to the most. On the upside, we were done with our uphill hiking for the day and we could look forward to a snow-free campsite. We set-up at 12.4 Mile Camp, another site with an incredible view of the Hoh. The inside of our tent was wet from packing it up that morning, but our Therm-a-Rest ProLites kept us and our sleeping bags warm and dry. I have never been more thankful for our sleeping pads. We fell asleep to the sound of rushing water and rain for the second night in a row.
Day 3: 12.4 Mile Camp to Five Mile Island (7.1 miles; 4 hours, breaks not included)
The hike back to Five Mile Island (where we lunched on Day 1) was on familiar terrain, though a little muddier because of the recent rain. There were no surprises or unexpected setbacks like those of the previous day. The sun even came out for a short while! Then we arrived at Five Mile Island…
It started to pour. Now, since we’d been out, it had rained everyday and we’d pretty much gotten used to it. However, we’d been fortunate enough to have a break in the weather when we needed to set-up the tent. Not this time. At first we found it comical that at the exact moment we reached Five Mile Island the rain decided to come down full force. In fact, we sat and enjoyed it, hoping it would stop or at least lighten up after a few minutes. Instead, it poured even harder, and we were now soaked and starting to get cold. We had no other choice but to pitch our tent in the pouring rain, which was still soaked through and through from the previous two days. As bad luck would have it, the first spot we chose was too rocky and the stakes refused to stay put. We frantically searched for another spot. All the while our tent supplies continued to get more and more wet. Emotions erupted about this time as Mack and I argued over different sites and still ran into difficulty with the terrain. When we finally got the tent up, there were massive puddles covering the entire tent floor. I attempted to soak up some of them with my very small pack towel but to almost no avail. Thank goodness (again) for our sleeping pads. It was a mad rush to unpack and throw everything in before it all got too wet. It took a little while for both of us to let go of our frustrations, but once they subsided, we managed to enjoy the rest of our afternoon playing Crazy Eights, laughing about our recent misfortune, and dreaming about hot chocolate.
Day 4: Five Mile Island to Hoh Visitor Center (5.3 miles; 2 hours 13 minutes, breaks not included)
It was still raining in the morning. Patience was in short supply due to the cold, wet start, so a few more unpleasantries were exchanged as we tried to pack up and get moving. But the trek out became more enjoyable once we started hiking. There was even some singing involved as we continued the responsibility of making our presence known to any nearby wildlife. Ironically, we did run into a trio of deer—our first wildlife sighting of the entire trip!—when we were less than a mile from the trailhead. It’s amazing to me that even on an out-and-back route, the surroundings seem different and new when you pass them again. I guess that’s just part of the Hoh Rainforest’s inherent magic.
We were greeted with clean, dry clothes and shoes back at the car. As we drove away with the forest in the rearview mirror, I longed to be back out there already, despite the trials and disappointments we endured the last couple of days. A good piece of me never wants to leave these beautiful, wild places. At least we eventually got those hot chocolates we were pining for the previous night.
Summer can’t come soon enough.