In the last few days of Indian Summer in Seattle, Hana and I knew we had to get in one good pack-trip before I had to leave for work. The previous day, we had been down to the waterfront, and the Olympics stood in dark green contrast to the blue Puget Sound. Yep. That’ll do. We threw together gear for a quick mid-week weekender, and cruised over to the Olympic Peninsula.
If you haven’t been to the Olympics, you are missing out. Craggy mountain peaks, ice-blue glaciers, dripping rainforests, and ocean beaches are all in abundance on this most northwesterly corner of the contiguous United States. The Olympic National Park is a wonder unto itself, with 5 specific wilderness areas, and an epic-ly unbroken section of rugged Pacific coastline. Truly, this is the Pacific Northwest in full glory–salmon runs, bears snacking on huckleberry, Roosevelt elk bugling in the mist–it doesn’t get much better. If you decide to go, make sure you check out the National Park website, and make your reservations with the Wilderness Information Centers around the Peninsula–I promised the very kind ranger who helped us out with the reservations to push this REQUIREMENT!
We read about various trails in a ragged old issue of Backpacker we brought with us as we cross the country. In it, there were several wonderful looking hikes, but we chose the best line–the High Divide Trail. Starting from the Sol Duc Hot Springs, the High Divide wanders far back the drainage, through miles of cedars and firs, tracing the path of the
Sol Duc as it thunders away down the valley (hikers also can complete the route counter-clockwise, with an intense climb up to Deer Lake), climbs up to the ridgeline separating the Seven Lakes Basin and the Hoh River Valley, drops down to the peaceful Deer Lake, and loops back to the trailhead. Because of our poor logistics–repeat: reservations required!–we camped the first night at Sol Duc Campsite, somewhat near the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. The campsite at Sol Duc is a mix between RV campers and some very quiet, secluded, walk-in spots. The next day, we drove to the Sol Duc trailhead, and started off on our clock-wise journey through the Olympics.
Multiple guides state that the High Divide is the most trafficked hike in the Wilderness Area of the Olympics–this may be true, but for good reason. The High Divide features sublime vistas, aquamarine lakes, crowds of wildflowers, haunting forest, crashing waterfalls, and panoramas of Mount Olympus that will steal your breath away. We planned the three-day hike over the weekend, but only found the trail crowded near the high point, Bogachiel Peak. This was likely due to a confluence of trails that come together around the Seven Lakes Basin, which is about the mid-point of the High Divide. For the most part, Hana and I hiked in relative solace, perhaps because of the lateness of the season. But the incredible weather held, and all of those who shrugged off the Olympics on the chance of getting rained out missed an amazing weekend.
The trail led us for around 2 miles to Sol Duc Falls, where the river’s walls narrow and create a 50-foot slot waterfall. The view both up- and downstream were pristine, and we appreciated this nice warm-up before the real hiking began. At this point, we turned onto the Appleton Pass and Sol Duc Park trail, following the path through run-off streams and under the ancient firs, hemlock, and cedars. The light filtered through the canopy, and the sound of the Sol Duc to our south kept us company as we hiked the 5 miles to the Appleton Pass junction. We enjoyed a summer sausage sandwich, which was a great idea from Hana’s earlier hike in the Maroon Bells, then prepped to climb out of the drainage. We crossed the Seven Mile Bridge (a “foot log”) and started burning quads as we climbed. A steep tributary of the Sol Duc, Bridge Creek, fell away to the left (east), and the old-growth forest fell away as we transitioned into the not-quite-sub-alpine forest and meadows near Sol Duc Park.
We were a little confused as to exactly where was Sol Duc Park, as this was our first time in the Olympics, and we weren’t familiar with the quite obvious signposts that alert the hiker to the campsite. Thus, we kept hiking with that feeling of, “I hope we haven’t missed it!” When we finally arrived, we were the first hikers there, and had our choice of great sites. The best site was located on a small bend in
the creek that created an almost island underneath a stand of cedars. To our south, a small waterfall splashed into a blue pool, and a field of wildflowers spread out below the peaks that towered above the meadow of Sol Duc Park. We cooked dinner and enjoyed a cedar-scented beautiful evening, soundtrack courtesy of the waterfall and creek.
The next day, Hana started a little early as I broke the rest of our camp. I caught up with her as we rose into the true sub-alpine zone, and we both enjoyed our first spotting of mega-fauna to our west–it was a black bear munching on huckleberries on the south-facing slope. He was about a half-mile away, but it was still pretty cool to see a bear in the backcountry. Little did we know what the High Divide had in store for us further down the trail.
As we climbed up, the views back down the trail were simply amazing. A few isolated campsites were perfectly perched to take advantage of the vista, and when we hike this again,we are definitely scooping one of these sites. Heart Lake came into view before our last rise, a pool of blue-green water shaped like…a heart, of course! As we climbed above Heart Lake, the Cat Basin peaks rose black and blue against the sky. And, through the few firs on the ridge, we caught our first glimpse of Mount Olympus–as we passed onto the real High Divide section, the mountain dominated the skyline. We could clearly see the Blue and White Glaciers as they inched their way off the snowfields near the summit. The Hoh River Valley fell away to our south, and behind us, one last slope obscured the Seven Lakes Basin–one last slope with yet another bear in hyperphagia, eating as many berries as he could before the winter finally set in. We could hear the Roosevelt elks bugling in the forest–it was truly a magnificent experience. It only got better as we passed the last slope and the Seven Lakes Basin opened up below us to the north, a mix of rock and meadow, dotted with dark blue lakes (many more than seven!) glittering in the sunshine.
Passing perfect panorama point after point of Mount Olympus, we came to a little outcrop over a small pond on the south side. As we rested there, the bugling continued until a whole herd of elks emerged from the trees below, and moved through the pond and back down the mountain-side. It was our own private herd for those few moments.
We continued down the trail to a false summit pyramid of rocks that overlooked Seven Lakes Basin. On some of the slabs we ate lunch, enjoying the massive open views of Mount Olympus. We met a few other hikers–some folks who had just done an interesting cross-country from Appleton over to Cat Basin, some hippies in sandals, and the volunteer ranger (whose job I covet!) After a bit of relaxation and fooling around on the rocks, we shouldered our packs and made for Bogachiel Peak. We ended up following a game trail along the side of the ridge, and eventually crested onto the summit. The view wasn’t quite as splendid as at the false summit, and there were scores of hikers there, so we quickly departed, meeting back up with the High Divide Trail on the Hoh River side.
After this came the “Magic Mile,” a mile plus stretch of epic views of Olympus, the
Bogachiel drainage, and the rock faces cutting off the Seven Lakes Basin. Along the path grew an assortment of wildflowers–lupine, Indian paintbrush,douglasia, phlox, and violets, to name a few. The colors were outstanding, and as we turned into the last stretch of the mile, the High Divide had one more surprise for us…Two black bears were munching on huckleberries right on the trail! Eventually, they moved about 50 feet or so off the trail, and we walked right by them–making sure to speak loudly and let them know we were there. They were much more interested in the delicious huckleberries than hikers, so there was no drama.
After the Magical Mile, we started descending again, and passing hikers told us there was one more bear on the trail. We missed him, but another group said they had seen him run off as we neared. We eventually spotted him while looking back, right before he disappeared into the brush. We crossed another field of lupine and some late-late-summer snow, and came to our final ridge, near the Snake Cedar. Hana spotted yet another bruin in the bowl down into which we would descend. We rested on that final ridge before a knee-rattling drop down almost all the way to Deer Lake.
Deer Lake’s best site had already been nabbed, and we scoured around the lakeside before settling on a nice site overlooking the lake. We cooked dinner right on the lake shore, and had very little mosquito trouble. Our camp stove fuel ran out (good timing? Minus the fact of zero coffee in the morning!) and we enjoyed the cool evening, watching a flyfisherman cast, and a lone duck cruising the still waters.
We woke early and broke camp, shouldering packs for the final descent back to Sol Duc Falls. Very quickly, we were back in the tall forest, this time on the wetter north facing-slope. We passed some trail volunteers, and crashed through the wet runoff on the trail. Eventually, we made one last turn and arrived at Sol Duc Falls, which we had been a constant companion in the last mile or so. We asked a very reluctant hiker to take our picture, and then booked the last two miles to the trailhead to complete our loop. High Divide Trail–check!
One of the amazing benefits of hiking the High Divide are the hot springs located near the trailhead at Sol Duc Hot Springs. It was a perfect way to end the hike–relaxing in the 100+° mineral water with a strange assortment of Russians and Germans. We celebrated with some local brews from the Northwest, watching the magpies swoop and steal lunches from the unwary. Before we were too lulled by the warm water and cold beer, we had to bid goodbye to the Olympics, and drove out to catch the ferry back to Seattle. It was an amazing trip with my best girl, and I can’t wait to get back. The High Divide is one of the most beautiful trails I have ever had the pleasure to hike, and I feel privileged to have hiked it with my awesome Hana. Five stars and two thumbs up!