Seasons Change, Pt. 3: Enchanted Valley in Winter and Bloom

October 28-29: Graves Creek to Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park

At the end of October, my dad and I took his yearly birthday hike, this time a quick overnight up the East Fork Quinault to Enchanted Valley, in the southwest corner of Olympic National Park. I’d never been before. It was overwhelming: the rain forest and waterfalls and rushing river. You could spend a life…

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October 28

We wake up at four—okay, actually, my dad wakes up at four, and I sleep in the car—and drive through the drizzling dark up I5, across to Aberdeen, and up 101 to Quinault Lake. I haven’t been to this side of the Olympics since I was a kid, and it’s crazy how different it feels from the east: wetter, and somehow wilder too.

We stop in the still-dark morning to get our permits, then drive gingerly up the heavily potholed road to Graves Creek. The road was just closed for repair, and there are a few spots that have obviously seen some trouble. The whole thing feels precariously close to collapsing into the river.

It’s still raining when we make it to the empty trailhead, so we scramble for rain gear and pack covers, then set off slowly across Graves Creek and up the old road to Pony Bridge.

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The East Fork Quinault is much siltier than I was expecting: so light blue it almost seems white, rushing through its deep cut canyon.

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Past the crossing, the trail traipses up and down along the river for a few miles, past Fire and Noname and a bunch of other (actually) unnamed creeks, most of which share the trail for a while before continuing on their ways to the river. And there’s moss. Tons of it, hanging from every limb and rock. I guess before this I knew, in a vague sort of way, that this is a rainforest. But man. It’s really a rainforest.

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Clouds come and go all morning, up and down the valley walls, and the rain comes and goes too, sometimes spitting, sometimes pouring, but always here. I used to hate this sort of weather, used to let it keep me home. But I almost like it now, especially the solitude it buys.

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The only sort of sketchy crossing of the trip is over Pyrites Creek, where half of the bridge has been washed out. It’s not a problem, really—there’s a big stable tree across the bridgeless branch—but we do meet a guy who’s been turned back by it, so mileage may vary.

We eat lunch at the creek, then continue on the last couple miles, through clearing skies and even a little sun.

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Then, all of a sudden, it’s here. There’s an old stock gate at the foot of the valley, a tall, slippery bridge across the river, and then an unfathomably idyllic meadow, with waterfall-covered walls and an unfathomably out-of-place Chalet, sitting squarely in the middle.

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We set up camp near the Chalet, hang out our wet stuff on the porch to dry, and head out on a short evening stroll a little bit further up the valley, toward Anderson Pass.

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Eventually it starts to get dark, so we ramble back down to camp. The clear skies hold all evening, through cocktail hour, as we eat on the porch, as we drink our hot chocolate, as we sleepily amble into the tent, and as I lose a late-night game of cribbage.

October 29

The clear skies don’t hold indefinitely. We wake in the morning to rain and equivocate about getting up, but eventually tumble out onto the porch, where we make breakfast, and watch a herd of elk across the way.

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The rain strengthens throughout the morning, and the tent is absolutely soaked by the time I finally get around to packing it up. And things get soggier still as we walk out. But I always feel sort of impervious to rain on the way out. Like, “What, there’s a dry car waiting for us. Who cares if I’m carrying an extra two pounds of water on my shirt?”

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May 27-29: Enchanted Valley Again

Enchanted Valley was my last trip of the year. And it was my first trip of the next: this time with Krista, up for two nights to see the bright new spring bloom, and the clanging snow-thaw falls, rushing down from the Burke Range.

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May 27

We leave Portland early Friday afternoon, speed up to Olympia, then meander west, along the twisting old highway, through moldering old timber towns, stump farms and rusted-out tractors.

Then to Aberdeen: strip malls where the mills used to be, and a friendly hotel, where we stay the night. From the window, at the Chehalis River, widening on its way to Grays Harbor, you can just see how beautiful this place used to be.

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We wake up at five and check out and drive through lifting clouds to the Quinault. We enter the National Park, and all of a sudden the world’s shifted three degrees to the left: the trees bigger, understory verdant and spare, ferns the size of people.

There’s already a line of cars trundling east to Graves Creek, and we take our place. The trailhead is packed, a far cry from last October. But we pack up quickly, and once on the trail there’s suddenly a strange solitude. The wilderness is so big out here, it somehow absorbs people.

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We stop for breakfast along the river, just past Fire Creek, and watch half a dozen hikers struggle by, pillows and lawn chairs and kitchen sinks strapped to the outside of their 90-liter packs. There’s a vast profusion of carabiners, holding dinette sets and car seats and a few of the smaller children in place.

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Then it’s just a long, gently rolling trail, in and out of dark forest, to parklike bottomlands and rocky, rushing creeks, all spanned by overbuilt bridges.

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The hikers here are funny: groups clumped together, walking in sync, talking loudly about Mike’s promotion and Marsha’s college applications and Cindy’s unwanted pregnancy. And they all seem profoundly unused to hiking. When we pass, they look at us with a sort of suspicion. “What’s the hurry?”

We hit the valley in the early afternoon: it’s so much greener than the last time I saw it, and fuller: of waterfalls, and the rushing river, and people… people everywhere, piled up in the meadows, playing guitars, getting stoned, sunbathing in swimsuits. It feels like some sort of festival.

I look back at Krista and she smiles. “Degenerate youth.”

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We walk through the main meadow, over a small wooded hump, then into a second meadow, this one smaller and more secluded, and set up camp on a little knoll, almost all alone.

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More hikers come as afternoon fades to evening, but it stays quiet, and we eat our little dinner at the edge of the meadow, listening to the rushing river, just out of view, and watching a half dozen falls rumble down the rocky cliffs. We watch a massive avalanche high above, flowing like water through a steep canyon above. Then goats appear in the half lit hills, nonchalantly grazing at the edges of sheer slopes.

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May 28

A whole day with nothing to do but ramble! We wake up late—or, at least: late for out here—and I meander down to a season creek below our meadow to fetch some water for breakfast. We eat stretched out in the waning shade, watching the sun come to Mount Anderson, then rush up our valley.

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We set out on a short ramble up the trail, just to see what we can see. There’s a washout half a mile up, where a set of roots jump out at Krista, but she handily defends herself, and after a bit of blood washing and a bandage made principally of duct tape, we’re back on the way, to the Anderson Creek confluence.

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We find a rocky bench a few feet above the Quinault, where Krista plops down to watch the river for a while, while I trundle up a little further toward Anderson Pass.

There’s a sort of difficult ford just beyond the confluence, and suddenly the trail’s all wild: wet and washed out, buried first under fallen trees then under snow, which appears suddenly at 3000’. The views of Mt. Anderson are beautiful, but I’m postholing nearly to my thighs, and decide to call it quits, and join Krista back at our bench.

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Back at the bench, Krista’s waiting cheerfully. “Lunch?” I eat and she stretches her legs, then we meander back together, back to our little tent, in its little lonely meadow.

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In the evening, we take a short stroll down to the main meadow melee. The warm day has melted more snow up high, and the trail is flooded, but no matter. We splash through, then down to the river, to watch the falls again in the fading light.

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May 29

We woke early the next morning, and slunk out, past the still-slumbering tents below. Saying goodbye to the valley…

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… and to the old growth…

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… and to the new growth…

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… and to the endless, parklike river bottom, still miles away from anything.

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On the way home, we stop in Aberdeen for food and all that, and I spend a while in the car, staring at a map of the park. I still feel like I don’t know the Olympics: I’ve been maybe a half dozen times, up long valleys to distant peaks, but I still don’t know how to describe it. Maybe there’s no “it”—maybe the Olympics are just too varied to be captured in a single description. There are so many rivers and ranges, so many far away glaciers, so many possibilities for week-long rambles. You could spend months exploring. Years. A life.

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