Olympic National Park: A Long Loop in the Rain Shadow

Sept. 4-7, 2020

We didn’t have a really long hike in us last summer. Krista had been on furlough since March and had to be near internet at least once a week to submit her unemployment claims, and anyway money was too tight to go anywhere far away.

So we settled—though, in retrospect, “settled” isn’t the right word—on a 50 mile loop in Olympic National Park, in the rain shadow of Mt. Olympus: from Deer Park in the deep northeast to Obstruction Point then down into Grand Valley; over Grand Pass to Cameron Creek, then over Cameron and Lost Passes to the Dosewallips; down the Dosewallips for a bit, then over Gray Wolf and far down into the Gray Wolf’s old-growth valley; and finally back up from Three Forks to Deer Park.

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It was probably the darkest bit of the pandemic for us: Krista was furloughed, things were tenuous for me, and we weren’t sure where any of it was going. But it all improved almost immediately afterwards—things stabilized for me, and she had a generous job offer not two weeks later—and I now think of it as a turning point, as this moment at the end of summer where our summer finally began.

September 4, 2020: Portland to Deer Park, Deer Park to Grand Valley via Obstruction Point

We leave Portland at some ungodly hour, and I’m already exhausted by the time the sun stubbornly rises through the foggy marsh just west of Olympia. The skies go red as we cross the Skokomish, then every shade of purple and blue as we cut in close to the Canal. Otters and eagles break the otherwise crystal still water. Krista wakes in the seat next to me, then looks out the window at the water for a long while.

“No matter what, we’ll always have this.”

Folks are still sleeping in the backs of their cars as we slowly switchback up the steep road to Deer Park. Once there, I’ve got a deep stomachache—sleep deprivation always does that to me—but no matter: it’s beautiful, and we spend ten minutes watching the clouds come and go over Blue Mountain.

The trail starts steeply down, then traverses a wooded ridge past the rightly-named Green Mountain to the bare summits of Maiden Peak. We sit for a while on the west peak, watch cars drive up Hurricane Ridge Road, watch the sky clear over Mt. Angeles and Klahhane Ridge.

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Then a simply beautiful, bumpy traverse up to Elk Mountain’s ambling summit, toward Badger Valley and the smooth tundra below Obstruction Point.

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It’s late afternoon by the time we reach Obstruction Point, and all the hikers are headed the other way, back down to hotels in Port Angeles or camps at Heart of the Hills.

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Grand Valley appears at Golden Hour, a series of quiet blue lakes tucked into the steep valley floor. A companionable clump of headlamps light the near shore of Moose Lake, and we turn our own lights on for the stout climb to Gladys. The stars are out by the time we find a spot, tucked between the trail and the tender stream that will become Grand Creek. Krista puts up the tent—she’s always been better at it than me—and I gather water and heat it for our little dinners.

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“I love this with you.”

“I love this with you too.”

September 5: Grand Valley to Dose Meadows via Grand Pass, Cameron Pass, and Lost Pass

We wake with the sun to a close meadow full of deer. “Krista,” she pokes her head out of the tent. “You should come see this.” She cautiously crawls out the door, then turns toward the meadow. “Oh.” A long pause. “That’s magic.”

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The day starts with the most beautiful climb out of the valley, switchbacking through thinning forest then steep blocky talus to the unnamed lake that marks Grand Pass.

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We’ve been fast, so there’s time enough for a quick climb to the insufficiently named Grand Pass Peak. There are mountains in every direction. Just below, the Lillian River rushes down to the Elwha, and I remember sleeping there years ago, at the end of a long day of road-walking from Port Angeles. Further, Cameron and Deception and Greywolf mark our route for the next few days. And further still, Olympus peeks just above the skyline.

I think, as I always think here, of my dad—of the trips he took us on as kids. Of the mornings when he woke up like we did yesterday, hours before the sun. Of his insistence on bringing us out, even when we complained, said we’d rather play Sega, brought us out so that we could see things like this, so that we could know this was in the world.

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From Grand Pass, the trail switchbacks steeply to a broad basin filled with marmots and little lakes, then more steeply still along an unnamed tributary of Cameron Creek.

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The trail along Cameron Creek proper’s overgrown and uneven, and I feel slow and strange in the humid early afternoon heat. But soon enough the trail’s switchbacking away from the creek, to the windy series of marshy meadows that make Cameron Basin.

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We stop for lunch where several streams meet, then climb up the braided, faded switchbacks to the steep rock ramps that lead to Cameron Pass. I’d been worried about this bit—when I came through years ago, I almost cried with fear—but it feels easy now, going up. Going up and having Krista here, who just smiles at my fear. “This is fun!”

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On top, we meet a couple wiry women, Pacific Northwest Trail hikers who’ve been hiking west since the Continental Divide in Montana. They’re wonderful, and seem to take an immediate liking to Krista. The three of them laugh while I hang back. It’s the happiest I’ve seen her in weeks. She smiles on the steep descent to Lost Basin.

“No matter what, we’ll always have this.”

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The light fades as we cross the dozen or so streams that eventually meet up to make Lost Creek, but there’s still time for huckleberries—bright blue and purple in the golden light. As we’re stopped, we notice a squat black something, bumbling a hundred feet below. A baby bear! Maybe a yearling. It’s biting at the huckleberry branches, utterly unconcerned with us. I smile. “We’ll always have this.” I hope the bear will too.

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The trail down from Lost Pass is steep, and we hurry through in the fading last light.

The big camp at Dose Meadows is bustling with activity, but there’s room enough for us, on top of a big hill overlooking the river, here little more than a tiny trickle. There’s enough to fill our water bottles though, and to fill our pot for the little dinners that still feel like luxuries. We watch the water in the day’s last light. The best restaurant we’ve ever been to.

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September 6: Dose Meadows to Camp Ellis via Gray Wolf Pass

We leave early. There are still snores coming from the nearest camp, where last night three old men sat out watching the stars through an old rusted telescope.

We bumble bleary-eyed east down to Bear Camp for breakfast. The trail’s thick with memories: my first long trip through the park, years ago; two late-autumn ambles with my dad, sleeping in the bunks at Bear Camp and staying up late with bourbon and brandy to watch the satellites and stars; and now here, in the middle of a pandemic, with Krista, brittle, but better because we’re here together.

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A long breakfast at Bear Camp with coffee and huckleberries in our oatmeal, then a few more miles to the Gray Wolf junction.

The climb up to Gray Wolf is hard and hot. We stop at every little bit of shade. Krista shouts: at first, “Shade Break!” but then things degrade. “Shay Bray!” I tell her, for something like the fifth time today, that I love her.

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We eat lunch at the pass, hidden from the heat by a few windswept trees, then amble more easily down into the complicated complex of tarns and trees and ridges and basins that lead, eventually, to the Gray Wolf River.

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We joke through the descent, laughing as the sunset sunbeams bend through the valley’s ancient trees. The Gray Wolf’s rushing water echoes, making something like voices—Bob Wood, in the best hiking guide ever, calls them “river voices”—that speak in a language at least as old as the trees.

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I think of that guide as we make camp in Camp Ellis’ crowded clearing. My copy—well, one of the three copies I own, but my first copy—starts with a poem my dad wrote, a poem that he slipped in before he gave it to me years ago, for my birthday, when Krista and I were just starting this stuff.

I try to remember the poem as we drift to sleep, listening to Wood’s ancient voices.

September 7: Camp Ellis to Deer Park via Three Forks, Deer Park to Portland

In the slight light of morning, Camp Ellis feels much too crowded for breakfast, so we pack up quickly, and trundle through the old growth morning mist to an ancient log crossing the Gray Wolf.

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We set up there for our last oatmeal and coffee of the trip, stretch our legs on a gravel bar overlooking the river. The water here’s deep and that unreal green blue of glacial streams. If you saw it in a movie, wandering as it does through the thick old growth, you’d say the special effects people needed to settle down a bit.

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Quickly after our crossing comes Three Forks, the complicated campground where the Gray Wolf, Cameron Creek, and Grand Creek all come together. There’s a shelter on the far side of the last crossing, where we sit for a while and eat some snacks.

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Then a climb that is somehow both gentle and relentless, 3000’ up to Deer Park. “You know,” I say to Krista, who does not find all this as funny as I do. “This is basically just Dog Mountain without the Bluetooth speakers and unleashed dogs.” A pause, and she smirks. “But also without the fresh legs.”

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Deer Park comes quicker than either of us thought. We’re greeted by an utterly unafraid deer, feasting on some late-season grass, then good-smelling dayhikers, out for little jaunts around Blue Mountain on the last days of their long weekend.

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The drive down from Deer Park’s significantly easier than the drive up, and soon we’re back on 101, stopping at the gas station for Coke and questionable snacks. I take a bite of my corndog, which somehow also contains nacho cheese and jalapenos and maybe Doritos? “At least,” I say to a very disgusted Krista, “we’ll always have these,” and point at the culinary triumph I’ll spend the next 16 hours regretting.

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