Fortunate in Forks
I'm writing today from... back in Amesbury, MA already! Obviously I've finished the trail and made it back home safe and sound. Sorry for not updating the blog earlier, but during my one opportunity to do so, I managed to delete an entire post and didn't have the time to re-write it while on trail. Because of this, I'm just going to backfill the rest of the story with a few posts detailing the last 200 miles of trail on the Olympic Peninsula. Here goes:
I found myself staying in the company of Dan and Lys Burden in Port Townsend, an unassuming couple with a tremendous backstory of cycling and generosity. The have logged ten of thousands of miles on their bikes over the course of decades, helped plot out several cycling routes across the country, and started the Warm Showers network of hospitality for travelers around the US. In short, they know what they are doing when it comes to hosting people just off the road, but largely kept to themselves in the meantime. I spent some time at the library and got my permits for the Olympic National Park hammered out, saw "Dunkirk" at the local theater, and wandered through the galleries downtown with my free time. The Burdens had bikes to lend for travel around the area, so I did some touring and went up to Fort Worden, a state park built around an old military parade ground overlooking the Straights of Juan de Fuca. In the meantime, Roadie and Zucchini showed up to their house, so we all had a night to catch up and discuss our plans for the Olympics, as well as air any grievances we had had with the trail in the past weeks.
I was the only one to be leaving the next morning, having just spent a zero day in town. With my mom and brother Ryan coming to pick me up on the 24th, and a national park itinerary to follow, I now had a deadline and specific campsites to shoot for during the remaining 200+ miles of trail. Given that I had more than enough time to finish, and not wanting to be left sitting around the peninsula with no goal in mind, I decided to take a longer route that stitched together several alternates in order to see more of the park. Basically, trail closures in past years had necessitated the formulation of different tracks to reach Cape Alava, and these interwove to make a number of routes possible.
The beginning of the day out of town was relatively uneventful as the trail took a bike path along the water and circumvented a paper mill nearby. I did get a bit of a show as a half dozen sea otters hunted in the shallows just offshore, however, so it wasn't entirely without its distractions. Eventually the path kicked out on the dangerous SR20. My route was to follow the road south to a trailhead several miles distant, but the guidebook recommended taking the bus to avoid potential injury. After finding that the next transit was 2 hours away, I just decided to hitch it and got to my destinations fairly easily with a ride from an older man named Tim. The locals had trouble pointing me to the trail I was looking for (one described it as "needing a machete to get through"), but once I was on the path it was better than I anticipated; the PNT had already thrown far worse at us in terms of overgrown walkways. I had to do some minor routefinding as it eventually led into the familiar tangle of unmarked logging roads, but GPS came in to save the day. After a quick climb over the scenic Mt Zion, I dropped into a valley for the night.
A fire bell tower in Port Townsend
View over Port Townsend harbor
Sculpture of the local fauna
View from atop Mt Zion
My next day passed by several abandoned mine shafts as the trail paralleled watercourses with names like Gold and Copper Creek (I could only think of my grandpa's stories about finding just such an old mine in California, thinking he could strike it rich). From here I ascended to Marmot Pass as the views exploded above the treeline to craggy peaks with icy tongues between them. Sadly, I had hoped for cell service here to call Kate and celebrate our 2nd anniversary, but the terrain wouldn't allow it. I knew we'd be reunited soon enough as long as I kept my pace though. In the meantime, house-sized boulders were scattered about the valley while the trail cut across numerous avalanche chutes, evidence of the steep and unstable terrain. Eventually I started making my way towards my designated camp at Home Lake, which sat in a bowl created by a massive rockslide from the peak above it. Curiously, there was no outlet; the water percolated through the rocky bottom to feed the streams below. Sleeping in such a place, where one minor earthquake could bring an entire mountain down on my head, wasn't ideal, but at least it was picturesque!
An abandoned mine shaft
Near Marmot Pass
Home Lake for the night
The next morning was chilly but my path immediately started climbing, so I warmed easily with my gear on. I quickly hit Constance Pass, where the morning light illuminated not only the nearby surroundings, but also Mt Baker, which sat like a floating island in a sea of clouds far in the distance. After an all-too-short stay in the alpine, the trail turned and dropped to a river valley far below, which it immediately began following upstream. After a few hours of mild climbing I deviated from the "primary" PNT route as I turned north and up Lost Pass. This intimidating climb rose 1,100 feet in just .8 miles, but this was just the beginning; after a quick traverse of an open meadow, I hit Cameron Pass and its 1,200 foot ascent. The double-whammy climb left me breathless for awhile, as did the amazing views from up top. I stopped for lunch on my windy perch and dried my gear in the meantime, relishing the solitude of this lightly traveled area of trail. But everything that goes up must come down, and the other side of the pass was equally challenging as the tread squirmed and zig-zagged to keep its footing on a narrow ridge amongst expansive scree fields and snow. Water squeezed from the rocks around me at the headwaters, and the harsh stone suddenly greened with moss as I arrived at the camp at Cameron Basin. Despite having covered just 20 or so miles, and with plenty of daylight left to work with, I had to stop for the night so as to avoid camping in a reservation area of the park. The awesome, rugged scenery calmed my restless legs as I watched the sun set on the surrounding peaks and dug in to the book I had picked up in Port Townsend (The Old Ways; A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane. An excellent read if you want to experience the British approach to trekking).
Sunrise in the mountains
Mt Baker (I think) in the distance
Atop Cameron Pass
Looking down into Cameron Basin
Upper reaches of Cameron Basin
I awoke early hoping to get a jump start on what was to be my longest day within the park, but the darkness inherent in a valley morning, where the sun doesn't hit you until well into the day, slowed my initial efforts. The trail splashed downwards as it exited the basin, often overflown by Cameron Creek which ran beside it, until turning to once again scale the steeply sloping terrain. Grand Pass lived up to its name in both difficulty and beauty, as the strenuous climb traversed around the wall of a precipitous bowl before topping out to a view of the Badger River headwaters below. Several people were camped in the stony terrain up top, and I tip-toed past them as well as I could before starting the scramble downwards on unstable scree. I passed several other campsites situated along the small alpines lakes as the sun gradually flooded the valley around me and the mountains slowly awoke. Deer foraged in the meadows, unseen marmots whistled in alarm as I passed, and other campers were just starting their mornings as I made for my next destination; yet another climb up to Hurricane Ridge. Thankfully this ascent was less brutal than the previous few, and topped out on a wide plateau of dried alpine vegetation that was reminiscent of the steppes in eastern Washington in color if not texture. An increasing number of day hikers signaled my proximity to a road, and eventually I arrived at a trailhead off a gravel thoroughfare that led to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center some miles distant. This was also the juncture with the main "alternate" route of the PNT that most thru hikers take in to the park, which joined in from the east. I however turned west and started hoofing it along the road towards the visitor center, eager to get some hot food there. In the process, I saw two older hikers along the road, whom I eventually overtook. They turned out to be PNT thru hikers as well, having started in Glacier some time before Kate and I. Ironically, this was the couple that had found Swift Creek, just south of Mt Shuksan, to be "impassable" and had tried to warn other hikers to not attempt fording it via Facebook (retroactive spoiler alert: it wasn't impassable). Without getting too much into it, I find such well-meaning attempts at caution to be counterproductive to others' experience of the trail. Just hike your own hike! People did survive before the advent of social media, you know. But I digress...
I trudged the rest of the way on the road and did some quick R&R at the visitor center, enjoying the stunning views of the mountains in the meantime. Tourists swirled throughout the area, and for good reason; a paved road leading up to such a panoramic vista is a rare thing. I pressed onward, passing throngs of people doing the short hike to Hurricane Hill nearby before leaving the busy path and striking off westward. From here the trail began a crushing 5,000 foot descent (!) towards the Elwha River, which, despite being on a favorable grade and decent tread, was still hellish on the knees and toes. I was ecstatic when I reached the bottom, my legs feeling like jelly as I finally leveled off. I started on another short section of road walking and passed the remains of the Elwha River Dam, a former hydroelectric site that was demolished in 2011 to restore the salmon runs upstream. The destruction of the dam had caused damage to the nearby Olympic Hot Springs Road, which was eventually converted to a trail that the PNT followed. Tourists traffic was heavy here as well, as people flocked to the thermal pools that lay along the river bed a little farther on. I elected to avoid the high-use area (the sulfurous smell of the vents was enough for me), and circumvented them to start the climb towards the campsite at Appleton Pass , where my itinerary dictated I was to stay for the night. With daylight and stamina fading, however, I decided to stop a few miles early, and found an excellent place to rest for the night in a pine needle cushioned glade next to the roaring Upper Boulder Falls.
Atop Grand Pass
Looking down to Badger Valley
Deer in the morning light
Looking upriver from the remains of Elwha River Dam
Looking back on the dam from above
Having not made my intended distance the previous night, I got up early expecting a long day. I made tracks over Appleton Pass and past the still-sleeping tents there before descending in to the popular Sol Duc area of he park. Here, some day hikers informed me that another PNTer was just ahead. I was determined to catch up, and ran into Roadie near one of the next campsites... but not before seeing some mountain goats, which are attracted to the leftovers in the area (and the salt in any urine-soaked leaves). Roadie and I leapfrogged throughout the day as we traversed the incredibly scenic High Divide Trail, with the snowy slopes and frigid glaciers of Mt Olympus a mere 7 miles distant on one side, and the rocky bowls of the Seven Lakes Basin on another. Shortly thereafter we saw a black bear struggling up the hillside before scrambling off he pathway when it saw us; it was a good day for encountering wildlife, it seemed. Speaking of wild animals, we also encountered Tiny, Brainstorm, and Zucchini, fresh off some alternate route they had taken in to the park. This continued the leapfrogging chain as we all split to hike at or own pace, just as some drizzly weather set in. We all were shooting for the same campsite for the night, but neither the precipitation or the trail conditions made things easy. We started losing elevation in our last real descent of the entire trail (!), and right in to an overgrown rainforest in the Bogachiel River Valley. With slippery footing, muddy tread, countless blow downs, several washed-out areas, and a difficult to follow path, we pushed on into the growing gloom of the jungle. Ultimately, I was the only one to make the desired camp, as the others elected to stop early, but thankfully some recent trail maintenance made the going easier as we got farther down the watershed. I was wet and tired at the end of he day, but felt triumphant that I had overcome the rigors of the overgrown terrain and made my destination.
Heavy traffic on the PNT
The Seven Lakes Basin
A bear looking to use the trail for its own ends
An uncharacteristically clear portion of the Bogachiel River Trail
The morning's hike was decidedly easier, as the trail maintenance continued all the way to the trailhead and the valley flattened out. I passed a large group of elk crouched in the shadows of the rainforest vegetation before reaching a road, where at some recent point in time a large chunk of asphalt had deteriorated and washed into the river below. I climbed over the rubble like some adventurer in a post-apocalyptic movie and made my way to Highway 101, the main thoroughfare around much of the Olympic Peninsula. I lucked out upon reaching it, however, when a local stopped and offered to give me a hitch to Forks, where I was already planning on spending the night and resupplying. It seemed my efforts of the previous night had paid off, and I got into town well before noon.
With the knowledge that the other hikers would be arriving after me, I started hunting for accommodations. Unfortunately, I had anticipated we would all be arriving together, and thus hadn't gotten their contact information; my only hope was a note I had left with my phone number on the trail. Luckily they received it, and I tried to grab us a room at one of the many motels in town, but everything was booked. It would seem that Forks's recent fame as the setting for the Twilight novels, as well as its proximity to several stellar areas of the park, kept the tourist traffic flowing healthily. Ultimately things worked out and we all found someplace to stay in town, while we also unexpectedly ran in to several other thru hikers: Samaritan, Windu, and JB. They were hitching around part of the coast (for what reason, I still can't fathom) and knew Zucchini from the AT, so we decided to have an impromptu party in town. It was the quintessential hiker-trash affair with copious amounts of beer, pizza and junk food (apologies to the staff at the Pacific Motel), and we all made it to the astoundingly late hour of 11 p.m. before turning in.