Hoh River Trail to Elk Lake

 

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Elk Lake

When I got in the car to head towards the peninsula, I wasn’t sure which hike I would do. I had looked up some ideas and had some criteria, but I hoped that someone at the Port Angeles Wilderness Information Center could make a suggestion given snow and trail conditions.

Unfortunately I was just not quick enough to make the ferry I aimed for, and after waiting in Edmonds an hour for the next one, I got to the Port Angeles WIC ten minutes after it closed. At this point I decided to do the Hoh River Trail because I already knew conditions would be ok, I already had a map for it from a previous hike, and the campsites did not require reservations so I could get a permit after-hours.  I filled out a permit and left the carbon copy and payment at the WIC. That taken care of, I still had to pick up a few things before heading to the trail.  After a couple hours of scrambling about, I drove a short while on 101 and found a nice spot to eat my Taco Bell and spend the night.

The weather had been gray and wet, but it was forecasted to clear up Saturday (the next day) and remain clear Sunday and Monday. So I fell asleep listening to rain on the the roof of my car and woke the next day to drive the rest of the way to the trailhead through light rain, between mountains shrouded by low clouds. When I stepped onto the trail it was misting so lightly that my body heat was enough to keep my thin hiking shirt mostly dry.

The trail, running along the north bank of the Hoh River, is mostly flat–gaining only 500 feet in the first 11 miles. In the next 4 miles it breaks from the river and gains 1500 feet to Elk Lake. I planned to camp at Lewis Meadows, 10.5 miles from the trailhead, make it up to Elk Lake the next day, and camp at the Happy Four campground, 5.7 miles from the trailhead, on the way out.

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To Lewis Meadows

Setting out at 10:30 hoping to cover 10.5 miles, I felt no sense of haste.  I had heard so much about the Hoh Rainforest prior to this, I was expecting some awe-inspiring land of nearly fabricated beauty, somewhere between Fern Gully and Jurassic Park. It was certainly full of beauty and inspiring wonder, but it felt to me similar to other old-growth forest I’d encountered in Washington, just on the mossy side.

Don’t get me wrong, mossy, old-growth forest in Washington is really special. Some trees were large enough I imagined that five of me wouldn’t be able to reach around their base. Which, most of the time, was covered in so many textures of moss that often, the moss appeared to make up its own forest. Copious aging blow-downs, sagging and rotting, provide perfect soil for these moss microcosms and even the next generation of trees– stumps and logs in more advanced stages of rot had become tree nurseries. With all the competition in the forest, I’m sure few of these little saplings make it to the heights of the biggest trees, but I could tell which of those giants likely started out that way. Some huge trees appeared to have roots branching above-ground, like legs, creating arches sometimes big enough to walk under. Think of the aliens in Arrival. I’m no tree scientist, but I’m guessing they originally sat atop a large stump before they grew to huge heights and their stump completely disintegrated.

The trees provided some shelter for the light rain which continued to fall, even after noon when the forecast predicted it would stop. I encountered frequent muddy patches on the trail and was glad I opted for boots over my trail runners. Periodically, the trail bumped right against the river bank, and I got a peek at the sprawling river bed and the base of the ridge to the south, hinting that we were all nestled in a large valley, though the low clouds obscured everything beyond that.

Skipping a more leisurely lunch on account of the continued rain,  I stopped after 5.7 miles for a short snack by the river and kept moving. I encountered a handful of other hikers–day hikers in the first few miles and some people camped out at the 5 and 5.7 mile campsites. Around mile 7 I found the cool kids–on a day jaunt from their tent site, huddled under a fallen tree taking pulls of Maker’s Mark. A couple miles later, a solo hiker headed in the opposite direction said he had wanted to make it to Lewis Meadows but turned around at a log crossing that seemed too sketchy to do solo, instead camping at the Olympus Guard Station at mile 9.1. Hmmmm. This really got me thinking. I did not want to immediately dismiss his caution, but I recalled the many water crossings in the Sierras last summer and how we were always able to find a way. I absolutely believed that there was a log that would be dangerous for anyone to try crossing, but I could not imagine that this was the only reasonable option.

A mile after the Olympus Guard Station I reached a creek, a few yards wide, ankle to shin deep, crawling through the rocky bottom of a small chasm in the land, 4 or 5 time as wide as the water. I decided it would be risky and cumbersome to try scrambling across the tangle of recent blowdowns strewn over the creek, roughly spanning the gap in the land. But the creek was pretty small. I just had to decide whether I could make it across in my boots, stepping on dry or barely submerged rocks, or if I had to switch to sandals and wade. I accepted the slight risk of filling a boot with water and kept my shoes on. The rocks were slippery–I leaned heavily on my trekking pole. A couple times the water brimmed right up to the highest waterproof point on my boots, but I stayed dry. And certainly safe.

Not too long after this crossing, the forest opened up and the trail forked, one spur leading into a grassy meadow. Lewis Meadows! After the lush and almost spooky wonder of the forest, I found the meadow to be quaint and charming. I was excited to explore. First I had to empty my hands–over the past few miles I came across a few spots of trail so sheltered that the ground was untouched by drizzle. Optimistic that the rain would stop eventually, I had been gathering dry twigs for a camp fire that night. By the time I got the the Meadows, my hands were full. I stashed my bundle in the shelter of a large tree and set out to find my spot.

There were tent sites around the meadow. As in every other campsite, there were bear wires, metal cords strung between trees to make it easy to properly hang a food bag. A short path lead to a privy. A couple trails lead through 50 or so yards of tall, wiry brush (or young tress?) to the river bank. In one spot by the river, a fire pit indicated that someone had camped there before. I deliberated about whether to camp by the meadow or by the river. I knew it would be slightly colder by the river, and I’d likely wake to more condensation in my tent. But the sprawling riverbed was beautiful, and once the skies cleared, I knew I’d see snow-covered peaks and ridges. And other people would likely be camped in the meadow, to be close to the bear wires. I had my bear can, so I could safely stash my food away from my tent at night without hanging anything. I set up by the river.

It was only four when I had my tent set up, and the rain had mostly stopped, so I was pretty excited about building a fire. I went back to gather my twigs and get water from a small stream by the meadow. Afterward I went in search of larger firewood. It took a lot longer than I expected to get a little fire going. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I had to use torn up sheets of paper from my journal for tinder. But by 6, I had a little fire, big enough to be drying out the larger, slightly damp pieces of wood. Right at that point, the rain decided it was not done. 15 minutes of rain drops and my fire was reduced to smoldering coals. Frustrated but not discouraged, I built it back and was eventually sitting beside a modest but resilient little fire. Cooking my cheddar broccoli Knorr rice side made me nostalgic about my PCT days. Without my thru hiker appetite, or any other hikers to share with, finishing the whole Knorr was not easy.

I knew the temp would drop once the sun set, and I did not want to still be outside my tent when it did, so I did all of my night time chores while it was still light–dousing the fire with water from the river, brushing my teeth, and stashing all my food, toiletries, and cooking gear in my bear can away from my tent. After I was cozy in my sleeping bag, I looked out of the tent door to watch the last sliver of sunlight on trees across the river slowly disappear.

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Elk Lake and Back

When I woke early the next morning, I was not pleased to have been absolutely right about the temperature drop and amount of condensation in my tent. Judging by the frozen condensation stuck to my rainfly, the temperature hit somewhere below 32, but that would have been fine for my 20 degree sleeping bag if the tiny water droplets which settled over the its exterior were not seeping in and seriously hindering the fluffy down’s insulating capacity. For a couple hours I tried to find the most warmth-conserving position, switching between a little ball and a plank, ankles crossed arms like a mummy.

I wished I had brought my sleeping bag liner. I wished I had my foam sleeping pad under my inflatable sleeping pad. I wished I was wearing a fleece onesie. I wished I had eaten more the night before. My excitement about the hiking I planned for that day waned. The ranger I talked to at the trailhead said there could be snow on the trail at any point after mile 12.5. I had planned to set out and see what the snow was like and turn around if it was really that soon–two and a half miles of snow during a 1000 ft gain was not what I was wanting. I started to feel like maybe it wasn’t worth it to try. There was no way I was going to be up and moving any time soon. I wouldn’t have enough time if I left too late. Maybe I should just hike back the way I came.

At some point between 7 and 8, rays of sunlight struck my tent.  I opened up the door flaps to let the sun in. I saw clear skies and the snow-covered top of the High Divide ridge. Even the weak, early morning rays dried the exposed section of my sleeping bag within 15 minutes. As the moisture on and in my tent slowly thawed and disappeared so did my pessimism. I was in a beautiful place far away from all the stressful things, and I could do whatever I wanted. I spend 90% of my life wishing I was in that position. I decided that I didn’t need to decide on a plan for the day. Going to Elk Lake, staying right there, hiking back, it was all a good plan, and I would see what I felt like doing after enjoying a leisurely breakfast.

I fetched my bear can and put water on my stove to boil. At this point, my sleeping bag was toasty again, and in the sun I was warm. I had half a box of my favorite trail cookies with instant coffee and a handful of nuts for some nutritional value. I listened to music and wrote in my journal. I decided I definitely wanted to head towards Elk Lake.

I separated my gear differently while packing up. I would leave all the heavy stuff at Lewis Meadows–tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, some food, and bear canister. I wedged the bear can full of stuff between two trees and hung the rest on the bear wire. It was 10:40 when I got back on the trail.

The clear sky made all the difference, even inside the thick forest. The sun shone through in patches, making bright spots on the ground and illuminating everything its path–leaves, hanging moss, and water vapor rising from mossy logs. Though the vegetation and wildlife were the same as the day before, the greens appeared more vibrant and the textures more rich. Birds were chirping. The forest felt like more than just rock and soil and trees and moss. It housed secrets. It was definitely magic.

Around mile 12.5 I crossed a bridge spanning a terrifyingly deep ravine with the river far, far below. After this, the climbing began. With so little weight in my pack, I was able to keep a brisk pace but I was still not quite in my best hiking shape, and it wasn’t pretty. I was glad that no other hikers were there to see me huffing and puffing. After a little while, I realize I must be around mile 14 and I still hadn’t hit snow. It wasn’t until Martin Creek, a half mile or less from Elk Lake, that the first patches appeared. And even then, it was very manageable snow–deep in places but compact enough over the trail that I didn’t post-hole and crunchy enough at the top for good traction. I didn’t have to take out my micro spikes or trekking pole.

While the snow on the trail was patchy, the lakeshore was completely covered, and the lake itself was still half frozen. I post-holed my way down to the only snow-free and sunny spot I could see, a dry log poking out into the lake. Here I enjoyed a snack and tried to identify the peaks in front of me with my map and compass. It’s been some time since I’ve taken bearings, so it took me a while to figure out they were just un-named peaks (according to my map), 6275 and 6345 ft tall.

I hung around a little while, but with still 9.3 miles to go, I had to keep to a schedule. I started heading back around 1:30. If anything made this hike feel similar to hiking on the PCT, it was the rest of this day. I had to keep track of time and couldn’t dawdle. I still stopped to take pictures, but for the most part, I kept moving. I reached Happy Four around 5:30 and again, picked a spot close to the river. It would be cold again, but I chose the spot that would get the earliest sunlight.

I went about my evening routine, this time making an effort to eat more for dinner, hoping it would keep me warm at night. By 7:30 I was nestled in my sleeping bag watching the sun set.

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Back to the Trailhead

Again, it got cold at night, and every surface inside the tent was damp (or frozen) in the morning. But this time, I knew that the sun would come and make it all better. As the light grew in one half of the sky, I realized that I didn’t have the best angle for sun to shine in the tent. I got out, pulled the tent stakes, and re-positioned. I rolled open the flaps, set out my boots, and waited patiently.  And sure enough, around 7:30, those first rays began shining through. I made coffee, ate the rest of the cookies, and got moving earlier than the day before.

After I was mostly packed, I waited around a little while for the tent to dry and got back on the trail around 9. Again, the weather was beautiful and the forest was breath-taking. But again, I couldn’t dawdle as I needed to be back in Seattle by 3. After a couple hours of easy hiking, I was back in the parking lot, feeling so happy to have had such a lovely hike and also very looking forward to getting home and taking a shower.

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2 thoughts on “Hoh River Trail to Elk Lake”

  1. I am glad you take wise precautions against bears! It is hard for me to imagine doing what you do out there: challenging yourself physically and mentally, making modifications to your plans when necessary and always driven by the power of your passion to be out in the elements and give yourself such a contrast to your daily life. And I am sure you enjoyed your shower.

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  2. I love your pictures and your writing! Those trees-wow, I’ve never seen anything like that. I truly admire your bravery and sense of adventure. Your descriptions of scenery and comparisons paint such an accurate picture for us. I especially relate to your thoughts and feelings like about being cold or deciding what to do next. It’s so relatable. So glad you’re blogging again!

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