In the Footsteps of the First Explorers:
Crossing the Olympics

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 60 miles      Time out: 5 days

Degree of Difficulty: Moderate      Elevation: 3,602 ft.

Pet Friendly: No




Post #1 – Were these guys from the Press Expedition really the first?

The Press Expedition. Photo courteUniversity of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

Join Trisha and I on a five-day backpacking adventure across the breadth of Olympic National Park. We’ll retrace the footsteps of arctic explorer James H. Christie and the hearty men of his 1889 Press Expedition while examining records left by local Native American tribes in our quest to answer this question: who were the first people to cross the enigmatic Olympic Mountains?

Detailed books and splashy newspaper accounts have documented the trials of the Press Expedition. Their journey was even fictionalized in the sprawling novel, ‘West of Here’, written by my friend, Jonathan Evison, where protagonist James Mather, like the real James Christie, leads his men into the unknown interior of the Olympic Peninsula.

Meanwhile, native Americans quietly called the Olympic Peninsula their home for the last 10,000 years. Their close relationship with the land and water is recounted in their traditional stories as they traded, fought, and sometimes intermarried. The arrival of the Europeans in the 1850s changed their way of life. Within twenty years, the Native Americans had been forced onto eight reservations circling the Olympic Peninsula. Beginning at the northwestern point of the peninsula and moving clockwise, the tribes included the Makah, Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Skokomish, Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis, Quinault, Hoh, and Quileute.

The tribes’ impact on this bountiful land was minimal. At the same time, European settlers logged the shoreline forests, continuing up rivers into the foothills until the then-unknown and impregnable Olympic Mountains hampered their progress, the mountains Trisha and I hoped to cross.


Post #2 – Would you have answered this call?

As unknown as the interior of Africa

As Trisha and I prepared for our backpacking adventure, we thought about the timber barons who had logged the Olympic Peninsula with impunity, right up to the foothills. The idea that the Olympic Mountains—clearly visible from their opulent mansions located in Seattle and the other newly minted cities around Puget Sound—hid an interior landscape that was as unknown as darkest Africa must have been galling to these powerful men. Finally, in 1889 the Seattle Press (predecessor of the Seattle Times) printed this clarion call, “There is a fine opportunity for some of the hardy citizens of the Sound to acquire fame by unveiling the mystery which wraps the land encircled by the snowcapped Olympic range.” Out of the many who volunteered, the Seattle Press selected a team of six whom they outfitted for the exploration.


Post #3 -Is ‘grit and manly vim’ their secret ingredient?

Hoping to channel a bit of that grit and manly vim

Our journey would take us from the northern to the southern border of Olympic National Park. We’d climb up the Elwha River, cross over the watershed at Low Divide pass, then continue down the Quinault River. This was supposed to be a 48-mile wilderness journey, but the road to the Whiskey Bend trailhead was washed out, so we had to add six miles along an empty paved road. (We added another six when yours truly took a wrong turn, but that’s another story) No matter, it was a pleasant August weather.

Back in 1889, the Seattle Press Expedition would make the same journey in the dead of winter. While many considered the Press Expedition’s trek through the unknown mountains challenging enough, most thought it was suicidal to travel during such frigid weather. Not so their sponsor, the Seattle Press who claimed they had full confidence in the men of the expedition because “They have an abundance of grit and manly vim.”


Post #4 – We carried no napalm

One tough backpacker babe

While Trisha and I carried all that we needed in our backpacks, the Press Expedition purchased 2,000 lbs. of equipment and supplies for the same journey. The men stocked guns, ammunition, a tent, canvas sheets, blankets, fishing tackle, axes, saws, carpentry and prospecting tools, snowshoes, cooking utensils, camera and film, bacon, sugar, tea, coffee, flour and dried foodstuffs, tobacco and whiskey. They even packed 50 lbs. of a napalm like substance, “for the purpose of illuminating, if possible, some peak visible from Seattle.”

The Press Expedition packed so many supplies because they weren’t sure what obstacles whey would encounter. There was speculation that in the unknown interior, the Olympic Mountains rose as rings of concentric circles that hid lush prairies and a massive lake at the center where fierce cannibals roamed, or even the lost tribe of Israel might have settled. Yet nobody asked any of the tribes living on the eight newly created reservations what secrets the Press Expedition might uncover. Unnecessary, cried the territorial governor of Washington State. He promised his white audience that the Native nations were so frightened by the legends of fantastic beasts living in the interior that the Olympic Mountains were terra incognita to them.


Post #5– The bountiful Elwha River

Historically, the Elwha River had prodigious salmon runs

The Lower Elwha Klallam had enjoyed the bounty of the Elwha River for thousands of years. The Elwha and its tributaries had produced some of the most prolific salmon runs on the peninsula, including Coho, chum, humpies, steelhead, and especially King Salmon, some of which could reach an impressive 100 lbs. The Press Expedition feasted on the bounty of the Elwha River too. Expedition leader Christie caught fourteen salmon in half an hour in a pool next to their camp in Geyser Valley, none smaller than two feet long.

All that changed when pioneer Thomas Aldwell began construction of the first of two dams spanning the Elwha back in 1910. Though the electricity generated from the dams was an economic boon to the struggling village of Port Angeles, Aldwell cut corners and built both dams without fish passages, which ended those prodigious salmon runs and ravaged the economic life of the Lower Elwha Klallam.

But there was still more pain in store for the tribe. A tradition going back generations described a flat rock along the river with two deep depressions as the place where the Creator bathed and blessed the tribe and showed them visions of their future calling in life. The rising waters behind the Elwha Dam flooded over their sacred creation site and literally drowned the spiritual heart of the Lower Elwha Klallam.




Post #6 Nothing went as planned

fpe06 – Mules are still used to haul supplies and equipment through the Olympics

Trisha and I hefted on our backpacks at the Madison Falls parking lot and strode past the mule coral to begin our 5-day journey. I admit to being a bit too excited about our adventure and not paying enough attention to landmarks, and so I missed the turn to Whiskey Bend. Result? I led our little party many miles in the wrong direction.

Back in 1889, the Press Expedition had a much worse start. Rival expeditions threatened to conquer the Olympics the coming spring. With the Seattle Press newspaper’s encouragement, the Expedition arrived in Port Angeles on December 7th of what would become the coldest winter on record. Leader James Christy was unsure how to get his men and his ton of supplies through the deep snow. Relying on the advice of Port Angeles Mayor, Norman Smith, who claimed the wild Elwha was navigable for most of its 45-mile length, the Press Expedition decided to build a boat and pole and pull their supplies up the frigid river.

The men constructed the ‘Gertie,’ a thirty foot-long, flat bottomed boat out of green lumber, which meant she promptly sank when launched. After lighting massive fires to dry the lumber, they re-assembled, re-caulked, and relaunched her. Result? After two weeks of struggling against the icy rapids in waters up to their waists, the frozen and exhausted men had succeeded in moving only four miles upstream.

By January 24th, 1890, the men had abandoned their boat and loaded their one ton of supplies on their two mules, Dollie and Jennie. Their small feet made it possible to climb narrow mountainside trails, where a big horse couldn’t. Today the heavy equipment and supplies for trail maintenance and repair are still hauled by pack trains of mules in Olympic National Park. Thanks in part to these hard-working beasts, Trisha and I hoped that we’d find the trail ahead free of blow-downs and maintained.


Post #7 – Wild thing you make my heart sing.

Trisha standing on the remains of the Glines Canyon Dam with former Lake Mills in the background

A few miles up the abandoned auto road Trisha and I stood, smiling and lighthearted, upon the last vestiges of the Glines Canyon dam. Below us, stretching toward the distant mountains, was a river valley reborn. In the thick of the battle over climate change, pollution, and deforestation, good ol’ planet earth had won a round for a change. A century after the two Elwha River dams were constructed and after decades of debate, the mistakes of the past were rectified when the last of the dams was removed in 2014.

After the reservoir waters receded, the lakebeds were blanketed in a thick layer of silt and dotted with stumps that looked as if they’d been cut yesterday. But the biggest surprise was yet to come. The National Park Service contacted The Lower Elwha Klallam with the news that the tribe’s long-lost creation site had been found.

Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles and members of her tribe visited the rock, said prayers, and sang songs honoring their ancestors and elders. For Charles, validating what many believed was a myth was a powerful yet humbling experience that has revitalized tribal activities.

Today most of the lakebed sediments have been washed to the sea, creating a thriving river delta. Fish populations in the Elwha River have surged. According to a recent report from Washington State Fish and Wildlife Services, the number of juveniles produced from adult chinook salmon has increased from 16,000 to nearly 500,000, and chinook are now swimming as far as 34 miles upstream. Hatchery coho have established self-sustaining populations. Nature’s magic is unfolding as summer steelhead appear to have developed from the resident rainbow trout formerly trapped upstream. Bull trout are now spawning in the extreme Elwha headwaters. Plants are sprouting and proliferating, just like the fish. The FWS report concludes wryly, “The Elwha River ecosystem is recovering at a faster rate than the planning effort leading to the removal of the two Elwha dams.”

Now the Elwha River runs free—but be careful what you wish for. The Elwha is currently posing difficulties for Port Angeles’ industrial water supply and its potable water backup system. At first, the muddy water, thick with sediments, overloaded the system, and now the everchanging river is threatening to meander away from the intake well. City officials are looking at an enormous rise in the cost of operating and maintaining the facilities.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service struggles to maintain its infrastructure as the Elwha smashes bridges and slices through campgrounds, refusing to be tamed again. After multiple washouts, you can no longer drive up the Elwha River road to the trailhead at Whiskey Bend. Currently, the NPS is considering options to relocate the highway above the river’s floodplain, but that will take years. Meanwhile, the wild Elwha forced Trisha and me to hike an additional six miles along the abandoned asphalt road before we could truly begin our wilderness journey.


Post #8 – Everybody wanted a piece of this valley

Trisha at Humes Ranch

Trisha and I finally reached the trailhead at Whiskey Bend late in the day and began hiking on the wilderness trail. Now and then, I kicked aside the soil, searching for ancient spearpoints or examined the trunks of giant firs for three horizontal blazes, the Press Expedition’s calling card. I found neither. The sun had set behind the mountain ridges when we reached our destination for the evening, Humes Ranch. Here in Geyser Valley, the river meandered past a broad field. Exhausted from the extra mileage we’d traveled on our first day, we eagerly set to making camp in the lush grass of this perfect campsite.

We weren’t the only ones to fall in love with Geyser Valley. The Press Expedition had struggled mightily through February and most of March of 1890 to reach this same open valley. One of its men, John H. Crumback, was so enamored with this location that he staked a claim here. On the first day of spring 1890, the men of the Press Expedition chopped down four trees, limbed and notched them, and then place them in a square to show the world that this valley now belonged to Crumback.

At the time of the Press Expedition, it had become shockingly easy to claim 160 acres of prime forest lands on the Olympic Peninsula. The tribes had been coerced into turning over most of their ancestral lands to the government, and in turn, the Homestead Act gave that land away to anybody willing to stake a claim, especially if you were white.

Crumback may have claimed the valley, but to acquire title was the difficult part. You were supposed to spend the next five years improving your land. Crumback never returned to Geyser Valley, so nothing ever came of his claim. Yet that wasn’t always what happened. With little oversite, others abused the Homestead Act, and plenty of forested lands from un-proven homesteads ended up in the hands of rich timber barons.

Eventually, a homestead was proven up here in Geyser Valley. Seven years after the Press Expedition passed through here, Will Humes claimed this location. His brother Grant joined him in 1900, and together they cleared the fields and built this cabin. Eventually, Will returned home to New England, but brother Grant stayed on carving out a living here in the forest by growing a few crops, hunting, and guiding. Grant lived in this cabin alone for 34 years until his death. Today his barn and other buildings are gone, but thankfully, the National Park Service has preserved his cozy little cabin.

Trisha and I loved this open field and the soft grass under our tent. We turned in after dinner and were soon fast asleep in our comfortable beds. Grant Humes loved this place too. When business forced him to travel to bustling Seattle, Humes said upon his return, “I’m glad to get back to the cool, green, woods, and the peace and quiet and beauty to be enjoyed here.”


Post #9 – Humans have been wandering throughout the Olympic Mountains for thousands of years

A 2,900 year-old basket fragment found in a melting glacier at Obstruction Point

Trisha and I, refreshed from a ten-hour sleep, enjoyed our second day on the winding trail. As we hiked under the canopy of ancient firs with their combs of feathery moss, we passed half a dozen log cabins and shelters like the one at Humes Ranch. These historical structures highlighted the usage and travels of white settlers, hunters, and fishermen in the Olympics.

While evidence of travel though the Olympics before the arrival of Europeans was difficult for Trisha and I to discern, it didn’t mean it wasn’t there. I would love to report that Trisha and I were the ones to find this 2,900-year-old basket fragment, but alas, no. It was discovered in a melting glacier in the high country near Hurricane Ridge. Traveling even further back in time, archaeologists have found sites along the Elwha and in the high-country meadows where Neolithic hunters flaked tools at their campsites 8,000 years ago.

Who else had traveled in these mountains?

Back in the spring of 1890, the Press Expedition was surprised how difficult their struggle up the Elwha had become. Leader James Christie lamented, “The Elwha is quite a different stream I find from the Elwha of common report.”

The Press Expedition had been given bad reconnaissance. Back in December, Christie claimed that the Lower Elwha Klallam living at the mouth of the river had no information about the interior of the mountains, so he had turned to the mayor of Port Angeles mayor for guidance—someone who had no experience or knowledge of the river.

Perhaps the language barrier was too much, or maybe the Lower Elwha Klallam thought pulling a ton of supplies through the snowy Olympics was madness. Whatever the reason, it’s too bad this tribe didn’t advise Christie, because their history is full of stories of travels across the Olympics. This natural byway was a place for them to gather food, hunt, trade, wage war, attend potlatches, and even vacation. Olympic National Park anthropologist, Jackilee Wray, interviewed a Klallam who recalled how her grandmother traveled across the mountains with her five children to visit relatives at the mouth of the Quinault.

Trisha and I stopped for a snack on the bridge over the Lillian River and felt the cold air tumbled down the canyon along with the rushing water. By the time the Press Expedition had reached this confluence of the Lillian and Elwha Rivers in late March of 1890, their one ton of equipment and provisions had been reduced to 800 lbs. The men didn’t seem worried that their supplies were getting low, as they anticipated easy hunting and fishing in the upper Elwha. They wouldn’t have been so cavalier if they’d known the next nasty surprise that was in store.

If only James Christie had spent a bit more time with the Lower Elwha Klallam asking their advice.

Photo courtesy Matthew Dubeau, Museum Curator, Olympic National Park.


Post #10 – The comforts of Camp

The Comforts of Camp

Trisha and I finished the days’ 15-mile hike at 6pm at the confluence of the Elwha and the Hayes River where we set up camp. The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe fished at least this far up the river. Joe Sampson recalled that prior to the dams, he made trips up the Hayes River where there were large chinook salmon.

It sounded like the fishing had been good for the Klallam. Trisha and I had plenty of food too, but by this point in their journey, back in the early spring of 1890, the men of the Press Expedition were running out of supplies. Breakfast was a little baked flour and water and tea. The men believed they could live off the land, but after crossing the Lillian River, they entered the high country and had no luck hunting and fishing.

I filled our water bottles from the tumbling Hayes river, named after Christopher O’Connell Hayes, Yakima cowboy and at 22, the youngest of the Press Expedition. I lit a fire, and we got dinner going, simple, as cooking consisted of pouring hot water into our freeze-dried food pouches. We mixed a little of the hot water with our whiskey ration and sipped it to smooth out our aches and pains.

By now, the Expedition had none of those creature comforts left. Captain Charles Adams Barnes, whose topography experience made him the expedition’s mapmaker, noted in his journal that they had used up all their sugar and coffee. The Press Expedition had packed in whiskey too. Yet, the men weren’t as diligent in making their supply last as Trisha and me. Barnes commented wryly, “We had some excellent whiskey in the medicine chest on starting, but during the first two or three weeks, so much palliative was required for cramps in the stomach, nausea, sore thumbs, etc., that it was all consumed. Fortunately, all recovered from these diseases, and the camp has since had no necessity for the remedy.”

In no time at all, Trisha and I had our tent set up, pads and pillows inflated, and sleeping bags unfurled. The Press Expedition had its own system for sleeping on the snowy hillsides. The men would cut out a bench of snow ten feet square, chop a giant tree into logs and place them parallel. On one end of the log platform they would light their big fire, while on the other end, they would layer boughs a foot thick for sleeping. I could almost hear the men sigh as they turned to bed after cooking their supper. “We were as comfortable as we had any right to be,” Barnes said, then adding. “The fire, replenished once or twice during the night, lasted till morning, and at the first gray signs of dawn, one can spring to his feet with the elasticity of boyhood.”

Trisha and I slipped into our sleeping bags as we fell asleep to the melodic sounds of the Hayes River just a few feet away. We had completed day-two of our five-day journey, and though I didn’t imagine we’d be jumping up with the elasticity of boy or girlhood when the sun rose, I was excited about what adventures tomorrow would bring.

For the Press Expedition, it was a life-threatening miscalculation that was about to dawn upon them.


Post #11 – A big mistake

Bridge over the Elwha at Chicago Camp

By the time of the Press Expedition, there were hundreds of trails used by the Native Nations around the Olympic Peninsula. Harry Hobucket, Quileute Tribe, wrote about a trail from Port Angeles up through the Olympic mountains, along the ridge by the Sol Duc River and down to Lake Quinault, Trisha and my final destination.

While the tribes’ single-file trails simply wound around tree and obstacles, the Press Expedition had been slowly cutting a wide swath of forest so that the interior of the Olympics might be open to settlers. Captain Barnes said, “So thoroughly had we done it that a party leaving Port Angeles, could lope after us on horseback, and easily travel in a few days over a road it had taken us months to come.”

By the time the Press Expedition had reached the confluence of the Goldie River in April of 1889, gone was any attempt at road building. The men needed to find the headwaters of the Quinault and quickly. Their supplies were almost gone and wild game proved elusive. It was then that Christie took a gamble, deciding that the Goldie River would be a shortcut to the Quinault River.

It was a mistake that would make my earlier six-mile navigation error seem microscopic.

The Press Expedition left the Elwha behind and slogged their way up the Goldie River, climbing a valley so steep that there is still no trail through it today. When their last mule refused to go on, they left her behind to starve. They cached more of their precious supplies to lighten their load and carried what little they had left on their backs. When nobody was looking, their own hungry dogs wolfed down the last of the supply of bacon. Of the ragged looking men, Barns said. “Tougher looking tramps never bummed the roadside.”

The Press Expedition wasn’t lost, yet the men didn’t understand what was in front on them. Day after day they continued to climb through the snow, determined to reach the ridge above the Goldie to where they could look down and reckon their actual location.

Finally, when the men of the Press Expedition stood on the final crest of snow and ice, they realized their mistake. Below them was not the Quinault, but the Elwha which had almost circled them in the shape of the letter ‘C’. Their struggle up the Goldie River valley, the most difficult twelve-days of their entire journey, could have been accomplished by a three-day easy snowshoe up the Elwha. But the men spent no time on self-recrimination. “Such is the fate of explorers,” wrote Barnes jauntily, as the men quicky traversed down the other side of the ridge to join the Elwha in the vicinity of this log bridge at Chicago Camp.

Meanwhile it was the end of the day and Trisha and still had three more steep miles left to climb to reach where we were supposed to camp for the night. Exhausted, we gave up, flopped down at Chicago Camp and slept dreamlessly next to the Elwha River.

Tomorrow, both the Press Expedition and Trisha and I would leave our old friend, the Elwha River, which at this altitude was reduced to the size of a small stream. Covering the same ground—but separated by 130 years—all of us would make the final push to the pass at Low Divide and the headwaters of the Quinault River. This ground back in 1890 would be the last bit of terra incognita on the Olympic Peninsula—perhaps in the United States—not for the tribes, but for James Christie and the Press Expedition.




Post #12 – Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you

Lake Margaret

The last few miles of trail that wound its way up toward Low Divide was steep enough that Trisha and I needed frequent breaks. It was a warm morning, and I sweated heavily. There were numerous blowdowns where we found ourselves grasping for roots and limbs, just like the men of the Press Expedition had to do as they traversed this same mountainside back in May of 1890.

After a hard climb, Trisha and I reached Lake Mary and then here in the photo, the nearby Lake Margaret. Low Divide was close now. When the Press Expedition passed through here, all this was buried under so many feet of snow that they misidentified the strip of land between the two lakes as the location of the Divide.

It was near here that James Christie shot a bear. Within fifteen minutes, the starving men of the Press Expedition were consuming the bruin in an orgy of gastronomic indulgence.  They fried the bear, they roasted the bear, they made bear soup with the choice tidbits of the tail and feet. The men even rolled up the sides of greasy meat, which they boiled and ate cold. After starving for so long, it was the bear’s fat the men craved. “Pure white, the consistency of butter. Add a little salt and it has the taste of the purest dairy article, together with an indescribable flavor peculiarly its own.”

Hunters from the Native Nations roamed the Olympic Mountains, but they took care not to journey into other tribes’ lands lest there be war. Whenever the Skokomish appeared at Lake Quinault, it was to fight with the Quinault tribe, until the day a Skokomish married a Quinault, and the two tribes became friends. While the mountain peaks were natural boundaries for the tribes, this central Divide where Trisha and I stood was shared hunting territory for the Quinault, Skokomish, Klallam, and Queets. Perhaps in these troubled political times, we should send opposing politicians to Low Divide in hopes they too would find common ground.


Post #13 – She’s over the top

Astride the mighty Quinault River

Trisha and I continued uphill after leaving the shoreline on Lake Margaret until we noticed a stream emerging from the lush undergrowth, which, instead of trickling toward us, was flowing away from us. When Trisha put one foot on either side of the creek, she straddled the headwaters of the mighty Quinault River. We had finally reached the legendary Low Divide. Here at the mythical center of the Olympics, there was no grassy prairie, no massive lake that drained great rivers, no cannibals, no Israelites. Low Divide, the great unknown, the place that the men of the Press Expedition had struggled so mightily to reach over the last five months, was a barely discernable rise on a nondescript section of dirt trail.

Here where Trisha and I turned our backs on the northward flowing waters of the Elwha and faced the southward flowing waters of the Quinault, the age of exploration ended for the Press Expedition. While the tribes had roamed these mountains for eons, it wasn’t until this moment that white men fully understood the Olympic Peninsula’s geography. There was no more blank space on the map. For the first time on that sunny day back in early May of 1890, the men of the Press Expedition knew precisely where they were and where they were headed.

Barnes was eager to bid the Olympic Mountains good riddance. “Down the gap of the Quinault, a second range appeared, and beyond them, sky – thank heaven, there was an end to them.” At the mouth of the Quinault River was the sea, civilization, home.

What was the former polar explorer James Christie thinking at this moment when he gazed down the Quinault River valley and realized he had nothing left to explore? His journal is silent, so free to speculate, I turned to this poignant passage from Jonathan  Evison’s novel, ‘West of Here,’ where his fictional explorer, Mather, stands on the same place as Christie and the real Press Expedition.

“Yet standing on the divide, with the wind whistling past his ears, Mather could not shake a certain disillusion in knowing that what lay in front of him had already been discovered, had no doubt seen the restless footsteps of other men. Paradise, if it existed, lay somewhere behind them—perhaps they’d trudged right through its midst without even recognizing it. Mather would not be the man to discover it. He’d known that this day was coming, or at least sensed the day when everything before him had yielded to discovery. Thus it felt to Mather less like he had arrived here and more like this place had been following him all along.”

So sadly beautiful. I bet that was what James Christie was thinking.


Post #14 – It’s a jungle out there

Both Trisha and I, along with the Press Expedition, recognized that the Quinault valley was a wetter, lusher climate than the Elwha. The air felt thick from the furious exhalation of the breathing jungle surrounding us. For much of the year, Pacific storms ran unimpeded up the valley dumping prodigious amounts of rain and snow. Watered frequently, the green blanket of moss and ferns wrapped itself over the earth’s contours while massive trees blotted out the sky.

As the Press Expedition descended this same valley back in mid-May of 1890, the snow disappeared, and the men occasionally followed “an ancient Indian trail.” Barnes wondered, with elementary logic, if the reason he didn’t see evidence of a continuous trail on both sides of the Divide was that all signs were buried under the snow.

Here on the south side of Low Divide, the Press Expedition was following in the footsteps of the Quinault Tribe. It was through this riotous forest that the Quinault traveled over well-worn trails to their favorite hunting locations. They were so at home in these woods that the Skokomish and the Klallam called the Quinault, the “forest people.”

Now, Christie’s insistence on traveling in winter was beginning to make sense. Instead of snowshoeing on many feet of snow that blanketed the tangles of blowdowns and smoothed over the steep canyons, the Press Expedition now found it slow going over uneven ground as they hacked their way through the matted bush.

It rained and rained on the Press Expedition. Their clothing rotted until the men were nearly naked. Meanwhile, they watched the Quinault River, swollen by snowmelt, rush past them to the sea. Tempted, the men decided to build a raft and float down the river. Like the ill-fated Gertie on the Elwha River, this raft on the Quinault would prove another costly mistake. They collided with a log jam only a mile downstream from where the Press Expedition launched their unwieldy craft. The raft was sucked under the swift-moving waters, and Christopher Hayes almost drowned. The men lost their guns, ammunition, bearskins, fishing tackle, and mineral samples. Barns narrowly averted a complete disaster as he managed to save his pack, which contained all the maps and records.

The men stumbled on, buoyed by the single thought that they were close to homesteaders who had recently settled in the upper valley. With the perfect hindsight of history, trying to raft the Quinault during the spring rains and melting snows seems foolish. Still, Trisha and I didn’t blame the men of the Press Expedition for wanting a speedy return to the comforts of civilization. Tired, after a long day of following the Quinault River and unable to hike any further, Trisha and I decided to make camp at Trapper Shelter, in a boggy, waist-high thicket of ferns. We lit a fire to ward off the cloud of mosquitoes and the coming darkness.

It was time for all of us to go home.


Post #15 – Conclusion: who was the first to cross the Olympics?

Our journey’s end at Lake Quinault Lodge

Day five, the last day of our journey dawned clear and bright. With a quickness of step energized by proximity to the luxuries of civilization, by early afternoon Trisha and I had reached our final destination, Lake Quinault Lodge.

The Press Expedition had finally emerged from the wilderness too. With the help of a Quinault tribal guide and a large canoe, the men paddled across Lake Quinault in front of the wide lawn where Trisha and I now relaxed. On May 21st, 1890, Christie and his men ended their journey in Aberdeen, where, like Trisha and me, they found themselves feasting on restaurant faire and sleeping in a comfortable hotel room bed, which Charles Barnes sighed, “It was a luxury to be appreciated.”

In July 1890, the Seattle Press ran a special edition of their newspaper with the expedition’s exclusive story. The newspaper gushed, “With pardonable pride, the Seattle Press speaks of its presentation of this account. It is believed no handsomer paper was ever published on the Pacific coast. Certainly, the illustrations have not been excelled by any other newspaper.”

The newspaper pages were filled with plenty of boasting and backslapping among with the entries from Christie’s diary, expedition photos, and a full-page reproduction of Barnes’ topographical map. Yet, buried on page twenty was this subtle change to the original theme of the journey Christie and his men undertook: “There is no doubt whatever that his is the first time the country illustrated had ever been traversed by white men.”

In the end, the men of the Press Expedition themselves realized they weren’t the first to cross the Olympics.

The idea that the ancestors of the Makah, Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Skokomish, Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis, Quinault, Hoh, and the Quileute were all frightened away from the Olympic Mountains by some spooky legend was just that, a legend. We now know that humans have fished, hunted, and worshipped in these mountains for thousands of years. Olympic National Park anthropologist Jackilee Wray concludes, “The mountains were not terra incognita, but a part of the landscape that is important to tribal people’s lifeways.”

If the Press Expedition wasn’t the first, what did they accomplish? Christie and his five men may not have blazed the original trails up the Elwha and down the Quinault, but they did fill in the blanks of the written map. Starving, they could have turned back, yet they persisted forward, slugging their way through the Olympic Mountains in the dead of winter. Today, even with a well-known trail and GPS for guidance, repeating our journey during winter isn’t something Trisha and I, nor many other backpackers, care to attempt. Perhaps, the one statement the newspaper reporters of the Seattle Press didn’t hyperbolize was that Christie and his team were explorers with an “abundance of grit and manly vim.”

Trisha and I immensely enjoyed our five-day journey across the length of the million-acre jewel that is Olympic National Park. Not only is the Park filled with unspoiled natural splendor, but if you look hard enough, the trail up the Elwha and down the Quinault is filled with human history too.

The End


Here are my sources for this story. If you’d like to learn more. All three sources are great reads:

Seven Lakes Basin

Seven Lakes Basin Backpacking Adventure

By Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 20 miles            Time out: 3 days

Degree of Difficulty: Moderate       Elevation: 5,000 ft.          Pet Friendly: No


Join Trish and I as we backpack the Seven Lakes Basin loop in the rugged Olympic National Park wilderness. Never been backpacking before? We’ll provide tips and tricks along with some great advice from local experts. We’ll post every three days. The Seven Lakes Basin loop hike is around twenty miles. There are some who power hike it in one very long day and we even met athletes who were running the entire trail. But the natural beauty of the Seven Lakes Basin loop is best savored over three or four days. Are you all stretched and limbered up? Backpack on? Ok. Let’s go!

Bret and Trisha Wirta at the beginning of the Soleduck Trail

Join us on the Seven Lakes Basin loop

Been providing hospitality for over 80 years—not that grizzly old hotel owner, but the Canyon Creek Shelter. Just a mile from the trail head you’ll find the Canyon Creek Shelter. Built in 1939, today it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The shelter might seem a bit dark and damp on a sunny day, but imagine coming upon this shelter in a cold driving rain or snowstorm and being greeted by the comradery of fellow hikers as they urge you to remove your wet wool clothes and join them by the crackling fire in the vestibule. The shelter was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. President Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the CCC because he believed in the spiritual and physical values in working surrounded by nature. Want this same experience of working in the outdoors today? You can sign up for a fun and rewarding volunteer working vacation repairing hiking trails. More at

Bret Wirta standing in front of the Canyon Creek Shelter

Bret at the Canyon Creek Shelter

Wooden bridge crossing the Sole Duck thundering Sole Duck river.

Sole Duck Falls photo by Ross Hamilton


The terminus for migrating salmon and the beginning of our Seven Lakes Basin backpacking adventure is where the Sol Duc river thunders through this ancient defile. Trisha and I attempted to capture this iconic Olympic National Park scene, but our photos were not nearly as beautiful as this image that veteran Olympic Peninsula photographer, and our friend, Ross Hamilton let us post. Hamilton’s straightforward style celebrates a natural beauty that can’t be improved upon, so much so that Hamilton calls himself a ‘copy boy’ for the Creator’s art. When Trisha designed our Sequim Quality Inn, she made sure that Ross Hamilton prints hung throughout. More at

Though there is no record of settlements this far up the Sol-Duc River Valley, humans have been traveling through these mountains for thousands of years. ONP archeologists have uncovered high elevation campsites elsewhere, including a cache of stone tools positively dated to at least 7,600 years ago at Slab Camp. A Quinault woman once told of a sacred valley in the heart of the Olympic Mountains where Natives would lay down their weapons and their nations gather in peace every year, until the jealous giant Seatco became angry. He tore up the forest by the roots and caused the mountains themselves to tremble and shake. And here Trisha and I were worried about a little rain. From Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella E. Clark.

Trisha Wirta standing under a fallen tree

Trisha standing close to ,what some believe, Seatco wrath on the trail.

Before considering food or clothing let’s look at basic equipment. Your home (tent, pad, sleeping bag, pillow and solar lamp), kitchen (stove, fuel, cup, bowl spoon), emergency kit (first-aid, multi-function knife, matches, lighter, fire starter, headlamp, extra batteries), creature comforts, (toilet paper and shovel, bug repellent, sun screen, deck of cards or book, tooth brush, comb), hydration system (bottles or bladder, purification pump or drops) and backpack should weigh in at around 15 lbs.

Have I missed anything? I did, and though not apparent, it would be critically needed latter on in our adventure.

New to backpacking? One of the handy trends in outdoor recreation equipment is the ability to rent what you need. At REI you can rent a ‘lightweight backpacking kit’ for two for the weekend that includes almost all of what is listed above for $160.00.

You can check out really cool, ultra-lightweight gear at my friend, Barefoot Jake’s store in Forks, WA or at

Materials to pack for a hike laid out on the floor.

What to pack?

Your decision at Sol Duc Falls will be to hike the Seven Lakes Basin loop clockwise or counterclockwise. The trail into Deer Lake is steep, rocky and rugged while Sol Duc Valley is long, wooded and soft, so we opted to climb to Deer Lake first and hike in a counterclockwise direction saving the magnificent old-growth forest for the end of the hike. No matter which way you travel, make sure you go to to get your backpacking permit and campsite reservation before you go. Book early. The Seven Lakes Basin is a popular destination and Olympic National Park has strict rules on where you can camp.

Trisha Wirta with her hiking gear on the Sole Duck Trail.

Which way do I go?

A fording while backpacking doesn’t mean something you can purchase within your price range, but instead the crossing the flowing waters of Olympic National Park. Though we packed water shoes (old sneakers work well) we never had to take off our hiking boots and use them thanks to the ingenuity and creativity in which the National Park Service bridged the myriad of swampy bogs, tumbling streams and rushing rivers. Thank you, ONP maintenance crew and volunteers.

Remember, you can’t be affording to carry too much weight if you want to comfortably backpack so pack judiciously. More on that later.

Trisha Wirta crossing a bridge that is just a log with a log made railing

A fording

She’s gnarly. No not this lovely backpacker, but the roots of this old tree at the shores of Deer Lake. We gained about 1,700 feet in the four-mile climb to our designated campsite. It was a pleasant evening but no campfire as we were above 3,000 feet. Before we retired for the night, we store away our clothes and cached our food far from out tent. Never store your food in or near tent. Bears aren’t as big a threat at Deer Lake as in other areas of the Olympics or other National Parks, here it’s more likely you’ll find a hungry rodent has chewed a hole in your expensive tent.

Trisha leaning up against a tree at camp with a tent and pack in the background.

She’s gnarly

And now a word from our sponsor. No matter if you carry a backpack or pull an over-sized roller bag, let the Quality Inn, Sequim be your base camp for all your Peninsula adventures. Reserve one of our Olympic National Park theme rooms and you’ll fall sleep under the stars as you smell the forest and hear babbling streams.

A double queen room at the Quality Inn and Suites in Sequim Washington with a mural of the national forest on the wall.

Sleep under the stars in the comfort at the Quality Inn and Suites, Sequim Washington

What to wear? Hopefully you will have pleasant hiking weather, but it rains and snows much in the Olympics, so you need to prepare for that. Test out comfortable foot gear. REI has an indoor hiking arena where you can try out your footwear.

As for the rest of your clothing it will be worn in layers; an outer, mid and base layer. The base layer is what is next to your skin.  It will wick away your perspiration. A neckerchief or buff around your neck helps too. Undergarments come in various thickness and material depending on the season. Purchase quality wool hiking socks. Pack one extra set of socks and undergarments. The mid layer is what is added or removed when you are hot or cold. In the summer wear fast-drying shirts and synthetic tops and shorts or pants, all lightweight and breathable. Finally, the outer layer is what will protect you from rain or snow and keep you dry. This includes a waterproof but breathable jacket and rain pants and a wide brimmed waterproof hat. I also pack a puffy down jacket, gloves and beanie cap for sleeping or just hanging out at camp on cold nights. Your extra clothes (and your sleeping bag) should be in a waterproof sack, or garbage bag. Your clothing sack should weigh no more than a few pounds.

Feeling overwhelmed? A great place to get totally outfitted for adventure clothing is Brown’s Outdoor in Port Angeles. They are a family business with superb customer service who hike in the Olympics all year long.

Trisha Wirta with her hiking gear following a trail on the Sole Duck path.

Be comfortable but be ready

We reached the Seven Lakes Basin by noon. The trail ran along a narrow ridge. Directly behind us was the broad Hoh River valley, in front, hundreds of feet below, was the rocky floor of an expansive open amphitheater, a grey, lunar landscape dotted with numerous small tarns and “lakes.” The high, barren Seven Lakes Basin made for a stunning juxtaposition with the surrounding ridges of lush alpine heather, huckleberries and grasses.

But we modern visitors are not the only humans to enjoy all this beauty. According to ONP archaeologist David Conca, on the shores of one of those tarns below lies the firepit from a 5,000-year-old hunting camp. The discovery of sites like this one and the one at Slab Camp across the Elwha Valley are helping us to better understand the ancient uses of these mountainous regions and putting to rest the self-serving stories that they were unexplored and unexploited prior to Anglo-European expeditions. Just as Trisha and I were appreciative of all that surrounded us, so it must have been for the seasonal hunters or berry pickers camping in this spectacular basin long ago.

Seven Lakes Basin

We reach Seven Lakes Basin

As we hiked along the High Divide ridge, we had spectacular views of Mount Olympus and Blue Glacier across the Hoh River valley. Mount Olympus is the tallest mountain in the park. I’ve, but it’s infrequently climbed because it takes two days just to reach basecamp. But did you know that a man once risked his life to climb that mountain over a $500 wager with a newspaper? Back in 1930, Herb Crisler was a guide and amateur photographer eking out a living on the Olympic Peninsula. When Crisler bragged to a Seattle Times reporter that he could survive in the Olympics alone for a month with nothing but an ice-axe and the clothes on his back, the reporter slapped $500 down with a caveat; Crisler would also need to summit Mount Olympus. Crisler confidently accepted the bet, but within weeks of wandering in the wilderness, he became weak on his diet of berries, frogs and a single marmot that he managed to club. To make matters worse, a terrible storm struck as he attempted to ascend Mount Olympus. Luckily, he found refuge below a rock wall at the head of Hoh Glacier and kindled a small fire just as his clothes began to freeze to his body. The next morning, Crisler summoned the last of his strength and summited Mount Olympus. Herb Crisler went on to film wildlife in the Olympics including, “The Olympic Elk,” one of the first wildlife adventure movies produced by the fledgling Walt Disney Studios, but Crisler never made another wager like the one that almost cost him his life on Mount Olympus.

Mount Olympus and Blue Glacier mountains in the background with two trees in front on grassy land.

Mount Olympus and Blue Glacier

On the High Divide we were surrounded by so much beauty; the mountains, the trees, the open meadows and many wildflowers. The air was sharp and clean scented of spruce. Trisha and I felt better just being out in the wilderness. But there is more to that feeling of well-being; a published study “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings,” saw a 50% increase in creativity and problem-solving from those who spent just a few days in a natural setting unplugged from electronics. Big test or project on the horizon? Backpack in Olympic National Park just before and you’ll ace it. Of course, you’ll have to explain to your colleagues why you smell like sweat and woodsmoke. More at

Grassy hill

The Wilderness can make you smarter

Trisha and I saw no mountain goats on our hike through the Seven Lakes Basin, but a few years ago with my son, Garrett, and Nephew, Nate, mountain goats like this one were a nuisance around our campsite. Worst was the swath of environmental damage caused by these non-native eating machines. Olympic National Park has already captured almost half of the estimated 700 goats and transferred them to the Cascades, where they’re welcomed back to their native home. There they will strengthen a dangerously shallow gene pool. So far, the goat removal program has been a great success story. More at

White mountain goat

Olympic National Park has got your goat

The remnants of glaciers are evident in the Seven Lakes Basin. This narrow ridge is called an arête. It’s created when two glaciers form back to back and erode their back-walls until they meet. This arete separates the watersheds of the Bogachiel, on Trisha’s left, and the Hoh, on her right. Look carefully at the photo, if a rooster laid an egg exactly where Trisha is standing, down which watershed would the egg roll?

Trisha Wirta walking on a trail separating Bgoachiel and the Hoh rain forest.

Bogachiel on Trisha’s left and the Hoh on her right

Meals should be quick and simple for short backpacking adventures. For dinner we opt for freeze-dried packets that are prepared with boiling water and can be eaten right from the packet as Trisha is demonstrating here. We think they taste great. Though the label claims each packet feeds two, some dinners are so low in calories we each consume a whole packet. A bit of medicinal whiskey and dark chocolate rounds out the evening meal. Lunch is a wrap assembled with meat, cheese and coleslaw mix. We bring power bars or trail mix for in-between meal snacks. For breakfast, we enjoy Starbucks Via packets of hot coffee and instant oatmeal (mixed with berries from the trail if we’re lucky).

Pack your food in hard sided bear canisters. They are required in Olympic National Park and can be reserved then picked up at the visitor’s center in Port Angeles. Your three-day food supply should weigh around 5 lbs., your bear canister no more than 3 lbs.

While we carried all our food on our backs, the Seattle Mountaineers hiking club, when they ventured into the Olympics a century ago required pack horses to haul their tons of equipment and supplies. According to historian Robert L. Woods, “Never had climbers had ‘better or more elaborate meals’ served to them by smiling cooks who could create, ‘delicious pies, cakes and other delicacies’… Using a small oven and bonfire, the cooks baked bread every day and served multi-course meals to from forty to seventy-five hungry climbers. Occasionally, the participants dined on fresh beefsteak which had been brought in ‘on the hoof’ by driving livestock up the trail and butchering the animals in camp.” More at:

Trisha Wirta eating in front of a fire in her campground with a tent in the background and two logs in the front.

Eat like a mountaineer

As we walked along the knife edge of High Divide the expansive Hoh River Valley was far below. It was down in the Hoh back in 1916 that renown taxidermist C. J. Albrecht collected elk, cougar and other mammals for what he called, “the mother of all dioramas,” for his beloved Chicago Field Museum. All this including photos of Albrecht in the Hoh is in the book, High Divide –  Minnie Peterson’s Olympic Mountain Adventures, by Gary L. Peterson  and Glynda Peterson Schaad. So, when Trisha and I toured Chicago recently, we headed straight to the Field Museum. There, along with helpful staff, we searched and searched but could not find the diorama in the photo nor any record of its existence. Museum historian, Mark Alvey, called it, “a very intriguing mystery!”

Old photo of the Olympic Rainforest diarama The High Divide runs East-West, but here above Heart Lake we turned North and began descending. We were at the headwaters of the Sol Duc River. We had found no snow along the entire High Divide, but the trail can be covered with snow and ice late into the summer. Check with Wilderness Desk at Olympic National Park before you go. If it’s your first-time backpacking, I’d recommend hiking in late August. Otherwise you’ll need to pack crampons and an ice axe.

Trisha Wirta pointing at Heart Lake in the background

Trisha above Heart Lake

We left the open high meadows of the High Divide and the amphitheater of the Seven Lakes Basin behind and descended into the rain forest of the Sol Duc river valley. What we noticed immediately was the quietness. We’ve hiked in Cost Rica and in those forests are bursting with trilling birds, shrieking monkeys and buzzing insects. Here in the temperate rain forest the denizens are shy and reclusive. All we heard was the mumble of the Sol Duc River and the thud of our boots on the moist trail. Yet, from the needles of the fir trees that host microorganisms outward to the birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that hid just beyond the curtain of towering trees, the Sol Duc river valley was a riotous, albeit secretive, world of life.

Trisha Wirta in her hiking gear walking up a trail in the National Forest

Where is everybody?

Dinner around the campfire. It was late by the time we reached our campsite at Appleton Junction. We had enough time for to cook dinner and enjoy the campfire. We’d hiked a dozen miles, but as my naturalist mentor John Muir once said, “I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”? John Muir

Trisha Wirta using two very large stump to lay out her supplies for dinner with a campfire in front of the stumps.

Don’t call it hiking

My nephew Nate said that when he through-hiked the Appalachian Trail he and his hiking partner would roll out of their sleeping bags and be off and hiking in minutes. Trisha and I prefer the more leisurely approach to the morning on the trail with coffee and instant oatmeal. So, it was a bitter blow, on our last morning when my Jet-Boil stove proofed out with 2/3 of a canister of propane left. We felt fortunate in that we were just a few hours from the trailhead, but what if we had been halfway into our weeklong wilderness adventure? This catastrophic cooking failure has caused me to consider equipment redundancies.

When I returned home, I ordered this miniature backup stove. It burns with either 90% rubbing alcohol or 190 proof moonshine. Weight and space is at a premium in my backpack, so extra equipment must serve other functions and not just lie fallow until some future culinary crisis. The next adventure I’m bringing the backup stove with a bit of the moonshine. That way I can either burn the booze as backup fuel, rub it on my cuts, scrapes and bites for first-aid, or if the aspirin isn’t working, drink it as a backup pain reliever.

Using Everclear grain alcohol as a fuel source

We all need a backup plan

It was only four miles to the trailhead that morning. We were at the end of our Seven Lakes Basin hike but not of our Sol Duc vacation. Just down the road is the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. A soak in their natural hot springs pools is the perfect way to end your hike. The Natives that lived in this valley boasted of the curative powers of the hot, mineral-laden waters. You can purchase a day pass for around $15. As we steamed away our aches, most of the bathers we chatted with were from Europe where mineral baths are a cultural tradition. The water, heated deep in the earth, comes out of the ground at a scalding 160 degrees. It’s mixed with Sol Duc river so that the hottest pool is 109 degrees.

After a soak Trisha and I relaxed on the porch of our cabin in the afternoon sunshine. Our cabin had a kitchen, but we’d had enough of cooking on the trail. Dinner for us was pasta with wild mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes and blackened chicken paired with a hearty bottle of Washington State red wine in the Sol Duc Resort Restaurant. We found the pools were a bit crowded by the end of the day, so we rose early the next morning and soaked for an hour before the doors were opened to the public, just after the pools had been drained, scrubbed and refilled. Refreshed, Sol Duc Hot Springs was the perfect way to end our mini vacation. If you are considering staying at the resort after your Seven Lakes Basin hike, make your reservations early. The cabins sell out quickly.

Man made hot springs

Sol Duc Hot Springs

We hope you enjoyed hiking—excuse me, John Muir—sauntering with us to the Seven Lakes Basin. Perhaps you have a taste of how enjoyable backpacking can be in the Olympics. Make your reservations early. Prepare for emergencies, but pack lightly. The total weight of your pack should be under 30 lbs., less if you are sharing the gear with another. We loved the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, but a great alternative base camp is Trisha and my hotel, the Quality Inn and Suites in Sequim. Pictures, like these, of our adventures on the Olympic Peninsula play in our lobby. Wave hello to us when you check in.

Trisha Wita in her hiking gear with the Seven Lakes Basin in the background

We hope you enjoyed sountering with us

Climbing Mount Olympus

By Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 40 miles            Time out: 5 days

Degree of Difficulty: The pinnacle is a technical climb       Elevation: 7,980 ft.          Pet Friendly: No

Mount Olympus from Grand Pass

Mount Olympus from Grand Pass

July 2017. For years Mount Olympus, that peak with the mythical name, has whispered to me, loud enough that I was going to attempt to summit it for a third time. This year’s team would consist of my wife Trisha and our friends Tom and Danae, whose daughter, Elise, had volunteered to guide us. After an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn Express in Sequim, a detailed gear check, and a hearty breakfast at the Black Bear Diner, we were ready to drive to the trailhead.

Team Elliemo

Team Elliemo

Mount Olympus is the enigmatic heart of Olympic National Park. Even though Mount Olympus isn’t very high, it’s permanently clad in the ice of half a dozen glaciers whose icy meltwaters birth three of the Olympic Peninsula’s major rivers. Mount Olympus hides in the middle of a million acres of wilderness. It’s infrequently climbed and difficult to reach. I’ve had the privilege of climbing Olympus with past guides who had summited some of the most difficult peaks in the world, but their unfamiliarity with the local terrain, and their cavalier attitude toward Mount Olympus had made me anxious from the start. This time I felt confident in our guide, Elise. Not only is she a skilled technical climber who volunteers with search and rescue, but she’d scaled Olympus and respected the mountain.

Ellie show us our remote goal

Ellie show us our remote goal

Our journey to Mount Olympus began at the Hoh Visitor Center where we entered one of the few surviving Old Growth forests on the Olympic Peninsula. By the 1930’s, the Seattle Timber barons, who had clear-cut all the other ancient woodlands, were drooling at the massive trees still left along the upper Hoh. But thanks to a nationwide lobbying effort led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States Congress agreed to create Olympic National Park, and the big trees were saved.

Big Trees of the Hoh Rain Forest

Big Trees of the Hoh Rain Forest

You don’t lace up your boots in the parking lot and start summitting Mount Olympus. It’s a 17.5-mile journey just to reach basecamp, which thankfully, is a delightful hike through the Hoh Rain Forest. July was sunny and warm under the lush green canopy, but during the winter, this valley receives 12 to 14 feet of rain! We saw every shade of green fighting for sunshine. We brushed past gigantic ferns and walked under bearded tree branches shaggy with moss. We were surrounded by a riotous explosion of flora in this temperate rain forest, one of the last left in the United States.

Hike among the ferns

Hike among the ferns

As we left the Hoh Visitor Center the noise of our civilized world was quickly replaced by the sounds of the forest – the soft thud of our boots, birds singing and water splashing. According to acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton, the Hoh Rainforest is home to the, “quietest square inch in the United States.” Silly? Perhaps not. Many studies conclude that noise pollution affects most areas of the United States and noisy environments contribute to elevated stress, stroke and heart attack. Listening to a gurgling stream may be more than a pleasant distraction, it may be good for you.

Pretty sight and pleasant sound

Pretty sight and pleasant sound

Our plan was for Elise, Tom and me to climb while Trisha and Danae would support us at base camp. We’d all enjoy spectacular scenery on the hike in – kind of like a mini-vacation. Whether you enjoy camping in the shelter of the woods or on the banks of a sunny river, there are plenty of designated camping areas on the way up to Mount Olympus. Each camping area has a toilet, surface water and – if you are below 3,500 feet and there is no ban – safe fire rings where you can enjoy the comradery of your friends around a small fire. Don’t forget to apply in advance for your permit at the Wilderness Desk at the Olympic National Park Visitor’s Center in Port Angeles.

Camping in the forest at Olympus Guard Station

Camping in the forest at Olympus Guard Station

Camping on the gravel bar at Olympus Guard Station

Camping on the gravel bar at Olympus Guard Station

Do you believe that the younger generation are all indoors playing video games and that they are basically going to hell in a handbasket? If so, what you’ll see on the trail up to Mount Olympus will surprise you. Young people were everywhere! We chatted with Ranger Andy Harrington on the trail. He’s a dedicated advocate for Olympic National Park who energetically patrols the backcountry. But perhaps best of all, we met dozens of twenty and thirty-year-olds from all over the world, joyously experiencing the wilderness. We don’t have to wait for the torch to be passed. This steadfast generation is already becoming today’s stewards of our national parks.

Ellie, our climbing guide

Ellie, our climbing guide

Ranger Andy Harrington and Bret

Ranger Andy Harrington and Bret

At the end of our second day on the trail, when we were less than a half mile from our basecamp, we crested a ridge to find the entire valley had been blown out by a landslide. The only way through was to climb down a hundred-plus-foot-long wire and wood rung ladder dangling against the steep side of the ravine. By carefully stepping down on the swaying rungs, while keeping our balance by holding a rope tethered to a tree up on the rim, we all reached the streambed far below. Not such an easy task for the non-technical climbers in our group, but Trisha and Danae scampered down like Cirque du Soleil performers.

Trisha masters the ladder

Trisha masters the ladder

We set up our base camp at Glacier Meadows. We left the pleasant summer weather below, for it was cloudy and cold with a threat of rain. There were only a few climbers besides us who were attempting to summit Mount Olympus. Perhaps Olympus isn’t as popular as other Northwest peaks, because it is such a long hike to base camp, or maybe it’s because the mountain is invisible to the cities that surround it on Puget Sound.

Trisha, Bret and Danae at Glacier Meadows basecamp

Trisha, Bret and Danae at Glacier Meadows basecamp

Mount Olympus is located in the middle of million-acre Olympic National Park and hidden by a semi-circle of other peaks. You can only see it from other Olympic Peninsula high-points, like this view from camp Boston Charlie on the Bailey Range, or from out to sea in the Pacific Ocean. It was the stunning sea-view that caused English captain John Meares to exclaim that the Greek Gods must live upon that icy mountain, when he first saw it in 1788. The name, the invisibility, the remoteness, all give this peak its fabled aura.

Mt Olympus from Camp Boston Charlie, Bailey Range

Mt Olympus from Camp Boston Charlie, Bailey Range

Though the summit of Mount Olympus is only 8,000 feet high, climbing it isn’t a romp through the daisies. The mountain is exceptionally prominent, technically challenging, and difficult to reach. Because of this trifecta, Mount Olympus is known to climbers as one of only ten, “Triple Crown” highpoints in the lower 48 states. Our plan was to reach Snow Dome by mid-morning (which is the white expanse in the lower half of the photo) and then avoid the dangerous crevasses and bergschrunds on our circuitous route to the summit.

Route from Snow Dome to the summit - J Gussman photo

Route from Snow Dome to the summit – J Gussman photo

The next morning, Elise, Tom and I were on the trail by 4am. The first obstacle was carefully traversing the loose rock and gravel of the lateral moraine down to the surface of Blue Glacier. Carefully descending the trackless moraine was surprisingly slow and difficult.

Slow going on lateral moraine of Blue Glacier

Slow going on lateral moraine of Blue Glacier

We climbed in the low clouds and couldn’t see much. Later in the morning, Trisha hiked the mile and a half from basecamp just in time to see the clouds part and the early morning sunshine strike Mount Olympus and Blue Glacier. She said the view from the lateral moraine was one of the most stunning in Olympic National Park.

Early morning view of Mount Olympus and Blue Glacier (photo from 2012 climb)

Early morning view of Mount Olympus and Blue Glacier (photo from 2012 climb)

We roped up and quickly crossed Blue Glacier. The ice was not just blue on the surface, but deep in the fissures and cracks the glacier glowed with an eerie sapphire luminosity. On the other side, we walked off the glacier and began the steep climb up to Snow Dome.  Elise carried her climbing rope slung over her shoulder like rounds of bandito ammunition. Dangling from the belt of her harnesses, where she could quick-draw for them, was a dizzying assortment of pulleys, carabiners, belay devices, anchors, nuts, hexes and cams. She wore a hard-shell helmet on her head and blue climbing boots with spiky crampons on her feet. She had a charming smile and big eyes. Elise reminded me of the sweet superhero that talks in a soft voice then kicks the bad guy’s butt.

Ellie leads the team

Ellie leads the team

Elise was lead, Tom in the middle, and I brought up the rear. This was my third attempt to summit Olympus in the last five years. Perhaps Elise would be the difference this time? It was looking good so far. We had cleared the white plains of Snow Dome before noon. Tom was in great shape and I felt really good too. Best of all the clouds had dissipated and we could see plenty of blue sky.

Across Snow Dome

Across Snow Dome

Elise kept a steady pace. The shorter, steeper route above Snow Dome wasn’t an option for us in July. Huge crevasses in the steep snow field, one above the other, made that direct approach too dangerous. Elise opted to swing around through Crystal Pass.

Tom and Bret in Crystal Pass

Tom and Bret in Crystal Pass

Much of mountain climbing is just a long slog. The difficulty can be staying in focus. Follow the pace of the leader. Don’t trip. Don’t let the climbing rope become too taut or too loose. Don’t step on the rope. And rest whenever you can.

Bret takes a rest stop literally

Bret takes a rest stop literally

We climbed up the steep snowfield and squeezed through the crevasse at False Summit. Here the slabs of sandstone and slate were fractured and broken and slid beneath our feet, making our traverse treacherous. We worked together, less we start a landslide. We watched where we stepped and shouted when there was danger. Physical injuries prevent many teams from summiting (a team member fell and broke his ankle on my second Olympus attempt), but it’s personality issues that cause many climbing teams to fail. There was no conflict on our team. I respected Elise’s leadership and watched as Daughter gave orders and Dad responded without hesitation.

The steep climb to False Summit

The steep climb to False Summit

We scrambled through the narrow defile of False Summit and down into a snow-choked saddle. Above us was one last snowfield, a steep ramp to the base of a naked pinnacle of rock that is the west peak, the true summit of Mount Olympus. I imagine that later in the season crossing the moat from the snow to rock might be an issue, but not for us. With one easy step, we crossed onto a rock ledge.

One last snowfield to climb

One last snowfield to climb

The peak of Mt. Olympus is a vertical pyramid of dense metamorphic rock. Tom and I are not technical climbers and so we looked up at the naked rock with trepidation. For this last few hundred feet, Elise would go first and set nuts and cams that would anchor the rope and prevent us two rookies from a deadly fall. Elise chose the size and type depending on the size, depth and shape of the crevasse so that when the rope tugged on the anchors, they set themselves even more firmly into the rock. With confidence in Elise’s knowledge and skills, I climbed quickly up the chute.

Bret just below the summit

Bret just below the summit

The last obstacle was a two-foot overhang at the top. I couldn’t discern a dignified way up and over the ledge, so I flopped myself unceremoniously over. I finally stood on the summit of Mount Olympus. It felt great accomplishing this goal. The clouds had lifted and it was sunny and peaceful. I thought of the climbers and guides on my previous Mount Olympus teams and all the joy and comradery I’d experienced with them.

Bret standing on the summit of Mt Olympus

Bret standing on the summit of Mt Olympus

Soon all three of us were on the summit. Dad and daughter hi-fived. They were both so excited. I could see how joyful Elise was to be here with her Dad and how proud Tom was of his daughter.

Elise and Tom on the Summit of Mount Olympus

Elise and Tom on the Summit of Mount Olympus

What a view! The Olympics spread out below us in a jumble of glaciated peaks and tree clad valleys. We knew the buzz and hum of civilization was down there somewhere, but we couldn’t see any signs of it. This was a view that hadn’t changed that much since the Cordilleran Ice Sheet retreated over 15,000 years ago. It was a view worthy of Zeus.

View from the summit of Mount Olympus

View from the summit of Mount Olympus

After signing the log book, I returned it to the metal chest that was nestled in the rocks. We were behind schedule, so we savored the view for only a bit longer before it was time to head down. Though Tom and I had never repelled off a mountain before, Elise confidently rigged up a belaying device and clipped me in. I stood on the edge of the overhang with my back to the open sky. I will admit it took my legs three tries before they pushed off the cliff. I fell backwards into bright blue sky. By releasing rope during a series of backwards leaps, followed by my legs absorbing the shock as I swung back into the rock, I was down on the snow at the base of the pinnacle in an instant.

Tom repelling off the summit of Mount Olympus

Tom repelling off the summit of Mount Olympus

The rest of our adventure on Mount Olympus was just retracing our steps back to basecamp where we arrived at dusk. It had been a grueling 16.5-hour day, but thanks to Elise, we summited Mount Olympus. We toasted with Trisha and Danae. I was elated. It was a difficult journey, one that tested us sorely. No epiphany to report, but I do understand humanity’s need to challenge itself. It took me three tries, but I finally climbed that rascal. Almost making it to the top wasn’t good enough. I craved that feeling on the summit, that briefest moment of ecstasy when you stand where few others have stood and look out at all that is below.

We slept hard at our Glacier Meadows base camp that night and spent the next couple of days leisurely hiking back down the Hoh Valley trail. There was plenty of time for reflection. Though summiting Mount Olympus with Team Elliemo felt great, it wasn’t just a feat of bravado. I enjoyed climbing with Elise and Tom and the rest of the adventure with my wife, Trisha, and Danae. We forged a physical connection with this magnificent mountain and created an intimacy with yet another location inside this glorious gift to the world, Olympic National Park.

There is a common understanding among many Native American nations – wisdom sits in places. Learning and growing are tied to special locations. They are thin places. High in the sky and close to the heavens. Places that speak to us, not only of beauty, but of challenges. Mount Olympus is such a place to me. Philosopher Rene Daumel once said that when you climb you see, and when you must descend, at least you have known.

Team Elliemo on the summit of Mount Olympus

Team Elliemo on the summit of Mount Olympus


The End

Story by Bret Wirta

Photos by Bret Wirta, Elise Hollowed and Tom Hollowed.

In the Footsteps of the Seattle Mountaineers:
Backpacking the Skyline Ridge Trail

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 45 miles Time out: 3 days

Degree of Difficulty: 2 Highest Elevation: 5,274 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

Skyline trail map by Sequim artist Per Berg

Skyline trail map by Sequim artist Per Berg

Since it was first proclaimed a forest preserve in 1897, federal protection of the Olympic Peninsula wilderness was wildly unpopular with those who made their living there, namely the loggers, miners, hunters, trappers and homesteaders. Could these interests succeed in repealing the legislation? Who would advocate for a backwoods so rugged that only a few explorers had ever journeyed through? Unbelievably, it was handful of wide-eyed professors and poets of the nascent Seattle Mountaineers climbing club who would first penetrate the Olympics in the name of outdoor recreation and help establish a new and sustainable industry – tourism. Join me as I hike along the Skyline Trail, one of the most difficult in Olympic National Park, and tell this story. – The Incidental Explorer

High along the spine of the Quinault and Queets River watersheds in the middle of Olympic National Park hides a little-used trail that is as spectacular as it is challenging – the Skyline Ridge Trail. “Not for the careful or timid,” said a 1928 U. S. Forest Service trail inspection report. Today its reputation has not changed. A wilderness photographer identified only as Barefoot Jake called the Skyline Ridge Trail “the most challenging primitive trail in the Park.” I planned to backpack the 45-mile trail by myself, following the footsteps of the remarkable pioneers of outdoor recreation who inaugurated the trail a century ago – the Seattle Mountaineers.

Skyline Ridge Trail

Skyline Ridge Trail

I slept that night in the back of my car at the North Fork Trailhead to ensure an early start. The next morning I popped awake, slipped on my backpack and was on the trail before 7, glancing uneasily at the dark, cloudy sky through the branches of the forest. The first segment of the Skyline Ridge Trail loop was the seven-mile-long Big Creek Trail, which began at 500 feet in elevation and wound through the boggy rain forest between moss-draped hardwood giants and thick underbrush.

It had been a pretty dry summer, but a big storm was forecast to hit the coast in a couple of days. I was hoping that I’d be down off the exposed ridge and back in the sheltered rainforest before it arrived.

Rain forest lowlands

Rain forest lowlands

The advent of tourism along the hiking trails of the Olympic Mountains can be traced to outings sponsored by organized climbing clubs of the early 1900s, especially the Seattle Mountaineers. The wilderness had been explored and mapped only 17 years earlier when the Seattle Mountaineers first strode jauntily into the Olympics. The Mountaineers’ original goal was a first ascent of Mount Olympus, but their much-publicized presence in wilderness would serve a bigger mission – namely saving the newly created Olympic National Monument.

UW Digital Collection Album 2913a Men and women on outing route August 1920

UW Digital Collection Album 2913a Men and women on outing route August 1920

In 1897 President Grover Cleveland established the Olympic Forest Preserve. The loggers, miners, hunters and trappers, basically the only people roaming the Olympics at the time, shouted down the new rules. Preservation had few friends in Congress, either. Loopholes were quickly created for mining and logging. Besides, what else was the forest good for? There were no recreational hiking trails into the Olympics. Who else would even venture into the wilderness?

In 1907, the newly created outdoor club, the Seattle Mountaineers, announced that exploring the Olympic Peninsula wilderness and climbing Mount Olympus was the goal of its very first summer outing. The 65 hikers, mostly well-off urbanites, would need transportation, provisions and gear, plus the services of packers, hunters, guides, trail cooks and photographers. Knowing that this small army was headed their way, the Port Angeles business community was compelled to hack through 60 miles of forest and restore the old Seattle Press Expedition Trail up the Elwha River (more on that below). That bolus of Seattle Mountaineer cash must have made those struggling merchants giddy.

Man packing a horse, UW Digital Collection Album 27085a Seattle Mountaineers 2nd Olympic Outing, August 1913

Man packing a horse, UW Digital Collection Album 27085a Seattle Mountaineers 2nd Olympic Outing, August 1913

Meanwhile, five miles from the trailhead, the boggy trail had turned rocky and the forest thinned. I slowed my pace and crossed a steel bridge that arched high above Big Creek. Far below, the tumbling stream had scoured the dark-gray shale to a glassy smoothness. Across the bridge, the trail began to gain altitude with every step. By mid-morning the ground had turned wet and spongy again as the trail wound through a stand of cedars. I rested at a carved wooden sign that read: “Record Alaska Cedar. Diameter 12 ft, Circumference 37’ 8 1/2”, Height 120 feet.” I ran my fingers across the forest patriarch’s rough silver bark and looked skyward in awe. I said a prayer of thanks that previous generations had the foresight to protect this tree and this beautiful park.

Record Alaska Cedar

Record Alaska Cedar

Back in 1907, the Seattle Mountaineers’ three-week summer outing into the Olympics was a success. Though club historian Mary Banks complained that three rogue hikers tried to summit Olympus on the trail that the Mountaineers made possible, the rest of the outing’s plan was executed with precision. The Mountaineers were the first to climb the west peak of Mount Olympus, the true summit, and they explored the Elwha and Quinault River valleys. Mary Banks gushed that it was “probably the most wonderful outing ever taken by any mountain-climbing club.”

After their successful 1907 Olympic outing, the Seattle Mountaineers turned to other unexplored regions of the Northwest. With the hiking club gone, the resources of the Olympic Forest Preserve continued to be exploited, especially the magnificent Roosevelt Elk. The latter, in fact, were headed toward extinction. Trappers, miners and homesteaders hunted for subsistence, wealthy hunters for sport, while some hunted the elk just for their teeth. Elk are one of the only animals in North America that have ivory canines. Members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks once sought out these teeth. A prized possession of Elks Club members was a jewel-encrusted, gold-mounted, elk tooth pendant.(Read more: In the Footsteps of the 1890 Banner Party: Backpacking the North Fork Skokomish River Trail)

President Theodore Roosevelt listened and took action in 1909, during the last days of his administration. Using the newly created Antiquities Act that was written for the protection of lands of historic and scientific interests, the president created Olympic National Monument. Mining, logging and especially hunting was banned. Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, the indigenous elk species that now bears his name would not suffer the same fate as the North American Bison, which had been exterminated from the plains just a couple of decades earlier.

Roosevelt saves the Olympic Elk by Sequim Artist Per Berg

Roosevelt saves the Olympic Elk by Sequim Artist Per Berg

I rested at Camp Three Lakes. I had been hiking most of the day and hadn’t encountered a soul. Today the Skyline Ridge Trail is so little used that it’s no longer part of the maintained trail system of Olympic National Park. This was the problem for the newly created Olympic National Monument – few recreational users. Meanwhile, those actually living on the Olympic Peninsula in the early 1900s – the miners, lumbermen, trappers, hunters and homesteaders – cried out for exemptions and to reduce the size of the monument. Political leaders nodded in agreement. Why lock up all this land if nobody is using it?

Who would fight to save the Monument? The Seattle Mountaineers promised they would return to the Olympic Peninsula only if the U.S. Forest Service, the new administrators of the Olympic National Monument, would build them a different trail. At the time, the Forest Service placed little value on recreational usage, but with a surprisingly clear vision of the future, they agreed.

In the summer of 1913 the Olympics again rang out with the sounds of the Seattle Mountaineers’ thunderous march. For three weeks over 100 happy campers explored the valleys, climbed the mountains and canoed the rivers of the Olympic National Monument. As in 1907, they made their way up the Elwha River toward Mount Olympus. After climbing the peak and recording many other first ascents, they continued over Low Divide and headed down the Quinault River valley toward the sea.

This time the Mountaineers turned up Elip Creek Ridge onto the southern tip of the Skyline Ridge. Here the hikers arrived at the point where I sat at Camp Three Lakes. Hiker Gertrude Streator wrote: “August twentieth found the Mountaineers again on the new trail which was scarcely finished before we were passing over it. Those who helped construct the trail certainly deserve the highest praise, as it was through their efforts that the trip was possible.”

UW Digital Collection Album 27103a Mountaineers and horses in meadow August 1913

UW Digital Collection Album 27103a Mountaineers and horses in meadow August 1913

But just two years later, miners searching for an obscure mineral called manganese struck a stunning blow to the Olympic National Monument. Manganese is crucial in making hardened steel – important for warships – and virtually none was available domestically. Prior to World War I, when imports were threatened, the U.S. government was excited to find manganese lodes in the reddish colored limestone of the Olympics. Read more: In the Footsteps of Early Geologists: Searching for Clues to how the Olympics were Formed)

In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson cut the size of the monument almost in half to allow manganese prospecting. The timber industry perked up, because almost all of the reduced Monument was above the timberline. Stripped of protection, large-scale logging began in the untouched forests.

Red Hematite and Pyrolusite (manganese) from Crescent Mine

Red Hematite and Pyrolusite (manganese) from Crescent Mine

While half of the formerly protected Olympic National Monument was being mined and logged, the Seattle Mountaineers refused to return to the Olympics. In 1916 the Mountaineers huffed that their next Olympic outing would not be conducted until the high trail along the rest of the Skyline Ridge was finished. The U.S. Forest Service struggled to comply, but a shortage of men during World War I delayed the opening of this section of the Skyline Ridge Trail until the summer of 1920. Only then did the Seattle Mountaineers agree to return to the Olympic Peninsula.

Forest Service building Quinault Trail circa 1920’s Courtesy Washington State Historical Society

Forest Service building Quinault Trail circa 1920’s Courtesy Washington State Historical Society

I left Three Lakes and climbed on with just the breeze whispering through the trees to keep me company. Oh, to be a part of the camaraderie of the early Seattle Mountaineers summer outings in the Olympics! They marched along the trail, with the discipline of an army and the zeal to conquer the unconquered mountain peaks. The Mountaineers had everything they needed including their own clergy for Sunday morning service. The Reverend Hugh Elmer Brown was overjoyed to be out on the trail with the Mountaineers. He wrote that they had “…escaped completely from the over complicated life of the city where folks breathe second-hand oxygen and discuss books they have not read …”

Seattle Mountaineers at Kimta Creek Camp – 1920 - UW digital collection

Seattle Mountaineers at Kimta Creek Camp – 1920 – UW digital collection

At 3 p.m. and at 3,600 feet, my trail crossed a meadow at the headwaters of Three Prune Creek. The campsite was named by some hungry climbers when that’s all they had to eat at the end of the day because their packer didn’t arrive with supplies. I leaned back against a tree blackened from an old blaze and ate a snack (not prunes). Three Prunes Creek was my original destination for the night, but since the storm was lurking somewhere off the coast, I was eager to put some more miles behind me; so eager that I forgot to fill my water bottle, and that was a big mistake.

While I hiked alone and fretted about the pending storm, the Seattle Mountaineers were all about camaraderie and being positive. “The Mountaineers are the finest brand of sinners I have met for a long while. They seem mixed together in a rugged conspiracy to make things go happy,” said Reverend Hugh Elmer Brown.

Meanwhile I was not so happy. By 6 p.m. the trail had reached 5,000 feet and I was out of water. On the narrow, knife-edge of the Quinault-Queets watershed, trees were replaced with tufts of grass and marshy soil with rock and stone. The views were spectacular on either side, but there was no water to be found. Far below me to the west lay the Queets River valley while hundreds of feet below me to the east I could see the icy headwaters of Kimta Creek. I ate juicy blueberries along the trail for energy, but after gaining 4,500 feet in elevation it would take something more powerful than blueberries to give me the strength to climb down off that ridge for water.

Leaving trees behind

Leaving trees behind

I’m sure the hyper-organized Seattle Mountaineers carried plenty of water when they crossed this same dry ridge during their 1920 summer outing. Just in time, once again, a new trail in the Quinault valley was ready for the Mountaineers. On August 16, 1920 Winona Bailey and the Mountaineers were hiking “… up Promise Creek on (an) excellent new trail completed by the Forest Service for this trip. Camp was made on site only a few days earlier by trail crew … ”

Meanwhile I was lurching along the rocky Skyline Ridge Trail with a dry mouth, while the tumbling waters of Promise Creek, far below, taunted me. I was still searching for water when around a bend lay a shallow, 10-foot wide puddle of snowmelt. I pumped the air with my fist! I boiled the heck out of that water and after dinner I boiled some more. I sat back and drank my fill of warm water, then ate soupy beef stew, fears of dehydration relieved.

Dinner and a warm bed

Dinner and a warm bed

The temperature dropped rapidly at my camp at 5,000 feet. Cold fog and clouds reclaimed their familiar ground as they tumbled and roiled up the valley in front of me. The fiery rays of the setting sun shot up and silhouetted the ridge behind me. Perhaps the Reverend Hugh Elmer Brown was referring to a similar sight here on Skyline Ridge with the Mountaineers a century ago when he said, “Each summit brought its own unspeakable sense of detachment from lower things and its panorama of heart-piercing grandeur. Peaks became so many raised letters whereby blind children of the Most High were enabled to spell out something more of the divine message.”

Spectacular show

Spectacular show

The next morning, I pulled the flap back on my tent and looked out at swirling mists and rain in the direction where I’d come from. I scampered outside and ran about shoving equipment into my backpack while all was still dry. My joints snapped, crackled and popped just like the breakfast cereal. I was rambling along the Skyline Ridge Trail before 7 a.m., without a cup of morning coffee, trying to stay ahead of the rain. Back in the summer of 1920, the Mountaineers experienced the same weather here on the ridge. “This was a day of mists, the day of fine views when nothing was seen,” Winona Bailey said.

While I carried all I needed on my back, The Seattle Mountaineers needed pack horses to haul their tons of equipment and supplies. The Mountaineers, most definitely, did not live off the land in the Olympics. According to historian Robert L. Woods, “Never had climbers had ‘better or more elaborate meals’ served to them by smiling cooks who could create, ‘delicious pies, cakes and other delicacies’… Using a small oven and bonfire, the cooks baked bread every day and served multi-course meals to from forty to seventy-five hungry climbers. Occasionally, the participants dined on fresh beefsteak which had been brought in ‘on the hoof’ by driving livestock up the trail and butchering the animals in camp.”

Day 2 and good morning

Day 2 and good morning

I’d planned on a quick climb up Kimta Peak, but failed to notice the path to the summit in the thick clouds and mist. I could see why Kimta Peak has been called the fog capital of the Olympics. A mile later along the ridge, the trail passed through an entire forest of dead gray tree trunks and scrubby underbrush called the Queets Burn. As I climbed the stony lip of Promise Creek Pass the mist lifted and I was suddenly surrounded by blue sky. It was rugged country; grasses, a few stunted trees and patches of heather were all that grew here.

Over Promise Creek Pass

Over Promise Creek Pass

The Seattle Mountaineer outings weren’t just culinary affairs; it was the evening entertainment that many recounted. There were ribald theatrical productions and music, but mostly it was club President Edmond Meany holding court around an enormous bonfire. Meany would tell local Native American legends, stories about early explorers or read his own poetry while the flames danced high into the night sky.

At Promise Creek Pass I said goodbye to the path of the Seattle Mountaineers 1920 outing and entered a region that Robert L. Woods called the wildest parts of the Olympics accessible by trail. And it was a hellacious trail, switching up and down and back and forth along the cliffs of the naked divide. I inched along a foot-wide ledge with no handholds and a 300-foot drop. I crossed shattered and confusing layers of rock that had been folded, flipped and turned on edge. There were tufts of anemic grasses and fists of heather, but for the most part there was no vegetation at all. One desolate ledge of sandstone looked like a petrified forest of stumps, trunks and hunks of bark that had exploded into chaos.

There was no visible path on the bald rock, but cairns marked the way. I didn’t leave sight of the pile of stones behind me until I could identify the pile of stones stacked somewhere on the trail in front of me. I imagined how murderous reconnoitering through here would be in fog or a driving rain.

Heated, folded, faulted and shattered

Heated, folded, faulted and shattered

In the early afternoon I rested at an oasis of green that lived inside a narrow fissure in the rock. A tiny stream trickled and I filled my water bottle. Bright green moss and blue flowering Mountain Bog Gentian contrasted against the gray rock like a golf course fairway in a desert. I moved on. Shortly after, thin topsoil began to cover the naked rock, the cairns disappeared and an easily discernable path returned. The flowers and the greenery energized me, so I decided I’d hike a few more miles and camp at Lake Beauty. It was about then that the weather changed again; the wind increased, clouds engulfed the trail, and sheets of rain pelted me. The scenic vistas were obscured in a lashing downpour. I put my head down and trudged on.

Rain and fog move in

Rain and fog move in

The cold rain beat down has I plodded on along the Skyline Trail toward Seattle Creek. Back in the 1920s the character of the Olympics was changing. The Seattle Mountaineers returned again in 1926, but this summer’s outing was different. No longer were the Mountaineers explorers of the uncharted wilderness. Mountaineers who didn’t see civilization for three weeks during past Olympic outings luxuriated in the warm sulfur baths at Olympic Hot Springs Resort midway into their excursion. Instead of a narrow trail up the Elwha, layered with blow-downs, the Mountaineers walked along a wide road past a noisy construction camp where a massive dam was being built.

Even their canoe trip down the Quinault River to the sea had changed. Professor Meany lamented, “In quiet stretches the spruce forests echoed with the ‘put-put’ of outboard motors, contrasting strangely with former outing memories of the steady dip, dip, dip, of paddles in the silent depths of green water.”

Mt Noyes, Seattle Creek and Mt Seattle

Mt Noyes, Seattle Creek and Mt Seattle

A few miserable hours later the rain ended and the sun burned through the clouds, warming my dripping body and thawing my mind. It was early evening and somewhere during that storm, with my head down, I had stumbled past the turnoff to Lake Beauty. At 3,800 feet in elevation I had crossed Seattle Creek, its beautiful waterfall barely registering. Now as I climbed the thousand-foot ridge on the other side of Seattle Creek the slanting sunshine dried my pruney fingers and the expansive views elevated my attitude.

Back in the 1920s, the shifting character of the Olympics changed the Mountaineers, too. Instead of pathfinders the Mountaineers were becoming outdoor recreation advocates. Their stories highlighting the wild beauty of the Olympics appeared in publications across the country. The Mountaineers no longer planned outings just so that they could be the first to ascend un-climbed peaks; they began to promote easier access into the Olympics.

There were even Mountaineers that advocated for a string of chalets throughout the Olympic wilderness. Frank H. Lamb said, “Strategically located at scenic vantage points, (the chalets) would tempt alike the novice and the more experienced climbers to scale the nearby peaks, to whip the close-by trout streams, to penetrate into many hidden mountain retreats.”

Late evening sun

Late evening sun

I fought to keep walking until I found a campsite with a view, but by 7 p.m. I was so exhausted that I just threw down my backpack on a tiny level space right next to the wooded trail. As I was pitching my tent, fog began rolling up the valley. It had been warm and sunny just a few minutes before, but the temperature quickly turned cold in the mist.

Back in the 1920s new logging technology made the threat to the last of the Peninsula’s primeval forests acute and immediate. Denuding entire forests became much easier. No longer did horses or oxen and drivers take only the big timber and leave the rest to grow. With steam engines and cables dangling from the tops of solitary spar poles, logs were yanked along the ground like battering rams, gouging deep trenches into the earth. Meanwhile, mechanized saws allowed a single man to clear anything else left standing. Finally, the new generation of railroad engineers and bridge builders laid tracks for the iron horse, with its power to haul an unlimited number of colossal logs, deep into the Peninsula. Where beautiful forests once stood, now miles and miles of ugly stumps and dead limbs sat, waiting to spark into an inferno. Read more: In the Footsteps of Sawmills and Timber Beasts: Searching for the Snow Creek Logging Company)

Snow Creek Logging Company trestle and spar tree courtesy of the Clallam County Historical Society

Snow Creek Logging Company trestle and spar tree courtesy of the Clallam County Historical Society

Not only did advanced mechanization make clear-cutting forests easier, but as the 1920s ended local conservationists had lost almost every battle to preserve the Olympics. There was talk of creating a national park with the tiny amount of land left from the original monument, but even the idea of protected park, no matter how small, was blocked by the logging barons who controlled the economy of the region. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce published a report pushing for mining, dam building, road construction and especially logging in the proposed park. Naturalist Tim McNulty wrote, “By the late 1920’s, much of the forests removed from the original Olympic Forest Reserve were gone, and mill owners turned their gaze to the trees in the national forest. The forest service was happy to accommodate. A 1915 timber management plan for the forest announced the ‘chief function of the national forest is the furnishing a continuous supply of timber.’ Cutting levels on Olympic that year were around 12 million board feet. They shot up to 175 million by 1928. In its 1926 timber harvest plan, the forest service went so far as to include forests inside the national monument in its cutting circles.”

Business on the Olympic Peninsula circa 1920s by Sequim Artist Per Berg

Business on the Olympic Peninsula circa 1920s by Sequim Artist Per Berg

Thankfully I had finished dinner and had already crawled into my sleeping bag when the storm I had been worried about hit. Hard rain lashed my tent. A Quileute legend says that storms on the Peninsula are caused when the monstrous raven that lives inside Mount Olympus takes flight. Its flapping wings make thunder and great winds. When it opens and shuts its eyes, lightning cracks. That raven must have flown over my tent for hours, for the tempest lasted most of the night.

By the 1930s the stormy debate had intensified and blown eastward all the way to Washington D.C. and New York City. Time was running out for the last of the old-growth forests of the Olympic Peninsula, but thankfully, the Seattle Mountaineers and their local allies were no longer battling the timber barons and their rich allies alone. The debate over the creation of a national park had fittingly become a nationwide battle. Just in time, too, because lumbermen were making plans to log the Hoh and Bogachiel River valleys, the last lowland stands of old growth timber left on the Peninsula.

The Seattle Mountaineers were joined by influential national leaders from organizations like the Izak Walton League, the Audubon Society and the American Museum of Natural History, along with politicians, newspaper editors and other conservation groups. But it wasn’t enough – the bill to create Olympic National Park died in the halls of the U.S. Congress in 1935.

Back on the Skyline Trail the wind and rain had stopped beating on my tent in the early morning. I unzipped the door and crawled out. I looked about and let out a big breath. The storm had lifted and I could see the Quinault Valley below me. I shook the water off my gear and was on the trail once again before 7 a.m.

Day 3 Good Morning above the Quinault River

Day 3 Good Morning above the Quinault River

It took the personal intervention of yet another U.S. president named Roosevelt to end the most contentious national park debate in our country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the Olympic Peninsula in 1937. He and his motorcade arrived in Port Angeles during a soggy September rain. A banner read, “Mr. President, we children need your help. Give us our Olympic National Park.” According to newspaper reporter Alice Alexander, President Roosevelt responded, “Mr. Mayor and my friends of Port Angeles: That sign is the appealingest appeal I have ever seen in my travels. I am inclined to think it counts more to have the children want that park than all the rest of us put together. So, you boys and girls, I think you can count on my help in getting that national park, not only because we need it for us old people and you, young people, but for a whole lot of young people who are going to come along in the next hundred years of America.”

The President’s motorcade slowly circled the entire Peninsula where he met with officials, drove past devastating clear-cuts and viewed the precarious existence of the last of the primeval forests. The visit tipped the scales in the debate. Roosevelt wanted a national park and the opposition in Congress relented. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill creating Olympic National Park on June 29, 1938.

Roosevelt Parade in Port Angeles 1937, Courtesy Clallam County Historical Society

Roosevelt Parade in Port Angeles 1937, Courtesy Clallam County Historical Society

By a little after 8 a.m., I’d dropped down to 3,500 feet and I stood in a meadow at the junction of the North Fork Trail. The headwaters of the North Fork of the Quinault River gurgled through low bushes in front of me. Low Divide and the Elwha River watershed was in back of me. This was the end of the Skyline Trail. I had done it. I whooped and grinned. I wish I could have celebrated with the Mountaineers of old.

Conservationists continued to celebrate even after the Olympic National Park bill passed. A series of presidential actions added the old-growth forests of the Bogachiel River valley, the Queets Corridor, and the beaches along the seacoast, creating the Olympic National Park that we know and love today.

Junction of Skyline and North Fork Trails

Junction of Skyline and North Fork Trails

I followed the Quinault River valley downstream. The wide North Fork Quinault Trail was like walking on a highway compared to the little-maintained Skyline Trail. This was the route through the Olympics that James Christie and his Press Expedition had shown the world in 1890 and which was now a broad path worn down by generations of backpackers, seeking their own adventures in the Olympic National Park.

But my worries weren’t over. Ahead of me was Sixteen Mile Ford. There was no bridge and there was no other place to walk across the bed of the river. If the river had become too swollen by the recent rains, I’d have to go back the way I came – an incomprehensible choice. (If you travel the Skyline Trail loop in a counter-clockwise direction you’d reach the ford at the beginning and not at the end of your trip – thus avoiding my dilemma.)

The worries over logging in Olympic National Park didn’t end after the park was created. During the great park debate the Mountaineers had been relatively silent compared to the powerful eastern conservation groups, but in the mid 1950s the Mountaineers found their voice once again. They exposed a loophole that allowed massive “salvage” logging operations inside Olympic National Park. The Seattle Mountaineers have remained an important leader in conservation and wilderness protection to this day.

Ford at Sixteen Mile

Ford at Sixteen Mile

It was mid-morning when I easily forded river at Sixteen Mile, the water only reaching my knees. I spent the rest of the day walking and whistling down the North Fork trail. By early evening I was back down to 700 feet in the lower Quinault Valley forest. It felt like I was walking through a greenhouse where I could feel all the plants exhaling. It was hot and muggy compared to up on Skyline Ridge where the air was thin and clear.

When I paused for a snack, I felt a cool breeze beginning to cut through the humidity. The crowns of the soaring firs nodded in the wind. This park is so vast. I had been traveling for days and I just explored a tiny corner of its wilderness. I was small, but after completing the Skyline Trail I felt part of something much bigger. I smiled.

The Reverend Hugh Elmer Brown felt the same on the Mountaineers’ 1913 Olympic outing. Perhaps he was sitting in the same spot as me when he wrote: “The trees, like some old and mellow violin, brought us into many a tender and thoughtful mood. The benediction of insignificance fell upon us again and again as we listened to the murmurings of the forest giants which belong among the authentic antiquities of the world … and the elemental stillness of the woods here and there, when silence seemed be holding her breath, had for the soul a message all its own.”

The benediction of insignificance

The benediction of insignificance

I arrived back at my car at the trailhead at 6 p.m. It was the end of a successful journey over the difficult Skyline Trail. The Seattle Mountaineers’ early summer outings in the relatively unknown Olympic Peninsula were successful too. But why did that really matter?

The Seattle Mountaineers exposed the nascent U.S. Forest Service to the value of stewardship. The mountaineers showed that there was a use for the newly created National Monument that didn’t involve the extraction of natural resources. Instead of asking for permits for logging or mining, the Seattle Mountaineers asked for hiking trails. With easier access into the wilderness came more hikers. These early trails are still used today.

The debate over the creation and size of Olympic National Park was long and contentious. It required the weight of powerful leaders outside the Pacific Northwest to tip the scales in favor of creating a park where wilderness was the rule. It was the publications from those early Seattle Mountaineer outings that first showed the rest of the country the magnificence of the interior of the Olympic Peninsula. The Seattle Mountaineers successfully spread the word. This early desire to communicate led the Seattle Mountaineers to develop their own book division that today has published over 1,000 titles.

The Seattle Mountaineers continued their summer outings for over 80 years. Their early outings help pioneer an entirely new sector of our economy, the outdoor recreation industry. This created a powerful monetary incentive for conservation over extraction in our wild spaces. Today the economic contribution from the outdoor recreation industry is much greater than that of the timber industry in our state. According to the website Outdoor Industry, the outdoor recreation economy in Washington State alone supported 226,600 direct jobs and generated $7.1 billion in wages in 2012. According to the Washington Forest Protection Association’s 2015 Annual Report, the timber industry created 104,000 direct and forest-related jobs that pay wages of $4.9 billion.

The publicity from those early Seattle Mountaineer summer outings helped the Mountaineers grow into one of the most successful hiking and climbing clubs anywhere. The handful of charter members from that first summer outing in the Olympics has grown to over 10,000 active members today. Along the way the Seattle Mountaineers pioneered climbing, backcountry skiing and outdoor safety techniques, making spending time in the outdoors today safer and more enjoyable.

Before I backed my car out of the trailhead parking lot, I thought about my solo journey on the Skyline Trail. Exhausting, yet rewarding, the adventure would have been nice to share with fellow hikers, like a Seattle Mountaineer summer outing. I had the option to hike alone, but Danny Miller, then secretary of the Seattle Mountaineer History Committee, reminded me that, “It was such an ordeal to travel back then that these large group outings were the only practical way for most people to have a chance to experience something like that.”

Exploring the Olympics and the Skyline Ridge in a large group might have been a necessity on early Mountaineer outings, but the Reverend Hugh Elmer Brown didn’t want to travel any other way. About his summer in the Olympics with the Seattle Mountaineers back in 1913, Brown concluded, “Best of all and above all, I found new friends, who gave sparkle and zest to living. Richer than all the gifts of the mountain, stream and wood is the priceless benefaction of a trail-born comradeship.”

Next time I hike the Skyline Trail I’m going to bring along a friend or two.

End of the journey

End of the journey

I enjoyed researching this story and I would like to thank my sources. Olympic Peninsula Historian Rod Farlee explained the construction timeline of the Skyline Trail to me. The history of the Seattle Mountaineers was from The Mountaineers: A History, by Jim Kjeldsen (1998, the Mountaineers). Recollections of the Seattle Mountaineers’ early summer outings are from The Land that Slept Late: The Olympic Mountains in Legend and History by Robert L. Wood (1995, The Mountaineers). History of the battle over Olympic National Park was from Olympic National Park – A Natural History by Tim McNulty (2009, University of Washington Press). The recollection of FDR’s visit to Port Angeles was from a newspaper article titled, “A day that will live in Peninsula history: FDR came to visit,” by Alice Alexander (The Peninsula Daily News, Sept 12, 2009).

Barefoot Jake Morrison is an Olympic National Park enthusiastic adventure blogger who focuses on wilderness photography and a minimalist lifestyle. More at

I especially appreciated the following original source material from the Seattle Mountaineers’ own publication – The Mountaineer. The Edmond Meany quote was from the article “1926 Summer Outing in the Olympics” by Edmond S. Meany (Vol. 19, No. 1, December 1926). The quote from Frank Lamb was from “Making the Olympics Accessible” by Frank H. Lamb (Vol. 19, No. 1, 1926). The quotes from Reverend Brown were from the article “Melodious Days,” by Hugh Elmer Brown (Vol. 6, 1913). The quote from Seattle Mountaineer historian Mary Banks was from “Mountaineers in the Olympics” (Vol. 1, No. 3, September 1907).

The photos on the Skyline Trail are my own while the historical photos are used with permission from the UW Digital Collection, the Clallam County Historical Society and the Washington State Historical Society.

The statistics on the relative size of the outdoor recreation industry is from the Outdoor Industry website and the size of the timber industry is from the Washington Forest Protection Association website.

The original art and maps were drawn by my friend, Sequim artist Per Berg.

Any errors and omissions are my own.

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In the Footsteps of Early Geologists:
Searching for Clues to how the Olympics were Formed

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 15 miles – Time out: 3 days

Degree of Difficulty: 3 – Highest Elevation: 7,000 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

It’s easy to decipher the geology of many parts of the world because the record in the rocks is accessible, but not so here on the Olympic Peninsula. Here the jumbled valleys, dense forests, and thick glaciers conspire to obscure the layers of rock below. It took a century for three different geologists to uncover clues to a unifying creation theory. This is their story along with my three-day journey up the Dungeness River watershed to locate the final bit of enigmatic evidence that almost prevented the theory from being written. – The Incidental Explorer

Map - In the Footsteps of Early Geologists by Sequim artist Per Berg

Map – In the Footsteps of Early Geologists by Sequim artist Per Berg

September 22, 2015. It was the first day of autumn, but at the Dungeness River trailhead the weather was still all summery sunshine and blue sky. In addition to the pleasant weather, I was fortunate to be backpacking with two of my favorite Olympic National Park Rangers, Bruce and Donovan. Their years of roving about the Olympic Peninsula meant this duo usually knew the answers to my questions down to the minute details, but the questions I hoped to answer on this trip were big ones: namely how were the Olympic Mountains formed and who uncovered the answers?

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In the Footsteps of Homesteaders and Whalers:
Hiking the Cape Alava Trail

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 9 miles – Time out: 8 hours

Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Highest Elevation: Sea Level

Pet Friendly: No

February 18-19, 2015.

Cape Alava map - Per Berg

Cape Alava map – Per Berg

Here in this quiet corner of Olympic National Park, the Cape Alava Trail starts at Ozette Lake and ends at Cape Alava on the Pacific Coast. Hiking the trail is like following two parallel threads of European and Native American history. Ozette Lake was once ringed with Scandinavian homesteaders, and Cape Alava was once home to a large Makah fishing village. Today, where these two communities once thrived, there are only whispering forests and crashing waves. Recently, I had an opportunity to hike the scenic Cape Alava Trail with Donovan and Bruce, friends and park rangers who know the trail’s secrets.

The Cape Alava Trail begins at the Ozette Lake Campground. Today, big trees grow all the way to the lake’s edge, but in the early 1890’s Scandinavian families hacked 130 homesteads out of the dense forest. The homesteads surrounded the lake, one-half to one mile apart. Their Ozette Lake community was vibrant but isolated; travel to the outside world was either down the Ozette River by canoe and rendezvous with a ship off the Pacific Coast or via a muddy, twenty-five mile trail along the Hoko River to the settlement at Clallam Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Their isolation led to self-sufficiency. The Scandinavian homesteaders were a tough bunch. Out of the wilderness, they built stores, schools, a church and three post offices. The land was cleared, livestock raised, and their surplus cream, butter, beef and pork was shipped to Seattle. There was a community band and frequent celebrations as these hardy folk strove to acquire title on the land they lived upon by “proving-up.” The Scandinavian homesteaders turned this inaccessible frontier into a remarkably lively and cohesive settlement.

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In the Footsteps of Sawmills and Timber Beasts:
Searching for the Snow Creek Logging Company

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 5 miles – Time out: 6 hours

Degree of Difficulty: 1 – Highest Elevation: 800 ft.

Pet Friendly: Yes

November 5th 2014

Searching for Snow Creek Logging Company - Per Berg map

Searching for Snow Creek Logging Company – Per Berg map. Click map to enlarge

A century ago, the Snow Creek Logging Company had a large camp in the hills of Miller Peninsula southeast of Blyn, WA. The company, one of many on the Olympic Peninsula, cut millions of board feet of logs from 1917 to the 1930’s. One day in November, I decided to go and search for clues to the camp on the old dirt roads and paths between Sequim Bay and Discovery Bay. The drive between the head of the two bays, along the curve of SR-101 is ten miles, but hiking through the forest, straight across the neck of Miller Peninsula, the distance was half that. If the logging roads on my map actually existed, I hoped I could find the site of the camp and make it out of the woods before the early winter darkness.

I began my walk at 10:30am at the misty shore of Sequim Bay. There were few opportunities to earn quick and easy cash in the pioneer economy of the Pacific Northwest in the 1850’s; a farm took years to clear, and trapping, fishing or prospecting were specialized trades. But then there was logging. Logs paid cash, and on the Olympic Peninsula there were huge stands of timber right on the shoreline. The big trees only had to be cut, tumbled into the water and the cash-money pocketed. The logs were rafted to sawmills while the lumber hungry cities of the West cried for more.

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In the Footsteps of Filmmakers and Mountain Men:
The Bailey Range Traverse

Story by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 70 miles – Time out: 9 days

Degree of Difficulty: 4 – Highest Elevation: 6,100 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

July 19th – July 27th 2014.

The Bailey Range begins at the edge of the Seven Lakes wilderness of Olympic National Park, where the maintained trail ends and few backpackers travel. I was part of a small climbing team that planned on traversing miles of the trackless peaks and valleys of the Bailey Range before summiting glacier-shrouded Mount Olympus. We were all very excited! The Mountain Trail Guide says that the Bailey Range Traverse is perhaps the finest high-county route in the Olympics. We’d be far from civilization; it would take us a day of hiking for our team just to reach the start of the traverse east of the Seven Lakes Basin.

I liked our team from the start. Mark, our guide, was from Mountain Madness, the world-famous mountaineering company. Though he had never set foot in the Olympics, the lean mid-twenty year old had plenty of climbing experience all over the Northwest. Just three days before, Mark had returned from guiding a climb up Mt. Denali in Alaska. Throughout our journey, he easily shouldered a backpack loaded with gear that I could barely lift. Julie and Grant, meanwhile, were a friendly married couple from south Puget Sound. They were fit from a daily exercise regimen designed for this climb. I, on the other hand, found myself talking a little too fast and laughing a little too loud during our introductions. I couldn’t stop worrying that I was a decade and a half older than the rest of the team. I was nervous because we’d be spending the next nine days navigating through the wilderness without the benefit of a trail.

Day 2

The Bailey Range Traverse begins at “The Catwalk.” Mark pointed up to where a jumble of boulders disappeared into the clouds and said this was the trail. I cleared my throat and was about to say that can’t be right when Julie, Grant and Mark began climbing. I shut up and followed. Our team scrambled up Cat Peak at 5,300 feet and then along a narrow spine of jagged rock, squeezing through crevasses among the gnarled branches of stunted, sub-alpine trees. Handholds were difficult to find and I wasn’t used to climbing with a heavy pack. The drop-off on either side of the Catwalk must have been stupendous, but we weren’t sure since it was raining and visibility was poor. Julie said, “I think God made it cloudy so I couldn’t be scared.”

Bailey Range Traverse map - click to enlarge

Bailey Range Traverse map – click to enlarge

We reached the end of the frightening Catwalk at 6pm where there was a narrow saddle of bare dirt called Boston Charlie’s Camp. There was just enough space for our two tents. Boston Charlie was a mountain man born in the 1860’s. He was the last medicine man of the Klallam people. He frequented Olympic Hot Springs for spiritual cleansing long before they were discovered by Whites, and his encounter with a mountain-sized Sasquatch is part of Klallam history. This tiny bench of ground was one of Boston Charlie’s favorite campsites. After a gourmet macaroni and cheese dinner prepared by Mark, and being warm and dry in our sleeping bags while cold rain pelted our tent, it became one of my favorite campsites too.

Day 3

After a rejuvenating 12-hour slumber, our team awoke to the clear skies that we had been hoping for. Now we had a stunning view of the entire forty or so miles of the trackless Bailey Range that we would navigate and climb, beginning with Mt. Carrie and ending at our final goal, the glacier-encased Mt. Olympus, far across the Hoh River Valley. I bit my bottom lip at the sight of the countless peaks while Grant kept his thoughts to himself, but Julie confided that Olympus looked intimidating, huge and impossibly far away.

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Building the Hayes River Rescue Patrol Cabin

Olympic National Park 1969

By Richard Tarnutzer

Finished cabin

Finished cabin

In July 1969, while the first man was walking on the moon, I was driving my ’64 El Camino from southern California to Port Angeles, Washington to participate as a volunteer with the Student Conservation Association. I was right out of High School, seventeen and just months away from registering with the draft board for the Vietnam War. Back then we weren’t so tethered to our parents by cell phones, the internet or GPS. Staying out of trouble required some small degree of skill to make good decisions on our own. Otherwise, we’d run out of gas, go hungry or get lost. With those possibilities the next three weeks was going to be a great adventure.

On July 25th, fifteen high school boys arrived in Port Angeles from all across the United States. They came from Texas, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Vermont, Tennessee, New York, Connecticut, California, Massachusetts and Washington…….all on their own. No parents dropped them off.

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In the Footsteps of the 1890 Banner Party:
Backpacking the North Fork Skokomish River Trail

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 26 miles – Time out: 3 days

Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Highest Elevation: 4,688 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

June 18th – 20th 2014

I jumped at the chance to explore the North Fork of the Skokomish River with a friend who knows many of its secrets. Donovan told me we’d be backpacking in the footsteps of the famous O’Neil expedition of 1890, and we’d also be following the path of a little-know group of explorers – the Banner Party.

Packed and ready

Packed and ready

It looked like the summer of 1890 would be the year that the last of the unexplored regions of the Olympic Mountains would finally give up their secrets. The public couldn’t get enough of the story. Because the Olympic Mountains were not on the direct path of commerce, their geography was little understood by cartographers until the end of the 19th century. Now the race was on to find what was inside that impenetrable maze of peaks and valleys. During the winter and spring of 1890, the Seattle Press had sold a lot of newspapers by funding and promoting James Christie’s heroic expedition up the Elwha and down the Quinault Rivers. Now other newspapers where poised to cover Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil’s US Army explorations up one of the last unknown areas in the Olympics, the North Fork of the Skokomish River.

Per Berg Map North Fork Skokomish River CLICK TO ENLARGE

Per Berg Map North Fork Skokomish River CLICK TO ENLARGE

In the south end of Puget Sound was a tiny newspaper, the Buckley Banner. Its struggling editor, Charles E. Joynt, was not going to miss out on a chance to pump-up his circulation just like the Seattle Press had done that spring. The Banner Party would also head up the North Fork of the Skokomish and “out-explore” the seasoned Lieutenant O’Neil as they both raced into the unknown together.

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