Mt. Townsend and Silver Lake Loop Backpacking Adventure

By Bret Wirta-The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 13 mile loop

Time: Two Days

Elevation gain: 3,350 ft.

Bret’s Difficulty Rating: Class 2

August 2nd -3rd, 2011

Hiking to the summit

Sequim Washington receives lots of sunshine because the Olympic Mountains block moisture-laden clouds traveling inland off the Pacific Ocean, but it wasn’t until I hiked up and over the knife-edge summit of Mt. Townsend that I actually experienced a rain-shadow effect up-close and in action.

Because of unusually deep snow covering the trail, I couldn’t reach the summit of Mt. Townsend when I tried hiking up on the first day of summer, so six weeks later I decided to try again using a different route and enlisting a buddy. Chris is fit friend that I admire. He’s seven years older than me and plays soccer against twenty-year-olds. Chris last strapped on a backpack 23 years ago but said no problem to a hike up Mt. Townsend and overnight at Silver Lake in the Olympic National Forest.

Due to a wrong turn along the confusing US Forest Service roads we didn’t get to the Little Quilcene Trail #835 until 10am. We registered at the trailhead which according to my map was already at 3,500 feet. (The long uphill drive from our Sequim hotel paid off!) It was cloudy and in the high 50’s – perfect hiking weather. Two hours of huffing and puffing later, up a “wicked” (as we say back home in New Hampshire) steep trail, we were rewarded with peek-a-boo views and some anemic lupines. It wasn’t until another hour of hiking that we cleared the tree line and were greeted by jagged volcanic outcroppings and a colorful field of wildflowers.

The 6,280 foot summit of Mt. Townsend was the high point along a ridge that ran north/south. On one side was sunshine and more mountains; on the other side, somewhere below us were the cool waters of Puget Sound, but that was only a guess because thick clouds and fog roiled right up to the edge of the ridge. It was a rain shadow, the same effect that causes the sunny Blue Hole over Sequim, occurring on a much smaller scale right in front of us as we ate the turkey sandwiches Chris had made for us for lunch.

Rain shadow effect on Mt. Townsend

Chris was a bit tired. He had to borrow my bigger, heavier backpack all because he had a sleeping bag that took up lots of space. After lunch and a rest, we began our descent toward Silver Lake, our destination for the night. Within a few minutes the ridge had dropped in elevation and we were enveloped in cool fog. Here the shoulder of Mt. Townsend wasn’t tall enough to keep clouds at bay. I hoped our campsite wouldn’t be foggy. I should have been worried about snow instead.

We descended gingerly, engulfed in clouds. We had to slather on sunscreen at the summit but here a mile down the trail I stopped to put on my fleece. It was then the snowfields began to appear. We reached Silver Creek at the bottom of the canyon at around 4pm. It was cold and damp back in the shadowy forest. We slipped along the hard-packed snowfields, hiking uphill again, following Silver Creek as it tumbled down through the ice-choked canyon. We walked slowly as not to lose the trail that was still buried under many feet of snow. At around six pm we reached the half frozen Silver Lake.

We set up camp and by 7pm the sun had already set. Chilly fog had finally stopped tumbling down upon us like a waterfall over the lip of the cliff. Silver Lake, at a mile in elevation, with its headwall ringed in snow and its shoreline hidden under ice, was the land summer forgot. It was surely sunny in Sequim, but here at the bottom of this icy cirque in the shadow of Mt. Townsend it was gloomy. At least there were no mosquitoes. They hadn’t hatched yet.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

Chris and I were camped on a dry bench of land above the shoreline. Though it looked and felt like winter, Chris and I were warm enough after our dinner of hot beef stew. We had completed a seven-mile and 3,350 foot elevation gain hike up and over Mt. Townsend to here in about eight hours. We went to sleep with the sound of spring peepers croaking who didn’t know it was August not March. This was a perfect place to vacation for those in the South and Plain States still suffering under one-hundred degree plus heat.

By morning it was down to the low 40’s. I was cold during the night, though I wore all my clothes including a ski cap. Chris slept through the night in his big, warm sleeping bag. It had been worth carrying that bulky backpack after all.

We headed out after a bowl of hot oatmeal. The hike down the Silver Creek Trail felt a bit like being at the Westminster Kennel Club – with the exception of meeting trail volunteers, John and Nancy, everybody we met had a dog. We followed the trail to its junction with the Forest Service Road. The trail was unmaintained and so we lost our way briefly and had to climb over and under half a dozen deadfalls. Next time I’ll bring my saw and do my share to keep the trail open.

Chris said he enjoyed the trip. I hope he joins me again. The last mile of our hike back to our car was along the road. It was sunny and warm. We were back in summer weather again. Somewhere far above us Mt. Townsend was working hard keeping the clouds at bay.

The trailhead from the Holiday Inn Express and Conference Center in Sequim where we stayed is a 45 minute drive. To find the trailhead:

  • Take 101 East for less than a mile to Palo Alto road on your right.
  • Turn Right on Forest Service Road #2880 and go past Dungeness Forks Campground
  • Stay left on Forest Service Road #2870
  • Drive eight miles to Upper Dungeness Trailhead
  • Drive another three miles to the Tubal Cain Mine Trailhead
  • There is a small parking lot on the right side of the road with no toilets.
  • Park there but continue to walk up the Forest Service Road a few hundred yards
  • The Little Quilcene trail #835 will be on your left.

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