Grand Pass Backpacking Adventure

By Bret Wirta-The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 12 miles – – Time: Two Days

Elevation gain: 2,400 ft.

Bret’s Difficulty Rating: Class 2

August 23rd and 24th, 2011.

Obstruction Point to Grand Pass

Grand Pass in Olympic National Park is aptly named; the view of the headwall from the valley floor is a most grand and beautiful sight. Of course it helped that the weather was perfect, the wildflowers prolific and I was hiking with an old friend. We also enjoyed meeting a couple of unique Olympic National Park animals.

Joel and I began our Olympic hike with a long windy drive up to the Obstruction Point trail head. Thanks to my car and not our feet we were already over 6.000 feet above sea level. The beginning of the hike was an easy stroll along the Lillian Ridge trail. Driving a car to the top of the trail seemed like cheating. But I needn’t have worried; the exertion of hiking from the valley floor to the lip of Grand Pass later that afternoon made up for any easy hiking earlier in the day.

We began hiking at around ten. What was a morning of rain in Port Angeles turned into the bluest sky at the trailhead. We packed away our rain hats and windbreakers soon after we began walking along the treeless Lillian Ridge.

We were in the Olympic rain shadow, the same effect I experienced on my Mt. Townsend hike a couple of weeks ago. We walked along the open sub-alpine ridge, among stunted trees and short grasses that were poking through the dry dirt and scree. There were a few lingering snowfields and small tarns. It looked like photos I’ve seen of the Alaskan tundra. According to the Park video we watched at the visitor’s center, many plants here don’t resemble their lowland neighbors but instead arctic species. There are also mammals here in the park which are found nowhere else in the world.

One of those unique mammals visited us as we sat on a pile of sunny rocks and ate a snack. The Olympic Chipmunk, with its light and dark stripes running from its nose to its ears and down its back, darted about hopefully but didn’t receive any handouts from us. Scientists think the reason for the unusually high number of unique flora and fauna species is because the Olympic Mountains were an isolated island almost completely surrounded by glaciers in the last ice age.

Marmot at Lake Gladys

We didn’t encounter any other animals or even hikers as we continued along Lillian Ridge. There were fields of purple lupine at our feet and snowcapped peaks beyond. After the foggy, rainy start to our morning, the flowers, blue sky and expansive views filled me with joy! The Lillian Ridge trail would be a wonderful day-hike instead of the more crowded short trails that start from the Hurricane Ridge visitor’s center.

A couple of hours after we began, the trail left the high ridge and descended into Grand Valley. We hiked through sparse forests and green meadows, a wonderful walk punctuated by good conversation. By early afternoon we had hiked down to 4,300 feet, the floor of Grand Valley. There was a string of three lakes; Grand Lake, Moose Lake and Gladys Lake all fed by snowmelt dripping into Grand Creek.

We bushwhacked to survey the outlets of the lakes. Growing up in New Hampshire, where ponds as small as a swimming pool were dammed for tiny mills and farms way back in the colonial era, there were no free and unfettered streams left. Joel and I located where the creek flowed out of Grand Pond. Bleached tree trunks created a natural dam that raised the level of the lake a foot or so. Instead of a single outlet, a bush-covered island split the outlet into two equal halves. At the end of the tiny island, Grand Creek reunited and tumbled away on its journey to its unison with the Grey Wolf River at Three Forks. I loved the wildness and randomness of it all.

Just past Lake Gladys, Grand Valley ended at a high headwall. While Joel explored the other side of the valley, I rested on the soft moss at the edge of a field of deep purple Lupines and spring green grasses. A stream gurgled past me. In the distance, the bands of charcoal gray cliffs were splattered with white snowfields and dabs of green firs. The background for it all was a cobalt sky. I’m sure a landscape artist could find a prettier place to paint scenery than the upper end of Grand Valley, but they’d need to search for a long while.

Around three-thirty we began our climb up the headwall in earnest. Joel set a blistering pace. I could barely keep up. It was steep. We crossed a couple of steep snowfields. Higher up, the trail was covered with loose shale. But with the help of my walking stick and Joel’s ski poles, we made it to the top of Grand Pass about forty-five minutes later.

Grand Pass Valley headwall

Below our feet dropped the amazingly steep trail down to the Cameron Creek Valley. A jumble of snow-capped peaks and mountain ranges spread out in front of us. About the only summit I could recognize was glacier-locked Mt. Olympus. But fellow contributor Gary Huff set me straight. Gary wrote 43 Day Hikes to Peaks in the Olympics Ranked from Easiest to Most Difficult. Gary said that Grand Pass “…provides a bird’s eye view of the trail going down to the Gray Wolf valley and then up into Cameron Pass and Mt. Cameron. Other peaks are visible in every direction. The Needles, Mt. Deception and Mt. Mystery are east. Mt. Anderson and its high glaciers are south. Mt. Olympus and the Bailey Range lie to the West and the Grand Ridge and Angeles peaks are north.”

We hiked the last few feet up to the 6,700 foot summit of the peak to our right. Gary called it Grand Peak. On Gary’s “enjoyment” scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best, he listed Grand Peak as 5+. I agree with Gary!

After meditating (me snoozing) on Grand Pass, we hiked back down to Lake Gladys where we camped for the night. Joel found us a grassy knob away from the water, but not away from the mosquitoes. They were everywhere in the Grand Valley. Bring your bug spray or a hat with face netting. Don’t forget that you need a National Park Permit for backcountry camping which you can fill-out at the visitor’s center in Port Angeles on the drive in. There are bear wires to hang your food at the campsite so you don’t need to rent a bear canister.

The next morning over breakfast of hot coffee and oatmeal, we listened to the bark of an Olympic Marmot. The furry, gopher-sized animal was standing on a sunny flat rock and shouting Yip! Yip! Yip! over and over. Later I asked park biologist Patti Happe if she thought the marmot was barking for pleasure. Patti didn’t think so. She said, “The scientist in me would say that the barking is a form of communication, letting everyone in the colony know who is up and about and warning everyone of potential predators.” Probably true. But I secretly wondered if the Marmot was barking with the sheer joy over living in such a beautiful place.

The Olympic Marmot is another species found only on the Olympic Peninsula. Biologists like Patti are concerned about the Olympic Marmot because they’ve noticed a decline in their numbers. To better understand how many Olympic Marmots actually live in the park, in 2010 the Washington National Parks Fund helped organize a volunteer group for observations. Eighty “citizen scientists” camped out in the park for a week with binoculars, GPS units, maps, and data sheets looking for marmots and marmot burrows, and recording their findings. According to the WNPF, “The Park staff is pleased with the monitoring program’s initial results, which prove consistent with earlier findings of population decline, and indicate that volunteers provided good data to work with.” About 100 people volunteered this summer. In case you’re interested, the Olympic National Park will begin recruiting volunteers for next summer in March 2012.

On the hike back out, Joel and I retraced our path through Grand Valley, but at Grand Lake we took a right at the trail junction and hiked out Badger Valley instead. This trail was more forested than Lillian Ridge and a bit shorter, but the final climb back to the Obstruction Point parking lot was a dusty and steep switchback up the sheer headwall. The path is covered with loose rock. You’ll appreciate your walking stick or poles by the time you reach your car.

The trailhead from the Holiday Inn Express and Conference Center in Sequim where we stayed to the Obstruction Point Trailhead is a 90 minute drive. To find the trailhead:

  • Take 101 West toward Port Angeles
  • Turn left on Race Street and drive up the hill to the Olympic National Park Visitors Center
  • Continue up the road to Hurricane Ridge
  • At the Hurricane Ridge parking lot make an immediate left
  • Drive six miles (carefully) on the narrow dirt road to the Obstruction Point parking lot.
  • There is a bathroom at the trailhead that you can use before you begin your Olympic hike

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