By Bret Wirta-The Incidental Explorer
Distance: a couple of miles – Time out: 4 hours
Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Pet Friendly: No
April 11th 2012
I hiked with the Klahhane Hiking Club again, but instead of climbing up to a mountain pass we hiked down to dry lakebeds on the Elwha River. The reason the lakebeds are dry is because, here, in Olympic National Park, the largest dam removal project in the country is almost complete. The 108-foot tall Elwha dam has been completely removed and most of the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam is gone. The result – the almost century-old reservoirs that flooded huge sections of the Elwha River Valley have drained away. Last year, my wife Trisha and I hosted some of the “Celebrate Elwha!” festivities that culminated in the dam removal ceremony on September 17th. Now, I wanted to see what progress was like.
First we visited the former Lake Mills. We reached the upper Lake Mills trailhead along the Whiskey Bend Road. The trail down to the river valley was a short half-mile but a steep 500 feet. Crushed stone had been shoveled onto the more muddy sections so the trail was easily passable. We heard the drumming of a grouse along the way. As I walked down toward the river, I considered what I’d find. Would there be the remains of water-logged fishing cabins or ramshackle tourist lodges that used to dot the Olympics before paved roads? My mind began to race. I dimly recalled a children’s story where a Chinese brother swallowed the sea so his companion could gather up all the treasure that l lay about. Like the storybook companion, would I find flopping fish and sunken ships?
Elwha River lakebeds with the Klahhane Club 2012
The first treasure we came across as we walked the old lakebed was a pretty waterfall tucked into a ravine. I originally though Wolff Creek waterfall was above the old lakebed, and thought limited trail access must have made viewing this waterfall impossible while Lake Mills lapped at its base. But my friend and creator of the movie Return of the River, John Gussman corrected me. John said, “You could always get to Wolff Creek Falls even when the lake was there because the lake never came that far up, it was always a river channel there. If you want a real challenge try getting to upper Wolff Creek Falls.” Perhaps I’ll try John’s suggestion this summer.
Our group continued walking out on the lakebed. For what must have been almost a mile, the river snaked over barren gravel, the fast moving water already sluicing down some twenty feet in places. There were a few bleached logs, some spidery root nests and thin patches of grasses but not much else. I munched on a dry granola bar as we retraced our steps.
Back in our cars we drove to the parking area on the Northeast side of Highway 101 at the Elwha River Bridge. There was a short, fairly level path to what was recently the shoreline of Lake Aldwell. Just like at Lake Mills there wasn’t much sign of reforestation; that’s a future chapter of the Elwha River story. Here at Lake Adwell I was amazed by the magnificent tree stumps cut by hand a hundred years ago.
There was coarse gravel and stones around the stumps but the tops of many were covered with layers of silt like pointed caps. Each bite of the axe blade was clearly visible in the notches cut around the stumps. Springboards were inserted in the notches and used as platforms so loggers could saw above the thick, “stumpy” part of the tree.
I examined the ground more closely. I found a hunk of logging cable, and a U-shaped bolt driven into a stump. I was disappointed I didn’t find the remains of any hotels or other artifacts, though one of the Klahhane’s, a geologist, pointed out an ancient visitor. It was a smooth hunk of Canadian granite that had arrived at the Olympic Peninsula on the back of a glacier during the last ice age.
I didn’t find any real treasure, still it was a wonderful experience seeing the recently exposed bottoms of Lake Mills and Lake Adwell. The valleys were so barren, like the area must have looked when that granite boulder arrived around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. It will be fascinating to watch how Olympic National Park biologists reforest these Elwha River valleys.
After I returned, I attended a lecture hosted by Friends of Olympic National Park. The lecture was “A Century of Recreation on the Upper Elwha” and it was given by former National Park Service employee and outdoor enthusiast Russ Dalton. In his talk Russ mentioned an old lodge hidden in the Elwha River mud if you know where to look. Wow! I’m headed back to the river soon!
To get to the Elwha Entrance of Olympic National Park from the Quality Inn and Suites, Sequim:
- Head west on Highway 101 past Port Angeles – drive 24 miles.
- Turn left at Elwha River Entrance to Olympic National Park – drive around 5 miles
- Bear left on Whiskey Bend Road – drive about 1 mile.
- The Lake Mills trailhead pull off is on your right but isn’t marked very well.
- Don’t forget that the entrance Fee to the Olympic National Park is $15.00 but a year-long pass is only $30.00.
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