Marmot Pass Hike

Story and photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 11 mile round-trip – Time out: 8 hours

Degree of Difficulty: 1 – Elevation Gain: 3,500 ft. Pet Friendly: Yes

August 1st 2012

“Why did you choose this trail?” I asked a hiker who was lacing up his boot on the bumper of a car with California license plates. He said, “I read a guidebook. It said if for some terrible reason you’re allowed one hike in the Olympics in your lifetime, this one should be it.” I laughed and said, “That’s author Craig Romano. That’s why we’re climbing Marmot Pass too. “

It was noon when we left our car at the Upper Big Quilcene trailhead. It was good to be hiking with my family. My wife Trisha handed me my hiking poles and our teen-agers swung on their backpacks. According to Craig’s guidebook we’d see Marmots and plenty of wildflowers. It was sunny and in the mid 60’s. If our hike to Marmot Pass wasn’t as wonderful as Craig said it would be, it wouldn’t be because of the weather.

Big Trees

Big Trees

After an hour of steady climbing we were still in the lowland forest. The trail wound though some big trees and was moderately steep in places. We crossed a couple of streams. We hiked through areas where many big trees had been blown down on the trail. Much work had been done to cut-away the trees and re-route the path.

According to Daniel Collins, Regional Coordinator for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, we should be giving kudos to the Washington Trails Association, who led by Rich Tipps, did most of this difficult work. Rich is a cross-cut sawyer (wood-cutter) who is skilled in clearing away the big trees. That proficiency is especially valuable in areas where chainsaws are prohibited. Rich teaches the annual cross-cut recertification class for the PNTA.

By 2pm the trail had turned steeper. The grade must have been 30% in some places. My backpack felt heavy. We stopped for lunch on a rocky outcrop where we had a peek-a-boo view of the Big Quilcene valley. Shortly after our lunch we broke out of the forest into the dazzling sunshine. There were fields of Indian Paintbrush and Queen Ann’s Lace stretching up to the jagged peaks, snowfields and blue sky. Our kids were impressed – not an everyday occurrence.

Getting close

Getting close

We passed Camp Mystery where tents were nestled in the fir trees by a little stream. There was a woman and her dog in camp, dogs being allowed on National Forest trails if on a leash. By 3pm we only had about a mile left to go. There were bright Tiger Lilies and perfect Western Columbines growing in clumps. The perfume of purple Lupines was everywhere.

The kids glimpsed a marmot dive into a pile of rocks. That was our only marmot sighting. The Olympic Marmot lives nowhere else in the world but the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. Back in the 1990s, Olympic National Park biologists became concerned about the decline in the Olympic Marmot population.

Indian Paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush

In 2010 a program to count marmots using volunteer “citizen scientists” was initiated. Last summer more than 90 volunteers camped for days at designated locations deep in the park, observing sites and counting the Olympic Marmot. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer or helping to fund this important work contact the Washington’s National Parks Fund who is supporting the project.

The last few hundred feet of elevation gain was through open alpine meadows as the trail sloped up to the pass. It felt much dryer here. We crested the ridge. The view was spectacular! Below us was the forested Dungeness Valley and beyond was a high ridge of mountains still covered with plenty of snow.

We can see the pass from here

We can see the pass from here

In back of us was Hood Canal. A mile on the trail to the north was Buckhorn Mountain – a peak I can see from my Seattle neighborhood. We stopped and savored the view. The hike was everything that Craig Romano said it would be. But we didn’t linger at the pass because we were backpacking for a couple more days on the trail. It was onward to a new adventure – Constance Pass!

Goofy family photo on Marmot Pass

Goofy family photo on Marmot Pass

To get to the Upper Big Quilcence trailhead Olympic National Forest #833 from the Holiday Inn Express Sequim:

  • Take 101 East to Quilcene
  • One mile south of Quilcene turn right on Penny Creek Road
  • Drive for 1.4 miles
  • Stay left at the “Y” onto FS road #27
  • Drive along Forest Service #27 another 9.5 miles
  • At the intersection with Forest Service Road 2750
  • Drive along FS #2750 for 4.7 miles to Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead
  • Don’t forget your National Forest Service Recreation Pass!

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