Constance Pass Backpacking Adventure

Story and photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 22 mile round-trip – Time out: 3 Days

Degree of Difficulty: 1 – Elevation : 5,850 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

August 1-3 2012.

Constance Pass Video

Constance Pass is a magnificent place deep in the Olympics, a perfect family backpacking adventure. My wife Trisha, college-aged children, Becca and Garrett and I planned a three-day journey. We decided we’d pitch our tents at Boulder camp both nights. We spent most of the first day hiking up the Big Quilcene trail to Marmot Pass. After admiring the view for a bit, we turned south leaving the Quilcene watershed and descended into the headwaters of the Dungeness River. The trail down to Boulder camp was easy and dry, the heat and the sweet smell of prolific purple lupines hanging in the unusually still air. Across the valley stood the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Deception and the Grey Wolf Ridge. Our kids hiked on ahead of us.

Our kids both left for college at the end of summer. I miss them. I miss them around the house even if they are just hanging with friends or watching bad TV. But the family times I enjoy most are when we are backpacking. On the trail, without distracting cell phones or other nefarious electronics, we experience the wilderness together.

Leaving Marmot Pass

Leaving Marmot Pass

The hike was a short two miles down from Marmot Pass to Boulder camp. We reached it in an hour. Boulder Camp is in a secluded valley with an open-faced log shelter. Garrett found us the perfect site; grassy, small stream nearby and a flat-topped boulder that was table high. It was 5pm so we set up our tents and began cooking dinner. Surprisingly there were not many mosquitoes. We laughed and joked over a beef stroganoff dinner and turned in early. Tomorrow we planned on hiking to Constance Pass.

Morning sunlight came late over the high mountains that protected our campsite. We slept in and didn’t get on the trail until 10:30AM. We left most of our gear in our tents and carried a single pack with lunch, water (there is plenty on the trail) and emergency supplies. Morning surliness from our loveable teenage son had dissipated along with the mists. We were all in good spirits, excited to explore this area of the Olympics.

That's gnarly

That's gnarly

The trail passed through a subalpine forest of gnarly, burled trees. Less than a mile up the trail we crossed the boundary into Olympic National Park. Somewhere close by was a long-gone camp called Cedar Springs which appeared on a 1940’s Metsker Map that a friend shared with me. Oh trail – what stories could you tell!

We were surprised on the trail by Bruce, a Seattle neighbor. Later his wife told me how much he enjoyed seeing our family backpacking together. So how do you convince college-age kids to go backpacking? Difficult question – I don’t have an easy answer. But I do know it was easy to explore the woods and the trails with Becca and Garrett when they were toddlers. Our children have been hiking since they could walk. When they were too tired we carried them in special kiddie backpacks. To kids with years of trail experience, forests don’t seem foreign or mountains daunting. Our summers included camping adventures, usually to a National Park. Now my son backpacks with friends and my daughter just climbed 13,671 foot Mt. Toubkal in Morocco on a weekend outing with her fellow international students. So parents of young children take note: the only way I know to get your kids to go backpacking with you when they’re in college is to have always taken them backpacking.

Last bit of forest

Last bit of forest

The trail wound up the south side of the canyon. There were plenty of opportunities to refill water bottles along the way. We broke out of the sub-alpine forest into loose scree and snowfields. As we approached Home Lake, the trail turned steep as it switched to the north side of the canyon. We ate our lunch on the shore of the pretty blue-green pond. Many describe it as a tarn but that seems like someplace in Scotland to me.

The trail from above Home Lake was steep and muddy in places as it shared the path with a small stream. Above tree line we encountered steep snowfields. We walked slowly, sharing our two pairs of hiking poles, stabbing them into the uphill snow. A final push straight up and we were standing at Constance Pass.

If you like a good love story then you might enjoy this. Back in 1853 in a swirl of devotion and perhaps loneliness, wilderness surveyor George Davidson named Mount Constance (and hence the pass) after his girlfriend’s sister, Constance Fauntleroy; the twin peaks to the south he named The Brothers, after well, her brothers, and Mt Ellinor after the girlfriend herself. Did that ultimate in namedropping do the trick? I’m happy to report that a year later Ellinor and George were married. More is at the University of Washington library.

Constance Pass

Constance Pass

We reached Constance Pass a bit before 2pm. We rested and enjoyed the serenity. The clouds obscured the view to the south and west, but behind us we could see far down the headwaters of the Dungeness from where we had come. Trisha watched an eagle soar below us, seeing the top of the bird instead of the usual underside view. Though we looked and listened we didn’t hear or see any marmots.

We were back at Boulder Camp by around 4:30. We sat around in the sun, having left the clouds behind on the pass. Over dinner we took turns telling stories, listening and laughing. Dusk came early. We collected a pile of branches and then gathered around a tiny fire, feeding it one twig at a time. My wife and I told tales of college days past and the kids speculated on college times to come. Our son of few words pronounced the evening, “S’good.”

Goofing around the campfire

Goofing around the campfire

It turned cold quickly a mile up in the Olympic Mountains. Our kids’ advice for fellow teen-agers – be sure to pack long underwear. Trisha said she’d add light-weight gloves and an inflatable pillow or two. It must have been in the low forties by morning. We lounged around sipping coffee and cocoa, waiting for the sun to crest the high ridges. By the time we warmed up and packed up it was mid morning.

On the way back to our car we met a man named Sam Baker running along the trail. Sam is 73 years old! Sam first hiked in Olympic National Park with his family when he was 12 years old in back in 1951. He said the trails look the same today, just worn a little deeper into the earth. Trisha and my hope for our children is that they are backpacking in our National Parks with their children someday or perhaps even running the trails when they are grandparents. “Isn’t this great country?” Sam said.

Our family agreed.

To get to the Upper Big Quilcene 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 of FS #2750 drive for 4.7 miles to Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead
  • Don’t forget your National Forest Service Recreation Pass!

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