Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Roundtrip Distance: 27 miles – Time out: Three days
Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Elevation Gain: 1472 ft.
Pet Friendly: No
April 24th 2013
My friend Donovan had been touting the Enchanted Valley in Olympic National Park to me for a couple of years. Donovan is a former park ranger and we serve together on the board of the Washington’s National Parks Fund. Finally we agreed on a date, which luckily, was during an unusually warm and sunny spell of early spring weather. I found the Enchanted Valley a combination of improbable beauty and interesting history. My favorite type of adventure!
The trailhead began at Graves Creek about 15 miles northeast of Lake Quinault. For the first couple of miles we backpacked along an abandoned roadbed. The trail was wide and firm. At the top of the hill, a brush-filled parking lot and a rotting picnic table hinted that this was the end of the old road. A half mile of downhill brought us to Pony Bridge and the East Fork of the Quinault River. After we crossed the bridge, we stopped in the sunshine next to a deep blue pool. Fir scented breezes blew gently up the valley. I worked my shoulder out of my straps, sat down and rested against my pack on the soft moss.
In the lowland Olympics it’s difficult to identify rock formations because thick vegetation covers everything, but at Pony Bridge the river has scoured the sides of the canyon. The canyon walls are confusing layers of shale standing vertically. I didn’t understand how the Olympics were formed until I read “The Geology of the Olympic National Park” by Rowland W. Tabor. According to Tabor the Olympics are not an elongated mountain range like the Cascades, but instead are an uplifted central mastiff folded and eroded over time. Mt. Olympus squats more or less in the center of the mastiff and all the major rivers like the Quinault radiate out from Olympus like spokes on a wheel.
The rest of the trail to the Enchanted Valley was a gently rising grade along the river valley. By mid-morning we had carefully crossed Fire Creek on a flattened log and walked into a stand of bare hardwood trees. Last autumn’s leaves, baking in the hot sun, crunched under our feet, while the knobby trees reached skyward in unique contortions; this was much different than the sameness of the fir and cedar forest.
At O’Neil Creek, named for the famous Peninsula explorer Lt. Joseph P. O’Neil, we turned off the trail. Donovan had me searching for the remains of an old trapper’s cabin. Though we didn’t find the cabin, the legacy of the trapper’s work was apparent. The beaver had been effectively removed from this upper valley. My family has been trappers for three generations back in New Hampshire, so when I say I didn’t see any beaver, there weren’t any around.
O’Neil and his well-documented expedition of 1890 weren’t the first people to explore this valley; for thousands of years Native Americans must have hunted here and for hundreds of years the valley must have been the backyard of trappers, hunters and miners. Everyone wants to go back in time to meet famous people; I’d like to chat with an ice-age hunter or mountain man running a trap line in the Quinault Valley. It’s fortunate for Lt. O’Neil that these early voyagers didn’t leave a record; otherwise O’Neil’s well-documented expeditions would have been nothing more than footnotes.
Late afternoon we camped at Pyrites Creek, ten miles from the trailhead and three miles below the Enchanted Valley. We saw a black bear and one of the Roosevelt Elk herds. Donovan and I were blessed with balmy weather during the day and a clear sky at night. After dinner we sat around our fire. Donovan told stories of his days as a park ranger. Along the west ridge of the valley the snowy peak of Muncaster Mountain glowed white, announcing the coming of the moon. At 10pm the fat moon rose over the eastern ridge and up into the stars.
The moon was so beautiful that Donovan slept outside in his new bivouac bag and I left the fly off the top of the tent. I woke at intervals, bathed in silvery light, tracking the moon as it glided along the ridge and finally dropped out of sight in the early morning. Heavy dew soaked my down sleeping bag and I was cold, but the spectacle was worth it. Were others who had visited here also as deeply moved by this beauty and splendor? Did they ask, like me, “Who laid its cornerstone— while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
Donovan brought me back down to earth the next morning while I warmed myself with black coffee and hot oatmeal. Donovan said that not everybody who had camped at this spot was as rapturous as me. We were sitting at Camp Odamit. This camp was named by O’Neil and his men who had hacked a mule trail up the steep, eastern ridge above Hood Canal, over a confusing ring of mountains and down the precipitous East Fork valley to where Donovan and I sat eating breakfast. After two and a half months of wet, backbreaking road construction it’s easy to see why O’Neil and company weren’t pondering creation like me, but were saying, ‘Oh, damm it!’ instead.
After breakfast it was a short three miles to the Enchanted Valley. In the distance Mt. Anderson jutted from the upper end of the valley, its snow and ice shining in the morning sun. We left our camp, packing only a lunch and our snowshoes. The trail was an easy hike until deep snow blanketed the last mile of trail. We crossed a narrow footbridge over a gorge and snow-shoed into the mouth of the Enchanted Valley.
Sheer vertical cliffs shot up a thousand feet, their icy edges cutting a jagged line against the blue sky. Instead of a dense fir forest, sparse cottonwood trees and a broad carpet of snow gave the valley an impossibly open feel. Donovan looked at the valley with pride.
Rowland Tabor writes that the reason for the Enchanted Valley’s wide geological features is that a terminal moraine dammed a lake and the gravels from the melting glacier spread evenly on the lake bed. It was easy to see how this could happen. Donovan and I encountered an avalanche a few miles below the Enchanted Valley. We climbed over the twenty feet of hard packed snow and rock and looked down where the avalanche had temporarily dammed the river. Deep mounds of gravel fanned over the riverbed. Now imagine the depth of the gravel behind a moraine that dammed a glacier valley for years instead of days.
After we ate lunch Donovan wanted me to see “the show.” We sat with our backs against an old cottonwood, warm sunshine on our faces, as Donovan pointed to the west ridge. High above, snow surged out of a canyon with the roar of a jet plane. With a pulsating motion the avalanche leaped down from ledge to ledge, disappearing and reappearing as it crashed down though the deep folds of the canyon. Every fifteen minutes or so another avalanche reverberated down the ridge through a different canyon. I have never seen a show like it.
The avalanche show was unique, but bordering on the surreal was what stood in the middle of the broad valley; an eighty year-old, two-story, log hotel – the Enchanted Valley Chalet. Gay Hunter, Museum Curator for Olympic National Park sent me a copy of a sixty year old, typewritten manuscript titled ‘Enchanted Valley and its Chalet’. It was written by Raymond Geerdes, a seasonal Olympic National Park Ranger.
According to Geerdes, the Enchanted Valley was surveyed in 1928. The construction plan that followed had all the hubris of the ‘Roaring 20s’. The plan included not just a chalet, but also an administrative building, gardens, pasture, stables, public campground, power plant and even an airfield. A trans-peninsula highway, the ultimate expression of Lt. O’Neil’s mule-trail building efforts, would be routed up the Quinault and along the east wall of the valley. Thankfully, the Great Depression and the creation of Olympic National Park ended those outrageous notions. Just in time too; highway surveyors had already worked their way up the Quinault Valley and reached as far as lower O’Neil Creek.
Construction projects were cancelled as the country adjusted to the dark economic reality of the Great Depression, but the dream of a chalet in Enchanted Valley didn’t die. A commercial company was created that hopefully would make money from paying guests. Building the chalet was part of larger safety concerns according to Olympic Forest Administrator F.W. Cleator. In 1929, Cleator said the public demanded a large part of the Olympic Mountains should remain a wilderness, “but still not be left to itself as a menace to the storm-ridden traveler and a graveyard for the inexperienced.”
Cleator got his wish and then some. The Enchanted Valley Chalet, completed in 1931, wasn’t just some low-slung shelter from the rain and snow. The 1984 ONP Wilderness plan gushes, “This two-story, hewn log structure… displays skilled craftsmanship and possesses high artistic value. It is the only known log structure of its size and scale on the Olympic Peninsula today.”
The Enchanted Valley Chalet was never the successful commercial venture that was envisioned, but Donovan says that over the decades since it was built, the chalet sheltered many hikers. When he first saw the Chalet, a wet Raymond Geerdes said, “Suddenly the mists parted and across the river in a park-like meadow of alder and cottonwood stood the chalet, silent, imposing and mysterious. I was very happy to see it and especially to see smoke rising from the chimney.”
Geerdes isn’t the only person to fall in love with the Enchanted Valley Chalet. Over the years many have come to its rescue. In 1985, The Olympians hiking club, under the project leadership of Annie Moisanen, completed a major remodel. More work has been done since then. When I sat there on the chalet’s front porch with Donovan, we were shaded from the hot sun by a porch roof that had recently been replaced.
Today Olympic National Park has locked the doors and shuttered the windows of the Enchanted Valley Chalet, because as Geerdes says, “The purpose of the National Park Service was to reserve the area intact as wilderness in character.” Donovan and I walked around the back of the chalet. There was a windowless room lined with plywood that was, in a nod to F. W. Cleator, open, “for emergency use only.” Back outside, along the opposite corner of the building, the Quinault was eating away the riverbank and rushing dangerously close to the chalet. While Donovan talked sadly about the end of such a wonderful and historic building, I bent down and picked up a silver fork that was sticking out of the ground. The fancy dinner utensil was probably used by guests at the Chalet. It was embossed with a stylized pattern of an Indian arrowhead.
Today there are no real Indian arrowheads or any other hints of the Native Americans, prehistoric humans, mountain men, or Lt. O’Neil’s explorers that probably visited here. They are gone without a trace, and if the river has its way and nothing is done, the Enchanted Valley Chalet will disappear too.
Thankfully, because of its wilderness designation, the valley that geologist Tabor described will always remain the way it is. I was grateful that Donovan showed me this stunning place. Ranger Raymond Geerdes wrote that as he was leaving on his last visit, “The awesome beauty caused me to stop in silent admiration as a thousand stars twinkled over the hulking, jagged peaks and the murmurs of cascades added its music. One could not help but be deeply moved by this beauty and splendor of God’s world. This is truly an enchanted place.”
To reach the trailhead:
- Drive to Lake Quinault at the Southern end of Olympic National Park.
- Take the South Shore Road to the Graves Creek/East Fork Quinault River trailhead.
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