Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 30 miles – Time out: 3 days
Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Highest Elevation: 6,773 ft.
Pet Friendly: No
July 30th 2013
This backpacking adventure will take you into the interior of Olympic National Park. Starting at Slab Creek and ending at Deer Park is a 30 mile adventure that will take you over two mountain passes. It’s not easy and our family ran into some unexpected obstacles. It’s not easy getting three college kids with busy summers together for a three-day wilderness outing, but after much planning, convincing, cajoling, rescheduling and compromising, the morning of our annual family outdoor adventure arrived. We drove to the Slab Camp Trailhead and at 8am slid on our backpacks. My wife Trisha lifted her pack gingerly; she had managed to remain active even with a decade-old back injury. My son Garrett, winced as he slid into his hiking boots; he had a broken toe. Nonetheless, Garrett and Trisha, along with my nephew Nate, set the pace. Bringing up the rear, my daughter Becca and I chatted about past adventures, but I was too anxious to talk much about this year’s hike; the most difficult backpacking journey I had ever planned for my family.
We hiked though rhododendrons that must have looked beautiful when they bloomed earlier in the summer. We brushed aside Horsetail fronds that were overhanging the trail. Olympic National Park botanist Joshua Chenoweth told me that it was, “Probably field horsetail (Equisetum arvense). It is not a flowering plant but a spore-producing plant in the fern family… A very ancient plant.” For a hundred million years Equisetum, ruled the understory of ancient Paleozoic forests. Unchanged, horsetail today is known as a living fossil.
We descended through a second-growth forest draped in Spanish Moss. The three mile long trail dropped a thousand feet in a succession of steep inclines and gravely flats. Rowland W. Tabor, Geologist Emeritus at the United States Geological Survey, notes in his book Geology of Olympic National Park that these flat moraines were left after ice age glaciers spilled down Slab Camp Creek. At the bottom of the valley was a long iron-beam bridge that spanned the rushing Gray Wolf River. I had hiked the Slab Camp Trail before, but this time instead of returning to the trailhead, at 9:00am we crossed the bridge, and at 1,450 feet in elevation, we began our journey up the Gray Wolf River valley.
Though we had the trail to ourselves, we were walking paths that humans have been walking for thousands of years. In the Sequim Valley below was the prehistoric site where stone-age hunters butchered a mastodon. Kim Kwarsick, Olympic National Park archeologist, said we were near another interesting site. “In the vicinity of Slab Camp there is a large lithic scatter,” she said. “It was tested by an archeologist a few decades ago. He found something at the bottom of his test pits that is not often found in archeological sites on the Olympic Peninsula: Mazama Ash. He continued to find artifacts below undisturbed Mazama Ash which means the site pre-dates the eruption of Mount Mazama. This eruption is well dated and occurred nearly 8,000 years ago, making this archeological site pretty old.”
Hunting with stone-age weapons must have been pretty difficult, I thought as we climbed the south side of the valley. Where we met buttresses of green basalt, the trail was hacked into the solid rock. As I walked the narrow path, the fingertips of my left hand traced smooth, pillowy cliffs. Dr. Tabor said that these rounded shapes indicated an eruption had occurred under water and had spread out over the sea floor millions of years ago. Because of the unimaginable forces of colliding plate tectonics over an incomprehensible length of time, this former ocean floor now stood on its edge, high along the valley wall.
All around, the soil was thin and the forest spindly. We crossed a rockslide and found the scars of a long- ago forest fire. Five miles upstream from the Gray Wolf River Bridge, we dropped down to Three Forks, the confluence of the Gray Wolf River, Grand Creek and Cameron Creek. Here, the fir trees were big and the valley cool. We ate lunch, stretched out on the soft moss, and with the soothing sound of falling water surrounding us, fell asleep.
After our nap we poked around the Three Forks shelter. While I was admiring the restoration of the 1930’s era construction, Becca lifted the hiking boot on her right foot and said, “Dad, I have a problem.” The sole of her boot had completely detached from the uppers, except for an inch wide-section at the toe. I was horrified when Becca lifted her heel and walked; the sole flapped like a beach sandal and I could see her entire stocking-covered foot. A few more steps and the sole would probably fall off completely and Becca’s right foot would be shoeless in the middle of the wilderness. We had two days of hiking and two mountain passes to climb. With all my heart, I wanted a new pair of boots to suddenly appear, because with Becca’s old and broken boots our trip was over. Resigned to our fate, I focused on a temporary boot repair that would allow us to retrace our steps and return to the trailhead. Duct tape wasn’t a solution; the rough trail would wear through it instantly. I was thinking about using pack straps, vines and other crazy materials when I looked up at the wall at the Three Forks shelter. There, hanging on a nail was a shiny white coil of polypropylene twine – the one material that could save our hiking trip.
Polypropylene twine doesn’t break when it wears down; it separates into ever smaller strands of tough material. I was hopeful that the twine would create not just a temporary repair for returning, but a more permanent repair that would allow us to continue our hike. With Becca’s foot inside, I lashed the sole back to the boot’s uppers by winding the strong twine round and round in a figure eight. I cinched the whole snarl down tightly and knotted off the ends. Becca took a few tenuous steps on the ridiculous looking mess, and with the bravery she’s shown since she could walk, my daughter said no to turning back. I said a silent thank you to whoever left that twine. As the man once said, you don’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.
With the energy that a second chance provides, we chatted and kept a lively pace up the valley and we never met another hiker all day; it was the splashing stream that kept us company. I enjoyed this shady valley with its white water falling into deep-green pools. We easily crossed the river twice on footbridges, but since no trail maintenance had been done on the rest of this little-used trail, there were many fallen trees that we straddled, crawled under and climbed over. The spider webs were so prolific that Nate and Garrett took turns walking ahead with a forked stick that they twirled in front of their faces, trying to keep off the spiders. Garrett said, “There was like a thousand spider webs in your face even with waving the stick around. Nate and I had to switch off every ten minutes because we hated to be in front.” In no time the forked stick would be wound thick with spider silk, as if the boys were making white cotton candy.
We hiked all afternoon and kept up our energy by eating the salmon berries and blueberries growing along the trail. As the afternoon turned into early evening, we had already hiked a dozen miles. The sun had set over the rim and the valley was in shadows. Trisha loves hiking along open alpine trails in the sunshine, and so she was especially tired of crawling under logs and brushing spider webs from her face in the gloom. In planning this year’s backpacking trip, I had told Trisha that much of our hiking would be high above the trees in the sunshine, but that was on the trail in the days ahead. When I said there were two more miles to reach our goal of the Lower Cameron Creek Shelter, Trisha exclaimed, “You misled us! I’m tired and want to be camping out in the open, not in a buggy valley!”
We’d been hiking for ten hours and Trisha said she wasn’t going any further because right in front of us was a small table of flat ground. There was a fire-ring along with a pile of dry wood, but best of all, there were no insects. A soft-brown doe stood there watching us. This perfect campsite was just what we needed. We shooed away the doe, put up our tents and made dinner. Garrett lit a cheery fire. Becca reflected on being in the wilderness together, “I enjoy the little things more – sitting around the fire, food and lively conversation. This is a special time.” We turned in and all was quiet except for tumbling Cameron Creek.
In 1899, Amos B. Cameron claimed a homestead up on Blue Mountain, half a dozen miles north of our campsite, where he and his wife Sarah raised fourteen children. Supporting a large family on a hillside homestead must have been difficult. In the Sequim Pioneer Family Histories, Eleanor Cameron Campbell said that her grandfather hunted and trapped in what is now Olympic National Park. “A.B., as Granddad was known, turned to bounty hunting of wolves and cougars and guiding out-of-state hunters to support his family.” Eleanor said. “The Cameron sons helped with the guiding. When the boys finished chores for the camp, they returned home again by foot and often in the dark.”
The next morning, after a good night’s sleep and coffee with toasted bagels for breakfast, we broke camp. I lashed Becca’s foot, boot and sole together, Garrett said his broken toe was ok, and after sliding into her backpack, Trisha gave a thumbs-up regarding the condition of her back, and so we continued our hike up the Cameron Creek Valley. In a mile or so we ran into what was left of the Lower Cameron Creek Shelter – just a jumble of a few bleached logs, half-hidden in bug-infested bushes. Trisha jeered me for trying to make this place our destination last night. When you are hiking in the unknown, it’s difficult to discern the correct decision, but wise to listen to your wife.
For the next couple of miles we continued up the north side of the valley a few hundred feet above Cameron Creek, alternating through forests and large open swaths of green grasses and wild flowers that were growing upon long-ago landslides. We saw plenty of marmot dens but didn’t hear any marmot whistles. The boys, with their long legs and youthful strides, sped on ahead and waited for us at the junction of the Grand Pass trail.
When we all stood together at the Grand Pass trail junction, we were at 4,200 feet. We had gained only 2,750 feet in our 12-mile leisurely stroll up the river valley, but in front of us, this very steep trail up to Grand Pass gained 2,250 feet in only 1.8 miles. We plodded on slowly. It was difficult to catch my breath. When we finally cleared the last of the sub-alpine forest, just below the headwall of the pass, a magnificent, curving vista of wildflowers, green grasses, grey cliffs and blue sky towered in front of us. Over our shoulders and across the valley was snowy Mt. Cameron and somewhere beyond that, the headwaters of Cameron Creek at Cameron Pass. It was in the middle of this impossibly stunning scenery that we sat down on a rocky outcropping and ate lunch. Thousands of purple Lupine blossoms perfumed the thin air. Gone was the shadowy valley in which we had been hiking for a day and a half; this was the soaring alpine setting that my wife adored.
Beauty has its price. The last ½ mile of the trail was one long and even steeper incline. We toiled up the slope and at 3pm our family stood at 6,450 feet on the narrow lip of Grand Pass. Behind us was the thickly forested Cameron Creek Valley, while in front of us a rocky path led down over the ice and snowfields. We stepped off Grand Pass and left Cameron Creek behind, but not the history of the Cameron Clan. Back in the opening years of the 1900s, while A. B. Cameron was supporting the family trapping, hunting, fishing and guiding through this area, he was also naming what he found. There was a string of lakes in the valley below us. “Moose, Gladys and Etta Lakes (now Grand Lake) were named for friends from Pennsylvania,” said granddaughter Eleanor.
We picked our way carefully down off the pass; tripping while walking uphill was just a stumble onto the slope, but tripping while rambling down the steep trail could end in a bouncing, bone-breaking tumble. Trisha said, “Hiking poles are a godsend. They make all the difference. If I start to slide they protect my back.” Garrett slowed too. He said, “It hurts more going downhill. My big toe is jamming in my boot.” I walked behind Becca watching the sole of her ragged boot as she stepped carefully over the loose gravel, ice and snow. The twine was unraveling. When we stopped at a pool on the edge of a melting snowfield to fill our water bottles, I asked Becca to sit while I re-tightened the lashings. “This isn’t an easy vacation,” said Becca.
On May 25, 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first and only blind person to climb to the summit of Mt. Everest. Erik has gone on to climb the tallest mountains on each of the world’s seven continents and currently he’s tackling the improbable task of sightless whitewater kayaking. I was fortunate to meet Erik at a recent conference in Las Vegas. Erik said, “I hate it when people tell me anything is possible. That just takes away all that it takes to confront barriers that want to knock us flat and prevent us from living a life that matters. If anything is possible why aren’t I racing NASCAR? I think barriers are very real.”
Garrett confronted the pain of his broken toe by sitting on the top of a snowfield and glissading down the slope, while the rest of us carefully treaded along the hard-packed path in the snow. We climbed down the barren headwall of exposed rock and ice and stepped over diminutive Subalpine Firs. In lower altitudes, these firs grow straight upward with slender trunks and perfect pointed crowns reaching fifty feet, but here exposed to freezing gales, the tough little trees adjusted to those setbacks the only way they could, by slowly spreading their branches along the ground.
At the Las Vegas conference Erik told us about being a teenager, adjusting to his blindness from a rare eye disease. Erik said, “There is something inside of us. At the time I could only describe it as a light; a light that seemed to be able to feed on frustration and on setbacks – to use those setbacks as fuel. The greater the challenge the brighter that light seemed to burn. I hoped that light existed in me. And whether I could use it in my life to be creative, focused and driven; to turn into the storm of life and emerge on the other side, not just unscathed, and not damaged as little as possible, but actually stronger and better. And it was a few weeks after that I got the newsletter in brail of a group taking blind kids rock-climbing.”
Our family continued climbing down the rocky slope of Grand Pass. Soon the melting snowfields had joined together into a tumbling stream. We passed green moss, shrubs and then stands of thirty-foot tall subalpine fir trees. We had reached lush Grand Valley. I’d hiked through here to Grand Pass a couple of years ago, and the scenery was just as beautiful as I remembered. The valley was a string of blue lakes, edged with conifer forests and meadows filled with wildflowers. We met our first and only marmot of the hike. The fat animal was sunning itself on a big rock along the trail and wouldn’t move until we were almost upon it. We kept on hiking until 6pm, when we finally reached our campsite on the shores of Grand Lake. We prepared a quick dinner and watched the antics of a fellow camper chasing a deer through the meadow. The camper, barefoot and dressed only in a pair of pants, was yelling and running while the deer bounded away with a stolen shirt clenched in its teeth.
The next morning we were on the trail by 8am. The trail skirted Grand Lake and when we crossed Grand Creek for the last time and climbed a steep switchback, we left Grand Valley behind. We were ascending the north shoulder of Badger Valley. The weather was perfect, but the morning wasn’t going well for us. The twine holding Becca’s sole to her shoe was now badly frayed. We tried wrapping duct tape over the twine, but the rocky trail just scraped the tape away. Trisha’s back ached all night and she slept poorly. I told the family about the difficult climb we had in store for us up 6,700 foot Elk Mountain. Trisha shouted, “You didn’t tell us this was some kind of endurance test!”
We climbed above the spindly forest and through a series of sunny meadows where we stopped at the trail junction. We stood at 5,300 feet in the green grass at the head of Badger Valley. Behind us to the south was Grand Valley and the last of the snowy ramparts we crossed yesterday. In front of us to the north was Elk Mountain, a long grassy ridge dotted with firs. Above us to the northwest was Obstruction Point, where in 1993 a family was hiking along the edge of a melting snowfield when something caught their eye. Warm weather had melted back the permanent snowfield and exposed a small piece of weaving that might have been a basket, a mat, or a piece of clothing. It was 2,900 years old. Recently Gay Hunter, the Park’s museum curator, allowed me to see this fist-sized piece of loose-weaved twigs. Gay thought it was either spruce or cedar or possibly a combination of both. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that long-ago Native American clan here at the head of Badger Valley where we stood, moving fast so as to find enough berries to fill their baskets and their bellies.
I wondered if any of the individuals in that clan breathed as hard as I did while ascending the trail up the side of Elk Mountain. The boys were way out in front while I huffed and puffed at the rear. We climbed past bunches of purple Lupine and Queen Ann Lace. Note: There wasn’t any water on the climb up Elk Mountain, so be sure to fill up before you leave Badger Valley. The trail turned diagonally up Elk Mountain, which was nice because while we were shuffling up the steep incline, over our right shoulder, there was an ever expanding view of the valley below and snowy ridges beyond.
We dug deep into our energy stores and at 1pm Trisha, Becca and I reached the 6,773 foot summit of Elk Mountain. The boys were waiting for us, sitting there with shirts off and enjoying the sun. This was the highest elevation of our trip and our last big climb. We sat down and enjoyed lunch, the view and the feeling of accomplishment. My usually silent and stoic nephew Nate was expansive. Nate reflected that the backcountry, “…strips me down to my bare essentials. It gives me a greater appreciation for everything I have. I look at things differently, people differently. In the wilderness I’m not trapped in a pre-shaped society. I am myself and it gives life a whole new meaning.”
At Elk Mountain we intersected the Grand Ridge trail and headed east to Deer Park. For a couple of miles the trail remained above 6,000 feet, well above tree line. My wife thought the trail was spectacular. I agreed. I had hiked the Grand Ridge Trail with the Klahhane Club earlier this summer and this was one of my favorite trails in the Park. The path itself was barren, sprinkled with tufts of grass and bunches of ground-hugging heather, but on all sides of us were vast views of peak after snowy peak. Below us was the forested Grand Creek Valley. Far in the hazy distance two other valleys joined Grand Creek. This was Three Forks where we stopped for lunch on our first afternoon. It seemed amazing that we covered so much distance in just three days.
The Grand Ridge Trail lost altitude after we passed the shoulder of Maiden Peak and we re-entered the forest. Deer Park and the end of our journey was just a couple of miles ahead. Becca and I brought up the rear. We were both tired and we began to argue. Becca accused me of planning too demanding a backpacking trip while keeping our family in the dark.
Erik Weihenmayer said, “It doesn’t matter if we are blind or not, we are all reaching into darkness. We’re hoping, praying predicting and calculating that all our measures and algorithms and charts and graphs will lead us to believe we are going to find what we are looking for. But we understand there is no guarantee. It’s that moment where we’ve reached out with our minds and our bodies. We committed to the reach. We know it’s almost impossible to turn back. I think those fears are overwhelming; the fear of flopping on our face, of making a mistake that affects the team and so many others, the fear that we are not as good at something as we want to be, the fear that as we get older, we’ve climbed as high as we can go and there is nowhere else to go but down. I think those fears conspire against us and they paralyze us.”
I thought about the misgivings our family had on this backpacking trip. I thought about the uncertainties in the brutal lives of the Neolithic hunters who had sat around the fire at Slab Camp, the unknown challenges faced by the tribe of Native Americans looking for berries to fill their basket on Obstruction Point, or the worries Amos Cameron shouldered while he hunted, trapped and fished in the Cameron Creek valley so his family would have enough to eat.
“Life is an ongoing, never-ending process of reaching out into the darkness where we don’t know exactly what we’ll find,” Erik Weihenmayer concluded. “We’re constantly reaching toward immense possibilities. They’re always unseen, yet they are sensed. While so many allow the darkness to paralyze them, I reached out that day, like you reach out every day and it has led to great adventures.”
The threadbare lashing holding Becca’s old boot together held. Our family had overcome barriers and doubts and we completed our difficult backpacking adventure. The obstacles weren’t huge compared to what many of us face daily with poor health, economic problems and personal tragedy, but as Erik pointed out, any barrier can be real enough. Our family made the blind reach and the challenges made us stronger; a good lesson for daily living. When we reached our car, hot and thirsty, one of my wonderful employees had left us a cooler of ice cold beer. Not all of the unknown and unexpected is difficult to swallow.
To reach the trailhead at Deer Park from the Holiday Inn Express, Sequim:
- Take highway 101 west for ten miles
- Turn left on to Deer Park Road
- Drive 16 miles up to the Deer Park Campground at the end of the road.
- The trailhead is fifty feet back down the road
Note: You can hike this trail as a loop by adding an extra day, continuing from Deep Park back to Slab Creek or you can hike it in a loop with one day less if you begin and end at Deer Park
The thumbnail images below can be viewed as a slide show, just click on an image to start slideshow. Click or tap on the right or left side of the image to view the next or previous image. Click or tap outside the slideshow image and the slideshow will close.
To “Pin” an image, click the “Pin It” button and select image from list.