Seven Lakes Basin Backpacking Adventure
By Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 20 miles Time out: 3 days
Degree of Difficulty: Moderate Elevation: 5,000 ft. Pet Friendly: No
Join Trish and I as we backpack the Seven Lakes Basin loop in the rugged Olympic National Park wilderness. Never been backpacking before? We’ll provide tips and tricks along with some great advice from local experts. We’ll post every three days. The Seven Lakes Basin loop hike is around twenty miles. There are some who power hike it in one very long day and we even met athletes who were running the entire trail. But the natural beauty of the Seven Lakes Basin loop is best savored over three or four days. Are you all stretched and limbered up? Backpack on? Ok. Let’s go!
Been providing hospitality for over 80 years—not that grizzly old hotel owner, but the Canyon Creek Shelter. Just a mile from the trail head you’ll find the Canyon Creek Shelter. Built in 1939, today it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The shelter might seem a bit dark and damp on a sunny day, but imagine coming upon this shelter in a cold driving rain or snowstorm and being greeted by the comradery of fellow hikers as they urge you to remove your wet wool clothes and join them by the crackling fire in the vestibule. The shelter was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. President Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the CCC because he believed in the spiritual and physical values in working surrounded by nature. Want this same experience of working in the outdoors today? You can sign up for a fun and rewarding volunteer working vacation repairing hiking trails. More at https://www.wta.org/volunteer/schedule
The terminus for migrating salmon and the beginning of our Seven Lakes Basin backpacking adventure is where the Sol Duc river thunders through this ancient defile. Trisha and I attempted to capture this iconic Olympic National Park scene, but our photos were not nearly as beautiful as this image that veteran Olympic Peninsula photographer, and our friend, Ross Hamilton let us post. Hamilton’s straightforward style celebrates a natural beauty that can’t be improved upon, so much so that Hamilton calls himself a ‘copy boy’ for the Creator’s art. When Trisha designed our Sequim Quality Inn, she made sure that Ross Hamilton prints hung throughout. More at https://www.rosshamiltonphotography.com/index.html
Though there is no record of settlements this far up the Sol-Duc River Valley, humans have been traveling through these mountains for thousands of years. ONP archeologists have uncovered high elevation campsites elsewhere, including a cache of stone tools positively dated to at least 7,600 years ago at Slab Camp. A Quinault woman once told of a sacred valley in the heart of the Olympic Mountains where Natives would lay down their weapons and their nations gather in peace every year, until the jealous giant Seatco became angry. He tore up the forest by the roots and caused the mountains themselves to tremble and shake. And here Trisha and I were worried about a little rain. From Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella E. Clark.
Before considering food or clothing let’s look at basic equipment. Your home (tent, pad, sleeping bag, pillow and solar lamp), kitchen (stove, fuel, cup, bowl spoon), emergency kit (first-aid, multi-function knife, matches, lighter, fire starter, headlamp, extra batteries), creature comforts, (toilet paper and shovel, bug repellent, sun screen, deck of cards or book, tooth brush, comb), hydration system (bottles or bladder, purification pump or drops) and backpack should weigh in at around 15 lbs.
Have I missed anything? I did, and though not apparent, it would be critically needed latter on in our adventure.
New to backpacking? One of the handy trends in outdoor recreation equipment is the ability to rent what you need. At REI you can rent a ‘lightweight backpacking kit’ for two for the weekend that includes almost all of what is listed above for $160.00.
You can check out really cool, ultra-lightweight gear at my friend, Barefoot Jake’s store in Forks, WA or at https://luxe-hiking-gear.com/
Your decision at Sol Duc Falls will be to hike the Seven Lakes Basin loop clockwise or counterclockwise. The trail into Deer Lake is steep, rocky and rugged while Sol Duc Valley is long, wooded and soft, so we opted to climb to Deer Lake first and hike in a counterclockwise direction saving the magnificent old-growth forest for the end of the hike. No matter which way you travel, make sure you go to Recreation.gov to get your backpacking permit and campsite reservation before you go. Book early. The Seven Lakes Basin is a popular destination and Olympic National Park has strict rules on where you can camp.
A fording while backpacking doesn’t mean something you can purchase within your price range, but instead the crossing the flowing waters of Olympic National Park. Though we packed water shoes (old sneakers work well) we never had to take off our hiking boots and use them thanks to the ingenuity and creativity in which the National Park Service bridged the myriad of swampy bogs, tumbling streams and rushing rivers. Thank you, ONP maintenance crew and volunteers.
Remember, you can’t be affording to carry too much weight if you want to comfortably backpack so pack judiciously. More on that later.
She’s gnarly. No not this lovely backpacker, but the roots of this old tree at the shores of Deer Lake. We gained about 1,700 feet in the four-mile climb to our designated campsite. It was a pleasant evening but no campfire as we were above 3,000 feet. Before we retired for the night, we store away our clothes and cached our food far from out tent. Never store your food in or near tent. Bears aren’t as big a threat at Deer Lake as in other areas of the Olympics or other National Parks, here it’s more likely you’ll find a hungry rodent has chewed a hole in your expensive tent.
And now a word from our sponsor. No matter if you carry a backpack or pull an over-sized roller bag, let the Quality Inn, Sequim be your base camp for all your Peninsula adventures. Reserve one of our Olympic National Park theme rooms and you’ll fall sleep under the stars as you smell the forest and hear babbling streams.
What to wear? Hopefully you will have pleasant hiking weather, but it rains and snows much in the Olympics, so you need to prepare for that. Test out comfortable foot gear. REI has an indoor hiking arena where you can try out your footwear.
As for the rest of your clothing it will be worn in layers; an outer, mid and base layer. The base layer is what is next to your skin. It will wick away your perspiration. A neckerchief or buff around your neck helps too. Undergarments come in various thickness and material depending on the season. Purchase quality wool hiking socks. Pack one extra set of socks and undergarments. The mid layer is what is added or removed when you are hot or cold. In the summer wear fast-drying shirts and synthetic tops and shorts or pants, all lightweight and breathable. Finally, the outer layer is what will protect you from rain or snow and keep you dry. This includes a waterproof but breathable jacket and rain pants and a wide brimmed waterproof hat. I also pack a puffy down jacket, gloves and beanie cap for sleeping or just hanging out at camp on cold nights. Your extra clothes (and your sleeping bag) should be in a waterproof sack, or garbage bag. Your clothing sack should weigh no more than a few pounds.
Feeling overwhelmed? A great place to get totally outfitted for adventure clothing is Brown’s Outdoor in Port Angeles. They are a family business with superb customer service who hike in the Olympics all year long.
We reached the Seven Lakes Basin by noon. The trail ran along a narrow ridge. Directly behind us was the broad Hoh River valley, in front, hundreds of feet below, was the rocky floor of an expansive open amphitheater, a grey, lunar landscape dotted with numerous small tarns and “lakes.” The high, barren Seven Lakes Basin made for a stunning juxtaposition with the surrounding ridges of lush alpine heather, huckleberries and grasses.
But we modern visitors are not the only humans to enjoy all this beauty. According to ONP archaeologist David Conca, on the shores of one of those tarns below lies the firepit from a 5,000-year-old hunting camp. The discovery of sites like this one and the one at Slab Camp across the Elwha Valley are helping us to better understand the ancient uses of these mountainous regions and putting to rest the self-serving stories that they were unexplored and unexploited prior to Anglo-European expeditions. Just as Trisha and I were appreciative of all that surrounded us, so it must have been for the seasonal hunters or berry pickers camping in this spectacular basin long ago.
As we hiked along the High Divide ridge, we had spectacular views of Mount Olympus and Blue Glacier across the Hoh River valley. Mount Olympus is the tallest mountain in the park. I’ve, but it’s infrequently climbed because it takes two days just to reach basecamp. But did you know that a man once risked his life to climb that mountain over a $500 wager with a newspaper? Back in 1930, Herb Crisler was a guide and amateur photographer eking out a living on the Olympic Peninsula. When Crisler bragged to a Seattle Times reporter that he could survive in the Olympics alone for a month with nothing but an ice-axe and the clothes on his back, the reporter slapped $500 down with a caveat; Crisler would also need to summit Mount Olympus. Crisler confidently accepted the bet, but within weeks of wandering in the wilderness, he became weak on his diet of berries, frogs and a single marmot that he managed to club. To make matters worse, a terrible storm struck as he attempted to ascend Mount Olympus. Luckily, he found refuge below a rock wall at the head of Hoh Glacier and kindled a small fire just as his clothes began to freeze to his body. The next morning, Crisler summoned the last of his strength and summited Mount Olympus. Herb Crisler went on to film wildlife in the Olympics including, “The Olympic Elk,” one of the first wildlife adventure movies produced by the fledgling Walt Disney Studios, but Crisler never made another wager like the one that almost cost him his life on Mount Olympus.
On the High Divide we were surrounded by so much beauty; the mountains, the trees, the open meadows and many wildflowers. The air was sharp and clean scented of spruce. Trisha and I felt better just being out in the wilderness. But there is more to that feeling of well-being; a published study “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings,” saw a 50% increase in creativity and problem-solving from those who spent just a few days in a natural setting unplugged from electronics. Big test or project on the horizon? Backpack in Olympic National Park just before and you’ll ace it. Of course, you’ll have to explain to your colleagues why you smell like sweat and woodsmoke. More at https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
Trisha and I saw no mountain goats on our hike through the Seven Lakes Basin, but a few years ago with my son, Garrett, and Nephew, Nate, mountain goats like this one were a nuisance around our campsite. Worst was the swath of environmental damage caused by these non-native eating machines. Olympic National Park has already captured almost half of the estimated 700 goats and transferred them to the Cascades, where they’re welcomed back to their native home. There they will strengthen a dangerously shallow gene pool. So far, the goat removal program has been a great success story. More at https://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/mountain-goat-capture-and-translocation.htm
The remnants of glaciers are evident in the Seven Lakes Basin. This narrow ridge is called an arête. It’s created when two glaciers form back to back and erode their back-walls until they meet. This arete separates the watersheds of the Bogachiel, on Trisha’s left, and the Hoh, on her right. Look carefully at the photo, if a rooster laid an egg exactly where Trisha is standing, down which watershed would the egg roll?
Meals should be quick and simple for short backpacking adventures. For dinner we opt for freeze-dried packets that are prepared with boiling water and can be eaten right from the packet as Trisha is demonstrating here. We think they taste great. Though the label claims each packet feeds two, some dinners are so low in calories we each consume a whole packet. A bit of medicinal whiskey and dark chocolate rounds out the evening meal. Lunch is a wrap assembled with meat, cheese and coleslaw mix. We bring power bars or trail mix for in-between meal snacks. For breakfast, we enjoy Starbucks Via packets of hot coffee and instant oatmeal (mixed with berries from the trail if we’re lucky).
Pack your food in hard sided bear canisters. They are required in Olympic National Park and can be reserved then picked up at the visitor’s center in Port Angeles. Your three-day food supply should weigh around 5 lbs., your bear canister no more than 3 lbs.
While we carried all our food on our backs, the Seattle Mountaineers hiking club, when they ventured into the Olympics a century ago required pack horses to haul their tons of equipment and supplies. According to historian Robert L. Woods, “Never had climbers had ‘better or more elaborate meals’ served to them by smiling cooks who could create, ‘delicious pies, cakes and other delicacies’… Using a small oven and bonfire, the cooks baked bread every day and served multi-course meals to from forty to seventy-five hungry climbers. Occasionally, the participants dined on fresh beefsteak which had been brought in ‘on the hoof’ by driving livestock up the trail and butchering the animals in camp.” More at: http://exploreolympics.com/reports/?p=9308
As we walked along the knife edge of High Divide the expansive Hoh River Valley was far below. It was down in the Hoh back in 1916 that renown taxidermist C. J. Albrecht collected elk, cougar and other mammals for what he called, “the mother of all dioramas,” for his beloved Chicago Field Museum. All this including photos of Albrecht in the Hoh is in the book, High Divide – Minnie Peterson’s Olympic Mountain Adventures, by Gary L. Peterson and Glynda Peterson Schaad. So, when Trisha and I toured Chicago recently, we headed straight to the Field Museum. There, along with helpful staff, we searched and searched but could not find the diorama in the photo nor any record of its existence. Museum historian, Mark Alvey, called it, “a very intriguing mystery!”
The High Divide runs East-West, but here above Heart Lake we turned North and began descending. We were at the headwaters of the Sol Duc River. We had found no snow along the entire High Divide, but the trail can be covered with snow and ice late into the summer. Check with Wilderness Desk at Olympic National Park before you go. If it’s your first-time backpacking, I’d recommend hiking in late August. Otherwise you’ll need to pack crampons and an ice axe.
We left the open high meadows of the High Divide and the amphitheater of the Seven Lakes Basin behind and descended into the rain forest of the Sol Duc river valley. What we noticed immediately was the quietness. We’ve hiked in Cost Rica and in those forests are bursting with trilling birds, shrieking monkeys and buzzing insects. Here in the temperate rain forest the denizens are shy and reclusive. All we heard was the mumble of the Sol Duc River and the thud of our boots on the moist trail. Yet, from the needles of the fir trees that host microorganisms outward to the birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that hid just beyond the curtain of towering trees, the Sol Duc river valley was a riotous, albeit secretive, world of life.
Dinner around the campfire. It was late by the time we reached our campsite at Appleton Junction. We had enough time for to cook dinner and enjoy the campfire. We’d hiked a dozen miles, but as my naturalist mentor John Muir once said, “I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”? John Muir
My nephew Nate said that when he through-hiked the Appalachian Trail he and his hiking partner would roll out of their sleeping bags and be off and hiking in minutes. Trisha and I prefer the more leisurely approach to the morning on the trail with coffee and instant oatmeal. So, it was a bitter blow, on our last morning when my Jet-Boil stove proofed out with 2/3 of a canister of propane left. We felt fortunate in that we were just a few hours from the trailhead, but what if we had been halfway into our weeklong wilderness adventure? This catastrophic cooking failure has caused me to consider equipment redundancies.
When I returned home, I ordered this miniature backup stove. It burns with either 90% rubbing alcohol or 190 proof moonshine. Weight and space is at a premium in my backpack, so extra equipment must serve other functions and not just lie fallow until some future culinary crisis. The next adventure I’m bringing the backup stove with a bit of the moonshine. That way I can either burn the booze as backup fuel, rub it on my cuts, scrapes and bites for first-aid, or if the aspirin isn’t working, drink it as a backup pain reliever.
It was only four miles to the trailhead that morning. We were at the end of our Seven Lakes Basin hike but not of our Sol Duc vacation. Just down the road is the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. A soak in their natural hot springs pools is the perfect way to end your hike. The Natives that lived in this valley boasted of the curative powers of the hot, mineral-laden waters. You can purchase a day pass for around $15. As we steamed away our aches, most of the bathers we chatted with were from Europe where mineral baths are a cultural tradition. The water, heated deep in the earth, comes out of the ground at a scalding 160 degrees. It’s mixed with Sol Duc river so that the hottest pool is 109 degrees.
After a soak Trisha and I relaxed on the porch of our cabin in the afternoon sunshine. Our cabin had a kitchen, but we’d had enough of cooking on the trail. Dinner for us was pasta with wild mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes and blackened chicken paired with a hearty bottle of Washington State red wine in the Sol Duc Resort Restaurant. We found the pools were a bit crowded by the end of the day, so we rose early the next morning and soaked for an hour before the doors were opened to the public, just after the pools had been drained, scrubbed and refilled. Refreshed, Sol Duc Hot Springs was the perfect way to end our mini vacation. If you are considering staying at the resort after your Seven Lakes Basin hike, make your reservations early. The cabins sell out quickly.
We hope you enjoyed hiking—excuse me, John Muir—sauntering with us to the Seven Lakes Basin. Perhaps you have a taste of how enjoyable backpacking can be in the Olympics. Make your reservations early. Prepare for emergencies, but pack lightly. The total weight of your pack should be under 30 lbs., less if you are sharing the gear with another. We loved the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, but a great alternative base camp is Trisha and my hotel, the Quality Inn and Suites in Sequim. Pictures, like these, of our adventures on the Olympic Peninsula play in our lobby. Wave hello to us when you check in.