Boulder Ridge and Buckhorn Mt.Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead: 2,570 ft
Boulder Ridge: 6,440 ft.Elevation gain: 3,940 ft. Distance: 12.6 mi. Time: 6 hrs. 75% alpine. Enjoyment rating 5.
Buckhorn Mountain, Southwest peak: 7,002 ft.Elevation gain: 4,432 ft. Distance: 13.6 mi. Time: 7 hrs. 75% alpine. Enjoyment rating: 5+
Overview:For me Buckhorn Mt. is the second best day hike in the Olympics. Only the 19 mile, High Divide, rates higher. From the Upper Big Quilcene River trailhead this is an incredible hike along the Quilcene river to Marmot Pass, where four major trails come together, then another 1.5 miles north, to the top of the southwest peak, the first and highest of the two Buckhorn Peaks. Views are incredible in every direction. Or, if you prefer less elevation gain, turn left, southeast, at Marmot Pass and explore the rocky peaks of Boulder Ridge. Views from here are also dramatic, including a close up of Mt. Constance.
Getting to The Trailhead:From Hwy 101, turn west on Penny Creek Rd., 1.5 miles south of Quilcene and 1 mile south of the Quilcene Ranger Station. (Signs help direct you to the Upper Big Quilcene River trailhead.) From Penny Creek Road you will turn on the narrow but asphalt, Big Quilcene River Road, and follow it 3 miles to Forest Service Road #27. Follow road #27 for 6 miles and turn left on gravel road # 2750. Follow road #2750 4.5 miles to the Upper Big Quilcene Trail No. 833.
The Trail:The trail is totally in the Buckhorn Wilderness which borders Olympic National Park on the northeast. The first mile follows the fast flowing Big Quilcene river, which tumbles over boulders covered in moss. At 1.5 miles you leave the river for awhile and begin climbing along the treed ridge. It is relentlessly uphill to the pass. At 2.5 miles, on the left, pass shelter rock campground, still in the trees. At 3 miles begin seeing the high jagged rock ridge to the left, called the ridge of Gargoyles. Soon, break out of the trees (4,700 ft.) and straight ahead see a grass covered saddle, Marmot Pass. To the left, SE of the pass is Boulder Ridge, a mile long ridge, ending in more jagged, rocky peaks. To the right, northwest of the pass, is the ridge running up to Buckhorn Mountain. At 4 miles, the two rocky Buckhorn peaks are high above you on the right. At 4.5 miles rejoin the river, now very small, near its headwaters at Camp Mystery. The trail then switchbacks through rock outcroppings and beautiful alpine meadows up to the pass at 5.3 miles and 6,000 ft. elevation. The views really open up here. Straight ahead, west, see a line of peaks, from left to right: Mt. Mystery, Hal Foss, Fricaba, Deception, the Needles, Petunia, Walkinshaw, Graywolf, Baldy and Tyler. Behind you, east, is the Hood Canal.
There are trails going almost every direction here. The far left, SE,unsigned Boulder Ridge trail, leads up the ridge for one mile and 400 feet of elevation gain. The second left, south, to Boulder Shelter, is the trail coming from the upper Dungeness River trailhead 8.5 miles away and the Dosewallips River trailhead, 12 miles. The trail to the right, north, leads to the Tubal Caine trailhead, 8.8 miles away. Being a junction for so many trails offers the hiker a variety of trailheads and loop hikes to explore this area.
The Peak:The best way to get up to Buckhorn Mt., which is 1,000 ft above you, is to turn right at Marmot Pass on the Tubal Caine trail for one mile, till you hit a spur trail angling SE up the ridge toward the peak. (You can go straight up the ridge on a way trail a hundred yards from Marmot pass but it is steep and you go over two false peaks before hitting Buckhorn.) Once on the ridge, cross the large open plateau or bowl and hike up the scree, talus saddle just to the right of the Buckhorn’s rocky southwest peak. (Notice the false peak ridge running up on your right.) From the saddle hit a trail coming up from the false peak ridge and follow it up to the top. The last 300 feet involve some light rock scrambling. The peak is made up of huge boulders, easily scrambled on for better views. Here you have a birds eye view of the Tubal Caine trail, Buckhorn Lake and the Straight of Juan de Fuca north; Iron and Copper Mountains and the Hood Canal east; Boulder Ridge, Warrior Peak, Mt. Constance and the Puget Sound to the south; and to the west even better views of the string of peaks listed above, seen from Marmot Pass.
One of my most humbling moments in day hiking occurred when I was eating lunch on top of Buckhorn, feeling pretty proud of myself for making the top. As I enjoyed the view and my lunch, I saw a young man come running up the Tubal Cain trail, cross the bowl and make his way to the peak, jogging. He said he was in training for a triathalon. He made me feel as old as my age.
Peak Loop:An adventuress alternative back is to loop all the way around Buckhorn peak by dropping down about a quarter mile (and 400 feet of elevation loss). Then turn right ,(east) down scree and back up scree and traverse the north face of the peak, to the notch or col between the two Buckhorn Peaks (at 6,550 ft). Shoot for the side of the notch closest to the second Buckhorn peak, the northeast peak. From the notch drop straight down on loose scree (almost like walking down a sandune) 1,500 feet of elevation loss, back to the Marmot Pass trail (at 5,000 ft.) and about one mile below Marmot Pass. You don’t really save any time by returning via this loop but you experience a new side of the mountain. I advise you not to reverse this route and go up to Buckhorn Peak this way because the scree is so soft that you slide back half a step for every step forward. I tried it.
Boulder Ridge:From Marmot Pass, an alternative to hiking the 1,000 feet up Buckhorn is to go SE up Boulder Ridge, a 400 foot elevation gain. (Figure a 2.5 hr. round trip up Buckhorn, about 1.5 hr. round trip up Boulder Ridge, from the pass.) On Boulder Ridge you get a close up view of Buckhorn and closer views of the high southern peaks, Mt Constance and Warrior Peak. The ridge is an interesting alpine environment with rocky peaks rising ever higher and getting bigger. You can hike and scramble these peaks for a mile or so depending on your comfort level. My suggestion is to go as far and as high as you are comfortable and explore.