Story by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Photos by Bret Wirta and Joel Thomas
Distance: 34 mile round-trip – Time out: Three Days
Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Elevation Gain: 3,500 ft.
Pet Friendly: No
September 12th 2012.
Anderson Glacier is a magnificent but isolated area of Olympic National Park. I’ve always wanted to backpack to Anderson Glacier, but the 34 mile round-trip translated to an extra two overnights on the trail for me, so for the sake of time I always chose a different backpacking adventure. That all changed when a park ranger told me that you can get to Anderson glacier in one day by bicycling along the washed-out Dosewallips River road to the ranger station and then hike to glaciers from there. It seemed too good to be true.
My longtime friend and fellow explorer Joel managed to get a few days off too. We chose a perfect time. It was one of those blue-sky days in mid-September where you can’t decide if it’s still late summer or early fall. It was mid-morning when we strapped on our backpacks and mounted our bicycles at the Dosewallips trailhead. The trailhead was simply where a washout had ended the road. Past the berm and a road closed sign was nothing but a long bend in the Dosewallips River against a high gravel bank. Thee-hundred feet of road had disappeared. To get past the wash-out, the National Forest Service routed a steep, winding path up over the hill and down the other side where it joined the paved road again. From there the slope of the old paved road followed the gentle rise in the river valley. We bicycled up the valley and crossed the border into Olympic National Park with ease.
I thought about cars and campers driving back and forth in this valley. Road building deep into the park was controversial from the start. According to the 1983 ONP Historic Research Study, “In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the Forest Service gave thoughtful consideration to several possible road construction plans that would access tourists into the heart of the Olympic Mountains. A road up the east fork of the Quinault River and eastward across the mountains to Hood Canal, a road from the Sol Duc River to either Seven Lakes Basin or the Olympic Hot Springs area, and an extended road to the upper Elwha River Basin, were among the road building projects contemplated but never actualized.” By the mid-1930’s, a fifteen-mile road was blasted up the Dosewallips River Valley to Muscott Flat, but road-building zealotry cooled with the establishment of the Olympic National Park in 1938.
Compared to hiking, we sped up the Dosewallips road on our bicycles. The road was paved but in places we slowed for piles of rubble, fallen trees or washouts. Undergrowth had reduced the two-lane highway to the width of a path in some sections. By noon we had peddled up the 5.5 miles to the Dosewallips Ranger Station. A caveat about bicycling: the entire weight of your backpack is pressing down on your tailbone as you sit on your bicycle seat, so saddle bags might be a better equipment option if you have a back issues.
The Dosewallips Campground used to be filled with cars and campers, but now the streets are silent and the sites campsites empty. We chained our bicycles to a picnic table that was covered with moss and sunk into the moist soil. Lush grass and greenery grew waist-high everywhere. The broad Dosewallips Campground was built on Muscott Flats. There are different stories about the origin of the name Muscott Flats, but the version I like is from my friend Glynda Peterson Schaad’s book, Gods & Goblins, Place Names of Olympic National Park. It seems back around 1900 Mr. Muscott was a successful prospector in the area who was shot in the back. The story ends with, “Certainly, the treasure trove has never been found.”
We didn’t stop to look for any mineral treasure; we had all the wealth we needed with a few days-off and no cell-phone reception under a cloudless sky. An easy half hour up the trail and we reached Dose Forks. The main body of the Dosewallips River continued north while we followed the trail along the west fork. We meandered up the West Fork of the Dosewallips River for ten miles. The fir trees grew in size and the river narrowed as we climbed. We crossed tumbling steams on a couple of high bridges. We chatted with a dozen hikers. We walked through a jumble of shattered tree trunks where a massive snow slide that had begun high up on the ridge ripped or snapped-off a thousand mature trees.
At 6pm we had reached Honeymoon Meadows camp, elevation 3,527 feet. We were only a few miles from Anderson Glacier but we decided to camp here for the night, mainly because we didn’t know the terrain and wondered how cold it would be camping closer to the glacier. We fired up the camp stove and prepared a hot dinner. We were asleep by 7:30pm.
It was a chilly morning in the deep forest, so we slept in. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of hot oatmeal and a delicious latte mixture that Joel brought. We lowered our backpacks from the bear wires where we had hung them overnight and broke camp. (Camp Siberia, the last camp below the glacier, has bear wires too so you don’t need to rent a bear-proof canister from the backcountry permit desk.) We finally got going around 9:30am. We crossed the cold Dosewallips on a bridge made out of a couple of saplings, carefully using our hiking poles for balance. It was only a foot or so deep at this elevation but neither of us wanted wet boots first thing in the morning. We warmed up as soon as we crossed the Dosewallips and walked into the actual Honeymoon Meadows, a sunny open patch of golden grasses drying in the morning sun. From there, the trail became steeper. By the time we reached Anderson Pass at noon, we’d gained almost a thousand feet since morning.
At Anderson Pass we said goodbye to the last trickle of the West Fork of the Dosewallips, the waters that had kept us company since our journey began. We had begun our journey where the Dosewallips River was so powerful that it had washed away a highway. It felt satisfying to be standing at the tiny beginnings of that river. I’ve felt the same experience at other times high-up at the headwaters of other rivers. I’m in good historical company. In 1805 the Lewis and Clark expedition poled, paddled and hiked upstream for the entire 2,600-plus mile length of the Missouri River. When Hugh McNeal, one the Corps of Discovery, straddled the brook that was named the source of the mighty Missouri River, Captain Meriwether Lewis wrote that McNeal, “Thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.”
We turned off the main trail and for the last half hour continued up a series of steep switchbacks. We stood on the moraine of Anderson Glacier three hours after breaking camp earlier that morning. So if you want to bike and hike to Anderson Glacier in the same day, allow for an eleven-hour, one-way trip.
We crested the final few hundred feet of trail that wound through the rocks and grasses on the ancient glacial moraine. We looked about for marmots but didn’t see any. Joel and I stood at about 5,500 feet in elevation and looked down. An aqua-green lake of glacial melt water lay below us with rafts of ice floating about. The bright-white glacier curved out of sight at the base of Mount Anderson, while the jagged summit of the mountain towered into the blue sky. We opened out backpacks, took out our lunch and enjoyed the stunning view.
After lunch we carefully climbed down the loose rock of the moraine and then turned up the valley. When we stood on Anderson Glacier it was surprisingly hot – it must have been in the 80s’. We walked across to the middle of the glacier poking carefully for crevasses. The surface was white snow and smooth except for a few stones here and there, nothing like the rock-studded and crevasse-cut surface of Blue Glacier at the foot of Mt. Olympus. At the edge of the steep valley walls we found many sets of two rocks balanced on the top of another. Either bored fellow hikers had done this or, as Joel surmised, a rock that falls off the cliff and onto the glacier is carefully set upon another rock when the snow melts away.
There were a few tiny trees high up on the valley’s lip and some clumps of flowers along the valley floor struggling for notice. A carpet of green moss made for a beautiful contrast to the blue sky. But other than that there wasn’t much vegetation; for the last fifteen thousand years Anderson Glacier has scoured this valley down to the bare roots of the mountain. Where a burl of dense rock impeded the glacier’s relentless progress, the river of ice made a right turn around the obstacle and continued grinding away. Today most of the glacier is gone. Compared to earlier photos just a generation ago the difference is striking. Joel said, “It’s one big bulldozed path and the dozer’s gone.” If you’d like to see other historical comparisons of Olympic glaciers go to “A Climbers Guide to the Olympics.”
We turned back at the point where the glacier turned steeply up the flank of Mt. Anderson and we walked back toward the melt-water lake. Icebergs floated about. Long mounds of gravel a few feet high lay along the shore where a retreating Anderson Glacier had deposited its burden of earth. But higher up on the edge of the valley and further back in time, a mighty Anderson Glacier left a straight line of boulders that looked like the start of a highway project.
I looked at all this beauty and wondered if the road up the Dosewallips River would be rebuilt? Bicycling up the road had allowed us reach the Anderson Valley in a day, but it was still a grueling journey. Allowing cars to drive up the valley would make it easier for all. Joel and I were the only two people in this wonderful valley. Should we make this remote interior more accessible for more people to enjoy? But if here, why not other roads into other beautiful places deep in the park?
In 1938, the year Olympic National Park was established, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes countered the road-building viewpoint, “But let us persevere a still larger representative area in its primitive condition for all time by excluding roads…Make the trails safe but not too easy, and you will preserve the beauty of the parks for untold generations…”
We scrambled up the valley wall as shadows lengthened across the lake. Ice floes jammed the outlet where a waterfall spilled over a ridge of bare rock. We were looking down at the headwaters of Quinault River, the highway of early explorers, the path to the Enchanted Valley, land of a thousand waterfalls. Summer was over for this year, but Joel and I were already talking about a backpacking trip down the Quinault next spring.
To get to the Dosewallips River Road trailhead from the Holiday Inn Express, Sequim:
- Take 101 South toward Olympia
- Drive 40 miles
- Turn right on the Dosewallips Road
- Drive until the road ends
- Don’t forget your National Forest Service Recreation Pass!
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