Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hiking the High Divide in the Olympics has its Rewards

The Seven Lakes Basin of Olympic National park is a very popular hike due to its beauty and procimity to roads. A 22 mile loop offers varied scenery for every pallet.

Just saying the words "Seven Lakes Basin" in the northwest is a significant spark in a conversation among hikers and backcountry enthusiasts. In the Olympic National Park Wilderness, it ranks as one of the most popular destinations. Part of its popularity has a lot to do with its proximity to the Sul Doc Campground, Resort and falls that draw a world-wide visitation. As we experienced, there is a constant line of day hikers that were headed to either Deer Lake or for the more hearty, Lunch Lake within the aforementioned basin.

The last few steps toward Heart Lake in Sol Duc Park were difficult on the hottest day of 2009.

The cool waters of Heart lake were a welcome sight.

Planning a trip to the basin can be complicated due to its popularity. Campsites in the area are available on a reservation basis and locations like Heart Lake are very difficult to obtain a site any day during the summer. You can call the Wilderness Information Center and reserve your backcountry site up to 30 days in advance, but until Olympic National Park becomes more in tune with actually happens on the ground, there is some flexibility. As someone who writes permits, I found that the crowded conditions on computer did not equal actual use in the backcountry. In what I thought would be a small city each night, turned out to be a total of about two dozen hikers over three days.

Mt. Appleton is the first of many ridges on the 22 mile scenic loop.

My hiking parter was my experienced but pint-sized 11 year old carrying a larger and larger pack each summer.

My other planning conunendrum included not working my 11 year old too hard on any given day. I wanted to keep him to less than six miles a day with a full pack. After I got off work in Forks on Tuesday evening at 4:00pm, we drove the hour to the end of Sol Duc Road, donned our packs and began the unknown (maps are very vague regarding specific distances to the ONP campsites) distance to our 4th campsite up the Sol Duc River. As it turns out, it was nearly five miles up stream which cut the journey the next day to only four miles.

The obligatory photo of an endless number of falls along the Sol Duc, Ridge Creek and later Canyon Creek.

Our first campsite was in the deep wood among magnificent Douglas firs and Western hemlock. It was also the first and only location where a campfire ( tough pill to swallow for an 11 year old but true backpackers understand why) was allowed. We roasted marshmellows after eating dinner in the near dark conditions of the deep-woods.

The first seven miles featured a dark, cool walk in the forest along the Sol Duc River.

I might also say that the next two days will probably go down as the hottest two days of 2009. As we climbed out of the woods into the more exposed meadows of the Olympic montane forest, the heat swallowed us. Our intake of water jumped to nearly a gallon a day each. The last of four miles was extremely tough for Jared as we appoarched Heart Lake and we arrived at our campsite at around 10am only to find it still occupied by the previous night's resident. A lady that was clearly in no hurry to move on.

While waiting for our new friend to depart our reserved campsite, we swam in Heart Lake and hiked "light pack" east on the Cat Basin Trail towards the Bailey Range.

We ended up seeing and visiting with her four additional times during the hike and week.

A grouse escorted her two chicks across a trail along Heart lake.

We spent the day trying to avoid both the bugs (largely black flies) and the heat. The latter was spent by swimming in the lake, but that did not relieve us from the bugs at all. The only true relief was total submergence in the lakes' pure waters. Unfortunately, one can not hide forever. As we visited with other hikers coming the couter-clockwise direction on the loop, they assured us that the "bugs" dissapeered at around 9:00pm. What they forgot to mention was the flies depart, only to leave the mosquitoes. Fortunately, the repellent we carried was actually affective on the latter pests.

The shape of Heart Lake gives it its name.

On Thursday morning we were strapping our packs together and had the first of three really cool wildlife encounters. Bending down, I caught a movement of white out of the corner of my right eye. Down the trail came a mountain goat with her youngster who follwed about 10 meters behind. They took a right on the spur trail right into our campsite. Jared and I yielded the the area and watched cautiously. At one point, the ewe took a couple of steps toward us and as if she were a bear, I yelled to indicate that my line on the ridge had been drawn. I got to thinking, what do you do in case a mountain goats attacks? There are entire books written on the subject with regard to bears and cougars, but goats have always been missing from the discussion! From behind, came more movement as a ram moved restlessly on the ridge above. In a few minutes, all three dissapeered into the canyon below and we were allowed to finish our packing in relative unease.

First Moma.....

The little one....it should be noted that Mountain Goats are not native to the Olympics. They were planted in the early part of the 20th century, but prior to that, glaciers in the Puget Sound area prevented them from arriving from the Cascades.

We departed for what became our most scenic day as well as the most difficult miles of hiking for my young partner. As it turns out, I made a very effective choice by taking the route up the Sol Duc first as it is much more of a gradual gain in elevation. From Heart Lake, there was a 300 foot climb to near the summit of High Divide, but after that point, the trail became a gentle, undulating route (with one glaring exception near Bogachiel Peak) until a steep drop above Deer Lake.

The Olympic Marmont is native and unique to the Olympic Peninsula. It is surprisingly large compared to the Marmonts of the neighboring Cascades. At first I tought I might have been looking at a coyote, fox and eventually a mountain lion.

At Deer Lake, we noticed that the top of the Bear Grass blooms had been chewed off. A deer demonstrated who and how as we folded up our camp on day three.

The views of Mt. Olympus and then the peaks and vallies of the Seven Lakes Basin were tremendous. Jared was especially taken by the Hoh River Valley nearly a mile below us. Unfortunately, a stop to enjoy the scene was tempered by the cloud of bugs that attacked the loitorer. My usual style pausing or even sitting for an extended period of time to enjoy a particularly joyful view was suspended. With this form of expedited travel, we were arriving at campsites much earlier than planned and our arrivial at Deer Lake in the early afternoon was no surprise.

Mt. Olympus could be viewed from nearly the entire route on the High Divide Trail.

Later in the day, we took a swim in the chilly waters and I reveled in the feel of mountain water on my tortured flesh. Better yet, the loss in elevation to a mere 3,500 feet dropped the population of flies to less than nightmarish.

Deer Lake could be seen in the distance, but it was much farther than it looked.

Deer Lake provided an excellent swimming pool in the mid-elevations of the Olympic Mountains.

Friday morning we slept leisurely and departed camp around 8:30am and arrived at the Sol Duc Trailhead at around 11:00am.

Lake Number 8 is one of many lakes in the Seven Lakes Basin and perhaps named with a touch of irony.

Overall, I count the loop as 22 miles even though I have yet to find any reports or maps that are consistent with each other. As advice to other hikers I would say hike clockwise. The trail is in amazing condition and my hat and respect goes out to the generations of Olympic National Park trail crews and enginieers that maintain this incredibly difficult route. On Thursday, we found a crew from the Washington Trails Assocition completeing work in the hot sun that parks service crews had marked as needs. There are several miles between Bogacheil Peak and the junction of the Seven Lakes Basin that could fall off the ridge at a natural whim.

The Upper Bogachiel River Valley of Olympic National Park is one area were the trail is hanging on to the side of a ridge and could be removed at the whim of any natural event.

In our haste, we were never able to visit the Seven Lakes Basin or any of the lakes therin. Thereby giving us the crack in which to plan another trip to the area.

Parting Shot....
Beargrass reflects in Heart Lake along the High Divide Loop in Olympic National Park.
 
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