Across the Olympics (and Back), 4: The Skyline Divide
Posted: November 20th, 2017, 10:43 pm
Opening picture: the Skyline Divide from near Lake Beauty
This is the fourth of five trip reports I’ll be writing about my long-ish hike across Olympic National Park and back this past summer, covering the walk from Low Divide down the length of the Queets-Quinault ("Skyline") Divide down to the Quinault confluence and Graves Creek Campground.
For an overview of the trip and the first report, from Lake Cushman through the Skokomish and Dosewallips, go here. For the second, from the Dosewallips headwaters to Port Angeles, go here. And for the third, all the way up the Elwha, go here. As always, you can read slightly longer and seriously more self-indulgent versions of these at my blog, though, also as always, I’m not sure I’d recommend it.
August 7, 2017
Martin’s Park to Lake Beauty
Martin’s Park, Low Divide, and Skyline Ridge Trails
In the morning, I sleep until well after the sun’s come up, then spend an hour in the tent, eating breakfast and hiding from bugs. There’s no real rush today—just ten miles—so I sit with my coffee, and stare out into the smoke-gathering sky.
The walk back down to Low Divide is much easier than the way up, and it passes quickly, on now-familiar faded trail, through now-familiar basins.
Just above the divide, there’s a sudden, staccato call, and half a dozen tiny birds clumsily come out of the bushes and fly into nearby boughs. Grouse! The young ones hide, but the adult stands still. I wonder how many things like me she’s seen.
Back down at the divide, I rejoin the main trail, and follow it through fields of flowers to the old ranger station and the headwaters of the North Fork Quinault. For the first time on this trip, the streams are flowing west, to the sea.
Just as the North Fork is forming from a collection of streams into a proper river, I turn off the trail onto an almost comically overgrown path—the Skyline Ridge Primitive Trail—which I’ll follow for the next two days, as it takes me along the entire length of the ridge that divides Quinault and Queets.
The trail climbs Mt. Seattle’s southern shoulder, through brushy streams and overgrown flower gardens, until it reaches a wide plateau, full of blooming heather.
And then the washouts.
Up until now, the trail, though primitive, has been pretty good: sometimes overgrown, sometimes a touch eroded, but overall easy to follow. Yet, as I enter the Seattle Creek drainage, things degrade. Quickly.
First is Seattle Creek. There’s a braided set of switchbacks down, then a snowfinger, stretching from somewhere above to a bit below where the trail ostensibly crosses. Under the snow, I can hear water rushing.
I’m sketched out by snow bridges in the best of times, but this seems particularly unstable. I walk around for a while trying to find a way through. There’s a six-foot wall of melting ice and snow blocking the far bank, so I rock hop downstream until there’s a clear-ish spot: just a little snow, and a grassy bank on the other side I can probably scramble up. I take it slowly, stomping to check the snow’s stability before taking each step. A small section collapses into the rushing creek below, but I hop over, and eventually make it up the bank and find the trail, a hundred feet upstream from where I crossed.
After Seattle Creek, the trail turns around and switchbacks south, up toward Skyline Ridge. I think I’m done with tough crossings for the day. But then of course there’s another, this one much scarier. The trail descends slightly toward a minor tributary of Seattle Creek, but then, just… disappears. There’s nothing, no trail at least, just a rocky, sixty-degree slope covered with a thin layer of scree. I step out, tentatively, and push down to see if it’ll hold my weight, but the scree collapses beneath, and tumbles thirty feet down to the water.
I think through my options. I could turn around, retrace my steps, and go back on the North Fork. But I really want to see the Skyline, and I’m sure there’s another way. I backtrack a bit, into the trees, and look down. One could almost—almost—imagine climbing down to the creek using tree branches for handholds. I can’t tell if there’s a safe way back up, but, well… I guess it’s worth a try?
The climb down is quick, but scary. A branch breaks and I have to do a bizarre sort of self-arrest in the scree. I rip my shoe and drop a pole, which clatters down to the creek. But soon enough I’m at the bottom, looking up, and wondering how the hell I’m going to get back on the trail.
The opposite wall is a convoluted cliff of stone, scree, and scrubby brushes, precariously clinging to thin soil. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious way up, and for a second I just lose it. Tear up. I don’t think I can climb back up the side I just came down, and if the other bank is undoable, how can I get out? There’s a waterfall just downstream, so I can’t follow this down the North Fork. Shit.
This, I think, is what a bad situation looks like.
I lash my poles to my pack, put on my gloves so that I don’t have to worry about thorns, and, as fast as I can, start climbing and crawling up the hill. Nothing feels stable—every step slides back and every bush feels almost ready to come out of the ground—but I hold my breath and just go.
And before I know it, my hand hits flat ground, and I pull myself up, onto the trail.
I sit on the trail for a while, legs dangling down the slope I just climbed. I have absolutely no idea how I just did that. It just happened. But I hope it’s the last crossing like this. There’s no way I can retrace my steps.
I’m nervous and shaky for the rest of the climb up to Skyline Ridge, but the hard part’s over, at least for today, and soon the trail reaches another plateau, this one a broad band leading gently up to the ridge, and Beauty Pass. I finally start to breathe normally, and look back the way I’ve come.
There’s water everywhere, fresh from melting snow a few hundred feet above, so I stop to drink a few liters, and eat a very late lunch, trying to settle down.
Soon, I reach Beauty Pass, and drop, for the first and last time this trip, into the Queets, to Lake Beauty, my home for the night.
I feel like I’ve been walking all day, but it’s only five-thirty, so I walk down to the water for a swim. The lake’s crystal clear and cold. I jump in, let myself float to the other side, sit in the shallows, drinking liters and liters of water. Sitting on the shore, in the sand, I feel like I’m coming back to life.
The light starts to dim and I make myself dinner, running back and forth from the bugs, drinking some bourbon. It’s so beautiful here.
The smoke descends back into the valleys, and I watch the sunset on Mt. Olympus, just across the Queets. I turn in early, but still stare out, as the minor peaks around Olympus turn red.
August 8, 2017
Lake Beauty to Three Lakes Camp
Skyline Ridge Trail
Today’s going to be tough. Just 18 miles, but after yesterday, when the last 6 took me four hours, I figure it might take a while. So I get up early, eat breakfast quickly in the tent, hiding from bugs, then set off, back up to Skyline Ridge.
I rejoin the ridge on Beauty Pass, then sidehill south, looking down at the Queets, for half a mile, until the delightfully named Hee Haw Pass, where the trail switches sides to overlook Promise Creek and the North Fork Quinault.
It's absolutely beautiful: verdant creeks tumble down from the ridge, through blooming heather and barren rock, everywhere bounded by snow, still thick against the summer heat. Mt. Zindorf stands to the south—just 5500’ high, but alpine all the same.
The trail fades in and out—sometimes overgrown, sometimes washed out, sometimes smothered by old avalanches—until it disappears completely in a moonscape of rock and ice. There are cairns here and there, but eventually I lose them, and just follow a set of bare rock seams under the ridge.
I know I need to climb back up to the ridgetop eventually, and soon I hit a steep wall of snow that forces my hand. I have absolutely no idea where the trail is, or if the trail even exists here anymore. The National Park hasn’t maintained it in decades. But I know I need to descend a bit on the way to Promise Creek Pass, and so I follow the ridge down, and soon, for the first time in miles, find clear tread.
At Promise Pass, things get confusing. The trail switchbacks steeply into the Kimta Creek drainage, but there are also game trails everywhere, some considerably better used than what I take to be the “official” route. Eventually I’m reduced to sidehilling with map and compass on what I vaguely suspect might be something like the trail.
The soil in this section is marshy, and small bits of tread are interspersed with fallen trees, overgrown brush, and snowdrifts that stretch from the ridge all the way down to Kimta Creek.
Things improve a bit, though, as the trail descends into the woods on its way to Kimta Basin. The day’s first easy walking.
Climbing up to Kimta Pass, there’s a black mass in the middle of the trail, which I mistake, initially, for an oddly shaped bit of blowdown. As I get closer, though, the blowdown starts moving towards me.
It takes much longer than it should—I am not, it turns out, a terribly keen observer—but eventually I realize it’s a bear. A very large bear. Moving towards me.
I’m not scared, exactly. Dude’s not being aggressive, and in any case black bears basically never hurt anybody, especially when there are no cubs around. (I think there are no cubs around?) But even still, it’s not exactly my ideal situation.
I clang my trekking poles above my head, and do a bit of “Hey Bear!” He stops, unconcerned, and starts biting at the bushes. I redouble the banging, but he doesn’t even look up.
The hillside’s too steep to go around, and I don’t want to keep walking straight and risk seeming aggressive. So I just stand a while, clanging my poles with decreasing enthusiasm. It’s not working. Neither is the “Hey bear!” business. What now?
I think about the most off-putting things I can do. Maybe singing would do the trick? My singing has been unfavorably compared to Vogon poetry. But what to sing? I want something jarring, and that a bear would be unlikely to like. Wagner? I don’t know. Do bears like Wagner? Did Wagner like bears? I feel like dude would probably be on the bear’s side in all this.
And then it comes to me, in a moment of serene inspiration: the theme from Ghost Busters. That synth vibrato in the chorus is, at best, an acquired taste. So I start in, and immediately the bear looks up, seemingly sincerely wounded that I would trouble him with such a poor performance, and he begrudgingly walks away, up a steep snowfield.
The last push up to the pass is, well, a push. The trail’s covered by a steep, slick snowfield, so I climb hand-over-hand up a rocky outcrop to the ridgetop, then walk back to something that kinda seems like it’s maybe the right way. The views back, into Kimta Basin, are absolutely beautiful, as are the views across the Queets to Olympus.
From the pass, the trail descends quickly, almost due south, down the last of Skyline Ridge. First it meanders through a set of beautiful open basins, then slumps into the trees.
At some point, I run out of water. I knew that there was a long water carry today—maybe 13 miles—and so I packed five liters, my full carrying capacity. But it’s been hot, and I guess I’ve been drinking more than usual. Ugh. My map says it’ll be dry for at least three or four more miles.
The trail through the woods is well-defined, but littered with blowdown. I bonk. But I guess I’ve learned how to deal with it. I turn on some old techno, put my head down, and just hike. It’s funny: I always feel strongest at times like this, when I’m at the edge of breaking down. Maybe something to do with knowing that what I usually think of as my edge just isn’t.
Just an hour later, I hit water: streams and pools and ponds around Three Prune Camp. I find a fast, cool creek, and lie down in the middle of the trail, drinking liter after liter until my stomach hurts. Then lunch and another liter. It’s like paradise. The bugs aren’t even so bad. Can I just sleep here tonight?
The last few miles, from Three Prune to Three Lake, go slowly in that way that the ends of days often go slow. Pointless ups and downs. Molasses miles. The ridge is less pronounced now—just one crest in a convoluted maze of them—and the valleys are less dramatic too, just small dents in the trees. The trail turns through a series of wet meadows and dry woods until finally it reaches the headwaters of Big Creek, then switches back down to Three Lake Camp.
Half a mile short of camp, I fall while crawling over a particularly tall bit of blowdown. It’s not bad—just a couple of raspberries and a deep scratch on my shin—but I’m unreasonably shaken by the time I make it to the lakes.
The lakes, though, are beautiful: three ponds set deep in a meadow, in the shadow of Tshletshy Ridge. The whole place is empty. It feels as though it’s been empty for years. I wash the blood off my legs, set up my tent in the most beautiful spot, then cook dinner in another, watching birds swoop down over the ponds as the sun sets.
I guess I made it over the Skyline. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.
August 9, 2017
Three Lakes Camp to Graves Creek CG
Big Creek Trail, North Shore and Graves Creek Roads
I wake up and everything is absolutely soaked with condensation. I guess this is the price one pays for sleeping in what is essentially a swamp. But no matter. Today will be short, just six miles downhill to the North Fork Quinault, then ten of roadwalking to Graves Creek. There should be more than enough time to yard sale and dry everything out.
I pack it all up wet, then ramble down the Three Lakes Trail, through thick old grown and overgrown brush. There’s blowdown and a few small washouts, but nothing compared to the Skyline, and the morning passes pleasantly: a few easy miles in sunrise light.
Nearing Big Creek, the trail disappears in a washed-out jumble of logs and river rocks. I shimmy down a smooth, stripped cedar to the creek, then stop for breakfast and a break. The water’s rushing here, through a steep, smooth canyon littered with trees of every age and in every position—the history of a whole forest shaken up and spilled out.
From Big Creek, the trail traverses a minor ridge on its way to Irely Lake. The tread gets better and better until, in the distance, I see a bit of unnatural orange. A person! And their orange hat.
Turns out to be an old man, sitting on an old log, leaning heavily on his cane. He smiles widely, in a way that reminds me of every kindly old man I’ve ever met, and tells me good morning. “Oh, he…” My voice breaks in a cough. “Hello, sorry.” My voice sounds strange to me, and I realize it’s the first time I’ve spoken in days. “You’re,” my voice breaks again. “Sorry, you’re the first person I’ve seen in four days.” The man chuckles companionably and bows his head. “Good to see you! You’re, well,” he pauses to think, “the sixth person I’ve seen this morning.” I laugh, genuinely overjoyed just to be talking to another human. “Should be a bit more solitude up the way! Anyway, good to see you too. I was beginning to think that people had stopped existing.” The man laughs again. “No such luck. Yet.”
Soon I’m on the North Shore Road and it’s suddenly sweltering. Dusty gravel and sweat in the early afternoon sun. But the miles pass quickly: a few down to the confluence, then another seven or eight up to the Graves Creek Campground.
Graves Creek Campground is surprisingly crowded when I get there, but I find a somewhat secluded spot in the far corner, along the river, and setup. My stuff is still soaked, so I lay it out in the sun to dry, then sit for a while at the posh picnic table, eating a late lunch.
The place fills up as the afternoon wears on. A young couple—a woman in her mid-20s and a slightly older dude—take the spot next to me, pulling backpacking gear from their rental car. After a while, the woman walks over with a big bag of oranges. “Hi!” She yells from twenty feet away in a deep southern accent. “So we bought all these oranges, but we’ll never eat them all. We’ll only be here one night. Do you want some?”
I thank her profusely, tell her that I’ve been in the wilderness for a week and that fresh fruit sounds amazing. I take one and put it on the table. She looks stern, pulls out three more, and puts them next to mine. “There.” I laugh and thank her again. She tells me she hiked the AT last year, and so understands how much the “little” things can mean. I feel instantly at ease. But she disappears after a tiny bit more talk. “I’ve got to run a quick errand.” I wonder if I smell worse than I thought.
Maybe forty minutes later she’s back, pulling into my spot. She gets out and looks embarrassed. “So I always wanted to be a trail angel.” She smiles and wrinkles her nose. “And I thought this was my chance.”
She brings a big bag of groceries over to my table: beer and cookies and chips. “I didn’t know what you’d want.” I feel exactly the same way as I did on Cameron Pass: just completely overwhelmed, and completely unready to deal with this sort of generosity. But I hold it together, at least enough to say thank you without tearing up. She asks if I want a beer, and I ask if she wants to invite her friend.
I move my stuff, and we all sit around the table for an hour, eating and drinking and watching our neighbors settle in for the night. I am so, so happy.
Eventually, my friends drift off to bed, and I drift off to the river, to wash my legs and arms and watch the last of the light disappear. I sit out on an old piece of driftwood until the stars come out, then the Milky Way. It’s the first smokeless sky I’ve seen since before Port Angeles.