The Olympic National Forest is a parkland full of many wonders, including the Hoh Rain forest, one of the largest temperate rain forests in the US.
Stretching out over the Washington Peninsula, bordering the Puget Sound on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on another, it is emblematic of what people think of when they envision the Pacific Northwest. Long stretches of thick and verdant green canopy dominate the views, broken up by rivers and the towering Olympic Mountains.
The location itself seems almost unreal, something you might find in a fantasy book, or a sci-fi epic detailing a strange and distant world consisting only of plant life, but it’s easily accessible, and just a few hours from my front door, yet I had never been.
When planning a hike there’s a lot of cost-benefit analysis and time management that comes into play. This is mainly because hiking is often (but not always) a remote activity, on top of being a time sink. On average, a fourteen mile hike for me takes about five hours if there’s not too much elevation, and up to seven if there’s heavy gains and lots of climbing.
However, I could always overnight.
Returning home from my failed hike on Sunday, I almost went for it immediately. Wynoochee Lake sits at the edge of the Olympic National Forest, but still appeared like a spectacular hike from the reviews I could see. People reported elements of the trail as being overgrown, with multiple tree falls, but I had heard all of that before.
State and National Parks are often the first places to feel budget cuts and financial restraints which often means reduced maintenance and upkeep. Still, as long as the trails are regularly hiked, they tend to stay passable, so long as you’re comfortable with pushing through some brush.
At 14.9 miles through peaceful lush woods, a bit of brush dodging seemed a small price to pay, so I quickly found a campsite, and took the time to prepare, making certain to give myself the room I needed to not face it frantically.
Initially, everything seemed to be going my way, after a short email exchange the camp director agreed to hold a site for me, the local Sportsman Warehouse was full up on my favorite flavor of pro bar, and everything seemed well.
When thursday morning rolled around, I woke up on time, left on schedule, and headed north towards Olympia looking forward to a good long hike.
Everything had been planned for, I had extra food and water, and even a camp chair, and a few other comforts of home since I was camping beside my truck. This was going to be a day filled with adventure, followed by a nice dinner and a quiet night in a peaceful campsite.
Resolving to set up camp first, I arrived at Satsop Center to find it a wonderful site, complete with showers, ample tent sites, and a friendly husband and wife pair that ran the place. She told me to pick any open spot, and report back for payment, though the fee was a flat twenty dollars.
So far so good.
Forty five minutes later, and I was standing again on their doorstep, eagerly looking forward to my day at Wynoochee Lake. The trail, again clocking in at 14.9 miles, was also listed as a National Scenic Trail, a special moniker assigned by the park service for hikes that are especially beautiful.
As I turned to leave, she called out, “I hope you have fun, but the lake is mighty low, unusual for this time of year.”
The Olympic Peninsula, including the Hoh Rainforest a few hours to the north of where I was, is currently undergoing a drought, but looking around, it would be hard to tell.
Rivers still flow, and the forest is still thick and green. A heavy humidity permeated the air, and the sky on my arrival was grey and overcast, but as I set up camp, and headed for the lake, the weather began to clear, until the sun peeked through the dense canopy overhead, while birds sang and bees buzzed.
It was getting to be near 1100 hours, and I needed to get on the trail.
Starting out, moving quickly over an asphalt footpath, I headed for the dam, knowing that as soon as I got to the other side of the lake I would be far from the tourists, and the man-made madness that dominated the parking area.
The trail, suddenly disappeared. Checking my Maps and GPS, it told me I was on the right course, but I couldn’t see anything, save for a small opening in the brush to my left.
Checking out the small gap in the wall of green, I found my trail, or what was left of it. What was there, was heavily washed out. Regardless, I didn’t want to turn back. Even though it would involve a bit of scrambling, it seemed to be passable.
Moving carefully, I descended down to the first segment of what appeared to be a stable platform, only for it to crumble beneath me, causing me to slide a half foot before I was able to dig in my poles and come to a stop with my heart now beating a fearful cadence half out of my chest. I was now overlooking a staggered drop of at least thirty feet. From my new vantage point, it was easy to see that the trail was gone, there was no way forward, and I wasn’t even a half mile in.
Moving slowly, and thankful my gear had just prevented me from stumbling into a dangerous situation. I pushed back from the edge of disaster, and turned back to look for any other sign of the trail, some missed detour, or a route I had missed. Ultimately I headed up an abandoned forest service road, only for my GPS to tell me I was out of route.
There was nothing left to do, but turn back.
Still, the day wasn’t over yet. Wynoochee Lake Trail is a loop, and so, I began to backtrack, following the markers, only to be dumped out on the beach, losing the trail again in a sea of rocks, and clumps of grasses. Here though, there was no danger in pressing forward, and so, using my GPS as a guide, I pressed on until I encountered a boat ramp and another dead end.
At this point, my excitement was quickly dying only to be replaced by a deep frustration. It just didn’t feel like it was my week, dear reader. This was my second hike in a row that was going wrong.
Three miles in, losing time, and my way, I was now looking out past the boat dock on the lake wondering what to do next.
With nowhere to go but up the ramp, I sullenly turned, wondering if I should head back to the truck, break camp and go home. Then I found the trail head.
My hope soared. There it was, snaking off into the woods, the Wynoochee River Trail. Somehow, even though I was following the markers, I had ended up diverted onto a side path that ran the lake. Feeling encouraged, I moved forward, determined to get as many miles into the wood as I could, before turning back and heading for the truck.
In that moment, as the campground area disappeared behind me, the day didn’t feel all that lost. Soon, I was swallowed up by forest, and the traffic dwindled until, suddenly I found myself alone, in the quiet. Towering old growth douglas firs towered majestically up into the sky, framed at their roots by frond heavy ferns.
This was what I had come to see. The forest thickened as I moved forward, as fallen branches, and whole trees obscured my path forward, causing me to scramble under or climb over them to continue.
If anything, this trail was proving to be an entirely new type of physical challenge.
Eventually, after crossing a dry river bed, I came to the grave of two old growth firs. Their massive trunks had fallen across the trail and caused the ground around them to collapse under their weight. With a bit of work, I could climb over them, but I didn’t know about the stability on the other side, and I had already pushed my luck earlier that day.
This was where my hike ended. As much as I wanted to press forward, it was time to stop, in the interests of safety and sanity. I had spent the day lost, confused, only to be rewarded by the barest snippets of a hike, my final distance just a little over five miles, including retracing my steps back to the truck.
In many ways, the Wynoochee Lake Trail was a washout, and, one could argue, a failure, but as I hiked back to my campsite to break it down early and head home, it still felt like a victory, even if it was a strange one.
I had persevered, I had seen it though, and relied on my experience, and gear to see me safe, taking it as far as I could go, and that experience included knowing when to stop.