salty | high divide loop
5010 ft gain . 5400 ft peak . 17.5 miles
Saltiness: the pervasive feeling throughout this trip. Why was there salt? We were met with so many negatives throughout the trip, but honestly, it added to the experience and we learned enjoyment instead of resentment. It’s been years since I’ve been out to the Olympic Peninsula, let alone, anywhere west of the Puget Sound. So my stoke level was high when my friend and I decided to take on the High Divide Loop. By the way, this trip begins way before the actual hiking.
We started fairly early to catch the ferry over to the peninsula and drive to the Wilderness Information Center. Permits are required when camping anywhere in the Olympic National Park. This includes the northern beaches of Washington! I forget how big the park is every single time (maybe I should pay it more visits). In comparison, you can probably drive around Rainier National Park in a couple hours. But in the Olympics, it takes you a few hours to get from the north end to the south, or east to west.
When we got to the WIC, there was already a line for permits, which looked deceivingly short. In reality, the rangers took their time answering all questions and processing the permits. During our wait, we were approached by a ranger, so we double checked the possibility of a successful loop. I knew we would pass by snow, but we were experienced with snow crossings. Nonetheless, we were warned that the hike had 4-5 feet of snow and should be attempted by “advanced alpine skiers” only. Why did the ranger have such little confidence in us?
He definitely got us a bit worried, so we talked about other options, like Lena Lake or Mount Ellinor, but both were quite a ways south. I really wasn’t about the drive. With options in hand, we finally arrived at the permit counter. My friend and I looked at each other and we knew exactly what we wanted – to be above the tree line and roam above peaks. We were gonna ask about the High Divide Loop again. We would not leave it without a fight.
This second ranger seemed to know a bit more about the trails. At least he knew the conditions from 3 weeks ago, I suppose. He understanding and gave us enough information to make a good decision. We’d take the loop the reverse direction and assess the snow conditions before deciding to continue the loop or turn around. On the other hand, taking the loop from Deer Lake campgrounds would mean we’d reach snow quicker, making a shorter trip if we decided to turn around.
So with our permits, we continued the western drive along Crescent Lake. It was so beautiful – I’d gladly jump into the cool lake under the heat of the summer sun! At the trailhead, it was a mad rush for parking spots. Luckily, we found a car leaving just as we got there. I wasn’t about to hike an extra 1-2 miles on the road with my backpack. On these 1-nighter trips, I tend to take too much weight somehow. I laughed at how much I was carrying, which was probably heavier than my 2019 PCT hiker friend’s.
Once we started on the trail, we passed many people enjoying their Memorial Sunday off and taking the short hike to the Sol Duc waterfall. It was definitely a nice waterfall, although we passed by many more along our trail. As a popular summer backpacking loop, the High Divide Trail is packed with many campsites. Some are single parties only and others host larger groups.
We took a break at a high-flowing stream, Rocky Creek. This was one of the campsites we had debated taking. It was 3pm and we hiked for 2 hours along the Sol Duc River. Glad we decided to camp further cause we’d be sitting and waiting for the the sun to set for another 5 hours otherwise. And we’d have to wake up even earlier to complete the loop, if we decided to do that. We had a time constraint to be back in Seattle by 5pm, so we felt that it was necessary to hike more miles the first day for a less hectic second day.
Along the river trail, we started meeting other people coming the other direction. Some were trail runners and others were backpackers who had just finished the loop. Like, what? Did I hear them correctly? That they had done the whole loop? I was bewildered. Maybe felt like the rangers didn’t have the best updates for us. Salt number one. To be fair, rangers wouldn’t know our capabilities and they have a responsibility to keep people safe as well. So I don’t blame them for not encouraging us to push through the loop.
But, we are determined hikers, so we knew we could finish the loop. I would have probably regretted not completing the loop, but I will always put safety first. If I had to back down, I would. But if I didn’t have to, it’s always such joy to finish objectives. After the Sol Duc River trail section, the real climb began. We saw more and more of the mountains above and realized that the snow line was quite high. The loop seemed even more attainable!
We continued gaining elevation and more views, as well as more patches of snow, until it was all snow pack. As the sun started going behind the mountains, we reached Heart Lake and enjoyed dinner of Annie’s Mac and Cheese. So good! And even better when eaten outdoors after a hike. Even though the trail was all in snow at this point, we were able to find a dry campsite. Seemed preferable to the cold snow ground.
We watched the sunset and the sky light up in various hues of pinks and purples. How wondrous nature is. Setting our alarms for 4:30am, we headed to bed. Summer daylight is so long that we fell asleep before the stars came out. Had we more sleep scheduled, I would probably have woken up again and take some astrophotography. But sleep is important – mostly to drive alert by the end of the trip.
We got going at 5:30am in the morning and slowly enjoyed the sunrise, again with beautiful colorful displays on the clouds and neighboring mountains. Heart Lake is near the top of the High Divide, so we had little elevation to really gain. We soon reached the ridge and all of a sudden, were graced by the beauty of Mt. Olympus. It was oddly less impressive than I had imagined. I may be used to tall peaks being more prominent, like the volcanoes on the other side of the Sound. But Olympus itself is quite amazing. It looks a bit like the ruggedness of the North Cascades. So much wilderness and so few developments in this land.
National Parks are great establishments because it protects the land entirely and allows people to explore it at the same time. On the other hand, National Forests have less tourist popularity and are often forested. Either way, both encompass beautiful and wild terrain. And I will always be grateful for them and support them and those who maintain their presence.
The ridgeline hike on the High Divide Loop seemed to be fairly trivial. We brought ice axes but never felt the need for them. However, as we approached Bogachiel Peak, we started losing the many footprints in the snow. On the GPS, we could go left or right around the peak, and we had chosen to go left. There was a clear trail, mostly melted out since it faced the south side. But at the saddle next to the Hoh Lake Trail, it was clear that the footprints we’d seen had come from the Hoh Valley rather than the Sol Duc River.
Fear not, we thought. We could still see the trail traversing the western side of Bogachiel and its ridge. And that definitely matched the GPS map. So we made a few of our own steps across steep snow to connect back to the drier parts of the trail. In and out we’d go of snow patches and footprints. We kept on wondering – how did everyone else we meet do this trail? There must be more tracks than the 2 we were following.
Well, there’s actually an alternate loop on this trail. The High Divide Loop is often combined with the Seven Lakes Basin Loop. Much of the trails align, but for the Seven Lakes, the trail dips down east beneath Bogachiel into the basin. In this snow condition, it was probably less steep in general to pass that way. I was convinced that either everyone was lying to us about the High Divide, or more likely, they’d taken a different trail. To each their own.
This section of the trail was fairly steep if it weren’t for the flattened trail. So we opted to take out the ice axes just to balance ourselves. We did get to one sketchy spot where the trail steeply switches back about 30 feet. With the momentum of our heavy packs, we both slid all the way down to the trail. Thankfully a trail was there, and we didn’t slide down a gully to our doom. But that was definitely nontrivial, definitely questionable climb for any trail runners coming up. We were happy to have survived the incident and continued on our merry way traversing the rest of the ridge.
The only other loop hikers we met were 2 trail runners. They decided to go for the High Divide version of the loop rather than the lake version. I hope they made it up fine! The rest of our hike was less eventful. Descending snowy slopes and then descending along waterfalls as the snow cleared. We passed Deer Lake and day hikers. 1 mile from the trailhead, we ended up trading boots for sandals. From the Sol Duc waterfall, it was a fairly flat hike and our feet were in too much pain and too tired. Flip flops may not have been the best sandals to hike out, but I made it work and my feet were happy.
To continue the salty theme, I dug into my bag of potato chips. A salty trip about varying trip reports and conditions, ending with satisfying salty chips. Oh but no, it doesn’t end there. Remember we were trying to get back to Seattle at 5pm? We would have made the 3:10 ferry if no traffic existed. But it was Memorial Day and people are all traveling back to Seattle from the Olympics. So we got stuck waiting to get on the bridge connecting the peninsula and islands. Once it got loose, we had hopes for the 4:00 ferry. We got to the terminal right as the ferry was loading. Not to worry, because we could get our fix of ice-cream at the local creamery. We’d just have to be quick to make sure we got on the 4:40 ferry.
We ran back to the car, ice cream cups in hand and were prepared to get on the ship. We waited patiently for the lanes next to us drive up. The next lane would be us. But we never started moving. The ferry attendant started walking away. This couldn’t be happening, could it? We were 6 cars away from getting onto that ferry! Just our luck, we had to wait for the 5:30 ferry. So much for getting back at 5pm.
But we got on the ferry eventually (at 5:30) and enjoyed the ride back. Sometimes events can set us back, but there really is no use to be frustrated and worried about things you can’t change. It was helpful to take a different perspective, one that was calm and peaceful. I enjoyed the time we had to rearrange our packs, relax in the cool shade, and have quiet time.
Too often I get stuck on being annoyed, but I am slowly learning to remove this unproductive character and focus on the present, on the good things in life. For friends, for wilderness, for privilege, for beauty, for calmness, and above all, for love. Because having a loving heart drives joy and patience and serenity. Love appreciates the beauty in nature, love understands others and doesn’t get frustrated at people, love respects your body and doesn’t push it beyond its limit.
So really, this weekend trip to the Olympics was learning to overcome saltiness and negativity with love and kindness. And oh, of course, enjoying the beauty of mountains!
Photos shot on Canon Rebel T6