OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)

For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.

We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.

We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.

We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.

Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!

When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.

I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.

The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.

At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Gray Wolf Trail

A hike along the Gray Wolf Trail in Olympic National Forest.

A giant Western Hemlock in the mossy forest along the Gray Wolf Trail

What are the chances of seeing a Gray Wolf while hiking the Gray Wolf Trail? Zip, actually. Wolves once roamed the Olympic Mountains, but every last one was hunted down and exterminated early in the last century; leaving just the romantic name, Gray Wolf River. Perhaps someday Gray Wolves will be reintroduced, but the last time that notion was floated, in the early 90s, posses of yahoos showed up at the public hearings and catcalled and ridiculed the public officials who proposed it. Threats were made and the project quietly disappeared. The yahoos won. Maybe next time it will turn out better … or not.

This isn’t the prettiest of trails. It starts by following a decommissioned logging road that is quietly returning to some semblance of nature, though it is still bumpy with dozer piles and gouges, then enters the Buckhorn Wilderness and descends through the forest to the river. Near the river, a windstorm raged through the forest sometime in the last decades, knocking down hundreds of trees and making the woods look like the old childhood game of Pick-up Sticks. Except Bigfoot decided not to play and left the sticks for the trail crew to chew through.

The river itself has been on a tear in recent years. It ripped out a high bridge during an Olympic-level deluge some years ago, which blocked a trail to the high country. And even in the last month, it tore out a section of trail during a rainstorm that brought eight inches of rain to our home near the Olympics.

During the last big rainstorm, the river rose and tore these trees from the riverbank; note the torn up roots and gouged bark

This river, like all the torrents that flow down from the high Olympics, chews away at its banks, as if it hates to color within the lines. Outside the lines, it piles rocks and topples streambank trees before making a temporary retreat. When the riverbed fills with stones and gravel, the water will suddenly dash off through the forest and cut its own new path. Fortunately, this happens rarely in human time; but in geologic time the river travels down out of the mountains like a writhing snake, back and forth across the basin.

Most of the trees in the river basin were relatively young, or had been knocked down. We saw several immense Western Hemlocks that have long stood defiantly against the river, and are now centuries old. As with all the rainy forests in our dank part of the globe, mosses and lichens and fungi and ferns thrive everywhere. Look closely, and the forest floor can look as if aliens landed and are oozing through the wet landscape. Speaking of oozing, this is also the land of giant slugs, though it was too cold for them to be sliming through the forest during our hike.

The Bird’s Nest Fungus is one of the stranger life forms in the forest. The little “eggs” in the cup are containers for spores; these eggs leap out of the nest when hit by a raindrop falling at just the right angle. This sends the eggs flying through the air, each attached to a little rope, and when the rope strikes a twig, the attached egg is carried ’round and ’round the twig like a tetherball. It sits there, waiting for the weather to dry out. When the sun comes out, the eggs break open and the spores are released to the wind. There is even a technical name for this method of spreading spores; the “nests” are known as splash cups. How’s that for a bedtime story!

The streams here are home to a terrible predator, at least if one is small. The Pacific Giant Salamander grows up to a foot long. In his excellent book, Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Daniel Mathews says “In small mountain streams it is the dominant predator, outweighing all salmon and trout put together.” And I bet it doesn’t taste as good. Unfortunately, we’ve never seen one, but it would be a great candidate for my museum Hall of Weird Olympic Life Forms.

Some of the eggs splashed outside the nest but didn’t wander far from home

While walking the trail, I had an inkling that this would be the day we would finally see a Cougar. Alas, if one was there, it was a silent sentinel, quietly watching from the mysterious forest. Two weeks ago, a Cougar was seen several blocks from our home on Fawn Lake, but we missed that one. Someday, we’ll see one, when we least expect it …

The soothing mists floating through the tall trees of Olympic National Forest, viewed from the Gray Wolf Trail

I spent a lot of time photographing small stuff on the ground, as well as the trees. I even wrenched my leg when I was perched on two fallen logs with my tripod, trying to get a good angle on a mossy tree. My left foot broke through a rotten log, toppling me and my tripod like a fat hemlock slammed down by fierce winds coming off the Pacific. I thought my stump was splintered, based on the immediate pain. But the pain subsided and I climbed back up on the log again and got the photo (though the leg hurts too much to go jogging this week). Karen was getting cold while waiting for me, and it was getting late, so we walked up out of the river basin and into the clouds, arriving back at the trailhead at 4:45 p.m.

This Western Red Cedar, draped in epiphytic mosses, was my visual target when I collapsed suddenly into a rotten log, then toppled to the ground. I think the trees were making me feel what they feel when the chain saws snarl.

A tiny trail leads into the forest so that we can worship at the base of the tallest trees like the Druids we are

This dead cedar has endured fire, as evidenced by the hollowed out center and extensive black charcoal; perhaps it was hit by lightning long ago, or perhaps a wildfire raged through this forest

Playing Pick-up Sticks with Bigfoot

Another REALLY weird life form: the Fairy Barf lichen, which looks like little blown chunks against a bile green background

Mosses in bewildering diversity drape logs and rocks throughout the forest

Here the famished Gray Wolf River devoured a stretch of the trail

Red Alders thrive along the start of the trail, where clearcuts removed the ancient, original forest several decades ago

Still another really weird life form: Witches’ Butter. This gelatinous fungus appears after rain, which could be any ol’ time in the Olympics. Witches’ Butter has a slimy texture and some claim it is edible, but tasteless. Perhaps it appeals to witches, along with fly wings and salamander gills. By the way, the vertical line in the photograph was made by a beetle tunneling under the bark, devouring wood.

Sword Ferns thrive in the damp Olympic forests

Red Alders in the moist air of the Olympic highlands

For more information about Olympic National Forest, go to the Olympic National Forest website

To read some of my prior stories from Olympic National Forest, go to:

Harlequin Ducks, Sol Duc, and Tubal Cain

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website