Backpacking the High Divide Loop, Olympic National Park
The clack of antlers traveled through the atmosphere, reaching us across the valley. On the edge of a hill next to a heart-shaped lake, we sat watching the two bull elk dance in battle. Below them, like tiny figurines, herds of cows dozed in a warm patch.
To the north and south, the mountains of the Bailey Range shot up through thick evergreen, then fall confetti, then gray avy slopes, towering as planetary spines. The clouds marched in over the ridge that separated this scene from the one that illuminated the valley out to Mt. Olympus in its resplendent glory.
Nature, in all its labors, was simply too busy—hell, too grand—to notice that we were here.
Billy looked me. Were we here? We laughed. Were we really witnessing national geographic in the un-pixilated raw? I wanted to stick out an arm toward the action for three-dimensional confirmation that yes, this was reality.
On this late-September afternoon this was exactly where I wanted to be.
It was day two of four backpacking the High Divide Loop in Olympic National Park on the Washington peninsula. In other parts of the state, precious wild places lay wracked and smoldering beneath unrelenting fires. But this swath of wilderness was blessed and wet and cool and on full display.
At 18.2 miles, with many trails off-shooting, the High Divide Loop circumnavigates the subalpine and intriguingly moonscaped Seven Lakes Basin in the park’s northwest region. It’s popular for offering “a bit of everything that the park has to offer.” Which is true. Beginning at the Sol Duc Hot Springs, it switchbacks up through old-growth and subalpine meadows, oft passed black bear and deer, dark-green lakes, craters choked with talus and top-of-the-world views displaying land so exquisitely designed by the hand of nature that, surely, fairytales are true. All this tops out above 5,000 ft as a ridgeline traverse. Then it ducks into other side of the valley and quickly and steadily descends along the Sol Duc River, back.
For the fast-and-light thru-hiker it can be done in day. But we didn’t come for a passing glance at “a little bit of everything.” We came to find a lot of bit about ourselves through discovery, and by letting the enormousness and elegance of nature command our lives for several days.
Few are the lucky who see this region on clear or sunny days. For us, the magic started on day 1.
After hiking through the early zones, Billy and I reached Lunch Lake at dusk. One of several camp spots along our route, the sites on the lake’s banks are a mile from the trail and to reach them, you descend the stairway to heaven. It’s hell on the knees. But it was the topper to the day. Near the alpine blue lagoon, we let ourselves collapse.
We made camp on the edge of a cascading hillside to yet another valley. Thus, with nothing obstructing our view, we were front-and-center when, at night, the clouds—black, purple, with strips of fluorescent pink—put on a show, first with the setting sun, then with the moon. It’s easy to anthropomorphize… well, everything out here. But—the clouds, they had a soul and they were givin’ the night what they had, rolling in, dropping slowly and rising slowly, parting at times to let the moon’s glow create a haunting portal to the cosmos.
We awoke to a glaze of frost covering maroon leaves, lime-green grass and evergreen needles. The sun was cresting the blue mountains. In the cold air, I zipped up my down jacket and watched Billy pour a cup of coffee. I sipped my tea. There’s a certain type of pristine peace reserved the world’s wilderness backcounties and this place defined it.
By mid-morning we were heading toward Bogachiel Peak, a bump in the range at 5,474 ft, with panoramic views and a camp site on its peak. From the trail, the barren gray-and-blue palette of Seven Lakes Basin starkly contrasted with the montane forests around it. Eight lakes actually occupy the basin, with names like No Name, Clear, Round, and… Lake No. 8.
Then, we came around a bend, and bam! Mt. Olympus slammed its royal presence into the sightline. With trail, fall colors and the snow-capped king all in view, I tried to burn the image into my brain—the sweet, sweet reward for all the “sport walking,” as Billy calls it, we’d done.
For several miles, we hiked in the foreground of Mt. Olympus, its three peaks like points on a crown; mammoth glaciers flowing down. The righteousness of this trail only grew as the views expanded—a High Divide, cutting between Seven Lakes and the Sol Duc valley to the northwest and the valley out to Mt. Olympus to the southeast. Two backdrops competing beneath the firmament; us as their witnesses.
So what is it that you take away from here—where the power of enlightenment is blasting you from 360 degrees? Well, simply, that it’s not about you. That you’re just an itty, bitty, bitty little piece of it all. And that, if you’re lucky, you’ll experience many places on earth that make you realize this before you die.
Really, it’s about the elk. After the High Divide passage, we began the descent into the valley of Heart Lake, so perfectly shaped. There, elk yodels drew us to that perch on the hillside. It’s the rutting period, and soon two were locked in battle.
We lingered there long enough to see them eventually call a truce. Then, headed toward our campsite for the night along the Sol Duc River.
Now this night sort of went all wrong on me, though it started out well. We got into camp at dusk, filtered water, made a quick meal, drank some booze—K, a lot—and then at 8 p.m., crawled into the tent because the sun was gone and the alcohol had made the last of our working muscles go limp. Pass out so early, though, and at midnight, you’re wide-eyed, listening for the rummaging sounds of bears, tensing and twisting like a mad-man with every creek of the trees.
Morning didn’t bring any warmth. But the cold was bearable with laughter as we went about the morning chores.
We decided to hike up Appleton Pass this day to add miles to our journey. The trail starts at 3,100 ft and in 2.6 miles climbs to 5,120. You do the math. But as it steeply climbs, it brings into view the whole of the High Divide Trail across the valley. Seeing where you trod the day before generates a little tickle inside.
Appleton pass generated something else: Humility. Spending days climbing through mountains has its rewards and Appleton Pass dished up on a goliath scale. Again, a deep valley carved between boney spines, complete with a clear alpine pool for the hot and weary. We settled for a snack and nap in the sun, nearly hanging our toes off the edge. The birds and insects were busy. I’m not entirely sure, but I think this was the moment Billy adopted a backpacking hobby into his biking lifestyle.
That night, we made our last camp in a thicket above the river below the 3,500-feet fire line. I’d put both shoe-covered feet full-on into the river that morning, slipping on some rocks, and so it worked out perfectly that I could spend the night drying them by a crackling fire.
We sat watching the flames, letting images of the last few days sear our minds. Passing thoughts of how perfectly the trip had worked out came and went in my head. Other than hiking 10 miles with wet shoes and socks, there’d not been a flaw. It all felt a little strange.
Then again, why should I have assumed that nature would have been out to get us, throwing punches via ill weather or nasty encounters with ruffian inhabitants of the backcountry?
After all—it wasn’t about us.
Yes, this was the reality.