Backpacking in Enchanted Valley

May 25th through May 28th, 2003. Graves Creek trailhead, 26 miles round trip.

Report by Mars Saxman.

When looking for information about trails in Olympic National Park, Enchanted Valley kept coming up as one of the prettiest places to see and one of the most popular hikes in the park. Normally I try to stay away from popular places, but I figured that for my first real visit to the park I should go for a proven winner. They were right: it is a nice hike and Enchanted Valley is gorgeous.

Park Service information about the trail

The drive out to Aberdeen and then up to Quinault was the usual succession of Olympic Peninsula vistas: a field of jagged stumps here, an unnaturally thick stand of 15-year-old pines there, half-bald hills on the horizon; miles of the wreckage left by the timber industry. I always feel a bit sick driving through this stuff.

First stop is the Forest Service ranger station in South Lake Quinault. The Park Service ranger station further in is currently closed, so they've set up shop inside the Forest Service building. The backcountry pass costs $5 for entry plus $2 per person per night. Then on down the road, through farms and more logged patches, along the south shore of the Quinault River. The road turns to gravel and it's a windy but mildly scenic trip to the Graves Creek trailhead.

The trail climbs out of the Graves Creek valley, over a small ridge - there's a very weathered picnic table at the top - and down into the Quinault River valley. The river is quite a sight here: it has worn a 30 foot groove into the rock, so the water pours through a steep-sided slot. Just downstream from the bridge there's a deep pool off to the side that looks like it would be a great place to take a dip later in the summer.

From here the trail follows the north shore of the river. Given a sufficiently early start, you could hike the entire 13 miles to Enchanted Valley in one day, but you'd miss all the lovely campsites scattered every couple of miles along the way. I did not start on the trail until 1 PM, so I stopped at Pyrites Creek about 10 miles in.

Next morning I could feel the fact that this was my first backpacking trip of the season, and my first hike in close to a year. Ouch, did my legs ever hurt. After a lot of laying around and a couple advil, I put my camp together and continued to the valley itself.

The second bridge across the river is out, so you have to use the stock ford. This could be tough during high water, but the river is pretty low right now and it never reached higher than my knees.

Once you cross the river, that's pretty much it. The valley widens out, and suddenly the v-shaped river gorge turns into a distinctively glacial flat-bottomed valley walled by steep rocky cliffs. And that's when you realize what everyone was talking about...

This place is BEAUTIFUL - gorgeous and peaceful. Standing where I shot that panorama series, I counted eleven waterfalls. Move up or down the valley and you can see more. None of the waterfalls are anything particularly noteworthy by themselves, but I have never seen such cascading abundance anywhere else.

The timing was perfect; I arrived just before midday on Monday, and the last two groups of Memorial Day campers left shortly after I arrived. Even the ranger had already gone back downstream. I had the valley to myself until another lone wanderer showed up the next day, half an hour before I left.

I am something of a live wire and have a hard time slowing down. I'll happily sit still if I have a good book or a movie, but either body or mind must be engaged else I get antsy. Here, I was actually able to relax: I just lay on the grass, thinking of nothing, for over an hour. Glorious.

Of course I eventually got up and did some hiking around the valley. Winter is barely over here; the passes are still "iceaxe required" terrain. New growth is just sprouting up and there are even a few hunks of snow still on the ground. This rapidly fading piece is some 20 feet tall, sandwiched between two of the waterfalls. I climbed a few hundred feet up the cliff to get a better look at the valley, and from my perch watched an avalanche half a mile or so down. The full melt will be on soon; I heard two more avalanches before I left.

There's a herd of deer in the valley, and they don't appear to be particularly afraid of humans. They are certainly cautious, but didn't get upset as long as I didn't move quickly and didn't try to get within more than fifty feet or so. On my way out of the valley, however, I walked right past a buck, who was maybe fifteen feet away when I noticed him. I've never been so close to a deer in my life, and it was a bit unnerving. Before I'd been careful not to spook the deer so they wouldn't run away; now I walked carefully so he wouldn't try to charge me.

The trip back was easy, much more so than the hike in. If I'd known how quick it would be I would have spent all of Tuesday in Enchanted Valley, then done the whole 13 miles back on Wednesday (and that still would have left enough time to drive home). I don't know how much of it was my legs getting used to the hiking and how much was the fact that I was dropping rather than gaining elevation, but I left in the middle of the afternoon Tuesday and only stopped hiking at Fire Creek, 9 miles later, because the light had started to fade. Here I found a campsite with a nice moss mattress collected by the previous visitor and had a very nice night's sleep. Wednesday I slept in as long as I could stand, then dawdled the rest of the way back to the trailhead.

The weather was considerably more pleasant than I had expected. I'm used to backpacking at higher elevations, where nighttime temperatures can drop near or below freezing even during summer. At 1700 feet it still gets cool in the evening, but I was comfortable in a lightweight sleeping bag wearing just longjohns and a long-sleeved T-shirt. I'm also used to backpacking in drier climates and had not been sure what to expect from a rainforest climate, but the moist air was pleasant and it only rained once (and lightly, at that, while I was falling asleep).

This was my first completely solo backpacking trip, and it was a rewarding experience. There's a lightweight feeling to it - making decisions at my own pace, following whims without needing a sensible justification, wandering aimlessly, even just standing still in one place for as long as I wanted to soak it in. It's nice not having to worry about the needs of other people in the party, and to let my thoughts spin away as they will. Still, the desire to share the experience was not completely absent; I found myself thinking of what I would write in this web page, and taking pictures as much in an attempt to capture the mood of a place in order to communicate it later as to actually show what I was looking at. I'm sure this will be the first of many solitary rambles, but I also look forward to finding other people interested in exploring Olympic National Park.

I hope to revisit Enchanted Valley later in the summer when the passes are clear. If I can work out the transportation difficulties I'd like to try hiking over O'Neil Pass and then out of the park down the Duckabush River valley.

Your intrepid correspondent, back at the trailhead, feeling only half as tired as I look: