One of my Washington Bucket List Adventures is a traverse of the Olympics, south to north, up to the Low Divide and down the mighty Elwha River to the now drained dam. I have always wondered though if I should take the “easy” route up the North Fork of the Quinault to the Low Divide or take the more beautiful but harder high route, the Skyline Trail along the ridge. I was pretty pleased when Luke Distelhorst had the genius to propose a loop by combing these two trails. I’ll just try them both out!
As a Race Director, I never get much sleep race weekend, so after putting on the Snoqualmie Valley Runs on Saturday and about three hours of sleep a few nights in a row, Luke and me had an alpine start car drive to Lake Quinault, during which he thankfully let me catch a few extra zzz’s. Luke filled me in that my original Olympic Traverse was actually the route of the first expedition to cross the Olympics, the Press Expedition, back in the 1890s, and it took them seven months….now I want to do it in 12 hours! Weird how time changes things…
I would suggest parking at the north trailhead and getting the one mile road section out of the way while you’re fresh. Basically the route heads up Big Creek, achieves a ridge, and for the middle 20 miles you have interspersed high alpine meadows, rocky ridges, glacier basins, and incredible reflective tarns. Overall, the route was much more physically intense than either Luke or me predicted, for two reasons: Far more elevation gain and really technical footing. The high point for the route was at Kitma Peak, around mile 18. I had 6k of elevation at this point, and thought we really only had a traverse and gentle elevation loss to the Low Divide, at mile 31. However, what our topo map failed to show was the near constant rolling terrain and countless short, incredibly steep climbs. Since we’re not sure anyone else has done this route as a “running route” before, we couldn’t find any .gpx tracks to see how much elevation to expect. Mapping software gave an estimate of 10k, which Luke and me both thought was high…..oh how wrong we were….mine ended up with 12.5k of vert. Past Kitma Peak to Low Divide, trail truly was “primitive.” Route finding wasn’t hard, besides a short but really fun section of following misleading cairns in a moonscape. It was just filled with unrunnable descents, downed trees, rocks, and other fun stuff obstacles. Fun, but just couldn’t move quick.
I hit my low spot around a climb at mile 20, but from Low Divide onward, it was mostly a death march. Mostly all the same terrain, more elevation than we expected, just slow going. The ford at 16 Mile Camp was a non issue with snow melt being so down this year. Speaking of which, there were decent enough water sources about every five miles or so on the ridge section, enough to get by on without having to carry to much water. North Fork Section obviously has water very often. We planned on maybe 47 miles, 10k of vert, and 12 hours. My watch cut out one mile short of the end, but ended up with somewhere about 45 miles, 12k of vert, and just over 14 hours.