Big Quilcene to Marmot Pass, 06/06/09-06/07/09

I’d had my eye turned toward the Olympic Peninsula for several weeks. Our only hike on the other side of the Sound was a beach backpack, so we hadn’t really experienced the Olympic Mountains. And, after years of admiring them from afar, it was well past time to do something about it.

Falls in the Big Quilcene River.

Falls in the Big Quilcene River.

Last month, I’d decided that we’d hike the Upper Big Quilcene Trail #833.1 sometime soon. The Forest Service conditions report on 05/18/09 said the trailhead was open and that there was heavy snow around 5000′. With Marmot Pass another 1000′ above that, I decided to wait it out a bit. Several weeks passed, temperatures soared into the 90s—then retreated, and I forgot all about the knee pain from two weeks prior.


Nicole’s dad was in town for a conference, so after dropping him off late Saturday morning, we were off for an estimated one-night backpack. It wasn’t until 10:25 that we left Seattle, which was a later start then we’re used to. Though the Hood Canal Bridge had opened a day or two before, I chose to drive south on I-5 through Olympia, and then up WA-101 along the western edge of Hood Canal. (Actually, I’d been secretly hoping that the bridge had stayed closed for another week, to lessen the chances of a busy trail.) It’d be a bit more time in the Forester, but we’d avoid the ferry fees and drive along a stretch of road we’d never driven along before. The drive north from Olympia to Quilcene was enjoyable: beaches and clammers, smooth asphalt, and a speed limit of 50mph. I’m a sucker for a 50mph speed limit, at least when the scenery warrants it. If you asked why, I might tell you it’s because of the gas mileage (we averaged ~28mpg for the entire trip), but there’s more to it than that. Or maybe I’m just getting old.

On I-5, it had rained intermittently, several times quite strongly. I reassured Nicole that once alongside the eastern edge of the mountains, it’d be drier. I was right, for the most part, but clouds still loomed ominous but beautiful up the valleys to the west of us as we passed by them. Nicole wondered aloud whether we should backpack into the weather, bringing up the option of lightening our packs and dayhiking instead. It didn’t take much, but I convinced her that we should stick to our original plan; we needed the experience of hiking and backpacking in less-than-ideal conditions anyway.

At 12:45, after two hours and twenty minutes on the road, and double that since breakfast, we pulled into Quilcene and ate a hamburger. This may or may not have been a mistake. But it was one we couldn’t take back, and after a quick bite and a coffee left behind nearly full, we left Quilcene and WA-101 for Penny Creek Road (just south of town) and another ~15 miles up to the trailhead via Forest Service Roads #27 and #2750. Rhododendrons bloomed immediately aside the road, but clouds obscured any vistas.

Boots on, poles extended, we signed into the trail register at 14:10. Several dayhikers and a couple groups camped at Marmot Pass were all that lay before us. That, and ~3500′ of elevation gain in 5.3 miles.

The first ~thirty minutes of the trail climb gently through forest—more rhododendrons here, though fewer than those on the side of the road—and the Big Quilcene River seems far off in the distance, barely audible at first, then growing louder until it’s just off to your left.

The greens were the most vibrant I’ve ever seen. The river and its many small falls were picturesque beyond belief. We stopped immediately to make use of the tripod I carry for just such occasions. We were in high spirits at 15:00, as the trial—er, typo—trail started climbing, mildly to moderately, through the greenery and trees whose tops were shrouded in what I can’t decide whether to call clouds, fog, or mist.

Rest stop.

Rest stop.

While it didn’t seem to be raining, the trees themselves dripped droplets upon us, and at 15:55 we stopped at a “Stoves only beyond this point” sign and I wrapped the camera up and put it away while we ate sandwiches mainly to make the smell of onions go away. As we should’ve known, just after our break there was a large established camp to the left of the trail and next to the river. Had I paid closer attention to the signage at the trailhead, I would’ve known that this was Shelter Rock Camp, ~2.6 miles in and sitting at 3650′.  We’d gained just over 1100′ in half the hike, which left ~2400′ of gain in the following 2.7 miles. We were oblivious to these facts, though—for better or for worse, I cannot say.

Trail, trees, mist.

Trail, trees, mist.

At this point, the trail turns perpendicular to the river briefly, gaining elevation less gingerly. Here the nature of the trail changes. We looked out through trees draped with pale green moss into clouds that, no doubt, obscured views across the valley. At 16:50 the trail crossed talus slopes whose tops were out of view—after a glance at Green Trails Map #135, I made the assumption that the rocks were from Iron Mountain and our elevation was around 4800′. I really need an altimeter…

As the trail changed, I heard a strange sound, repeating frequently: Whoomp, whoomp, whoomp, whoomp, whoomp. Over and over, always five sounds, a pause, and then five more, repeating. I couldn’t locate the source, and not knowing what it was was driving me crazy. My hypothesis: owl. Or ptarmigan. I have no idea, really. Do you? [Edit: grouse.]  We did see a bunny rabbit shortly after.

Our pace was slower and slower. We stopped often. My knee began to ache. Nicole’s back began to ache. We felt each pound of our 30-35 pound loads.

Wildflowers were spread about the open slopes above and below us: paintbrushes, phlox, and chocolate lilies. In the future, we’d see a small meadow of glacier lilies.

Flowers 1.

Flowers 1.

Flowers 2.

Flowers 2.

Sometime around 17:50 we approached Camp Mystery, at 5400′ and 4.6 miles in. Here there was snow. We saw a tent off the the right, and we continued on the trail, which at this point resembled a small stream. The area was wet! Nicole stopped to rest while I went ahead to find a campsite. By this time, we were pretty sure we’d just camp here, and head up to Marmot Pass in the morning or something.

A couple passed me on the way down and mentioned something about the summit being closed, and checking the website. I said, “Huh.” Maybe I was tired, but I really had no idea what they were talking about. I found a nice dry campsite to the right of the trail, with water out back, in addition to that across the trail. I went off to tell Nicole, whom I met almost immediately. She’d seen the same couple, who told her there was a good campsite near some white poop that they thought was bobcat scat. We turned around and went back up the trail, past the campsite I had seen (which Nicole liked) and found the droppings and a small trail that led to a spot suitable for a bivy, perhaps.

Here the trail hugged the right side of a meadow while snow hugged the left. In between were a fair number of yellow flowers: glacier lilies. At the end of the small meadow stood a rock wall and I hypothesized—as I tend to do—that the trail at that point turned up and made its final climb to Marmot Pass. Since it was by then 18:00, we were tired, and we didn’t have any idea what conditions/campsites were like up ahead, we returned to the aforementioned site and set up camp.

Somehow we managed to stay awake until nearly 22:00…


We awoke stiff and sore Sunday morning, but excited to see not clouds but rocks above us. It was clear! We left our packs behind us at 07:30 for a quick jaunt up to Marmot Pass. I envisioned mountains above clouds, and took little aside from my camera. The trail switchbacked through several short patches of snow, and there was ample evidence of post-holing. Luckily, we stayed atop the snow and turned frequently to admire the sun shining on the valley below us, which was filled with clouds. We saw bootprints both straight uphill and those that followed the trail, but it was easy to tell the difference.

Misty mountain crop.

Misty mountain crop.

Climbing snow to Marmot Pass.

Climbing snow to Marmot Pass.

Pass in sight!

Approaching the pass.

Suddenly the pass was in sight. I could see the sign in the distance. We arrived at 07:55, and spent the next ~10 minutes taking photographs and relaxing at 6000′.

Nicole relaxes while looking into the Olympic interior.

Nicole relaxes while looking into the Olympic interior.

Click = embiggen.

West over Marmot Pass. Click = embiggen.

We had been very close to the pass the night before, but I think it worked out for the best. We enjoyed our campsite, and the short morning excursion up to the pass. I had entertained ideas of summiting Buckhorn Mountain during the planning phase, but it’ll have to wait until another time.

As we descended, the warmth from the sun’s rays was raising clouds up like smoke signals.

Down to the clouds.

Down to the clouds.

We broke camp at 09:00, dropped down into the clouds, and were in the Forester by 11:30. We stopped off to quell Nicole’s caffeine headache at a roadside espresso stand along WA-101 and were home at 14:45, with time to shower and rest before picking up Nicole’s dad and taking him to the airport.

This trip pushed us to work a little harder. We went up—not knowing how hard it’d be or what the weather had in store for us. I think the ~3500′ of elevation gain is the most we’ve accomplished while wearing full packs for the entire time. We had a good time, and managed to make Marmot Pass when it was clear. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Stats: ~10.6 miles from trailhead to Marmot Pass and back, with ~3500′ of elevation gain (and loss).
Day 1: ~4.8 miles and ~3000′ of elevation gain to our campsite below Marmot Pass.
Day 2: ~5.8 miles, ~500′ of elevation gain, and ~3500′ of elevation loss.

As always, a few more photos at Flickr.



11 Responses to Big Quilcene to Marmot Pass, 06/06/09-06/07/09

  1. Brenda says:

    Hi – I read the long version of your trip report – great writing…enjoy the details. Was wondering if this would be a good one for a 3 day weekend in the middle of July? My husband and I haven’t been to the Olympic NP yet and so we’re looking for a few good hikes. I’ll be about 10 weeks pregnant at that time – maybe the elevation gain would be too much?

    • jeremy says:

      Thanks for reading, Brenda!

      I think it could make a very nice 2-night trip. My only concerns in the middle of July would be the possibility of heat and the availability of water. If you were staying at designated camps, water shouldn’t be a problem. And weather is weather! As for the elevation gain and pregnancy: I’m no doctor, but doing your best to avoid the heat of the day during the climb (especially the upper portions where there’s no treecover) and staying hydrated would be a good idea. The grade was never super-steep, just constant.

      I know I could’ve used a little more time up there. I’m not sure if you’re the type to set up camp and make minor explorations or longer ones, but the scramble up to Buckhorn Mountain from Marmot Pass sounds relatively easy, with great views. And there’s Buckhorn Lake ~3.5 miles from Marmot Pass–not sure what that’s like.

      Hope this helps a little.

  2. sarah says:

    nice photos, as always 🙂 I love seeing photos of all these places i never made it to while i was in washington.

  3. Pingback: The Year in Review, 2009 Edition « Don’t Look Down

  4. Sara says:

    Nice blog! Found it when googling. 🙂 The sound you heard was a grouse. You’ve likely heard a few since then!

  5. mamamia says:

    Can you please tell us if this hike is really difficult?

    • jeremy says:

      I wouldn’t call it really difficult. I’d say it’s a moderate hike. Much of it is pretty flat, but going up the “humps” is a good workout.

      • mamamia says:

        Okay, thank you. everywhere I read it said, this hike is rated as difficult and wanted to check with someone who has actually hiked it.

    • jeremy says:

      Oh, I should clarify, as I misread this comment as one based on another trip report. I still wouldn’t call it difficult, but it is steadily uphill. My wife and I did it with full packs (since we spent the night near the pass) so if you’re doing it as a day hike it’d be easier.

      Definitely a workout, but the trail is never too steep or rough.

  6. mamamia says:

    we are doing as 2 night backpacking trip. Camping in shelter rock campground on first night and at marmot pass for the second night. Of total 5.3 miles how many miles of steep climb.

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