In my last post, I started describing the hike along the North Olympic Wilderness Coast, covering from Shi Shi Beach to Sand Point. Today I finish, covering from Sand Point to Rialto Beach.
As I mentioned, the hiking near Sand Point is perhaps the easiest of the entire 32 miles. This is particularly true south of Sand Point, where the beach is broad and sandy. Though hiking in the dry sand can be tiring, it is possible to walk on wet sand at all but the highest tides (which in summer occur at night on this part of the coast).
South of Sand Point proper, the beach extends for about 2 miles. Then, after going around an easy headland (passable at 5-foot tide or lower – no overland trail), you come to another nice beach at Yellow Banks – so named for several cliffs made of yellow rock inland off the beach. The campsite at Yellow Banks is the furthest south campsite where reservations are required.
South of Yellow Banks is a long stretch of about 4.5 miles with only one headland (passable on a 6-foot tide – no overland trail), but also without a nice walking beach (at least at the tide level we saw it at; we hiked this section on a rising tide). Here the beach is mostly cobbly, instead of sandy. At high tide, the area could be difficult to hike due to the lack of beach (the tide appears to come quite close to the treeline) and due to downed trees that stick out into the water at high tide.
When hiking this stretch of the coast, we came upon a Boy Scout troop heading north. We stopped to talk a minute to get news of the headland we needed to round before coming to our next camp at the Norwegian Memorial. One of the men with the troop was carrying a rib bone from a whale, which, he said, he intended to carry the rest of their hike. (We wondered about the wisdom of that, first because it probably weighed 20 pounds, and second we doubted the park rangers would let him keep it.) They said bone was from a collection of whale bones in the next small cove. A short distance later, we found the bones, many of which someone had placed together on a large drift log.
We rounded a broad, rocky area north of the Norwegian Memorial close to high tide without too much difficulty and rambled out onto Kayostia Beach, a long sandy beach in front which is home to the Norwegian Memorial. The memorial is dedicated to the crew of the Norwegian vessel Prince Arthur, which struck a reef, broke apart, and partially sank just offshore on January 2, 1903. Only 2 of its 20 person crew survived. The memorial is reportedly on a bluff overlooking the northern end of Kayostia Beach, but wanting to get our camp set up, did not go look for it.
The backcounty campground at Kayostia Beach is about south of the memorial by about half a mile. There are many nice, large sites set just off the beach in the trees. At the southern end of the beach, there is a particularly attractive sea stack and some nice tidepools.
Around the small headland at the end of Kayostia Beach (passable at a 5.5-foot tide, but there is also an overland trail) is an even more beautiful beach. At the northern end of this beach is the Cedar Creek campsite (which we did not visit). The beach lasts for a mile, ending at headland that can be passed on a 4-foot tide (or by overland trail). Past this headland is another nice sandy beach just less than a mile long, which ends a small headland that can only be crossed by going over the top on a short trail (with ropes of course).
South of this headland, the beach becomes rocky again. About midway down this rocky beach, there is a small waterfall in cleft in the rock face a the top of the beach. We spent five hours waiting the the tide near this waterfall because at the south end of this rocky beach is a headland that is passable only at low tide (5.5 feet or lower). Further, a short mile south of the headland is Cape Johnson, which also must be traversed at low tide (4 feet or lower – neither have overland trails). We made the trip around these two headlands on an outgoing tide, with the water level just below the highest recommended levels. The traverse, particularly around Cape Johnson was not easy; but perhaps it is easier with a lower tide. We did see a large number of seals hauled out on the rocks just offshore from the cape.
South of Cape Johnson is a beautiful cove which is home to the Chilean Memorial – which is the resting place of the crew of Chilean ship, W.J. Pirrie. The W.J. Pirrie was torn apart just offshore here in November 1920, killing all but two of the crew of 20.
The beach in the cove is mostly gravel and cobbles, with only a small stretch of sand. That sandy spot forms a small campground. When we arrived on an early Friday evening, the campground was crowded with four of five other groups. One moved over to allow us a spot to camp. Of all the campsite we visited on the trip, this was smallest and most crowded (a result, most likely, of being only 3.7 miles north of Rialto Beach).
South of Chilean Memorial to Hole in the Rock, the coast is formed by two more small coves and plenty of sea stacks offshore. Hole in the Rock is at the last headland before Rialto Beach. The “hole” is a small arch in the bottom of the headland, and at low tide you can walk through it. At high tide, you will need to take the short trail over the top. We took the low route, and the tide was just a little too high to make it without getting wet feet. There is a backcountry campground at Hole in the Rock, but we did not see it.
South of Hole in the Rock, it is an easy beach walk to the parking lot at Rialto Beach. The stretch of coast between the northern end of Rialto Beach and the Chilean Memorial was, in my opinion, some of the most scenic of the entire trip.
This hike is high on scenery, and it is very worthwhile to take your camera. I carried my Canon 6D, two lenses (a 28-300mm zoom and a 17-40mm zoom), a tripod, and several filters (a polarizer, a split neutral density filter, and a 10-stop neutral density filter), as well as extra batteries and other small accessories. I used most, if not all, the equipment I brought (partially because if I was carrying it, I thought I should use it). Of course, weight is a consideration as well!
For lens selection, you probably want everything in your bag. There are many sweeping scenic shots for wide-angle lenses. Short telephoto lenses are useful for isolating sea stacks off shore. And longer lenses are a must if you want good wildlife shots (we saw raccoons, deer, a coyote, dozens of bald eagles, great blue herons, seals, and a few sea otters).
A polarizing filter helps a lot with glare, wet surfaces, and minimizing the common sea mist. It is essential for minimizing reflections when shooting tidepools. I found having the 10-stop neutral density filter fun, being able to take long exposures to totally remove wave action. A split neutral density filter was handy at sunset. The tripod was definitely worth taking for those long exposures, sunset shots, and tidepool shots.
Being the west coast, sunsets were good photographic subjects. At most places, with short walks from the campsites, there were almost always sea stacks or islands that could be used in sunset compositions. I didn’t bother much with sunrise, which was typically blocked by the bluffs rising eastward off the beach.
The 7 Lakes Basin/High Divide hike is one of the premier backpacking trips in the Olympics if not in Washington State. The scenery is superb and varied. It includes one of the best waterfalls in the state, old growth forest, multiple lakes in both sub-alpine and alpine settings (don’t let the name 7 Lakes Basin confuse you, there are many more than 7 lakes), and views north to Vancouver Island, west to the Pacific, and a fantastic view south to the Hoh River and Mount Olympus.
Wildlife is also abundant. Sightings of deer, elk, mountain goats, and black bears are very common (however, on my recent trip, of the four species, we only saw deer; although based on other hikers’ and backcountry rangers’ comments, we were in the minority). In particular, the mountain goats are so common in frequenting trail and campsite areas, that (at least when I was there) rangers direct hikers to throw rock at them to get them to move off the trail (apparently, the goats are starting to believe they are the dominate species and think humans should move off the trail for them rather than the other way around; the rangers are trying to teach them the opposite).
While the loop is just over 18 miles in length, several of the campsite are not directly on the loop, so the actual length for most people is 19 miles or more. Most people complete the loop in 3 days. We decided to take it slow, and spent 4 nights in the basin. There are four “large” backcountry campgrounds with 6 to 16 campsites: Deer Lake, Lunch Lake, Heart Lake and Sol Duc Park. There are at least 14 other campgrounds with just a single site. Camping is only allowed at the designated sites, and a permit is required. 50% of the campsites can be reserved in advance, and the most popular fill up fast (particularly Heart Lake). This trail is very popular. If you are seeking solitude while camping, avoid the major campground and reserve some of the single sites. For example, we spent one night at Round Lake which was quite private even though it is close to Lunch Lake.
From a photography prospective, unless you want forest shots, the best views are high up in the basin – so you may want to concentrate camping at Heart Lake, Lunch Lake, and Round Lake. For sunrise or sunset views of Olympic Range (and Mount Olympus in particular) without a long hike from your campsite, options are limited. Mount Olympus is only seen from the portion of the trail which actually traverses the High Divide ridge. Other than the Heart Lake Junction campsite (which I didn’t specifically visit, but from the main trail, it appeared to be a dry camp) and a campsite in Cat Basin (which is off the main trail by at least a mile), the High Divide part of the trail is about a 1/2 mile hike and several hundred feet elevation gain from Heart Lake and several miles from Lunch Lake. Without camping at Heart Lake, Heart Lake Junction, or Cat Basin, it is likely you may only see Mount Olympus in mid-day. Inspiring yes, but not the best light as Olympus is directly south of High Divide.
Another consideration about where to camp is what direction you do the loop in. Most people do the hike counterclockwise, spending the first night at Deer Lake (about 3 1/2 miles from the trailhead) or Lunch Lake (about 8 miles). The advantage of going this way is that the elevation gain is a bit more spread out. However it is also possible to go clockwise, which has little elevation gain for the first 6 miles or so (in the Sol Duc River valley), then climbs steeply over 2,000 feet in about 2 miles through Sol Duc Park to Heart Lake. I’ll discuss the photo worthy highlights from a counterclockwise perspective, since that is the direction we did the trip.
The trailhead (elevation about 1,870 feet) is just down the road from Sol Duc Hot Springs resort and campground. Sol Duc Falls (elevation 1,927 feet) is 0.8 easy miles from the trailhead. These falls are one of the most photogenic waterfalls in the Olympics and perhaps even Washington State. The falls consist of three side-by-side drops of approximately 35 feet where the Sol Duc River drops sideways into a narrow gorge. There are several viewpoints from which to photograph the falls, the two main ones being a footbridge a short distance north of the falls and a viewing area directly south of the falls. Set in a beautiful old-growth forest, the scene from both viewpoints is spectacular. However, being in the forest, contrast can be a big problem photographically. Sunlight shining on the falls creates extreme contrast differences. Photographing the falls on a cloudy day or early or late in the day when the falls are in shadows are preferred times.
These preferred times may also help with the second problem photographing the falls. They are extremely popular, and it is hard (at least in summer) to find the falls without people climbing on the rocks above the falls. Luckily, if you take the loop hike, you go by the falls twice, giving you two opportunities to find good light and few people. On our hike, on our first visit, there were perhaps 50 people there, including several women in bright clothes performing some sort of yoga(?) exercise on the rocks at the top of the falls. Further, it was mid-afternoon, and with part of the falls sunlit, the contrast was bad. Our stop at the end of the hike was in late morning. And though there were still a lot of people present, they were mostly out of the frame when shooting the falls. And although sunlight was still an issue, it was more controllable with post-processing.
From Sol Duc Falls, the trail rapidly gains elevation as it makes it way along Canyon Creek to Deer Lake, 3.4 miles from the trailhead (elevation 3,527 feet). This portion of the trail is in forest, but there is a nice view of the creek where the trail crosses on a well constructed bridge. The first view of Deer Lake is where the trail crosses the outlet stream, a good place to photograph the lake (depending on light conditions of course). The lake is set in a sub-alpine forest with occasional meadows, making for some nice views (see this image from my previous post), though certainly unspectacular compared to the higher lakes further up in the basin. The lake is aptly named, we had a buck wander through our campsite in the evening and saw several does in the morning.
Past Deer Lake, the trail resumes its climb toward High Divide, coming out of the forest into a mixed forest and meadow area at the Potholes (4.9 miles, 4,115 feet elevation). The Potholes consist of several ponds and small lakes and a small (one or two sites) campground. This may be worthy of a quick stop or at least a few shots taken from the trail. At the time of our visit (and likely through much of August), wildflowers were abundant from this point on the loop all the way to Sol Duc Park.
Beyond the Potholes, the trail grade moderates somewhat as it eventually reaches the divide that separates the Sol Duc drainage from the Bogachiel drainage (6.1 miles, 4,750 feet). Eventually the trail settles on the Bogachiel side, traversing a very steep hillside along fairly level path below the top of the ridge. The trail eventually reaches a side trail junction that drops down into the 7 Lakes Basin, and specifically to Lunch and Round Lakes (7.05 miles, 4,862 feet).
The 7 Lakes Basin is named for seven lakes within the basin: Round, Lunch, Sol Duc, Clear, Long, No Name, and Morgenroth Lakes. However, the basin name is a misnomer. There are many other lakes in the basin including Lake Number Eight and the Wye Lakes (see below).
Most hikers, us included, hike down to Lunch Lake, dropping about 500 feet in less than half a mile. The views of Lunch and Round Lake are spectacular along this side trail. We spent one night at Round Lake and a second night at Lunch Lake. There are many photo opportunities in the area immediately around the two lakes. You can also venture further out in the basin. From the east end of Lunch Lake, there are trails to Clear Lake and into the Wye Lakes area.
We day hiked into the Wye Lakes area and were pleasantly surprised by the many small lakes we found. These lakes are not shown on some maps (including the Green Trails map we were using). The Wye Lakes are located in a treeless bowl below Bogachiel Peak (see the post-opening photo above). We counted at least 10 lakes in the area, though some would more rightly be classified as ponds. From the southern end of the Wye Lakes area, it looked like you could fairly easily bushwhack down to No Name and Morgenroth Lakes.
During our two nights in 7 Lakes Basin, we saw plenty of deer, including several fawns, but no other wildlife other than frogs (lots of frogs), salamanders and fish. The volunteer ranger at Lunch Lake said the mountain goats loved to hang out in and near the Lunch Lake campground, but they were absent when we were there. (She later told us that while we were camping at Lunch Lake, the goats had traveled to Heart Lake and were staying at the campground there. However, the next day when we hiked to Heart Lake, the goats had left).
To continue from the Lunch Lake area, you have a choice: you can hike back up to the main trail or take a short cut through the Wye Lakes area. Back on the main trail, the way continues traversing the side of Bogachiel Peak, working around the west and south sides of the peak, nearly reaching the summit at 8.12 miles (5,377 feet elevation, the high point on the trail) from the trailhead. Along this part of the trail, shortly before reaching the high point, there is a side trail down to Hoh Lake, a steep 800 feet below the ridge southwest of Bogachiel. From the high point on the trail, it is an easy walk, but airy on the north side, up to the top of Bogachiel Peak. From the high point, the main trail continues atop the High Divide Ridge line eastward with fantastic views of Mount Olympus, the Baily Range, and the Hoh River valley to the south and the 7 Lakes Basin to the north. If you take the short cut through the Wye Lakes area, you reach High Divide at about the 8.8 mile point at just under 5,000 feet elevation. (This short cut saves, by my calculations, about 400 feet elevation gain and about 0.75 miles). We took this route, dropping our packs and hiking back up the main trail to the top of Bogachiel Peak.
The trail continues along the top of High Divide until finally turning northeast to drop to Heart Lake at 9.95 miles from the trailhead (5,042 feet). The two miles of trail from the Hoh Lake junction to the Heart Lake junction are incredible for their view of Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, you will likely be hiking this portion in mid-day, and with Olympus due south, the light for photography is not prime. From shortly before the Heart Lake junction all th the way back to the trailhead, it is all downhill.
Heart Lake (10.3 miles, 4,744 feet) is a small, pretty lake and is definitely worth a stop for photos if not camping there. Below Heart Lake, the trail descends rapidly, gradually entering the forest and leaving the alpine lands behind. This part of the trail is known for being frequented by elk (though we did not see any). The trail reaches Sol Duc Park at 11.1 miles (4,135 feet), a nice sub alpine forested campground. The trail continues dropping, never far from but with only occasional views of the Sol Duc River. The forest eventually morphs from sub alpine to low land old growth with seemingly impossibly tall fir and hemlock trees. We spent our last night at the Appleton Junction campsite (13.35 miles, 3,082 feet, next to the Appleton Pass trail intersection with the High Divide trail). This camp is near by the very scenic Rocky Creek (there is another campsite right on the creek), full of mossy logs and rock amid rushing white water. The final five miles of trail are gradually downhill through old growth forest, eventually once again reaching Sol Duc Falls at about 17.3 miles and the trailhead at 18.1 miles.
All in all, this is a great photography trip and is one of the highlights of Olympic National Park. (Note: I borrowed mileage and elevation data from the High Divide trail description on the Pro Trails website.)
I spent most of last week on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park, making the 19-mile loop trip around the 7 Lakes Basin and along High Divide. Together with my two partners (my brother Rob and his grandson Izzy), we spent 5 days on the trip. In the next few days, I hope to write a photo guide post for the 7 Lakes Basin, but until then, here are a few images from early in the trip to give you an idea about what the 7 Lakes Basin is all about.