Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Enchanted Valley, Olympic NP

Standing at the roots of a fallen tree

After a few days of hanging out in Portland, on July 13th it was time to take to the road again, and this time, Gary, Zach and I were headed to Olympic National Park for a couple days of backpacking! Although we’ve camped a lot on this trip, we haven’t backpacked at all since our Katy Trail trip last year, so getting our gear and food in order took a while. But at last we were off, heading toward the Olympic peninsula and its legendary temperate rain forests that I’ve wanted to visit since I first heard of them years ago.

Three hours later, we checked in to the Quinault Ranger Station to get backcountry permits and rent bear canisters ($32 for Zach and me for three days). It was another hour drive up a dusty road to our destination, with the Quinault River shimmering on our left, and a dense thicket of ferns and conifers on our right. I later learned that the whole valley is classified as rainforest, although in the dry summer weather it just looked like a larger-than-life version of all Pacific Northwest forests. 

The trailhead for Enchanted Valley was stuffed, but once we crossed a high wooden bridge to the actual trail, the people thinned out and we walked mostly alone. The path rose and fell steadily, allowing us plenty of energy to take in the surroundings. As I said, the rainforest wasn’t too different from any of the mossy forests you see around the area— big-leafed maples spattered between stands of spruce, pine, and cedar, with every branch and trunk carpeted in moss with sprouting ferns; banana slugs oozing across the trail; a blanket of ferns and sorrel on the damp earth; huge rotting “nurse logs” that provide the perfect potting soil for new trees— but in this place, everything was on an epic scale. Some of the trees rivaled the redwoods for girth, and towered so far over our heads that with my backpack on, I sometimes couldn’t crane my neck far enough to see the tops. The air was cool and damp, and the chatter of the Quinault River accompanied us as we hiked up and away from its banks, then back down toward it. It thundered through a slot canyon and galloped over wide pebbly bottomlands, glimmering blue with glacial melt.

I had never seen a maple so big!

We had gotten a late start, so it wasn’t a stretch to stop at the O’Neil River backcountry campground that night, 6.6 miles in. It was packed with people, but we found a nice couple of women who let us camp next to them in a little nook away from the river. Mosquitoes swarmed around us, and we huddled in the smoke of our neighbors’ campfire, chatting. 

I felt exhausted that night, and would’ve gone right to sleep, but as I was doing so, I felt a wave of queasiness. Soon it turned into a full-blown stomach flu of some sort, complete with cramps, chills, uncontrollable trembling, nausea, and diarrhea (fortunately the campground had a small and very smelly pit toilet. I spent some quality time there). Lying in the tent during a lull in the nausea, I stared up at the stars and tried to soothe myself. It could be worse, it definitely could be worse... 

After several hours of fitful napping, I finally got to sleep as the stars were starting to fade. Surprisingly, I woke up a few hours later feeling reasonably fine, aside from not wanting to eat anything. I still don’t know what that was all about.

We didn’t start hiking until almost noon our second day, since we only had 6.5 miles to go. I had thought this would be a breeze, but my period had begun the day before, and today it hit me in earnest. The miles were easy, meandering through both rainforest and a kind of savannah spotted with maples, but it was all I could do to walk them. At last we crossed the narrow one-railing bridge that spanned high across the river (I inched my way across, muttering soothing phrases to myself the whole way), and found ourselves at last in Enchanted Valley.

The view from our tent.

This valley definitely lives up to its name: a wall of gray mountains rose up to our left, a jagged snow-dotted ridge probably a thousand feet above, with glacial waterfalls trickling down between the firs. The glassy river rambled down from the fold in the hills ahead, where we glimpsed a snowy peak between the gray wall to our left and the pine-covered hills to our right. Although more than a dozen people were camping here tonight, the valley was wide and open, with lots of campsites scattered among the grass. We set up in a flat spot looking straight toward one of the distant waterfalls. Exhausted and cramping, I collapsed on my sleeping pad and didn’t get up for a while.

That night, after some tuna wraps for dinner, I crawled into the tent at 8:00 and went right to sleep. I woke up later, when the stars were out in full force, and laid awake with cramps for probably an hour. Despite the discomfort, I loved watching the stars— you could see the Milky Way even through the mesh, and I watched Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) wheel slowly behind the ridge of mountains.

The next morning, we woke up early (the sun had barely touched the ridge in front of us), packed up in the dew, and headed back toward the trailhead. I was feeling a bit better today (although still pretty sore), and the miles flew by under our feet as we hiked back through the gorgeous scenery. Six hours later we rolled up to our car, and started back toward the blessings of civilization.

Long story short? The Enchanted Valley hike was an incredible cross-section of the rainforest ecosystem. It’s a great, easy trail with a lot of rewarding views, especially at Enchanted Valley. I sincerely wish that the timing had been better so I could’ve enjoyed it more, but even so, it was well worth the effort.

If you decide to hike Enchanted Valley, I’d suggest not camping at O’Neil Creek, but at one of the many random sites scattered along the river (you won’t get access to a pit toilet, but unless you get stomach flu, you’re better off digging a cathole anyway). But definitely plan to camp at Enchanted Valley— it’s one of the most scenic places I’ve ever pitched a tent.


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