Another business trip to Seattle gave me the opportunity to hike in Washington’s Olympic National Forest again last weekend.  This trip only allowed me one free day before I had to head home.  I was determined to make the most of it.


After work on Friday, I met my friend Brian at the ferry terminal for the ride over to Bainbridge Island.  I arrived 30 minutes prior to departure, but thanks to rush hour traffic, that wasn’t early enough.  We missed the 5:30 ferry by about 15 cars.  As a result, we were given no choice but to extend happy hour with another round of beers.  This wasn’t so bad, as it was a nice day out, and the bar patio provided a nice view of Puget Sound.


During happy hour, we discussed our plans for the following day.  Thanks to recent hot, sunny weather, most areas of Olympic National Park and Forest were snow-free and accessible.  We considered several options, but ultimately settled on hiking the Upper Big Quilcene River Trail to Marmot Pass.  This would require a 10 ½ mile round-trip hike, with an elevation gain of 3500’.  From Marmot Pass, and established climber’s route ascends another 1000’ to the summit of Buckhorn Mountain.  I suggested that we consider extending the hike to the summit, depending on how we felt at the pass.


We actually got a relatively early start the next morning.  We were just getting ready to leave Brian’s house when his friend Howard*** arrived.  Brian had invited Howard along the night before, but we hadn’t really anticipated him making it.  Early starts are not Howard’s specialty.  He arrived in time to grab a bite to eat though, and we headed out.  I immediately knew that Howard and I would get along just fine.  His enthusiasm for hiking was apparent, and the Grateful Dead t-shirt he was wearing indicated that we had similar tastes in music. 


We reached the town of Quilcene after an hour, and another 30 minutes of driving on good but narrow forest roads delivered us to the trailhead.  The trailhead is quite remote, and we were surprised to find 7 or 8 cars already there.  I hung my Federal Recreation Pass from the rearview mirror, and we gathered our gear for the hike.


We hit the trail at 8:15, climbing quickly away from the parking lot into a pleasant forest highlighted by the occasional large tree.  The trail generally stayed well above the river, but it did run close to the stream on occasion.  At this elevation, the Big Quilcene is more of a mountain stream than a river, but it was a still a pleasant companion for at least part of our hike.  After an hour of relatively easy hiking, we arrived at the Shelter Rock campsite, 2.6 miles beyond and 1100’ above our starting point.  The Shelter Rock campsite is named for a large rock in the vicinity of the campground that I somehow failed to notice both times we passed it.


From there, the hike gets serious.  Over the next two miles, we climbed 2000’.  Most of that seemed to happen immediately after leaving the river for the final time.  After a stiff ascent in the woods, the grade moderated.  Soon we began passing through avalanche slopes that provided great views up the valley towards the snowy Warrior Peaks.  The view of these mountains was spectacular, but the scenery was only beginning to get good.


I’d seen an impressive array of wildflowers along the trail through the woods, but in the clearings, the flowers were dazzling.  Highlights included Indian Paintbrush, Wild Columbine, Lupine, Tiger Lilies, and many others I couldn’t identify.  At times we’d pass through fields of flowers, with snowy peaks in the background.  I didn’t make very good time through here, because I was taking so many photos.  The flowers had me so distracted, I almost missed the bear.


When I caught up to Brian and Howard, they were watching a black bear browsing on the hillside high above the trail.  I attempted a couple of photos, which are laughable.  When zoomed in, the bear looks like, at best, a brown spot with ears.  That’s ok though.  The best bear sightings are the distant ones.  Plus, this was the second bear I’d seen in just over a week.  I’m guess I’m on a bit of a roll.


Eventually we left the bear behind.  Relatively easy hiking brought us to Camp Mystery, where we found a couple of tents.  From there, we climbed several switchbacks and passed through a pleasant meadow before ascending to the pass.  Despite our leisurely pace, we arrived at Marmot Pass at noon.  As we crested the ridge, the snowy peaks of Mount Deception, Mount Mystery, and the Needles burst into view.  The scenery to this point had been nice, but this was stunning. 


We paused there for a break, 5.3 miles beyond and 3500’ above the trailhead.  I was pleased with the progress Brian had made to this point.  Brian did a lot of hiking and backpacking in his youth, but took a long sabbatical from it until moving to Seattle a couple of years ago.  Since then, he’s gradually gotten back into it.  Walking 3+ miles a day as part of his commute to work has certainly helped.  Our hike today though was by far the most challenging hike he’d attempted in many years.


While we were resting, I mentioned that a climb of 2000’ was a good workout.  3000’ was a substantial undertaking, and 4000’ was a huge challenge.  5000’ in a day, I said, was ridiculous.  We discussed the merits of continuing to the summit.   Actually, discussing them probably isn’t the correct term.  Continuing would require climbing another 1000’ over perhaps a mile, but there was no holding Howard back from the top.  I, too, had summit fever.  Despite the rigorous hike to the pass, I was overflowing with adrenaline.  Brian certainly could’ve waited for us at the pass, but he wasn’t about to let us go on without him.


As we packed up to resume the climb, Brian said, “if 4000’ of climbing is a huge challenge, and 5000’ is ridiculous, then what we’re doing….”


“Is halfway to ridiculous”, I finished.  Howard burst out in laughter, and off we went.


We followed the Tubal Cain Trail briefly, before arriving at an obvious junction with a climber’s path up the ridge leading to Mount Buckhorn.  This is where the climb got serious.  We began grinding our way upwards, following an extremely steep route above the last of the trees.  The climb was a grunt, but it seemed like the views expanded with every step.  Those views only fueled our summit fever.  Before long, Howard and I had gotten a fair distance ahead of Brian.  Occasionally we’d stop to wait, but doing so left us vulnerable to attacks from the numerous horseflies and deer flies that had suddenly materialized.  The winged demons ensured that our stops were brief, and Brian didn’t get a chance to catch up.


Howard and I eventually reached the top of the ridge.  The worst of the climb was over.  At that point, we had gained over 800’ in less than a ½ mile.  Howard and I found a rock with a great view and waited there for Brian.


Brian arrived a few minutes later.  He was pretty much worn out, but the worst was behind us.  After a break, we continued up the ridge to a false summit.  After a brief descent, one more final steep pitch on loose scree led us to the summit.  At the top, we found several large boulders.  One of them featured a cairn, so we decided that it must be the official summit.  Howard made a short but difficult ascent straight up the rock.  I snuck around the back side, and found an easier way up.


The summit offered the same spectacular views of the peaks in the heart of the Olympic Peninsula that we’d enjoyed along the summit ridge.  The best views were across the valley, to the jagged snow-covered faces of Mount Constance and the Warrior Peaks.  Farther in the distance, we could see Mount Anderson and more.  Closer yet were Mount Mystery, Mount Deception, and the Needles.  The highest point on the Peninsula, Mount Olympus, was hidden from view, behind Mount Deception.


The view in the opposite direction was almost as good.  We gazed east, across numerous islands and waterways, including the Hood Canal and Puget Sound.  Beyond, the massive snowy summits of Mount Rainier, Glacier Peak, and Mount Baker stood out from the Cascade crest despite cloudy skies.  To the north, we could see across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island.  Far below, we could make out the Seattle skyline.  From our vantage point, Seattle looked like a cute little toy.


Brian arrived a few minutes later, completely spent.  He had a case of wobbly legs that a lengthy late lunch break did little to cure.  On the ascent, he had consumed a gallon of water, which is all that he’d brought.  At this point, it became clear that Mount Buckhorn had pushed his limits to the extreme.  Unfortunately, we still had to get down.


After a long break to recover and enjoy our accomplishment, we began the trek back down.  Brian expressed some concern about descending the steep route to Marmot Pass.  As we neared the false summit, he decided to skirt the peak and stop at a small snowfield to fill up some water bottles.  We followed, but unfortunately the snow patch had algae growing in it.  I’m not sure if consuming that would’ve been harmful, but we didn’t want to risk it.  We decided to skip the snow and wait for water farther down the mountain.


We contoured around the false summit to regain the trail, but Brian began wandering off-course to the north.  Howard and I were alarmed.  Was he delirious?  We eventually got his attention, and coaxed him back up to the route along the ridge.  This bonus climb was rather tedious, and didn’t do any of us much good.


When he rejoined us, I discovered that he had intended to follow the ridge north to intersect with the Tubal Cain Trail.  This route would’ve provided a more gradual descent, but it also would’ve added a couple of miles to a hike that was already 12 ½ miles long.  Unfortunately, Howard and I didn’t really understand his intentions until we’d climbed back up the ridge.


We took the direct route back to Marmot Pass.  The descent was steep, but going down wasn’t as bad as we anticipated.  We reached the gap in what seemed like minutes.  We found a regular crowd of hikers there.  This was a bit startling, as we’d only seen a few people all day long.  That theme continued, as we passed several groups of backpackers heading in as we descended.


Just beyond Camp Mystery, we passed a backpacking couple that had stopped at a stream to filter water.  Howard and Brian had both run out of water long ago, and this couple was nice enough to let us borrow their filter.  I pumped about a gallon of water while fighting off swarms of mosquitoes.  I think Brian killed an entire quart of water while I was filtering.


The water seemed to help Brian and Howard considerably.  We made good time down to the Shelter Rock Campsite, where we paused for a final break.  It was during this break that we discovered that bees have an inexplicable attraction to Marijuana smoke.  Now, I won’t incriminate anyone by disclosing the source of the Marijuana smoke, but Howard spent most of our break running in circles around the camping area trying to evade the bees.  Later, we found out that bees are the latest weapon in the war on drugs.  Apparently, the DEA has trained bees to detect drugs and harass pot smokers.  I hear that the Department of Homeland Security is looking into this new weapon, too.  Bees…coming soon to an airport near you.


The last couple of miles of seemed to go on forever.  Finally we passed under the huge fallen tree, and realized that we were almost finished.  We reached the trailhead 10 minutes later.  Eventually we found the car in the crowded parking area.  From there, we just had to endure the drive back to Bainbridge Island.


Mount Buckhorn was a spectacular hike.  Howard, Brian, and I all agreed that it was astonishing that Marmot Pass and the surrounding area hadn’t been included in Olympic National Park.  That area certainly has National Park caliber scenery.  Fortunately, this area is protected, as it is included in the Buckhorn Wilderness.  Although there are many Olympic hikes on my to-do list, I’ll definitely do this one again some day.  It just doesn’t get much better than this.



***Matt’s name was changed in an effort to protect his identity.


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