Lake side camping, high mountain passes, lower river forests. This romp has it all. At 45 miles and nearly 15,000′ of elevation gain, it’s not easy, even spread over 4 days. But if you are looking to put down some miles, taking you through several distinct ecosystems, with incredible vistas, you’ll be hard pressed to do better. This route was actually recommend by a friend after asking him about some of his favorites hikes in ONP. He described this one simply as an “epic hike” and I’d have to agree. I’m calling it the Grand Wolf Loop as it starts be dropping into Grand Creek Valley and culminates in a return over Gray Wolf Pass and along Gray Wolf River.
At the time I recorded this trip (Sept, 2020), Washington and Oregon were both experiencing their worst fire seasons ever. While a state of emergency was declared across the state, including the Olympic Peninsula, most of the fires in ONP were contained quickly. However, the larger fires in Eastern Washington were creating extremely poor air conditions. In scheduling this trip, I was taking all of this into full consideration and felt comfortable with weather, the local conditions, the risks, and my mitigation plans. That said, the winds did ultimately bring significant smoke into the area, affecting both visibility and of course breathability of the air. Evident in this and many of the photos in the galleries below. This is not fog.
I’ll talk about this more below, but it is important to appreciate that the ONP is a very large area and there are four very distinct regions. Many people associate the ONP with the Hoh Rainforest and much of it is in fact a temperate rainforest. But the east side is actually fairly dry and does occasionally experience wild fires. Keep that in mind and always check the local conditions before finalizing your plans!
As you are planning, also be aware that the backcountry camp sites in the ONP require reservations in advance. See the Resources section under the Details side bar for more information.
There are some classic hikes in the Olympic National Park, home to some of the best backpacking in the country. This four day / three night hike is a great introduction to what the eastern, “rain shadow” has to offer. It starts high at the Deer Park trailhead on the northeast section of the park, and over the course of several days will have you visiting alpine lakes, climbing mountain passes, and ambling along thick river forests. The route and camp locations I have selected were based on what I considered reasonable daily mileage, a bit of a workout, but not so much that it would get in the way of really enjoying the hike. There is some elevation gain and the second day is the hardest, with both the most mileage and the most elevation. This was done to shorten the last day ahead of the long drive back home. There are many camping options here so pull out your map and consider what you want from your romp and then plot your daily campsites. This hike would be fantastic stretched by an additional day or even two. You do need to pre-plan this as advance reservations are currently be required (see Details section).
Day 1: Deer Park TH to Grand Lake
Distance: 11.13 Miles
Elevation Gain / Loss: +3173′ / -3801′
Day 1 begins on Obstruction Point Trail, near the ranger station within Deer Park (see map for detail).
The first six miles will be on fairly exposed ridgeline. While there are some interspersed trees, they don’t provide much cover, so be sure to prepared for a day of hiking in the open sun. On the other hand, the open ridgeline does mean you’ll have the potential for some fantastic views of the area. Looking to the southwest you’ll be able to see Mount Olympus and to the north you’ll see the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But something I really appreciated on this section was the geology, which includes a lot of sedimentary formations and deposits, like this shale:
It’s a really good contrast to what you typically find in the more igneous Cascades. The Olympics and Cascades both owe their origins to the Cascadia Subuction Zone. Off the coast of Washington, the Juan de Fuca plate is subducting, or pushing under, the North America plate). However, the Cascades are formed a little more inland along the Cascade Volcanic Arc (think Mount St. Helens, Ranier, Hood, and Baker, all volcanoes) while the Olympics, closer to the ocean shore, are not volcanic, but rather a result of the heaving and violent buckling of the earth crust, bringing the solidified layers of sediment to the surface.
In any event, at about the 6 mile mark you will take a left onto Elk Mountain Trail to being the fairly steep descent into Badger Valley (2,600′ over 3.3 miles). This trail will end at Badger Valley Trail where you’ll take a left and continue on all the way to Grand Lake. Lots of shale and slate in this area. I found a nice little spot at 7.9 miles where the trail cross a small stream that was level enough to sit for lunch and to refill my water bottle.
Eventually the trail will begin to climb again, though it is a nice gentle climb for just 1.5 miles until you reach Grand Lake. The trails can be a little confusing around the lake because there are just so many little criss-crossing trails. Just keep working your way around the lake and you will eventually encounter some clearly defined camp sites, designated my number. Nearby is a privy and a bear wire for hanging your food sack.
Setup camp and enjoy! Wildlife is plentiful and the lake views are stunning.
Note on the wildlife: the deer are pretty well habituated to human presence here. They are beautiful to watch, but keep in mind that they are wild animals and can be dangerous if you get too close. Practice LNT, including the use of the privy even for urination. Not only are you very close to a primary water source, but the salts in your urine will also attract the deer and we really don’t want to encourage any dependence on the continued visitation of humans.
Full Day 1 Gallery Below. Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through full size versions.
Day 2: Grand Lake to Bear Camp
Elevation Gain / Loss: +4450/-5357
Hopefully you recharged well at Grand Lake as the day ahead and long and tiring. While the mileage isn’t horrible, combined with a couple of mountain passes, this is a moderate to difficult day. And for some, the challenge will actually be the descents. You’ll be losing more elevation than you’ll be gaining, and some it is steep. It will stress your knees and you’ll be grateful to have included trekking poles in your kit for this romp. Start your day early, take it easy, and enjoy the hike because the sheer beauty of what lies before you is why you’re there. The scenery is your reward and it will be as fantastic and as beautiful as the hike is challenging.
As you begin your hike out of camp, you will immediately begin the ascent towards Grand Pass Peak. With an early start, you may share the trail with the many deer attracted to the lake basin. You’ll pass Moose Lake and then Gladys Lake. Both, by they way, are excellent camp alternatives to Grand Lake.
As climb further out of the basin, the terrain will shift towards hardscrabble and around the 2-2.25 mi mark the slope will steepen just a bit you’ll have a good sense of the hike over the pass. The view from the pass is really nice and a great place to take a break. There is a side trail if you’d like to climb a little further and tag Grand Pass Peak, but really the views from the pass are just as good.
The descent from here to is steep, losing more than 2,300′ over 1.9 miles, but the trail is good with descent switch backs. But again, hike poles really recommended here. At about the 4.9 mile mark you’ll connect with the Cameron Creek Trail where you’ll begin to ascend again, towards the second big pass of the day, Cameron Pass.
The hike towards the pass is beautiful as you are surrounded by heathers, and huckleberries, steep mountain peaks, and the babbling Cameron Creek. AT mile 7.5 miles or so, Upper Cameron camp is a good spot to break for lunch, with a nice waterfall feature just before reaching camp. Your map will show a pond here, but it’s more of a wetland area. Enjoy the nice level walking as you work your way around it before beginning the final push over Cameron pass.
Cameron Pass will appear as mountain of gravel in the distance, and really, it’s won’t feel any difference once you get there. The trail is decent and well trodden, but for sure it can be lose and rough in places. There may be washouts that require careful footing and perhaps some scrambling. Again, you’ll be thankful to have poles and even more thankful that you are going up instead of down!
On your way up, you’ll likely have spotted a couple of snow fields. As you near the top now, you will likely hike past and eventually over at least one snow field. You’ll see a clear path where the hikers before have led the path and created trail through the snow field.
If you look closely you’ll notice signs of various trails that don’t quite match what your map or GPSr displays. If you look at my Day 2 track on CalTop you can clearly see how my track diverged from the published trail. This is simply a result of changing nature of snow and the early season hikers laying out the safest path over the field. Don’t stress, just roll with it, and romp on! Predicting folks will be wonder if spikes or other traction assistance will be needed, I would say probably not, but it really does depend on the season. In September, when this hike was recorded, it was absolutely unnecessary, particularly if you brought along those hiking poles. The snow was soft, trail relatively gentle, and the snow field itself not terribly steep. Earlier season obviously would be an entirely different story.
Continue the descent down the Cameron-Lost Pass towards the Dosewallips River. There is a step just about a mile from the top of the pass where you’ll enjoy a bit of level hiking through open grass fields with some magnificent views down Lost River valley. Soak it and for a while and you’ll undoubtedly catch glimpses of birds soaring or getting some lift.
There is a slight rise as you go over Lost Pass and before then descending the remaining 1000 feet to Hayden-Pass trail. Turning left on Hayden-Pass and enjoy the gradual descent to Bear Camp. This part of the trail may be unremarkable, though in contrast to the past two days, it’s stands out for the very different lowland river forest ecosystem you now find yourself in.
There is a three sided shelter at Bear Creek. After a long day of hiking, it is welcome relief to skip pitching the tent. But always take a close look around as small critters often like to nest in the shelters. There is a privy nearby and as well there is a bear hang wire. The privy you will pass along the trail before reaching the shelter, but the bear hang is beyond the shelter. Looking out from the shelter, there is a short trail to the left that will take you to the bear hang and the main trail.
Full Day 2 Gallery Below. Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through full size versions.
Day 3: Bear Camp to Camp Ellis
Distance: 12.37 mi
Elevation Gain / Loss: +3355/-4272
This morning’s hike will feature another climb over a mountain pass, this time Gray Wolf Pass. Beyond that, though, the rest of the trail is a fairly gentle descent to the final camp of the trip, Camp Ellis. You’ll mostly be hiking in lowland forests, starting of course along the Dosewallips River, but then again after the pass when you follow along the Gray Wolf river.
Unfortunately for this particular hike, the smoke really starting rolling in over the night and by the morning the visibility was very low.
With the best views of the day obscured by the now thick smoke, this was a great today to focus closely and enjoy the amazing nature of the forests. From the humble bumble bee to the many types of fungus or the stories told by the rings of fallen tree, there is plenty to explore even within just feet of the trail.
At about 2 miles, look for the intersection with Gray Wolf Pass Trail, head left and begin the climb up.
The climb is 2,500′ or so, but once you reach the top, the final 7 miles of the day is all down hill. Stay alert as you get near the 12 mile mark as the camp shows up about 100 yards sooner than the coordinates indicated and provided by the park service. There is no obvious signage, though I did eventually find the remains of a sign attached to a fallen tree. Hopefully it will soon be repaired. For now though, just scan to the right of the trail, just across the small creek. Once you spot the camp it will be obvious as there is a nice clearing with a small fire ring and log benches. Note, that in the ONP, there are no fires allowed in any camp above 3,000′. At 2,945′ this camp site just makes the cut so build yourself a fire and find your zen!
Full Day 3 Gallery Below. Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through full size versions.
Day 4: Camp Ellis to Deer Park TH
Distance: 8.05 mi.
Elevation Gain / Loss: +3912′ / -1470′
For the final day of the romp, the mileage is a bit shorter so with an early start you’ll be back to your vehicle and on your way home by noon. But recall how the night before you were able to have a nice warm cozy fire because you were at an altitude under 3,000′? Well, you’ll have a bit of climb up Blue Mountain to get back up to Deer Park. It’s actually the biggest climb of the trip with a rise over 3,330. But it’s a good trail, reasonably graded over about 5 miles, and so not really bad at all. You have Ibuprofen, right?
All along this trail you’ll witness the many great efforts of the folks that help build and maintain these trails. From the removal of downed trees blocking the trail to the creation of all of the bridges that have kept your feet out of water. You’ll cross a couple of the finest examples of these bridges today, particularly as you reach the Three Forks camp area.
At about the 3 mile mark you will encounter a very nice camp area. I didn’t notice any particularly designation and it wasn’t quite where I expected Three Forks to be. Half a mile later, you will encounter Three Forks proper. Perhaps it is all considered part of Three Forks. In any event, this general area has a lot of available camp sites, and is generally quite nice. The proximity now to the trail head means it is more heavily visited. Nonetheless, a good place to take a break, have breakfast if you have not already and otherwise fuel up before heading up the hill.
There is a nice looking three sided shelter here with a nice area for group fire gatherings as well. The shelter itself did have evidence of quite a bit of rodent activity and does not appear to be one I would want to spend much time in.
Three Rivers Shelter
Full Day 4 Gallery Below. Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through full size versions.
Region: Olympic National Park, North East, Deer Park Entrance Style: Loop Distance: 45.2 Miles Elevation Gain: 14,890 (w/o day hike) Duration: 4 Days, 3 Nights Dogs: Not Allowed Date: 9/10/2020 – 9/13/2020
Bear Canister or Hanging required. Check the camp details for each camp as many provide bear wires for proper hanging.
The reservation system on recreation.gov is actually a great planning tool. Specify the type of permit as an Overnight permit, enter your group size, and then select “Hurricane” as your starting area. After you select your first camp location, say Camp Ellis, the schedule will dynamically update, only showing those camp sites that are nearby.
Note as well that you won’t see Deer Park listed if you choose to camp at the trailhead. That’s because it isn’t a backcountry camp site and so no permit or reservation is required. It’s first come, first serve.
As your confirm your permit, you may also find that it allows you to select Deer Park TH as your starting location, but does not allow you to select it as your ending location (or vice versa, I’ve seen it both ways). I reached out to the ONP Wilderness Information Center and they confirmed this as a “glitch in the system” and advised to select any available TH and then to add a note in the comments section of the permit form to clarify your actual start and end locations.