Wednesday, August 24th, 2022, 1200-1820
Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center to Olympic Hot Springs, WEBO mm 1132.8, Section 9 Olympic Mountains
21.3 miles (plus 1.5 town), Gain 2850′, Loss 5780′, elevation 2050′
I took it kind of easy in the morning and didn’t make it to the ranger station until 10 am. Luckily things went well and it took me only about half an hour to get the permits I needed. It was much easier doing it in person. Sometimes it’s challenging to plan for travel along the beach section, because of limited tide windows. But I got lucky with low tides around 8 to 9 am, meaning I had ideal conditions from 6 am through noon each day. I went with a pretty conservative beach itinerary of 3 nights and days but it sounded like the park allowed some flexibility in campsites (provided you paid for them). The ranger was dubious of my plan to hike over 20 miles to the hot springs on this day, but went along with it anyway. Clearly he’d dealt with thru-hikers and their crazy plans before.
The visitors center where I got my permits wasn’t the same as where I’d gotten off trail, so I needed a ride back to Hurricane Ridge. The bus didn’t leave until after noon, so I figured I’d just hitch. Earlier on the walk from town, I’d gone past the ONP sign, where I’d taken pictures for a family and they’d returned the favor for me. We’d developed a small rapport and I’d thought of asking them for a ride, but figured I’d be inside getting my permits longer than they planned to stick around. As I walked outside, I stuck out my thumb halfheartedly at a departing car, but wasn’t quite in the game yet. I was going to open my “hiker to trail” umbrella sign but before I could take another step, the family called out from a picnic table “do you need a ride?” I smiled and waved. Once again the ride had to come to me before I’d really tried. I’d even reached a new level of hitching prowess, as Mom Katie was nursing her littlest girl as she made the offer. That’s right, nursing moms deem me safe. I need to write on my umbrella: “I’m kid-friendly!”
It was a good reminder about being friendly and helpful, because you just never know when the favor will be returned. As I crawled into the back of their mini van, sitting next to one of the 3 adorable little girls, I had an idea about how I could repay them. With my veteran card, I get free entry into National Parks….which is just what I did for the whole family. I didn’t feel too bad about the park not getting an entrance fee since I’d already dropped close to $70 on permits. It was a nice ride too, as we chatted about good day hikes in the park and all the marathons that Katie had done, including Boston. What an awesome mom!
Usually I can look forward to a huge climb after a town stop but this time I was magically transported thousands of feet up by a sweet family from Wisconsin. To begin my hike this day, I’d be starting high and dropping nearly 6 thousand feet. First I had to figure out how to get to the Wolf Creek trail, an alternate I had to take because the ridge trail from the visitors center was closed due to “goat management activities.” I’d heard that the park was actually eliminating all the mountain goats so I asked a ranger straight up, “hey, is it true that they’re nixing all the goats?” Yes, he confirmed, telling me more of the backstory. The goats were released on the peninsula by a hunting club back in the 1920’s, so they were not native to the park. Their numbers had grown to such levels that they were thought to be negatively impacting the endemic Olympic marmots and other sensitive and unique species. Also, they had become aggressive towards tourists, seeking salt, which even lead to one person being gored! So the park had removed as many as they could, relocating them to parts of the Cascades where they’re native. They’d decided to put the remainder down. It seemed cruel but if you think about it, the original ones were released for the same purpose…it just happened to take 100 years.
If ever there was a good reason to obey a trail closure, catching stray fire from a helicopter was it. The closure meant I had to go an extra 4 miles, which was kind of annoying on a day when I had so little time to make it to my planned destination. It was already noon by the time I set out. But a hot springs is a strong motivator, like a town stop. Plus it was all downhill for the first half, then a cruisey paved road walk for most of the second half. I’d managed 18 harder miles in 6 hours the day before, I figured I had this in the bag. The alternate trail was pretty easy and uneventful. It was an old road, wide and well-graded. It was sometimes a bit overgrown and with even a few blowdowns but I still flew down it…the right playlist once again. I only paused once when I heard a gunshot from a helicopter pretty close. I hoped the goat managers knew that hikers were being routed to this nearby trail. I went even faster, just in case…and was glad I wasn’t dressed in white.
I met 2 trail runners at the bottom that were on a 70 mile multi-day adventure. They had only 5 miles more to get back to their car and looked pretty exhausted. I set off with them as they took some time to work up to a run, then they left me in the dust. I still managed to jog a little here and there, just to make some fast miles while I could. The old road had turned into regular dirt road as I worked my way down the valley towards the Elwha river. After a few miles, I came to the spot where a hydroelectric dam had once stood. It had been removed in 2011 so the natural state of the river could be restored, benefiting salmon and many other species. The dam removal seemed like a long time ago but the last time I’d been through this area was even longer: 1999 and 2002. I still remembered the lake that once filled the valley.
I visited the dam remnants from both sides, since it used to be the route where the PNT crossed the river. Now a hiker must go an additional 3 miles to get around via a lower bridge. I considered bushwhacking down to the river to ford it but it wasn’t the flow or depth of the river that prevented such a shortcut, it was the density and steepness of the valley walls. A bushwhack was definitely not worth it…the PNT had already taught me valuable lessons about the futility of bushwhacking just to save a few miles.
I met the old paved road and crossed the bridge. Now I was back on familiar ground. For some reason, the road had been closed during my first visit to the hot springs in 1999. As I recall, it was late November and already dark when my friend Sergio and I arrived by car. And of course it was raining. We’d walked 8 miles in the drizzle and dark, pitched the tent right near the pools, and spent the night soaking…all I remember is how wet everything was. I had a borrowed sleeping bag and a seal-line drybag with shoulder straps to carry my things. My friend supplied the rest of the gear. Now that I was thinking about it, I could really say this was my first backpacking trip…ever! I previously wrote about my failed attempt to backpack in Maine and until I reflected on things this day, I was sure that had been it. I guess I hadn’t considered the hot springs adventure as backpacking because I didn’t have any of the standard gear and we’d mostly walked a paved road to get there. It was just another crazy thing I’d done when I was 21.
My second visit came during a trip to Port Angeles. I’d flown to Seattle to visit Sheila (my USCG academy roommate and best friend), and we drove out to see our other best friend, Meredith, who was assigned to the Port A Coast Guard Station. On that visit, we were able to drive the road all the way to the trailhead, having to only walk a few miles to get to the hot springs for a day visit. It was in April and I remember walking through snow drifts. I was not aware that the hot springs were part of the National Park during either visit and I suspect there’s quite a history behind that. It’s telling that the park has all but abandoned further maintenance and upkeep of the surrounding area and facilities, perhaps to dissuade all but the most determined of walkers from reaching the hot springs. Many people still ride their bikes up the road.
Quite a lot had changed in over 20 years. I felt like I was walking through some sort of dystopian landscape, vaguely familiar but under the harsh shadow of time. The lake was gone, the dam blown apart, traffic signs were faded, and the road was covered in duff. I joined it above the point where it was closed to traffic, so I’m not even sure where the closure began. Severe wash-outs had taken the road entirely in several places, which would be tough to navigate in any way other than on foot. It’s these kind of circumstances that make me so glad I can walk. It’s amazing the places two feet can get me to and through. I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed walking up the road this day. It was a beautiful day, the sun filtering through the huge trees and the miles so easy and peaceful. I felt like it was a special privilege. Where once I’d enjoyed the ease of travel by car, that luxury was no longer afforded to anyone with keys.
I caught up to Costanza just before the hot springs, surprised to see another PNT hiker, even though I knew there were a ton of us in the same area. It was just past 6 pm when we got to the last creek crossing, so we broke to collect water and catch up. True to my plan, I’d done 20 miles in 6 hours…maybe a new record for me, I’m not sure. I assumed Costanza was staying at the hot springs as well but no, he planned to carry on to Appleton Pass. Just like when he turned down the Way Cool Barn when we first met, I thought he was crazy for passing on this opportunity. It seemed like perfect timing and he was already ahead of schedule on his permit. I tried to convince him to stay, telling him about my previous positive experiences. But he pressed on. Oh well, the man had his convictions.
I set up my tent in a secluded spot, just before the no camping sign…I prefer to be away from the crowds…if there were any. Just for fun, I ran up to the official site to find not one tent (that I could see). There was a tidy cat litter box hanging from a bear cable… interesting food storage container but I suppose it’s good for rodents. I had my canister, so no need for the cables this night. I headed down to the hot springs right around 7:00 p.m. and met a man coming up. He asked if I was heading for the camp, which confused me because I was certain I was on the right trail. No I said, just the hot springs. A pause. “Well”, he said, “it’s getting late and about to get really dark.” Hmm, is that how that works, I wondered? Wanting to end the inquisition, I told him I had my headlamp, hoping that would appease him. Nope. “Well, it’s also the new moon so there won’t be any light AT ALL! Just be really careful, ok?” Not true, there would be light…the kind I would provide for myself, which I’d just established.
Guys, if there’s ever any doubt about what constitutes man-splaining, telling a backcountry lady how the sun and moon phases result in light and dark periods is a textbook example. He was starting to cut into my soaking time, so I just nodded and tried to keep going. Then he wanted to explain the set of trails that led back to the campsite, which I really didn’t care about since I wasn’t camped there (even though I lied and told him I was). I did confirm where he was camped, just so I could be sure to avoid the area altogether in the morning…not that he’d likely be up when I went by. Having gotten past the gatekeeping troll, I skipped across the bridge and entered a Goldilocks fairy tale. First pool: down in the creek, way too cold, and with a naked man rinsing off. Pass. Second pool: up high, mother of dragons sizzling hot. I thought I liked it really hot but apparently not in the summertime. Last time I’d dunked in that pool it had been early spring. I couldn’t even keep my feet in this day. Next. Third pool: closer to the river, near the end, ahhh…just perfect. And most importantly, all to myself. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was…I guess these hot springs are definitely more of shoulder season and winter experience for most folks. I felt blessed to have enjoyed them for 3 seasons now.
I soaked in my pool until it got …dark! Oh my! It was fun scrambling down to the creek to rinse off afterwards but I managed. My headlight and camp shoes are pretty awesome. I gazed at star reflections on the pool and pondered the end of my journey. Connecting to this hot springs that I’d visited so long ago and also to the Pacific Ocean, where I’d set out to sea at the start of my career, felt like coming full circle. Back then, if someone had told me I’d someday walk 1200 miles from the Rockies to the Pacific, I’d have laughed. But I’d discovered my love for a nomadic existence on the land, not just on the sea. Constant movement was what I’d always been seeking… retracing my steps and returning to familiar places at times was a bonus. Thus concluded yet another fantastic day on the PNT.