The Grand Loop – Olympic National Park

Labor Day weekend seemed to be the last opportunity we had for a “big” trip this summer.  The weather forecast was promising, so we went ahead and decided to trek the long-awaited Grand Pass Loop in Olympic National Park. This would be 46 miles and 12,600 feet of elevation gain over three days and two nights.

I read the trip reports, studied the chapter referencing this trip in my backpacking book, and looked at other people’s photos, but nothing prepared me for the beauty that was, quite literally, seen on every step of this trek.

The drive up to the Obstruction Peak trailhead was a bit terrifying. A one lane dirt road with a cliff going up one side, and down the other… it took some concentration to focus on the road, as the views even here were captivating.

Typically at a trail head you’re kind of in the middle of no where, maybe in a gully or valley secluded by trees. Your first real views don’t start until you’ve climbed some elevation and emerged from the forest canopy. This was not the case here. Expansive views were immediate, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

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We headed south on Grand Pass trail. Fifteen minutes in we were already pausing to take in the views.  They call it Grand Pass Trail for a reason! The trail was nice and mellow for a while, dipping down into the valley while still boasting views of the mountain ranges around us.

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Passing Grand Lake along a ridge, we came to Moose Lake, which seemed to be a popular day-hike destination. There are also many camp sites available, and would be a great destination with kids or for first time backpackers.

The ascent up Grand Pass wasn’t terrible, and the views made the climb nearly unnoticeable. We paused at the peak of the pass for a snack and some view-soaking-in and then quickly started our decent. Clouds were starting to come in, and we still had two passes to go today!

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The steep decent from Grand Pass kept reminding me of the ascent we were up against with Cameron Pass. It was starting to rain, and though it wasn’t pouring, it was cool enough out that if I stopped moving, I got cold. Quick. So, I kept moving…

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Cameron Creek Trail was a slow climb through some amazing fields with summer flowers blooming everywhere. Even in the rain, it was so beautiful I couldn’t help but smile while taking it all in. Clouds were low, but they didn’t hide the immediate mountain range that surrounded us. As the climb got steeper, the waterfalls cascading down the mountainsides became more plentiful. Every direction you looked were waterfalls, flowers, and breathtaking terrain.

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As I continued the climb up, I kept looking at the mountains ahead of me, and the little gullies and valleys, wondering which crack we were going to be led through. The trail started turning into a huge scree field that continued up the mountainside. I lost the trail a little and paused to let my eyes settle on the scree, looking to cairns or the faint lines of the trail from others before me. When I saw it, all that I could say was “Oh f**k”…. There was no trail hugging a ridge and leading us through a gully, but only a faint trail that zig-zagged straight up the scree covered mountain side. It was cold and rainy, and I had to put on my mountain goat hat. And that I did!

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I decided on a happy, excited attitude and started up the “trail”. I learned quickly it was even colder on that slope, so that was motivation to keep moving. I kept my eyes on the ground right in front of me, and only paused a few times to snap some photos of this craziness.

The views at the top were of course amazing, but due to the low clouds we missed out on seeing the Cameron Glaciers… maybe next time!

The decent from Cameron Pass was… wait for it… beautiful. (Gasp!) Subalpine meadows, more waterfalls, and even friendly mule deer to keep us company. The rain was letting up, and we could see blue sky playing peek-a-boo with us.

Crossing Lost River, we started re-gaining some elevation that we just lost coming down from Cameron Pass. Everything was wet from the earlier rain, and we came across a nicely brushed down path of grass that was clearly made by a bear. Singing started, and not too much further down the trail we saw a “cute little bear” most likely enjoying some berries in a meadow. We took a few pictures, and very quickly he didn’t seem as cute or little when he looked our way and made motion of the possibility of checking us out. We continued up to Lost Pass with due haste, and I’ll admit I was looking over my shoulder quite a bit!

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Lost Pass greeted us with a rainbow, and then sent us off with a laugh about the steep decent we had ahead of us. The knee breaker down certainly made us a bit grumpy and impatient for us to get to Bear Camp to complete our 16 miles and 4,500 feet of elevation gain for the day.

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We woke the next morning to ice on a little footbridge. Yup, a little colder than we were expecting. Shoes were still soaking wet, but clothes were dry so we ate, packed up, and headed out towards our one pass of the day.

Gray Wolf River Trail wasn’t technical or even that steep. It was just a long climb along a less traveled path. Due to the previous day’s rain, brush and grass were all at capacity for water retention, so that meant we were once again drenched from the hips down. Once again, as long as I kept moving, I didn’t get cold. Good motivation to maintain pace!

The pass was well worth the trek up, with clouds parting just in time for us to get a 360 degree view of the ranges around us. Though not raining, the wind was chilly, so we took shelter by a few little trees and had lunch.

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I had to get moving again quickly so I didn’t freeze on the pass. The decent down from Gray Wolf pass reminded me so much of my favorite part of the Northern Loop on Mt Rainier; Windy Gap. I found myself wondering what it would be like to just be here… make a little shelter and stay for weeks on end. There was a water fall cascading down one of the sides of the valley and a few small tarns scattered in the meadows.

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I was smiling ear to ear again, just in awe of this amazing place, and so thankful that I had the ability to see it!

We continued along Gray Wolf River Trail, and even when the mountain views were lost through the forest closing in, the trail was still spectacular. I’ve been on some boring river trails, and this wasn’t one of them! It felt like there should be little hobbits or gnomes dancing around or peaking our from behind the mossy rocks.

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Crossing some long log bridges over a few rivers, we went through Three Forks camp and then settled in to Gray Wolf Camp for the evening. 15 miles and only 2,900 feet of elevation gain allowed us a little extra time this evening for chatting with fellow backpackers and prepping for our final day.

We were up and out early, and temperatures were a little warmer today. The trail up to Deer park campground was well maintained. Though it was 4 miles up with 3,100 feet of elevation gain, the switchbacks were nice and long so it  didn’t feel that steep. Just felt like 4 miles of an uphill climb with no reprieve… which it was.

We filled up on water at Deer Park and continued on Elk Mountain Trail. Up and over Maiden Peak wasn’t too challenging, and the scrambles along Elk Mountain were steep, but short, so there was some rest time in between the intense climbing.

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As we came around the bend of Elk Mountain Trail, we could see Grand Pass and Moose Lake, where we started our trek just two days prior. The trail along the ridge was making me wish I didn’t have a pack – I wanted to run! Mt Olympus, as well as layers and layers of other Olympic mountain ranges could be seen. We could see Badger Valley Trail all the way to Grand Lake.

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As we were nearing the trailhead and about to end our trek, all I could think of was how small we really are. This 46 mile loop through the mountains was just a little 8″x10″ map which was a blow up piece from a map of the entire Olympic National Park, which was just a little piece of Washington State. I think you get the picture… I stood there feeling like the mountains went on forever, but really it’s just a speck in space.

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