May 21, 2016
Mount Olympus’ Glacier Meadows
The Hoh River Trail leads to the icy heart of the Olympics
Story and Photos by Craig Romano
Photo at right: The Blue Glacier from the Lateral Moraine Trail is one of the most dramatic views near Mt. Olympus.
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While more than a quarter million visitors wander annually among the mossy maples and gargantuan cedars and spruces of the Hoh Rainforest, only a fraction of them have made the arduous journey beyond the well-beaten nature trails of the Hoh to trail’s end at Mount Olympus.
It’s a physically demanding 18-mile multi-day hike along the Hoh River to the resplendent meadows and harsh glacial moraine at the base of Olympic Peninsula’s highest peak — 7,967-foot Mt. Olympus.
Summer is busiest with hordes of hikers, backpackers and mountain climbers. Fall is optimal, with lighter traffic, no bugs, and prime opportunities for witnessing the valley’s bears, pine martens and legendary elk herd.
The first 10 miles gain very little elevation, but once beyond the high bridge spanning the Hoh River, the trail climbs steeply until it ends at the snout of the Blue Glacier. Enroute you’ll follow the Hoh River through miles of magnificent ancient temperate rainforest to the icy heart of Olympic National Park.
Colonnades and Cacophonies
The trail is shaded by colonnades of spruces and awnings of moss and lichen-cloaked maples. In late spring and throughout the summer, a cacophony of bird song — wrens, nuthatches, woodpeckers, chickadees and thrushes — serenade you as you lumber through the primeval forest.
At about 1.5 miles you’ll have your first unobstructed view of the Hoh River. Gaze out to snowcapped Mt. Tom, a 7,080-foot peak on the snowy Olympus massif. Hike past the Mt. Tom Creek Campsite and climb above the river, catching glimpses of deep emerald pools below.
Five Mile Island, just about 5 miles from the start, is a tranquil, grassy bottomland graced with maple glades and a perfect place to camp or take a break. Enjoy the views up-valley to Bogachiel Peak on the High Divide.
Continue hiking past the Happy Four Shelter, one of several remaining historical shelters in the park offering emergency cover. The trail continues where just shy of 9 miles you’ll reach the historic Olympus Guard Station set at the edge of a meadow with many good campsites.
At 12 miles skirt the river and soon cross the Hoh on a bridge high above the river as it crashes through a deep canyon. Now in magnificent old-growth, steadily climb passing several camps before reaching forested Elk Lake at 15 miles. Here you’ll find decent camps and a restored shelter.
Beyond Elk Lake the path climbs steeply. Views of the Hoh River Valley and the High Divide emerge. The trail becomes more rugged, hugging steep slopes and traversing rocky ledges. As Glacier Creek crashes below, a huge steep washout must soon be negotiated via a dangling rope ladder.
More than a few intimidated hikers have turned around at this point but after that it’s smooth walking through subalpine forest to Glacier Meadows with its many campsites and Backcountry Ranger Station.
Now decide which of the two diverging trails you want to first explore — the 0.7-mile Lateral Moraine Trail or the half-mile Terminal Moraine Trail.
Follow them both across parkland meadows and up glacial moraine to mind-staggering views of the sprawling Blue Glacier snaking down from Mt. Olympus. It’s one of the most dramatic scenes in the National Park and only a small percentage of the 3.26 million annual Olympic National Park visitors have experienced it.
Distance: 36 miles roundtrip with 4,600-feet of vertical elevation.
Trailhead Directions: From the town of Forks, travel south on US 101 for 13 miles. Turn left onto Upper Hoh Road and continue 18 miles to Hoh Visitor Center and trailhead.
Green Trails Maps: Seven Lakes Basin – Hoh River Trail No. 133S
Notes: National Park entry fee. Dogs prohibited. Wilderness camping permits required (available at Port Angeles and Hoh Visitor Center). Reservations available/recommended at Elk Lake and Glacier Meadows.
Contacts: Olympic National Park, nps.gov/olym/index.htm
Craig Romano is NW Trails editor of OutdoorsNW and is the author and co-author of 15 Northwest hiking guidebooks including the brand new 100 Classic Hikes Washington (The Mountaineers Books).