Routine on the road comes easily. Wake up around 8am. Pack camp, eat breakfast. Boil water for tea. Drive 6-7 hours. Set up camp. Make dinner. Sleep early. Repeat.
While the drive down from Alaska is one of my favorite road trips, trying to make it to the lower 48 quickly can be tiring. The repetitive days and unknown future can wear on me. I always forget how challenging it is to adjust to the world away from Denali.
The Yukon makes it easy: stretches of the Alaska Highway for miles where you hardly see another car on the road. Expansive, undeveloped landscapes with mountains, cliffs, and wetlands. We visited Northwest Territories this year and I was shocked how much the land looked like northern Minnesota. On our two hour drive to Fort Liard, we didn’t see a single other vehicle.
Northern British Columbia is good, too. The Alaska Highway makes you feel like you’re driving through a national park all day, passing through small towns and villages hours apart. We spent a night at Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park (pictured below) which was a marvelous escape from dropping temperatures at night.
The farther south we drive, the more people we start to see. Bigger cities, highways wider than two lanes. It’s overwhelming at first. I found myself homesick for Denali. I missed the quiet end-of-season peacefulness, the space to roam and think. As we approached Washington, I found myself missing the ecosystem that I now know so intimately. My heart ached for the small spruce trees, dry tundra, familiar mosses and lichens.
Olympic National Park ended up offering my heart a refuge from development. The temperate rainforests, alpine meadows, and rocky ridgelines allowed me to reset and reflect on the coming months, without traffic, crowds, and a car full of belongings clouding my mind.
John and I have never backpacked along the drive to Alaska. Packing the car full is tiring enough, and repacking to go backpacking is certainly extra work. This year, we took the time to make it happen. We spent a night at the Log Cabin Resort on Lake Crescent, with a camper cabin and porch large enough to reorganize and pack for the coming trip.
We booked permits in Port Angeles at the Wilderness Information Center for the Seven Lakes Basin loop, a 19-mile trail with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. This trip would be the most elevation I’d climbed with a full backpack, by far.
On Saturday, October 5th we left our car at the Sol Duc Trailhead and started our hike. The first few hours of any of my backpacking trips are full of stops to shed layers and adjust pack straps. While I can keep a quick pace on most trails, I take a slow-and-steady approach going uphill, especially with a full pack. An unpredictable climate full of possibilities for rain, snow, and freezing temperatures (much like Denali), and the sturdy bear resistant food container (often called a bear can) John carried means that our packs were far from lightweight.
After so many long days of driving, stretching our legs over rocks and on dirt trails felt exhilarating. The forest was green from canopy to understory, with ferns, shrubs, and mosses covering every possible surface. Sol Duc Falls was the first stop on our trail, which is also a popular day hiking trip. After that point, the number of people on the trail dropped drastically.
We knew going in that our first day was going to be 95% uphill, and after we passed the falls, the trail started steadily climbing. And climbing. And climbing. After three hours we made it to our first checkpoint: Deer Lake, a small lake settled far below the treeline.
We pushed on, and continued climbing. Less than 30 minutes later we reached areas where the trees started to thin. Beautiful still ponds framed by evergreens and fall-colored shrubs were tucked right along the trail. We could see ridgelines across from us in the sun as the clouds started lifting higher and higher.
The higher we climbed, the more our bodies ached but the more breathtaking it all became, giving us a boost of energy when it was most needed. The trail took us over a low point on the ridgeline so we could see far south in the other direction. Snow-covered peaks loomed in the distance as we laughed out loud and neared the spur trail to Lunch Lake, our first destination.
A quarter-mile before the turn we encountered a boulder field where a landslide was getting worse. Cairns led the way through areas where the trail was more lost. Clouds rolled in low on top of us and the sunlight glistened on the suspended water droplets as it faded.
We climbed a few more paces up on the spur trail to our campsite and suddenly we were looking down into an alpine meadow dotted with trees and Lunch and Round Lakes. It was the most breathtaking view we’d had all day, and I was so relieved we’d make it before dark, I could have cried.
Stone steps helped us lose elevation (about 600 feet) quickly as we got closer and closer to the lake. There are campsites scattered throughout the alpine bowl, and cooksites are only required to be 50-100 feet away (compared to the 100 yard golden triangle in Denali’s backcountry). After setting up camp, we sat on a tundra slope facing the water and the snow-dusted mountain behind it.
The moon appeared from behind that ridgeline and slid sideways as we ate. Stars appeared all over, and as the temperature began to drop I felt condensation on my down jacket and hat.
The next morning I left the tent a little before 8am. Everything outside was covered in white, snowy frost: the small shrubs, ground conifers, our tent door. As the sun finally came up over the ridge, the frost glistened everywhere and, slowly, began to melt. It felt warm out in the sun. I heard a kingfisher across the lake, a familiar sound that made me smile.
Once you make it to camp, it’s all worth it. But our first day of hiking challenged me and John. At times I felt extremely discouraged like I wouldn’t be able to make it. But we stayed in (mostly) good spirits, encouraged each other, and took breaks. We pushed ourselves on for fear of reaching camp in the dark, but we made it to camp by 6:30, well before sunset. Suddenly a 5 1/2 hour time for 3000 feet of elevation gain and 8+ miles didn’t seem so slow to me.
On our second day we were rewarded in numerous ways: less elevation gain overall, less distance, and the clearest skies I could ever imagine the Olympic Peninsula to have.
Climbing those stone steps out of the Lunch Lake basin warmed us up quickly that morning. The trail took us along the High Divide ridgeline, which was covered in snow from a few days earlier. By lunch time we had climbed to the peak of Mt. Bogachiel, our highest point on the entire loop trail. The views on top allowed us to look 360 degrees around us, with the Seven Lakes Basin below us on one side, tree-covered mountains in the distance, and glacier-capped Mt. Olympus behind us.
We enjoyed a lunch of smoked salmon, chocolate hazelnut trail truffles, and freeze-dried grapes. We sat there at more than 5000 feet for an hour. The only sounds were birds in nearby trees and rivers rushing miles away and thousands of feet below us. To be so immersed in wilderness is truly magical, and an immense privilege.
We pushed ourselves through more elevation and our efforts were rewarded. Between the High Divide and our final camp, we also lost a lot of elevation we’d gained the day before. It almost felt like the trail was mocking us as our knees felt like buckling under the strain of downhill.
Our second and final campsite was tucked deep in the temperate rainforest along Rocky Creek. The water rushed over rounded moss-covered rocks. The forest darkened quickly after sunset and after dinner we retreated to the tent for a long night’s rest.
We woke up to rain pouring on our tent the next morning at 7am. We packed inside as best we could and rolled my sopping wet tent up to be dried later. With 5 miles left to hike out, we hit the trail by 8:30am for a nice, early start.
The trail was wet, muddy, and slippery, but the forest was beautiful in the rain. Our rain jackets, pants, hiking boots, and pack covers kept us dry enough, so I enjoyed the sound of rain drops hitting the forest canopy and forest floor around us. What a contrast from the day before.
The last paragraph in my journal, from the night at our Rocky Creek campsite, reads:
I have felt so centered and relaxed today. This trip in the outdoors, exerting my body in the mountains is exactly what I needed to reset. Anxiety was started to sit on my chest like a heavy weight at the end of every day, surrounding my heart and mind like a dark cloud. Today I had a break from that. And hopefully tomorrow, too. And the next day, and the next.
My spirit is refreshed, rejuvenated. I feel alive, and with it, so happy.
The benefits of being outside in nature can not be understated. Numerous research studies have found that exposure to nature can reduce hypertension and cardiovascular illnesses, improve mood, and benefit mental well-being. A study published in 2017 states that it is not just the visual scenery of nature that gives us health and mood benefits, but the multi-sensory experience of being outside.
Yet another research team found that the people around the world who need nature the most are at the highest risk of nature not meeting their needs. They estimated that by 2050, “up to 5 billion people could be at higher risk of water pollution, coastal storms and under-pollinated crops”. Over 500 million people may be impacted by projected sea-level rise by that same year.
Now more than ever it is important to protect ecosystems, restore broken ones, and fund natural climate solutions. Vote with your dollar to influence the production of certain materials and decrease demand for unsustainable practices and production. Vote for people who defend nature.
The way I see it, we don’t have another option.