Wednesday, September 7, 2016

PJ Lake

Clouds over PJ Lake
2 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; the trail is short but quite steep
Access: Narrow, steep dirt road to trailhead; Olympic National Park entrance fee required

PJ Lake is a small, forest-lined lake accessible by a short but steep hike off the Obstruction Point Road. Although the lake is not the most remarkable destination in Olympic National Park, it is an enjoyable cloudy day hike in the Hurricane Ridge area, especially in late summer when the mountain slopes are loaded with ripe huckleberries. I enjoyed the simple pleasures of this hike: trickling waterfalls, late season wildflowers, a good workout, calm waters of a rarely-visited lake, and the taste of foraged mountain berries.

I hiked this trail on an early September day with a friend I who had just moved to Port Angeles. From Seattle, I followed I-5 south and then took the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the Hood Canal Bridge to the Olympic Peninsula via the Kitsap Peninsula. After following US 101 to Port Angeles, I met up with my friend and we drove up to Hurricane Ridge together. By the time we were atop the ridge, it was already early afternoon and clouds had rolled in, covering the views of the glaciated Olympic interior. From the east end of the visitor center parking lot, we turned onto the steep and narrow Obstruction Point Road, a dirt road that is surely one of the most unpleasant yet simultaneously beautiful driving experiences in the state. A few miles down the road, we came to the trailhead, where a sign on the left side of the road marked the start of the hike to PJ Lake. Just a few miles from one of the most visited spots in Olympic National Park, we found a trail that we shared with just three other hikers over the course of three hours on a holiday weekend. Trailhead parking was very limited and could only accomodate a handful of cars.

We followed the PJ Lake trail downhill from the trailhead. The trail was extremely direct, wasting no time in plunging steeply down the mountainside. Huckleberry bushes lined the trail from the beginning; unfortunately berries seemed done at the bushes along the start of the trail.

As we continued along the trail, we entered a steep mountain meadow which would presumably have featured views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and nearby peaks in better weather. We found a handful of paintbrush still blooming along the trail. The trail continued its steep descent, occasionally switchbacking as it dropped over 600 feet in 0.6 miles.

A little over halfway through the descent, a particularly gnarled tree stump by the side of the trail caught our eye.

Gnarled tree stump
At the bottom of the descent, the trail reached a small stream, which we crossed easily via some logs. Past the crossing, the trail was momentarily flat, then climbed a bit before coming to a second stream. Late in the season, the flow in this stream was quite low, but it still formed a pretty waterfall as it tumbled down a small rock wall.

Falls at the bottom of the descent
Past the falls, the trail began a constant, steep ascent that matched the descent we had just done. Luckily, our ascent was made easier by the abundance of ripe huckleberries along this section of trail. We ate our way uphill, snacking constantly on the sweet black-and-blue berries that lined the trail.

Trailside huckleberries
Huckleberries are one of the easiest berries to identify and eat in the Northwest: they look remarkably similar to blueberries (unsurprising as the two belong to the same family) and are abundant throughout subalpine slopes in both the Cascades and the Olympics. While generally the rules for national parks stipulate that visitors should remove nothing from the parks, the parks of the Northwest allow for collection of limited amounts of edible fruits (typically one quart per day) for personal consumption.

Huckleberry harvest
Before we knew it, we had eaten our way to PJ Lake. The lake's placid green waters filled a bowl surrounded by evergeen forest; mist shrouded the rocky outcrops that rose above the lake. We had the lake to ourselves for the while as we watched the clouds float in and out and caught up on the past four years of our lives.

PJ Lake
Mist at PJ Lake
We retraced our steps for the return, eating berries along our way back. It's important to leave sufficient energy for the trip back: as this hike is mostly downhill coming in, conversely it's mostly uphill going back. Hiking poles are recommended for both the downhill and uphill portions of this hike due to the general steepness of the trail.

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