Saturday, February 11, 2017

Marmot Pass

Marmot Pass
10.5 miles round trip, 3500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Long narrow paved road, then bumpy gravel road to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required to park at trailhead

The hike to Marmot Pass offers a little of everything: a stretch of trail paralleling the tumbling waters of the Big Quilcene River in old-growth forest, open wildflower meadows on the slopes of Buckhorn Mountain, and finally the rocky alpine environment and big mountain views of Marmot Pass. This is a popular backpacking spot and for good reason: there's so much to explore here that one day simply isn't enough! In retrospect, I regret my choice to day hike here, which prevented me from exploring the surroundings of the pass such as climbing nearby Buckhorn Mountain. Given an opportunity to return here, I'd backpack and stay overnight to explore; but if you've only got a day, Marmot Pass still makes an excellent destination.

I hiked this trail on a hot early June weekend with two friends, leaving Seattle early in the morning. The hike is generally accessible from June through October, although early in the season you'll often find snow at or near the pass. From Seattle, we took I-5 south to Tacoma, then followed Washington Highway 16 north across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to Bremerton, continued north along Washington Highway 3 up to the northern end of the Kitsap Peninsula, then turned left at the juunction with Highway 104 to take the Hood Canal Bridge onto the Olympic Peninsula. We followed Highway 104 until reaching US 101, which we took south just past the town of Quilcene to an almost unmarked turnoff on the right for Penny Creek Road. Turning onto Penny Creek Road, we followed it past a quarry; when NF-27 split off to the left (signs indicated the turn for Mount Townsend and Marmot Pass), we took the left fork on NF-27 and followed it for about 8 miles. While the road was paved, it was fairly narrow and often had potholes, so the drive still took a while. 8 miles in, we made a left turn at the sign for National Forest Road 2750, following it towards the Marmot Pass Trailhead. The road turned into a bumpy, pothole-filled gravel road, which we followed until reaching the signed trailhead for Marmot Pass.

Leaving the trailhead, the trail delved immediately into the forests along the upper Big Quilcene River. The trail stayed close to the river, following it as it tumbled down cascades through the old growth forest and flowed gently through small swimming holes.

Upper Big Quilcene River
The first two and a half miles of the trail varied mainly between closely following the river or having it out of sight but within earshot. The uphill was gradual but constant throughout this stretch. The blooming rhododendrons along the trail added variety to the color palette of the verdant forest.

At about the two and a half miles from the trailhead, the trail embarked on a steady and steeper climb, leaving the river entirely and entering a higher and drier forest. After more than half a mile of constant ascent, the trail emerged into patchy woodlands and talus slopes that characterized the subalpine on the south slopes of Buckhorn Mountain.

Soon afterwards we were completely out in the open, with the rocky ridges of Buckhorn Peak rising directly to our north and the spires of Boulder Ridge rising across the valley to the south. The trail continued a steady ascent through these open slopes.

Meadows on the slope of Buckhorn Mountain
Mountain scenery in the Upper Big Quilcene watershed
Early wildflowers had already begun blooming in high mountain meadows along Buckhorn Peak's southern aspect: most notable were the colorful paintbrush, but clumps of violet phlox also caught my eye.

We found that these high slopes offered not only good views of the surrounding Olympic peaks, but also far off views of the Cascades on the other side of Puget Sound. Glacier Peak was particularly notable from the trail, through a discerning eye allowed us to distinguish lower peaks such as Sloan. The Boeing Everett factory was also notably visible: this wasn't too surprising, as that factory, which conducts the final assembly of Boeing's 747, 767, 777, and 787 widebody passenger jets, is generally regarded as the largest building in the world by volume. The northern end of the Kitsap Peninsula and the southern tip of Whidbey Island lay between the factory and our side of the Sound.

Glacier Peak, across the Puget Sound
By the time the trail rejoined the river at Camp Mystery, we were 4.5 miles from the trailhead and almost 2800 feet uphill, although the elevation gain had been spaced out enough to feel like much less!

Just pass Camp Mystery, the trail entered a long, narrow meadow with a profusion of yellow glacier lilies in peak bloom. The lilies were everywhere in this meadow, making it the prettiest wildflower display of the hike.

Field of glacier lilies
Beyond the field of glacier lilies, the trail became snow covered as it ascended steadily through a set of switchbacks. At the top of the switchbacks, we entered a meadow still half-covered with snow: here, our destination was finally within sight. The trail circled around the meadow and made a final uphill push to the pass. At the pass itself, standing astride the Big Quilcene and Dungeness watersheds, we had excellent views of the peaks ringing the Dungeness valley and Royal Basin, including Mount Mystery and Mount Deception.

View into the upper Dungeness watershed from Marmot Pass
Our initial goal had been to hike to the summit of Buckhorn Peak, one mile further to the north and an additional 1000 feet up, but we were sufficiently tired and the time of day was late enough that we chose to make Marmot Pass our final destination. I did wander a few hundred meters further along the path to Buckhorn Mountain, climbing until I could see the mountains behind the ridge directly to the south of Marmot Pass, about 10 minutes uphill from the pass. From here, the view to the south was excellent, encompassing many of the most jagged peaks of the Buckhorn Wilderness, including Mount Constance and Warrior Peak. Mount Rainier was also visible far to the southeast.

Mount Constance and other eastern Olympic peaks from above Marmot Pass
The view included rugged peaks far to the south, which from conjecture I'd say are Mount Stone and Mount Hopper down in the Mount Skokomish Wilderness, but feel free to correct me if you know for certain the names of these peaks.

Olympic peaks viewed from slopes of Buckhorn Mountain
The only solace of not camping up at the pass was the realization that so many other people had hiked up to camp near the pass: indeed, many appropriate campsites and areas of flat ground were occupied by mid-afternoon on Saturday. Yet it's hard to imagine having time to hike Buckhorn, visit the Tubal Cain Mine, or check out a B17 crash site from the 1950s off the Tubal Cain Trail, all within a few miles of the pass, without spending a night at Camp Mystery or at the pass itself. Ultimately, Marmot Pass was still very satisfying as a day hike, providing varied scenery in its ascent from the forest alongside the Big Quilcene River to meadows of wildflowers to the icy alpine landscape of the pass itself.

We returned to the trailhead the way we came and returned to Seattle via ferry.

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