Tuesday, August 29, 2017

High Divide Loop

Mount Olympus from the High Divide
18.5 miles loop, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, due to distance
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Olympic National Park entrance fee required; limited permits for backpacking

The High Divide is Olympic National Park's most stunningly scenic hike and one of the most complete hikes in all of the Pacific Northwest. This loop trail visits roaring waterfalls in old growth forests, climbs to pretty wooded lakes, passes subalpine meadows brimming with wildflowers and huckleberries, and then delivers out-of-this-world views of Mount Olympus along the hike's namesake ridge. At just shy of 20 miles, the hike is best and usually done as an overnight or multi-night backpack to enjoy the copious treasures along the loop; however, as permits for camping in the Seven Lakes Basin are difficult to obtain, the High Divide is also doable as a very long and tiring day hike for very fit hikers.

Hiking this trail fulfilled a personal dream for me: when I first visited Olympic National Park in 2003, I bought a wall poster with a photo of Mount Olympus from the High Divide. I've kept that poster hanging in my bedroom for the past 14 years, constantly mesmerized by the majesty of the Blue Glacier as it spills off of the high seat of Olympus. I'm a little embarassed to admit that this image may have played at least a small part in my decision to move to Seattle after leaving Charlottesville.

I hiked the High Divide on a late August day, taking advantage of one of the few remaining summer weekends to finally visit the place that I had dreamed about for a decade and a half. I drove out to the Olympic Peninsula the night before; if you're coming from Seattle and planning on doing this as a day hike, that's almost mandatory as few hikers will have the stamina for eight hours of driving and twelve or so hours of hiking in a single day. From Port Angeles, I took US 101 east past Lake Crescent to the turnoff for Sol Duc; here, I turned left and followed the Sol Duc Road to the trailhead at its terminus. I started my hike at 6:20 AM to beat the heat and have enough daylight to do the whole loop.

From the trailhead, the wide, well-maintained trail to Sol Duc Falls dropped briefly downhill to a junction with a trail leading to the Sol Duc Campground about 200 meters in. Continuing straight, I followed the level trail across a small bridge over a tiny tributary to reach the trail shelter at Sol Duc Falls and the junction with the return leg of the loop at 0.8 miles from the trailhead. Here, I took the right fork for Sol Duc Falls; the trail dropped a little further to reach a bridge crossing over a narrow, rocky canyon carved out by the Sol Duc River. While Sol Duc Falls is not particularly impressive in height, it is exceptionally graceful, with three (or four, depending on the season) parallel drops tumbling into a mossy gorge. At 6:40 in the morning, I had the falls all to myself.

Sol Duc Falls
Past the falls, the trail turned and began heading downriver alongside the south side of the river. A couple hundred feet past the falls, the trail for Deer Lake and the Seven Lakes Basin branched off from the Lovers Lane Trail; I took the left fork towards Deer Lake.

The trail climbed steadily uphill through the forest in the valley of Canyon Creek for the next three miles to reach Deer Lake. The forest in the Sol Duc Valley appeared to be old growth, so there were some enormous trees along the way. At one point, the trail made a crossing on a well-built bridge over cascading Canyon Creek; at other points, it was possible to spot waterfalls on the creek through the trees, although there were no good views of those falls from the trail itself. Huckleberries, both red and black, were ripe alongside the trail, providing good snacking opportunities during the ascent.

Three miles past Sol Duc Falls, I came to the wooded, serene shores of Deer Lake. While Deer Lake lacked a stunning alpine backdrop, the perfect reflections on the tranquil surface of the lake were beautiful.

Deer Lake
The trail crossed a footbridge over the outlet of the lake and then began to skirt the eastern shore of the lake, providing multiple opportunities for lakeshore access. At the far end of the lake, the trail returned to the forest and climbed slightly to reach a flatter section of the valley with multiple tarns and some small, semi-open meadows. Berry picking here continued to be excellent.

Tarn near Deer Lake
Subalpine meadows around Deer Lake
After winding through the basin, the trail began to ascend and exit the valley. Views of the surrounding forested peaks in the Sol Duc Valley improved continuously as I hiked uphill until the viewshed broadened and peaks from further valleys and the mountains of Vancouver Island appeared.

Looking back down towards the Sol Duc Valley
As the trail began to climb up through subalpine meadows, I saw soom remnants of the summer's wildflower bloom. Lupine and paintbrush still dotted these meadows near the top of the ridge. Looking out from these meadows, good views abound of the Canyon Creek valley and of the Pacific Ocean in the distance; Deer Lake appeared in the valley below.

Lupine and paintbrush
The trail reentered the forest as it followed the top of the ridge, soon swinging to the south side of the ridge and emerging out in the upper watershed of the Bogachiel River about 6 miles from the trailhead. From here on, the trail remained more or less out in the open for the remainder of the High Divide over the course of the next 4 extremely scenic miles. I had a peek view of Mount Olympus and the White Glacier upon first emerging from the woods, but the peaks of the Hoh-Bogachiel divide soon blocked my sightline of the glaciated peaks.

The trail traversed open, meadow-filled slopes as it ascended along the Sol Duc-Bogachiel divide, passing many patches of blooming wildflower. Gentian was especially plentiful; I seem to have caught it at its peak bloom date. Lupine, paintbrush, and western anemone were plentiful but many other flowers were clearly past their prime.

Trailside gentian
Late-blooming wildflowers
Western anemone
Views out from the trail weren't bad either: green meadows filled the bottom of the Bogachiel River valley and verdant forests filled the mountainsides along the headwaters of this rainforest river. At 7 miles from the trailhead, I passed the junction for the spur trail that descended to the Seven Lakes Basin; at the junction, I took the right fork to stay on the High Divide Trail.

Headwaters of the Bogachiel River
At 7.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail began a steep switchback ascent along the side of Bogachiel Peak, dramatically improving the view of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. From this high vantage point, the shimmering blue ocean appeared behind the many layers of forested ridges of the Olympics.

The Pacific Ocean behind the forested ridges of the Olympics
Shortly after finishing the switchback ascent, a short spur off the left side of the trail led to a viewpoint over the Seven Lakes Basin. Mount Appleton anchored one end of the view while Mount Carrie in the Bailey Range appeared to the east. Below, a number of small, glistening lakes dotted the rocky basin.

Seven Lakes Basin
Continuing forward, the trail soon came to its first true view of Mount Olympus, framed in the saddle between Bogachiel Peak and a small knob south of the peak.

First view of Olympus
The trail rounded the south ridge of Bogachiel Peak, passing the spur trail to Hoh Lake, and emerged into a jaw-dropping view of Mount Olympus and the Bailey Range with the milky waters of the Hoh River snaking below. While Mount Olympus is not particularly tall- at less than 8000 feet, it doesn't even make the list of Washington's 100 tallest peaks- the relief between the summit and the bottom of the Hoh Valley at 1000 feet was extremely dramatic.

Hoh River Valley and Mount Olympus from Bogachiel Peak
The trail began wrapping around Bogachiel Peak, cutting through mountainside meadows. After 8 miles of hiking, I had finally arrived at the High Divide, the subalpine ridge separating the Hoh and the Sol Duc watersheds.

A little past the Hoh Lake spur junction, I came to a marked spur trail that led up Bogachiel Peak. I took the detour, climbing briefly to reach the 5470-foot high point of the hike. While the summit is partially surrounded by trees so there is not a clear view in all directions, the scene was still stunning. Mount Olympus poked out above trees to the south, the High Divide stretched onward towards the Pacific Ocean to the west, many layers of forested ridges reached out towards Cape Flattery, and the Seven Lakes Basin lay below the peak. I could see a sliver of the Strait of Juan de Fuca separating the peninsula from Vancouver Island.

View along the Hoh-Bogachiel Divide from Bogachiel Peak
I enjoyed the view with the company of some other ambitious day hikers doing the High Divide Loop. A solo hiker from New Mexico had made it up to the Olympics after watching the eclipse in eastern Oregon a week earlier and decided to tackle the best of the park while he was here; two other hikers had come up for the day from Port Angeles.

Seven Lakes Basin with Vancouver Island rising in the back, viewed from Bogachiel Peak
The two miles of hiking that followed from Bogachiel Peak were utterly dreamlike. Tracing the High Divide, the trail delivered views alternately of Mount Olympus and the Seven Lakes Basin. It was difficult not to stop every twenty feet to soak in the scenery and snap a few photos. Lakes with names as varied as Lunch, Morgenroth, No Name, and No. 8 dotted the landscape to the north.

Mount Olympus from the High Divide Trail
View of the Bailey Range and the Hoh River Valley
Seven Lakes Basin
The trail along the High Divide had multiple sections with gradual ascents and descents but the consistency of the views along the trail made the hiking relatively easy.

Bailey Range
Bogachiel Peak and the Seven Lakes Basin
The highlight of the view was always Mount Olympus. Olympus is barely the highest peak in the Olympic Mountains: at 7980 feet, it barely beats out 7790-foot Mount Deception and 7750-foot Mount Constance, the second and third tallest peaks in the range. Yet Olympus is a much grander mountain: it has a massive, throne-like summit that holds many glaciers including the White, the Blue, and the Hoh, three of Washington State's most impressive glaciers. It is the tallest peak in the Coast Range in Washington and Oregon. As the Olympic Peninsula is topographically isolated from the high peaks of the Cascades, Olympus has 7800 feet of prominence, making it the most prominent non-volcanic peak in the state.

Mount Olympus
After passing above Lake No. 8, the High Divide Trail came to the ridge that marked the eastern edge of the Seven Lakes Basin. The trail cut along the grassy slopes on the south side of that ridge, leaving behind the views of the Seven Lakes Basin and the ocean.

The High Divide
This stretch of trail delivered the final and most spectacular views of Mount Olympus. From this angle, I could see the Blue Glacier's perfect turn as it flowed down from the Snow Dome of Mount Olympus, with the two arching curves of the glacier's lateral moraines traced atop the ice. The Blue Glacier reached its terminus above a steep, rocky cliff; at the time of the park's establishment, the glacier tumbled down that cliff in a wild icefall. While the Blue Glacier remains impressive today, climate change has not spared this glacier from a major retreat.

The Blue Glacier makes a beautiful turn as it flows off Mount Olympus
After leaving the last view of Mount Olympus, the trail entered the Heart Lake Basin, with a nice view of the open meadowlands around Heart Lake and of Mount Carrie in the distance. After descending along the ridge to a junction with the Cat Basin Primitive Trail, the trail turned to the left and descended off the High Divide into the lake basin. Heart Lake is aptly named, having naturally formed the double-lobed shape that for some reason we associate with the human heart. At Heart Lake, the berry fields returned: I spent an hour near the lake picking and eating huckleberries to my heart's content.

Heart Lake
I wasn't the only one enjoying the berries at the lake. While I munched, two bears ambled through the berry patches near the lake, more intent on stuffing their bellies with sugar and antioxidants for the winter than they were with paying attention to the nearby humans. One bear even hopped in Heart Lake for a short swim.

Resident bear at Heart Lake
A group of ptarmigans with a number of ptarmigan chicks wandered around on social paths near the lakeshore, seemingly oblivious to the presence of hikers sitting by the lakeshore and swimming in the lake.

I was loathe to leave Heart Lake and spent more time than I probably should have eating berries. When I finally realized that I had to leave or risk having hike back in the dark, I reluctantly pulled myself away and began the downhill journey back to the trailhed. The first part of the descent remained out in open subalpine slopes, but the trail returned to the forest with about 7 miles of hiking left from the trailhead.

Descent from Heart Lake
Along the descent, the trail passed the semi-open meadowlands of Soleduck Park. While the terrain seemed beautiful and berries were abundant, the increasingly late hour drove me to continue onward without stopping.

Soleduck Park
Past Soleduck Park, the trail crossed Bridge Creek, one of the headwater tributaries of the Sol Duc River, via a sturdy log bridge. Past the bridge, a steep descent down a few switchbacks brought me to the bottom of the valley. A rocky trail tread made the descent slower and more difficult than I had initially hoped, cutting down at the pace that I needed to maintain to finish the trail before dark.

With about 5.5 miles left from the trailhead, I crossed the Sol Duc River on a log bridge. The trail smoothed out a bit afterward, with a nice dirt tread allowing me to book it most of the rest of the way back to the trailhead. At 5 miles from the trailhead, I passed the turnoff for the trail up to Appleton Pass. The trail stayed in a forest of massive old growth the entire way, paralleling the Sol Duc River and approaching closely enough at times to view a number of small waterfalls on the river.

Waterfall on the Sol Duc River
After cruising through the stretch of trail paralleling the Sol Duc River, I found myself at the shelter at Sol Duc Falls, just 0.8 miles from the trailhead. I had not run into any other hikers since crossing Bridge Creek, but here, just a few hundred yards from the trailhead, I encountered many hikers strolling back from a short jaunt to Sol Duc Falls. I returned to the trailhead 13 hours after I had started and a little under 3 hours after leaving Heart Lake for the return leg of the loop; as I drove back towards Seattle, I caught beautiful dusk lighting on both Lake Crescent and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I visited two friends in Port Angeles before making the drive to Bainbridge to catch the last ferry of the night back to Seattle, collapsing in my own bed at 2:10 AM, over 21 hours after I woke up to hike the loop the previous morning.

I had inordinately lofty expectations about this trail prior to hiking it, but somehow the High Divide managed to live up to be everything that I wished it would be. If you can handle this hike, you should go. 


  1. Thank you for the informative and inspiring trip report. I will be leaving in a few days for a High Divide backpacking trip. Your report whetted my appetite for a memorable experience.

    1. You're welcome- thanks for visiting. The High Divide really is an exceptional hike, I'm a little jealous you'll get to experience it for multiple days! Happy hiking!