My latest trip, to Royal Basin in Olympic National Park, was a wild one! I’ve been to Olympic several times over the past two years, exploring the coast and the road-accessible park highlights, but this was my first time into the park’s wild, mountainous interior. My plan was ambitious - a high traverse on the ridge above Royal Basin, followed by climbing a series of untrailed passes to cross from Royal Basin to Constance Pass before descending back to the Dungeness River. In all, the route called for 27 miles covering more than 11,000 feet of elevation gain, most of it without trails to guide the way.
This trip had been a long time in the making. I ordered topo maps and the climbing guide for Olympic National park back in February, giving myself several weeks to choose a route before the park began accepting permit reservations in March. It wasn’t until May that I received a permit, but the park couldn’t have assigned me better dates - a three day weekend in August, when my planned route would likely be fully cleared of snow. Best of all, going through the reservation process saved me from having to wait in line at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles on the first day of my trip (where I’ve previously spent hours waiting in line for backcountry permits…).
I arrived at the Dungeness River trailhead just after noon, and after a peaceful walk through lush old-growth forest I turned off-trail to start my traverse of Gray Wolf Ridge. Calling the route “steep” doesn’t adequately capture the slope to the top of the ridge - I gained 4,000 feet in just three miles, forcing my feet flat onto the ground to prevent straining my calves. The view from the top was worth the effort, though. The entire North Cascades, Vancouver Island, and Mount Olympus were all unobscured - a panorama showcasing the best of the Pacific Northwest.
The view of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands from the top of Gray Wolf Ridge. Mount Baker and the Picket Range of the North Cascades stood out in the distance.
The route ahead. I made it over the first peak, but decided to drop back into Royal Basin before climbing the highest summit on the ridge.
It was around this time that the problem that would derail my trip became noticeable. I was drenched in sweat and had nearly run through my water (2.5 liters!) by the time I reached the ridge - and there was no water, not even snow, anywhere in sight. The guidebook had said nothing about packing extra water, but I found myself with several miles of steep descents and re-ascents between the peaks along the shade-less ridge in the heat of the afternoon. It was clear that going forward would be put me dangerously at risk of becoming severely dehydrated, so I made the difficult decision to drop off the ridge. I spent the next three hours descending steep terrain, sliding on rocks and climbing through downed trees, before reaching the trail to Royal Basin and a creek to replenish my water. By the time I reached my campsite at Royal Lake at 9 pm, I had covered gained almost 8,000 feet of elevation and lost 5,000 feet in a single day and my quads were screaming in pain.
The route to the upper reaches of Royal Basin was spectacularly beautiful.
One of the many marmots that chirped out a warning as I crossed through their meadow.
Already exhausted from the difficulty of the unexpected detour the day before, my difficult route on day 2 - which involved making three off-trail passes with significant descents between each - was doomed from the start. I struggled up to the summit of my first pass, over the shoulder of Mount Deception, moving slowly enough from the pain in my legs that it was nearly noon by the time I reached the summit. Staring down at the descent into Deception Basin below me and Mount Mystery ahead, which my route involved skirting, I knew that I couldn’t safely continue. The route would have been challenging on fresh legs - with my quads already shaking, it seemed almost certain I would run out of gas well before making Constance Pass.
Looking back at Royal Basin from the top of Deception pass.
Looking down on the meadows above Royal Lake.
Looking regretfully at Mount Mystery, I descended back into Royal Basin for a second night. The steep terrain of the Olympic Mountains proved too much for me on this trip, but it was certainly a tremendous experience nonetheless!
Standing atop Deception Pass, it was clear that traversing around Mount Mystery would be extremely difficult.
Another group of hikers had attempted my route that morning, but also turned back into Royal Basin after difficulty ascending the Mystery Glacier.
Spending a second night in Royal Basin at least gave me plenty of time to explore the upper basin.