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Hiking Washington’s Elwha Trail Rainforest

Washington's Elwha Trail is a rain-forest classic: green, primeval, spongy soft, and wonderfully wet.

After a rough, off-trail traverse in Olympic National Park, I was ready to give my feet a rest. But then I landed on the Elwha Trail and I forgot all about sore soles. The sponge-soft trail felt soothing underfoot, springing up like a mattress after each step. Rest? I was ready to hike some more.

Tacking on a few more miles was no problem. The Elwha Trail follows its namesake river for 27 cushy miles to Elwha Basin, in the heart of Washington’s Olympic National Park. Along the way, it tunnels through a dimly lit forest of red cedar, Douglas fir, mosses, ferns, and other lush rain-forest growth. And since the entire trail is below 3,000 feet, it’s hikeable when the park’s high country is still snowbound.

Numerous trail shelters and wilderness campsites are scattered the length of the Elwha, making it easy to either sample a short segment or bite off the whole trail. The path dead-ends in the Elwha Basin, amid snowmelt torrents and subalpine wildflowers, beneath the jagged peaks of Mt. Seattle and Mt. Meany.

If you prefer a loop to an out-and-back journey, I recommend a challenging

2-day hike that includes an ascent of Long Ridge. Take the Elwha Trail to historic Michaels Ranch, then hang a right on the Long Ridge Trail and climb 10.5 miles to Dodger Point. Return to the Elwha Trail on the unmaintained Dodger Point Trail (easier to follow going down than up, trust me). Follow the Elwha back to the trailhead to complete the 31-mile loop.

Elk are common in the area, as are black bears, which congregate in the narrow Elwha Valley.

Remember to bring your foul-weather gear. Even though the Elwha is located in what’s considered the rain shadow of the Olympics, the forest can be an awfully wet place, with the dense canopy dripping for days after a storm. Of course, that’s the same water that contributes to the gardenlike atmosphere and soft-as-a-pillow footing, so who’s complaining?

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