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?
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Elwha Trail, Washington
DRIVE TIME: Olympic National Park's Port Angeles Visitor Center is 72 miles (1 1/2 hours) west of Seattle (not including the ferry ride).
THE WAY: From Seattle, take a ferry across Puget Sound or drive across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Then follow US 101 to Port Angeles. Drive 10 miles west of Port Angeles and take the Elwha River Road south. Continue 4 miles to the Elwha Ranger Station (where permits are available) and take Whiskey Bend Road another 5 miles (a narrow, winding, and rough stretch) to the trailhead.
TRAILS: Olympic National Park boasts more than 600 miles of coastal, rain-forest, and mountain trails. The 27-mile Elwha Trail cuts directly to the heart of the park; you can extend your hike by continuing over Low Divide. The Long Ridge-Dodger Point-Elwha Trail loop described at left requires fording the Elwha River, so check water levels with park rangers before setting out.
ELEVATION: The trail starts at 1,198 feet and gradually climbs to 2,700 feet in Elwha Basin.
CAN'T MISS: Goblins Gate, where the Elwha River has created fascinating rock statuary—take a short detour down the Rica Canyon Trail not far from the Elwha trailhead.
CROWD CONTROL: The Elwha Trail is busy in July and August, less crowded in June and September.
SEASON: The Elwha Trail is hikeable year-round, but expect wet conditions in winter. The weather is best June through September.
GUIDES: Olympic Mountains Trail Guide, by Robert L. Wood (The Mountaineers; 800-553-4453; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $18.95). Trails Illustrated's Olympic National Park #216 map (800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95).
WALK SOFTLY: Because of high bear activity in the Elwha Valley, use bear canisters (required for groups of four or more).
CONTACT: Olympic National Park, (360) 565-3130; www.nps.gov/olym. For wilderness information at the park, call (360) 565-3100.