Hiking the Elwha River, Olympic National Park

See dense forest and prehistoric ferns on this 45.2-mile jaunt.
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elwha river olympic national park

Olympic National Park's old-growth towers over the trail.

At mile 20, disorientation sets in. We’re buried in a canopy of lichen-draped Douglas firs that are so dense, not even a splinter of sunlight filters through. A day after we left behind the usual crowds of Olympic National Park, we’re in the company of 700-year-old giants standing sentry over the otherworldly beauty of the Elwha River—upstream minerals keep the stream bright blue even on stormy days. We laugh at the good luck of having this place to ourselves, breaking the silence. But our laughter dies in our throats at the next bend: 30 feet down the trail a black bear looks just as startled as we are. We start to backtrack, and the bear goes back to its early-season berry foraging. It would rather be alone, and how can we blame it?

Turn-by-turn from the Whiskey Bend Trailhead

1) Pick up the Elwha River Trail/Pacific Northwest Trail and take it 16.1 miles south through a forest of Douglas firs as it dances above its aquamarine namesake the whole way to the Hayes River Guard Station.

2) Next day, dayhike 6.5 miles south on the main trail, following the Elwha River upstream to the first crossing.

3) Retrace your steps back to camp and, next day, the trailhead.

Campsite: Hayes River (mile 16.1)

Skip the crowds at Elkhorn and make a basecamp at this riverine, first-come, first-serve site. Hike past the ranger cabin and the bear hang to find the sites between the trees. Cross the logs running perpendicular to a marshy flat and crest a short hill to find the best (read: most private) camp on the edge of the Elwha River.

Return of the Salmon

For nearly a century, salmon from the Pacific would start the journey each fall to reach their spawning ground—before getting thwarted at the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. In 2012 and 2014, respectively, each was removed, and the salmon began to make the climb again. To date, they’ve made it 10 miles up along the Elwha River Trail—near the Elkhorn Guard Station.

Goblins Gate

The dams are gone, but the nature-made Goblins Gate, one of the Elwha’s biggest challenges for the salmon, remains. Here, near mile 1.2 on this hike, steep canyon walls pinch in on both sides of the river to 20 feet wide. (Early visitors thought that this section of the river resembled medieval gates.)

Trailhead 47.9678, -123.5824; 17 miles south of Port Angeles on Whiskey Bend Rd. Season May to September Permit Required ($6/person); obtain at an information center. Distance 45.2 miles Time 3 days