Olympic National Park is a popular place, with over three million visitors traveling to this remote corner of the United States each year. As the 6th most visited National Park in the National Park Service in 2014, one would assume that the place is packed, filled to the brim with hikers, backpackers, and nature lovers from all around the world.
However, the reality in Olympic National Park is that the majority of visitors see just a small portion of it’s nearly one million acres of wilderness. Most will flock to Hurricane Ridge, Sol Duc Falls, Lake Crescent, the Hoh Rainforest and the rugged beaches of LaPush, but one region is home to the best backpacking in the country, and one of the most iconic sights in the park.
The Quinault Rainforest is an extremely wet place, receiving well over 12 feet of rain annually, and hiding some of the best views, wildlife encounters, and wilderness experiences in Olympic. Highlighted by Lake Quinault, the Quinault rainforest sits on the western edge of the park, giving those who make their way to this isolated corner access to some of the most sacred and beautiful hiking destinations in the world. Trails in the area weave through giant ferns, pass under huge, old-growth cedar and fir trees, and even lead to mountain peaks, glaciers, and pristine valleys. Often overlooked for the more flashy destinations, the Quinault Rainforest is more than just a destination, it is a backpacking paradise.
Thirteen and a half miles from the Graves Creek Campground along the Quinault River, the Enchanted Valley sits quietly under the shadow of the Olympic mountains. Backpackers who make the jaunt to this wilderness paradise are rewarded with views of black bears, elk herds, “10,000 Waterfalls”, and a rustic, three story chalet. While many will tell you to hike the Hoh River for the best experience in Olympic National Park, the trail along the Quinault River to the Enchanted Valley gives you the best of the Olympics on one trail.
The trail to Enchanted Valley is a rite-of-passage among locals and frequent visitors to the National Park, perfectly encapsulating the spirit of the Olympics. To most who visit it, it is a sacred destination, a place for meditation and a place to reconnect with true wilderness. The Quinault is special, and those looking to respect nature and reconnect with the wild need to visit this incredible valley and backpacking destination.
Here are five incredible experiences visitors can expect to encounter while hiking to Olympic’s Enchanted Valley.
1. Views of the Quinault River
For 13.5 miles, the trail from Graves Creek Campground in Olympic National Park crosses streams of all sizes, twice crossing the mighty Quinault River. As the trail weaves through ancient forests with chest-deep sword ferns, glimpses and views of the Quinault can be seen, three of which are life changing. Two and half miles from the trailhead, the trail crosses the Quinault River at Pony Bridge. Spanning a box canyon, Pony Bridge gives hikers a view of the blues and whites of the river contrasting against the wet rocks and glowing green mosses. Towering firs and cedars line the step canyon walls, making this an incredible sight and a popular day hike.
A mile and a half upriver from Pony Bridge, the trail drops from the hills and deposits hikers along the banks of the Quinault once again. Used as a popular lunch spot, take some time to explore the river, as it offers a series of small cascades before dropping into a deep pool, perfect for taking a dip.
While there are more views of the Quinault along the trail, the next amazing view is after you cross the river on a steel beam of a bridge. While your eyes may be darting for a glimpse of the Enchanted Valley Chalet, or up at the mountains and waterfalls along the cliffs, take a few minutes to appreciate the erosion dug in by the ever shifting course of the Quinault River. The Chalet, which sits 100 feet away from the eroded bluff, was moved to its current position in 2014 after nearly collapsing in the river.
2. Silence and Solitude
The Quinault River is a quiet place for those seeking solitude the majority of the year, with the exception being the summer months. During the rest of the year, seeing another hiker is an experience few and far between. Out on the Quinault, and in the Enchanted Valley, solitude and enjoyment of wilderness awaits those who backpack to this sacred destination. Along the Quinault, the steady sound of a timeless river is only interrupted by the wind through the forests, the rain on the ferns and damp soil, or the sounds of elk.
The Quinault turns conversations on mute, with the majority of hikers unconsciously whispering as they walk along the incredible 13.5-mile trail to the Enchanted Valley. Mile after mile, wilderness erupts in every direction, overwhelming those who reside in the city. With no car, planes, or cell phone service, the sounds of nature calm and sooth any and all who are looking for relaxation. The solitude and disconnect with the world can be intense for some, but revitalizes your soul when you allow it.
3. Old Growth Forests and Giant Trees
The Quinault Rainforest is estimated to receive anywhere from 12 to 16 feet of rain each year, the majority falling between the months of October and May. All that moisture falling has occurred over centuries, allowing plants to thrive and reach impressive ages and sizes. The Quinault River Valley and Rainforest is home to Washington State’s largest trees. The trees here are giant, but one is well worth the attempt to find it, and can be found easily.The world’s largest western hemlock is located just 2.1 short miles upriver from the Enchanted Valley Chalet. This giant monster is rarely visited, despite it’s proximity to the Chalet, making it a perfect short trek when staying in Enchanted Valley.
4. The Chalet and Valley
The Enchanted Valley is exactly as its name suggests. Those who hike in and gaze at the views from the valley will agree, spending time here is truly magical. Enchanted Valley is full of bears, views of mountains, explorations along creeks and rivers, and the Enchanted Valley Chalet.
Until September 8th, 2014, the Enchanted Valley Chalet, listed on the National Registry of Historical Buildings, had sat in the same spot in since it was completed in 1931, seven years before Olympic National Park was created. Originally, the Chalet served as a privately owned backcountry lodge. After WWII, the Chalet was sold to the National Park Service. For the next 60 years, the Enchanted Valley Chalet stood as a destination for backpackers worldwide, a remote building existing in an otherwise pristine wilderness. Serving as an emergency shelter, as well as seasonal backcountry ranger station, the Chalet was a welcome sight to many a weary hiker.
During the winter of 2013-14, the Quinault River’s banks shifted wildly, nearly undercutting the historic structure. Thanks to public outcry, the National Park, with use of local, expert home movers, relocated the lodge 100 feet away, ensuring it’s safety for generations.
The Chalet sits in Enchanted Valley, often dubbed “The Valley of 10,000 Waterfalls” for the massive amounts of water which pours down the rocky cliffs during spring melt. The creeks and river banks in the valley are filled with quartz crystals, making exploration a fun experiences. With bears commonly seen roaming the valley, and the occasional elk herd passing through, a day or two in the valley is the perfect escape. During clear nights, stargazing is incredible, and during a full moon, the light bounces off the cliff walls, illuminating the entire area.
5. The Hike to a Glacier
Anderson Glacier on Mount Anderson is a sign of the times, a quickly melting glacier that was once a popular destination. Today, the glacier is nearly gone, just a few more years of sub-par snowpack before the iconic glacier is gone forever. From Enchanted Valley, the hike to Anderson Glacier isn't easy, adding around 6.5 miles one way. However, hiking to a glacier is becoming less and less common, and sights of the Anderson Glacier will soon be stories of the past. The hike to Anderson Pass and Anderson Glacier is also a great way to cap off your trip following the length of Quinault River. Not every hike allows you the opportunity to see a rainforest, climb up near a mountain, and gaze at a glacier, but the Quinault isn’t every hike.