The Hoh River Trail: Seattle's Most Epic Backpacking Trip

The Hoh River Trail is one of Seattle's best backpacking trips.
The Hoh River Trail is one of Seattle's best backpacking trips. Amy Salowitz
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Full of giant ancient trees swathed in layers of lichens, ferns, and mosses, the temperate rainforests of Olympic National Park are among the dreamiest landscapes in Washington State. Spending a weekend—or longer—hiking the Hoh River Trail, which snakes right through the middle of the Olympic Peninsula, is one of the most rewarding ways to explore this unique natural wonderland.

The whole of the trail from the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center to the start of the Blue Glacier is 17.4 miles, but with seven established campsites along the way, there are plenty of options for venturing out however far you see fit (you can also set up primitive camps on the gravel bars along the Hoh River). Make sure you’re not slowed down by sore feet in between camps—La Sportiva’s Trango TRK GTXfrom REI can help keep your feet comfortable for the long haul.

Backpacking on the Hoh River Trail will put a smile on your face. Amy Salowitz

The hike begins in the heart of the jungle. While temperate rainforests could once be found along the entire Pacific Coast from southern Oregon to southeast Alaska, these days the ones in Olympic National Park are some of the few that remain on the entire planet. Olympic’s rainforests receive an average of 140 to 167 inches (12 to 14 feet) of precipitation each year—moisture that maintains the ecosystem’s lush, abundant growth. Giant trees, mostly sitka spruce and western hemlocks, are lavishly adorned in epiphytes of various shades of green. Rows of seedlings sprout out of “nurse logs”: fallen trees that provide substrate for new life even as the parent logs decay away.

About 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the route reaches the Mineral Creek waterfall. This is a popular destination for day hikers, but those who come equipped to stay overnight will find even wilder scenery deeper into the forest. The trail roughly continues along the Hoh River, occasionally tagging it and then straying away. There are also several crossings over smaller streams to test out your footwork (especially during the rainy season).

Stream crossings can be tricky and require some quick maneuvers. Amy Salowitz

The camp at Five Mile Island is an ideal spot to break for lunch right on the river. Low-hanging clouds might drift over the tops of the evergreen trees across the water, and on a clear day you’ll be treated to views of Bogachiel Peak. If it’s raining you can also continue on another half mile to the Happy Four Camp, which has a primitive wooden shelter.

After Five Mile Island, the trail becomes much wilder and less maintained. Particularly if you go during the off-season, before trail crews sweep through during the late spring, don’t be surprised if you have to navigate obstacles like huge downed trees blocking the path, or even a bridge that was knocked sideways.

The Olympus Guard Station, located 9.1 miles from the Visitor’s Center, makes for a good spot to set up camp and spend the night—or you can keep going another 1.4 miles to the smaller campground at Lewis Meadow, where the forest opens up to sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. For many who only have a weekend for the trip, this also marks the turnaround point. But for adventurers who have the time and energy to push on the next morning, it is only nine more miles from Lewis Meadow Camp to the epic Blue Glacier Overlook.

The size of the trees along the trail will keep you in awe the whole way. Amy Salowitz

Keep in mind, however, that the final leg of the journey is also the hardest. While the trail stays relatively flat until just beyond Lewis Meadows, it then ascends more than 3,000 feet in elevation over the final five miles. The journey climbs to a ridge above the river to the High Hoh Bridge, 2.7 miles past Lewis Meadow Camp, which marks the end of the Hoh Valley. It is then another 1.8 miles to Elk Lake, after which the trail gets even steeper until it reaches the Glacier Meadows.

From here it’s just a short jaunt (about one mile) to the Blue Glacier Overlook. Once at the endpoint, take your time soaking in the details of the stunning slab of ice—from the jumbled icefall to the smooth slopes—on the north flanks of Mount Olympus.

While most people visit in late summer, when the rainforest is generally driest, the Hoh Valley is hike-able via the Hoh River Trail year-round (in fact, the colder months may actually be preferable for solitude seekers). But take note that the final section of trail may become impassable due to snow and avalanche conditions during the winter. Check in at the ranger station for current conditions before you go.

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