As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for! Over the 4th of July weekend, Jean and I hiked to Camp Muir on Saturday, then drove to Mount St. Helen’s on Sunday for an overnight backpack to the Plains of Abraham from Johnston Ridge. After seeing the photographs of our quick overnight, our friend, Andy, mentioned that he’d like to join us if we were up for a small group. As luck would have it, the Olympic National Park ended the covid camping restrictions and all the previously size-restricted areas went back to pre-pandemic status. This meant camping in ONP, and Enchanted Valley was now possible. I had noticed the campsite allotment was available one evening and quickly grabbed a permit for four. As it turned out, that was three days prior to the announcement. Another friend decided not to join. Andy was all in. It would be Andy’s longest hike this year – and with a pack! But Andy keeps himself fit so not a worry.
This would be my second trip to the Enchanted Valley, having day hiked the 27 mile round trip on June 27, 2021, a day it was 105 degrees in the valley. Jean had been before with the scouts, many, many years ago. Andy had never been.
Our trip was pretty straight forward. Leave town around 6AM on Saturday with a goal to be hiking by 8AM to 8:30AM. Walk 13.5 miles to Enchanted Valley, relax, camp, and walk out on Sunday. Ultimately, that’s pretty much what happened. We picked up Andy at his house about 6AM, drove to Graves Creek and were walking by 8:30AM. The Trailhead lot was full with cars parked alongside the rode for quite a ways. This was a bit worrisome that it may be fairly crowded for camping. While it was somewhat busy in the Valley, we had no problem finding a site.
The hike in was nice with light cloud cover and cooler temperatures. By the time we made the Valley, the sun was shining and it was beautiful. Our hiking pace was good. Not too fast, but not slow either. Just a good moderate pace with minimal breaks. We did stop for lunch for about 30 minutes about half way in. Water is plentiful so there is no need to carry water beyond a few ounces to wet one’s whistle!
Jean was the first to spot Elk in one of the first tree’d meadows. They were near the edge where the forest is thicker. We had been talking a lot on and off, but had grown more silent around mile 8-9 as we went up over another little hump. The trail itself rises gradually with about 3000′ total gain from the trailhead to the Enchanted Valley. There is one big hump at the start and many little humps along the way. So as we going up the hump just before reaching Pyrites Creek, I’m in lead with Jean and Andy behind.
As the trail rose and bent left Jean shouts “BEAR”, of course I don’t see a thing and it takes a moment to get my bearings, scanning the forest and trail in front of me. Then I see it, it’s a cub, a little cub, this year’s cub (such a cute little thing!), and it’s running away from us with that telltale human baby cry and immediately scales a fairly large diameter hemlock like Alex Honnold running up an easy rock face, all the while bits of moss debris are being ripped from the tree. It’s at this point, all happening concurrently in a fraction of time, “where’s momma, where’s momma?” Baby bear is calling out, and then we see momma bear in the distance. I’d guess 150-200′ away. In hindsight, after returning on Sunday, it was more obvious the bear cub was almost on our trail when we spooked him/her. So maybe the tree was 50′ away. It’s really difficult to judge these distances. So now momma is walking slowly forward to us. Jean and Andy begin to retreat and I remind them to not run. They hadn’t run, but just a reminder. I start shouting “hey bear, hey bear”. We retreat a bit but then walk back up. At this point momma has a bead on us and a step forward by us, results in momma bear taking a step forward toward us too. She is looking at us. She is in charge, but does not charge, thankfully. Very uncomfortable to say the least. Jean has been wanting to see a bear in the wild. Careful what you wish for – right? I’ve had many encounters coastal kayaking and just one other hiking in the Tetons. All were benign. This time the situation was far different. Whether 100, 200 or 300′, she could cover that distance quicker than we could react. I am not in the habit of carrying bear spray except grizzly country. Andy had bear spray and was ready. We ended up backing up a bit, but also trying to not lose sight of her. Contemplating if we should bushwack well below the trail. But we decided to hang out and wait. We finally saw her get to the tree, along with her other cub (yes 2!), and finally the cub in tree made a semi-controlled descent back to momma. At this point they went uphill into the trees. We carried on hiking and caught glimpses a few times until they were gone and we were headed downhill. We take a break by Pyrites Creek, and bask in the afterglow of the adrenaline-induced high – Recounting our narrow escape 🙂 Just glad the cub was not on the other side of the trail, putting us in the middle of him/her and momma.
We arrived at the Valley around 3:30PM, about 8 hours of hiking with breaks. We enjoyed the sights, clear skies with patchy clouds and an abundance of tents and people. After scoping a couple spots we chose a nice one that was fairly close to the river and not far from the privy. Maybe a bit close to the privy because when the breeze blew our way, it was a bit ripe. ONP has made little outhouse privy’s because without them, the number of people would result in catholes, feces and toilet paper everywhere.
We soaked our tired feet and soaked up the sun by the river. Made dinner, Jean had wine, I had a beer. And we chatted a lot. Oh, and we shared and enjoyed a dehydrated mountain house creme´ brulee´ 🙂 Oh so good!
As the evening light faded, the clouds began to settle which made us think we’d wake up to a misty, cloudy morning. Over night however, the clouds dissipated and the skies cleared. Andy said he got up and the sky was full of stars. Me, on the other hand, mr. photographer, had assumed it would not be a clear sky and avoided getting up. Even though I could see out our tent, I was looking more at the high canyon wall than the sky. And I was dead tired! But in the early morning, I saw the clear skies and got up early for early morning light.
We had an enjoyable morning, packed up camp and began our trek out around 8:30AM. On the way out, there were elk just after crossing the long bridge, not far from the main Valley. And along the way, Andy ran into three people he knew. Ironically, one of them an employee at the city where I work, someone I know of, but never officially met, nor had we ever been on the same team meetings. And since covid has had us working from home, things have been even less interactive across departments. It was a bit awkward when Andy said, “Ron works for the City too!” Not in a bad way though. It was nice to meet a fellow employee finally 🙂
The hike out was a bit warmer than the hike in. When we passed ‘bear encounter pass’, we, well actually, Andy noticed, wild blueberries, huckleberries and salmon berries. We picked a few but mostly they had been picked clean. Ahhh. Bears. Berries. Where’s Watson when you need him! We ended up hiking down to O’Neil Camp for our lunch spot. Shoes off by the water. It was kind of a slog out over that last hump as the day had heated up. But, as I kept saying, each foot forward is another step ahead, or in the right direction. We took about 7-½ to 8 hours to hike out too.
Overall, it was an amazing and enjoyable time. It’s hard to describe the scents we smelled along the way. At times it was the smell of cedar trees, other times the musky smell of old forest, interspersed with the fresh ocean breeze odor when a puff of wind came through. And then there were a couple spots where it was obvious the elk hung out or bedded down, that smelled like a horse pasture.
One thing we saw in the Valley was two young males packing side arms. They were nice enough, and while yes, it’s legal to carry a firearm in a national park, I just can’t understand why. Interesting thing about firearms in national parks is that they are legal to carry, but illegal to discharge. I can’t help but wonder if they are scared of the ‘tree hugging granola crunchers’, or if it’s for the extremely rare instance of a bear or cougar encounter. Which brings be to our experience. Might they have needlessly shot the momma bear? Or fired a warning shot? It makes me wonder.
I’ve not spent much time exploring the Olympics, mostly because I don’t enjoy backpacking in the rain and wet. But the time spent in Enchanted Valley, and a couple other long day hikes I’ve done recently, have me rethinking my approach. There is a lot to explore and some amazing backcountry, and I’ve got quite a few trips added to my list. Or at least trip ideas.
These last images. Most speak for themselves but there is a funny story behind the bottom image of Andy and Jean on the log crossing. As we approached I said for them to go ahead. I began walking the rocks over the stream so I could get a photo. Using my iPhone 12ProMax. Not an inexpensive tool/toy. I was just about to where I wanted to be, when a foot began to slip on the ‘slippery’ rocks, which resulted in a sort of dance to stay upright, not dunk my phone, nor fall over backwards (I had my pack on). I ended up sitting/falling backwards to my bottom, phone held high, but wet, feet wet, but I “GOT THE SHOT!
You can see more of the photos in progression at the following link.
And I’ve included photos from the day my friend Lon and I hiked 27 miles round trip when it was 105 degrees. 12 hours round trip. Our packs were very light!
Until next time…