Enjoy quiet time with waterfalls and snow-free trails at lower elevations.
Mother Nature really had it in for us this winter, it seemed — and the Northwest doesn’t show much sign of warming a lot anytime soon. So when a friend recently asked if I wanted to join her for a brief trip to the Olympic Peninsula’s drier north side, I gladly went along.
Having gone into hiking withdrawal, finding accessible trails was high on my list for the weekend. I’ve wandered around Hurricane Ridge a few times, but the road there is closed during bad weather, when it really should be called Blizzard Ridge. That made snowshoeing in the 100-plus inches of snow up there an iffy proposition.
We decided to explore the lower-elevation area around Lake Crescent, a place I’d passed through many times but had never really taken time to enjoy.
Quiet lake season
If you go
Wind and rain can wreak havoc, bringing down trees and eroding hill-hugging trails. Check Olympic National Park’s trail-conditions page before you go: nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wilderness-trail-conditions.htm.
For the latest information on weather and road conditions and closures, call 360-565-3131 for a recording about current conditions or stop in at the main Olympic National Park visitor center in Port Angeles, open year-round.
Even low-elevation trails may be muddy, icy or otherwise slick in the spring, and snow might remain at higher elevations. Be prepared with high-traction footwear and consider bringing microspikes and hiking poles.
Work begins this month (April 2017) on a two-year project to rehabilitate 12 miles of Highway 101 around Lake Crescent and four miles of East Beach Road. Expect half-hour delays during work hours, with short delays afterhours to accommodate alternating single-lane traffic. Limited four-hour delays may be scheduled (9 a.m.-1 p.m.) and will be announced two weeks in advance. For updates, see wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/trafficalerts.
The lake in winter and early spring is very different from its bustling summer self. Lake Crescent Lodge isn’t open at all from January through March; it offers Saturday-night stays through April until the lodge and its dining room open full time for the summer season the last weekend of the month.
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But even while the lodge is silent, the trailheads are open. Like the parking lots and roads, they’re just a lot less crowded than they are in summer.
We got lucky and had a sunny weekend for our visit. Along with a healthy handful of other hikers, we explored the hills around the lake after a picnic on one of the lodge’s outdoor tables. Although the Storm King Ranger Station was deserted — it’s staffed only occasionally, even in summer — we were happy to find the nearby restrooms open. Then we sampled some trails:
• From the trailhead by the ranger station, we headed a mile up the Marymere Falls Trail to the namesake falls. At low elevation, they’re inviting even in cool weather, though not enough for us to get too near their spray. The well-used trail was in good condition, with a couple of charming bridges across the creek and a few quick glimpses of the lakeshore visible through the trees.
• The Barnes Creek Trail, which branches away from the Marymere Falls Trail, heads along the creek for more than seven undulating miles, getting steeper and less maintained as it goes. Hike the lower part of it for a serene shorter jaunt that makes the waterfall hike feel crowded by comparison. Be prepared to clamber over blowdowns after storms and turn around if any of the rudimentary bridges across the river are too wobbly for you.
• The Mount Storm King Trail is the real stair-climber here, gaining 2,000 feet in a 2-mile ascent partway up a craggy sentinel overlooking the lake’s east side. While the exposed hike can be dry and hot in the summer, ice, sloughing and slick or loose rocks are winter worries, especially in the steeper sections — which is to say most of the trail. Turn around after the first set of lake views if the idea of navigating narrow ledges isn’t appealing. (Dogs are not allowed on unpaved trails in the national park, but this narrow, steep one would be a bad idea for dogs even if they were allowed.)
For those looking for a more leisurely stroll, the Spruce Railroad Trail meanders along the lake’s northern shore, following an old railroad bed. The trail is entirely low elevation and offers great views of the lake as well as remnants of its history. It’s open to bikes and, yes, even dogs. It was closed through this past winter so crews could work on a long-term paving project that will eventually make the entire trail wheelchair- accessible and reopen the railroad tunnels it currently skirts, but it’s scheduled to reopen in May.
We wanted to check out the nearby Elwha River, now carving its way anew through land that was underwater until two dams were removed. But a series of floods over the past few years ate away at the Olympic Hot Springs Road, and when we visited the park service was still working on shoring it up (it is now open to the Glines Canyon Dam spillway overlook).
We parked at the Madison Falls trailhead to walk the easy, paved 0.2 mile to the small but pretty falls.
We then turned around and explored the lower Elwha Valley, visiting the informational exhibit and walking down a gravel path to see a narrow channel of rushing water where the Elwha Dam formerly stood. We were happy to obey signs warning us of the dangers of getting too close.
We returned to our cozy lodgings in Sequim, happy to have stretched our legs and feeling we deserved our dinner a bit more than we had most nights over the long winter.