Backpacking in the Buckhorn Wilderness

Sunday, July 25 – Wednesday, July 28, 2021

For our July vacation this year we had planned to go backpacking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness but instead headed to the Olympic Mountains.

The west is experiencing a bad drought and fire season this year. Although Portland was spared smoky skies throughout July, most of the eastern side of the state was not. The smoke maps looked bleak, and here is how the Joseph webcam looked on July 19:

Joseph webcam 7/19/21

Here is how that view looks on a non-smoky day:

joseph

Hiking under brown hazy skies was something we wanted to avoid, which meant we also had to throw out our backup plans in Idaho and Montana, where the skies were even smokier. We decided to head north to the Olympic Mountains. Most of the Olympics is included in the national park, which meant we needed backpacking permits. All the places in the park we wanted to backpack had no available permits, so we chose the Buckhorn Wilderness outside the park in the Olympic National Forest.

We drove up on Saturday and found a roadside campsite not far from the trailhead. While eating dinner we were visited by a grouse mama and her four babies, who spent 45 minutes around the edge of our campsite eating their dinner. So great!

Grouse

Grouse

Grouse

Day 1: Big Quilcene Trail to Boulder Camp

We packed up our camp camping site and headed to the trailhead. Since this was a Sunday we were not surprised to find more than 50 cars parked there when we arrived at 8:50. Greg finished getting his gear together while I waited and we finally hit the trail at 9:35. Our packs weighed 40 pounds each. Oof.

Big Quilcene Trailhead

We quickly entered the Buckhorn Wilderness:

Big Quilcene Trail

The Big Quilcene Trail is pretty much in the trees for most of the way to Marmot Pass:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

At 1.8 miles we took a break at this waterfall which is not on the map. Greg didn’t tell me until later that he was feeling light-headed at this point and was having trouble forcing himself to continue:

Big Quilcene Trail

We had already passed quite a few backpackers heading down and I finally asked one of them “Did all of you camp at Marmot Pass last night?” He said yeah, pretty much. Wow.

At 2.2 miles we crossed another nice creek:

Big Quilcene Trail

At 2.8 miles we passed this “stoves only” sign. Campfires aren’t allowed above 3,500′ which I think is fantastic:

Big Quilcene Trail

Greg needed another break, so we stopped at this nice riverside spot for awhile:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

At 3.2 miles we passed Shelter Rock Camp:

Big Quilcene Trail

At 4.3 miles we traversed an open slope where we started to get some views:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Just before Mystery Camp we crossed a nice little creek:

Big Quilcene Trail

The water flowing through the camp was a different creek, flowing from a spring. It’s the last water source before Marmot Pass and is quite lovely. We stopped here to filter water. Gaia said we had gone 5.4 miles, which I think was a little inaccurate:

Big Quilcene Trail

After the camp the trail traveled through a lovely meadow:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Then it began switchbacking up.

Big Quilcene Trail

We had a view down to that meadow:

Big Quilcene Trail

A pollinating bee busy at work on the lupine:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Just before Marmot Pass the trail curves around the edge of this big meadow. There are a lot of campsites in the trees here, which is where a lot of those people were camped last night. I hated to think that some people probably camped on the meadow itself:

Meadow below Marmot Pass

True to name, we saw a marmot here:

Marmot

Marmot

At this point we had seen at least 100 hikers heading down over the course of the day. I FINALLY reached Marmot Pass after 6.2 miles (according to Gaia) and seven hours, at 4:20. Greg arrived 10 minutes later:

Marmot Pass

Marmot Pass

Looking down on the meadow just below the pass. This place was probably a zoo last night:

Marmot Pass

Buckhorn Mountain, which we would be hiking up in a few days:

Marmot Pass

Now we continued on the Big Quilcene Trail for the final 1.7 miles to Boulder Camp. Even though the light was terrible for photography, the first half mile after the pass was SPECTACULAR! It reminded me a lot of the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park:

Amazing views

Amazing views

Amazing views

Amazing views

We were pleasantly surprised by the number of wildflowers we saw along this stretch:

Big Quilcene Trail

The trail started descending into the trees:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

And then we reached Boulder Camp, whose historic shelter we could see from above as we approached:

Boulder Camp

Boulder Camp

Boulder Camp was functional and there was a water source and that is all there is to say about it. There were only a handful of places to pitch one’s tent amongst the boulders and broken trees (from avalanches):

Boulder Camp

A nice little creek ran along the edge of the camp:

Boulder Camp

Lacking other options we found a “site” that was a little uneven, but mostly flat:

Boulder Camp

This unnamed peak towered over the camp:

Boulder Camp

The shelter at Boulder Camp is off to the side and out of the way of the avalanche activity here:

Boulder Camp

Boulder Camp

Boulder Camp

Boulder Camp

The shelter has been heavily vandalized by people who just had to “leave their mark.” What is wrong with people? It was restored in 1994 and despite the graffiti seems to be in pretty good shape. It must have seen some maintenance in the 27 years since it was restored:

Boulder Camp

There were some old cans in there, some of which were unopened:

Boulder Camp

We got out our infernal heavy bear canisters and started making dinner:

Boulder Camp

It had been a very long day so we went to bed immediately after eating and completing our evening camp chores. It was a mild 60 degrees at 8:45pm.

Mileage today: 8 miles

Day 2: Day hike from Boulder Camp to Home Lake and Constance Pass

When we woke up Monday morning there was heavy dew on everything:

Boulder Camp

Even though “sunrise” at this location was technically 5:41am, the sun didn’t crest the ridge and bless our camp with sunshine until 8:50. However we could see the morning light shining on the mountains to our west, even as we sat in shadow:

Boulder Camp

Today we were headed out on a day hike to Home Lake:

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake Trail

After awhile in the trees we started to get some really great views:

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake Trail

We crossed over from the Olympic National Forest into Olympic National Park:

Home Lake Trail

We saw some nice wildflowers along the way:

Home Lake Trail

Ahead of us we could see where the bowl was that contained Home Lake (not visible) and Constance Pass above:

Home Lake Trail

For the second day in a row we passed an unnamed waterfall that wasn’t on our map. It’s impossible to cross here without getting a little wet:

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake Trail

Stretches of this trail were pretty brushy. I took these photos on the way back:

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake Trail

We crossed a large screen slope where we encountered the only patch of snow we would get close to the whole trip:

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake Trail

Then it was a climb through the trees on the last stretch to Home Lake. We saw some nice heather in bloom:

Home Lake Trail

Four miles from Boulder Camp we reached Home Lake:

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake

Home Lake

Home Lake

Home Lake

Home Lake

Home Lake

We had the place to ourselves and sat on the shore enjoying a break. This lake has no visible outlet, but the water level does decrease over the summer. The high water line was visible on the rocks behind us:

Home Lake

We wanted to continue another half mile to Constance Pass and the day was getting warm, so we tore ourselves away from the lake and continued up the trail. There is a lovely gurgling snowmelt stream on the other side, flowing into the lake:

Trickling stream

Looking back as we climbed:

Home Lake

Hiking to Constance Pass

Hiking to Constance Pass

On our way to the pass:

Hiking to Constance Pass

Hiking to Constance Pass

Home Lake Trail

And we’re there!

Constance Pass

The views up here were pretty incredible:

Constance Pass

Constance Pass

Constance Pass

Constance Pass

Constance Pass

We could see where the trail continued to a high point over there, which is what those backpackers had told us about. We decided not to do that and we called it good here:

Constance Pass

The Brothers:

Constance Pass

Looking back the way we came:

Constance Pass

The pass area:

Constance Pass

While Greg was wandering around photographing wildflowers I ran into a solo backpacker who had just arrived at the pass. That day he had hiked all the way from the Big Quilcene trailhead (where we had started yesterday), which meant he had already done about 12 miles. I asked if he was headed to Sunnybrook Meadows and he said past that, and he had about four miles to go. According to our map it was 4.7 miles from the pass down to the Dosewallips River Trail, so maybe that’s where he was headed. What a long day with a lot of ups and downs! He said that the view from this pass was normally obscured by clouds so I guess we got really lucky being able to see the mountains unobstructed.

Heading back:

Home Lake Trail

Home Lake Trail

When we got back to camp at 6:30 there were even more tents than there had been this morning. We ate dinner and headed to bed.

Mileage today: 8.4 miles

Day 3: Boulder Camp to Mystery Camp with a hike up Buckhorn Mountain

Once again, we had to wait until nearly 9am for the sun to hit camp:

Boulder Camp

After breakfast we packed up camp and prepared to leave. I got my gear together than sat and read my Kindle for an hour while I waited for Greg to finish:

Boulder Camp

We finally left at the very late hour of 11am. We retraced our steps back towards Marmot Pass where we had come from two days before. We had better conditions for appreciating the fantastic mountain views today:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Nice wildflowers:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Almost back to Marmot Pass and Buckhorn Mountain is straight ahead:

Big Quilcene Trail

Back at Marmot Pass:

Big Quilcene Trail

There is a popular user trail that heads south from the pass:

Hiking up Buckhorn Mountain

But we were heading up Buckhorn Mountain. We stashed our overnight packs in the trees, switched to day packs, and began the very steep ascent:

Hiking up Buckhorn Mountain

Every day we’d been having afternoon clouds, which is why I was eager to get an earlier start than we did. Unfortunately we did not beat the clouds. Looking back down at Marmot Pass:

Hiking up Buckhorn Mountain

Greg coming up the trail behind me:

Hiking up Buckhorn Mountain

We saw a few hardy wildlowers:

Hiking up Buckhorn Mountain

We got to this spot about halfway up where we could see the summit (at left below) which was pretty socked-in. There were pretty good views from here, and we didn’t see the point in wasting time and effort going to the true summit if we couldn’t see anything up there, so this was our turnaround point:

Hiking up Buckhorn Mountain

Hiking up Buckhorn Mountain

We sat here and took a break and enjoyed the mountain views:

View from Buckhorn Mountain

View from Buckhorn Mountain

Do you see a snow heart in the distance?

View from Buckhorn Mountain

View from Buckhorn Mountain

We could see to the north where a second trail came up Buckhorn Mountain from the Tubal Cain Mine Trail:

View from Buckhorn Mountain

View from Buckhorn Mountain

By the way, a few days later we would see Buckhorn Mountain from a distance while hiking from Obstruction Point. Of the two distant knobs, it is the one on the right:

Grand Ridge Hike

On the way back down to Marmot Pass we saw an adult horned lark and two youngsters:

Juvenile horned lark

Junvile and adult male horned lark

Almost down:

Hiking down Buckhorn Mountain

This being a Tuesday we didn’t see many people at Marmot Pass:

Marmot Pass

But we DID see a few marmots:

Olympic Marmot

Olympic Marmot

We retrieved our overnight packs and descended from the pass:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

On the way down we stopped to briefly chat with a hiker and pet her cute dog. We mentioned that we were headed to Camp Mystery and she said that’s where she was camped and warned us there was a large group staying there. In our experience people = noise. There are trailside campsites beyond the main part of the camp, so with that warning in mind, we grabbed the first one we saw in order to be as far away from those people as possible:

Big Quilcene Trail

This spot also happened to be near the spring that was the source of the stream flowing through Mystery Camp, so we had a nice water source:

Mystery Camp

Mystery Camp

Mileage today: about 4 miles

Day 4: Mystery Camp to Trailhead

We slept well last night and our tent was dew-free this morning, yay! We could see the moon when we got up:

Big Quilcene Trail

We ate breakfast, packed up, and headed down the trail towards our car. We saw WAY less people than we had on Sunday, of course:

Big Quilcene Trail

Big Quilcene Trail

Mileage today: 5 miles

Considering we didn’t have permits to backpack in the park, this was a great backup option. Except for that first day we were lucky to be able to be here during the week when there were fewer people.

One thing we would do differently next time is start at the Upper Dungeness Trailhead on Road 2860 and hike up that trail to Boulder Camp, then use that as our base camp the whole time with day hikes to Home Lake and Buckhorn Mountain. That trailhead is the same elevation as the Big Quilcene Trailhead where we started, but because we went up and over Marmot Pass we had more elevation gain and loss. What a beautiful area!

Map

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