The day was almost upon me, I was heading out into the Olympics for my first ever 2-night backpacking trip! I had purchased a guide book, perused the relevant hikes, chosen one, planned my route and potential campsites, and made my packing list.
It was Wednesday night and I wanted to take one last peek at which campgrounds had walk-in spots. From what I understood, I would have had to make a normal reservation much earlier in the season, but a certain amount of campsites are held for walk-in permits - whatever that meant. When I pulled up the website it showed NO sites available, even for walk-in! WHAT?!
As it turns out, since they begin offering the walk-in reservations 24 hours ahead of time, they would be available first thing Thursday morning. So when I was looking late Wednesday night, the number of available sites had already been pulled down so they could do it in real time at the Wilderness Information Center in the morning.
Not knowing this, I scrambled to find an entirely new hike and itinerary… It was well past midnight before I had a shaky plan together for Grand Pass. I wouldn’t learn until Friday morning how the whole reservation system actually works.
If you are planning to get a walk-in campsite in the Olympics during the heart of camping season, I suggest getting out to the peninsula the day before you start hiking - that will give you the best chance to snag a spot at popular sites.
Choose Your Own Route
When planning a hike, you should consider the physical ability of everyone in your group and also what types of scenery you enjoy! I personally enjoy sweeping views, as well as hidden waterfalls and alpine meadows. My hiking partner loves ridgelines and is much more physically fit than I am.
Perhaps this decision was guided by my ego wanting a challenge or assuming I have no physical limits, or perhaps it was the ingrained patterns of being a female and deferring to others. Either way, despite independently planning the itinerary, I chose an old ridgeline route along Lillian Ridge that was not the normal trail (which led down into the valley) and I knew my male hiking partner would love.
The guide book noted it as a junction, while the GreenTrails map didn’t show it at all. But Strava had data of a few people using the route so I marked it out and downloaded the gpx file (this might be the only good decision I made that weekend).
Within half a mile of turning onto the old use trail (aka an old trail that isn’t maintained anymore) we ran into a scramble. Yep, a scramble, with 40lb packs on. Excellent. My hiking poles were not only useless while hauling myself vertically up a rocky peak, they were actively in the way dangling about and catching on the terrain.
"Pro" tip - take the time to strap them to your bag if you find yourself in this position.
As we continued along the ridgeline we found ourselves wondering...where exactly the trail would go? It seemed as if we were coming up to a very jagged section of the ridgeline and couldn’t see the trail heading down either slope. That concern was valid as the trail did indeed continue along the ridge and once again we were bouldering with our heavy packs.
At one point, we could not correctly identify where the trail led, but a cairn below in the scree and the route I had loaded onto my Suunto watch led that way. My partner chose to continue bouldering so I bid him farewell (I kid, we stayed within shouting distance and frequently checked in on each other).
Two Steps Forward and One Step Back
Here's my take on hiking in scree, especially with additional weight - it sucks! Holy crap it sucks. Surprisingly I only fell once, sliding down on my butt until I could stop my momentum. After rounding a particularly nasty section of the ridge, the trail came back up through the scree to a saddle between peaks. Every step upward resulted in my sliding back down a few inches. Exposed in the sun, it was laborious to say the least.
Despite how it sounds, I found this adventure to be very enjoyable. We bagged a few peaks and I was thrilled by the challenge - the views along the way were incredible too! Indeed, while I waited at the saddle for my partner, I gleefully geeked out over my map. Yes, this was my first time hiking with a map, this was the first backpacking trip that I had planned and not just tagged along. So I sat munching away on a protein bar happily identifying the various peaks and lakes around me.
The Luxuries of Camp
The rest of the hike was tame in comparison, though there were plenty of times I had to refer to the gpx route on my watch to help us distinguish game trails from the actual “trail”. When we finally got to our destination at Gladys Lake and set up in one of the three assigned campsites, we were starving and ready for dinner.
I tend to overpack food on any trip, and this was no exception. Instead of a boring freeze dried meals for the weekend, I had packed a whole zucchini fresh from the garden! I planned to get real bougie in the backcountry with smoked salmon and freshly sauteed zucchini. And we did that...but we paid the price.
Without a nice chef knife and a cutting board, it was difficult to cut the zucchini into thin slices, and those big slices took a loooooonnnngggg time to cook. Turns out the people who have done this so many times before me have made good decisions with dried, bagged meals. They’re lighter than fresh vegetables and only require the fuel it takes to boil 1-2 cups of water. Who would have thought, right? Ugh. I tend to get too eager about things and don’t think them through.
A Miserable Morning
Come evening, the rain began and it didn’t let up until noon the next day. In the morning, we woke to a very damp tent. You see, going for less weight, we had chosen a 4-season tent. Those do great when you’re climbing a mountain and need to stay warm, but not so great in a coastal mountain range. In retrospect, there are a few things I could have done differently that would have improved the experience.
First, I should have packed my tent with a rain fly, to keep the rain well away from the edges of the tent. Instead, the water ran down the sides of the tent and pooled between the footprint and the tent, leading to a soggy bottom and damp belongings inside.
Second, I should have better-evaluated the site. I chose the flattest section of dirt in the marked campsite, but that happened to be at the bottom of a small slope, backed up against a log. Inevitably, since I chose a low point with a natural dam, we ended up wet.
To top things off, after one breakfast was made, we ran out of fuel (damn that zucchini!). With the rain still pouring, the prospect of no hot meals, and increasingly wet gear and soon to be bedding, I called it.
Sure, we could have survived. You can cold soak those freeze dried meals and we had plenty of snacks. But I chose to pack out while we were still relatively dry and fed, instead of a day later when we would be hungry and likely drenched.
Learn From Mistakes
This adventure could easily be seen as a failure, but I don’t view it that way at all. It was a great learning experience. I now know how to use the Olympic National Park reservation system, I had the opportunity to practice following gpx data and use a map, and learned the ever important lesson - when to call it quits. At the end of the day, I want to have fun. I want to challenge myself and explore new environments, all in the name of enjoyment. If it stops being fun, I should probably reevaluate where I am and what I am doing.
So here’s to our mistakes and failures, the unexpected and the bad decisions. Here’s to dumb ideas that teach us something new but don’t get us killed! And here’s to always being willing to try again and see what life has to offer.
If you want to improve your ability to not make mistakes, sign up for one of our Outdoor Education events and learn the skills you need to go on your own adventure.