Friday, April 15, 2011

Elk Mountain to Deer Park, Olympic National Park, Washington


Distance: 7.4 miles one-way (11.9 km)
Elevation: 4,400-6,610 feet (1340 - 2015 m)
Difficulty one-way: Moderately strenuous for full-one way
Difficulty halfway in-and-out: Moderately Easy from Obstruction Point
Time of Year: July to October

Elk Mountain and Obstruction Point

One of the most accessible alpine areas of the Olympic Mountains is Elk Mountain, the long ridge that towers over Port Angeles and the Dungeness Valley. It offers not only spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains, but also north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Vancouver Island, the San Juan Islands, and Mount Baker in the Cascades. The first half of this trail from Obstruction Point is fairly easy, so you may choose to go halfway out onto Elk Mountain and then just return the way you came. Or, if you can arrange for two vehicles, perhaps swapping keys halfway, and do the entire 7.4 mile one-way route to Deer Park.

View of Mount Olympus above Lilian Ridge from Elk Mountain

To get to Obstruction Point, drive on Hurricane Ridge Road up from Port Angeles to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. Look for the dirt road heading off to the left at the entrance of the parking lot. This is Obstruction Point Road, which is a bumpy 8-mile trip to the trailhead. Upon arriving at the trailhead, look for the trail heading to the left to Deer Park.

Olympic marmot grazing amongst alpine wildflowers

The first 1/2 mile is the toughest part, as you descend and skirt the edge of the headwall of Badger Valley. This is a segment that tends to hold onto a bank of snow well into summer. Thus, it often is impassible (even when the rest of the trail is completely melted out) well into summer or at least requires great caution. You should ask about the trail condition status at the visitor center before starting out.

A glacial cirque on Elk Mountain

After passing this initial tricky section, the trail gradually climbs up the side of Elk Mountain, with spectacular views all around. This section of the park is among the driest in the region due to the rainshadow effect. Thus, the slopes are primarily covered in rocky scree, with isolated patches of wildflowers and grasses. As you follow the ridgeline, there are views of Grand Valley, The Needles, Mount Olympus, as well as, across the Dungeness Valley and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

View of Elk Mountain from Maiden Peak

The trail continues quite easily for about 3 miles until it reaches a steep, slick descent down to a saddle called "Roaring Winds". If you only have one vehicle and need to return to Obstruction Point, this is the best place to turn around. However, if you have traded keys with someone and plan to hike all the way through to Deer Park, then the trail will climb back up from Roaring Winds towards Maiden Peak.


If you are continuing on, you will climb steadily along the south-face of the ridge toward Maiden Peak. The trail can be narrow, slick with scree, and quite exposed in places. Also, since there is no shade, be prepared with a good hat and sunscreen.


From the summit of Maiden Peak, you get a fabulous view of Blue Mountain, Deer Park, and the northern Puget Sound beyond. Heavily glaciated Mount Baker towers above and if the air is really clear, a white line of snow-capped peaks of the British Columbia Coast Range can be seen to the north beyond the San Juan Islands.

View of Blue Mountain and Deer Park from Maiden Peak
Mount Baker beyond

View of the Needles from Maiden Peak

After Maiden Peak, the trail begins to descend back into the forest. Since this is one of the drier regions of the park, in addition to subalpine fir, you will enter stands of lodgepole pine and Alaska yellow cedar. There are some really nice openings in places absolutely choke full of white avalanche lilies in late June and into July. The trail will descend nearly 2,000 feet until beginning the final ascent back up to Deer Park.

Subalpine forests near Deer Park

Near Deer Park, you will notice a large section of burned trees from a fire in 1988. This fire burned through fire adapted lodgepole pines and the regeneration has begun. While lightning is not very common in Western Washington, it occurs enough to cause small fires nearly every year in the park. Most do not get as large as this one did.

Avalanche lilies near Deer Park

Once arriving at Deer Park, you may want to take the little 1/2 mile drive up to the summit of Blue Mountain. From the top of this 6,000 foot peak, the driest place in Olympic National Park, you can look down onto the Dungeness Valley and Sequim. Here, the rainshadow produces a place that gets only 15" of precipitation per year, as compared to 150" at the Hoh Rainforest just 40 miles away as the crow flies. Sticking out of the valley is the Dungeness Spit, a 5.5 mile long sand bar which is the largest in the United States. It is a national wildlife refuge with a lighthouse near the tip and it would make for another worthy hike sometime.

View of the Dungeness Valley from Blue Mountain

Then, just drive down the Deer Park road 22 miles back to Port Angeles where you can meet your other party for a celebration dinner on the waterfront.



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