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Hiking The Wild Elwha River

The Elwha River Valley in the Olympic National Park has changed a lot in the past decade, and even more in the past 5 years, with the removal of the two dams, which freed the river to run its own path. I used to get out to the Elwah often, but during the dam removal access was iffy, at best, so getting out there wasn’t’ easy. Add in that after the dams were removed, floods happened that took out both front country campgrounds and roads. The area is being improved again,  and the river has found its path once again.

* If you want to try this hike, make sure you inquire at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles or go online, to find out if the road is open, come late Spring into Summer.*

Elwha is often ignored compared to its more famous cousin valleys, the Hoh and Quinault, that are temperate rainforests. Yet, Elwha is a very pretty valley that heads up in a long fashion to Low Divide, and eventually connecting to Quinalt many miles away. It’s long, quiet and overall lonely. Compared to trails near Seattle, the “crowds” even in summer are tiny. It’s a long drive there.

On that trip, with my friend Dani, our goal was Elkhorn Ranger Station, about 11.5 mile in from the trailhead.

The first couple miles are easy but walk, and go through an old burn in areas. It isn’t till you leave the popular day hiking area that you get a feeling for the valley. Don’t get me wrong though – it is well worth the first miles.

Elwha is often sun-lit, and has a thin canopy, leading to a lot of undergrowth. In late spring and early summer the forest is open and sunny. Many deer live in the area, as do black bears, Roosevelt Elk and even cougars. Years ago Kirk and I were noisily followed by a cougar in the woods. I never felt threatened though.

Cougar Mike’s old cabin in the woods.

But….don’t ever assume a river valley trail will be near the river or flat in the Olympics. The trails curve, and go around ridges, up and down through drainages.

I have a special soft spot for Cougar Mike’s old homesteading cabin. It’s 2 stories inside. The first time I visited it with Kirk I realized how tall he was. His head touched the ceiling.

After you pass the turn off to visit the Humes Ranch site/cabin, the trail heads up into the woods and eventually hits a flat section that is, well, so flat it feels like a road. It is lined with moss. It’s easy hiking and you speed through it.

Soon enough the trail dips down to cross The Lillian River on a very sturdy and wide bridge. You lose elevation to do this.

Lillian River has backcountry camp at it, along with a privy, and a bear wire.

Is it a river? A large stream? Needless to say in early summer it flows quick and fast.

From there the trail climbs back out of The Lillian and goes along, up and down for a number of miles. It is never hard, but neither is it a stroll. It is pretty and very quiet. The trail is well maintained and is very safe for children, nothing technical nor any scary water crossings or fords, if the trail is maintained.

You will pass a couple backcountry campsites along the way after Lillian. When passing through Mary’s Falls – look across the river to see the water fall crashing into the Elwha River. Mary’s was very nice with an excellent privy right off the trail. Not far beyond is Canyon Camp, also on the river. Small and no privy if I remember – and no bear wire.

The trail is this. Woods. Deep green, moss everywhere.


Just beyond (a mile maybe?) is Elkhorn, a large backcountry area full of campsites in the open woods/meadows. It is also home to a ranger station, a shelter and, an animal shelter. There is a pack camp nearby as well. You walk right into Elkhorn, over the bridge, and it opens up into a meadow for camping.

I was using an ultra light Anti Gravity Gear tarp tent that summer.

The trail touches the river here finally, it is to the right.

The shelter, which yes, is crooked.

Antlers on the tree, and a bench to rest under on.

Elkhorn Ranger Station.

Looking down at the river, from the ranger station’s porch. We didn’t see any rangers the entire trip, nor any volunteers.

We went poking around that afternoon, behind the ranger station to see what was stashed back there. We found a showering platform.

And the ranger’s leaning privy.

We spent the night at Elkhorn, having hiked out there in one day (11 miles).

Dinner that night was Red Bell Pepper Pesto Pasta.

We had 3 days, so on the second morning we poked and puttered. And then and walked slowly back to Lillian River camp, passing this pretty side stream. It wasn’t a hard day, maybe 6 miles.

Above Mary’s Falls in the woods, on a knoll is this marker from 1929, elevation 1,431 ft above sea level.

Years ago there was a huge push to put roads through the Olympic Mountains (log those fertile valleys!). Cooler heads prevailed and those roads that had been built or started became roads or were quietly never built.

That night we stayed at Lillian River camp. It was a new moon and it was the darkest night I have ever spent in the backcountry. I couldn’t see even two feet out of my tarp. I had forgotten my watch….a LONG night it was (this trip predated smartphones). You would wake up and have no clue if 30 minutes or two hours had passed by.

It was Dani’s birthday that trip so we made steamed cake in the FauxBaker.

Cake is better than no cake after all!

We woke up in the morning and headed uphill, to get out of camp, then out the last 5 easy miles, and treated ourselves to a late breakfast in Port Angeles.

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