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Bring on Big Quilcene
There's a good reason the Upper Big Quilcene is a popular hike: It's scenic and achievable for most regular hikers.
It's popular with dogs too. It seemed as if every other group that my dog Dodge and I met along the way had a four-legged hiker or two.
The large trailhead parking lot was nearly full when we arrived. We waited for one group of hikers with a dog to get a head start so Dodge wouldn't be distracted the whole way up.
Dodge and the other group distracted me, so I missed 10-mile camp near the beginning of the hike. I must admit, I really wasn't looking for it.
We entered the old-growth forest of hemlock, fir and cedar. The path is wide and well-kept and heads up right off the bat.
Gaining 3,500 feet of elevation in 5.3 miles, the trail has an average grade of 12.5 percent but reaches grades of 30 percent in places.
Like many hikes on the east Olympic Peninsula, there are numerous rhododendrons in the understory but they weren't blooming this late in the year. Ferns, Oregon grape and salal filled the forest floor.
The path heads through the Buckhorn Wilderness beside the Quilcene River. This high up the mountain, the river seemed more a brash and merry stream, chortling over rocks in boulder-filled belly laughs. The river quieted to a friendly titter as the trail climbed away from it before resuming its merry course as the trail drops in for another visit near Shelter Rock Camp.
Tiring of my metaphor, I continued onward as the trail climbed. In places it's rather steep.
Wildflowers in bloom
The trail comes out in an opening near the top of the river canyon, with views of the valley below and the snow-capped peaks that frame it at Marmot Pass.
Several delicate-looking and intricate orange Columbia lilies blossoming alongside the trail gave a prelude to the floral bouquet to come.
There are several avalanche fields to cross and a scree slope. Wildflowers bloom in a bright profusion of summer color: pink heather, purple lupine on tall stalks, violet larkspur, small violet flowers, little yellow flowers, white-capped carrot-like stalks, red, orange paintbrush and little white bell-like flowers hugging the ground - all filling the open slides from the trail to the top of Iron and Buckhorn mountains.
Their scent mixed with the fresh aroma of subalpine fir that wafted over the mountainside with each warm breeze.
The trail enters a stand of subalpine fir, where a little stream threads its way through several campsites among the trees. This is Camp Mystery. It's the last place to get water and seems a good base camp for extended exploration.
The trail climbs steadily toward Marmot Pass, first through a little clearing, then around a couple of snow-covered switchbacks. There's little snow left this late in the season. The trees are smaller and more sparse this high, too.
The trail cuts back and forth beneath basalt outcrops. Looking back, you can see the Quilcene Valley and Puget Sound. Ahead, when the trees aren't in the way, is the bald Buckhorn Mountain on the right and the pass.
Boulders and small copses of trees are interspersed in a large meadow bowl that the trail rings. Several hikers set up camps in the trees.
Mountain vistas left and right
The trail reaches the pass, which is marked by a sign pointing the way to Tubal Cain and Boulder Shelter, where the trail connects with the Constance Pass and Upper Dungeness trails.
Way trails lead to the twin peaks of Buckhorn Mountain to the right and the snow-capped peak to the left. Ahead is a stunning view of some of the tallest peaks in the Olympics: Fricaba, Deception, The Needles and Graywolf Ridge. The views are supposed to be even better from the top of Buckhorn, but the trail looked steeper than I felt like tackling.
The wind wasn't raging when we arrived (which I've read it has a tendency to do) and we chose a picnic spot on some rocks a short way up the way trail to the left.
Dodge was kind enough to carry our food in his dog pack. I got jerky and blueberries, which had mashed together into a messy, pseudo pemmican. Dodge got kibble. We both got water.
Before we headed down, I volunteered to take photos of a group of hikers from Massachusetts and Vermont with their cameras. Dodge decided to join their group for some of the photos.