I can officially check another great hike off my list, even if it was the "wimpy" way.
For years I had heard of the Elk Mountain Trail extending from Obstruction Point to Deer Park, a trek quite popular among serious local hikers. Not being one myself, I jumped at the chance to span the 7.6-mile jaunt.
The plan was one common to Elk Mountain hikers: take two parties, park one vehicle at Obstruction Point and the other at Deer Park, hike in to a midway point, eat lunch together, try not to forget to trade keys, and hike out.
The hike started with a meet-and-greet at 6:40 a.m. or so, as my wife Patsene and I met up with our trail partners Jerry and Deborah to take on the west-to-east path, or the "wimpy" route. The rest of the hiking crew looked well-versed regarding the trail and rather jovial for that early in the morning. By 7 a.m. our foursome was on the road and by 8:15 a.m. we were on Obstruction Point Road.
If the seven mile-plus road doesn’t clue you in that this is a breathtaking trail, and one that isn’t for the vertigo-challenged and squeamish, then nothing will. By the time we’d rocked and rolled the peak-filled road to Obstruction Point’s trailhead, I was ready for some fresh air.
I was stunned to see the trailhead inundated with trucks and cars; more than 30 vehicles gave us a clue we weren’t going to be alone.
Just a few steps onto the trail toward Elk Mountain, our skin told us we weren’t alone, too. Even at 6,100 feet above the sea and at 8:45 a.m., bugs were eating up the 70-degree heat and much of our dermal coverings. Fortunately, my wife astutely had packed bug repellent. We took quick DEET showers and made our way east.
Looking north, the Olympic Mountains open up and lay bare both Badger Valley and Grand Valley. Unlike some other trails that feature commonplace geographic oddities with misnomers like "Colossal Peak" or "Super-Duper Tall Mountain," the "Grand" in Grand Valley is an understatement. Our path hugged zigzagging ridges hundreds of feet above the yawning valley – it was as if we were taking a workman-like stroll through a Ross Hamilton-style postcard.
While the views to the south prominently displayed the park’s greenery and breathtaking views of the Strait of Juan De Fuca to the north, our first mile-and-a-half felt more like walking on the moon – if the moon had lots of bees, flies and mosquitoes.
This trail’s arid opening is fantastic in that one can see for the better part of a mile the path slivered into Elk Mountain’s side. Despite the elevation (we were well above the tree line), Patsene and I were impressed with the amount of vegetation here, including small shrubs and wildflowers. We were both struck by what looked like streaks of black running down the hill, as if a fire recently seared the stones. But with little to burn, we wondered how anything could burn here at 6,600 feet. Upon closer inspection, however, we found the "burns" weren’t anything of the sort; rather, the blackened material stuck to rocks and flaked in our hand. Our guidebook solved the mystery, describing these hardy lichens that are close cousins to ones that provide Arctic caribou with winter forage. In the dead heat of the summer, they didn’t look like they’d provide much of anything for anyone, other than a mirage of scorched earth.
We moved on, carefully negotiating the path of broken shale and dirt. While our hiking friends predominantly wore hiking boots, Patsene and I went with trail shoes that provide more flexibility while maintaining some stability. I only slipped and fell once this day, and it wasn’t the shoe’s fault.
Near Elk Mountain’s apex (approximately 6,773 feet) we saw one instance of non-insect wildlife: a marmot sunning himself (or herself) on a rock, oblivious to our presence.
At the two-mile mark, after passing a cutoff path to the Badger Valley Trail, the trail’s moonscape unfolds into rockier, slightly greener peaks. We took small detours off the beaten path to the north, affording awe-inspiring views of Ediz Hook from one outcropping and the Dungeness Spit from another. With the Grand Valley’s majesty on the other side, it was hard to keep moving. Well, the sheer drop-offs didn’t help much either.
About a half-mile before hitting our "midpoint" – one that turned out to be 3.2 miles into a 7.6-mile trek, but close enough to a midpoint – we could hear our second party. The whooping and waving gave us encouragement as we negotiated a tricky trail that precariously led us along more shale and the least reliable footings yet.
We were glad to see the others at Roaring Winds Pass, a small plateau featuring generously placed slabs of rock hikers use for rest benches and chairs.
We snacked, told jokes, shared backgrounds and stories, reviewed the day so far, and, most importantly, got more bug spray on our skin.
Even at this elevation, about 6,000 feet, the biting bugs were just as bloodthirsty.
Our second party had started out at Deer Park at 8 a.m., about 45 minutes before us, and made it to Roaring Winds 50 minutes before us, so we hoped that boded well for our second half.
After munching on prepackaged crackers, ham and something that might pass for cheese, we wished our hiking partners well and returned to the trail. We climbed once again but only for about a half-mile, cresting at Maiden Peak, then began a descent that carried us nearly all the way to Deer Park.
Each step took us into greener and more lush meadows and fields, an abundance of lupines coating the area in purple. Instead of spying for marmots, we saw chipmunks/squirrels. And while the bugs persisted in their chase, we were delighted to see butterflies and grasshoppers flourishing in the open fields.
Patsene and I hiked for stretches of about 30 minutes, then waited for Jerry and Deborah to catch up, then bounded back down the trail for another half-hour.
At mile six, near Green Mountain, the trail dropped in elevation significantly, putting pressure on my weary knees and back.
Unspoken, my better half and I decided we’d hoof it the last mile-and-a-half and wait for our hiking partners at the Deer Park campground.
While the last few kilometers to Deer Park are in the shade, temperatures this day got rather brutal. I reasoned I would rather be here than on an open-faced ridge our other party surely was dealing with. Still, a large section of the last part of the trail leading to Deer Park is uphill, and we spent most of our
energy and water legging out the final stretch.
The Deer Park campground isn’t a resort by any stretch, but it does have a restroom, ranger station and surprisingly busy parking lot, so we were safe. We gave our grapes away to a couple who had been hiking for four days and living off dehydrated food and filtered stream water. The guy offered us water, but we turned him down. I’m reluctant to drink anything coming off a mountain, filtered or not.
After an hour of waiting for our hiking partners, we were beginning to reconsider his offer, but Jerry and Deborah soon reached the trailhead and, reunited, we headed back to civilization.
I’m glad we came prepared, with just enough water to get us through. This is clearly the kind of hike for which one must keep hydrated and keep company.
As a side note, local fire crews responded to lightning strikes at the Deer Park trailhead a day later. So we couldn’t complain much about having to wait a bit at the end for our companions; at least we didn’t get struck by lightning.
In all, the Elk Mountain Trail was even better than I expected. A long, yet rewarding trek with my wife and new friends, this was about as good as it gets up here in what seems like hiking paradise … even if it was the wimpy way to go.
Michael Dashiell is sports editor at the Sequim Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.