Hiking in Olympic National Park

Hiking in Olympic National Park: A Misadventure

“Look at those gorgeous lakes down there!” I pointed. Armando’s eyes followed my finger to the canyon below, above a waterfall and finally to two large mountain lakes nestled in the trees. We were standing on a ridge, just a few miles from Obstruction Point, which had been our goal when we started off on foot that morning. From Deer Park Campground in Washington’s Olympic National Park, it was seven miles out.

But the day was young, and our hand-drawn map portrayed a rather easy trail down to the lake. “Let’s go!” he said, neither of us remembering what the Alaskan in our campground had told us just the night before: “The one thing I’ve learned about this park is not to trust the maps…”

Sometimes we have to learn our own lessons.

Hiking in Olympic National Park

See those lakes down there? It doesn’t look so far, right? Wrong.

So away we went, down slippery rock walls and meadows covered in prairie dog holes, across streams meandering by. And when the lake did not appear, we kept walking. Up we trudged, through forest covered trail, down steep rocky hillsides, up, down, up, down…

We met two backpackers who’s faces twitched into something resembling pity when we told them we were trying to make it to the lake and back tonight. “I think it’s only three miles,” she guessed.

“Oh, so like only one more hour!” Armando said.

“But there is a lot of elevation change…” she was saying, but we were already gone.

Hiking in Olympic National Park

Afternoon was beginning to turn into evening, and we had been hiking for six hours already. But we were fraught with some kind of operational cost, knowing we’d come this far to see a lake, and be damned if we were going to turn back without seeing it.

So we walked on.

And when we crossed a bridge over a narrow creek, we saw a man resting on his pack. “Do you know about how far it is to the lake?” we asked.

“I’d give it about a half mile,” he said, which, in all its falsehood, was exactly what we’d wanted to hear.

Hiking in Olympic National Park

For more than a mile and a half we wound up a steep canyon wall with switchbacks through the tall green trees. I thought my legs were going to give out.

Finally, I sat down in the trail and declared I would go no farther.

Armando hiked on, trying to see if he could catch a glimpse of the lake, but to no avail. It was already 5pm, and we had to succumb to our loss, knowing that already it was 5:00, and that we’d only come halfway to home.

He begrudgingly turned back.

It was slow and steady and there were times when I thought my legs would fail me, but each time I wanted to quit, Armando picked me up. He gave me courage with his positivity, he gave me patience by letting me set the pace, and he gave me pride with each summit we peaked.

Hiking in Olympic National Park

And just as we began our incline up the one hill I’d been dreading the most — the one so steep we had slid down it in the loose gravel — the clouds, which earlier had looked so far away, were suddenly overhead, and with them came thunder and lighting and rain. Buckets of rain. I thought about crying. My tears would have blended in with the raindrops on my face, but I knew it would do me no good.

“How’s this for a view?” he asked somewhat sarcastically as we stood at the base of our last steep incline. When one is standing at the base of and looking up at something so daunting she understands, much to her chagrin, that there is only one way for a human to get out, and it’s humbling.

Hiking in Olympic National park

I didn’t answer him until much later. At the time I was angry we’d gone so far, that we were losing daylight, and that we hadn’t packed our camp gear with us.

But when we stood on our final summit, the sun was just dropping behind the far-off mountains and turning the sky a hazy purple. We both shared the giddiness of triumph that overcomes us each time we realize we’ve pushed ourselves to capacity and that nature is our most stunning reward. It’s hikes like these that make me remember why I prefer to walk in the mountains instead of ride bikes or sit in low flying planes. To move slowly enough to smell the wildflowers and the trees, to cup the rain in my hands, to touch the dirt with my boots, and to stand on a peak in the middle of a park spanning nearly one million acres, with not a road or a city or another person in sight…these are perhaps some of the finest reasons to be human.

Hiking in Olympic National Park

Armando asked me again. “How’s this for a view?”

“It’s amazing,” I stuttered through my teeth chatter. He wrapped his arms around me and smiled as we stared together into infinity. It would be all down hill from here, we knew.

Hiking in Olympic National Park

Written by:Jessica J. Hill




  1. Jeff Bell says:

    There is something about the physical exertion that makes everything all the more beautiful even when we fail on a hike! Glad you got back to camp before sundown. I’ve made that mistake before of underestimating a distance and had to push myself just for survival. Thanks for sharing this funny story.

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