Olympic NP: Backpacking Hoh River Trail

Camp mornings have settled into a familiar routine. Rise with the sun. Deflate sleeping pads. Sleeping bags in compression sacks. Disassemble the tent: boys on poles, girls on body and fly. And always, hot coffee. Coffee for bleary-eyed parents, cocoa for the littles.

It’s cold and gray again in the North Cascades. Yesterday’s beautiful weather was an anomaly; thunderstorms and 40 degree temps are forecast for the rest of the week. We zip our fleece pullovers and don rain jackets. Bid goodbye to Gorge Lake and snow-capped peaks no longer visible beneath the gathering gray. Today is a road day: 4.5 hours to Mount Angeles Wilderness Information Center, another 2 hours to Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.

Our first order of business? Fuel–for the car, yes, but mostly for the hungry humans within. There’s a gas station with a lone fuel pump just outside the park boundary in Marblemount. I step outside to stretch my legs and am immediately hit by a heavenly aroma: coffee. Good, strong coffee–the kind that immediately recalls past Seattle and Portland trips. I look at my husband and then at the coffee shack. “Please?” my raised eyebrows plead. He smiles his consent.

I wander across the parking lot and look back to see the kids’ eager faces glued to the rear window. Crown’d Coffee is eclectic, eccentric. There are plush blue couches and wind chimes that ring brilliantly in the blustery Skagit wind. Statues of Quan Yin and miniature glass-blown bird figurines. Organic, fair trade coffee. Soy, almond milk everything, but also real heavy cream, whipped into rich, buttery pillows for hot chocolate. I walk back with a heavy cardboard tray laden with Everything bagels, cream cheese, coffee laced with organic cream, too much hot chocolate.

The drive to Seattle is quiet. It’s the middle of rush hour traffic, but mentally, we are deep in vacation zone–not quite ready to head home, but physically fatigued. Conversation lulls, though there is an ease to the silence. We’ve spent 10 full days talking to each other. Now is a time to just be.

Seattle finds us halfway to Port Angeles and en route to Krispy Kreme. We indulge in glazed doughnuts, savoring the taste and hoping it will hold us till next year. Our youngest watches the assembly conveyor belt in amazement, waving to the baker who humors him with a wink and a thumbs-up. Soon enough, it’s back to the cramped Mitsubishi and another two hours on the road that takes us past Tacoma and Bellingham and eventually brings us to Mount Angeles Wilderness Information Center.

Krispy Kreme pit stop, Seattle

It’s late–1:30 pm–and the line at the Information Center is a mile long. It’s another 2 hours to Hoh Rain Forest and a 5 mile hike to our campsite for the night. Packing bear canisters will take longer than we anticipate–we’ve learned this the hard way. Ranger Eddie advises us to stop short of 5 Mile Island and set up camp instead at Mt. Tom Creek, a little over 3 miles in. He issues us backcountry permits for tonight, as well as permits for our next two nights along the coast. Ranger Eddie shares my demented Far Side/Gary Larson sense of humor and scares the kids with cautionary tales of tiny raccoon paws unzipping tents in the middle of the night in search of stashed gum and granola bar wrappers. I laugh more than is appropriate, but he’s twisted, and I am tired and amused.

Ranger Eddie, Mount Angeles WIC

The drive to Hoh Rain Forest takes us far past civilization. The car radio gives way to static, then silence as we rush past the coast and deep into the forest. At first, the scenery evokes memories of Thunder Creek Trail in North Cascades–old cedars and firs lined with patches of slick moss–but then the forest gives way to something else entirely. Hanging moss in browns and greens draped in floor-length curtains from tree to tree. Giant ferns that bed the forest floor in a wild carpet of green. And everywhere, the rain. Pelting. Sheeting. Drizzling. Pouring. We would experience it all before the end of our trip

Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park

By the time we get our bear canisters locked and loaded, it’s 4:45 pm, and the rain is incessant. Walking through the parking lot means wading through streams, not puddles. Though not as cold as the Cascades, temps are in the lower 50s and dropping fast. We have rain jackets but no rain pants, and already, I can feel water running down the insides of my legs. I’m fairly certain my kids hate me. To be honest, I kind of hate me at the moment.

Keeping it real: glum faces pre-hike
Trying to find our happy faces…
Hoh River Trail, Olympic National Park
Hiking Hoh River Trail

“I’m sorry. This really sucks,” I tell my husband, as each step through calf-high puddles splashes mud up onto our arms and faces.

He shakes his head. “Don’t think of it that way. This’ll be an adventure we’ll always remember,” he says.

My oldest chimes in. “When will we ever get to camp in a rain forest again?” he says. Undeterred, he whips out his camera and waterproof casing and snaps a few photos. It’s enough to snap me out of my misery. True, it’s not my romanticized version of the rain forest, the “atmospheric” one I’d imagined at home. This is the real rain forest, complete with real rain and mud and cold for those who dare.

There’s a gritty beauty to Hoh River Trail. All is lush and green as one would expect, but there is also an untouched, almost mystical quality to the landscape. From the gray mist that cloaks the mountains to the pristine riverbed marred only by wind and time, there is a deep silence in the forest that speaks of past ages and our fleeting tenure here. We tread through the mud, voices hushed, listening to the sloshing of our shoes, the call of birds, rain dripping from moss to ferns.

Hoh River pops in and out of view along the trail; mist clings to the mountainside
Trekking Hoh River Trail
Trekking poles help with the mud
Brown and green as far as the eye can see; Hoh River Trail

When the rain slows, soft light filters through the trees, but these occasions become less frequent as darkness falls. Doubt fills my head–2 hours had seemed a reasonable time to hike a little over 3 miles, but what if I’d miscalculated? I knew hiking through rain in headlamps would be the straw that’d break this family’s back.

Waterfall just before our campsite

We pass a waterfall and then a stake carved with a tent image, marking our campsite. There is an audible whoop from our younger two, who feared we’d wind up lost, on the news. We nestle our tent against a wall of ferns and quickly boil water for dinner.

We made it! Home sweet home for the night
Starting a fire to dry ourselves out
It was tough building a fire with all of the recent rain

Couscous and chicken are on the menu tonight, but in our rush, we’d forgotten to empty the canned chicken into a Ziploc bag. Luckily, we have welcoming neighbors–a jovial group of college teens from the East Coast who are backpacking a week in the Hoh–who share their can-opener. We cut through swampy grass to dine along river’s edge, where our other neighbors–kindly newlyweds–share their driftwood bench with the kids.

Parmesan couscous and lemon chicken for dinner
Gathering water from the river
Camp chores after dinner

There is no latrine at our site, so our oldest digs “pre-need” catholes for the family. The forest is saturated, but he builds a good fire. We sit outside until mosquitoes and darkness drive us inside. We play a rowdy round of Liar/BS by headlamp. Not one, but two decks of cards–we’re emboldened by the earlier deluge and the thrill of camping in the wild. Later, we switch off our headlamps and whisper in the dark.

“You know what? Today kind of sucked, but it was kind of awesome,” my daughter says.

Our youngest nods, hair rustling against his inflatable pillow. “Yeah. In a way, part of me sort of hates backpacking, but it’s kind of awesome, too,” he says.

I reflect on the events of the day–the suck-y parts and the awesome parts–and smile. There is no truer wisdom to be found than from the mouths of babes.


26 thoughts on “Olympic NP: Backpacking Hoh River Trail”

  1. You and your family are some amazing, hard-core backpackers. I am truly impressed!! I’ll be honest, I don’t think I would have had the strength and courage to walk to the campsite in that rain at that time of day. Now, when we face adversity we’ll have to channel you guys and toughen up. I read this post aloud to my husband who not only enjoyed your writing, but was just in awe that your kids were able to accomplish this. Wow! The Hoh rainforest looks very interesting with all that draping moss, all that greenery is just beautiful. What your kids said about the day just cracked me up (sucked, but awesome). I loved your last sentence – so true! Enjoyed reading this post, nice job.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m afraid we weren’t quite as positive as it might’ve seemed (at least not me, lol). There was definitely a lot of moaning and complaining going on; I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that it might rain…in a RAIN forest, no less, duh, lol! The whole Olympic experience now lives on as the punchline of a lot of jokes in our house, ie: “Ooh, that sounds bad, but not like *Olympic* bad!” Also, ‘kinda sucked but kinda awesome’–these teen phrases, right?!


  2. Great post, as always. Love the spirits of your family. Your husband was right. To this day I still remembered a poorly planned backpacking trip that my friends and I made. We didn’t have much to eat and had to sleep in a tent dripping with soaking rain all night. It was still memorable almost 25 years later.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, Keng! I agree–my husband was 100% right, though I try not to tell him that too often, lol. Sleeping in a soaked tent with no food–wow, that is the stuff of lifelong memories for sure! You and your friends are troopers; what an unforgettable experience that must have been. Would love to read more about that trip someday!


  3. We took our three granddaughters day hiking in the Quinnault Rain Forest (also in Olympic National Park) and the forest was almost surreal. Fortunately, we had much better weather!
    Glad you toughed it out and this will be a story your kids will tell for years to come.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I remember reading your post about Quinnault earlier this summer. What a fantastic shared memory for you and your granddaughters! And weather or no, you’re right–just being in the forest is an incredible experience in itself; I’m glad we stuck it out, too.


  4. My oldest chimes in. “When will we ever get to camp in a rain forest again?” he says.

    This is why we have children, isn’t it? Sometimes our children can teach us valuable lessons. In a world that we adults have made overly complex, they help us simplify things again.

    Hopefully, you will get to camp in a rainforest again. Maybe a tropical one next time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I absolutely agree. Children have a way of helping us hone in to the things that really matter. I have much to learn from them in the way of adaptability and embracing simplicity. Yes, a tropic rain forest would be wonderful!


  5. This took me back to my earliest days of hiking with my mother. She would drag my little brother and I, then 8 and 10, miles through thick forest trails and sandy tracks. The funny thing is I loved every moment of it. I thought this is what people did when they weren’t reading books watching movies or doing chores. Sometimes it really sucked, but that never stopped anyone from finding a way to have a good time. We’d tell stories or just talk about nonsense, it didn’t matter, as long as one sweet orange gummy later we were going bribed up another mountain of a molehill.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love this: “I thought this is what people did.” Like it was just a normal part of life; like others surely did the same. I so relate to your statement about having a good time talking with your family no matter the topic. Some of our best conversations and connections have occurred on treks like these. I love that your early outdoor experiences left such a lasting impression on you. I hope my children feel the same way someday–for the outdoors, yes, and also for the close bond it fostered within our family.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am so impressed with your family and the hikes and camping you do. I’ll admit, my idea of camping is glamping, and I’m not sure I would have done this. But I love your honesty and the memories you’re making with your family. We may be headed to the PNW next summer. I hope we have better weather, but at least your posts help me to know what it might be like. Great post as usual and thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m so excited that you’re headed to the PNW next summer! I’ll keep my fingers crossed for sunny skies for you. My biggest lesson learned would be to plan for rain just in case–it sounds really lame, but I honestly didn’t plan for rain at all (beyond rain jackets) and really regret it. Rain was the first thing I planned for this coming trip, though! 😀 I love glamping, too, and after Olympic, I’m thinking we should probably do more of it, lol. There were definitely some tough moments, but it all made for some funny family memories.

      Liked by 1 person

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