A few weeks ago we went on our first backpack of the season. Blessed as the Pacific Northwest is with spectacular mountain ranges, it is a little tricky to find an early season route that isn’t impacted greatly by snow -unless you look towards the coast or further south. However, Enchanted Valley is one of those special, just-low-enough elevation hikes that wanders through lush old growth and a stunning river valley ringed by peaks and waterfalls, without the need for microspikes and postholing.
Early season backpacks have a wild feeling – the valley and trails don’t show heavy use that comes during the summer, as the land gets loved up by visitors. While we passed some hikers and trail runners and shared the valley with a few other groups, we experienced long, wonderful stretches of solitude.
Enchanted Valley is definitely a special place. Glacial melt tumbles over sheer cliffs where we spotted several mountain goats clipped on to the rocks, feeding. Bears were common, and we had around 10 sightings, including a few that came near while eating grass. We love bears and it felt like a magical experience to see them up close.
Location: Olympic Peninsula/ Quinault
Length: 30 miles roundtrip (+ whatever gained exploring the valley)
- just to note: the total mileage on trail sites is usually listed between 26-32. According to the ranger we talked with in the valley, because of trail reroutes it is 30 miles roundtrip from the trailhead to the valley per their GPS
Elevation net gain: 1700 ft
Permits: Backcountry permit $8/per adult per night + $6 processing fee. Register at the Quinault ranger station or online.
Starting pack weight (estimated):
- – Pat at 25-30 lbs (he carried the world’s heaviest bear can at 3 lbs & our tent at 3.5 lbs)
- – Hannah at 15-18 lbs
Day 1: 11 Miles
Hiked in a bit after 12 PM with the idea that we’d camp at O’Neil creek. We were making good time and it was still fairly early in the afternoon, so we decided to press on. The ranger team we passed said that Pyrites had some fantastic camp spots after crossing the river.
We got in to Pyrites around 5 PM, ready to set up camp. The ranger we had seen intermittently throughout the afternoon came back into camp while we were setting up to let us know a bear was nearby that seemed pretty habituated to humans. Sure enough, while we cooked dinner the beautiful big bear seemed to inch closer and closer. He (or she) was definitely intrigued by the smell of Idahoan mash… eventually the bear wandered off (Pat clapped and used a strong voice to dissuade the bear) but it felt like a real treat to be able to observe a bear up close. We have taught wildlife safety for many years and felt comfortable with the bear nearby. Even so, it was a good reminder that we were in the home of wildlife, and needed to be respectful.
After eating and cleaning up, I was pretty beat. Nothing like being pretty sedentary all winter and then hitting the trail to really give yourself a nice fun surprise. I think we went to bed around 7 PM. Best bedtime ever!
Day 2: 4.9 miles (+ whatever accrued while exploring the valley)
We woke to a beautiful, chilly morning next to the river. Packing up didn’t take too long, and we opted to eat bars for breakfast so we could get onto the trail. We knew we had a small mileage day and were antsy to explore.
Throughout the entire trail I felt suffused in awe. The trees! The river! The wildlife! Mountains! The feeling of the land! Everything! However, when we passed the small sign for Enchanted Valley and glimpsed the mountains trailing off into the distance, and far-reaching river valley, this feeling of awe blossomed into something more. I cherish the time we spent exploring this area.
When we arrived and picked our spot, we were hungry and chilled from our sweat/wind combo. We had ‘brunch’ (all of our oatmeal – 6 packets- …tasted amazing and think of the weight savings) sitting on a pad with full view of the mountains and Anderson glacier in the distance. What a wonderful life.
Our neighbor was Big Bear, a very intrepid bear who liked to eat grass and take poops near the chalet. His nemesis was the ranger. I loved watching Big Bear. We also saw a mom and her yearling on the other side of the valley. One of my favorite moments was watching them sit together under a cedar and fir tree when it was raining/icing.
Some weather rolled in during the afternoon and we were ‘iced’ on. At first it looked like thousands of tiny white blossoms, but it was ice blown down into the valley from much higher up. It was beautiful, all swirling around and dancing through the trees, above the river.
Day 3: 15 miles
My first 15 mile day!
It froze during the night and our tent was icy/heavy. It was a cold quick morning getting ready to go – I boiled some water for tea and we put bars in our pockets so we could leave quickly. Our goal was to get on the trail at 8 AM as we had estimated 6-7 hours to the trailhead. It was definitely hard for me to leave the valley…especially watching the sun break over the valley walls.
A herd of elk was flushed and thundered across the trail in front of us. They are so magnificent and huge. I loved watching them effortlessly run uphill.
We must have hauled on the way out because we ended up completing 15 miles in 5.5 hours. The longest (feeling) leg was O’Neil Camp to Fire Creek. What a wonderful, incredible trip. The perfect start to the season. I am infinitely grateful.
A few things I would’ve changed:
- Water Carries: there was so much water available we didn’t need to each carry 2 liters. The rangers we passed all carried a 1L with their sawyer mini on top. On our way out we did this as well.
- Pack less…..I was cursing my over-packing tendencies every time we gained elevation. We are actively working on converting our gear to ultralite but some of our stuff is still heavy. I am also still working on my clothing system.
- Bear Can – we rented a bear can from the Quinault ranger station (required to carry if going to the valley) but it was SO huge and SO heavy. A lightweight bear can is on our list for future gear.