Sometimes, a hike is more about the activity than the destination. Some hikes offer thrilling views at the end, others offer views along the way and just…come to a stop. It sounds anti-climactic, but can still offer some great time in nature.
We chose the Lower Gray Wolf River trail, near the Olympic Peninsula, for a few reasons. We wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of I-90 hikes, and a river hike seemed like it’d be flat, but still pretty. Once I did my research, I learned this hike was not as flat or as scenic as we’d hoped for–people said you weren’t along the river much until the end, and that the hike was very much up-down-up the whole trail. However, at that point we had committed to this hike, so we set off.
From our starting point, it was equal time to take either the Bainbridge ferry or the Kingston ferry. We opted for Bainbridge, as we both hadn’t been there for years. Once we arrived on the island, we wove our way towards Sequim. We followed directions until we hit the forest road, which was in shockingly condition. We noted this for future hikes nearby, as with sedans good forest roads aren’t easy to come by. We’re glad we stuck to directions, as the parking area (holds maybe 4-5 cars) came abruptly.
Having read trip reports, I knew to set my GPS, as everything said to stop at a certain distance. We marched along, hoping to beat that afternoon’s predicted rain. For those who don’t know, some parts of the Olympic Peninsula can get annual rainfall up to twelve feet–and this trail showed clear evidence fairly quickly in. Moss crawled over many rocks and felled stumps, and there was many a fungi underfoot. For us, the trail wasn’t too muddy, but the fallen leaves everywhere were still slick.
After about two-thirds of a mile, you reach a fork where you can take the Cat Creek loop. We opted to stick to the main trail, but we took this detour on the way back–it didn’t add any distance, by our count, and had some gargantuan trees along the way, so it is a worthy detour to make. Right at the fork where the Cat Creek loop re-joins the main trail, we saw a two-man work party from WTA. They warned us to make sure to not go to far and to turn around at 4.2 miles. Trip reports had made it seem like the end was fairly clear, so I felt confident enough, especially with my Runkeeper app on my phone tracking distance.
After we left the work crew, the trail almost immediately plummets down into the river valley. I groaned internally, knowing we’d just be coming right back up this hill at the end. I also had discovered the one pitfall of being the only souls on a trail: spiderwebs. I must have walked through them by the dozen! However, the sound of rushing water got stronger. We passed a sign, entering the Buckhorn Wilderness and commemorating a sailor who had died from a fall on this hike earlier this year. The sign again repeated warnings from the trail report and the volunteers to turn around at 4.2 miles due to a slide blocking the trail.
Our first meeting with the river was a bit lackluster. We were really next to a small tributary that was almost dry, making me fear the rest of the hike would be dry riverbed as well. There was one campsite here, not two miles from the trailhead. We pushed onward, away from the river again, and began an immense climb upward. When we turned a corner at the top of the hill we had just climbed, and were met with an icy blast: we were now fully in the river valley. Down we went, again, but this time there were no tributaries, just cold water rushing in a river. The second time we joined the river it was just as I was hoping for, the ice-blue waters I had seen in other reports. There was more campsites here, for backpackers who want to sleep to the sounds of the river it would be perfect.
After a snack, it was time to leave the river again. We noticed the trail had a few more blowdowns in this area, and we also had one area a small slide had clearly occurred in. Some parts of the trail were significantly at an angle, something I did not enjoy with wet leaves to slip on everywhere, and the wet sand from the slide was no exception. We stayed close to the river, but climbed up a bit, before meeting the river a third time, again with camping sites for backpackers. WTA had said that we’d meet the river three times, and the trail would soon end after that.
To leave the river again, there was a very steep hill that was very slick. I groaned at the thought of crab-walking down it. I made it past, for there to be another blowdown. This log had been carved into, but for help, not vandalism–it said “END.”
I looked at my GPS to see we were at 3.6 miles. How could this be the end when everything said 4.2? Besides being told to stop at 4.2 miles, instructions were that we’d see a bridge washout. However, we saw no remnants of a bridge. We could barely even see the river from here! Noting someone had added a question mark to the END on the trunk, we opted to try to go a little further past to investigate. There was clearly a large slide here. But was this the slide we were supposed to stop at? I’ve had my GPS disagree with WTA before, but this seemed excessively off. We decided that it would be better to stop and risk it being premature than to go further and be in danger of injury.
We meandered a bit back, enjoying the river views. We saw more volunteer trail workers from WTA, and the party from earlier, there to clear the blowdowns. It was awesome to see people who clearly loved the area and the trail doing work, and other than the blowdowns and confusing end, it was a well-maintained trail. We took the detour for the Cat Creek Connector loop, and while it might have added a bit more elevation gain, it was worth it for possibly the largest stump I’d ever seen!
While it might not have offered stunning mountain views or a jaw-dropping waterfall, on a fall Saturday, trying to beat the rain before it hit, this hike felt just right.
Distance: 7.2-8.4 miles (WTA says 8.4 miles, we stopped at what we thought was the end for a total of what Runkeeper said to be 7.2).
Elevation: WTA says 800 feet, Runkeeper said we climbed 1435 total (maybe WTA just does high point minus low point?)
Parking: No pass required