After what has felt like years of begging him for more backpacking trips, the boyfriendo finally initiated a trip on his own!
The boyfriendo prefers adventure and total, utter, bone-crushing solitude when backpacking, so he put forth a super-remote part of Olympic National Park–The Queets. He had done the hike to Spruce Bottom Camp as a child, and warned me there was a chest-deep river crossing to start it off, but other than that it was flat and easy. He opted to not warn me about the mosquitoes until after we had already arrived (thanks, dude). While I had my reservations, I hardly wanted to crush his plan when it was the first time he presented one, so we packed our bags, filled our tank, and hit the road, permits in hand.
It is a long drive to get to the trailhead–while we made it there and back on one tank of gas so didn’t need to stop anywhere, it ended up being a little further than I would have liked in COVID times of ‘limit travel far from home.’ Google Maps got unhappy with us, so I’d make sure to type “Queets Campground” into your GPS rather than “Queets Trailhead.” If all else fails, once you turn off of 101, just keep following the signs for the Upper Queets Valley and then the campground. The road alternates between paved and unpaved a bit, but was in decent shape, albeit lengthy.
The parking area for the trail was tiny, and we actually had to squeeze on the side of the road to fit. The bugs were already swarming as soon as we left the car! There was a trailhead kiosk reminding us we were in bear and cougar country (gulp) along with a little map that wasn’t super clear. We knew we had to cross the river to start, but how did we get to it? There were two very steep eroded cattrails right by the sign, along with a sign for the Sams River Loop trail. Knowing there had to be a better way, I suggested we head down the loop trail a bit. Sure enough, the first fork we kept to the left and it spit us out on a sandy bank near the rivers. You actually cross two rivers here, the Sams and the Queets, with a little channel between.
Hearing of waist-deep or chest-deep crossings in trip reports, to say I was super nervous was an understatement. This was my first fording of anything worse than ankle-deep, so I did a ton of research beforehand and had packed my poles. Following the boyfriendo’s lead, I gingerly stepped in when ready. The water was surprisingly warm compared to what I thought it would be! It actually was pleasant on a warm day. If you do this trail or others with a crossing, be sure to read up on how to do so safely in advance. After we made it to the other bank, we wandered up a well-traveled path a bit before following a cairn that took us through the woods and to the main trail.
Eager to hit the trail, we shook out feet dry(ish) and put our boots on. Rookie mistake for me that I ended up paying for in a few miles, but we were on our way!
Like the Hoh, Bogachiel, and Quinalt, Queets is a rain forest, the fourth (and likely least-known) in Washington. With the sun burning in the 70s that day there was no rain in sight, but the trees draped in moss proved it could always be around the corner. There was fir, spruce, and maple trees towering above, a carpet of ferns and moss below. It was stunning to see. We didn’t even notice the bugs once we got moving! However, knowing we were more remote that I’d probably ever been, the deep overgrowth everywhere ramped my anxiety up to 11. What could be hiding in the ferns and moss? I jumped and got nervous at every bit of wind causing rustling. I’m sure the boyfriendo was regretting his choice (either of trail, or dating such a wuss).
I have just started downloading offline maps with the free version of the Gaia GPS app based on my friend Celeste’s recommendation, and I sure am glad I did, as the trail can be quite hard to follow in places. For awhile we were walking in an actual dry creek bed, which seemed wrong, but between the helpful cairns everywhere and Gaia, it was the correct path. Having recently streamed The Mandalorian, it was a little fun to point to a cairn and flatly state, “This is the way.” At least it distracted me from what I felt was my imminent death on the trail! There was mud on a lot of the trail that was also in various stages of drying, and a few puddles or shallow creek beds, but no sweat compared to the ford. I was moderately comforted that I saw zero animal tracks in the mud either day, except one spot with a few elk tracks.
At little under two miles in, we reached a massive field, Anderson Field. I was thrilled to be able to see farther in front of me, but the grass was so tall anything could have been hiding there. There was clear signs that this meadow belonged to a herd of Roosevelt elk, but we didn’t see any. It was actually a little challenging at times to not lose the trail here, so remember to keep your eyes up.
According to trip reports, at 2.3 miles is a spur that takes you to the World’s Largest Douglas Fir, or at least what used to be the largest. However, trip reviews also said it took them an hour each way to bushwhack 0.2 miles each way to see this behemoth. Not having a machete or a clear destination on a map to aim for (and not knowing how bushwhacking applies to LNT), we settled for the massive spruces everywhere on trail. While they were sprouting up from the ground all around us, the biggest ones we saw were fallen trailside, nearly as big as Redwoods. Also sprouting was a blister on my right foot from putting my socks on too soon. We stopped and I changed socks, fully refreshed.
At around the three-mile mark, trip reports warned us the trail became super overgrown. They were not wrong! My choice of shorts, perfect for the temperature and the river ford, now felt idiotic as ferns and nettles whipped at my bare skin. As the wild around us grew taller, my fear, yet again, increased. However, we started to get some small sights of the river, and what a sight it was! The only thing missing was a herd of elk.
At around 4.3 miles, we reached a spur. We knew it was too soon for Spruce Bottom, but we followed it and were surprised to find an established campsite with sitting logs and a fire ring. I admit I am unclear on if this is considered one of the two permitted spots for Spruce Bottom or not, and would double-check with NPS before planning on camping here, but this site was flat and large and would be great for hikers using more than one tent. We returned to the main trail and pushed forward. The last half-mile or so felt like it went down hill a bit, and did increase in mud. I was keeping a keen eye on my map, and it seemed we were at the Spruce Bottom Camp, but all we saw was trail and trees. Two sites are available by permit, and every trip report I read said one was along a sandy riverbed, the other a flat site next to the trail surrounded by trees. We finally reached a spur that led us to the river…and two other hikers just taking off their overnight packs. We all donned our masks and tried to figure out if we were at the right place or not. We let them know as they had arrived first (by mere seconds, despite us not seeing or hearing them on the trail), they got first pick. They opted to do a bit of scouting and left their packs behind for their hunt.
The boyfriendo scoured the site, telling me he really hoped they’d pick something else, as the sandy riverbed site looked amazing. It also was large with a fire ring and sitting logs, with ample space for multiple tents, and as nice as the other couple was, we feared sharing the site. They came and informed us that they found another riverbed site just up further and would be taking that one. I admit, I’m not sure what their site was–everything I read said one riverbed site, one in the trees, and one trip report even implied the other Spruce Bottom site was the one we saw a mile prior? Either way we were thrilled to have this site. We wanted to give the other couple privacy so we never checked out their site, but to have beat this, it must have been stunning.
As this was an established campsite and matched with my map marker, even though it was close to the river I believe it was okay. We threw the tent up and decided to hit the river, which was a mild kitten compared to the beast we crossed earlier. The cool water felt good, although I opted to wade while the boyfriendo full-on swam (he reported the current was a little stronger in the middle, but nothing dangerous). The bugs were thick, but it was too warm to put on my permethrin-layers just yet, and I didn’t want to get my sleeping bag all DEET-y by spraying my bare skin. This was moronic, and I left the campsite the next day with over two dozen bites. DEET up as soon as you arrive!
The evening after our swim was a blur, with beers had as we watched the river float on by before reluctantly starting dinner. We saw frogs and a small rabbit enter our camp. While there was a fire ring and we were low enough in elevation to have had a fire, we were pretty sure there was a burn-ban that August weekend, so went without, even though it might have scared off the bugs. Eventually, we climbed into bed.
Now, on my best day, in a familiar bed, I am a freakishly light sleeper. I’ve been awoken in apartments by the person above us’s phone vibrating. Yeah, that bad. I almost never get any sleep backpacking because of it, but tonight was exceptional. It started off with out tent being nowhere near flat, and we both flipped to the foot end to sleep rather than getting a head rush. But that was only the beginning. Every sound, and I do mean every sound, had me in terror it was a bear or cougar coming to attack me. I tried rustling about at every noise to alert the critter to our presence. A few times I realized it was just a frog, but more than once my fear got to the point I woke the poor boyfriendo up. I SWORE I heard something large walking back and forth our tent.
By the time daylight finally started breaking, my sleep could have been counted in minutes. Once it was light enough to see shadows, I finally allowed myself an hour or two of sleep. When we finally emerged from our tent, we did see some faint tracks in the sand outside our tent that were very wide–like a black bear. The boyfriendo shrugged it off, but I wasn’t convinced. “Hard part’s over!” he sang as we went about breaking down camp. Umm, not really, we still have the five miles back to the car! I thought. I grimaced as I debated my heavy camp pants over my shorts and gave in, pulling my shorts over my scratched and scabbed legs. At least my pack was lighter without food and beer in it?
While the Queets River Trail continues another 10 miles upriver, it only gets more primitive, with the last 5 miles only recommended for those with experience route-finding and a very good map. We hit the trail back. Admittedly, the ferns and moss were beautiful bathed in the morning light, but I just wanted to get out of there alive. I would not consider myself an anxious person normally, but this whole trip I had been overtaken with so much fear it just clung to me. I KNOW a cougar has never attacked anyone’s tent, so why was I so certain it could happen to me?
We did take care to go on a few more spurs to see the river, me hoping again to see a herd of elk on the banks keeping cool. Alas, no luck. Still made the trip worth it, though!
We ambled along, taking our time as we left the part of the trail along the river. To our shock, even in August the leafy maples were starting to turn already. Also a surprise–there was a LOT more scat on the trail than the day prior. I am not very skilled in identifying scat, and of course didn’t take a picture. This wasn’t quite elk scat, as it appeared more like black dog poop than anything (coyote? Raccoon?). The non-plussed boyfriendo continued along, into the depths of the rain forest. The cover was so thick a lot of the trail was unrecognizable, and we struggled to remember what came next. My stinging legs were grateful when we finally left the super-overgrown part.
The miles continued, but to me in my sleepless haze I just focused on getting home in one piece. We returned to Anderson Meadow, and took our time, scanning the edges for any elk. No such luck, and towards the tail end, we saw something that made my blood freeze: clear predator scat. Predator scat will have signs of the animal consumed, in this case, fluff and bits. NOPE. I booked it from there. The boyfriend marveled at my speed, but I wasn’t about to die! I should have snapped a picture, but I just wanted to hustle. I calmed a little when we came across a couple on the trail that didn’t warn us of any impending doom, but I still just wanted to finish the hike.
We finally made it to the river, had an uneventful ford, and got to my car. PHEW! While I’ve enjoyed every backpacking trip, I admit I haven’t had such a nerve-wracking trek since nearly stepping on a rattlesnake during a windstorm in Boise. I’ve got to figure out something for my anxiety with bears and cougars, because they are a fact of life if hiking in this area. If you have no fear and want to avoid the crowds, get your feet wet, and explore the unknown–the Queets is for you.
Distance: I’ve read 5.3 one-way to Spruce Bottom Camp but we measured 5.6. The whole trail is over 15 miles each way, but the last few miles are only recommended for experienced route-finders.
Elevation: This is a flat, mild hike–we gained less than 200 feet.
Parking: As there is no manned booth, you must purchase a $30 one-week entrance pass to the National Park in advance or use an America the Beautiful pass, plus a wilderness backcountry permit if staying overnight.
Bathrooms: There are pit toilets at the Queets Campground a bit from the trail, but that’s it. Remember to bury solid waste (away from water) and pack out all TP.
Food Storage if Backpacking: Bear cans or hanging are strongly recommended by the park, but I wouldn’t dream of going without in an area this remote.
Fires: Allowed at this elevation in designated rings, pending burn bans.
Best Beer Bet: In pre or post-COVID times, I’d have made a detour to hit a brewery in Hoquiam or Aberdeen, or even swung way around and taken 101 home and hit breweries there. We just went straight home to limit our impact.