From the moment I started down the Hoh River trail carrying my backpack, I started to sweat. The place with thick with moist, hot air, like a tropical rainforest transplanted to Washington State. Drapes of moss hung from the huge branches of old-growth Douglas fir, Western Hemlock and cedar trees. Bright green ferns carpeted the soft, soggy ground. I breathed in, stuck somewhere between a steam room and a sauna, and tried to enjoy the stifling beauty of the Hoh Rainforest. My boyfriend and I were making our way 10 miles to our campsite on our three-day summer backpacking trip.
The Hoh Rainforest is gorgeous, located in the northwestern most corner of Washington State in Olympic National park. It gets a yearly total of 12 to 14 feet of rain, which is heaven for moss and ferns. The first part of the trail runs along the Hoh River, tinged a milky slate blue from glacial sediment.
When we first started our trek, we weren’t sure whether we’d do the entire 40 mile round trip hike up to Blue Glacier, which would mean 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in one day.
Usually, people spend their second night of camping at a campground near the glacier, but there were none available for us. So we’d have to set up in one spot and od the glacier as a day hike.
Our first day of hiking was an easy and mostly flat through the prehistoric-looking rainforest, and we found a secluded spot to pitch our tent on the gravel bar near the Hoh River. It looked like something out of Alaska, with mist that clung in the evergreen trees and an icy, fast-moving river. We hunkered down for the night with dinner and a fire, and decided that yes, we wanted to see the glacier. Neither of us had ever seen a glacier up-close-and-personal, and with the current state of climate change, we wanted to hike to a glacier before it was too late.
We got up early to prepare for the 17-mile hike and stuffed our daypacks full of food. The trail wound up, and up, and up, through the greenest forest I’ve ever seen. Gigantic nurse logs lined the trail, sprouting with ferns and baby trees. We refilled our water bottles with icy stream water fed from a glacier. We gained elevation like nobody’s business under a cloudy, murky sky.
Finally, by early afternoon, the clouds began to burn off. I started to catch small glimpses of the Olympic mountains through the trees; snow-capped, jagged grey peaks. The Hoh River rushed by in a deep canyon far below us, and I was reminded of just how high we’d climbed.
The trail started to get narrow and sketchy. I stepped slowly and carefully, very much aware of the gritty sand beneath my feet and the staggering drop-off to my right. At one point, we had to shimmy down a ladder into a canyon, then climb switchbacks up the other side. Meanwhile, the clouds had burned off completely, leaving an achingly beautiful blue sky in their place.
My legs were tired, and we still had 1,000 more feet of elevation gain to go. My feet burned inside my my rigid hiking boots. But I was determined to see that glacier. We paused to fill water and have a snack in a flower-filled meadow, and drank in the alpine beauty as we sipped in cool, refreshing water.
The last 500 feet were up a rocky cliff, some of it we we had to trudge through snow. When we reached the top, I was blown away by the beauty and immensity of blue glacier.
It stretched before us, pouring down the mountain in a gigantic river frozen in time, the ice fall tinged an icy blue. Above, the jagged summit of Mount Olympus rose, as if daring us to climb. We saw some mountaineers don helmets and start their trek across the glacier, most likely to camp for the night before a summit attempt.
It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Thousands of years of glacier were at eye-level, and I stared at the expanse for a long time. Below us, a white mountain goat rooted around in the brush. I was so glad we’d hiked to see the glacier, but was dreading the hike back down.
It was 2pm and it was 8.5 miles and 5,000 feet down, down, down, back to our campsite by the river. We didn’t stay at the glacier long so we could get back before dark.
The hike was brutal. My muscles screamed with the effort, my feet felt like they were walking on pebbles. The balls of my feet and heels ached with the exertion and I practically ran the last 200 yards back to our site, just to take off my shoes, to find some sort of relief.
I collapsed on the sand after I pulled off my boots, letting the coolness soothe the fire in my feet.
But there was more work to be done. We had to gather wood and water, start a fire, cook dinner, empty our packs. We decided to fill one of our bear cans with water so we could take a hot shower. It was a painstaking process, heating two cups of water at a time to a boil on our Jetboil stove and then adding to the cold river.
When the water was warm enough, Tom poured it over my head and I scrubbed the sweat and dirt from my body and hair. Cold air hit my wet skin and I ran to dry by the crackling fire. I’ve never felt more alive than in that moment, feeling the cleanness of my hair, hearing the rushing of the river nearby, smelling sand and pine and wood smoke. I feel that backpacking takes us back to our senses, the feelings in our bodies. We connect to the earth and ourselves with a primalness that can’t be found in the comfort of an apartment, on a soft couch, in front of a TV.
Both of us felt wild and in tune in those moments after we taxed our bodies to the limit, then bathed by the warmth of a campfire. Nothing has ever felt better.
Sleep and rest also felt good. Once our bellies were warm and full, we crawled into bed. My blow-up camping pad and sleeping bag felt like a 5-star luxury hotel, a much-welcomed rest from the grueling day. I fell asleep thinking of alpine peaks, glaciers, the vastness of the sky.
The next day, we hiked back out another eleven miles. My feet were still sore from the day before, and by the end of the hike, I could barely move. Each step felt brutal, and I was thankful to once again be at the Hoh Visitor’s Center, at the car, pulling off my boots for flip-flops. It was 2pm.
We’d hiked to Blue Glacier and back in about 60 hours. Insane.
Sometimes I ask myself why we push so hard. One summer it was the John Muir Trail, the next this hike to Blue Glacier. And then this summer, we may hit the John Muir Trail again.
I think that in our mostly sedentary lives, it feels good to get out and test our bodies, to see just how far they can go. It feels good to be in the true depths of nature. It feels good to be rewarded with a stunning view, with a soothing, hot campsite shower. And I’m still rewarded today with vivid memories, with the knowledge that, “Yes, I can.”
About the Author:
Kristin Hanes is a journalist and writer who lives on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay. Besides sailing, she loves anything adventurous and outdoorsy, including hiking, backpacking and traveling. Besides staying active, Kristin also loves cooking, salsa dancing and drinking a good beer. You can follow her adventures on her blog, www.thewaywardhome.com