First Divide, Olympic National Park
February 26-27, 2005

The continuous clear and warm weather brought me out to the Olympics for another weekend trip, this time to a slightly higher place than Shi-Shi beach. I drove out to the Staircase trailhead through thick mist, but once I cleared the hill above Hoodsport the mist cleared and I had nothing but sunny skies overhead. I was planning to hike up to the Home Sweet Home shelter, beyond First Divide and perhaps climb Mount Steel along the way. The North Fork of the Skokomish would be my route for most of the day and I followed the trail as it crawled along the valley bottom amazed that I was sweating on a flat trail in February.

Spring hadn't yet arrived as I couldn't quite smell it in the air, but other creatures apparently thought it was time to come out of hibernation and look for food.

I met a few hikers out for the day along these lower reaches, but by the time I got to the bridge over the Skokomish, I had the trail to myself. I thought about taking a swim in some of the deep, crystal clear pools, but remembered that it was February and that skinnydipping season was still a few months away.

The trail continued its crawl along the valley, but even without the grand scenery of the alpine there was still much to look at and admire.

After passing Nine Stream camp, the trail finally left the river and began a sharp climb up the flanks of the mountains near the head of the valley. Snow was non-existent, except in small patches in the shade, and it really felt like I was hiking in the late spring. Beyond Two Bear Camp the snow began to get thicker and by the time I topped out near First Divide, I was hiking in thick powdery stuff. Occasionally, I would posthole down to my hip, which made the hiking slow and awkward at times. I reached the meadows from which assaults on Mount Steel are made, but it was almost 3:30 and I didn't think I had the time to make the summit and come back down before night fall.

I lost the trail completely near the top and forged on my own through the snow to an obvious pass. Looking down, I decided that it wasn't First Divide, as the north side was far too steep, and so went in search of a sign that might tell me where I was.

I wandered over toward Mount Hopper and found what I thought was the right pass, as the north side of it was much gentler than the other pass. Still, no sign and I couldn't see the shelter in the basin below. My natural inclination toward laziness got the better of me and I sat on a log in the sun rather than heading down the snowy slopes.

Given the grand weather, I thought about simply camping out in the snow, but this wasn't as too appealing to me given that I would have to melt snow for water. Even less appealing was to head down into the basin to the shelter, given that I would have to slog up 500 feet in the morning to get back onto the divide, and so I headed back downhill to Two Bear for the night.

Rumbling downhill took much less time than the climb up and I found Two Bear just where I left it.

There was a patch of snow free ground and I set up my tarp for the evening, still amazed that I could bring my summer shelter with me into the mountains in February. Strange year we're having here in the Northwest.

Although not exactly spacious, the tarp has just enough room for me and my stuff and a bottle of R&R to pass the long night with.

I boiled water for some coffee-hot chocolate-whiskey drink for a pre-dinner treat and wrote for a while. The temperature dropped fast as the sun went behind the mountains and I hurriedly cooked up a dinner of ricotta-spinich tortellone with tomato parmesan sauce and butter. Although it sounds fancy, it all came out of two packets that I bought at the grocery store. I washed it all down with the cold, pure water from the stream next to Two Bear and then dove inside my sleeping bag for a few hours with Wilfred Thesiger and R&R before falling asleep.

I slept as late as I could (8 am) and then made coffee and had breakfast while finishing up Arabian Sands. Excellent read, which is a rarity among travel books. It seems that only hacks write travel books or narratives and can think of only a few reasonable authors in the genre. I broke camp and headed down the trail about 9:30, with no great desire to rush through the remainder of the day. I didn't particularly want to go home right away and found myself wishing for a few more days off. Or, better, a couple of months. I took frequent breaks at choice spots along the trail, but found myself back at my car far too soon, another weekend older.


From Lakewood, drive I-5 south to US101 (exit #104). Follow US101 to the town of Hoodsport. In the middle of town, make a left at the signed junction with SR119, heading toward Lake Cushman. Drive SR119 to a T-junction. Make a left and follow the road to its end at the Staircase trailhead. The road is gravel for the most part and has worsened significantly since the fall. There are many deep pot holes, most of which can be avoided. Drive carefully.

You'll need to have a parks pass or pay the Olympic people $10 to park, although there was no one around to collect fees when I was there. To camp overnight in the park, you need to fill out a backcountry permit at the trailhead and pay $5 plus $2 per person, per night. However, they want you to mail the cash to them rather than paying on the spot.

The Skokomish river trail head north out of Staircase and is an easy walk with only a few, brief uphill sections. It is about five miles to the bridge over the Skokomish, where there are excellent swimming possibilities. It is about 13 miles from Staircase to First Divide, and you can about 4000 feet in the process. However, almost all the elevation gain is after Nine Stream campground, which is about 9 miles in. So, the hike from Nine Stream to First Divide is a bit steep and tiring.