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Marmot Pass - Upper Big Quilcene

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If for some terrible reason you are only allowed one hike in the Olympics in your lifetime, this should be it. The trail to Marmot Pass captures the very essence of what makes the Olympics so special, and so darned pretty. Towering old growth, a tumbling pristine river, resplendent alpine meadows, and horizon-spanning views that include majestic snow-clad craggy spires-they're all part of this amazing hike. And it gets even better-being in the Olympic rain shadow, Marmot Pass is often kissed with sunbeams while nearby ridges swirl with clouds.

While Upper Big Quilcene River Trail No. 833.1 gains 3500 feet in its 5.3-mile journey to 6000-foot Marmot Pass, the climb is quite agreeable. The grade is mostly moderate, the tread smooth, and the scenery is spectacular throughout the hike, enabling you to easily overlook any discomfort along the way.

Immediately enter the Buckhorn Wilderness and a magnificent stretch of primeval forest. For 2.5 miles the trail winds its way through hulking hemlocks and colossal cedars and firs hundreds of years old, all while the Big Quilcene River keeps you company. Mossy overhanging boulders and numerous gurgling side creeks greet you along the way.

At Shelter Rock Camp (elev. 3600 ft) the trail parts ways with the Big Quilcene, making a short and steep ascent away from the valley floor. About a mile beyond, the forest yields to open avalanche chutes and scree slopes fanning down from Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. Enjoy breathtaking views of the rugged surroundings from these hot-in-the-sun slopes. Rocky knobs sit on the steep ridge above like gargoyles on a medieval cathedral, while slender stalks of fireweed dance in the gentle breezes whisking down from the pass. At 4.5 miles enter groves of yellow cedar and subalpine fir. Inviting Camp Mystery, with its dual springs, makes a good spot for refueling.

Next break out into a meadowed corridor painted in red, white, and purple flowers and pockmarked with marmot burrows. Skirt beneath a steep rock face, emerging at a small hanging valley just below the open pass. One final push and-voilá!-you're standing on one of the supreme viewing spots in the Olympics. Gaze east to Hood Canal, Puget Sound, and the Cascades. The Dungeness Valley spreads out below to the west, flanked by a wall of some of the highest summits in the Olympics-Mystery, Deception, and the Needles.

The high slopes are dry and open here, quite different from the rest of the Olympics-

looking more like the Cascades' eastern slopes. The rainshadow environment allows lodgepole and whitebark pines to grow here. Clark's nutcracker, a jaylike bird, roosts in the subalpine forests, feeding on pine nuts. Listen for their raucous call, a rare sound in the Olympics.
Driving Directions:

From Quilcene drive US 101 south for 1.5 miles. (From Shelton follow US 101 north for 50.5 miles.) Turn right (west) onto Penny Creek Road. After 1.5 miles bear left onto Big Quilcene River Road (Forest Road 27). Drive 9.25 miles, turning left on FR 2750. Continue 4.75 miles to the trailhead. Privy available.

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Note: the description and driving directions for this Mountaineers Books entry are copyrighted and can't be changed.

Recent Trip Reports

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There are 232 trip reports for this hike. See all trip reports for this hike.
Marmot Pass - Upper Big Quilcene — Apr 13, 2014 — navyguy86
Day hike
Issues: Snow on trail
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Great weather snow on the trail not an issue until I came upon a snow slide area that was to deep fo...
Great weather snow on the trail not an issue until I came upon a snow slide area that was to deep for me to get through. Definitely going back in the summer once it's melted great veiws.
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Marmot Pass - Upper Big Quilcene — Apr 12, 2014 — Thomas
Overnight
Issues: Snow on trail
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Expect large snow drifts in the mile before Camp Mystery leading to snow several feet deep at the ca...
Expect large snow drifts in the mile before Camp Mystery leading to snow several feet deep at the camp. The snow was slushy and prone to post holing when warm, we had gaiters and waterproof shoes which were very helpful. Micro spike helped higher up, particularly Sunday morning when it was still frozen solid. We had some navigation issues (no GPS, trying to remember where to go from previous trips with no snow) and ended up taking an improvised route from Camp Mystery up to the pass, but came down the normal way.It was a tough hike for us, id come prepared to handle the snow if you want to make it to the pass until it melts out more. But it was beautiful as always!
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Marmot Pass - Upper Big Quilcene — Mar 23, 2014 — c11
Day hike
Issues: Snow on trail
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An astonishingly beautiful hike, surrounded by snowcapped peaks, on a beautiful sunny day. I saw zer...
An astonishingly beautiful hike, surrounded by snowcapped peaks, on a beautiful sunny day. I saw zero people on the road to the trailhead, or on the trail - there was one car in the lot when I got back, and they must have been hiking the other direction on the lower trail.

Hard to tell exactly where you are on the trail as the camps don't seem to be signed, but past the first mile (?) or so, you're on snow. Snow conditions are about as good as they can be for hiking right now, though - compact enough so you're not postholing, but slightly slushy on top so you can get purchase on the trail.

Somewhere in the Alpine zone rather close to Marmot Pass (I think - you can at least see it from this point), the boot tracks end except for one party that decided to go straight up the side of the mountain in the avalanche chute/scree field. I followed these tracks up for a bit, which was fun though a little vertigo inducing.

I turned back there, though it wouldn't be too difficult to continue to the pass, I don't think. You might end up not finding the actual trail again, though, but I don't know how much different that would make it - you're on untracked snow either way.

I wore boots and they were useful for kicking steps into the snow as I went up, but you'd be pretty fine in tennis shoes up to where the tracks end (though you'd have wet feet). Crampons might be useful; with current snow conditions, snowshoes are not.
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Marmot Pass - Upper Big Quilcene — Mar 21, 2014 — bhandles69
Day hike
Issues: Snow on trail
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I thought it would be a good day to hike since it was the first day of spring, but it was still very...
I thought it would be a good day to hike since it was the first day of spring, but it was still very snowy at the top of the trail. I went about 4 miles up before I lost the trail. All I saw were some boot holes going up a steep rocky slope, but I didn't think it was part of the trail so I turned back. The snow was probably about 2 or three feet near the top and there was some snow on the bottom in the parking lot, but not a lot. The temperature however was very warm and I had no problem in a shirt for most of the hike. I saw two other guys with three dogs and a small boy. They also were not able to complete the hike (i.e. reach Marmot Pass). On the way back I saw one large bear print in the snow, unfortunately I didn't take a picture. Also, along the trail on the way down I saw fresh cougar tracks that went along the trail for about 3 miles and around the parking lot. Maybe he was tracking the other hikers I saw. I was excited because I thought I might catch a glimpse of him at some point, but unfortunately, I think I just missed him because his tracks were all around the car in the parking lot. Anyways, it was a nice day and the river is nice, but It will probably be a couple of months before you can easily make it to the pass.
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Marmot Pass - Upper Big Quilcene — Jan 26, 2014 — Loren Drummond
Day hike
Issues: Blowdowns | Snow on trail
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A gorgeous, quiet day on trail; it felt like a day stolen from spring. After checking the foreca...
A gorgeous, quiet day on trail; it felt like a day stolen from spring.

After checking the forecast and reading about the (spooky) lack of snow pack in the Olympics, we decided to see how far we could get on the Upper Big Quilcene Trail. The road posed no problems, and we made it to about a mile shy of the pass, but it was the fading daylight and tired feet that turned us back (not a wall of snow).

The trail:

The bottom half of the trail climbs through a lovely mossy forest with a few impressively massive trees. Unlike some river hikes where you can hear, but not see the river, we had great views of the Quilcene in this section, as it cascaded and tumbled down the valley.

In the first two miles, there are two downed trees that posed no problem to us or the pups, but might prove a tricky challenge for stock to navigate because of how they are situated.

We ran into a few early patches of snow in the trees, but these patchy areas were no problem to navigate without traction devices (at least until it snows).

There are two longer sections of snow and ice across the trail in the first few miles that are a bit trickier. We did fine with just boots, a bit of caution and trekking poles, though these sections would have been nicer (and much faster) with some yak-traks or micro-spikes. Route finding was not difficult in either of these sections. Shelter Rock Camp (we think - unsigned?), was covered in packed snow and ice.

As we climbed up the side of the valley (and above the second icy section), the tread improved significantly, and the character of the hike changed as well, from mossy river bottom to alpine habitat. It got considerably warmer and brighter as more sunshine penetrated the trees. We could smell the sun-warmed pines and got the first of the views. With the warmth and brighter light, we had the disorienting sense of being not only out of season, but also of moving from late afternoon back to early afternoon.

Once out of the trees and onto the talus slopes, we were treated to even more spectacular views of the peaks ringing the head of the valley. There was some snow off and on the trail here, and fewer boot tracks here as well. The trail narrows here, and we saw just a bit of slumping, though nothing particularly concerning. We traversed a bit farther before finding a great spot to plop down and bask in the sun for a while before making our way back.

We had no problem staying dry rock hopping on the few stream crossings.

We can't wait to return in the summer and work this into an overnight or 3-day backpack, though it was kind of nice to have the trail largely to ourselves. It was an incredible day, but I do hope the peaks get a lot more snow before spring truly arrives. I was struck by how bare the peaks looked compared to Leon and Muledeer's November trip reports.

Trail traffic:
There were three other cars in the lot besides ours. We passed two parties -- both really nice folks -- but never saw anyone from the third. We guessed they were pushing for the pass or camped there. Saw a few hikers in the register had recently planned to overnight at the pass.

The parking lot:
Is a good size with a nice privy. Most of it was iced over and slick as snot. We both almost fell. Note that the trail is signed as Upper Big Quilcine (not Marmot Pass).

The road:
There were a few frosty patches, but as of yesterday, the road is clear of snow and in great shape all the way up to the trail. Watch out for one or two nasty potholes, but really, a nice and mostly paved road. We saw a Prius among the few cars at the trailhead.
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Marmot Pass Scott Crozier.JPG
The view from Marmot Pass. Photo by scooterliving.
WTA worked here!
2010, 2011, 2012, 2013
Location
Upper Big Quilcene River (#833.1), Marmot Pass (#)
Olympics -- East
Olympic National Forest / Quilcene Ranger District
Statistics
Roundtrip 10.6 miles
Elevation Gain 3500 ft
Highest Point 6000 ft
Features
Rivers
Waterfalls
Old growth
Wildflowers/Meadows
Mountain views
Wildlife
Ridges/passes
Established campsites
User info
Dogs allowed on leash
May encounter pack animals
National Park/Refuge entry fee required
Guidebooks & Maps
Day Hiking: Olympic Peninsula (Romano - Mountaineers Books)
Green Trails Tyler Peak No. 136
Custom Correct Buckhorn Wilderness

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Note: the description and driving directions for this Mountaineers Books entry are copyrighted and can't be changed.

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Red MarkerMarmot Pass - Upper Big Quilcene
47.8278166667 -123.04075
  • BCRT 2011
  • BCRT 2010
  • Trail Work 2013 Frontcountry
  • Trail Work 2012
  • Trail Work 2011
  • Trail Work 2010
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