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River Walks in the Olympics

Three hikes that are great in any season. Each lies in a different quadrant of the Olympic Peninsula and each offers a unique hiking experience: Upper Dungeness River, Hoh River & Lower Fork Skokomish River.

Drip, drip, drip. That's the sound of another rainy winter day as you sit inside and dream about summertime.  But why should you suffer cabin fever when there are places outside that are even more incredible when it is wet?

Steam Donkey Trail mushrooms sq
Stop and observe the fungi while hiking these Olympic river trails. Photo by Bob Griffith.

This fall and winter, get to the Olympic Peninsula and take a river walk among the towering trees of its temperate rainforest. You'll find solitude galore, view rarely seen wildlife, and feel the true beat of the forest under its tall canopy.

While you may not encounter snow on these low-elevation hikes, be prepared for all conditions - especially ice on the trail or bridges. In addition to packing the Ten Essentials, it is helpful to bring a trekking pole and some sort of extra traction device for your boots. Be sure to give yourself permission to turn around early if the weather turns foul or if you don't feel comfortable with the conditions. And make sure to call the forest or park for trail conditions and check the weather report.

Here are three hikes that are great in any season. Each lies in a different quadrant of the Olympic Peninsula and each offers a unique hiking experience.



Upper Dungeness River

Upper Dungeness bridge snow
The Upper Dungeness River is usually hikeable year-round, but may get a tad bit of snow during the winter. Photo by Bob Griffith.
Location: Northeast Olympic National Forest
Distance: 6.8 miles roundtrip to Camp Handy
Elevation: 600 feet gain to 3100 feet
Maps: Green Trails Tyler Peak No. 136

Why Go?

The Upper Dungeness River trail is an easy stroll along a roaring river and among towering trees. It's great for all ages (as long as the trail is snow and ice free), and the shelter at Camp Handy is a welcome and dry lunch destination on rainy days. The trail parallels the river during most of the journey, always within earshot and often in view. The forest canopy is magnificent, with old growth Douglas-fir more than 200 feet high and hundreds of years old. The forest floor is no slouch either, with green moss carpeting and an array of fascinating fungi. The trail crosses the river at 2.6 miles and a junction at 3.2 miles takes you right to the Camp Handy shelter. This is a great turn-around spot for a winter's day.

Directions: Drive Highway 101 to roughly 1 mile north of Sequim Bay State Park. Turn onto Palo Alto Road. In a couple of miles, Palo Alto becomes FS Road #28. Turn right onto FS Road #2880. In 1.7 miles, veer left onto FS Road #2870. Follow for 8.7 miles to the trailhead, located just across the bridge over the Dungeness River. A NW Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead. Northwest Forest Pass required.

For more information:


Hoh River

Hoh River bull elk
Fall and winter afford greater opportunity to glimpse a Roosevelt elk, like this impressive bull. Photo by Rugusus.
Location: Olympic National Park, near Forks
Distance: 10.6 miles roundtrip to Five Mile Island
Elevation: 300 feet gain to 800 feet
Maps: Green Trails Seven Lakes Basin - Mt. Olympus No. 133S

Why Go?

A classic in any season, but come in winter and you'll find that the hordes of tourists, hikers and climbers who use this trail in the summer dwindle to just a trickle.

You can't escape a sense of magic at the Hoh. The huge trees, the cascading moss, the birds and Roosevelt elk, the Olympic Mountains rising above and the broad river valley extending up and downstream all add up to make this a hike that must be done at least once in a lifetime. The trail is easy, too, with minimal elevation gain, excellent tread (thanks to annual WTA Volunteer Vacations) and an open understory.

Hike as far as you'd like - there are great spots to stop all along the way.  Five Mile Island offers a sunny lunch spot with views of Bogachiel Peak. If it is raining, and you want a sheltered location, you can press on another half mile to the Happy Four Shelter.

Directions: Turn east off highway 101 approximately 10 miles south of Forks onto the Hoh River Road. Follow this for 19 miles to the road end where the ranger station and trailhead are located. National park entry fee required.

For more information:


Lower South Fork Skokomish River

Duckabush River Trail by Brandon Brownell
The forest canopy demands your gaze along the South Fork Skokomish River, which is great on a sunny day and a bit wet on a rainy day. Photo by Halfcenturyhiker.
Location: Olympic National Forest, Southeast section
Distance: 10 miles roundtrip
Elevation: 575 feet gain to 850 feet
Maps: Green Trails Mount Tebo No. 199

Why Go?

The river is impressive, but the ancient forest is the star of the show along the Lower South Fork Skokomish River. You'll be likely to get a sore neck from craning your head skyward on this trail (or get a face full of rain). The trees here are tall - really tall. And the moss hangs like draperies from the many majestic branches.

After an initial climb, the elevation gain and loss is quite gentle as the trail meanders along the South Fork Skokomish River. The river is usually in view, but not always reachable. That's probably a good thing, because flooding in 2007 took out a section of trail that strayed too close to the water near Camp Comfort. WTA crews have spent a good amount of time working on a reroute here. Come and check out their handiwork! According to guidebook author Craig Romano, a great place to turn around is a bluff just past Camp Comfort which offers amazing views of the river and the valley.

Directions: Drive Hwy 101 7 miles north from Shelton. Turn left onto the Skokomish Valley Road (signed "Skokomish Recreation Area"). travel north on US 101 for 7 miles, turning left (west) at milepost 340 onto Skokomish Valley Road. It is signed "Skokomish Recreation Are." Go 5.5 miles and take a right at the V onto FR 23. Go 6 miles and turn right onto FR 2353. Cross the South Fork Skokomish River and turn left, staying on FR 2353 to the trailhead. Northwest Forest Pass required.

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