backpack: Olympic Peninsula – High Divide
Five day backpacking loop on the High Divide trail, with one night at Deer Lake, two nights at Lunch Lake in the Seven Lakes Basin, and one night at Sol Duc Park.
- distance & elevation gain to Deer Lake Camp: 4.8 miles, 1,670 ft. gain
- Deer Lake to Lunch Lake Camp: 4.4 miles, 1,400 ft. gain, 500 ft. loss
- Lunch Lake to Sol Duc Park Camp: 6 miles, 1,390 ft. gain, 1,770 ft. loss
- hike out: 8 miles, 2,400 ft. loss
- best months: August to September
- location: Olympic Peninsula; nearest town: Port Angeles
- land management: Olympic National Park
- trail conditions: Olympics: High Divide Loop
- hike description: Washington Trails Association – High Divide Seven Lakes Basin Loop
- permits: required in advance for all backcountry campsites
- trailhead pass: none required
- regulations: dogs are not allowed; no campfires; bear canisters are required for food storage
On this five day backpacking trip, we survived needing to use first aid for a deep cut in the first 30 minutes of the trip, 1.5″ of torrential rain overnight at Deer Lake, a forgotten spoon, sunburns, never-ending rock stairs, and crossing an earthquake damaged trail that required scrambling on huge slabs of broken rock with large gaps in the ground.
We also had epic views along the ridges of the High Divide, clear & sunny weather, MOUNT OLYMPUS, swimming in Lunch Lake, seeing the Milky Way and shooting stars, sightings of marmots, a cute deer family, and tons of laughter.
Day 1: Sol Duc trailhead to Deer Lake
4.8 miles, 1,670 ft. gain
The drive to the trailhead from Portland was about 5 hours long and included a stop at the ranger station in Port Angeles to pick up our permits. I reserved the campsites on the day the permitting process opened and we had our own bear canisters (required for this trip), but we needed to stop to get the official permit. The parking lot at the trailhead was full but we lucked out and got a spot so we didn’t have to park along the road and walk back. Sol Duc Falls is a popular destination, so most people were just hiking the first 0.8 miles to the falls. Once we passed the viewpoint for the falls, we saw very few people for the rest of the hike.
Just after we turned and started ascending, one of my friends tripped on a root and fell, hitting a sharp rock that made a deep cut in her upper arm. We immediately went into first aid mode, cleaning the wound and closing it up with butterfly strips. Not the best way to start the trip for sure! We hoped that we had made the right decision in continuing on… (by the end of the trip, the cut had healed considerably and she was fine!)
Our first night’s camp was at Deer Lake. When we arrived, all of the campsites on the main trail side of the lake were full, so we backtracked and found a large group site on the west side of the lake. We were expecting rain overnight and were hoping for a protected site under the trees but we had to take what was available. We heard that a small bear had been seen near the main trail, and later we heard from two campers near us that a bear was on the talus slope above us. They ended up seeing the bear again a little too close to their campsite. So, on the first day, there were three bear sightings but none of us saw them.
It started to rain as soon as we went to bed and continued all night long, dumping 1.5 inches overnight. The sound of the rain was so loud on our tents that we had trouble sleeping. In the morning, my tent was the only one that was completely dry inside. A large channel of water had drained through the camp to the low spot where two of my friend’s tents were pitched. They thought they might float away in the night with a significant amount of water under their tents, but only ended up with a small amount of water inside. It rained so much that several of us had water in the bottom of our bear canisters! I’m not sure how it got in, but it did.
Day 2: Deer Lake to the Seven Lakes Basin
4.4 miles, 1,400 ft. gain, 500 ft. loss
The next morning, the skies were partly cloudy with bits of blue. The forecast had called for it to rain most of the day, so we were happy it wasn’t raining when we were packing up to head to our next camp.
As we left Deer Lake, we crossed a long boardwalk to get back to the main trail and turned right to head to the Seven Lakes Basin. We passed several smaller lakes and tarns while the trail ascended on switchbacks. Views of the ridges around us came into view, and eventually, we could see Deer Lake far below us.
We crested the ridge and the trail wrapped around the other side, ascending along the side of the wildflower-filled ridge with big views of the Bogachiel River basin.
As we got closer to the junction with the Seven Lakes Basin trail, we started to see evidence of a geological disturbance. It looked like an earthquake had ripped up the earth and rocks, leaving huge gaps in the ground. Soon we reached a section of split apart boulders and it was impossible to tell which direction to go. Thankfully, there were plenty of other hikers in the area and someone pointed out to us which direction to head. We had to scramble across a large section of unstable rock with gaps between them so we could reach the other side and get back on the main trail. Some people like scrambling, but I am definitely not one of them. I kept saying “I fucking hate this” out loud all the way across it. Obviously, I didn’t take any photos of this section. Partway across, a marmot stuck its head up to see what was going on.
Whew! After finishing the scramble, I was happy to see the regular trail. We turned left at the junction with the Seven Lakes Basin trail and headed across a small talus slope to a narrow section of rock steps to the top of the ridge. There were several marmots in this section chasing each other around on the rocks.
As soon as you climb the rock stairs and reach the top, this is the view! The Seven Lakes Basin looks like a fairy land after all of that rock. Now we only had about a million more rock steps to take 500 feet down to reach the trail (and more rock steps) to Lunch Lake. We had permits for two nights at Lunch Lake and needed to find a campsite.
This area is very popular with backpackers, and most of the campsites were already taken when we arrived. We needed a spot for four single person tents, but could only find two sites suitable for one tent each so we crammed in the best we could. As I backed out of my vestibule, I was entering my friend’s vestibule. It was a tight fit!
There were deer wandering around while we set up camp. We ended up seeing the same deer family again and again over the next two days.
One of my friends discovered a much larger campsite with great views that was going to be available the next morning, so we made a plan to get up early and move camp.
Day 3: relaxing at Lunch Lake
In the morning, we moved camp to the better site. It was large enough for all four tents and had sweet views and easier access to the privy. After two days of hiking with full packs on, we spent the day relaxing and exploring the area.
With full sun and temps in the high 60s, it felt hot enough for a dip in a chilly lake. After getting in the water and dunking fully a couple of times, I did laundry using a small plastic bag to rinse some of my clothes. There were large rocks next to the lake that were perfect for laying out the wet clothes to dry in the sun while we lounged in our underwear (aka… backcountry bikinis!).
After so much time in the sun, I discovered that I had stupidly gotten a sunburn on my thighs. I headed back to camp and napped while my friends hiked to Round Lake. After dinner, we wandered around taking photos of the sunset before going to bed, then we got up at 11pm to see a sky full of stars and the Milky Way. It was still a few weeks before the prime Perseids meteor showers, but there was no moon on this night so we were able to see a couple of shooting stars. One of my friends is an avid photographer and she was up late taking star photos.
Day 4: Seven Lakes Basin to Sol Duc Park
6 miles, 1,390 ft. gain, 1,770 ft. loss
In the morning, we packed up once again and hiked out of the Seven Lakes Basin. Today’s hike was the highlight of the trip, with at least 3 miles of hiking along the ridges of the High Divide with views of Mount Olympus and many other peaks. But first we had to climb back up 500 feet of rock steps to the top of the Seven Lakes Basin. Thankfully, we didn’t have to cross any more earthquake-damaged sections. The scenery all along this section was stunning… we stopped to have lunch with an up-front view of Mount Olympus. The trail looped around the Seven Lakes Basin and we could see the other lakes as we climbed ridge after ridge before heading down down down the trail looking for our last campsite for this trip.
We were supposed to camp at Lower Bridge Creek, but I had it waymarked incorrectly in Gaia and we couldn’t find it so we headed back up the trail to Sol Duc Park. There was only one other tent there, and we found a nice site next to the creek with a view of a small waterfall. The other campers came over to tell us about a large bear that just passed through their camp, and that caused a lot of excitement. We were cooking dinner and I didn’t want to leave our food so I didn’t get a chance to see it but one of my friends did. She said it wasn’t interested in any of them as they stood there and yelled “Hey Bear”. It had much better things to do, which is a good thing. I’ll admit that I thought about that bear as I laid in my tent but I was too tired to miss out on sleeping.
Day 5: Sol Duc Park to the trailhead
8 miles, 2,400 ft. loss
We had a long day ahead of us, so we got up early and headed back to the trailhead. On the descent, we passed through meadows full of huckleberries so two of us decided to sing so we wouldn’t surprise any bears near the trail. We sounded like drunken sailors: “Hey, hey, hey! Bear, bear, BEAR! Stay away!” Soon, we were in the rainforest again beside the Sol Duc River. It was a loooong hike out and I was wasted by the end of it but happy to have completed this incredible loop.