backpack: Royal Basin
Royal Basin includes some of the best subalpine and alpine scenery in the Olympic Mountains. We began our trek camping next to Royal Creek before continuing on to basecamp at Royal Lake and explored the Upper Royal Basin on a day hike.
This area requires permits for backcountry camping. For more info, visit the Olympic National Park website.
Trip Overview Map
Day 1 – hike in to Royal Creek Camp
Distance: about 3 miles with 1,200 ft. gain
After the 5 hour drive from Portland, including a long stretch of pothole-filled forest roads, we hiked in three miles to campsites next to Royal Creek. Unlike some trails, this one is lovely right from the start, with the Dungeness River cascading next to the trail for the first mile.
When reaching a log bridge over the river, stay to the right (don’t cross the bridge) following a sign for Royal Basin.
The trail now parallels Royal Creek through a thick mossy forest, gently gaining about 1,200 feet along the way.
Just before reaching our first night’s camp, we passed through an open and brushy avalanche chute with views of the peaks we’d see more of on the rest of our trip.
In just another 1/10 mile are the Royal Creek campsites. When we reached the first campsite, it was taken by a young couple from Pittsburgh on a honeymoon, but there are two more that aren’t visible from the trail – accessed via a side trail from the first camp.
Day 2 – hike to Royal Lake camp
Distance: 3.5 miles with 1,600 ft. gain
After breakfast, we packed up and headed to Royal Lake. This section of trail alternates between forest and brushy avalanche chutes before reaching a lower meadow area.
Two steep rocky sections after the meadow lead up to Royal Lake and numerous campsites.
After checking out a couple of campsites, we settled on one at the end of the lake with great views of the peaks surrounding us. Mosquitoes were definitely present at the lake, but they didn’t bother me much since I had treated my clothing before the trip and we had a Thermocell Backpacker device for protection as well as head nets.
Just as we finished setting up camp, we met a friendly ranger who gave us some tips for the rest of our trip. After dinner, we decided to see where the privy was before it got dark. To reach the privy, continue on the trail towards the Upper Basin about 3/10 mile from the end of the lake and our camp. Before we reached the privy, we took the side trail through open meadows to the seasonal ranger station and chatted with Ranger Charlie again before continuing for about 1/4 mile to views of Upper Royal Falls at the base of Mount Clark.
Day 3 – day hike to Upper Royal Basin
Distance: 2.5 miles roundtrip with 675 ft. gain
Since we were basecamped at Royal Lake, we were able to day hike to the Upper Royal Basin without our fully loaded backpacks. We headed back to the middle meadows, crossed the creek on a log, then climbed up a steep section of trail to an upper meadow area, passing a couple of marmots next to the trail.
Continuing on the trail, I got a glimpse of a section of trail ahead that would cause me to panic when I had to cross it. Barely visible in the middle of the photo below, it’s a steep open slope with a drop-off to a creek. But I wasn’t there yet…
On the way up, we passed a waterfall just before the widest creek crossing on this trip.
Soon after, we reached the steep slope without a good tread for hiking and I panicked on the way up. I didn’t feel like I had a good foothold on any of the step ups, and I didn’t take any photos on this section… instead focusing on how to deal with my anxiety to trudge forward. And trudge I did.
Now we were entering some of the best alpine scenery I’ve ever encountered. With Mount Deception, the second tallest peak in the Olympics looming above us, we headed on the trail to a glacial lake.
We explored a bit of this area, taking tons of photos of this incredible place before stopping to have a quick lunch.
Fog started rolling in and as it became thicker and obliterated our views, we decided to head back to camp. Plus I was anxious to get back down the sketchy section of trail so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. I’m sure that it doesn’t bother most people as much as it did me, but I was thankful when a fellow backpacker stayed with us on the way down to make me feel better. It wasn’t nearly as difficult going down as it was going up, which was a big relief. Whew! (again, I didn’t take any photos of this section)
Back in the meadows, we scrambled up a hill for a better view of the waterfall.
While we prepared dinner, we watched the fog roll in and out, showing the peaks around us for a few seconds at a time.
After dinner, we explored around the lake to take photos of wildflowers, including lots of pink mountain heather, lupines and wild mountain spirea.
Day 4 – hike out to the trailhead
Distance: 7.5 miles with 2,800 ft. loss
Our hike out was long but fairly uneventful, other than meeting lots of backpackers and day hikers on their way in. The lower forest was even lovelier in the overcast conditions.
Overall, I was absolutely blown away by the scenery on this trip and plan to return again.