Look on a map of Olympic National Park and you will notice a tract of trail-less terrain running a semi-circle around the Olympus massif. The Bailey Range is one of the few strings of peaks on the Olympic Peninsula that can be traversed at or above treeline without having to drop significantly in elevation; no deep river valleys cut through the range. The traverse is a classic Olympic "high route" running through the heart of the national park and the trip I had been anticipating the most since arriving on the peninsula back in May. My days off and the weather finally aligned.
Researching the route revealed the following:
- There are plenty of trip reports online, the route is frequently done; although many people enter/exit via Dodger point and skip the section from the Elwha Snowfinger to Ferry Basin. A use trail exists through much of the route.
- The Elwha Snowfinger, the main entry/exit to the southern portion of the Bailey's, is no longer fully in tact. It has now been coined the Elwha Snowless Finger. The snow conditions one will encounter will change from year to year.
- Navigating Cream Lakes Basin is difficult with tricky route finding and thick brush.
- Crampons or no crampons? I went without.
- The true High Route would include Stephen Basin and a traverse of Mt Olympus, crossing the Humes, Hoh, and Blue Glaciers. Not something I was going to do on my own; but a route I hope to return too.
I entered the backcountry at the North Fork TH and made my way 16 miles up valley to Low Divide (3,600'), a low pass (below treeline) as the name suggests but very scenic with nice meadows and a couple waterfalls coming down of Mount Seattle. I continued on past Chicago Camp and Happy Hollow spending the first night at the end of the abandoned trail after crossing what I would later learn was the Elwha River. Up until now the path had been obvious, and once in Elwha Basin I saw two large creeks merging, one coming off of Mt Noyes and the other coming from a large waterfall; just as my map showed. I took the waterfall to be the Elwha River, and figured the Elwha Snowfinger was just above. My Customs Correct map showed no other creek coming into the basin.
The next morning as I climbed the steep, loose terrain(borderline 4th class?) to the south of the waterfall I began questioning my line. Either the Elwha Snowfinger route was even worse than I had imagined, or I had instantly gotten off route before even starting the Bailey's Traverse. Looking back down below into Elwha Basin, an obvious use trail was now visible on the other side of the creek leading into the woods further up valley. This was the correct way around the section of the Elwha River that cuts into a deep canyon just down river of the Snowfinger. I down climbed to it and followed the rough trail through slide alder into the actual "Elwha Snowlessfinger".
Once in the Elwha, things started off as a simple creek/river bottom hike, boulder hopping my way crossing and recrossing the shin to knee deep river as needed. A half mile up I encountered the infamous Snow Hump, a huge block of ice that has accumulated from years of avalanche debri. Although it would have been possible to simply walk up onto the Snow Hump, I knew the backside may prove impassable and climbed up easy slopes on the East side of the drainage. Rounding the hump, I could see the vertical 50'(???) high ice wall surrounded by near vertical cliffs on either side; impassable as far as I could tell. Continuing up river I bushwhacked high above while searching for a way back to the drainage bottom. A bit of a sketchy climb down a crumbling slope of hard pan brought me back into the Snowless Finger, where a couple other obstacles (small waterfall and one large snowbridge I had to walk under/through) brought me to actual snow, which I then followed to Dodwell-Rixon Pass.
Queets Basin is exceptional, as expected from the rave reviews I have heard the entire summer from Barefoot Jake (check out his blog), a local guru of the Olympics who I often seek advice on the backcountry. Besides the Elwha Snowless Finger, upper Queets Basin is extremely hard to get too, either requiring miles of schwacking through dense rain forest or glacier travel around the back side of Mt Olympus.
Bear Pass sits a short distance above Queets Basin. From below it is not that obvious where the pass is, although I picked the correct line and crested the ridge right onto the permanent snowfield. From Bear Pass to Ferry Basin the route is world class with awesome views out into the Upper Hoh River Valley, Elwha River Valley, the Olympus Massif, the Bailey's, and the rest of the Olympics to the East. Travel is a mix of easy to moderate snow (expect mostly snow earlier in the season) leading to connecting ridge walks; route finding is fairly straight forward with one tricky crossing of the crest around the north side of Mt. Childs. That being said, weather could greatly complicate this traverse and turn this into a route finding nightmare; there are no easy/viable options to bail.
Ferry Basin is another incredible place with numerous lakes, tarns, and meadows to explore; although the terrain can still be tricky and cliffs may be encountered. Having read about the Cream Lake Vortex, I was planning to stay above the lower basin and contour around to the shoulder of Stephen Peak. That didn't happen. Instead I ended up meeting the first people I had seen since Chicago Camp, two awesome ladies who were unintentionally yo-yoing the Bailey's after failing to find the way to Humes Glacier on their intended route up to Mt Olympus (an epic way to approach/climb the peak). Knowing that they had already been through Cream Lake, I trusted they would have better beta to avoid some of the bush whacking; I was wrong. Four hours later we were still struggling through blow downs, thick brush, and 45 degree slopes as we inched our way around the basin. At this point I was committed, and after calling it quits for the night, the ladies and I set up camp in a somewhat level clearing; going to bed feeling trapped and frustrated knowing we would be waking up to MORE bushschwacking through the rainforest. I was over side hilling, and told the ladies I was either going down to Cream Lake (which we had been catching glimpses of periodically) or cutting straight up the slope to tree line. Down we went (wrong again) into the wet meadows filled with slide alder and even thicker brush. The whole time I knew we were WAY too low but was still trusting the advise of my new friends. Finally I picked a gully and cut up, 1200' grabbing trees and climbing on all fours, before popping right onto the trail; the ladies followed. Cream Lake Basin truly sucks, I don't plan on going back.
The remaining route from above Cream Lake to the Catwalk between Carrie and Cat Peak was on a well defined trail, with a few minor obstacles passing through some short, steep gullies. The navigating in this section was much easier than the terrain encountered earlier in the day, most of the route is laid out in front of you after round the shoulder out of Cream Lake Basin. Some parting thoughts on the route.
Impressions from Bailey's:
- The Bailey's are awesome, but the "high route" felt short. The section from Queets Basin to Ferry Basin is incredible, but less than 10 miles. The remaining 60 miles of the route is either at or below treeline, mostly on trail. Including Stephen Basin and Mt Olympus would greatly improve the aesthetics of the route IMO
- The route finding can be tricky. Cliff bands are often hidden by subtle bumps in the terrain, and slopes are deceivingly steep and crumbly.
- The Custom Correct maps are not adequate for navigating the tricky terrain of the Olympics. A more detailed mapset is preferred.
- Traction may have been a good idea. Colder temps could have made a few of the snow slopes quite sketchy.
- Bushwhacking through the rainforest sucks. This was the part of the trip I was least excited about and as expected is not my favorite activity.
- Lastly, the Olympics are majestic. Clear, blue tarns dot the alpine landscape, glaciers come down from the higher peaks, and DEEP, densely forested valleys have a way of dwarfing the prominence of the surrounding mountains.