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The Dungeness River lies mostly within the Buckhorn Wilderness Area, and drains some of the northern slopes of the Olympics. A few weeks ago we had a hankering to go fish the Dungeness, and it was so lovely that we returned for a little backpacking shortly thereafter.
We headed out there for the first time on a Friday Afternoon, along with the rest of the Seattle Metro area. This was our inaugural trip on the ferry, and we were rather nonplussed by the three hour wait. It passed pretty quickly, and soon we were driving through the mist up to the Dungeness Forks campground. This part of the peninsula is very wet and shrouded in clouds most of the time; it looks very spooky. We camped that night at the campground, right above the confluence of the Grey Wolf and Dungeness Rivers, and fished a little bit without any luck.
The next morning, we drove up to the Upper Dungeness trailhead, and decided to hike and fish down river. It was once again a very cloudy day, but it felt like the perfect weather for fishing. The river is pretty small through here, maybe a cast across at the very widest, and there is a lot of detritus along the banks. This made it a little hard to fish, but the trout need this kind of cover. We would find a likely looking pool or riffle, scramble down to it, fish for a few minutes, and then carry on. Even though the trailhead was pretty busy almost everyone else headed up the river towards Marmot Pass, and we had the trail and the river to ourselves.
Usually we like to fish surface flies, but we were spending more time below the water with leeches and nymphs. On the very first pool Catherine stopped at, after working it over with an olive leech, Catherine caught a lovely char– what we’ve decided was a Southern Dolly Varden. It could also have been a bull trout, WA Fish and Wildlife doesn’t distinguish the two. These fish have been extirpated from most of their range and only persist in the upper reaches of streams that haven’t been heavily logged, so it was a real treat to see these fish.
We worked our way downriver, and Catherine hooked several more Dollies. On our way back up, I finally hooked on to a feisty rainbow. All the fish we caught were nice and fat, apparently there is some good food in this little river. We had an easy trip back to Seattle, and were already planning our next trip out here.
We got our chance two weeks later for a one night backpacking trip. We had heard many good things about Marmot Pass, and decided to travel up the upper Dungeness trail to Marmot Pass and Buckhorn Mountain. We left Seattle early on a Saturday, and there was no wait at all for the ferry. It was once again a day with low clouds on the peninsula, and we were headed up the Dungeness River by about ten thirty. The trail was very busy, there were trail riders, boy scouts, and families out for a hike. The first 3.5 miles of the trail is practically flat, so it is a great place to take youngsters. The trail hugs the river and there were many tempting holes, but we just stopped to fish once; we had a long way to go to our camp at Boulder Shelter, and we planned on visiting Marmot Pass and Buckhorn Mountain that afternoon.
After 3.5 miles, the trail passes Camp Handy, which is right by the river and a lovely looking meadow. The river through here reminded me of Big Blue Creek in Colorado; it hurt my heart to not stop and fish. From Camp Handy the crowds thinned and our path headed upwards. The timber was thick for the most part, but wherever it was clear there were inviting views of the Dungeness Valley down below, the snow covered ridge and alpine bowls watching over Royal Basin across the way, and the rugged Olympics above us.
We made it to Boulder Shelter around two thirty, and got a fine campsite close to the trail and to a small creek. There were already 4 people camped there, and a family with two tents joined us after a few minutes. The crowds weren’t too bad though, and the views were absolutely amazing. The camp is below a slide on the shoulder of Warrior Peak, or perhaps the mountain right next to Warrior peak. Behind us was the wide Dungeness Valley, and to one side was the beginning of the Olympics, and to the other was an open alpine hillside. After catching our breath, we decided to head to Marmot Pass and Buckhorn Mountain about three thirty.
The trail to Marmot Pass heads right up from Camp, and is a pretty steady climb uphill. There were nice views and wildflowers along the way, but perhaps half of the way to Marmot Pass a cloud descended on us, and we could see about two feet ahead. Even though the views weren’t quite as majestic it was a very haunting effect. The vegetation through here was very interesting. The Dungeness Valley is incredibly wet, but Marmot Pass is situated in the rain shadow of the Western part of the Olympics; the trees and grasses look like they belong in a much dryer environment, and the ground cover isn’t nearly as thick as it is in other parts of the range.
The fog was still thick when we made it to Marmot Pass, so we had no clue where Buckhorn Mountain even was. Fortunately some hikers we met at the pass pointed us in the right direction, and soon we were scrambling up Buckhorn. There was a good easy to see footpath, but the trail was very steep. We eventually made it up to the ridge, and the going was much easier. There is an alpine tundra environment up here, with some scrubby brushes and lots of moss and lichen. At some point the trail started to head down, so we figured we must be at the summit. We sat on some rocks, hoping that the clouds would eventually clear.
After sitting there a while, we began to hear voices of some other hikers. We assumed that they were resting in the saddle off to our side, but when the fog thinned for a moment we saw that they were actually on the top of Buckhorn Mountain, and that we were not! It seemed like it wasn’t that much higher though, and since there wasn’t anything to see we stayed put.
Right as we were going to head down, around six, the fog started to clear. First, we could see a meadow on the opposite of the mountain from the one that we came up. Then we could see glimpses of snowy Mount Constance and Warrior Peak across the way. Finally, we could see the Needles rising up from the opposite side of Royal Basin. It was spectacular. After spending another half an hour or so up there, we headed back to our camp.
We took our time heading back, and kept our eyes peeled for game in the meadows. We could see a muddy place that looked like an elk wallow, and at one point I was convinced I saw a deer on a sparsely covered hillside, but it might have just been a tree. I’m still kicking myself for neglecting to bring binoculars.
That night we drank hot chocolate and watched the stars. The moon surprised us as it rose from behind Warrior Peak, it looked at first like someone with a spot light was on the mountain. We decided to hike towards the national park the next morning, but as we went to sleep I was already getting sad that we had to leave so soon.
We woke up early the next morning and headed towards Constance Pass and Home Lake in the Olympic National Park. The trail there was mostly flat, but hadn’t been maintained as recently as the trail up to Boulder Shelter. The vegetation was very thick, it was evident that it rained a lot more here than it did just a few miles away. We crossed in to the national park after about a mile, this was the first time that Catherine and I visited the actual park and not just its outlying Wilderness Areas.
As we hiked, we skirted around Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and had good views of the meadows and ridges of the national park. As is so often the case, the mountains and valleys that we saw were just out of the reach of this trip; it also seems like you need one more day to see everything you want to see when you’re out in the woods. The trail was lovely though, there were lots of nice wildflowers and a little waterfall that the trail crossed.
We stopped to eat lunch on a slide below Mount Constance; we could see Constance Pass but it was probably still an hour or so hike away. I was sure that untold beauties lay just behind Constance Pass, but they would have to wait for another day.
We reluctantly headed back about noon, enjoying the views as we descended. The going was pretty easy, except that I had tweaked my Achille’s tendon on my right leg the day before and it was pretty tender. I was hobbling pretty good by the time we got back to the car, but fortunately the trail was pretty much completely downhill. There was horrible traffic leaving the peninsula and the ferries were backed up several hours; we had to head home across the Tacoma Narrows. It’s always a rude change to go from the back country to your obligations in less than twenty four hours time, but at school that week I had lots of lovely memories to think about whenever teaching was particularly tiresome. We’ll definitely be back to the Marmot Pass area soon.
Notes for future travelers:
- Expect delays on the ferry Friday and Sunday afternoons.
- There is good camping about 1 mile up the Dungeness River Trail, right by the turnoff to Royal Basin
- Boulder Shelter was pretty crowded, get there as early as possible to ensure that you get a campsite.
- We had much more luck fishing higher up on the Dungeness than in its lower reaches. Bead headed nymphs and leeches worked well.