“Do you want to just head for the barn?” husband Chris asked as we limped back into the Big Creek Campground.
Perspiration ran down my neck and arms. My ‘hams’ were howling. My shirt clung to my back like a tattoo. We’d been chugging along the Big Creek Trail system for half a day under the outrageous blue skies and second growth forests of Washington’s lush Olympic National Forest.
Nestled in the densely wooded seams of Mount Ellinor, the Big Creek trail is easily over-looked in favor of its better known cousin Mount Rose or other trails that criss-cross this rugged stretch of wild country hugging the quaint mountain burgh of Hoodsport. And that’s too bad. Because the 4.6 mile Big Creek loop trail rolls past more primo scenery, cantering creeks and swishing streams than you can shake a trekking pole at.
Bonus points: It’s well shaded. That matters when you’re hiking it in late August, with temperatures tickling the upper eighties.
The early part of this hike is sans switchbacks, which means a steep climb. You get a good work-out. This is especially true if you live at sea level. Like us. (It’s not the mileage that kicks you. It’s the altitude. Trust me on this.)
We left our house on the coast in the early morning. About 130 NE miles later, we pulled in to the parking lot at Big Creek Campground. We inhaled huge chunks of conifer-crisped air, a welcome whiff after last week’s smoke-choked skies courtesy of Canadian wildfires.
“Gearing up” with Camelbaks, boots, Black Diamond Trail Backs, sun screen, hats, mosquito repellant, protein bars, snacks and roughly all the tea in China, we were ready. We posted our Inter-Agency pass on the windshield, checked the bulletin board for recent bear or cougar sightings – there weren’t any – and hit the trail.
The trail begins with a short walk to a bridge across Big Creek. A loop trail, it forks after the bridge. You can hike it in either direction. Since we did our homework, we knew that hiking clockwise is recommended to save your knees on the sharp descent.
“I’m all for homework and for saving knees!” said Chris. Me, too. So we turned left after crossing the bridge and followed Big Creek Loop Trail No. 827.1. It’s well-marked.
Twittering wrens and varied thrush tuned up a feathered chorus during the short walk around the laughing, gurgling waters of Big Creek. The trail winds through a magnificent second-growth forest dripping with moss, ferns, and a thousand shades of green. It’s like we U-turned into the Emerald City.
“Looks like we have the trail all to ourselves this morning” observed Chris after the first meandering mile along Big Creek. “Works for me!” I grinned as we began to climb steeply to a ridge crest on the west side of the creek.
“Whoa. Check this out!” I crowed. The trail flattens out after about a quarter of a mile as it hooks up with an abandoned logging road. A small meadow offers a rare parting in the dense foliage. Bristling with conifers, the blue spines of the Olympic Mountains loom like mighty primeval dinosaurs. We stopped here for a moment to swig from our camelbaks. Good thing, too. Cuz it’s a steep, switchback-less climb to the next junction at about 1.7 miles.
At this point the path forks again, dropping on the right to Branch Creek and rejoining the main trail to the left. You cross Big Creek over a foot log bridge at 2.0 miles and traverse around a ridge to climb and then drop to Skinwood Creek at about 2.7 miles. It’s pretty much all downhill from here.
Unless, of course, someone has a Stroke of Brilliance at the trail fork. And that Stroke of Brilliance goes like: “Hey, let’s take the connector trail to the Mount Ellinor viewpoint. It’s only a mile, one-way.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
What they don’t tell you is that the “connector trail” to the viewpoint includes an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet over one mile. And that you have to be part yeti to navigate.
Plan on about 45 minutes to cover that “only a mile” stretch of real estate. Especially if you’re starting from sea level.
But oh, the view!
On a clear, smokeless August afternoon, we’re talkin’ Majorly Awesome! Well worth the extra effort. Even if you’re pushing sixty years old and aren’t half yeti.
Anyway, my hamstrings were hollerin’ and my feet yowling by the time we completed the loop plus the connector trail and chugged back into the Big Creek Campground. Hence Chris’ question about heading home as we creaked back to the parking lot.
“What? Head home now? It’s barely three o’clock in the afternoon! We still have plenty of daylight,” I opined, creaking into the passenger’s seat.
So. Another Stroke of Brilliance: Quick like a bunny, let’s head over to Lake Cushman. Unload the cooler. Crank up the cook stove. Have an early dinner/late lunch. Roast hot dogs! Chow down on baked beans and potato salad. Fresh mangoes and pineapple.
“Hey, sweets,” Chris looked up from excavating the supplies, matches in hand. “Did we remember to bring paper plates?”
Well. Nobody’s perfect. But if you want to enjoy some awesome Olympic Peninsula trails, then hike like a yeti:
- Do your homework
- Gear up with care
- Start early
- Just. Do. It.
- For more, see my post on How to Hike Safe and Sane.
TRAIL NOTES – Big Creek Trail System, Olympic National Forest
Rating: Moderately Difficult
Distance: 4.6 miles round trip + 2 miles on the out-and-back connector trail to Mount Ellinor
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet (not counting the connector)
Parking pass/fee area. Pay at the parking lot.
From U.S. Highway 101 in Hoodsport, turn west on the Lake Cushman Road. Follow it nine miles to the junction with Forest Road 24. Turn left on FR 24 and immediately right at the Big Creek Campground. The Big Creek Loop Trail No. 827 begins at the parking area at the campground entrance. You can hear the creek from the trail head. Follow the signs.