Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” ― John Muir
When it comes to loop hikes in the Olympic National Park, the High Divide Loop around Seven Lakes Basin is one of the best. Clocking in at 18.2 miles, it takes hikers past waterfalls and lakes, up steep ridges, and provides jaw-dropping vistas of Mount Olympus and the eponymous Seven Lakes Basin. So when Brandon and I decided to do a multi-day hike on the Olympic Peninsula, it was the obvious choice.
We started the hike with a swarm of day hikers — families replete with giggling children, elderly folks laden with fancy camera gear… you know the type. Weighed down by packs stuffed to bursting, we set a dogged pace, eager to get to our first campsite at Deer Lake. We only had 4 miles or so to cover, but most of it was uphill. Thankfully, it was through the shade of the Olympic Forest — dense and old, filled with a creaking stillness.
When we shuffled into the Deer Lake campground, we had a bit of time before dusk to set up camp and prepare dinner. Unused to hiking with heavy packs, we moved about slowly… trying not to think about the 10+ mile slog we’d face the next day.
Dinner was a modest affair, but it tasted fantastic. Rice pilaf with steamed vegetables never tasted so good! We tidied up, put everything smelly or delicious in the bear canister, and went to sleep beneath a wilderness sky.
Breakfast the next morning was the perfect way to start a long day: blueberry oatmeal with fresh-brewed coffee. After blissing out over my steaming cup o’ joe, it was time to pack up and get started.
The day quickly slid from bliss to pain, as the trail morphed from a woodland path into a brutal series of switchbacks up the shade-starved side of a ridge. When at last we made the top, looking back revealed the marginal distance we’d come.
The top of the ridge mercifully had some tree cover, much of which was warped by either erosion or the wind. It made for a good stopping point as we re-hydrated and devoured some trail mix for energy.
Soon we came to a junction, with one fork heading down into the basin and the other continuing along the sheer side of the mountain. Both of us were exhausted and eager to get to our next campsite, but we had a dilemma. The taxing hike had made us insanely thirsty, and neither of us had an abundance of water remaining. The ridge around the basin likely wouldn’t have any water available, which put the next water source all the way on the other side of the basin at Heart Lake. Deciding that being exhausted and sore was better than being withered and dead, we stowed our packs next to a tree and set off into the basin.
Lunch Lake glimmered like a jewel ahead of us, cerulean depths starkly inviting against a rugged landscape. I crouched by the lakeside and submerged my head, then slumped over. With half my torso and all my head submerged and the rest of me awkwardly sprawled on the rocks, I found my happy place.
Unfortunately, since I have no gills to speak of and we had miles to go until the end of our day, we had to leave that happy place. We filled our water bottles and trudged back up the side of the basin, finding our packs undisturbed where we left them. Shortly after setting off, we experienced our strangest encounter of the trip.
A young man sat on a boulder, hyper-alert and staring piercingly down the trail. Mid-length hair tied back and brow glistening, he spoke quickly and nervously.
“I’ve been training all summer for this hike, you know, and it’s just so awesome to be crushing it like this. I’m waiting for my friends, they should be coming soon. Actually, they’re probably not, I’m just going to wait a little longer, then I’m just gonna keep going.”
“Where are you camping?”
“Naw, I’m not camping, man… just day-hiking it.”
Drained of energy and slouching under our packs, we could do little but gawk at him — him with his tiny daypack, a small bottle of water, and running shoes.
“You’re almost there, it’s just around the corner,” he indicated the trail ahead. “I’m just going to wait here for a bit just in case my friends are still coming. I’ll probably catch you again on the trail.”
He did (sans friends), further up… much further than he had suggested the crest of the trail would be. As we soaked in the surreal view, he paused for a moment, then jogged up the side of the hill. We never saw that ridiculous kid again, not to mention his imaginary friends. We made a mental note to check the news for missing person reports when we got back to civilization. But in the meantime, the view…
The lakes were weathered remnants of their usual size, a testament to the severe drought Washington experienced this summer. The mountains around were bare of snow; anything which wasn’t a glacier had melted.
We walked the ridgeline as it dipped down and climbed back up again. The advantage of being able to see for miles had its drawbacks, as the distance seemed much diminished from what it actually was. Eventually, the sight we’d yearned for slid into view: Heart Lake. Nestled at the far end of the basin, it lay at the base of a nameless peak, a snug oasis against the alpine scenery.
We made it down to the shore and soaked our feet in the water, doing our best to ignore the film of dead bugs covering the surface. The earth was damp, no doubt drawing the lake water into itself to sustain the rich bed of moss and grass we were sitting on.
The next leg of the hike was easier; we dipped back into tree cover and followed the burgeoning river down, down, down. Easier though it was, the distance seemed to stretch over an immeasurable amount of time. We trudged numbly along as our mileage count for that day ticked towards 12.
Then, at long last, we came to our campsite. Perched above the Sol Duc river, it was a good 15-minute walk in either direction to the next site. As we set up camp and prepared our gourmet Pad Thai dinner, the only sounds were of the river and the rustling of trees. That night, we slept like the dead.
By all comparisons, the next day was a walk in the park. Heading downhill almost the entire way, we followed the Sol Duc to the trail junction. It was only a matter of hours before we found ourselves passing the familiar crowds of day hikers — families replete with giggling children, elderly folks laden with fancy camera gear…
We’d made it. We were exhausted, aching in every joint and muscle, and caked in a layer of grime, but we’d freakin’ made it. All we wanted then was a hearty meal, a frothy drink, and a long, hot shower.
Ever hiked the Seven Lakes Basin? How was it? If not, what’s another great hike you’ve done? How was your experience? Share in the comments below!