Olympic National Park - Upper Lena Lake

Rainforest - green things growing everywhere

I had one more week off before I had to go back to work. I wanted to get in some more serious hiking. My original idea had been to go to the North Cascades. But Sandy and I had spent time on Vancouver Island earlier in the month. I really liked our hike in Strathcona Provincial Park. The mountains there reminded me of the Olympics and got me thinking about them.

I've done some great hikes there, like High Divide and Klahane Ridge, but I had one that I still really wanted to do. I had seen a beautiful poster of Mt. Bretherton from Upper Lena Lake and was really impressed. I wanted to go there and if possible climb Mt. Bretherton. So I ended up deciding to go to the Olympics. Besides, there was a huge wildfire burning in the North Cascades and I was worried that smoke would be a problem. The Olympics were far to the west and I figured that they were likely to be clear with our prevailing winds from the northwest.

Nice bridge but no river

On my first day I did a nice hike to Grand Valley. Now I was ready to take on Upper Lena Lake. It looked like a challenging hike. To the lake and back was fourteen miles round trip and almost 4000 feet of elevation gain. The first two and a half miles and 1300 feet of elevation gain to Lena Lake were on a well maintained trail. Beyond that was "primitive trail". Whatever that meant. I suspected what it meant was a lot more work. But there were restrictions on camping at Upper Lena Lake so apparently people made it up there with full backpacks so I figured that I could make it.

I did lower my ambitions. Originally I had wanted to get to the lake and climb Mt. Bretherton. But that would be a very long day - something I might have done in my youth but wasn't quite up for now. I didn't like the idea of backpacking either since the climb to the lake with a full pack was intimidating. I decided to settle for hiking to the lake and enjoying the view from there.

Yes, that tangle of roots is actually the traild

Since I suspected that it was going to be a long day, I wanted to get an early start. I know, I know. I always say that. But this time I actually got up early. I did a forty five minute drive to the trailhead, got ready, signed in, and paid my parking fee. With all of that I was on the trail at 7:15 am. I was psyched for this hike. The first part was work but straighforward. The trail climbed steadily but as promised it was well maintained and reasonably graded. About an hour in I crossed the outlet of Lena Lake on a bridge. It was a nice bridge but the weird thing was there was no river. I could hear water cascading neaby but apparently the stream is underground where the trail crosses it. I'm not sure about the purpose of the bridge. I don't know if the river submerged since the construction of the bridge or if it is just there for flood periods.

Much of the trail to Lena Lake has handrails. At first that puzzled me as the trail was about four feet wide. Even though it was on a moderate slope I couldn't see anyone being afraid of falling off. Then I realized that the purpose of the rails was to prevent people from cutting switchbacks. I just don't understand some people. With all the crummy trails and cross country routes that I have hiked, I think it is such a pleasure to walk a nicely graded trail. I'm not sure what makes people want to cut switchbacks and turn the easy trails into hard, steep routes. Everybody's in a hurry, I guess.

The lower portion of the hike was nice. The trees were very tall. Everything was green. Rocks, trees, even the ground was covered with moss. It was reasonably cool and in the shade. Since it was early there were no bugs. That wouldn't last forever but for now I enjoyed peaceful hiking.

Ripe salmonberries along the trail

It took about an hour and a half to reach the junction with the Upper Lena Lake trail. I never did see Lena Lake itself. It was below the trail and I could only see about fifty feet into the forest. I could hear people down the slope so I figured that was the hordes of Boy Scouts that are supposed to camp there. From now on I was on the primitive trail. At first it wasn't bad. It wasn't as wide. I did have to climb over a tree or two. But it wasn't that steep, climbing gradually up the valley with the inlet stream for Lena Lake. This wasn't reassuring though. I knew that the moderate hiking was just putting off the real work. The numbers don't lie. I knew I had a long way to climb to reach the upper lake. Still, I had gained a lot of elevation and had been working very hard up to this point.

At about two and a half hours from the trailhead I met my first people, a couple coming down from above. I asked them how far it was to the lake. The guy said that they had left the lake only an hour ago, but that was coming down. "You haven't even started to climb yet" he said. Really? Then why I am drenched in sweat? Still, that confirmed what I was expecting.

A rare distant view - Mt. Rainier perfectly frame

Sure enough, he was right. Although the trail had been climbing steadily, now it went directly up the hill. Sometimes it didn't even bother with switchbacks and just went straight up. At one point the trail was a twenty foot section of tree roots to scramble over. There was a long stretch where the woods opened up and I passed through a long section of salmonberry bushes. The good news was that there were ripe berries hanging right next to the trail. Every so often I would just pluck one off a bush for a quick treat. The bad news was it seemed like perfect bear habitat. When the trail got overgrown I resorted to our practice from last year of clapping as I approached a blind section of trail. (The alternative suggested is to sing, but I didn't know if my singing would scare off bears or make them angry enough to attack.)

I did hear a lot of noise ahead of me on the trail. Eventually I caught up with a guy carrying a large, heavy backpack. He looked really flushed and was moving slowly. He said that he had done the trail the year before (dude, then why are you back here?). It's pretty rare for me to pass anyone on a trail so I was pretty proud of myself.

Meadow just below the lake with millions of wildflowers

It was really hot going up the big hill. It was about three hours since I started - time for the bugs to come out. And they did. Big flies. Medium flies. Mosquitoes. The climb up the hill was a long hard trudge. Eventually I caught up to the family with the hiker I had passed - his wife and two teenage sons. They were waiting for him so I kept going. This part of the hike was just a lot of work. No views. Hot. Sweaty. Buggy. All I could think was that lake up above better be damn paradise on earth.

Eventually I broke into some meadows that were just filled with flowers. The sight of them was encouraging. Plus the open meadows had some breeze. The cooling was a relief and it kept the bugs away. The last bit to the lake wasn't so bad.

Finally I was there. I had to climb down a ways to the lake (of course). It was pretty, but I had to admit that after all that work, it wasn't spectacular. I have been to many alpine lakes. The best view was to the south towards Mt. Bretherton and that was into the sun. Not the best for photos. I didn't have much time to rest either. The flies were bad here at the lake. I took some pictures, had a drink of water, and fairly quickly started back up the hill towards the trail.

Finally made it - Mt. Bretherton and Upper Lena Lake

The hike down was quicker but still took a long time. On the way down I swung by the lower trail to at least get a look at Lena Lake. Eventually I was back to the car. I was defintely tired. Still I felt that I had done well on a hard hike.

My bottom line on the hike was that I was disappointed. It was a physical challenge and I felt that I had done well. But there were very few views along the way. The whole hike was about getting to Upper Lena Lake. It was pretty there, but not outstanding, especially compared to many of the high alpine lakes that I have been to in other mountain ranges. And the bugs were problematic there. In the Sawtooths, I wait until the fall when the bugs are gone. In the Olympics, fair weather is rare in the fall so that isn't usually an option. So that means living with the bugs which I am not crazy about.

Mt. Lena from Upper Lena Lake

I have mixed feelings about the Olympics. Harvey Manning raves about them as a hiking destination. I got started hiking and climbing by reading his guidebooks in graduate school. But in my opinion the Olympics have some limitations. The season for hiking is limited by the weather. Bugs can be bad in the summer. There are some spectacular high viewpoints, like Hurricane Ridge, Klahane Ridge, Obstruction Point, High Divide and several peaks that have trails to the summit. I have to admit that the view of Mt. Olympus from a distance is spectacular. What I haven't found yet is a view of the Olympics from below. They have extensive foothills. I was hoping Upper Lena Lake (or Grand Valley the day before) would be the beautiful view looking up to the heights of the Olympics from below. But I have to say after this hike that I haven't found that view yet. Still, the Olympics are rugged, covered with beautiful green forests. I will keep looking for that view from the below. And meanwhile, there are peaks to climb. Tomorrow, Mt. Ellinore.