Mesmerized by Marmot Pass and Buckhorn Mountain

Looking for a trail that delivers jaw-dropping panoramic views? Craving a trail with lofty vistas giving euphoria that only a mountain trail in Olympic National Forest can offer? Answer the call of the Marmot. The Marmot Pass Trail from Big Quilcene is quite a journey, both in terms of elevation gain and the grand views you are rewarded with. Once the trail is snow free (usually around June), the trek up to Marmot Pass is considered by many to be the quintessential day hike in the Olympics. This hike need to be explored and done so often, as it is also one of many breathtaking routes to hike in Olympic National Forest.

Tucked in the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, in the heart of the Buckhorn Wilderness, there is such a trail. A 13 mile, not-well-known path that offers one of the greatest trail experiences in all of Washington State. A little over two short hours drive from the bars on Capitol Hill, you can have your feet on a trail that takes you through forests, alongside picturesque creeks, and up to one of the best views in the Pacific Northwest. The trail to Marmot Pass and Buckhorn Mountain will leave you breathless, not just from the elevation gain, but from the truly inspiring views. The trail to the summit of Buckhorn Mountain works its way up to 6,988 feet above sea level, gaining 4,477 feet along the way in approximately 13 miles—the perfect distance and elevation gain for any hiker or trail runner craves for a fun day adventure.

Marmot Pass Signage

Starting in picturesque forest with moss-covered everything, the well-groomed and easy to follow trail slowly climbs up next to the Big Quilcene River. While the name sounds as if you would be walking along a roaring river, the Big Quilcene is actually a small flow river with amazingly beautiful cascading waterfalls crashing along the fern-flanked banks. For 2.6 miles, gain 1,100 feet until you get to the Shelter Rock Camp. For some, this is the end of the trip, as the trail gets steeper from here. However, do not give up- you will be disappointed. As with everything on the Olympic Peninsula, the more elevation you gain, the more awesome the views.

While you were slowly gaining elevation to Shelter Rock , the next section of the trail climbs up over 1,000 feet in 1.9 miles. This section is unique in that it offers views of the Big Quilcene Valley that show how steep the trail really is. The trail here is safe, but be aware that you will be hiking on an open slope at times with huge views in all directions. While hiking this section, take your time and watch for mountain goats on the craggy peaks above. If it is a sunny day, watch out, as the trail can get downright muggy and toasty by Pacific Northwest standards. Eventually, you will reach Camp Mystery, which is yet another nice place to rest, but not a good destination for your day.

Past Camp Mystery, the trail to Marmot Pass and Buckhorn Mountain becomes quite memorable. While the previous 4.6 miles may have felt similar to other trails in the Olympic Mountains, the next 0.7 to Marmot Pass will be a place you revisit in your day dreams. Gaining 600 feet, this section of the trail passes through large boulders and gorgeous valleys while working up to the saddle of the ridge, best known as Marmot Pass.

Climbing to 6,000 feet, the trail slowly works its way up through a small valley, leading straight up to Marmot Pass. With amazing views behind you, hold off on looking back until you reach the famous sign. Marked with an iconic wooden sign, the views from Marmot Pass are beyond words, often leaving runners and hikers new to the area standing on the trail, slack jawed from the panorama. Along the summit, mountain goats are commonly seen, as are the marmots for which the pass is named.

Marmot Pass in late Spring.
Marmot Pass in late Spring.
Looking back toward the Puget Sound from Marmot Pass
Looking West from Marmot Pass. Image via Curt Pliler
Looking East from Marmot Pass. Image via Curt Pliler

With views above the Dungeness Valley and the Olympic interior to the west and the mouth of the Hood Canal and Mount Baker looking over the Salish Sea to the east, the view from 6,000 feet will leave you in awe. Those hoping for a bit more of an adventure need to head up to Buckhorn Mountain. Buckhorn Mountain is easy to climb in this uniquely dry terrain on the famously wet Olympic Peninsula, but is steep for many. Only a handful of the hundreds of people who hike to Marmot Pass each weekend go to Buckhorn Mountain, but they are all missing out. For those who do venture up to the summit, be aware it adds an extra few miles and almost 1,000 feet of elevation gain. If you are feeling good with the view, enjoy your time at Marmot Pass, take a picture of yourself with the signpost and enjoy the hard work that you put in for the view.

Even on cloudy days, Olympic National Forest’s Marmot Pass and Buckhorn Mountain Trails are gorgeous
Buckhorn Mountain from the Marmot Pass trail in Olympic National Forest

Once you’ve taken in the views and feel up for more, the trail to the summit of Buckhorn Mountain starts to the north. This trail can be a bit tricky to see, but the general rule of thumb is to follow the path to the north for about a hundred feet and look for a small boot path heading directly up the steep flank to the northeast. Basically, if you’re heading straight up, you’re on the right trail, as the path to the summit gains 988 feet in roughly a mile.

Permit Needed: NFS Pass

Distance: 11 Miles Round Trip Elevation Gain: 3,500 feet

Highest Point: 6,000 feet Terrain: Forest, rocky, steep

Category: Moderate

Views: Mountains, rivers, forest, animals Animals: Deer, Marmot, Mountain Goat Privy: Yes

Trail From Parking Area: Easy to locate Road to Trail: Paved and Gravel Parking: Plenty of places to park

Directions: http://goo.gl/maps/CE0ak 

Tip: The road to Marmot Pass can be a little rough. Go slow, plan extra time for the drive there and back and keep your eyes on the road.

Header Image: Sean Munson


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