Trail Running to Royal Basin in the Olympic National Park

It must take something special for me to agree to a trip to a lake*. Royal Basin is that special destination and Doug and I ran there this weekend.

The weather has not been playing along this July. We’re halfway into the month and the summer can’t be found in Western Washington. Like Sasquatch, we are thinking it doesn’t exist.

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Good thing we have a rain shadow on the Olympic Peninsula and this weekend we took advantage of it. When the forecast for most of the Peninsula is subpar the Northeast corner around Sequim and Quilcene often offers an escape.

Doug’s been dying to take me to Royal Basin. I usually argue that the trip is too far (3 hours drive time from Olympia) and the destination is ‘just a lake’. Despite my protests and lack of enthusiasm, he promised it would be worth it and made it more enticing by agreeing that we could run it.

From Highway 101, just before Sequim, it’s 19 miles of seemingly endless dirt road driving just to get to the Dungeness River Trailhead. This alone can be an adventure for many. With potholes and washboard forcing cars to weave on the narrow road, the drive it helps set the stage for something off the grid. Thankfully, the entire area is extremely well-marked with road signs and the parking lot has a bathroom, as well as clear signage to the trail.

One big advantage of this long approach is that our trip already started at over 2,500ft. From the parking lot, we crossed the bridge and began our run at the trail head. The trail rolls through beautiful lush and mossy forest, winding it’s way along the Dungeness River for one mile. After that, a sharp right leads the scenic trail up above tree line and to Royal Lake.

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I couldn’t quite place why this forest felt so different from our usual Olympic National Park trips. Perhaps it’s due to fact that it lies in the rain shadow and less rain means less underbrush, less rainforest, less wild overgrowth. Or, it’s the fact that you’re already starting at a higher elevation. In any case, the trail, from the beginning, is beautifully enchanting and not very steep. We rolled along at an easy pace, ‘power hiking’ the steeper sections to preserve energy.

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After we left the forest with several sightings of deer with their young, we passed through a section of thick brushes, which would be awfully hot and dreadful on a Summer day. Luckily for us, with temperatures in a upper 60’s, we quickly moved through them and after around two hours reached Royal Lake.
There, we slowed our pace, stopped to take pictures and our run turned into a hike. Around the campsites at the lake we saw several marmots enjoying the few rays of sunshine.

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The trail passes through the valley over several small bridges and winds its way up the far end. There, the trail almost feels like it’s washed away, and in a couple of steep spots we had to place our feet carefully to reach the Upper Basin.

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Royal Lake and the surrounding valley is very pretty and a few large boulders made me wish I had brought my climbing shoes, but what we really came for was the Upper Basin.

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There, snow still lingered and we navigated the trail to reach the big boulder by the tarn at the base of Mt. Deception.

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The valley was completely silent. We stood, surrounded by giant peaks (the highest concentration of 7,000 ft. peaks in the Olympics)  and enjoyed the solitude. At almost 5,700ft, we climbed the prominent flat-top boulder on the banks of the blue tarn and took a good long break.

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It felt weird to be in such an alpine environment with just our running shoes and shorts. Yes, we brought warmer clothes, plenty of food and supplies, but we left our poles and our usual hiking gear at home.

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After plenty of pictures and a long refueling break, I realized what is one of the greatest advantages of running up mountains: As a day hiker, I often reach spectacular places but don’t have enough time to explore the area. This time, we were able to enjoy the area longer. Although we were just in our running gear, the glacier at the foot of Mt. Deception was calling me. We crossed several moraines and boulder fields, carefully navigated melting snow fields with gurgling water underneath and climbed as high as our running shoes would take us comfortably and safely, which was just over 6,000ft. Standing so close to the massive rock walls of Mt. Deception looming above us, the climber in me was itching to go further.

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But, I knew better and we turned around and made our way back down the valley.

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We snapped a few more pictures, took a brief detour to the waterfall and once we passed Royal Lake, our pace fell into a fast and comfortable rhythm.  Fueled by the steady decline of the trail, we made it back to the parking lot through that beautiful forests in just an hour and 30min.

We clocked this trip at just shy over six hours from trail head to trail head, including taking plenty of breaks to take pictures.

Yes, by the time we got home it was a long day.  However, it is an absolute stunning place and yes, running trails like this one is incredibly awesome.

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  • Distance: 15 Miles Round Trip to Royal lake. We recorded just shy of 20 miles including the trip to Upper Basin and exploring the moraines of the glacier.
  • Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet to the lake. My highest point was 6,000ft.
  • Directions:http://goo.gl/maps/zEPPA
  • Best Seasons: Late Spring, Summer and Fall

*Royal Lake is beautiful, yes. Probably because it’s mostly above tree line. But I’ve been to many lakes around and often laugh that those are considered a great hiking destination. Small bug infested ponds with no real water access due to the thick forests all around. If you give me a choice of lake or peak, I will ALWAYS choose the peak. Always. My phones boasts several apps: ‘PeakFinder’, ‘Peakhunter’. There’s no ‘lake finder’ there. I might stop for a break, but the peak is the goal. Always. Unless I’m in running shoes and the snowfields are melting.

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By Doug and Mathias on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State

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