100 Days of National Parks: Day 60 – Upper Royal Basin, Olympic National Park

Upper Royal Basin

Upper Royal Lake Basin
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One of the things I love the most about Olympic National Park is the remoteness of its most stunning attractions.  With the vast majority of the park designated as a wilderness area, with no roads or easy access routes into the interior, the park courts exploration and wandering, and doesn’t make it easy on intrepid hikers to get back and find the amazing places hidden in the depths of its forests and mountains.

When looking for a hike to test out my rehabilitated leg following my injury on the Pacific Crest Trail, I looked at the Olympics primarily due to my familiarity with them, and their proximity to my family’s home in Olympia, where I was recovering.  I had done most of the hikes along the southeast section of the park, closest to where I was staying, and decided to branch out and drift a bit further north in my explorations.  I read several trail reports on the Washington Trails Association website about the Royal Lakes Basin, that made it sound both encouraging from a visual and photographic standpoint, but also matching the distance and elevation profiles I would need to tackle to test the strength of my leg.

I set out for Sequim, along the northeast edge of the Park and took the back roads deep into the Olympic National Forest to where I ultimately found the trailhead.  I threw on my day pack and looped my camera around my neck and headed out from the trailhead at a pretty good pace.

The first few miles were easy ones, along the mostly flat, well-graded trail though thick forest.  As I pressed forward, I passed through fields of massive boulders, and followed the rushing waters of Royal Creek up and up until eventually I reached the lower lake basin.  It was beautiful, but I could tell that more was just over the far rise, with the jagged peaks of the not-too distant ridgeline calling my name to go further.  I found the trail that led up out of the lower lake and passed through a beautiful meadow filled with screaming marmots before ascending a steep trail, little more than a goat track, to the upper basin, where I found the brilliant aquamarine waters of Upper Royal Lake.

Largely above the tree-line, surrounded by lichen covered rocks and patchy meadows, the lake was only a few hundred yards across at its widest point, and filled with a milky sediment that made it reflect the blue of the sky in the most brilliant turquoise hues.  There was a small group of hikers jumping into the frigid waters at one end, but otherwise I was alone there, at this impossibly gorgeous place that until that moment was completely unknown to me.

I loved the feeling of discovery at finding the place, despite having followed a well marked trail and description from a popular hiking directory.  I loved feeling like I’d walked through the dense forests of the Olympics into a place that was so far removed from the surface impressions of the Park.  From a distance, from the roads or lower trails, Olympic National Park seems impossibly dense, its mountainscapes and hidden valleys detached from the world, inaccessible by any means other than strapping on a pack and getting up into them.

There are few parks where I feel this kind of encouragement to explore and get away from the roads.  There is so much depth to the Olympics, so many places that you can’t see or even know about from the safety and warmth of your car.  Royal Lakes Basin is the quintessential example of this truth, and it’s one of my favorite places I’ve found in all my Olympic explorations.


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