Trip reports

Duckabush River Trail

On a day when the weather forecast for all of western Washington predicted rain, one place looked dry-ish: the east side of the Olympic Peninsula. This area is a series of three rivers, one after the next, draining the alpine heights into Hood Canal. Coming from Olympia, you reach the bottom of the fishhook-shaped Hood Canal just past Shelton, about a 30-minute drive. Cross the Skokomish River — famous for the pictures of its salmon finning across nearby roads during its regular floods — crawl through the SCUBA-friendly town of Hoodsport, and start winding north along the canal’s west side.

The road hugs the water, affording glimpses of eagles scanning for their next meal from tall firs, seal heads bobbing among the whitecaps, and rivers fanning out as their fresh water meets the saltwater canal. From south to north, you’ll pass the Hamma Hamma (I hear the oyster bar at its mouth is worth a stop), the Duckabush, and the Dosewallips (doh – see – WAHL -ips). Each has an access road in varying stages of driveability. I hadn’t been to the Duckabush in many years, and recent trip reports from the Washington Trails Association website looked promising, so off I went.

The last three miles of road to the trailhead are unpaved and potholed, but I’d been forewarned. My little Honda Civic carefully swerved among the treacherous-looking basins filled with muddy water before slipping into the last space at the trailhead among a passel (flock? herd? conference?) of Subarus, mostly adorable Crosstrek XVs with the occasional Outback sprinkled in. I sometimes think I could identify any Pacific Northwest trailhead by the predominance of Subarus. They’re practically de rigueur for outdoors types.

The trail winds deep into the Olympics, but my destination was Big Hump, an aptly named shoulder of Mount Jupiter that juts out above the Duckabush River, affording a view of the valley and a heart-pumping climb perfect for an early spring conditioning hike.

Brother Wilderness boundary sign
About a mile in, the trail enters the Brothers Wilderness. (Lauren Danner photo)

A mile of slow incline brought me to the Brothers Wilderness boundary sign. Created in 1984, the 16,000-acre wilderness is named for the Brothers, one of the Olympics’ showstopper peaks visible from Puget Sound on clear days. Scattered like gravestones among its tall firs, hemlocks, and alders are giant stumps, relics of early logging days. Each stump typically has at least one springboard notch. The trees were too big to cut by hand at ground level, so loggers would chop into the trunk five or six feet off the ground, then insert a plank to stand on. They’d climb onto the plank and chop another springboard notch above, continuing until they were high enough to fall the tree without spending unnecessary time hacking through the thick lower trunk. Most of the stumps I saw along the trail only had one springboard notch.

Tree stump with springboard notch
This stump with springboard notch visible in the upper left is a tangible reminder of the glory days of Pacific Northwest logging. (Lauren Danner photo)

The river churns fast through the forest, laden with spring melt and dropping nearly 5,000 feet from its sources near Lake La Crosse and O’Neil Pass. Clouds dimmed its chalky aqua color, but its roar provided background music for most of the hike.

Duckabush River
The Duckabush River roils and foams on its way to Hood Canal. (Lauren Danner photo)
Douglas-fir
Loggers spared this neck-craning Douglas-fir, probably because it was too short in the 1930s and 1940s when logging was predominant in the area. (Lauren Danner photo)

The trail continues on through the forest, sometimes close to the river, sometimes arcing away from it. The duff trails of Northwest forests felt soft on winter-creaky feet and knees, and the burgeoning spring heightened the clean smell of the woods.

Duckabush River trail
Duckabush River trail just below the climb to Big Hump. (Lauren Danner photo)

But the forest ramble took a steep turn upward at the base of Big Hump, quickly climbing about 700 feet through short switchbacks. Halfway up, a break in the trees allowed a glimpse of a roaring falls and aptly named St. Peters Dome beyond. The view was good enough to inspire me to keep trudging uphill, figuring it’d get better on top of the hump.

View of St. Peters Dome and waterfall from Duckabush River trail
The trail doesn’t skirt the waterfall, but even at a distance it was impressive. St. Peters Dome in background. (Lauren Danner photo)

It did, but to get there I first hiked through the remains of the 2011 Duckabush Fire. Each year fire-scarred trees crash into each other and to the ground during winter storms, and each year WTA crews head up and clear the trail (thank you!). This year didn’t look too bad so far. Most of the trail-blockers were pretty easy to step through and over.

Fallen fire-damaged trees on Duckabush River trail
Trees damaged in the 2011 Duckabush Fire fall each winter, creating trail obstacles like this one. (Lauren Danner photo)

Another push upward, and the view opened up. I’d reached Big Hump. The sun played peekaboo with the clouds, and I leaned against a rock and soaked in the warmth. Despite an epic rainy winter that kept me indoors more than I hoped, I felt pretty good. I’d climbed 2300 feet in about 3.6 miles, fulfilling my goal.

View from Big Hump on Duckabush River trail
The view from Big Hump. It’s worth the climb. (Lauren Danner photo)
Duckabush River valley
Looking down the Duckabush River valley from just above Big Hump. (Lauren Danner photo)

After a half-hour of lolling and taking Christmas-card photos for other groups of hikers, I headed back. I passed one of my favorite sights on the Olympic Peninsula, glacial erratics. These enormous boulders — some are house-sized — were left behind as the glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age. I love the idea of a house-sized rock being encased in a giant ice cube, which cracks off the end of a retreating glacier and melts out, leaving the rock perched on a steep hill or in a riverbed. Glacial erratics are everywhere in the Olympics, and my family gets tired of me singing out, “Look! Another glacial erratic!” during outings.

Glacial erratics next to the Duckabush River trail
Moss-cloaked glacial erratics next to the Duckabush River trail. (Lauren Danner photo)

Goal achieved, I stopped to admire fern- and moss-covered stumps on the way downhill. We live in a green world in the maritime Northwest. All that fecundity is soothing, even if the rain that facilitates it is sometimes tiresome.

Moss and ferns blanket a stump
A close-up of the green world of the Olympic Peninsula. (Lauren Danner photo)

One last creek crossing and I was done. Water, water everywhere — but not a drop of rain all day. I love spring.

Stream crossing on the Duckabush River trail
Trekking poles were useful for several stream crossings. (Lauren Danner photo)

5 thoughts on “Duckabush River Trail

  1. I love when the sogginess brings the brightest greens out under sodden skies! What a great hike.

  2. I’m glad you had a rain-free day! Looks like an awesome wet-coast hike.

    I felt like I was doing my PNW duty when I bought a Subaru as my new car a couple years ago. I like to think of them as a “Summit of Subarus.” Always love alliteration. 😀

  3. Next month my wife and I are coming to the Olympic Peninsula for our first visit there. Your post affirms why we chose this area for our celebration trip. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Any of the east side river trails will be green and beautiful. With any luck, the native Pacific rhododendrons will be blooming. Probably the best place to see them is Mount Walker (you can hike or drive to the top), although the Duckabush and Dosewallips trails will also have plenty to admire. Glad you are visiting our corner of the world!

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