The Sol Duc River Trail is one of Olympic National Park’s most beloved hikes. That means it is always busy and a backcountry camping quota is enforced. Roaring waterfalls, lush old growth, and subalpine meadows where elk bugle and bears browse for berries are just some of the many highlights. Naturally the hiker will want to explore the High Divide above Heart Lake, and fortunately this makes a memorable loop.
Start by walking the wide path on easy grade to Sol Duc Falls. Scenic bridges over mossy creeks beckon casual day hikers and time lapse photographers. At 0.7 miles, take the short right fork by the shelter to the always wet but splendid bridge over Sol Duc Falls. This postcard cataract thunders below the bridge in a narrow slot choked with logs. The best light for pictures here is early morning and late afternoon.
Back at the shelter, the main trail now ascends gently on narrower tread that is soft and covered with cushy conifer cones. Tall firs, hemlocks, and even a spruce here and there tower above salal and huckleberry covered slopes that roll down from the mountains. This ecosystem is home to many mammals, endangered owls, and endemic species that require such a large and intact tract of old growth to prosper.
Several trailside campsites are spaced at intervals over the first few miles where streams reliably run. At 3.5 miles the trail makes a noticeable uphill push on small rocks. The river rages nearby. At one point a twin falls is visible although not accessible. The trail continues a moderate grade to the junction with the trail to Appleton Pass at 4.9 miles. Stay right and cross the Sol Duc River on a fun footlog set high above the river.
From now on the trail is always ascending toward the ridge that separates the Sol Duc from the Hoh drainages, with only a few short but welcome reprieves. After a mile in deep fir forest, the trail crosses Bridge Creek and enters a patchy meadow bordered by mountain hemlocks. A few campsites sit on either side of the trail here. At 7.0 miles enter the Sol Duc Park campground at about 4000 feet elevation.
The campground accommodates large parties bound for the High Divide and a ranger is stationed here during summer months. After the campground the trail climbs a staircase on its way to higher meadows that reveal subalpine majesty. Morning mist rises along the ridge tops while dew clings to pink and white heather. Alpenglow bathes the slopes in evening warmth while deer and bears graze in the shadows.
The trail is rocky with rivulets running underneath as the trail enters the deep bowl of Heart Lake at 8.0 miles. Here the grassy slopes drop dramatically from the ridge straight down to the water’s edge. Many campsites are situated among the clumps of hemlock and stunted subalpine firs. After basking in the beauty of Heart Lake, follow the main trail toward the top of the ridge at 8.4 miles and 5050 feet.
Here the Sol Duc Trail meets the High Divide, which is itself a destination. To the south Mount Olympus’s icy, buttressed bulk rises 7000 feet above the Hoh River to the Heavens. To the left is the bumbling waypath to Cat Basin and the Bailey Range. Onward and upward is the Seven Lakes Basin, the fabled alpine splendorland dotted with icy potholes and serene lakes that sit like infinity pools along their tree-lined brink.
For a truly memorable loop trip, continue along the High Divide and down to Deer Lake before rejoining the Sol Duc River Trail by the waterfall and trailhead, a further 10 miles or so. Lakeside campsites in the basin and also down at Deer Lake make excellent rest locations on the roughly 18 mile loop. Overnight guests can expect to hear elk calls and gaze upon stars beyond stars on moonless nights.
Because this entire area is a backcountry camping quota area, reservations for sites must be made in advance with Olympic National Park. The most coveted sites are at Heart Lake, Lunch Lake, and Deer Lake, or anywhere in the meadows. Please stay on the trail, use the privies, and leave no trace. As always, weary legs can be soothed and hungry bellies can be filled at the hot springs resort down river.