Being a low elevation park, Olympic National Park is a good place to get in some long mountain runs in the fall, winter, and spring when there is snow up in the mountains. I haven’t touched the park since I was a kid and wanted a BIG introduction. Rather than do an out and back on the Hoh River Trail, Joe Koropecki and I opted to take on the Press Traverse, a 44.4 mile long north-south traverse of Olympic National Park.
The Press Traverse got it’s name from the original 1890 expedition that did the traverse at the expense of the Seattle Press, hence the name. The modern day traverse is 44.4 miles long with 7,382 feet of vert between the Whisky Bend Trailhead (North point) and The North Fork Quinault River Trailhead (South point). The traverse follows two river valleys (the Elwha River Valley in the North and Quinault River Valley in the South) and crosses a low level mountain pass known as Low Divide at 3,650 ft.
Joe and I did the traverse from North to South, which turned out to be the tougher option. We met and stayed at North Fork Campground ($15 a night, year round access) which is about 1/2 mile from the North Fork Quinault Trailhead. The following morning we left my truck at the campground and made the 3 hour drive in Joe’s car around the park to the Whisky River Trailhead while we discussed how we should have started from the south.
We parked the car at Whisky Bend and realized that Joe had brought all his camping food and clothes with him to the drop point. Sun was out and we weren’t going to miss this opportunity so I offered him food and clothes for the night. Crisis adverted we started the traverse around 10am and the first 26 miles of the trail was smooth, wide, and fast because it is also a horse trail. Our goal was to maintain a 12:00 min/mile avg. pace the whole run but ended up running the first marathon with a 10:30 min/mile pace. Navigation was a bit tricky because most intersections are unmarked but most of the creek crossings are bridged. Later in the trail when the horse trail fades out and the cabins stop appearing the bridges also disappear and you must ford the creeks.
Less than 5 hours into the run and over halfway in we set our sights on a 7:30 hour finish, but this idea quickly faded up and over the pass when the rain started and the trail became steep and rocky/slippery. Our pace slowed considerably here and we were tip toeing the downhills slower than we were jogging the uphills. The trail over the pass and down the Quinault River Valley was where we had all our common ultra runner falls and stubbed toes. We cursed and slipped our way down the last 16 miles of the trial in the rain and did the last 5 miles in the dark.
We finished the 44.4 miles and 7,000 + feet of elevation gain in 9:09 hours setting the new North to South FKT (to my knowledge). We walked the last half mile to the campground in the rain then did our best to start a fire with wet wood. Failing to start a fire and steadily getting colder we decided to jump in the truck and warm up with the heater. We drank all the beer and ate all the pumpkin pie then passed out. The next morning I drove Joe back to his car (3 hour drive) then made the 6 hour drive back home.
Consideration for next time:
The FKT from north to south was 13:44 while the FKT south to north is 8:48. This shows how much easier it is to go from South to North. Had I done more research other than linking trails together on Caltopo, I would have seen the elevation profile and noticed that south to north was a better decision. Whatever way you go though, you need to watch the weather because high rains will raise water levels and make the river crossings dangerous and/or impossible. We had perfect weather in October with a mostly sunny day with light rain (less than 2 inches) in the evening starting around 6pm.
To avoid the 3 hour drive from point to point each runner could start at different ends of the trail and do a key swap.
With as many water crossings as there are you could get away with carrying 1 water bottle and a stuffed gel belt if you wanted to go minimal. You can refill your bottle every 30 minutes if you need to. There is even a lake on top of low divide pass.
A GPS is highly recommended because of the signless trail intersections. I lost track of how may times Joe and I had to whip of the GPS and align the arrow with the right trail.
Your feet will get wet. So plan accordingly.
Joe and I run a shit load and finished in 9 hours. Plan your food for 12 hours at least. I carried 6 hours worth of liquid calories plus 4 Uncrustable sandwiches (about 2,000 calories). I used every bit of this and ran the last 2 hours with nothing.
Headlamp, you never know what will happen.
Starting from North vs. Starting from South
Starting from the North you get the flat and easy 26 miles with over first and finish with the tougher vertical and technical terrain. The benefit is you finish at a campground and can therefore crash and call it a day without getting in your car to drive.
If you start from the south and finish in the North at Whisky Bend Trailhead, the TH is 5 miles up a 1 lane road and the nearest campground is 10 miles away (30 minute drive).
Starting from the South you get the technical and steep terrain out of the way in the first 16 miles and have a fast, wide, smooth trail finish. The FKT is set from the south to north direction. Plus you finish in the North and get to do a short drive to Port Angeles for good beer and food.
If I was to do it again I would take a whack at the 8:48 FKT south to north.