Olympic National Park - Cat Basin/High Divide Trail/Seven Lakes Basin / by Ray Phung

Panoramic view of Mt. Olympus after the fog lifted, near the summit of Bogachiel Peak.  

As the third edition of our 4th of July trips to the backcountry, I was able to get a last minute permit to Olympic National Park to do the High Divide trail.  I first learned about this trail when I met a father-son team hiking the Hoh River Trail.  They were on their way up to Hoh Lake and to do the High Divide Trail.  This trail straddles the ridge between the Seven Lakes Basin and high above the Hoh River Valley.  It's one of the limited quota trails in Olympic National Park, where backcountry permits are hard to come by.  I sent in a permit request to the ranger station a week prior to the 4th, and miraculously was able to get one.  Kevin and Tia, my usual adventure partners from Seattle, agreed to meet me and spend the 4th in the backcountry.  

Sol Duc Falls

The quotas in the more popular campsites were full, so our permits were for the lesser known Cat Basin and the Potholes near Deer Lake.  After reading some obscure blogs and clips from Google books, I found out about a secluded lake that's not marked on any maps.  It is called Swimming Bear Lake/Cat Lake, and was featured in the opening scene of a Disney film about the Olympic Elk.  I asked the ranger station and they said it was a bit out of the way, but we could "technically" camp there.  

We met up at the trailhead on Friday night and slept there in order to hit the trail bright and early.  The hike begins at the Sol Duc trailhead, tucked away in a beautiful old-growth forest at the Northwestern end of the park.  There is a large campground and hot springs resort just before the trailhead.  At around .7 miles or so (and along with hordes of people), you come to Sol Duc Falls, a picturesque waterfall.  Here the trail splits, and from this point you can decide whether to do the High Divide Traill in a clockwise or counter-clockwise loop.  Our camp itinerary put us in a counter-clockwise direction.  Taking the split off towards Heart Lake, the crowds vanished, and we hiked along a relatively flat trail past the numerous Sol Duc campsites.  Here, the forest was quite thick and lush, and with the rising sun, the air became very thick and humid.  

Bridge crossing over a creek

Filtering water and resting at Heart Lake. Here, the fog began to roll in.

After crossing a high bridge with a small waterfall in front, the trail began to climb steeply up to Heart Lake.  Heart Lake marks the tree-line boundary.  We stopped at Heart Lake for a quick breather and to filter more water.  From here, the fog started rolling in.  At the junction of the High Divide Trail, we took a left and took the High Divide trail into Cat Basin.  

Hiking above the aptly named Heart Lake

As soon as we got to the High Divide trail, the fog became super thick making navigation difficult.  This made finding this mysterious unmarked lake quite challenging.  We passed the point for which the High Divide trail is maintained, and it became a climbers trail that began dipping back into the rainforest.  We backtracked to the Cat Basin stock camp clearing.  There was another trail that also began to descend rapidly.  Rather than have everyone trek down there, I dropped my pack and ran up the trail to see if Swimming Bear Lake was there.  After descending several hundred feet in a half mile or so, i got to the bottom of a large meadow.  As soon as i stepped foot in the meadow, the fog cleared revealing large peaks all around me, and snow-capped mountains in the background.  A bald eagle landed on a branch fifty yards away; across the meadow, a black bear was grazing on berries.  I was speechless.  It felt like i stepped into another world.  But no lake.  And I did not want to camp where a bear was near.  I hiked back up the trail to find Kevin and Tia, still socked in fog.  Looking at a blurry version of Google Maps, we knew the lake was close, and the general direction of it.  Kevin mentioned there was a clearing about a half mile back that had a trail spurring from it.  So we headed back to find it.  

Swimming Bear Lake.  Cat Basin drops steeply down beyond the fog, with mountains in the background, but they were hiding most of the time.

Not a bad view from camp.  

The trail began to steeply climb, and eventually began to cut across the upper slopes of Cat Basin.  The meadow I was in was hundreds of feet below us.  This seemed like the right trail.  After much arduous climbing, we finally ascended over a rise and saw the most beautiful blue-green lake.  The infamous Swimming Bear Lake.  And it was perfect.  After around 10 or 11 miles (including all our random bushwacking and trail finding) we found our home for the night.  At this point, the fog kept rolling in and out of this part of the basin.  We occasionally got some views of the mountains to the south, but for the most part, everything was covered in fog.  Around golden hour, the fog really socked is in.  It created a very eerie aura, and i still took the opportunity to take some photos.  Bummed I wasn't able to capture the entire scenery, I retired to my tent.  However, just before it got dark, the mountains came out for one last visit.  

Flowers above a foggy Swimming Bear Lake

Tree stumps floating in the lake.

From my tent, some pink light on the mountains from the first night's camp.  These mountains were quite elusive all trip.  But when they came out, it was breathtaking.

The next morning, we awoke to even more fog.  After making coffee and breakfast, we broke camp and began hiking back to the High Divide trail.  The trail up to the lake was sopping wet with dew.  We finally got on the High Divide Trail, under the cover of fog on both sides.  We got to a viewpoint and stopped for a quick snack.  As we sat, the fog began to lift on the Seven Lakes Basin side.  We were awarded with views of numerous blue alpine lakes.  On the other side of the ridge, we reached viewpoint after viewpoint but each time we were met with a wall of fog.  The trail continued to ascend up to Bogachiel Peak.  Near the high point of Bogachiel peak, we decided to take a lunch break on an out-cropping of rock.  At this point, the fog on the other side of the ridge began to lift.  We could begin to see the glaciers and base of Mt. Olympus, as well as the Hoh River Valley.  We decided to wait out the fog.  We spent nearly two hours there, watching the fog lift off the mountains.  Our wait was rewarded with views of Blue and White Glaciers.  The combination of sun, fog, and snow made us a little sunburnt.  I was able to get some nice shots of the mountains, and we hit the trail once again.  

Tia and Kevin watching the clouds lift from Mt Olympus

Seven Lakes basin from Bogachiel Peak

From here, the trail begins to descend.  We went through steep switchbacks and descended all the way to the potholes campsite (attractive name i know). The potholes are named for these small ponds that are scattered above Deer Lake.  It was pretty swampy, and thus buggy there.  We dealt with the mosquitoes as we set up camp, cooked dinner, and rested our sore feet, pummeled by the descent.  

A family of goats came to visit us near Bogachiel Peak

Last night's camp near the "potholes"

View of the goats and the mountains after the fog lifted.  

The next morning was particularly drizzly.  We packed up our soaked tents and began hiking out the last 5 miles.  We passed Deer Lake and continued to descend what seemed like the longest 4 miles.  We finally reached the intersection of Sol Duc falls, and completed our loop.  

Chit chatting at the rocky outcropping near Bogachiel Peak

Despite the hit-or-miss weather conditions, we were still able to get in some amazing views in the Olympics.  It was a beautiful trail, showcasing some of the best scenery Olympic National Park has to offer.  I do love this backcountry tradition with my close friends, and look forward to the next trip.  If you have the opportunity to hike this trail, I would recommend it!