Autumn in the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest is where it really all comes together to make some amazing backpacking experiences. The heat of summer has dissipated but winter has not moseyed onto the scene. Rain, insects, and even crowds are greatly reduced, if practically non-existent on the higher, more remote trails.
Quilcene, Washington is a small town only about 2 hours from Seattle or 3.5 hours from Portland, so it is a perfectly reachable distance for a weekend backpacking trip by yourself or with a small group. The Hood Canal Ranger District’s Quilcene office is just on the outskirts of the town and I have always found them to be friendly and helpful when inquiring about possible hikes and current conditions.
The Buckhorn Wilderness is located in the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula and has trails that are often accessible year round for the adventurous. The terrain can be steep but you will encounter spectacular views that will instantly remind you why you love the outdoors. On a clear day, you can see straight into the Olympics one direction and Rainier in the opposite direction with rushing creeks, alpine lakes, and hypnotically swirling clouds a regular occurrence.
If you only have a single night, I suggest you check out the Washington Trail Association's Marmot Pass - Upper Big Quilcene article. You can hike up to Marmot Pass and enjoy the views with camping options at Mystery Camp (0.7 miles before the pass), Boulder Camp (1.7 miles beyond the pass), or there are a couple of tent sites a short distance off the pass too.
If you have 3 days or want to have a challenging 2 days, read on for a 37 mile loop with 9200 feet of elevation gain that allows you to see Marmot Pass, Constance Pass (with Home Lake), and a stroll down to the Dungeness River before returning via Buckhorn Pass.
GUIDEBOOKS & MAPS
- Entire route on CalTopo.com
- Buckhorn Wilderness Custom Correct Map
- Forest Service's Upper Big Quilcene Trail #833.1 – Printable Map (covers majority of route but not the out and back to Constance Pass)
Parking: Northwest Forest Pass required at Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead
Backcountry Camping: No permit needed if you camp in the Buckhorn Wilderness, which contains the majority of this trip. On the way to Constance Pass and Home Lake you cross into Olympic National Park, so if you want to camp there, you need to get a permit from the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles first.
Late spring to late autumn. People can often get up to Marmot Pass in winter but unless you are experienced with snow travel in winter conditions, I do not recommend it.
- Start at Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead and head up Big Quilcene Trail #833.1 to Marmot Pass.
- At Marmot Pass head south 1.7 miles to Boulder Shelter. This is an excellent place to camp and has space for 6-8 tents.
- From Boulder Shelter take Home Lake Trail #893 to the National Park boundary where it turns into Constance Pass Trail. At Home Lake, head up to Constance Pass and enjoy the view (~3.5 miles from Boulder Shelter).
- Return to Boulder Shelter and take the Upper Dungeness Trail #833.2 down to its trailhead (6.4 miles).
- At the trailhead, take a right and head up Forest Service road 2870 and in 3.6 miles you will reach the Tubal Cain Trail #840 Trailhead.
- Follow Tubal Cain Trail #840 toward Buckhorn Lake, up to Buckhorn Pass, and along the ridge back to Marmot Pass (8.6 miles).
- Return to the Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead. Fin.
FULL ROUTE DESCRIPTION
From Quilcene, drive south on US 101 for 1.5 miles. Turn right onto Penny Creek Road. After 1.5 miles bear left onto Big Quilcene River Road (Forest Road 27). Drive 9.5 miles and then turn left on FR 2750. Continue 4.7 miles to the Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead. There will be a nice parking lot with a privy and the trailhead is on the north side, clearly marked. Remember to display your NW Forest Pass on your car and sign the register before hiking.
You follow the Big Quilcene River for the first half of the trail and there is water access multiple times even in late summer. It is 3000' and about 4.5 miles to Camp Mystery, and while the trail is definitely steep and in parts rocky, a steady pace with a couple breaks should get you there. Camp Mystery may be the last water before you reach Boulder Camp, so if you are not stopping for the night here I recommend grabbing water before continuing.
Marmot Pass is less than a mile away but it definitely gains a bit of elevation in that short distance. After a couple rocky switchbacks you will reach a large meadow area. You will see a faint trail that heads off to the left and leads up to a campsite with space for a single tent. If you keep on going along the main trail towards the pass, you will see another campsite just off the trail to you right.
The Meadow, East from Marmot Pass
Depending on the weather, Marmot Pass will either astound you with its views or a chill wind might encourage you to quickly continue onwards. There is a trail marker at the pass indicating the three trails that join here. You wish to continue over the pass and to the left, down towards Boulder Shelter on trail 833.2. The trail traverses for about a mile before five switchbacks take you down to Boulder Shelter.
Once you reach Boulder Shelter, it will be quite clear where it received its name. At some point a significant landslide occurred here and took out a swath of trees and left large boulders in the area. There are numerous camping spots in this area and water flowing at a nearby stream. The shelter is just a minute further on and except for the standard small critter issues, it is not the worst place to huddle during a storm. I would not sleep in the shelter though.
Behind Boulder Shelter is the Home Lake Trail #893 to Constance Pass. If the weather is good, I highly suggest you go pay a visit as it is only 7 miles round trip without significant elevation gain until the steep uphill above the lake. It may be a bit overgrown in parts but nothing you cannot handle. The trail travels along the valley, crosses multiple small streams, and after reaching a rocky drainage, it quickly heads up to Home Lake.
Home Lake is around 5300' and while gorgeous and inviting on a warm day, it is a reasonably accessible subalpine lake so please do not swim in it or wander off trail—protect and respect these places. The trail continues up 500' or so to Constance Pass. Keep an eye out for goats as I have seen them skip over the rocks just downslope from me without a care in the world. Atop Constance Pass, you will have views of the Olympics and on a clear day Mt. Rainier to the southeast. On the flip side, you may also receive snow flurries in August, so be prepared.
Return to Boulder Shelter the way you came. Once there, cross the little stream and instead of heading heading back up to Marmot Pass at the nearby trail junction, go left to hike down to the Dungeness River. You cross at least three streams along the way, so in a normal snow year you should have no difficulty with water. The trail showed signs of recent maintenance in 2016, so it should be in fine condition for hiking.
In three miles, you approach the Dungeness River near Camp Handy, which has its own shelter and easy access to the river. Lots of space for camping. Be mindful of possible horse traffic here and remember trail etiquette.
The trail continues along the river for another mile before crossing it via a bridge. In another 0.5 miles the trail will cross Still Creek. Another mile after that the trail crosses Royal Creek and heads the last mile to the Upper Dungeness Trail #833.2 trailhead.
At the trailhead, you will see a parking area to your left just up the hill. If you go right and cross the bridge you will see another parking lot, this one has a privy! Head right and head up Forest Service Road 2870. In 3.6 miles you will reach the Tubal Cain Trail #840 Trailhead, which has a small parking area but is not particularly well signed.
Head down the trail and in a short distance you will find Silver Creek Shelter and Silver Creek itself. The trail is gradual with rhododendrons that eventually turn into forest. On a dark, rainy afternoon this was a somewhat unnerving trail for a solo backpacker, especially once you glimpse the mine shaft from the Tubal Cain Mine in a hillside three miles in. Shortly beyond this mine shaft is the Tull Canyon Way Trail, which leads up to a 1953 B-52 crash site.
Continue on and you will soon see signs of the mining that happened in this area. 0.3 miles further are a bunch of campsites shortly before you go right and cross Copper Creek. Past Copper Creek you start climbing along a long switchback. In another 2.4 miles you will see the trail that leads down to Buckhorn Lake, which has camping and water.
Note: I reached the Buckhorn Lak trail junction after dusk when it had just started hailing, which quickly progressed to snowing, so I was in desperate need of a camp. The trail to the lake is a bit rugged and there are multiple side trails to campsites that could easily confuse a weary traveler. Be careful of your footing and ensure you choose a campsite that will not flood if it is likely to rain.
Buckhorn Mountain, High Point of the Trip
From the Buckhorn Lake trail junction, you head up a series of switchbacks to Buckhorn Pass. To the West will be some truly spectacular views of the Olympic mountains. The trail continues up a ridge and you will see Buckhorn Mountain directly ahead of you with an optional trail leading to its summit.
Continue on the main trail and you will traverse around Buckhorn mountain and quickly descend back to Marmot Pass. From Marmot Pass you descend the 3500' back to the Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead.