Adventure Running in the Dosewallips Valley of Olympic National Park

19 January 2016 | Episode |

There is this trail, in a magnificent valley in the one-of-a-kind Olympic National Park, where amazing adventures can be had.  On the Hood Canal side of Olympic National Park, the Dosewallips River Valley sits, ready to explore. In early 2016, The Outdoor Society Trail Running Adventure Crew decided to head out on an adventure in to the snowy wonderland and the base of the stunning Olympic Mountains. 

dose6Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain some things.
I put the trails on the Olympic Peninsula into two basic categories:

The first category is my favorite for day hiking:

The steep trails, “quad burners” as some might call them, lead to incredible panoramic views. When hiking, I prefer to reach a peak at the end of those, but even a lake or a pass will do. As long as I get above tree line and experience ‘another world,’ I’m happy. If I’m promised a magnificent view or a beautiful vista, I don’t care how steep the trail. I’ll climb it on all fours if I have to. These type of experiences fill me with wonder and a complete sense of peace. These trails, and what I witness at the end of them, are what mountain experiences are all about.

Then there are the second category of trails:

Lowland trails offer little elevation change and are almost exclusively in the forest. These trails can go on for miles with hardly any change in scenery. They are pretty, no doubt. The joy you experience when crossing a little stream or standing next to giant, ancient tree draped with mosses, is something I am enjoying more and more. The problem for me with these trails is that they have always felt a little monotonous for day-hiking. Many of these trails do feed into trails deeper into the National Park, connecting with incredible hiking destinations. However, because the Olympic Peninsula is so vast, to access many of the amazing places in one day requires almost superhuman abilities.
Case in point: The Enchanted Valley, Glacier Meadows, and even, in some respect, up to one of my favorite places: Gladys Divide.
Most people who want to experience these trails take their camping gear and turn it into a multi-day adventure.
Nothing is wrong with that, it just is not really my cup of tea at this point in my life. I have family back home that I enjoy being around. I like to leave early in the morning, and be home before dinner.

Almost all last year I spend my time on ‘category one’ trails. The steeper the better. I climbed mountains, I reached peaks, I had an incredible year with my family and with my hiking and climbing partner Doug.

What does one do, when there’s actually a winter with snow levels dropping below 3000 ft. on most mountains of the Olympic Peninsula?

Snow adventures are for bluebird days and require good gear and even better understanding of avalanche risks. The mountains can be dangerous, and having to not complete an activity due to weather or unsafe conditions can be frustrating. Even with that,  most days, it can be hard getting motivated for the lowland trails. There is often little visibility aside from the forest, and few places to sit down and enjoy the view, especially in the wet winter days.


Mathias, grinning during a run along the Dosewallips River in Olympic National Park

What do you do with the lowland trails? Well, you run them of course.

Trail running in the winter is the perfect way to experience the wilderness, no matter the weather. You travel light and move fast to stay warm. Since you are running, within just a couple of hours you get to go so much further than if you would be hiking. Because the steep trail are covered in snow, you get to focus on the lower elevation trails that tend to get ignored most of the Summer.

This, in a gigantic nutshell, was my reasoning behind my endless prodding all winter to get Doug out onto the trails, but with running shoes instead of hiking boots.

With the snow sticking around making our usual hounds an uncertain experience, he finally agreed to take me up on my offer. We were going to run an epic trail in the Olympic National Park. He got to pick the length, the time, and the location. I brought the gel blocks.

During the second weekend of January, we took off to explore an area I hadn’t been before. Less than an hour north of Hoodsport is the Dosewallips National Park entrance. A little over a decade ago, several landslides damaged the access road to the park entrance. Park management, faced with mounting budget shortfalls reaching multiple millions of dollars, decided against repairing the road. The ranger station was shuttered, only open in the summer, and the access road turned into a hiking trail for good. Or until someone can find $2-3 million dollars.
The parks are in constant battle with the elements. Wind and weather damage roads and destroy bridges and access points. Rebuilding requires a constant flow of money, and the parks never have enough of it. It’s a much bigger story which requires a much larger conversation for another time.

Early Saturday morning, we drove as far as we could to the makeshift parking area. In the brisk winter air, we changed into our running gear and packed lightly.
The folks we ran into at the parking area asked if we were ‘adventure runners’ and having never heard that term before we owned it. Hell yeah, that sounded awesome. We were of on our adventure run. We became Adventure Runners.


The Dosewallips River near Dose Forks in Olympic National Park

We paced ourselves. We kept it slow. We wanted to go far and not burn out too quickly. The air felt crisp, but not too cold. After a few minutes the consistent pace warmed the body. The trail slowly wound its way up the valley along the river.
There was snow from almost straight out of the parking area. Immediately, we ran on a few inches of frozen snow. This took some adjustment, but I had strapped on my Kahtoola Nano-spikes for the first time, and I was surprised how great they worked. I felt sure-footed the entire time and didn’t slip once.
The wide trail winds it’s way along the Dosewallips River, gently gaining in elevation. For a good hour of running the trail makes it way along what was once the road to the ranger station deeper into the Park. We counted three landslide and washouts where the trail narrows, or redirects completely, which requires a bit of navigating, but not a lot. Overall, this is a an easy run.
At around kilometer seven, you encounter the truly magnificent Dosewallips River waterfall, one of the largest waterfalls I’ve seen on the Olympic Peninsula. The sheer power, especially in the winter with many boulders frozen over from the spray, took me by surprise and was a great reminder that I very much was on an adventure. This wasn’t just a run or a simple workout. I wasn’t just out there to collect miles. I got to run in a truly spectacular scenery and I totally should’ve taken more pictures.


The trailhead at the now remote Dosewallips Ranger Station in Olympic National Park

Another two kilometers and you reach the now-abandoned and boarded up ranger station. Still serving as the gateway to the backcountry, the way-finding signs are starting to look sad and buildings are shuttered.
We rested for a few moments, snapped some pictures and refueled.
Up to the ranger station we saw plenty of tracks on the trail. Not just human footprints, but deer, elk, and the occasional paw print of what could’ve been a bobcat or mountain lion.
As we strapped our hydration backpacks back on and headed further into the park the tracks disappeared. We must’ve been the first people in several days, if not weeks, venturing past the Dosewallips Ranger Station. Snow covered the trail and at times, we had to guess which way to go. A trail marker lead us on the Terrace Loop Trail, where we cut a path through the snow, chasing a few sun rays that broke through the forest. With over a foot of snow now on the ground, we had to slow down considerably. We still tried to move swiftly, but we had to focus on trail finding. At some point we completely missed a turn and had to track back for a couple minutes. Of course, this destroyed our splits, and if we’d been in this for the speed or the records, we should’ve picked a different trail.


Dosewallips Falls in Olympic National Park

This was an adventure.

The Terrace Loop Trail connected us to the trail leading to Dose Forks campground. With the sun already starting to drop behind the ridges across the valley, we reached the campground after another 20 minutes of solid running.
We stopped there. Checked our mileage, took several pictures, and refueled with some granola bars. With no sounds other than the rushing of the nearby river, the snow covered camp area by the river felt eerily quiet.
After over two solid hours of running and fast hiking, we were sweaty and the cold air reminded us we shouldn’t linger too long. We headed back the way we came from, made quick progress as the trail now slightly descended back toward the trail head and parking area. On the way back we stopped at a few more locations to take more pictures we had missed on the way in. It always takes me by surprise (even after many hikes and runs up and down mountains, I still don’t prepare myself for it) that the trip back is often faster, easier, and it feels lighter. Even though you’re starting to feel exhausted, you’re excited about the experience, you’re starting to look forward to a warm car, dry clothes, and good food, and well, you’re heading downhill – for the most part.


Running in the snow along the Old Dosewallips Road, leading to Olympic National Park

We started off on our adventure just after 10am.
The below embedded Strava data shows a moving time for 3:31 and an elapsed time of 4:32. This means we made it back to the car just before 3pm. We covered 26km (16.2miles) and a combined 1,129m (3,705ft) of elevation.

Let’s do more of those before the snow melts.

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