Backpacking the Hoh River Trail to Blue Glacier is a beautiful 34 mile out and back trail. Don’t let this trail fool you, the first 10 miles are pretty level and little elevation. However, expect a steep incline, water crossings, and even the possibility of snow.
Getting to the Hoh River Trail
The Hoh River Trail is located in the north-west part of Olympic National Park, making it a bit difficult to get to. The easiest way to get there is to fly in Seattle-Tacoma Airport (SEA) and get a rental car.
The drive from Seattle-Tacoma Airport is about 4 hours. We decided to split the trip up since we had a later flight and drive to Port Angeles, since it is about the halfway point and then early the next morning headed
*Google Maps may try to take you on a route with a ferry, just be aware that this is an additional fee similar to a toll road*
When to Visit the Hoh River Trail
The best time to visit Olympic National Park and hike the Hoh River Trail is between May and October. This is when temperatures are ideal, and although I always expect rain in Olympic National Park, these tend to be the drier months.
We visited in early July and I would have to say we got very lucky. It was mid 70’s throughout the day, and very little rain. Towards the top of the mountain we did come upon some snow, which is to be expected.
Before You Backpack the Hoh River Trail
Like many other National Parks, you need to get a wilderness permit to camp on the Hoh River Trail. Wilderness permits can be booked online through Recreation.gov. As with many other National Parks, and with COVID-19 still being a factor, permits tend to go pretty fast.
Luckily a majority of the campgrounds on the Hoh River Trail have multiple sites so getting a reservation shouldn’t be as tricky as some of the other National Parks.
Recreation.gov is also a great resource to use to start planning your backpacking trip. It has plenty of trail information, campsite planning, and maps. Prices average around $16 USD per person per night plus a reservation fee.
Backpacking the Hoh River Trail
We arrived at the park at around 7:30am because it was a holiday weekend and we wanted to try to beat the traffic into the park. Luckily we didn’t have any troubles getting in minus a light rainfall. We had planned for our first hike to be on the longer side, at just about 10 miles.
Our plan on the first night was to camp at Lewis Meadows, there wasn’t much to go on or any pictures but we decided to go for it.
The terrain was relatively flat on this 10 mile portion of the hike. There were a few portions of up and down, but nothing too crazy. The trail was surrounded by lush vegetation and large trees. One of the unique parts of Olympic National Park is that it has a rainforest, which seems a bit odd for this region of the world.
Through the trail there were a few different river crossings, all of these have alternative routes so that you don’t have to go directly through the water. I will say I had a minor slip on the last one and stuck my foot into the water (could’ve been a lot worse).
It took us about 5 hours to reach Lewis Meadows and we decided to set up camp and relax for the rest of the evening. The campsite is as the name suggests, a giant meadow. There is a toilet, and bear hangs to use.
*There are campsites near the river, if you come at an earlier time check these out*
We knew that day 2 was going to be a more difficult day so we decided to make it a shorter hike, at only 5 miles. We packed up early and headed onward to the trail.
Although only 5 miles, it was about 1,700 miles of elevation gain of this short mileage. While the first 10 miles were pretty tame, this was a different story. A lot of switchbacks, and muddy slopes were in the way of our next campsite.
As we continued to ascend the scenery started to change and we were getting out of the rainforest. We reached a bridge crossing a giant gorge and this was the first time we saw a clear view of the mountains surrounding us, and it was breathtaking.
After a short break it was time to make the push to reach our campsite. We decided to camp at Elk Lake Campground. Similar to Lewis Meadows it had a few different campsites, a toilet and bear hangs for use. We quickly set up camp and took a short rest before deciding to head to Blue Glacier.
*Elk River Campground does not allow campfires*
From Elk River Campground to the top of the Blue Glacier overlook it was about another 2,500 feet of elevation gain and an additional 3 miles (one way). Thankfully setting up camp meant that we could drop our bulky backpacks and bring just a daypack.
My legs were definitely tired by this point, but I knew the view would be worth it. A little over a mile in we came to an interesting part of the trail you could say… It looked like a ladder going down the side of a cliff. There was a rope attached to it that goes about half-way down and then you must use the ladder steps to get the rest of the way down. I found it a lot easier to go up than down personally.
Once we got down that, it was time to go back up another incline (shocking!). The treeline started to open up more and more, which was an awesome site to see. I can’t imagine doing some of this trail while raining, there were a lot of steep and narrow edges.
It felt like we had been hiking for a while (in reality only about an hour) and we came upon Glacier Meadows Campground, the last campground along this trail. This was our sign that we knew we were getting close to the top. It was also the first area where we started to encounter snow.
We passed the ranger station, which is just some posts with a floor board. It was our final ascent up through some meadows where flowers were blooming until we got to a big area with an incline of snow. This didn’t look too exciting to climb, but we made it up and over and we reached our view point, Blue Glacier.
We spent about 30 minutes enjoying the view and even saw some climbers coming down and decided it was time for us to head back to camp. The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful, except going back up the stranger ladder.
We got back to camp around 8:00pm and had dinner. It was a pretty early night for us as we were exhausted.
*Exit Glacier in Alaska is also a similar hike as Blue Glacier if you ever have the chance*
We had made it to our destination the night before, so now it was time to head back down towards the car. We had debated doing the 15 mile hike down and all the way back to the car, but when planning it we decided to break it up.
We decided we would do another 10 mile hike down and stay at Five Mile Island Campground so that the following day it would be a short hike out to the car.
We started heading down at around 8:30 am (after a much needed bit of sleeping in), and the trail was not too busy. Going down always sounds like it will be easier, and even though it was faster than coming up the steep inclines add a bit of a challenge.
We made a push just to do all 10 miles in one go and since most of it was downhill or relatively flat it wasn’t too bad. It did take us a good portion of the day as I think by this point we were all still tired and it took us about 5 hours to get there.
Although there wasn’t anything wrong with Five Mile Island, this was probably my least favorite campsite of the trip. All of the sites were full, and it seemed to be much more of a group type of place to be.
We started a fire and dried off our clothes from the small sprinkle of rain that we had coming down the trail. This campsite does require the use of bear canisters, as they do not have any bear hangs. Like all of the other sites we visited it also had a toilet towards the middle of the campground.
The rest of the night was spent relaxing, and again an early night for all of us.
It was our final morning, and we were all pretty anxious to get back to the car. After a quick breakfast we packed up and headed back to the car.
It was only a 5 mile hike, but I had a flight to catch that night in Seattle so I wanted to make sure I arrived with plenty of time. Nothing really eventful happened on the rest of the hike back, until we were about a mile from the trail head. In the far distance off the path there was an elk grazing. It was pretty cool to see as there wasn’t much other wildlife on this trip.
We made it to the car and we headed back towards Seattle to get some food before heading back home.
Packing List for Backpacking the Hoh River Trail
This packing list is just an example of what I used for my trip, adjustments might be needed to fit your itinerary.