“I wasn’t ready for it to be over”, I admitted to Meg as we exited the trail in the Olympic National Park and prepared for the drive home. I am often reluctant to leave our campsite in the morning, the penultimate section of a backpacking trip. But to finish a backpacking trip and want to turn back and spend more time on the last half mile? That is unusual. But the Royal Basin route was so darn lovely that I could have wandered on the trail for days.
Passing through many different ecotypes that all somehow seem to perfectly describe the Olympic National Park, Royal Basin was a gem. Starting with an icy river rushing ringed in a lavish display of temperate rainforest moss, the trail soon became an enchanting forest with summery brush and wildflower interludes. By the time we reached our evening destination in Royal Basin, nearly all of the trees were gone, replaced with alpine meadows, rolling talus fields, and milky glacial tarns.
Moving through so many ecotypes ensured the trail was never boring and each region seemed so much more beautiful than the last. Some routes are sufferfests, but worth it for a few pivotal moments. Others are delightful escapes from hot city life, enjoyable every step of the way. Royal Basin was most certainly the latter.
Day 1: On the Trail
We were not expecting our day to start at the beach but there we were. After missing the ferry, we grabbed our morning pastry and coffee and sat beside the waves. Somehow, a trip to the Olympic National Park doesn’t feel quite complete without a little beach time. One ferry ride and drive down a forest road in excellent condition later, we arrived at the trailhead. After lazily putting our kits together we hit the trail.
It was immediately beautiful as the route meandered alongside Dungeness River. The trail gains and loses elevation but so gradually it felt like we were walking on flat ground. After about a mile, we turned onto the Royal Basin route and entered the Olympic National Park.
Royal Creek tumbled over inky black rocks, punctuated with turquoise pools. As we gained elevation, Royal Creek became a dull roar at the bottom of the valley and we entered the next zones of the trail. Chartreuse moss that glowed in the sun, firs, and hemlock stretched high. Then onto a dry trail with talus and dusty trails. Views of the basin where we were headed soon became visible.
We continued onwards, climbing steeply then traversing as we made our way closer to Royal Lake. Around noon, we rounded the corner and saw the green lake surrounded by green trees, peaks in the distance. We stopped for a little lunch and watched a deer nibble by the shore. Bugs were too voracious to stay for too long, so, with Upper Royal Basin in our sights, we left Royal Lake and set back out on the trail.
I was warned that the trip to the upper basin was a real terror and to be prepared for a steep, difficult trail. However, compared to the previous weekend’s slog, the route was far easier with flat respites at shelter rock and arrowhead meadow. After maneuvering the meadow, we crossed a creek and climbed the steep gully that would lead to the upper basin.
Soon more meadows were visible and we continued on the idyllic trail. As we entered the basin, a mountain goat looked down upon us from above. We passed the first camping site and got our first view of Imperial Tarn.
Day 1: Upper Royal Basin
It looked marvelous and we couldn’t wait to swim, frolic or generally enjoy its beautiful glacial water, but first, we needed to find a spot to pitch the tent. We rounded Imperial Tarn, but after pulling the map of campsites provided by the ranger, we realized all of the sites would be on the other side of the lake. We climbed the talus field and saw the open gravel pit that is the primary camping ground. It was…not great. There was one spot next to a tarn that looked lovely, but was occupied when we arrived. Otherwise, it was essentially a talus-lined parking lot with a tent every 30 feet.
Meg found a spot with a little more privacy and we were able to pitch the tent on flat gravel without impacting any plants so we dropped our packs and headed back to the tarns before the sun disappeared and the evening grew cold.
Leave No Trace
As part of the Olympic National Park, this area allows camping by permit only. Abiding by the permit system ensures that the sensitive environment is not degraded beyond repair. It is essential to only camp in the area your permit specifies.
While Royal Lake has designated campsites, the Upper Royal Basin has designated camping areas, closed camping areas and the requirement to camp on durable surfaces. When camping areas have designated campsites, please use those. When they do not, Leave No Trace outlines the best way to pick a campsite to ensure minimal impact.
Leave No Trace asks that you camp on durable surfaces, such as rock or gravel. Protect riparian areas and camp 200 feet from lakes or streams, and do not alter sites. Try to avoid making new trails, keep campsites small and avoid places where impacts are just beginning.
For the most part, our fellow campers all chose excellent campsites that followed Leave No Trace principles and respected the parameters of the permit, despite the lack of views. One group chose to camp on the side of the lake with alpine meadows and a spectacular view of the tarn, but unfortunately, in the section the Olympic National Park deemed unsuitable for campsites. The spot was also only about 15 feet from the lake and surrounded by an alpine meadow.
Don’t be those people. Following Leave No Trace principals ensure many people in the future will still have a chance to enjoy this landscape. If you do choose to camp in alpine meadows in an area closed to camping by a national park, know that I will be audibly cheering when a mountain goat gets really close to your tent to dig at your pee, after you peed on an alpine meadow about 4 feet from your tent. Just sayin’
We headed back to our campsite, set up the tent and prepared for dinner. I dehydrated risotto for the evening dinner but added too much water for rehydrating so it ended up more of a rice soup. Flavor was spot on though! With a French 75 in a can and a perfectly flat rock to cook on, we had a gourmet dinner.
After we finished eating, we decided to climb the ridge above us to see what lay at the base of Mt. Deception, the second-highest peak in the Olympic National Park. Expecting more moraines and perhaps a larger permanent snowfield, we were thrilled to discover several more pools and a bright milky blue tarn right at the toe of the glacier. It was a delightful color with chunks of ice floating in it, a completely different world from the one we climbed to get there.
We marveled at the lake until we started to get cold then headed back to the tent for bed. We kept the rain fly off until the sun went down and then snuggled into our cozy sleeping bags.
Day 2: Morning in the Upper Basin
Shortly after dawn, I woke up, grabbed my camera and headed to the base of Mt. Deception. I wanted to see the mountain in the early golden light. The previous day, we tossed around the idea of sleeping on the gravel bank next to the lake. Meg wisely pointed out that I would likely freeze all night, and looking at the layer of ice that formed overnight on the lake, I believe she was right. We found a beautiful, flat rock and spent the morning relaxing, doing yoga and taking silly sacrificial shots.
We returned to camp for a little breakfast, took a break inside the tent to avoid the bugs for a few moments then packed up our gear and hit the trail.
Day 2: Heading Home
We slowly made our way through the meadows, savoring every last moment. A few marmots made an appearance and we watched them scamper about. Before we knew it, we were back at Royal Lake. The mosquitos made it impossible to sit more than a few moments so we were back on the trail.
Having finished the rocky glacier section, then alpine meadow, and dusty, dry trail section, we returned to the mossy forest section. The time in the forest seemed to fly by as we could see we were getting closer and closer to Royal Creek and where it met Dungeness River. At long last, we reached the pool we stopped at on the way up, took off our hiking boots and put aching feet in the creek. Too cold to fully swim, sitting alongside the icy water periodically dipping our toes was perfect.
We opted to put sandals back on so we could dip our feet in more pools and slowly made our way back to the parking lot. We pulled over every quarter mile or so to admire another turquoise pool.
We reached the parking lot too quickly. Perhaps the first time in my backpacking life, I was disappointed that the trail was over, I was enjoying the walk back so much. But we had a long drive ahead of us, so we packed up our gear and headed back out.