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Marmot Pass

by Amanda Phillips
Marmot Pass

When I realized we would be spending the Saturday of labor day weekend in Port Townsend, Marmot Pass began calling my name. Marmot Pass and Home Lake were the second place I ever backpacked and the first place I backpacked with both Meg and Michael. It holds an extra special place in my heart for that reason.

Despite the beautiful location and relative closeness, we had not returned since that inaugural trip. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit a lovely location. I was curious if the trail would feel different after four summers of backpacking under my hip belt. I also worried that after seeing so many phenomenal places in Washington, this spot would feel smaller or less stunning.

I need not have worried. Marmot Pass remains spectacular and my love for backpacking has not diminished. I could easily return annually and not tire of these views. I don’t know how we picked such a great spot for a new to backpacking trip, but I am sure glad we did.

Marmot info

Day 1: Marmot Pass

Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness

We set out Saturday of Labor Day weekend without much of a plan except to spend all weekend on the peninsula and come back Monday night. Saturday night we celebrated the wedding of a dear friend on the Olympic Peninsula. If we were on the Olympic Peninsula over the weekend you better believe I was going to be backpacking. The original plan was to head over the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles and pick up whatever backcountry campsite still had permits available.

However, after spending the evening at a wedding, we had a bit of a late start. We opted instead to head to Marmot Pass, which wouldn’t require a permit and try to snag a spot with a little solitude. This would save us at least an hour and we could hit the trail by 1pm. It was also a little low on the mileage side which seemed like a con when we were planning a few weeks ago, but seemed like a definite positive as we were heading towards the trailhead, hangovers in tow.

We continued to move slowly after hitting the trail I felt pretty sluggish as we pushed upwards. Too sluggish to take pictures; my camera didn’t come out until we reached the pass, a true rarity!

Rolling mountains near Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Hillside near Buckhorn Mountain

We enjoyed the gentle trail for the first mile before it began steeply climbing through old growth forest. The miles passed slowly but eventually we broke out of the forest with fantastic views down the valley. We eventually made it to Mystery Camp where we filled our water bottles before heading to the dry pass.

Given how full Mystery Camp was, I started to feel a little trepidation about finding a spot on the ridge. The higher we went, the fewer spots available. And the more likely I was to be upset at retracing our steps. Sure enough, we pushed to the pass and I felt instant regret. The spots I remembered existing seemed to have vaporized. We stopped at the top and dropped our packs.

Man standing near cliff in sunshine near Marmot Pass

Sitting for a bit, I had a chance to look out over the peaks and up towards to Buckhorn peak. As we glanced about, campsites seemed to emerge. We found a site right next to where we were sitting and there seemed to be a saddle on the way to the Buckhorn where we might be able to pitch a tent.

We decided to take the closer campsite and avoid the steep trek to the saddle. Then I opted to go check out the rest of the trail without a pack…just to see what was up there. No reason. Not hoping to switch campsites. Just taking a look…

After finding that the saddle in fact did have an excellent campsite with magnificent views in every direction that seemed to match the Spider Gap campsite, I made us switch sites.

Man on ridge near Buckhorn Mountain
Rays of sun near Marmot Pass

We reached the other site, spent a little time relaxing in the sunshine, enjoying the views, then set up the tent and made dinner. By the time we finished dinner, the sunset was starting in earnest and we wandered up the route to Buckhorn for views. The lower the sun got the colder I got, so we rushed back to the tent and got under our sleeping bags.

Backpacking tent near Marmot Pass on the Olympic Peninsula
Golden hour near Buckhorn Mountain
Backpacking tent near Marmot Pass on the Olympic Peninsula
Sun setting over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Sun setting over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness behind man

The sky began to turn a vibrant pink and I ran outside of the tent every 10 minutes or so to see the rest of the sunset, only to get too cold and run back to the tent again. Soon the sunset gave way to darkness and stars came out. I drifted off to sleep only to be woken by a strong wind every few hours. Still, worth it to sleep on the ridge.

Sun setting over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Sunset over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness

Day 2: Heading Home

Sunrise at Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Mist over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness

By the time I woke in the morning, a golden light was covering the top of the opposite peaks. Realizing that I slept through my sunrise alarm (again), I quickly hopped out of bed and saw bright coral clouds filling the valley. Repeating the same process as the night before, I would watch the sunrise until it was too cold, run into the tent, worry I was missing it and run back out. Eventually the mist climbing through the valley reached our campsite and most of the visibility was gone.

Mist over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Mist over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Mist over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Backpacking tent in the mist over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Man with bear can near Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Mist over Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness

We slowly ate breakfast and packed up our space. I was reluctant to return home but knew the ferry lines were only going to get worse. Refreshed after a night in the tent and without overbearing sun, we quickly made our way back down the trail.

Woman standing on edge of cliff near Marmot Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness
Foggy trail on the Olympic Peninsula
Pool on upper Quilcene river

We stopped at one of my favorite pools along the river for a little rest and some lunch. Then it was back to the car and on the road. A quick stop for crepes before jumping on the ferry and the weekend on the peninsula was complete! Olympic Peninsula–you never disappoint! 

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