Craig Romano | author Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula 2nd Edition
The Duckabush River starts in the heart of the Olympic Mountains. Fed by glaciers, snowfields, and a myriad of springs and alpine lakes; this major Olympic Peninsula river provides excellent wildlife habitat and makes for some stunning scenery. Explore this valley in the winter for the added bonus of solitude, a chance to observe elk, and to witness a rain-swollen river careening through clefts and over boulders.
Hit the Trail
The Duckabush River Trail is a portal into the wild interior of the Olympic Peninsula. A well-maintained trail travels along a good portion of the waterway allowing you to experience its grandeur. The trail travels a verdant valley for more than 20 miles terminating at Marmot Lake in the heart of Olympic National Park.
That’s a long journey primarily reserved for multi-day backpackers who often continue farther from there to cross historic O’Neil Pass. Day hikers however will be content to head up this trail for just a few miles.
An objective for many hikers and one that includes a good day’s worth of mileage and a little climbing too is to an imposing riverside knoll known as the Big Hump.
If the 7.8 mile distance and more than 1400 feet of elevation gain to reach this destination is too much, a satisfying turnaround spot is a nice stretch of river just prior to the climb.
The Duckabush River Trail like many of the trails leading along rivers into the Olympic interior begins as an old roadbed. Park officials, foresters and others once sought to punch roads deeper into the Olympics. However, over time, changing attitudes that emphasized preservation of areas free of roads and dwindling budgets that couldn’t maintain many miles of backcountry byways led to miles of roadway being converted to trails. In almost all of these cases this has meant miles of gentle hiking as the old roadways were often well graded. That is the case for the beginning of this trail.
Head off down the trail gently climbing through a uniform forest of second-growth fir. This part of the Duckabush River valley was logged—but it was many decades ago. The real old and impressive trees are yet to come. At 1.2 miles the trail enters The Brothers Wilderness, a 16,000-plus acre federally protected section of the Olympic National Forest. Wilderness designation means that this rugged and ecologically important tract of land bordering the national park will never be logged, developed or have a road traverse it. Bicycles and machinery are not permitted either, allowing folks who come to explore this area by foot or horseback a true wilderness experience.
The trail continues through a low gap near Little Hump and then begins a descent of 250 feet, following an old logging railroad grade on an almost perfectly level trajectory. Loggers here didn’t take all of the big timber as a few standing giants attest.
While this part of the Olympics is in a rainshadow, receiving around 70-80 inches of rain a year compared to two to three times that on the other sides of the mountains, mossy limbs and a thick understory makes it feel somewhat like a rainforest.
After passing a campsite the trail finally comes upon the Duckabush River. At 2.6 miles, you’ll reach a spectacular spot where giant cedars and firs hang over the churning, crashing river. This is a great spot to turn around and perfect for a good half day hike or one with young adventurers.
If you’re intent on tackling the Big Hump, continue up the trail preparing yourself for a stiff 1,000 foot climb. The way steadily and steeply at times climbs. Old-growth greenery is soon replaced with fire-scarred trees and burnt and downed timber. Here in 2011 a careless camper started a wildfire that scorched a large patch of old-growth on the Big Hump. Hardy fire-scarred trees stand among stands of fire-ravaged timber. While trail crews have since rehabilitated the tread here, avoid this section of trail during periods of high wind, as burnt snags are prone to toppling.
On a clear day you can see all the way to the Cascades. To the south, impressive St. Peters Dome hovers—often catching swirling low clouds. Return to this spot later in the spring and you’ll have an array of wildflowers enhancing the views. Keep hiking and come to another outcropping before finally cresting 1700-foot Big Hump at 3.9 miles.
For most day hikers, this is far enough. But if you still feel like hiking, continue through a mosaic of old growth and fire scorched trees and descend 600 feet back to the river. Here at 5.3 miles from the trailhead is a camping area near a series of impressive rapids. During periods of heavy rain the river can be deafening here. Watch for darting dippers in the rapids as you rest up for your return to your start.
And if you are a strong hiker or are out on a several day backpacking adventure, the trail generally remains snow-free through the winter for many more miles. Note that at 6.7 miles from the trailhead it enters the national park—meaning dogs are not allowed to continue—and if you are planning on camping, you’ll need to secure a backcountry permit beforehand.