You can see Buckhorn from the Seattle ferry on a clear day. Just look at the majestic line of snowcapped peaks on the western horizon, find the biggest mountain located right in the center (that’s Constance), and just to the north you’ll see a few parallel ridges. Buckhorn is the one with two very distinct knobs.
Around this time last year, I had planned to join Taylor “MG” G. on Buckhorn, but a profound lack of sleep and too much imbibing at a concert the day before caused me to bail at the last minute. Believe me, I have punished myself for my lack of good priorities ever since, and have spent a year yearning to explore the Buckhorn Wilderness. This weekend provided a second chance that I knew I couldn’t miss.
Taylor assembled the crew for the hike: Kyle D. and me would join him for a long day hike, and Luke A. and his friend Jake K. would backpack in with us and planned to spend the night on the mountain. It was decided that I would pickup the hikers from Olympia and drive the 2.5 hours to the Trailhead so that Taylor, coming directly off of a graveyard shift, could nap in the car (not enough sleep seems to be a theme for this hike). After the usual shenanigans of checking gear, tracking down coffee, and good music playing on the radio, we were off! And thus, the adventure began.
We rendezvoused with Luke and Jake at the Marmot Pass/Big Quilcene River Trailhead and hit the trail at 11AM. Two things to note: first, if you come this way, be aware that once you leave the main road, it is still a 50 minute drive on forest roads, paved and unpaved, to get to the TH. Second, yours truly was a little nervous about how late we were starting, but we were prepared with headlamps and were all experienced enough to say that whether we needed to turn around at Marmot Pass or would summit and come down in the dark, we would be fine. Onward and upward!
Buckhorn Mountain is a 13.5 mile RT hike with 4,468′ of elevation gain to the summit (6,988′). This time of year, we anticipated some snow on the trail in addition to the rock scramble at the top. We were correct. Based on temperatures and recent trip reports, we opted to leave the snowshoes in the car, and instead relied on trekking poles, the boot path, and occasional kick-steps for the hike up, and microspikes for the way down.
The first part of the trail wound through beautiful lush green forest along the Big Quilcene River where the noise of the rapids made it difficult to keep up conversation. We stopped at a riverside camping area (2.7 miles in, according to the map) to rest, for the backpackers to refill their water, and to gather information (some useful, some not so useful–there were definitely some characters out there this weekend) before continuing on.
After that, the landscape changed rapidly. Taylor told us to expect a bit of everything, from a lush forest to red mud to a snowscape to a desert. He was not mistaken! As we ascended and the trail left the trees, the terrain changed again and again. Although the heat (it was in the mid-80s in Seattle at the time) and nearly cloudless sky had us stopping repeatedly to reapply sunscreen and guzzle water, the beauty made up for any discomfort and drove us forward towards the tantalizing mountains that bordered Marmot Pass.
The group became spread out for a little while, the backpackers carrying twice the weight as us, and Taylor in true mountain goat form leading the way with Kyle at an impressive pace, while yours truly kept stopping to take pictures and getting distracted staring at the amazing landscape. Even so, we gathered just above Camp Mystery and prepared for the snowy push to Marmot Pass. Upon being asked how close we were, Luke summed it up as, “well there’s some slushy slush, then a steepy steep, oh yeah and also a slopey slope, then we will be there.” Darned if he wasn’t completely accurate! We crossed a few tenuous snow-bridges, hiked through a slushy snow field to the base of a respectable slope we kick-stepped up, then came out in a bowl that brought us to Marmot Pass. I couldn’t believe the beauty before me as we crested the hill and caught sight of the mountains beyond. How can anyone come to places like this and not believe in some form of God at work behind it all?
With the summit so close but our stomachs so empty, we sought out a shady tree fort for our late lunch spot and enjoyed a leisurely break, completely psyched by the beauty around us and excited to push on for the summit of Buckhorn.
According to my map (which no one would allow me to consult on the trail, lest we look like rookies, or worse!), the summit is only a mile from Marmot Pass. Be that as it may, it is a helluva long mile up a sand and gravel hillside alternating with snow patches, across a sunbaked ridge (the snow-cooled breeze was a godsend!) and finally requires a nice rock scramble at the top. Now the heat was truly felt, and Taylor’s description of a desert felt quite fitting as we headed out on the final stretch in the hottest part of the day.
The group became spread out, though always within an easy distance and with constant visual checks on one another as we made our way to the top of Buckhorn Mountain. On average, our arrival time was 17:00 so factoring all of the breaks we took, we summitted in about 4.5-5 hours. Very respectable time!
At the top, we spent plenty of time fueling up and hydrating, taking plenty of pictures, relaxing on the warm rocks, and drooling over the view. Taylor and I discussed the possibility of making an attempt on the looming figure of Mount Constance at a later date, and he and Luke looked further in at Mount Deception and Mount Mystery with the eyes of those who are called in their souls to the heart of the mountains. It is experiences like this with such amazing humans that keep me wanting to develop my own skills and continue to challenge myself so that I can climb higher with them.
Sometime after 18:00, we acknowledged the fact that we had to get down and back to the real world. We bid farewell to Luke and Jake, not without some envy as to their gorgeous campsite for the night. As the sun disappeared behind the ridges and the shadows firmed up the snow, we let gravity take hold and must have flown down the trail because we reached the car at 20:00 (well, to be clear, the mighty MG arrived at 19:45 and was waiting for us, but as I was carrying the car keys, I think we all know whose arrival was a bigger deal *winks*). That two hour descent was probably due to the fact that we only stopped to remove our microspikes and to battle with shoelaces, and once we were in the forest and clear of snow, we jogged a good portion of the last mile or two. While this was not appreciated by the leg muscles or joints, it felt good to be back in the car and on the road before dark.
I can see why Buckhorn Mountain is considered a favorite by those who have been there. The hike is challenging and physically demanding, but oh so worth it.
To follow our trail…