A worthy destination itself, Marmot Pass is also a crossroads for trails to Boulder Camp, Tubal Cain mine, and other points between and beyond. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.
At Marmot Pass, several trails popular with both day hikers and backpackers meet in a sweeping alpine meadow with a tantalizing glimpse of additional Olympic peaks beyond. The Upper Big Quilcene Trail offers a pleasant route to the pass, first tracking the upstream reaches of the Big Quilcene River (which is but a creek at this point) through mossy, old-growth forest, then gradually climbing the valley wall and traversing the alternating upland woods and talus slopes below the pass. Along the way, the stone-strewn mountainsides offer intermittent views of the crag-lined river valley and a surprising array of spring and summer wildflowers.
Although the trail includes no alternate routes or side paths before the junction at the top of the pass, estimates of its round-trip distance to the pass vary widely from as low as 9.80 miles/15.80 km to 12.50 miles/20.00 km. The 13.00-mile/21.00-km distance noted here is based on HesperosFlown.com’s personal experience. Regardless, the trail is a popular destination — expect to encounter a few other hikers, although at widely spaced intervals with plenty of solitude between. Mountain goats are commonly sighted along the trail. Enjoy them from afar and do not approach them, as encounters can be dangerous. Given the trail’s relative remoteness, no sounds of civilization intrude upon the wilderness tranquility.
Along almost half the trail’s distance, its namesake river plays hide-and-seek amongst jumbles of moss-capped stones and seedling-topped timbers. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
At its lower elevations, the trail is walled by a tapestry of towering conifer columns laced with a verdant weft. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
In late spring, Washington’s state flower, the Pacific, or coast rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) graces the trailside with giant blooms rivaling those of its hybrid garden cousins in form and hue. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
In the moist, riverside woodland, coralroot orchids flourish. In the upper left photo, a western coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana) displays its standard, magenta-streaked form, although significant color variation exists in this form and location. The uncommon clear yellow and white form of the western coralroot (C. mertensiana f. albolabia), shown in the right photo, also brightens the trailside. The spotted coralroot (C. maculata), shown in the lower left photo, is abundant as the trail climbs higher along the river. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
The queen’s cup, bead lily, or bride’s bead (Clintonia uniflora) bears an unblemished bloom in the spring, followed by a distinctive berry – something blue – in autumn. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16 and September 22, 2016.
Although a diminutive species of dogwood with springtime blooms characteristic of the family, the western bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis) derives its common name from the clustered fruits it bears in autumn. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16 and September 22, 2016.
Various fungi, here one of the many species of coral fungi, thrive in the moist litter of the forest floor. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
Several brooks dash across the trail and, when swollen with spring snowmelt, may result in dampened boots. Upper Big Quilcene River, June 16, 2016.
As the trail climbs higher along the steep-walled valley, it enters patches of drier forest, seemingly bereft of life in comparison to the lush woodlands along the river below. Soon, however, the trail reaches the lichen-draped upland forests. The lichens (here, likely, common witch’s hair, Alectoria sarmentosa) do not harm the trees, but take advantage of their airy perches for exposure to light, water, and nutrients. Upper Big Quicene Trail, September 16 (right) and 22 (left), 2016.
Lichens abound in the trailside’s old-growth forest. Sensitive to air pollution and habitat destruction, lichens are indicators of woodland health. Pictured here are likely a lungwort (Lobaria sp.) (upper left), a dog lichen (Peltigera sp.) with root-like structures called rhizines along its upturned edge (lower left), and descriptively named common witch’s hair (Alectoria sarmentosa), interspersed with darker strands of tree hair (Bryoria sp.) (right). Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16 and September 22, 2016.
Between swathes of forest, great talus slopes sweep from the eaves of Buckhorn Mountain. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 22, 2016.
Where the forest opens, views open across the narrow river valley to the line of minor peaks known as the Ridge of Gargoyles that terminates in the higher and separately named Boulder Ridge near Marmot Pass. Visible here are, from left to right, The Turret, Upper Gargoyle, and Boulder Ridge. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.
Even when the clouds that frequent the Olympics descend, look up for glimpses of the Gargoyles along the trail. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
The chocolate, or, checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) adds interest to the trailside stonefields throughout the spring, summer, and autumn. First come the distinctively pattered, nodding blooms, followed by heavily ribbed, upraised seed pods that grimace and crack open before releasing the seeds of another generation. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16 and September 22, 2016.
Thriving in stony soil, larkspurs (Delphinium sp.) accent the mountainsides with striking, neon blooms. This one is likely the Olympic larkspur (D. glareosum), given its shorter stature and location on subalpine talus, although it is nearly indistinguishable from the Menzie’s larkspur (D. menziesii) that shares its range. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
The wide-ranging sand dune wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) appears along the rocky slopes in not only its standard yellow form, but also its uncommon lavender variation. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
In its final ascent to Marmot Pass, the trail climbs through subalpine forest and meadows, seen here in a glance back down the trail. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.
Spires of young fir trees (Abies sp.) pattern the mountainsides below the pass. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.
Like torches, paintbrushes (Castilleja sp.) light the forest edges and subalpine meadows from spring through autumn. Although appearing similar, closer inspection reveals differences in the species. The earlier blooming harsh paintbrush (C. hispida) (top left and right photos) displays broader, more deeply fringed leaves and bracts (brightly colored leaves resembling petals) than the later blooming scarlet paintbrush (C. miniata) (lower left photo), which bears pointed, less divided appendages. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16 and September 22, 2016.
Similar, but subtly different, asters can be generally distinguished from their distant fleabane cousins by their ray flowers (the “petals” around the yellow disk flowers in the center). Asters, as in the left photo (likely an alpine leafybract aster, Symphyotrichum foliaceum), have fewer, though wider ray flowers than those that form the fleabane’s fine fringe, as in the right photos (likely the splendid fleabane, Erigeron speciosus). Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.
Beyond the final climb, Marmot Pass’s vast alpine meadow is attained. Trails ring the meadow and lead to a junction with several others at the top of the pass. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.
Snow often persists — and falls — late in the season at Marmot Pass. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
During the brief alpine spring and summer, the pass hosts its own wildflower display. Cliff dwarf-primrose (Douglasia laevigata) is one of the first blooms to appear after winter’s snows recede. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 16, 2016.
Set in newborn leaves of lupine (Lupinus sp.), raindrops shimmer like diamonds. Later, the lupines will loft characteristic spikes of pea-like blossoms. (This bloom was photographed on the same date, but at lower elevation where spring already held full sway.) Upper Big Quilcene Trail, June 22, 2016.
From the top of Marmot Pass, views stretch in both directions; here, eastward back down the meadow and across the now distant Ridge of Gargoyles. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.
Buckhorn Mountain looms to the northeast of Marmot Pass. From the Tubal Cain Trail a short distance from the junction on the pass, a steep, one-mile/1.60-km side trail leads to its summit. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.
West from Marmot Pass, the view reaches across the Dungeness River Valley to the expanse of Olympic peaks beyond. Upper Big Quilcene Trail, September 22, 2016.