High Divide / Seven Lakes Basin
19 mi // 4,000 ft gain
Dates Hiked: Aug 21 – 23, 2020
Conditions: No snow, minimal bugs, surprisingly uncrowded.
Permits: Reserve your overnight permits at recreation.gov. National Park entry fee ($30/vehicle) also applies.
Trail Map: See here
Seven Lakes Basin and the majesty of the High Divide Trail have been on my mind for years. Between the tales of black bear sightings and the vast landscape of sparkling lakes, permits for this trail are a hot commodity. After years of trying, I couldn’t believe my luck when I found weekend permits 10 days in advance while casually browsing recreation.gov. Given the COVID-19 pandemic that’s been unfolding, Olympic NPS has temporarily done away with their practice of withholding 50% of permits for non-reservable walk-up backpackers and released them for online reservations. So if you thought you missed the window to snag permits for a trip to Olympic, permits are still available and there’s still a few good summer weekends left!
We grabbed the last permits that were available which happened to make for a great three day loop starting at the Sol Duc Falls Trailhead on Friday evening. Our day 1 consisted of 3.7 miles and under 2,000 feet of gain to the Deer Lake campground which was full of wild blueberries that made for a scrumptious oatmeal topping the next morning. The campground has a privy and plenty of marked campsites. Although we didn’t see any, the entire trail is known for black bear sightings so all backpackers are required to carry bear canisters and keep food and scented toiletries at least 200 feet away from campsites. We ended up getting caught in a heavy downpour that first night. Remember, 7 Lakes Basin is adjacent to the Hoh Rainforest and precipitation in the Olympics can change quickly. After moving our tents under trees for extra shelter and drinking our soggy sorrows away in the form of hot chocolate with bourbon, we retired to our tents in hopes of blue skies the next day.
Luckily, we awoke to blue skies and enough sunshine to dry our gear before we set off toward the basin. We made our way through switchbacks lining open meadows to a cool little section that was impacted by tectonic activity. Though they required some care while navigating, the eye catching splits in the ground, exposed tree roots and rocky scrambles looked like they were painted by Picasso himself.
Eventually we reached the junction for 7 Lakes Basin and the High Divide Trail. Taking the 7 Lakes Basin turnoff leads to a steep but jaw-droppingly beautiful descent into the lake-filled basin while the High Divide Trail continues on toward Heart Lake with views of the basin on the left and glacier-capped mountains on the right. We opted to take the left fork for 7 Lakes Basin to get an up-close look at the glistening waters in the basin.
According to maps and trip reports, it seems the standard way to finish the loop is to climb back out of the basin the way you come in and then continue along the High Divide trail. However, as we explored the basin, we unintentionally followed an unmarked trail that took us through the entire basin and eventually led us back up and out of the basin, reconnecting us to the High Divide trail. We estimated that this detour added 1-2 miles extra and significant elevation gain to the standard 19 mile / 4000 ft loop. The trail through the basin wasn’t on the maps (at least, not the maps that we had) and it wasn’t well signed (though the trail itself was well established). So there is a trail that can be followed through the basin to connect back to the High Divide. But you’re on your own in navigating it.
Once we reconnected with the loop, we followed the High Divide into the basin that Heart Lake, our campground for night two, sits in. We set up camp, made dinner, filtered some water and went to bed early as an unexpected fog came in. Luckily it passed by the next morning, when we rose early to watch the sunrise with coffee. We broke down camp, said our goodbyes to the bears on the distant hillsides, and began our trek back to the trailhead. Following the Sol Duc River trail, we made the relatively gradual 8.8 mile descent to the car in just under 4 hours with a few breaks.
Overall, I feel overwhelmingly grateful that we lucked into weekend permits during the prime window, after snowmelt and with (mostly) good weather. Hats off to the crew that maintains this trail – privies were always clean and the thoughtfully constructed stairs made many descents much more comfortable. The grade of the trail overall felt pretty gradual and the one section that was impacted by tectonic activity already has a crew building a re-route. This adventure exceeded my expectations which had already been built up pretty high. The absolute serenity of the pristine lakes is a memory I won’t soon forget. I would highly recommend exploring this area if you get the chance! And when you do, as always, make sure to follow Leave No Trace Principles so the lakes can remain pristine for years to come.