With Spring finally sprung in the PNWet it was time to think about bike camping. We wanted to ease into it, but needed a route that was fresh as we’ve covered all the obvious South Island routes more than once. John McW pointed me at the Olympic Hot Springs across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and got the ball rolling towards an Easter Long Weekend trip.
Any tour that can be pedalled door to door and involves a ferry as well as hot springs is pretty sweet. There were some challenges: steep climbing, unknown snow conditions, a major road washout, closed trails/campgrounds and a bike prohibited wilderness section. My solution was to wear hiking boots to allow for easy hike-a-bike, carry lots of beer so we stayed hydrated and to be flexible about exactly what happened.
So on Easter Friday a group of 4 Dirt Hombres set off on a mixed menagerie of bikes from our homes to the Black Ball Ferry Terminal in downtown Victoria, BC. We lucked out with some spectacularly warm and sunny weather for the trip. Port Angeles is known for its rain and picking a weekend a couple months out was risky. The ferry ride was pleasant. It cost ~$25USD each to ride for us and our bikes one way. Getting on and off the ferry on foot was painless. I’ve used the same ferry with my car numerous times and it’s a tedious process.
Once in Port Angeles we hunted for some food and ended up at some fancy burger place that was actually pretty awful. I paid for that burger later with digestive “issues”. On the plus side they had beer so we drank a bunch of that. As soon as we started out from PA we hit significant climbing. It was a sunny day and traffic wasn’t bad so I just settled in and spun my cranks. The beers didn’t help, but I wasn’t so wasted that I pulled over and napped in the grass by the side of the road…although I was tempted! 😉
We regrouped at the top of the first climb. Deep into farm country on the side of a quiet rural road. I felt more sober. There was a nice downhill ahead. Life was good. The downhill towards Olympic National Park was fast and curvy aka super fun. Fun enough the fact that there was a really big climb ahead was not on my mind at all.
Rolling along the Elwha River we saw lots of flood damage. The river tore through campgrounds and roads like they were made of paper. As we entered the park we were expecting a washed out road, but that had been fixed at least temporarily. The road itself wasn’t open so the repaired section was just used by the Park Rangers as well as bikers and hikers.
It didn’t take long for the climbing to start. The first section takes you up to what remains of the Elwha Dam. They’ve decommissioned the dam so fish can do their thing. This meant tearing a strip from the top to the bottom [108′] and getting rid of a ton of concrete. It’s an impressive structure to build and an impressive structure to tear down. We stopped to rest and gawk on the way by. It’s amazing to see a trickle of water run through the bottom of what used to be a very wide/deep reservoir.
Running out of excuses to delay the pain we headed up the last section of the climb. From the dam to the start of the wilderness area is a solid leg burner. Always rideable, but with a 1x drivetrain and camping gear it certainly made you pay to play at the hot springs. With the road closed at least it was quiet and peaceful. We passed a couple hikers on their long long walk back to the car and one cyclist. As long as the road is closed you want to be a cyclist. It’s a fair hike otherwise.
Finally we hit the top of the road and faced the last 5kms of trail to the hot springs. It was a wilderness area and closed to bikes. We debated being badasses and just riding in. We talked about walking the bikes. Finally we decided not to bother and we stashed our bikes in the forest at the trailhead then walked in with our packs full of beer.
Luckily there was a toilet shack at the trailhead that was open because right at that moment I faced “the attack of the killer burger” and squatting in the woods violently emptying my guts would have not been as much fun. Enough said. 😦
I should note we didn’t hit any snow at all on this trip. There were some small patches of the white stuff at the very top, but it was almost all melted. In fact the trail was nearly 100% dry. We could have used road touring bikes on the trip as none of the gnarly riding conditions materialized.
The hike was pleasant enough and despite the darkness falling it was easy to stay on track. It would have been an easy ride had we brought the bikes. Eventually we got to the hot springs and luckily John McW had been there before so he guided us to the best soaking pool. There were some kids in it when we showed up, but they decided to leave. I guess the sight of 4 middle aged bikepackers was too much sexy for them to handle.
I’m not a hot springs person. I like them well enough, but I don’t spend much time going out of my way to soak in them unlike some of my friends who are drawn to hot springs like moths to a light. That said the pool we were in was quite pleasant at the end of a day with a bunch of climbing. My legs appreciated the soothing warm water. We sat in the dark sipping our beers and shooting the shit. Life was good.
When the beer ran out it was time to hike back to the bikes. Walking through the headlamp illuminated steam of the hot springs area was spooky. The trail was easy to follow and was mostly downhill. That was nice as I was tired and ready for some sleep. I’m a morning person not a night owl.
Back at the bikes we were too lazy to find a better camping option than setting up at the side of the road. With the road closed we figured nobody would bug us and we were right. So we fired up the stoves and ate some camp food before turning in for the night.
The forecast was nice so I left the fly off my tent to prevent condensation inside from getting us wet. I had brought my warm sleeping bag and that was a smart move as it got chilly up high on the mountain. With exercise done plus beer and food in me I was out like a light.
The morning dawned cold, but dry. We bundled up in all the clothing we had while eating breakfast and packing gear. Almost everyone had had a good night’s sleep. John McW learned that trying to setup a hammock in the dark while drunk was harder than it had seemed at home. He gave up and slept on the ground in a light sleeping bag. I think he’ll bring a different sleeping setup next time.
The epic climb up meant an epic descent down. So much fun! I wore a puffy jacket and long johns under my pants. I’m really glad I had them otherwise it would have been uber cold. The ride down was over so much faster than the climb up. As we were leaving the park we passed a ranger talking to a dog walker. He gave us the stink eye, but we kept going and got outside the park before he could ask us about our camping gear given that there were no campgrounds open in the park at that time. 😉
Our only climb of the day was a beast. It wasn’t very long, but it was far steeper than coming the other way. The good thing about steep climbs is they seem to be over faster although the pain is greater. Regrouping at the top we all managed to find a last beer in our gear so we pounded a victory drink down before cruising back into Port Angeles.
We had some time to kill before the ferry would sail so we grabbed some food and munched it in the sunshine. The trip back across the Straight of Juan de Fuca was uneventful. We ran into a PA area bikepacker and chatted about routes in the Olympic Peninsula area. It was cold on deck so we retreated inside and scored a booth with a table and heater.
Canadian customs let us back into the country without too much trouble. So we rolled back home mission accomplished.
All in all it was a great trip. Given how close it is to home and how much fun the riding and hot springs were I’d say we’ll be back each year. I think next year we will try to go even earlier in the year. The worse the conditions are the less competition we’ll face for the hot springs! 😉