The Press Traverse is a relatively well-known north-south route across the Olympic Mountains, first completed by European explorers in 1890. These explorers were sponsored by the Seattle Press, and therefore their trip was called the Press Expedition, and their route became known as the Press Traverse. It took the original Press Expedition six months to blaze a trail through the heart of the Olympics.
The modern Press Traverse is 45-50 miles long, with 7200 – 9100 ft of elev gain (GPS vs. Strava). Low Divide is the highest point on the route, at an elevation of ~3650 ft. This makes the Press Traverse a great choice during a year like this, with the high country buried under a healthy snowpack. That said, there are several river fords along the Press Traverse that can be tricky, especially in the midst of early summer run-off. In addition, thanks to the long winter, the higher sections of the route are still holding snow, even though they are at a relatively low elevation.
Lindsay Tucker and I did the Press Traverse in one day (19 hrs 42 min) on Monday June 12, 2017. Prior to that, there was only one recorded fastest known time (FKT) for this route, as described here. To the best of our knowledge, no other women have attempted an FKT on this route; therefore, we believe we set the women’s FKT for the Press Traverse. Lindsay and I both agree that this is a relatively soft time that could easily be beaten in better conditions or with more knowledge of the route. Strava link here.
We completed the Press Traverse with two notable exceptions: First, we went from south to north, while the route is traditionally completed north to south. By starting in the south, we reached the bigger fords earlier in the day, in the hopes of crossing before snowmelt made them impassable. (Going from south to north also results in slightly more elevation gain overall.) Secondly, the original Press Expedition in 1890 attempted an unsuccessful “shortcut” up Goldie River, and we skipped that detour. Partly because the Goldie River section is not considered part of the modern Press Traverse route, and partly because it sounds awful. We like to run around in the woods and all, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
We spent the afternoon of June 11 setting up our shuttle, which involved dropping my van at the Whiskey Bend trailhead, and then driving around in Lindsay’s van to the North Fork trailhead. We camped that night at the North Fork campground and were on the trail by 430 am the next morning.
The first few hours on the trail were relatively mellow. We said good morning to a couple of frogs, and watched a giant bull elk crash through the brush. We attempted to keep our feet dry for the first few creek crossings, which was adorably naive in hindsight. Your feet are going to get wet on this route. Just embrace it. We finally embraced it ourselves at Wild Rose Creek, which was moving fast, but only 1-2 feet deep and approx 4-5 ft across. Next up was Elip Creek, which was also moving quickly, plus a little bit deeper and wider than Wild Rose.
After Elip came the big one, the Quinault. The park website reported that the Quinault crossing was 4 feet deep and swift, but we hoped that by getting to the ford early in the morning we might find better conditions. No such luck. However, we did have a bit of luck in that two wilderness guides were camped near the ford with a group of kids. They didn’t feel comfortable crossing the river themselves with the kids in tow, but they’d seen a couple other folks make it across the day before. They showed us where the others had successfully crossed, and also gave us some tips for staying upright in such a swift current (face upstream, plant your poles far in front of you, crab-walk across). Lindsay and I both attempted to cross where the trail met the river, but the water was moving so quickly that our poles were shaking in the current, which definitely gave us pause.
I decided to scout upstream, where the river braided, while Lindsay headed downstream to check out a potential log crossing, as well as get a sense of the consequences if one of us went in. She reported that the log crossing was unstable and the consequences of an accidental swim would be ugly, with several waterfalls downstream.
After bushwhacking my way along a steep and crumbling slope approx 200 ft upstream, I came to the spot where the river looked the most shallow and wide, and I went for it. Slowly, carefully, I picked my way across, maintaining three points of contact with the river bottom at all times. At the deepest part of the ford, the river was up to my belly button. I was grateful for my trekking poles.
When I made it to the other side I let out a little yelp of happiness and then ran back downstream to where Lindsay was waiting on the other side of the river. My legs were scratched and bleeding from the bushwhack, but thanks to the icy water my entire lower body was numb and nothing hurt.
Now it was Lindsay’s turn. We thought about having her bushwhack upstream to where I had crossed, but it was a nasty route that carried the additional risk of sliding downslope into the river. We decided that the place where I crossed didn’t look that much shallower than the main channel, and so she would just go for it where she was.
It turns out, my crossing point was definitely shallower than hers. We initially reported the ford as “tits deep” but upon closer examination of the pics, it looks like the main reason she was soaked up to her chest is because she was leaning forward into the current to maintain balance. Whatever. It was a gnarly crossing. There was a moment or two when I wasn’t sure she was going to make it. But Lindsay is nothing if not tough. She grit her teeth, put on her “ford face,” and managed to stay upright despite the best efforts of the Quinault.
It was pretty damn exhilarating to have us both safely on the other side! If I remember correctly, we threw our hands in the air and let out a cheer, followed by an awkward high five.
Next up after the Quinault crossing was the Low Divide. The park website said there was snow starting at 2200 ft on the south side of the divide, and since the website had been so accurate about the Quinault crossing, we figured we’d be postholing in snow starting at exactly 2200 ft. As it turned out, we didn’t hit any snow at all until 2900 ft, and even then it was patchy and inconsequential. However, by mile 17 and 3400 ft, the trail was completely covered in snow. The snow was anywhere from 1 – 4 ft deep, moderately consolidated in the trees and soft and mushy in the open areas. The next 1-2 miles across Low Divide required some route-finding skills. We were glad for our GPS, as well as the faint tracks of a party who had gone before us. The snow was completely gone just past Lake Mary.
After making it across the Low Divide, the only potentially tricky part left was crossing the Elwha at Chicago Camp. We’d heard that a tree had come down across the Elwha and created a makeshift bridge, but we weren’t sure how big or stable the tree was, so we were mentally preparing ourselves for another swift and sketchy ford. When we reached the banks of the Elwha, we were pleasantly surprised.
Here’s how you cross the Elwha this year: Climb up on giant can’t-miss log that recently fell across the river. Walk across log, stopping mid-way to lie down, bask in the sun, and stare at the river. Reluctantly get up, finish crossing, and continue on your way.
With the Elwha crossing done and done, all we had left was a bunch of relatively smooth river miles. At first, the miles seemed to fly by.
We saw a super cool giant tree that had presumably fallen in a windstorm and then been cleared from the trail. Someone had placed tiny wood pegs at all the larger rings, and scrawled “700 years old” on the freshly cut wood.
We saw what
we’re pretty sure were definitely not blazes from the original Press Expedition. (The Press Expedition used three horizontal chops, not one vertical.)
We ran down gentle, moss-lined switchbacks.
We followed an unseen bear along the muddy trail, stopping every 5 minutes to marvel at his fresh tracks.
And then we got to the point in these long-distance adventures where it’s not necessarily “fun” anymore, but it’s still rewarding. Our feet hurt, our backs hurt, we were cranky, we were awestruck by our surroundings, we felt nauseous, Lindsay was hallucinating, we missed our babies, we missed our husbands, the trees were so beautiful, we were so lucky to be out here, our feet hurt some more. The last few miles of a long day are always a bit of a slog, but they were even worse in this case because we expected to be done at approx mile 42-44, but didn’t reach the trailhead until mile 48+. I love doing math in my head, and was constantly calculating and re-calculating our distance/time remaining. I don’t think Lindsay will ever trust me again when I say “less than 2 miles to go!”
Finally, 19 hrs and 42 min after starting, we were back at my van. Contact lenses out, glasses on, delicious burritos and nectarines straight down the gullet. Women’s FKT for the Press Traverse, done and done!
Gear list here. We were glad for the poles, never did use microspikes, and didn’t wish for an ice ax.