Summertime has always been the time to hit the trail. With hundreds of miles of trails heading in every direction, it’s often hard to choose one. The elk may have been the first trail builders on the Olympic Peninsula. They tend to travel in single file while migrating to the high country in summer and back down to their winter range in the fall.
The first people to live here followed these trails making them their own. While generations of historians and anthropologists have insisted indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest lived along the seashore and seldom ventured inland, subsequent archaeological discoveries reveal that the Olympic Mountains were inhabited throughout the vast interior for hunting, fishing and gathering everything from blueberries to cedar logs used in the manufacture of canoes.
The first government trail was built by the U.S. Army Twenty-first infantry out of Fort Townsend in 1882. The trail was cut from Port Townsend to the forks of the Dungeness River before the project was abandoned.
In July of 1885 Lt. O’Neil and a crew of army mule skinners began building a trail north of Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge through country O’Neil described as “a crosscut saw business side upwards with the devil on one side and hell upon the other.” They cut a trail, parts of which can still be observed, to a point above the Dosewallips river where the project was abandoned.
In the winter of 1889 the Press Expedition, funded by a Seattle Newspaper tried cutting a trail up the Elwha across the Olympics. Emerging on the Quinault river the following spring half-starved and lucky to be alive after spending the winter in avalanche country. People are still looking for parts of the Press trail.
The most impressive trail building effort on the Peninsula had to be the Pacific Trail. In the soggy December of 1892, a group of homesteaders accompanied by a Jefferson County Engineer began blazing a trail between Forks and a group of settlers from Tacoma that were homesteading on the Queets River.
The country to this day can best be described as a brush-choked quagmire cut with deep canyons of rain-swollen streams amid impassable sections of blown-down timber. Just driving the roads that run through this country today is a good way to get lost.
Imagine walking through the swamps with nothing but dead-end elk trails to follow, a compass and only a vague idea of where you’re going. Of course, you would be soaking wet all day with no way to get dry at night. It took sixty days of surveying through the rain and wind to locate sixty miles of trail while living on a diet of bear meat and spawned out salmon.
Slashing the trail through the brush and blowdowns was only the beginning of the trail building project. If anyone walked on the trail the rain would soon turn it into a mudhole. After a season of rain, a horse would sink up to its belly in wet spots on the trail. There was only one thing to do.
They built what was called a puncheon trail, made from thousands of split cedar planks. When it was completed, the Pacific Trail was the only way by land from Forks to remote homesteads on the Hoh, Clearwater and Queets country until the construction of Highway 101. Amazingly, parts of the Pacific Trail have survived to this day. Walking on what’s left of this trail is like traveling back in time. The Pacific Trail is a monument to our pioneers and the end of the last frontier.