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Backpacking like royalty in Olympic National Park's Royal Basin
posted by John : September 2-4, 2017

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Even queens and princesses walk like this

When planning starts for the next backpacking trip (usually just a few weeks after the last backpacking trip) I ask the kids what they've learned and where they'd like to go next. Lilly's last trip was to a lake with a short slack-day hike to a peak in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. She said she loved being at the lake and looking down on it from teh peak, but she wanted to be in the Olympics. And she didn't want it to be as crowded as the last trip.

Yikes. Kinda specific, don't you think?

But totally doable. With guidance from Olympics experts on Twitter I found that not only would Royal Basin be the perfect destination, but there were still some of the limited permits available for the days we needed! We could get there with a solid day of hiking, have a relaxed slack day with epic views, and hike out without too much trouble.

Royal Basin is on the eastern side of Olympic National Park and breaks up into three different areas. The hike along the Upper Dungeness River and Royal Creek is a pretty standard Western Washington hiking experience. We passed through dense old growth and open meadows with limited views, but plenty of water and wildflowers. The second section is from Royal Lake up to lush Arrowhead Meadow. Above that is the alpine Upper Royal Basin.

No surprise, it was the first section that was the hardest for Lilly. With little to really get excited about (other than a lizard and a nest of bees) it was a slow slog. We took our time and dipped our hats frequently to keep cool. In Lower Royal Meadow, just 400 vertical feet shy of our destination for the night at Royal Lake, Lilly melted down.

Again, this was no surprise. We all melt down in one way or another. Henry and Clara had already had their meltdowns (and recoveries) in the two weeks preceding this trip. Lilly is by far the most sensitive and empathetic of our kids. Her tears flowed freely as we sat in a campsite off the main trail. Experience has taught me that she needs to cry it out, sometimes on my shoulder, sometimes just sitting nearby. I think she cries because she's disappointed in herself, but also because she doesn't want to disappoint anyone else. She knows she's loved for who she is rather than what she does, but sometimes she needs to hear it again and that's what I did. While she's most likely to break down in tears like this, she's also the quickest to recover and regain a smile on her face. Soon we were back on the trail for the short distance we had left to go.

Royal Lake as a beautiful spot. It's surrounded by sub-alpine trees that are sparse enough to let lots of light through. They're the kinds of trees that have short, tight branches that can withstand tons of snow. The main trail goes to the west of the lake and led us past camp sites that were either taken or not exactly what we wanted. Rounding the far end of the lake we found the perfect spot. The site was on a little hill with views all the way down the lake from the entry, but the clearing for the tent was hidden behind some trees. There was room for a kitchen away from the tent and a perfect spot to stash the bear canister about 100 feet away. (Bear cans are required to camp in at Royal Lake. My bear bag, though proven as effective, is not yet accepted by all National Park units.)

We set up camp, filtered water, and went exploring. To the southwest of the lake is a beautiful meadow and a trail that leads to the seasonally-staffed ranger station. A group site, a spring full of cold, crystal clear water ran nearby, and the privy was down a side trail. Back at camp, we waded in the lake, had dinner, and entertained guests in the form of a doe and her fawn as well as the ranger that came to check our camp and permits. (We passed with a valid permit and appropriate camp cleanliness. Others were not so appropriately set up and got a stern talking-to.)

The next morning the lake was calm and smooth as glass, perfectly reflecting the cloudless sky. Our plan was to head to Upper Royal Basin for the day. As gorgeous as Royal Lake was, Upper Royal Basin was the big draw. To get there we passed by the ranger's camp and climbed about a mile and 600 feet. The trees became shorter and even sparser. Instead of being a forest they were clusters scattered across the valley and mountainsides. The trail followed the creek up until we were walking through areas that looked only recently thawed from last winter's snow. In spite of this, the berries were plentiful on the ankle-high bushes.

Ahead were barren slopes leading to jagged peaks, but the trail curved to the right and dropped to a turquoise tarn. The water was full of rock flour rendering it opaque and giving it an otherworldly quality. It absolutely deserved the name, "Royal Tarn."

Though there was no inlet, we followed the trickling outlet to a few interconnected tarns and watched as it tumbled down the valley. Lilly headed back to the first tarn and I took a detour up into the terminal moraine below Mount Deception. I found a small snow field amongst the rocks and filled my water bladder (remember, the one with an inline filter that makes the meltwater safe to drink?) and a plastic bag from my pack. Just over the ridge were two more small tarns that seem to get a lot less love than Royal Tarn due to the lack of a trail leading to them. (Since that's not a bad thing, let's just keep it our secret.)

I found Lilly stretched out on a rock near the lakeshore. I delighted her with my snow and we relaxed in the warm sun. Lilly began talking about swimming and I did my best to dissuade her, but ultimately I was unsuccessful. It was clear she wanted to go in, but more than that she wanted me to go in. I relented and slowly, slowly lowered myself into the chilly water. Why slowly? It was cold enough that it took my breath away when significant parts of me disappeared into the azure water. I worried that if I just jumped in I might not breathe another breath.

Lilly took a similar approach, but painfully slow as I waited for her. When she finally did come in she got right back out and dried off. I couldn't blame her because I was following close behind. We stayed on our perfect rock for another hour or so to warm up and enjoy the solitude. We probably only left when we did because another group arrived.

By the time we returned to camp the sun was near to setting behind the high walls of the valley so we had a quick dinner and then sat on Lilly's "Thinking Rock" on the shore splashing our feet in the water. It wasn't until our toes were beyond pruney that we returned to the tent and crawled into our warm bags.

The next morning had just a hint of a breeze and a few wispy clouds in the sky. We packed up early and were on the trail before the sun made it to the water. Our hike back was far faster than the hike up. We had no problem maintaining a solid two miles an hour so even with a few breaks we were at the car by early afternoon.

This was the only trip of the year that matched the pattern we've had for the last several years. On this and those previous trips we hiked in to set up camp, gone on a moderate adventure on the slack day, and then hiked back out. (This year Henry's trip had and impromptu camp relocation on day two and Clara's was intentionally a multi-destination trip.) More than either of the other kids, Lilly is able to find the beauty in everything. She didn't need the challenge of a 30 miles trip that Clara did or the "better" location that Henry did to make her happy. Granted, our site at Royal Lake was pretty nice, but even if we had been in a less than ideal spot she would have been perfectly content.

It's another example of letting your kids hike their own hike. That was last year's big lesson learned and it holds true. This year's addition to my guidance for raising backpackers is to be prepared to handle the inevitable meltdowns your kids (and you) will have on the trail. It only took me 10 years to figure that out. Who knows what piece of unbelievably obvious wisdom I'll uncover on next year's adventures... I can hardly wait.

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