Story and photos by Leif Nesheim
From Living on the Peninsula magazine, March 2012
Hiking guides, Forest Service literature and online trail reports all reference the “old” and “new” trailheads for the Gray Wolf Trail. However, the miles given disagree with each other, road markers and my odometer.
I rather easily found the signed trailhead (I’d been there before) but as it was actually 6.3 miles from Lost Mountain Road (instead of the 5.3 miles the Forest Service trail guide describes or the 6 miles on the sign at the juncture with FS 2875 a mile onto Slab Camp Road-FS 2870), I wasn’t sure if this was considered the “old” or the “new” trailhead.
I hiked it in 2004. Maybe there was a new trailhead a mile west of this location, as the park literature describes. Nope.
I decided not to bother with finding out where I was and just hike the darn trail.
Curious about Cat Creek
The “new” Gray Wolf Trail begins on the bed of a former logging road and I trod upon a blanket of brown leaves. The trail enters a small clearing with a view of snow-dusted Maynard Mountain and the entrance to the Gray Wolf Canyon. The river lies on the left far below down a steep canyon; to the right, the slope continues up.
After about a half mile of gentle, if mildly nondescript walking, there is a juncture with the Cat Creek Loop Trail. I hadn’t taken it the first time I’d hiked the trail so I decided to take it, as the description I’d read online said it was worth the effort.
The loop begins by descending steeply beside narrow Cat Creek. Then it ends at a T juncture with an unnamed trail. Either this was the old Gray Wolf Trail or the current trail switchbacked. Go left or go right? If I guessed wrong, I’d have to backtrack.
I had read nothing about any juncture with the former trail. Apparently some time in the 1990s it was rerouted because of slides. The closest thing I got was a reader’s trip report, posted last month, saying that the old trail was still passable. Nobody said a thing about the Cat Creek Loop intersecting with the old route.
I guessed the loop was a shortcut that cut off a switchback and headed left. I doubted my decision almost immediately. The river far below seemed to be staying on my right side much too long with no hint that the trail would turn around or head down toward it any time soon.
I saw signs that other hikers had passed by (tracks in the mud) so I kept going for a bit further until an overlook allowed me to see all the way down to the river below: no switchback. Apparently I had stumbled onto the old route. That would mean that the trailhead I had started on was the “new” one despite not matching with Forest Service literature mile descriptions.
I headed back. Eventually I came to where the Cat Creek Loop rejoins the main Gray Wolf Trail. (I should have gone right). Soon after this juncture, the trail descends to the river below.
The water’s rush grew louder as I neared the river. Soon the trail reaches the river’s moss-bouldered shore near Two Mile Camp (I think). The route traversed alongside the river through a deep forest of fir and hemlock, dark in the shadows of the basalt gorge through which the crystalline water tumbles over rounded boulders in a mad torrent.
Quite a view
About 1.5 miles in, the trail enters the Buckhorn Wilderness (near the camp). The trail was covered in ankle-deep water here for a short stretch. After the campsite, there’s a large area of downed trees.
After running alongside the river, the trail climbs high again — and presents a dizzying view of the gorge and white-capped mountains beyond before again dropping to the river. The trail flattens for a bit as it heads through stunningly beautiful forest giant trees, ferns and large, lichen-covered rocks.
There’s a second riverside campsite here. The trail continues a short distance beyond before a steep scrabble up a narrow route clinging to the hillside that brings scant reward. I stopped after climbing before reaching the end of the road, so to speak (the wayside trail detours around a slide before dropping back to river level). The bridge across the river is washed out and hikers must return. To explore the far side, hikers must use the Slab Camp Creek Trail.
Making friends? Hardly
I ate lunch at Cliff Camp (the last one before the final climb). While I was retying my sandal laces after the scramble back down had done a number on my footwear, my dog Dodge decided to get spooked by a group of five men, who walked into the campsite. Dodge wouldn’t stop barking.
I had to hurriedly finish tying, pack up my lunch and hit the trail. It was rather embarrassing.
I took the main trail back rather than the steep Cat Creek Loop. FYI, it’s not as scenic nor as steep so my recommendation is to hike the Cat Creek Loop (don’t forget to turn right) on your way upstream and return via the Gray Wolf Trail.
After reaching the car, I drove a mile east to find the old trailhead. Apparently it’s just west of the bridge across the river beside a large gravel parking area. Several men were target shooting there so I departed without snooping for the actual trail itself. The second rule of safe forest travel: Don’t disturb men with guns when unarmed and alone.
Leif Nesheim is an award-winning hiking columnist, former Sequim Gazette reporter and editor/general manager of The Vidette in Montesano. He can be reached at email@example.com.