Upper Royal Lake Basin is one of the most picturesque areas of the Olympics. We did it as an overnight backpack, starting from the Dungeness Trail parking lot. The trip is about 2500′ elevation gain (if I’m remembering right) and 8 miles or so each way along a well-maintained trail.
Probably the most challenging part of this trip is simply finding the trailhead. You exit 101 via Palo Alto road and travel on several Forest Service roads to get there. Unfortunately, the roads are very poorly marked and the instructions that the Forest Service hands out when you get your permit (also accessible online) are wrong and confusing. We just followed the most well-used of the roads, and followed what signs there were to the Dungeness Trails. A GPS with a background map of the area would solve the problem. It’s funny since I had all sorts of detailed maps of our route printed out – I never thought just finding the damn trailhead would be so hard!
The route starts on the Dungeness Trail and then follows the Royal Creek up the valley. By the time we reached Royal Lake, we were absolutely swarmed by mosquitoes and horse flies. It was some of the worst I’ve ever seen – we jumped into the lake to get away from them for a bit, which was a huge relief.
The Park Service makes you carry a bear can. Since we had four people in our party, I opted for the larger container, which is essentially like carrying a water cooler tank in your pack. Hope you have room… Anyway, the damn thing weighs a ton! In the olden days in the Sierras, we’d just string our food in a tree. This of course has its own drawbacks (we once saw a mother bear send her light-weight cub up the tree to retrieve the food), but it would enable you to dispense with the can that’s just painful to carry.
From Royal Lake, we pumped water and ascended another mile or so to the Upper Basin. There is a little glacial lake there along with lots of moraine, meadows, and marmots. The bugs were relentless, so we set up our tent as soon as we arrived and I put on my head net, rain jacket and pants, and tried to make do. I don’t use repellent since I hate the idea of having that stuff on my skin and clothes, and I think the other people who did use it got bitten just as badly. As soon as bare skin is exposed for more than about five seconds, it becomes covered with bugs. They let up a tiny bit at night, when the all perched on top of the mesh of our tent, eyeing us hungrily with their little probosces just waiting for the chance…
The Park gave us a crude map of the Upper Basin indicating where to camp. We thought were were doing exactly what we were supposed to (camping on bare ground, not in the “No Camping” areas on the map), but about 8 PM at night the backcountry ranger came and told us we needed to move! Wow – that’s never happened to me before. We were already in our tents and I was pretty pissed that he hadn’t told us way earlier. Besides, elsewhere there were signs indicating no camping and we were camped in an obvious spot that appeared to follow all the directions of the map. Oh well… Fortunately, he said after a bit of scouting that we wouldn’t need to move after all. That’s not much of a backcountry experience…we might as well be car camping! The Park has gone overboard with these sorts of rules – they should control environmental impact in the wilderness (which we are always scrupulous in minimizing) by the number of wilderness permits they issue, not by dictating precisely where a party should camp!
But apart from this, the area is magnificently beautiful, with Mt. Deception and the Needles just overhead. I’d love to go back sometime when the bugs aren’t as bad to use the Upper Basin as a base camp for climbing the nearby peaks. There are also some off-trail routes that sound pretty interesting – the Dungeness Trail area can get pretty crowded in summer time and getting just a bit off the beaten track is a great way to escape the crowds. Mostly, the climbs of Mt. Deception and some of the Needles (including the aptly-named Incisor) are definitely on my list for a future trip.
Photos courtesy of Tyler Albert.
Upper Royal Lake Basin