Outdoors: Climbing Buckhorn Mountain
ALL IN THE NAME: Plenty to See on the Hike to an Accessible Peak in Olympic National Forest
By Aaron VanTuyl
Let’s just get this out of the way: Buckhorn’s a great name for a mountain.
Buckhorn, of course, is the name of a now-defunct beer brand, one of the few throwback cheap pilsners to escape appropriation from the hipster crowd — a more honorable fate, some would say, than counterparts Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rainier, Olympia or, in certain parts of Eastern Oregon, Hamm’s.
Buckhorn was produced by the Olympia Brewing Company in the 1970s, when the Tumwater landmark also churned out Hamm’s and Lone Star. After a series of sales, Olympia (the beer, not the town, though today some would say that’s in question) was bought by Pabst in the late 1990s, which perhaps means there’s a grounded argument to be made that all those memorable cheap beers of my adolescence DID all taste the same.
(Buckhorn’s one of the first beers I remember seeing, as it was popular with my grandpa, who appreciates the cheaper things in life. My other grandpa was a Rainier man way back in his day, though we later learned it was because he repaired the Rainier beer man’s truck and, thus, got it for free. Draw your own conclusions.)
This all contributed to Buckhorn Mountain catching my eye on the Olympic National Forest map. A name with some REAL history! Sadly, the mountain was actually named based on its twin peaks, which vaguely resemble two buck horns.
That being said, it’s a nice hike, particularly the first 5.4 miles, and cavorting between those two aforementioned peaks (East and West) is fun. Plus, goats are always a welcome bonus at or near the end of a traipse up a steep trail.
The Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead is easy to find with a mostly-paved road, until Forest Road 27 splits off to FR-2750. There’s lot of parking, a closet-sized toilet, and a big trailhead billboard with all the pertinent information you might want to read, especially if you’re staying overnight (I didn’t, and wasn’t).
The first few miles pass through mostly-covered old-growth forest, with the Quilcene River rumbling along to the left. It doesn’t start to gain much elevation until about 2 miles in, and even then it’s a steady grade without much high-stepping. There’s a few mild creeks to navigate, though nothing truly head-scratching or more than a few feet across or a few inches deep.
In the 2 miles between Shelter Rock Camp and Camp Mystery the trail pulls away from the river and starts to climb, passing through an avalanche field and then a lush green, though steep, wall of wildflowers. Above the seasonal colors is the first real look at Buckhorn Mountain and, to its right, Iron Mountain; don’t be confused by the angle, as Buckhorn (6617 feet) is slightly taller than Iron (6555 feet). From that vantage point, though, they’re both a bit intimidating, but pale in comparison to the snow-capped ranges in clear view of the trail.
From Camp Mystery — which is in no way mysterious — it’s less than a mile up to Marmot Pass, through some of the best grass-and-rock offerings the Buckhorn Wilderness has to offer.
Marmot Pass is a junction, with wide views of a handful of the Olympic area’s mountains. The Upper Big Quilcene Trail meets up with the Tubal Cain Trail; follow it south, and it heads up a ridge to Boulder Shelter, though part of that route’s still blanketed in snow. Follow it north, and it leads to Buckhorn Lake, and eventually to the 1952 wreckage of a B-17 and an abandoned mine shaft.
The trail up to Buckhorn Mountain is easy to see from the Pass, and less than a tenth of a mile from the intersection. It’s not marked with a sign, but well-worn, clear and exactly a mile (and a little over 600 feet of elevation) from the Tubal Cain Trail turnoff to the peak.
It’s a steep climb up loose dirt for the first half-mile, until the saddle leading up to the false peak. Don’t be fooled; though it’s quite high, there’s still a bit of a climb (and about a quarter-mile) up to the real peaks.
The trail up to the West Peak is clear, rising up from the dusty saddle to a dark, craggy spire.
A bit of climbing may be required, depending on whether or not you’ve brought hiking poles. It may also be guarded by mountain goats, though the only goat I saw Tuesday was basking in the sun not far from a snowbank. (I heard from another hiker that the same bully had blocked his trail to the peak about an hour earlier.)
Once you’ve hit one peak, you may as well hit the other, and the high point on the East Peak is easier to climb than on the West. From atop a scaleable rock, on a clear day, you can see downtown Seattle, not to mention Puget Sound, Mount Rainier and, on the other side, the Olympics. Pausing, gazing off into the distance and pretending you’re on top of the world is encouraged.
It’s a good adventure. The 5.4 miles to Marmot Pass go by relatively quickly, and the major elevation gains are mostly confined to one stretch fairly early in the trek. The Buckhorn Wilderness is picturesque, and Marmot Pass in itself is worth the trip. Throw in the allure of an accessible mountain peak, and the likelihood of goats, and Buckhorn Mountain is the best thing to carry that name since the cans disappeared from the grocer’s cooler.
What: Buckhorn Mountain
Where: Olympic National Forest, west of Quilcene
Directions: Take Highway 101 north toward Quilcene; take a left on Penny Creek Road, stay left on Big Quilcene River Road (FR-27), and take a left on FR-2750. The Upper Big Quilcene trailhead is 4.75 miles down FR-2750.
Hike: 6.4 miles with 4,300 feet of elevation gain; 5.4 miles on the Upper Big Quilcene Trail to Marmot Pass, then a mile up a side trail off Tubal Cain Trail
Is It Cool? Cool as a sixer of Buckhorn stolen out of your uncle’s fridge