AN OLYMPIC JOURNEY
A photo journal of a Gravel Circumnavigation of the Olympic Range (GCOR)
Words by: Roy Liu / Pictures by: Will Harrison, Jeff Boden and Roy Liu
The Olympic Peninsula, in western Washington state, is one of the most remote areas of the country, lush with natural diversity. Forests of spruce, fir and oak cover the land at the base of glacier-clad peaks. Most of the peninsula can be explored by riding along U.S. Route 101. Off the main roadway, GCOR is a bikepacking route scoped out by Thomas Sumter that travels around the Olympic mountain range and mainly follows gravel roads that are part of the Olympic National Forest, Department of Natural Resources, and Washington State forests. The full GCOR route is 440-miles and almost 40k ft of elevation gain. A lighter version exists, which is 385-miles and about 34k ft of elevation, cutting out some climbs and challenging hike-a-bike sections.
My visits to Washington had been few and short. My first interaction with Washington involved a flight connection at SEATAC on my way to Spokane to race Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2015. A couple of hours at the airport were enough for me to take in the views of the impressive scenery of the state through the airport windows. That majestic peak covered in snow, the towering mountain range to the west and all the abundant greenery and clear blue skies. I know that may differ from the common descriptors of Seattle as rainy, cold and miserable, but that didn’t hinder the spark’s ignition. I decided to race Coeur d’Alene again in 2016 but spent a couple of days in Seattle after the event. It didn’t matter how sore my body was after an Ironman, I had to get closer to Rainier. I went for a hike, drove as far up Rainier as I could, explored downtown, Pike Place Market and the Space Needle.
Fast forward to February 2021 when I received a text message from my buddy Jeff. I met him while he was living in Miami through common friends within the triathlon community. He and his family moved back to Seattle, where he is from, in 2017. I’ve kept in touch with him through the years, but his message had a different purpose. He was planning a gravel bikepacking trip around the Olympic Peninsula. After not being able to accept previous invitations to go visit, this time it was different; without thinking twice my answer was “I’m probably in! sounds great! thanks!” followed by a screenshot of my flight booking and a text saying “here’s my almost commitment”. I never asked for details about the plan, yet I was all in. The plan was to follow the GCOR lite route and try to complete it within 4 days. Jeff kindly offered his family’s beach house in Harstine Island as the basecamp for this adventure. The group came to be four of us: Jeff, organizer and host; Will and Elliott, both teammates in Jeff’s cycling team in Seattle; and myself flying in from Miami. Will is a mechanical engineer and avid cyclist and bikepacker from Cambridge, U.K. He has called Seattle home for the last 4 years. In 2020 he raced the Atlas Mountain Bike Race in Morocco before the world entered an intermission due to the Covid Pandemic. Elliott comes from Ohio and worked with several nonprofits before taking a job as a Science teacher. He has a lot of experience in the outdoors and Bikepacking. He is also 6’-8” and that makes him the tallest person I’ve ridden bikes with.
I arrived in Seattle just after midnight on a Wednesday. After building my bike, I set off solo on a scenic route through new-to-me areas of the city along Freemont, Ship Canal, Magnolia and the waterfront by Elliot Bay. I hopped on the ferry to Brementon to cross Puget Sound and rode another 42 miles to Harstine Island. We would all meet there later that day; Jeff was driving and Will and Elliott were riding after work. A few beers, dinner and chatting, and then we were ready for bed.
The next day arrived and some were more eager to set out than others. I couldn’t wait! The plan was ambitious: we needed to cover slightly over 100 miles a day on mostly gravel routes to make it in 4 days. Summer days are longer, so long riding hours are possible, but there always must be room for the unplanned. We hopped on our fully loaded bikes, through the roads of Harstine Island, not without a quick stop at the Olympic Bakery in Shelton. We joined the GCOR route close to Skokomish and we hit the first gravel a few miles in. This Forest Service road also led us to the first major climb: a 3219 ft uphill close to Chapel Peak (3967 ft). The climb wasn’t too steep, hitting grades around 10%. The morning felt warm already as we ended up leaving the beach house around 8:30 am. It was now close to 10 am. Here was where everyone’s characters became more evident. Will and I climbed together all the way to the top, chatting, taking pictures and enjoying the views. We didn’t say it, but I think we each secretly tested out each other’s climbing abilities. I was gladly impressed. We waited for Jeff and Elliott at the top. They were not far behind, but Elliott was starting to feel the effects of the heat. This was only a prelude to hot weather over the weekend.
After a quick lunch under the shade of a tree, we descended along a gravel road that started in good conditions, but quickly changed to a few sections with sharp, chunky gravel on it. My descending skills aren’t as good as my climbing ones and that made me the slowest in the group going down. I found Will and Elliott on the side of the road fixing a flat. One of those chunky pieces of rock got Will’s rear tire’s sidewall. The tear wasn’t too big so he plugged it and we continued descending together. Jeff was ahead of us and we had agreed to stop at the next available source of water. When we got to the base of the mountain there was no Jeff in sight. The assumption was that Jeff was still ahead of us, but there was a slight chance that we might have passed him on the way down. The three of us regrouped and figured out a plan. There was no cell service, as is typically the case in these remote areas. A river with a not-so-easy access to water made for a good stop and that gave Elliott a chance to recover from the heat.
We were still about 40 miles away from Quinault so we had to get moving. Once we got cell service we heard from Jeff and found out he was about 1 hour ahead of us. An hour later, we rode into this place that looked out of a movie: perfectly groomed lawns dotted with lawn chairs overlooking the lake and families with kids running around and playing lawn games. I thought we didn’t fit in that scene: four sweaty and dirty cyclists with bikes loaded with gear. No one seemed to care, and we even got the occasional question about our route and whereabouts. Late lunch or early dinner was well received. It was best not try to push on farther that day, so we set on a nearby campground on the last spot overlooking the lake. The first 100 miles of this adventure were punctuated by a beautiful sunset by the lake.
Day 2 started bright and early. We got up at 5 am. Outside, it was already plenty light. The group rolled out by 6 am with a not-so-flat spin next to Lake Quinault towards Highway 101. We made a breakfast stop at the merch store in Amanda Park, and then traveled on to the base of our first climb of the day and back to gravel. The roads here are incredible. Tall spruce and fir trees form a canyon of greenery that make you feel tiny as you ride through it. A right turn into Forest Service road 2460 and the road would point up with a 5% average grade for 8 miles. But that figure is deceiving as some sections ramped up to 10-12%. After a mostly downhill 15 miles, we reached the Queets River. Not far from there, we would start climbing again for another 8 miles. A quick lunch break and flat fixed preceded a long and fast descent on asphalt by way of the Hoh Mainline through more forests until we intersected the Hoh River. We pulled over to filter some water out of the Hoh and as I wandered around my eyes caught a yellow blackberry-looking fruit-bearing shrub. Elliott told me they were salmonberries, which I had never heard of before. He also said they are edible so I went for it. It wasn’t as sweet as a raspberry but still liked them!
The asphalt turned into nice gravel, with short but steep rollers. We were cruising up and down until we found a downhill section that had a great view and was lined on both sides with colorful white, yellow and purple wildflowers. It also had what must have been the chunkiest gravel and boulders of the whole trip. There was no clear clean line to pick. It was a bumpy descent. Now we were close to Forks, where the Twilight series of films and books are set. We grabbed food from Sully’s Burgers and they tasted so good! We decided to make a push to cut down some of the remaining distance. We knew the weather forecast for the next two days would bring record breaking temperatures to the area and we wanted to avoid having to push for big days in the heat. After restocking at the grocery store, we rejoined the route and rode 15-miles until dusk. We set camp next to Rainbow Creek. Joel, their teammate from Seattle had joined us at that point as he was in the area for the weekend. Joel shared beers with us and then we all settled for the night as we were having an early start the next day.
The third day had us going by the northern coast of the peninsula. A long climb to start, covering about 2500 ft in 14 miles. The temperature was nice and the views were spectacular: peak after peak covered in evergreen forests. After taking a few pictures at the summit we descended along a ridge with a nice gravel surface. From there we hopped to the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) which is paved and covered by impressive spruce and fir trees. After crossing route 101 we joined what would be the first singletrack section of the day on the Mount Muller Trail. This section was flowy and not too technical. It proved to be fun and very different from everything else we had ridden up to this point. Tom Sumter definitely did a great job incorporating every possible riding surface into the course, except maybe miserable muddy conditions. The ODT led us to one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve seen. Surrounded by emerald-colored mountains, this body of deep, glacial blue water is called Lake Crescent. The 8-mile long path is gravel but mostly flat, as it was converted from a railroad track. We all wanted to jump into the clear, brilliant blue waters. There wasn’t an easy access to it and time was limited, so we decided to jump in where the lake feeds the Lyre River. It was the freshening that we needed!
The road pointed upwards and the route veered right into the ODT Adventure Route. This is a well-maintained 25-mile long singletrack trail designed for hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers. Our route skipped the first 5 miles and had us go with our fully-loaded gravel bikes through 20 miles of this. The trail was mostly flowy but made for slow progress. The trail had rolling hills and switchbacks, deep mossy forests and views of the Juan de Fuca Strait and Vancouver Island to the north. The average grade was around 5%, but some ramps went up to the high 20’s. Luckily we were descending those sections. We saw other people on bikes as well as trail runners. No one was carrying as much load as we were. As the trail came to an end, the forest canopy opened up, allowing more of the scorching sun to blast through. It was hot. We were getting much closer to the Elwha River and Port Angeles, our lunch stop for the day. As we crossed the bridge over the Elwha, Elliott explained that it is part of a restoration project, where a dam that blocked the flow of the river was removed allowing for salmon and trout to swim back into the upstream waters.
After eating lunch at Country Aire market in Port Angeles, we spun our way seaside on the ODT. As I found out, the Pacific’s waters are nothing like the Caribbean’s and getting close to the water here makes the surrounding temperatures cooler. The route here is much flatter and paved all the way to Carlsborg, our last chance to refuel and restock before hitting a big climb and more remote areas. The temperatures at this point were high, between 90-100 F. We stopped at Sunny Farms Country Store and Will got orange ice cream bars for everyone. Probably the most welcomed move of the day! From here the road pointed up and we didn’t know exactly where we were going to stop for the night. We wanted to push for as much as we could go because Sunday was going to be hotter than this. The next 10 miles had us climbing about 1500 ft before dropping 950 ft in the next 5 miles into Dungeness Forks Campground. By then we were out of fluids. There was no drinking water available. As we were getting ready to filter some water from the river a lady walked out of a camp site with a gallon of water on hand. We chatted with her and her husband as we filled our bottles. What a nice gesture!
It was almost 9 pm and we decided to keep riding. About one more hour of light was left and a bit over 2000 ft of climbing before getting over the next pass. Temperatures were cooler and everyone felt better. We rode on. The sun set down and darkness finally settled in, so out came the headlights. There was only one thing in focus: get to the summit and get off our bikes after almost 17 hours. We did it and set camp at the Sleepy Hollow trailhead. We only had a few hours to rest as we were waking up at 4 am to get back on our bikes. The desire to get back to Jeff’s beach house as early as possible and beat the forecasted 110 degrees was most important! As I laid down on my bivy looking up at the starry sky, I couldn’t help but feel the satisfaction of our accomplishment. Not the 118 miles we had just ridden, nor the 13.1k feet of elevation gained, nor the 17 hours spent on the bike. The connectedness that I felt with the three other people in this group had made this possible, and that was fulfilling. It takes like-minded people to make things work and get through challenging situations.
The hottest and final day arrived: day 4. We had to head south for about 100 miles along the eastern side of the peninsula. It was the last stretch. The motions were now mechanical: wake up at dawn, pack camp, get kitted and start riding. We overnighted just below the summit of Mt. Zion—for a change, this meant the first thing to tackle wasn’t a climb. I got a head start down the mountain with Elliott. We dropped about 3000 ft in 12 miles into Quilcene on a nice hardpacked gravel. A couple of flat miles in town before we had to point our front wheels up again. We thought about getting coffee and breakfast, but it was only 5:30 am on a Sunday and everything was still closed. The next 2600 ft uphill started along the Olympic Highway for 5 miles until we turned into Forest Road 2620. Here the sides of the road were lined with salmonberries and I picked the berries within reach as I rode by. We settled into our climbing pace and I was climbing next to Will once again. He and I are pretty well matched in terms of climbing, we can climb at the same pace and ride all day. 10 years in age separate us, so he’s probably the stronger climber and could drop me if he wanted to. The trees stood tall along the sides of the mountain, rays of morning sunlight filtered through, and temperatures were still forgiving. It was a beauty of a climb. We stopped at the summit to wait for Jeff and Elliott and I decided to pull out my camp stove and I made coffee with the water I had. It was well received. Next, a gas station stop in Brinnon to buy food for the road and grab a breakfast bite. From there the route hugged the coast, giving great views of Hood Canal.
The last big climb of the trip started with a right turn into Hamma Hamma Road. The road was paved but east-facing and exposed, letting the merciless sun through. The climb went on Forest Road 2480 for another 7 miles with grades hitting 10% at times. Elliott, Will and I climbed together, chatting about bikes and keeping the pace conversational when possible.
Towards the top, the vegetation opened up allowing views of Lake Cushman below. The descent was quick and followed by a flat road into the lake. Everyone was trying to cool down by the water, hence the increased traffic and full waterfront parks. According to my Garmin, the temperature now hovered over 105 F. We were all feeling the heat, but our tallest guy was suffering the most. We sneaked through a private community to get down to the lake. Elliott talked to the security guard by the boat ramp and he kindly let us through and we jumped in the water. The lake was crystal clear and refreshing. By the time we got moving again it was almost 3 pm. The extreme temperatures experienced in the Pacific Northwest, paired with the lack of air conditioning, had closed most of the stores and shops, making us fail at our attempt to get cold drinks. At this point we had 35 miles till the end, mostly downhill, but we were about to lose one. Elliott wasn’t handling the temperatures well. He decided to stay behind and maybe wait for it to cool down or be picked up later. The three of us kept riding under the heat.
Going down from Lake Cushman, the gravel was chunky and full of potholes; we were all ready to be done. Luckily, the descent was quick, dropping us next to the Skokomish River all the way back to route 101. This was it, 15 miles after our last stop completed our route around the Olympic Range! We completed 385 miles, but we still had 25 more miles to get back to basecamp. After a quick dip in a roadside creek, we had some punchy rollers back to Harstine Island. By now, we knew the end was near. Will got to the front and started pushing the pace, tucked down into an aero position. I took a share of the pulling and didn’t let the pace go down. Spencer Lake Tavern, 10 miles away from the beach house, proved a convenient stop for food and beer. We spun our way into Harstine Island and it felt like a victory lap. It was nice, easy and conversational, jokes were made. But we couldn’t forget that we were missing one.
Finally back at the house, we got out of our kits and walked down to the beach. At 7pm, the air still felt warm. I wanted to jump in the water regardless of Jeff’s warning about the sound’s water being 55 degrees. It still sounded like a great idea to me. Will and I started walking slowly into the shallow water, one step at a time. It was cold, but it felt great. Once the water was halfway up my thigh, I went all in. Will followed. A few seconds under water and then we stood up. It felt incredibly good. Just standing felt great on the legs, almost like an ice bath. Back at the house, as the sun went down tinting Mount Rainier in warm shades of orange and pink, Will delivered the best news: Elliott had waited out the heat and was back on the saddle turning cranks en-route to completing the course. Upon his arrival, a few celebratory brews brought this adventure journey to an end. Well, almost to an end – Elliott, Will and I still had to ride back to Seattle the next morning.
For me this was more than a new adventure under my belt: I spent quality time with an old friend, I met two great people that I hope to call friends from now on and maybe share more adventures with in the future, we completed a long challenging route in record-breaking weather, but overall this experience upgraded my infatuation with the Pacific Northwest, Seattle and Washington into the next stage.