The Three Lakes Trail is a tour of some of Olympic's finest old growth forests, and is the traditional start of the much longer Queets-Quinault Skyline route. Starting in lowland rainforest, the trail works its way through exemplary stands of montane and then subalpine forests before finally breaking out into meadows dotted with tiny lakes. This is a truly wild and remote corner of the Olympics that leaves a lasting impression on the lucky hiker who experiences its beauty.
The trail starts below a short terrace littered with wind-thrown giants from the winter storms of 2009. Nearly every tree was toppled, opening up the scene and allowing a succession of new trees to proliferate. The path winds through young hemlock and head-high huckleberry. Roots and rocks must be avoided as the trail climbs slightly into ancient forest.
At 0.5 miles join Irely Creek on its course toward Irely Lake. Old cedar puncheon takes the hiker across wet areas, and a log bridge with a rail crosses the creek just before the lake. At one mile a short side trail goes left to the lakeshore. Irely Lake holds water in the spring but is more of a marsh by late summer.
Continue right at the junction for Three Lakes. Cross a small inlet stream that may be muddy, then climb a terrace topped with old firs, spruce and a few big leaf maples draped in selaginella and licorice ferns. Now the trail climbs more, gaining the toe of the mountains. Oxalis covers everything here. Maiden hair ferns cling to wet rocks. Very large cedars appear to hold up the mountainside, their crowns disappearing in the dense canopy.
High above the canyon of Big Creek, the trail passes through rough spots which require extra care. Vegetation hides tripping hazards, and in places muddy side streams must be crossed. At 4.0 miles the trail suddenly drops down a steep side ravine on loose rocks and mud, and comes to the canyon floor. A metal bridge used to span the stream, but fording is now necessary.
Early in the season there may be too much water to attempt crossing. Enjoy lunch on one of the nearby logs or rocks if it's too risky to gain the other side. A possible campsite exists just downstream, and this is the last place to fill water vessels before Three Lakes.
The next two miles ascend 1700 feet over four long switchbacks, and the trail enters one of the finest stands of Pacific silver fir in the park. The forest is mixed with hemlock until the trail swings around the mountainside where it gives way almost entirely to Alaska or yellow cedar. A campsite sits to the right of the trail under one very large specimen.
At six miles a sign marks the stoves-only boundary. Just beyond it, another sign marks the world's largest Alaska cedar, which stands just north of the trail. It took many hundreds of years for this cedar to attain its 12-foot diameter. True to the nature of the Olympics, its top has been knocked off - possibly multiple times in its life.
Soon the trail breaks out of the continuous forest and into small meadows accented by bear grass. The largest meadow is on the right, is roughly the size of a football field, and provides a beautiful panorama of the nearby forested ridges. At 6.9 miles the trail finally reaches Three Lakes, the largest of which is nearest the trail, half-filled with sphagnum moss.
There are plenty of campsites in the vicinity. A pit toilet sits near the largest site, and has a splendid view. Water can be obtained from the outlet stream just north of the campsites. Frogs may croak well into the night, making it difficult for light sleepers. Other wildlife of the area include great blue herons and black bears, which famously inhabit the Skyline route.
For truly magnificent views, continue on the Skyline route for a couple more miles until the trail breaks out into wide open parkland where picturesque tarns lay like mirrors among shaggy mountain hemlocks that frame the rugged ridges of the southern Olympics. Watch the late afternoon shadows creep across the meadows and later the alpenglow that sets fire to the distant peaks before a star show you'll never forget.