Applets and Cotlets
The Appleton Pass area in the NW part of Olympic National Park is highlighted by Mt. Appleton and its slightly higher neighbor affectionately known as “Cotleton” (at least in peakbagging circles). For anyone who likes applets and cotlets, I’m sure you get the idea. (Although I read on the Wikipedia page for that confection that it’s apparently not popular outside of Washington State. That’s too bad if you don’t live in Washington because they’re actually quite tasty.) The two summits are less than a half-mile apart. Appleton has an elevation of 6000+ ft. Cotleton has an elevation of 6100+ ft (50-ft contour intervals).
Some might call the entire massif containing the two peaks “Mt Appleton” but to me these are distinct summits; furthermore, the words “Mt. Appleton” appear distinctly only on the 6000+ summit. So there are those that might only go to named summits on the map. These people would climb Mt. Appleton. These are the people who like applets. And then there are those who like to go to the highest point around, regardless of whether that point has a name. These people like cotlets. And then there are those of us (me included, I guess), that like both applets and cotlets. So whenever I get a chance to box them in, I go climb them.
By virtue of the low divide on High Divide at the head of Cat Creek, the Appleton massif is the highest point in the entire NW corner of the peninsula west of Mt. Carrie and about seven miles north of Mt. Olympus. There is no higher point in the triangular area west of the Elwha River, specifically its tributary Cat Creek, and north of the (main fork of the) Hoh River. This means if you’re fortunate to have good views you can see all the way out to the ocean to the west, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north and even to distant summits on Vancouver Island. Cotleton’s prominence is 1700 ft (clean), tying it for 222nd in the state. Cotleton’s isolation is about five miles. Appleton’s prominence is 200 ft (clean). Although Cotleton is the highest point in that triangular area, it is not the most prominent point. That honor is bestowed upon Mt. Muller
(2598P), and is additionally surpassed by Ellis Mountain (1880P) and Snag BM (1735P), both of which are quite a bit lower in elevation. However, Appleton does possess the largest area on the peninsula on the Washington 1k prominence cell map.
The Appleton Pass hike along with the Boulder Lake hike (both are serviced by trails), are popular day trips. So there can be a fair amount of traffic on the trails. But off-trail travel is still rugged. Both Appleton and Cotleton involve Class 3 scrambling with the exposure requiring concentration in more than one spot on each mountain.
There are no glaciers nor what appear to be major permanent snowfields, but there are small snowfields that remain all year. There is a lot of steep heather and steep, chossy sandstone and slates, the latter often forming compacted strata dipping nearly vertically to the point that the “sharp edge” is facing up. It’s pants ripper material if you fall on your arse or have to resort to crab-walking your way down.
There is a climber’s path up the East Ridge of Cotleton. It kind of ends at an exposed step/mini-traverse below the summit. This path is not a walk in the park but its presence is convenient. The South Ridge of Appleton also has a rough path and features a narrow ramp to bypass a gendarme. The summit of Appleton is a sometimes-exposed jumble of elongated orange-red boulders.
From Highway 101 drive Olympic Hot Spring Road south up the Elwha River Road, staying right at the ranger station, to the former site of Glines Canyon Dam (Lower Elwha Dam) at 600 ft. There is a winter closure gate here. Continue up the worsening, but mostly still paved, road up Boulder Creek to its end at the trailhead at Deep Creek, about 2.5 road miles from the hot springs.
Hike the road (it would be nice if you could bike it but I don’t think that’s allowed…it should be allowed). There used to be a fancy suspension foot bridge over Crystal Creek but this was removed in 2017 after flooding rendered it unsafe. Before that footbridge there was a road bridge you could cross (in a vehicle) but that was long ago. Now what’s there is a log bridge with a handrail. It doesn’t look like this new log bridge will last the next winter high water, but whatever.
Once past Crystal Creek, the road climbs up and rounds a corner to arrive at the hot springs. The springs are to the left, past an older trailhead outhouse, and across the river (there is a bridge). I didn’t think much of the slimy springs. The water temperature felt with my finger thermometer to be about 120F—a little too hot to sit in. One spring had a secondary pool fed by runoff from a bigger pool.
At the aforementioned outhouse there is a road that ramps to the right. This road shortly becomes a trail and enters the Boulder Creek Campground, which features several good sites. There is a connector trail that leads down to the hot springs that saves backtracking back down the ramp road.
Beyond the campground the trail up Boulder Creek starts. The junction for the trail to Boulder Lake is about half-a-mile past the campground. The Appleton Pass trail continues straight.
The distance to Appleton Pass is 7.7 miles, which is presumably to the point where the trail reaches the ridgeline east of Cotleton where there are four or five camp sites. The actual low point in the ridge (the pass) is about 300 trail yards west and a little downhill from those campsites. The trail continues past that down into the Sol Duc River Valley.
Along the way the trail passes a side-trail to the Lower Boulder Creek Falls, which we didn’t investigate, then crosses the Boulder Lake outflow, goes past Upper Boulder Creek Falls (short side trail), then crosses the Appleton Pass valley outflow on a high wood bridge with single handrail.(don’t fall!) at 2718 ft. The trail continues up the east side of the valley and reaches a meadow at 3900 ft. Cotleton and Appleton will be off to the right. The final part of the trail is up a few switchbacks and across a spring-fed stream that seems to flow a lot more than what the catch basin would seem to store.
The elevation gain trailhead (1825 ft) to pass (5000 ft) is 3200 ft plus a few ups and downs. Time from trailhead to pass: approximately 3.5 hours.
Climbing to Each Summit
There are two main ways to reach these summits. There is another way to reach Mt. Appleton via a traverse from Boulder Lake which involves climbing up and over the ridge containing Everett Peak but it is not described here. There are some reports on the internet.
East Ridge to Cotleton
From the pass (the lowpoint in the ridge, not the campsites), find a steep climber’s path that leads directly up the ridge crest. The route crosses back and forth on the crest to get around minor outcrops before traversing out on the right (north) side before crossing high along a talus basin at 5400 ft. Regain the crest and climb for a few hundred yards until a rock step appears at about 5800 ft. This step features a distinctive horn coming off the left (south) side. There may be a route to the left of the crest near this horn, but the “path” (now fading) leads right across an exposed heathery gully. Class 3 but with some awkward step-arounds and veggie belays. Once past this climb steep heather for 100 ft until the ridge eases whereupon an ascending traverse on the south slope can be made to weave through clumpy evergreens to reach the summit. The summit is a semi-exposed exfoliated crest. No register was found (in 2017).
1100 ft of gain from pass to summit. Time: 1.5 hours (it takes longer than you think)
Upper East Basin
There is more than one way to hike up to the upper basin below the east side of Cotleton-Appleton. These can be good down routes to avoid having to downclimb Cotleton’s East Ridge.
It does appear feasible to get to it from the meadow at 3900 ft. The idea would be to cross the stream and hike back to the right (north, downhill slightly) to a forest swath right off heavy brush. Climb up this swath for about 100 vertical feet to reach a talus slope below the lower buttress of the east ridge of Appleton. Climb up the talus hugging the brush on the left until a stream course (could be dry) is met at about 4100 ft. The stream goes right onto the ridge. Exit it left through a forest band staying as high as possible, to eventually reach the grassy slope above that can be used to sidehill up to the upper basin where some permanent snowfields exist.
Another way to get to the upper basin is to leave the trail above the meadow (south of the meadow) at circa 4100 ft, exiting the trail rightward to gain an open stream course or the trees and intermittent meadows to the stream’s right, and bear directly for Cotleton’s lower east ridge on a minor rib. It is also possible to stay on the trail a little higher but no higher than the last (leftward) switchback left of the “Spring” on the map at 4500 ft. The stream course is just to the right, possibly through a short 20-foot wide swath of tight trees. Hike up to the head of the stream course where it becomes a talus basin below Appleton Pass. Skirt the talus, arcing rightward on heather, through trees if you wish, to reach a open minor heather saddle. Descend 40 ft to a broad basin. This basin is snowfilled in early season or has a shallow pond later in the season. This pond is heart-shaped on the satellite image. Keep hiking NNW through the basin to the far north end. Another easy-angled snowfield may be encountered. At the north end of the basin, on its upper left side, climb up trees/heather to find a climber’s path that goes up through the heather to eventually turn left to arc around to the upper basin.
North Ridge of Cotleton
Continue hiking up easy open terrain to a snowfield nestled just below the broad saddle between the peaks. Turn left and work up to a notch at the apex of a snow finger. The finger can be bypassed in a moat in early season, otherwise it could be a ice-axe puller-outer, although the runout is benign. On the other side of the notch turn immediately left and climb up 50 ft of dirt and heather to the final summit crest.
It is also possible to take to Class 2 and 3 rock on the rib to the far left of the snow field. There are some exposed moves but it is not terribly difficult.
South Ridge of Appleton
Now the final completion of Mt. Appleton has two possible finishes: along the crest or from the basin below its SE side. The former is more direct if traversing from Cotleton but requires some exposed crest scrambling and a narrow, exposed Class 3 ramp ("goat ramp"); the latter is the good choice if not coming from Cotleton as it avoids the aforementioned difficulties.
To complete the climb along the ridge crest, walk over to the north edge of the snowfield below the broad saddle to work around the right side of a gendarme where a Class 3 step is required to get past it. Note what looks like a climber’s path continuing up the left side of the crest. Once past the gendarme, walk up an exfoliated, exposed vertically-dipping slate crest about 50 ft to a leftward traverse to some bushes. Beyond the bushes find a narrow ramp leading up and left to round a corner. There is a block at the midpoint of the ramp that has to be worked around. Class 3. After this ramp, traverse across vegetated slopes until a rib is met that requires a short 10-ft Class 3 climb up a gully to another leftward exit. Stay low or go high on the crest to reach the notch between the two 6000+ closed contours at the top. Keep going up and shortly thereafter reach the blocky summit with exposure on both sides. It’s not that
To complete the climb from the upper basin SE of the summit, simply climb up the heather/talus/grass slope that steepens and steepens until reaching the aforementioned 6000- notch. Continue as before to the summit. This makes a good down-route (avoids the ramp).
The peaks are in Olympic National Park, so you need a park pass to get to it...legally.
When to Climb
The peaks could conceivably be climbed year-round but there is a winter gate lower down on the road that will add mileage. Also, avalanches can be a problem.
Or you could go in from the Sol Duc side.
There are a few camping sites along the way on the Boulder Creek side and probably on the Sol Duc side too. There are good water sources too.