The mighty Elwha River flows straight from the heart of the Olympic Mountains, charging through one of the peninsula's most scenic river valleys. Just 45 miles long, the river is born from the tumult of avalanches and soft snowfall high up on the Elwah snowfinger that runs between Mount Barns and Mount Queets. The river meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca just west of Port Angeles, and spring snowmelt and rains push turbid flows into the ocean water. For fish, this river is a special place: five species of salmon and four species of anadromous trout ply these waters. Two dams, the Elwha Dam and the Gilnes Canyon Dam, completely prevented the natural progress of these fish into their native habitat for most of the last century; the implementation of the Elwha Ecosystem Restoration project led to their incredible removal in 2014, the largest project of its kind, ever.
This moderate loop is a great introduction to some of the available trails in the scenic Elwha River Valley. You'll start at the Whiskey Bend Trailhead (where you can also take a 7.9-mile switchback trail to Hurricane Ridge) and proceed south along the Elwah River Trail above the river. Salal, fern, devil's club, and moss create a uniform green floor through which the trail threads, and mossy alders and new-growth Douglas firs form a dense canopy.
To enjoy upstream views of the Elwah River along this hike, take a right toward Goblin Gates just less than a mile from the trailhead. Here the river leaves the broad Geyser Valley and makes a hard charge into the narrow, rocky Rica Canyon. The site owes its name to the active imaginations present on Seattle Press Expedition, which explored the Elwha in 1889 and 1890; members were inspired by the dramatic shapes and shades in the canyon walls. Goblins or not, the river's abrupt, almost 90-degree turn at Goblin Gates is impressive and well worth seeing.
From Goblin Gates, follow the trail upstream along Krause Bottom, which is treed with the alder and cottonwood that has filled in the clearing efforts of the early settlers. Gorgeous views of the river abound in this valley, and particularly nice swimming holes and picnic areas can be hard to pass up. The trail leaves the bottom and the river for a bit but soon rejoins the river just before meeting the Humes Ranch cabin, approximately 1.3 miles from Goblin Gates. In 1900, William Humes let a brief stop on his way to the Klondike become a more permanent decision, and he established a homestead here with his cousin and his brother. The cabin has been well preserved by the National Parks Service, and it is entirely accessible for exploration. It sits on the edge of a beautiful meadow that goes a long way toward explaining Humes's affinity for the area. A backcountry campsite in the meadow south of the ranch is a great spot for an overnight stay.
Proceed upstream all the way to the suspension bridge to gain a view of the Elwha River Grand Canyon. The bridge makes an excellent turn-around spot, unless you have the stamina and desire to make the arduous 12-mile one-way trek up to Dodger Point Lookout Tower (5,733').
Once you've turned around, keep right to make it back to the Elwha River Trail and another historic cabin. This cabin was built in 1937 by workers who maintained trails and phone lines, and it sits on property that was owned by "Cougar Mike," who did the same kind of work and also gained a reputation as a cougar hunter. The property had previously been owned by Doc Ludden, who was as anachronistic as he was eccentric, tending to his bees and spearmint in buckskin. From here the loop continues in the downstream direction but remains on the ridge above the river back to the Whiskey Bend Trailhead.