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I awake early in high spirits, and although Appleton Pass is still socked in by clouds, they seem to be in retreat. The 2,500 feet downhill into the Sol Duc Valley marches the predictable progression from alpine to subalpine, and eventually into rainforest. A passing hiker (one of the "soggy four" from yesterday) lamented this trail as being "really rough... rocks and roots jutting out everywhere that you have to climb over." I have hiked rough trails before, and this ain't one of them... I guess it is all a matter of perspective. After passing idyllic Rocky Creek, the trail follows the Sol Duc River downriver. While not as sizeable as its rainforest neighbors (the Hoh, Queets, Bogachiel or Quinault valleys), the Sol Duc is still beautiful, and quite deserving of the attention it gets. Bookcased on both sides by daunting cliffs, the upper Sol Duc River froths down its own box canyon, daring brave souls to explore inside.

I am soon passed by a group of three determined young men (one adult and two teens), storming down the trail with serious demeanors and huge, overladen packs. Their trekking poles march in-step, as if on a mission of great importance. After a quick conversation, I find out they have just completed "THE LOOP" (that is the Seven Lakes Basin Loop, to you and I) and are on their way back to the parking lot. It is day four of their trip.
They are obviously very proud of their accomplishments, so I don't bother to comment that I am on day three of thirty-one in my trip. They did not ask, and they seem very content to hold sole bragging rights, so I smile and wish them luck on their way.

As I approach the trailhead of Sol Duc Falls (and the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort), droves of tourists with cameras and day-hikers with strollers predictably appear. They gawk (much as I do) at the half-demolished Sol Duc Shelter (struck by a felled tree several years back) and smile and point at the picturesque Sol Duc Falls (which I also do), labeled as such from a sign the bridge. After getting my own tourist picture, I scramble down to the river, shed my boots, and have lunch with my feet soaking delightfully in the cold running water. Some tourists are not sure what to think of this... I simply smile and suggest they might do the same ("it feels great!" ).

Not paying attention to the signs, I head downriver and take a wrong turn, ending up at the trailhead parking lot instead of following the trail another mile to the Hot Springs Resort. Not looking forward to a pointless backtrack, I walk the road (which will reach the resort anyway) for a short while, but my feet quickly grow tired of pavement. Knowing the trail lies less than a quarter-mile from the road, I hop off the pavement off-trail, down the steep hill into the deep forest, much to the urgent dismay of passing motorists. I chuckle to myself... I must look like a man committing suicide to them.

It is quite amazing, when you leave the thoroughfare and head into the forest without a trail to guide your way. Less than a hundred yards from the paved highway, my whole world changes into a scene of forest greenery and old-growth silence, containing no clues that humans have ever touched its soil. Hundreds of tourists wander about in a half-mile radius, but not a soul is here. A quick bushwhack takes me back to the wide trail, which I easily follow to the Hot Springs Resort.

I would take a dip in the maintained hot pools at the resort, but instead I simply gasp at the price ($10 to enter, plus $3 for a required bathing-suit rental), use the phones, and continue on my way. On the way up to Mink Lake, I take a quick break and am nearly killed by a tree (seriously!). Standing there eating a trailside snack, innocent and happy with the world, I hear a strange "pfffftttthhhhhhhTTTT!" noise approaching me. My heart skips three beats when a medium-sized branch hits the ground next to me with surprising force. I peer up at the towering 200-foot firs (what was THAT for?!?), heed their stern warning, and continue up the trail.

Eventually I hit Mink Lake, and am struck by its elegance. Rushes and sedges fill its shallows over nearly half the lake surface, providing cover for a wide range of freshwater life. The lake, it appears, is gradually filling with silt, in the steady process of transforming itself into a meadow. Trout leap furiously from the mirrored surface, several each second. Had I brought a pole, I could have caught dinner before my lure ever hit the water. I am the only one here, and I quickly find a wide campsite with picturesque front-porch views of the lake. I quickly decide I will spend tomorrow here, drying out my clothes and gear from the past nights of rain. Good, that is settled... I will spend tomorrow here, kicking my feet up and soaking it in.