Thursday, July 30, 2009

Carkeek Park, July 30, 2009


It’s been too hot for Silverback and me to hike this week. We don’t have air-conditioning and the days/nights have been miserable. Last Sunday’s hike to Laughingwater Creek was the last “real” hike we’ve done so far this week. The car breaking down, plus waiting for a tow truck in the heat drained our batteries. Sorry for the cliché – this is what heat does to me. I feel about as creative as an oil spill. Or hot tar on a roof. You get the idea.

We’ve been able to get some respite from the heat – a picnic in Lincoln Park, a visit to the West Seattle library and yesterday a Scrabble game at the Senior Center. We brought our own game not being sure that the Senior Center had one (they didn’t). While the Senior Center didn’t have A/C they did have big fans and cold water. That helped a lot. Our brains got a workout – Silverback is a good player. I almost always win at Scrabble – this was his first time to play the game and we ran neck and neck down the Scrabble course. We both love words and it shows.

Today we went to Carkeek Park. Carkeek is one of my favorite “four season” parks in Seattle. While it didn’t qualify as a hike by any stretch of the imagination it just felt good to be outside. And as is so always the case – we carried cameras in the event we might find subject matter to photograph. We did manage to get a few photos – colorful beach umbrellas on the beach, sculpture art in the park and rose hips as big as tomatoes. We strolled the Wetland Trail though this time of year, it’s not that wet.

I waded in Pipers Creek where it flows into the Puget Sound, it felt great to wiggle my toes in the wet sand. There were the usual clusters of seagulls and Canada geese gathered where the freshwater meets Puget Sound, Mom’s with children cooling off in the shade, wading in the water, a few sun bathers in the sand. The heat made us a little silly; nothing wrong with that. We made up funny little poems about the park such as “fish ladders make the fish gladder”.

We stood over the railroad tracks on the pedestrian bridge and watched a freight train go under – it didn’t have a caboose. So many trains don’t have those anymore. I know it’s another cliché but watching or listening to a train always makes me feel lonely; that part of me that never had the courage to run away still festers within and old daydreams about running away and hopping a freight train die hard. No one describes riding the rails as poignantly as Loren Eiseley – now I must venture down into the basement and ferret out his essays to read again. The late Eiseley was a poet and naturalist; one of his books was entitled “The Night Country”.

Back in the 1970s I didn’t drive and didn’t have much money so I either took a train or a Greyhound to wherever I wanted to go. I traveled light then; just my clothing, my poetry and a lot of dreams.

We walked back to the playground and cooled off on the swings. Geezers on swings – why not? That’s one way to get a breeze albeit temporary. We found other pieces of art throughout the park, pondered those and wished we knew more about the artists and their work. The Sculpture Art in the Park will apparently be there until August 10. It’s fun to find them!

Carkeek Park is in North Seattle – it’s especially inviting in the spring when the orchard is in bloom and the gnarled fruit trees are surrounded by daffodils. You can also find semi-hidden snow-drops near the orchard early in the year. The park is also pretty in the fall. That’s when the salmon return to Piper’s Creek.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Laughingwater Creek trail, Mount Rainier


My first hike on this 6-mile trail to Three Lakes via the Laughingwater Creek trail was absolutely gorgeous. It was a comfortable day in early summer with many lowland flowers in bloom. While there were no dramatic views we enjoyed the ferns, moss, wildflowers, rivulets and the old growth trees. Most memorable were the Alaska cedars – many of them giants. That first hike was about three years ago.

This time I was leading a Conditioning Hike Series for The Mountaineers. The hikers who signed up for the hike were part of a CHS weekend campout at Soda Springs Campground off SR 410 so the plan was to meet at Cayuse Pass at a designated time.

When we got to Cayuse Pass our three hikers were there; a little tired from hikes the previous day (Mount Aix, Goat Peak) but more than willing to tackle another trail.

As for the weather – it was the beginning of what could become a record-breaking hot-spell. Fortunately, most of the hike was in shady, ancient forest.

We set out on the trail, stopping to admire saprophytes, bead-lily, Canadian dogwood (bunchberry) and columbine. We also stopped for several water/snack breaks – an absolute necessity on such a hot day.

By the time we reached Three Lakes and the patrol cabin we were ready for lunch. Sadly, there was no one at the Patrol Cabin to let us seek refuge from the swarms of mosquitoes so lunch was short. After lunch we looked around the lakes (two are nestled side-by-side, connected by a narrow strip of land) – the third lake is a little further along the trail. The third lake provides a view of higher country but we didn’t linger; once again, the bugs drove us away from the water.

We hiked down as quickly as we could; it was a relief to get back to the car. The hike is 12 miles round trip with about 2,700 feet of elevation gain. If we’d had more time and energy we could have hiked another 1-1/2 miles to the PCT. There are also a couple of abandoned trails near Three Lakes we’d like to explore but given the heat, no one had the energy.

This is a trail for hikers seeking solitude and the peace of ancient forest. The lakes are pretty but for backpacking we suggest waiting until September when the bugs are gone. This would make a nice fall hike; plenty of vine maple to brighten the dark forest in September/October.

Our adventure was not over. As we drove back toward SR 410 on Highway 123 we braked to a stop. Here was a dead car in the road and the smell of gasoline in the air. We stopped to offer help (though what we could have done is doubtful other than a telephone call). It was two young guys – they said they thought their gas tank had ruptured. We offered the use of a cell phone but they said a friend was on the way to assist. It wasn’t a good place for a car to die; right on a curve on a two-way road. We drove up to Chinook Pass, found the park rangers and alerted them of the situation. They said they would get help ASAP.

Silverback and I stopped at McDonalds for a cold drink before the hot drive back to Seattle. Then it was our turn for trouble. The car wouldn’t start. It wouldn’t go into reverse or into neutral. We had parked with the car facing the curb so we were unable to move forward as well. Had to call Triple AAA for a tow truck – they said it might be a 3-1/2 hour wait. In the heat, that was Hellish news to ponder. About an hour and a half later the tow truck arrived; he looked at the car, used the winch to get it off the curb and drove it around the lot. It sounded like something was dragging on the ground and it STILL wouldn’t go into reverse. So we ended up riding with the tow truck driver (and a dead car) back to Seattle. The good news is that we didn’t have to take one of the hikers back to Seattle (she needed a ride back to Seattle) – thankfully, she rode back with one of the other hikers. She wouldn’t have enjoyed standing around the parking lot at McDonalds in the heat, I’m sure.

The news is grim – about a $3,100 repairs to the car. The transmission went out (on a car with less than 49,000 miles no less!!).

Laughingwater Creek is a nice hike but there sure wasn’t much laughter at the end of the day.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Skyline Trail, Paradise, Mount Rainier (July 23, 2009)

Skyline Trail, Golden Gate Trail (Paradise), July 23, 2009

This hike to Paradise was a relief after such a hot hike the day before. The plan was to hike the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point and hike back to Paradise via the Lower Skyline Trail.

Though Paradise was shrouded in fog the flowers were abloom and the temperatures cool and comfortable for hiking. I’ve been to Paradise many times but I have never seen as many flowers as we saw on Thursday. Though some visitors might be disappointed to find Paradise fogged in the fog enhanced the brilliance of the flowers; the flowers are at their peak.

At lower elevations we saw pink heather, Indian paintbrush, scads of avalanche lilies nestled in the greenest meadows one could imagine. Bonsai-like evergreens stood out as the mist shifted around them, flowers at their feet.

Clumps of hikers passed to and fro; ranging from elders to families with teens and young children. Everyone we saw – no matter how old, how young - had fallen under the spell of The Mountain, in awe of the splendor all around. Everywhere you looked there was something to photograph. In fact, it’d be impossible to take a bad photograph in such a setting.

As we gained elevation the trail become more exposed and rockier with more snowfields to cross. All routes are easy to follow with wands where needed. No ice axes needed.
The fog cleared as we approached Panorama Point – Rainier materialized slowly through the mist, the glaciers on the mountain so close and sharp you could almost cut your hands on them. The fog swirled back teasingly, only to vanish again then reappear.

There was more than Mount Rainier to see. The Tatoosh range began to poke through the cloud cover and on a steep snow bank we watched students practice the fine arts of using an ice axe. Once past Panorama Point it became a moonwalk along the rocky trail, still with a bit of snow here and there.

Just past Panorama Point a sign directed hikers to hike the Upper Skyline Trail back to Paradise. The Lower Skyline Trail was closed due to snow and ice. The Upper Skyline trail was new to us and enjoyable with another perspective of Mount Rainier and more views of the Tatoosh peaks as the fog dissipated.

We paused at the junction for the Golden Gate trail, a shorter way back to Paradise than the Lower Skyline Trail. We opted for the Golden Gate - that saved us a mile.

The fog returned when we reached the first clump of subalpine trees; lupine blazed beside the trail with magenta paintbrush, bistort, Jacobs ladder, lousewort, valerian and cinquefoil. A marmot dashed across the trail below; moving too fast for a photo.

Soon we were back in the world of avalanche lilies and green meadows. We crossed Myrtle Creek on a bridge then dropped down to a viewpoint of Myrtle Falls before stepping off the trail into the parking lot, slightly dazed as if we had just awakened from a dream.

Getting to the trailhead: Drive to Paradise from the Nisqually entrance of Mount Rainier National Park and park on the Valley Road (parking is limited to two hours in the upper lot except for overnight guests). Find the trail next to the climber’s lodge. The trails at Paradise are all well signed.

Standup Creek Trail (Teanaway), July 22, 2009

Standup Creek (Teanaway) July 22, 2009

In early July Standup Creek makes a dandy wildflower hike. Since the trail is seldom described in guidebooks there’s a good chance you’ll have the trail to yourself. Its next-door neighbor, the Stafford Creek trail is much more popular. A couple years ago we lead a one-way hike with a car shuttle and car-key exchange. One group (my group) went up Standup Creek and down Stafford Creek and vice versa. We exchanged keys mid-way. You can walk between the trailheads if you’re alone but add another 3-1/2 miles or so to do the road walk.

In late July it was a different story. Given the heat most of the flowers were past prime; we even saw pearly everlasting and yarrow, both late summer flowers. Fireweed is blooming at lower elevations – we also saw a little bit of columbine, scarlet gilia and in rocky areas a couple varieties of stonecrop.

The road to the Standup Creek trailhead branches off from the Stafford Creek Road, about a mile from Forest Road 9737 (Teanaway Road). The first mile of the Stafford Creek road was rough but the Standup Creek road was worse. Our party made it in two passenger cars but just barely.

The first stretch of the trail was level – there are about seven crossings of Standup Creek (no bridge). It’s been so hot and dry that a couple of the streams had run dry. In May and June these crossings are more “interesting”.

After we finished with the stream crossings we were out in the open as the trail climbs a headwall in switchbacks. Some shrubs were in bloom beside the switchbacks but the tread was dry and pea-sized rocks made for an interesting descent on our way down. As we looked down into the Standup Creek drainage we looked with horror upon mostly brown pine trees, a result of pine bark beetle infestation. If – or when – a fire starts in this drainage it will flare up into a monster.

We’d hoped to reach the pass between the Stafford Creek drainage and Standup Creek but it was not to be. The heat was too much for my friends so they stopped to wait. We were still quite a ways from the pass so I only hiked a little further, wishing the pass were closer (I remember how beautiful the views are from the pass). I didn’t want to leave my companions for long so I turned around. They were not all that far behind me but heat exhaustion can be a factor when temperatures are in the mid-90s on an open slope in the sun. We all took an extended break on a shady outcropping before tackling the heat again.

You’d think hiking downhill would be a breeze after hiking uphill on a hot day. Not so – walking down the trail was even worse than climbing. It was literally like walking into an oven and it took us as long to go down as it did to climb to our end point.

The last stretch of the trail we shared with a herd of black cows – that is free-range country. They were the only “hikers” we met all day.

Getting to the trailhead: From Seattle drive I-90 and past Cle Elum get off at the exit for SR 970 north, continue to North Fork Teanaway Road to 29 Pines Campground. Turn onto Forest Road 9737 (gravel), and in about 2 miles turn right onto Stafford Creek Road. Drive about a mile and park near the junction with the Standup Creek road (left) or – at your own risk – carry on to the trailhead, a rough mile. The map is Green Trails No. 209 Mount Stuart. There is room for about 4-5 vehicles at the most. A NW Forest Pass is required.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Grand Park via Sunrise, July 18, 2009

Grand Park from Sunrise (Mount Rainier National Park)

A few days ago we hiked to Berkeley Park but didn’t have enough time to continue to Grand Park. Plus, there were still significant snow patches across the trail past Berkeley Camp. The hike to Berkeley Park has recently described in this blog so there isn’t much more to say about it other than that more flowers have popped up in the last few days. Last weeks flower show was incredible and it’s hard to imagine the wildflower displays could be better – but they were. There are flowers from the trailhead all the way into Grand Park.

The hike starts out on the Sourdough Ridge trail from the Sunrise Parking lot. We followed the trail to a 5-way junction just past Frozen Lake, following signs for Berkeley/Grand Park.

The watermelon-colored snow we saw last week has mostly gone – the few patches of snow that remain on the trail between Berkeley Park and Frozen Lake will likely be gone by the time I finish this write-up.

This was a Mountaineer hike (Seattle branch) and it was co-led by my friend, Caroline. Another friend of ours, Jan, also signed up for the hike and we carpooled together. There were the usual last-minute cell phone calls from Mountaineer members regarding carpool questions/concerns but it all worked. One of our hikers called to say she had a flat tire and suggested we hike without her, she didn’t think she could catch up. I asked her what she was wearing. “A green shirt” she said so I kept a mental note of that, not expecting to see her. About a mile into the hike we took a break; as I looked back I saw a solo gal in a green shirt. Lo and behold, it was our hiker who managed to catch up to us; a happy ending to a bad morning for her.

As we descended into Berkeley Park there were fewer hikers on the trail but more flowers with every step we took. The Western pasqueflowers were starting to look a little geriatric, as were glacier lilies; avalanche lilies were still in bloom at lower elevations.

After taking a short break at Berkeley Camp we continued on our next stretch, an “up” into Grand Park. The last stretch started out steep but the grade lessened – finally, we were in Grand Park with a picture postcard view of Mount Rainier. The bugs were pretty bad though and the flowers had not yet reached their peak. The meadows were still a fresh, new shade of green. Our hoped-for lazy lunch was cut short due to the bugs; we think they had recently hatched as they were voracious.

After our brief visit at Grand Park we retraced our route back to Berkeley Camp. None of us looked forward to the climb out of Berkeley Park back to Sunrise in the harsh sunlight but there was no choice. We took our time, stopping to drink liquids and rest as needed. Myself, and a couple other hikers with cameras, also stopped for photos along the way.
We began to encounter the crowds as we approached Frozen Lake but this is to be expected on a nice day, especially when entrance into the national parks is free.

I can’t speak for anyone else but on the last stretch (Frozen Lake junction to Sunrise) I enjoyed the “people watching”. There were families on the trail of just about every nationality you can think of; I was happy to see them. The trails close to Sunrise are for everyone; not just hikers setting out to reach a destination.

We stopped at Wapiti Woolies on the way home for a cold treat; I recommend the huckleberry ice cream. The traffic from the King County Fair never turned out to be a problem, much to our relief.

Stats: 7 hours round trip (including lunch), about 2,000 feet gain with the ups/downs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Crystal Peak, July 15, 2009


This is a steep trail but so rewarding you might not notice how steep until you descend 3,100 feet back to the trailhead. Be sure to get an early start to beat the heat.

The first 1.3-mile of the trail starts out as one with the Crystal Lakes trail; mercifully, it’s in the shade. After crossing Crystal Creek on a footbridge the trail climbs through old-growth forest. Note charred Douglas firs along the switchbacks. In a bit you’ll come to a spur (right) that leads to a spectacular view of Mount Rainier (viewed best in early morning light this time of year). The haze had not yet materialized.

A couple more spurs lead to overlooks of Crystal Creek tucked away in a gorge. At 1.3 miles or so is the junction – the Crystal Peak trail is to the left.

You’ll need to cross Crystal Creek again - the bridge that used to span Crystal Creek is gone but it’s not an issue. Someone has built a bridge out of deadfall to cross the stream; crossing is no problem. Soon after we crossed the creek the trail contoured across a boulder field exposed to the sun before the trail dipped back into the forest again.

Another dark, forested stretch provides an occasional peek of Mount Rainier. Soon open areas alternate with mixed terrain of evergreens, shrubbery and wildflowers. We saw lupine, tiger lilies, bear grass (lots!), mountain ash, and Indian paintbrush. Anywhere there is light there are flowers.

The trail climbs in long, easy switchbacks. The terrain gradually changes over to meadows with a few clumps of subalpine trees. Mount Rainier is in view most of the way, the trail bordered with flowers. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen as many flowers on this trail before. Cusick’s speedwell, Jacobs ladder, tiger lilies, lupine, bear grass and at higher elevations magenta paintbrush and pink heather.

White snags and deadfall are scattered across the grassy slopes; surrounded by flowers. I stopped not only to catch my breath but also for photographs. In addition to Mount Rainier and the sinuous curve of the White River there are views of Little Tahoma and Burroughs Mountain.

The trail continues climbing to the site of an old lookout at the end of the last switchback where the trail meets a rocky, ridge. Almost nothing remains of the lookout - all we saw were a few rusty nails and an ancient, weather-beaten board.

You’ll need to climb a little higher for views of Crystal Lakes below; we followed the path along the ridge to the high point (about 6,600 feet). Here there is a stunning view of Crystal Lakes below, the upper lake nestled within a craggy bowl. You can also see Mount Adams and on a clear day, Mount Saint Helens.

We took our time retracing our route; it was hard to leave. Back in the forest again on the main trail we spotted coralroot, Canadian dogwood, wild strawberry and a few wisps of lupine. The elevation gain for the hike is roughly 3,100 feet to the lookout site, 3,200 feet to the high point.

It’s worth it.

Getting to the trailhead: From Enumclaw drive State Route 410 and in about 4.5 miles past the turn-off to the National park boundary; find the trailhead (left). There is parking on both sides of the highway. No pets allowed. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Deadwood Lakes, July 12, 2009

Deadwood Lakes, July 12, 2009

A few years ago I became almost obsessed over finding and exploring abandoned trails. That has not diminished much in recent years though aging has slowed me down a bit from pursuing some of the more strenuous routes in my book “Hidden Hikes”. Deadwood Lakes was one of the “easier” trails in that now out-of-print tome. Hard to believe that “Hidden Hikes” is now going for hundreds of dollars on Amazon! Would or could I do a second edition or a revision? Probably, yes. The spirit is willing and the body still in good enough shape to pursue those trails; albeit at a slower pace. Is there a need? That’s a question hard to answer – now that abandoned trails pop up everywhere on The Internet to anyone who is interested.

That being said, we went back yesterday to check out Deadwood Lakes from Chinook Pass. The “trailhead” for this trail is the Pacific Crest Trail (in the parking lot for the PCT just east of the pass). You can also access the Naches Peak Loop from this trailhead (a part of the PCT runs through it). A spur from the trailhead connects to the PCT – hike east (right) if Deadwood Lakes is your destination; west (left) for the Naches Peak Loop.

In less than 100 feet look for an obvious trail heading uphill (north) on the left. There may be branches over the trail. The trail didn’t seem to show more signs of foot traffic than it did 10 or so years ago; still, the path is easy enough for an experienced hiker to follow.

In about 300 feet we came to a “pass” and a park sign with rules and regulations for use within the park. This is where the trail enters the park. Here we met an off-duty park ranger and chatted with him about the trail and other hiking-related topics, including other forgotten trails.

From the pass the trail drops down, at times steeply, about 400 feet to the lakes. En route there are overlooks of the lakes; one of them outstanding a little off trail (left). Looking down on the lakes may provide a better view than from the lakeshore. There were a few patches of snow on the downward stretch; not enough to warrant cause for alarm or need of an ice axe.

Flowers are blooming in various ages of youth and age; Western pasque flowers, bear grass, glacier and avalanche lilies, heather, an occasional columbine and Mertensia (bluebells) at lower elevations. Mountain ash is prevalent; in fall the white flowers will transition to orange-red berries. A few marsh marigolds are popping up in boggy areas, especially around the lakes.

The main trail leads to the first of the two lakes; Yakima Peak rises above the lake bold and imposing. Quiet meadows encircle the lake mixed in with willow bogs. This time of year it is hard to reach the lakeshore; the meadows are soggy and fragile with grasses and plants just coming into bloom.

The second lake is harder to locate; it is well disguised by a web of fisherman and game trails. You’ll have to look a little harder to find the second lake; a dense, forested isthmus separates the lakes.

It took us a few tries to find the second lake but we were determined; I remembered a sandy area we’d named the “beach” on that first visit and wanted to see it again. We did find it but it wasn’t very beach-like in June; rather it was where a soggy meadow met the lakeshore. The lakeshore was pocked with elk and goat prints. In fact, we could smell elk as we approached the lake but didn’t see them.

We hiked back out without encountering anyone else on the trail. We stopped at the pass while my companion took a break as I followed an old trail along the ridge in an easterly direction toward Peak No. 6,468. I was tempted to climb the peak but hesitate to scramble alone so turned back once I reached the base. En route there are several easy rock-outcroppings with a stunning view of both lakes.

For the best outcropping with a view of the lakes: at the pass follow the easy path (right) – the viewpoint of the lakes is about 50 feet above the pass. That will be far enough for most hikers.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Berkeley Park via Sunrise, July 10, 2009

Sunrise to Berkeley Camp (Mount Rainier National Park)

This is an upside-down hike. Other than a gentle ascent along the Sourdough Ridge trail out of Sunrise the rest of the hike is downhill. The trail is hard on the knees but easy on the soul.

We enjoyed the drive from Enumclaw to the White River entrance of the park, stopping at Sunrise Point for views of Mount Adams (south), Mount Stuart and Glacier Peak to the north plus Cowlitz Chimneys and other prominent features of the park. Between Sunrise Point and Sunrise the road was bordered with lupine, Indian paintbrush and buttercups.

It being a weekday there was plenty of room for parking; soon we were on the trail. We headed up to Sourdough Ridge, turning left (west). A few minor snow patches remained on the trail; all easily negotiated. We puzzled over the “start” of the Huckleberry Creek trail (it looked more like a scramble than trail) and stopped several times for photos on our way to the 5-way junction at Frozen Lake.

Just past Frozen Lake snow patches cover the trail in places; some of them pink. If you have never encountered watermelon-colored snow before, it is a natural phenomenon caused by algae, rest assured you are not hallucinating. The route is wanded across larger snow patches but the snow is melting quickly.

At higher elevations the plants are small; small versions of lupine and Indian paintbrush hug the earth. Trees that look “young” are actually ancient; it takes them a long time to grow in this harsh environment. The white and pink heather may look tough but is extremely fragile. A single boot-print can kill it - it takes years to grow a small pot of heather in a similar environment.

As the trail loses elevation the tundra-like barrens of Sunrise are replaced by glowing meadows. More flowers appear; magenta paintbrush, Jacobs ladder, lupine and buttercups appear. Western pasqueflower is prevalent at most elevations.

The meadows are especially lush near Lodi Creek in Berkeley Park; glacier lilies carpet the meadows like fallen stars. The moss-bordered creek is an exquisite shade of blue-green; the moss varying shades of green ranging from hunter green to lime. Clumps of monkey flowers, not yet in bloom, sit atop small islands in the stream. Marmots run about the meadows; on marmot-errands. It is always a joy to see or hear them. When I hear the first marmot whistle of summer I feel that all is right with the world.

As we approached Berkeley Camp avalanche lilies predominated; it’s best just to sit and experience such exquisite beauty. Neither words nor cameras can do them justice; both fail to capture the sweetness of Lodi creek and surrounding meadows. Perhaps such places cannot be captured because getting to them is part of the experience. You cannot take them home with you.

Past Berkeley Camp significant snow patches covered the trail; we turned around shortly thereafter, retracing our route back to Sunrise.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Paradise River Trail, Mount Rainier, July 8, 2009

Paradise River Trail – July 8, 2009 (Mount Rainier National Park)

This is a 6.4-mile trail that makes an interesting one-way hike between Longmire and Paradise. You’ll need two cars to do this as a one-way hike – you can also make use of the shuttle operated by the park. The shuttle stops at Longmire/Paradise several times a day. Visit the park website for more details on the shuttle. Right now parking is limited at the upper Paradise parking lot; weekends are the worst, of course. There is a 2-hour parking limit in the upper lot but overflow parking is allowed along the Valley Road; on a weekday there was plenty of space to park.

If you’ve got bad knees – you might want to start from the bottom and work your way to Paradise. Conversely, if you are out of shape, you might want to trickle down from top to bottom; your choice. But wait – you don’t even have to do the whole hike. There are other access points to the trail including Cougar Rock and Narada Falls. Hike as little – or as much as you like.

It felt like winter when we arrived at Paradise. Brrrr! There was still snow at Paradise and low-cloud cover. But – avalanche lilies, glacier lilies and pink heather are blooming where snow has melted; lupine, penstemon and beargrass is popping out all along the Nisqually Paradise Road.

We stopped at the Visitor Information Center at the new Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center to get “directions” to the trailhead as the road where the trail starts was bordered with melting snowdrifts. The markers have been taken down over the winter (so snow plows don’t break them) but with guidance from an employee at the Visitor Center we were able to find the trailhead. You can pick up the trail on the Valley Road – it starts where the trees end on the downhill side of the road. There is a small stone stairway; as of yesterday the upper stretch was mostly snow-covered but there were tracks in the snow and it was easy to follow the trail down to where it first crosses the road.

Even along the upper stretch meadows and babbling streams are replacing the snow; this was a lovely stretch with scads of glacier lilies and avalanche lilies. We almost felt the meadows were holding their breath; waiting for summer to melt the rest of the snow.

We were the only hikers on the trail until we dropped down to Narada Falls; there we met a few hikers/tourists who had parked at the roadside trailhead and walked in for the tumultuous view. As always, Narada Falls is a wonder to behold and as always, a challenge to photograph with digital cameras – we try anyway.

Between Narada Falls and Cougar Rock we saw only a few other hikers; most of them closer to Cougar Rock than Narada Falls. Avalanche and glacier lilies followed us all the way down from Paradise – it was only past Narada Falls that we lost them. There was a mix of summer/spring flowers in this middle section; even a trillium or two and a few marsh marigolds near boggy areas. There are also several crossings of the river on jerrybuilt bridges; none of them are difficult to cross. It is obvious that some of these temporary bridges will soon be replaced; new bridges are going in, at various stages of completion.

We stopped at Madcap Falls (the waterfall is not signed, it is just above Carter Falls) where there is a view from a sturdy handrail. It pales in significance to Narada Falls but is still worth a stop. Carter Falls is a little mightier but it’s hard to get a look as the waterfall is partially hidden by evergreens. Do stay behind the guardrails; venturing off trail for a better look at both of these falls could be dangerous.

From Carter Falls the trail descends to Cougar Rock and a crossing of the Nisqually River on a footbridge with a handrail.

The last stretch of the trail is quiet – from Cougar Rock to Longmire the trail is in old-growth forest with stately trees, ferns, moss, salal, Oregon grape and few flowers. It is a cool, shady place and an easy walk for visitors from Longmire. We did find several clumps of pinesap emerging from the thick, forest duff near Longmire. No Indian pipe was seen – apparently Indian pipe has become rare.

At Longmire we took the second car back to Paradise for the shuttle. Before we left we visited the new Paradise Visitor Center (the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center) and were impressed. It certainly is a beautiful structure compared to the old Visitor Center; unlike the old visitor center this one seems to blend in with the landscape. The interior is a showpiece with wood paneling, a gift shop and elaborate interpretive displays. We’d intended to stop for 5-10 minutes; we spent an hour.

Starting from Paradise there is an elevation loss of 2,700 feet. Conversely, a climb of 2,700 feet or so if you go from bottom to top.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Big Four Ice Caves and Mountain Loop Highway

July 3, 2009

Big Four Ice Caves, Mountain Loop (Granite Falls to Darrington)

Part I

We hoped to beat the crowds by visiting the Big Four Ice Caves on Friday but no matter when you go, expect company on this trail. However, sharing a popular trail with others is part of the experience. There are lots of other places where solitude is guaranteed, especially in the Monte Cristo area.

It’s hard to get grumpy when you see the “Oh Wow!” reactions of those seeing the ice caves and Big Four Mountain for the first time. The trail just recently-reopened as floods destroyed the original bridge (some intrepid hikers managed to get across the Stillaguamish River by fording before the bridge was replaced).

As you hike witness the aftermath of the climatic violence that continues to shape this wild and scenic landscape. Storms, avalanches, washouts, floods have taken a toll. Now imagine those winter floods and how high the river must have been to take out the old bridge that spanned the river. After crossing the river you’ll see where the trail was rerouted around a jackstraw pile of trees, rocks and dirt where a hillside was taken out by avalanches.

Before you hit the trail visit the Big Four Picnic Area and look at the chimney, the only remnant of Big Four Inn, a historic lodge that burned down long ago. The trail from the picnic area to the Ice Caves begins on a boardwalk over a marsh – here, we noted Jurassic Park-sized leaves of mature skunk cabbage.

You can also get to the Ice Caves from the Ice Caves Trail a little past the picnic area on the Mountain Loop Highway (you can also make a loop). From the picnic area go straight on the boardwalk (or left to walk to the Ice Caves trailhead – the Ice Cave trail loops back to the trail from the Picnic Area); all junctions are signed. Straight ahead (on the boardwalk) are views of Big Four Mountains and in the quiet waters of the marsh, a reflection of the peak on a sunny day.

Shortly past the marsh cross the river on the bridge – the new bridge is about two feet higher than the old bridge and made out of aluminum (lightweight and strong). While not as picturesque as the original bridge, it was more attractive than we imagined and will play a vital role in keeping this gem of a trail accessible.

We enjoyed the river of hikers we encountered on the trail – families toting coolers, tots in backpacks, elderly gents in faded shirts that looked like they’d worked in the woods decades before, a pretty pregnant lady in green shading herself beneath a purple parasol.

After crossing the river there’s a short stretch through shady forest – Canadian dogwood, Devil’s club, false lily of the valley and bead lily predominate the forested setting. The trail then contours below an opening cleared by avalanches, landslides and storms. Stacks of knocked-down trees resemble a giant’s unfinished game of pick-up-sticks – you don’t want to be anywhere near this stretch when the game resumes and resume it will.

As the trail breaks out into the open more flowers appear including lupine and rosy spirea. The trail crosses a small creek and makes a beeline toward the snow-flanked massif of Big Four Mountain, beribboned with waterfalls.

Near the base of the peak notice moving black dots on the snow – these, of course, are hikers who cannot resist the siren call of the ice caves. Though signs warn of lurking dangers therein, visitors are drawn to the ice caves and accumulations of snow at the foot of the peak. The snow is melting – you can see where holes have already appeared on the surface - tread carefully (we hope you won’t venture very far out onto the snow).

Purists differ on whether or not these are actually snow caves or tunnels created by melting snow (snow melts out from beneath accumulations of snow as well as on the surface). It has been at times referred to as the Big Four Glacier (in jest or in earnestness, who knows?) Do be careful – there have been fatalities and near misses where hikers break through the snow (it can be hollow beneath the surface) or enter a snow cave that collapses.

There are many choice spots to settle and enjoy the views. A rough path, lined with wildflowers climbs a knoll to a jumble of rocks, a good spot for better views, a break or turnaround.

Wherever you stop, enjoy the grandeur and be prepared to share it with others. The combination of marshes, river, wildflowers, the ice caves, the peaks where most fear to tread are compelling and beautiful.

Iron Goat Trail

Iron Goat Trail, June 27, 2009

(Iron Goat Trail Interpretive Center and Martin Creek trailheads)

Silverback and I wanted an easy hike so checked out the Iron Goat Trail off US 2. We started from the Iron Goat Interpretive Site and set out on the trail to Windy Point. We saw quite a few flowers but not many hikers and were surprised to have Windy Point to ourselves. From Windy Point we enjoyed views of Stevens Pass and the west portal of the railroad.

Silverback tells me there are 28 switchbacks on the trail – I didn’t count them but I believe him. The trail gains 700 feet according to information at the trailhead. Many volunteer hours have gone into making this trail user-friendly and informative. Railroad history buffs will find much of interest here and could probably explain the purpose of the rusted remnants we were unable to identify along the trail.

After our hike to Windy Point we drove back to the Martin Creek trailhead on the Old Cascade Highway. From the interpretive site (the middle trailhead) you can also hike down to the Martin Creek trailhead (about 3 miles one-way or 6 miles round-trip). A car shuttle is needed for a one-way hike.

The forest takes over Man’s works so quickly and efficiently that unless you are alert, you may miss a crumpled rail mixed in with the bracken or the flat, mossy spot at Corea where a bunkhouse and station once stood. At Corea a few artifacts lie beside the trail, a metal basin, bits of crockery, a broken brick or two. Corea was the site of a camp and way station where mostly Japanese lived and worked.

An interpretive sign along the trail quotes James Hill remarking that he intended his railroad work to last forever. While nothing lasts forever many features of that innovative railway still stand, unbowed by the elements and Time.

The most dramatic features of the trail are the tunnels and snow sheds in various stages of decay. You can hike to these structures from both trailheads. Even without the warnings of extreme hazard inside the tunnels we would not have ventured in. However, you can walk into a snow shed between the Martin Creek trailhead and the Interpretive Site. The shed is an eerie, unsettling place yet strangely beautiful. Odd shapes have formed where moisture has seeped down the walls – to us the formations resembled Egyptian sarcophagus.

Hikers can pick up a brochure/map at the trailheads; loops and longer one-way hikes are possible.

Getting to the Martin Creek trailhead: From Everett head east on US 2 (Wenatchee) - The Martin Creek trailhead is off US 2 where a remnant of the Old Cascades Highway begins (MP 55) or about 6 miles east of Skykomish. Take the old highway and continue to Forest Service Road No. 6710, continue 1.4 miles to the Martin Creek trailhead and facilities (a Northwest Forest Pass is required).

Getting to the Iron Goat Interpretive Site (middle) trailhead: The site and facilities are off US 2 (left) at milepost 58.3, 10 miles east of Skykomish (6 miles west of Stevens Pass). A Northwest Forest pass is not required at this trailhead. Brochures with map are available at the trailhead.

Stats: Iron Goat Interpretive Site to Windy Point overlook is 2.1 miles round trip – 700 feet gain. Martin Creek to Windy Point is 3.2 miles (one way). Study the brochure for more possibilities, including a short loop on the Corea crossover near the Martin Creek trailhead. We didn’t visit the Wellington trailhead at Stevens Pass – so can’t report the trail conditions or road conditions. Stay tuned.

Update: The Wellington trailhead is now accessible. We’ll be heading up to Wellington soon and will post information about that segment of the trail with (hopefully) photos.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Granite Mountain, July 1, 1990

Granite Mountain (Alpine Lakes Wilderness), July 1, 2009

It’s been a few years since I did a solo snowshoe trip to the Granite Mountain lookout. Well, more than a few years. How about 20 years?

I used to time myself on how long it took me to get there – not any more (I do allow myself a peek at my watch when hiking Mount Si to see how much work I need to do to get back into some semblance of shape). Now, I pace myself, adopting my “forever” pace so I can get there. My buddy from Florida, Bob, accompanied me on this attempt to reach the lookout.

Having read trail reports, we figured the summer route would be under snow. Frankly, we’re sick of snow so left gaiters, ice axes and such behind. The plan was to hike until we tired, hit snow, reached a good viewpoint or made it to the lookout - whichever came first. Another goal was to photograph bear grass; I had a hunch it would be in bloom.

The first mile of the hike is on the Pratt Lake trail in dark, cool forest. By the time we reached the turn-off for Granite Mountain (right) we were ready to take on the elevation and bright sun ahead.

Shortly after passing the sign for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness we began to see bear grass – lots. A few tiger lilies were getting ready to bloom, a little bit of lupine here and there but the star of the show was the bear grass. This is going to be a banner year for this flower.

We crossed one minor snow patch (it’s probably gone by now) as we began breaking out of the forest into open areas. Here, the green slopes were dotted with bear grass; so much of it that the blooms reminded us of Roman candles, an alpine version of this upcoming holiday.

A few skinny, long-legged guys passed us, scarcely out of breath – but we were doing fine, too, taking only occasional breaks for water and snacks.

It’s hard not to resort to clichés – this hike is simply beautiful. Everywhere we looked there were peaks (Kaleetan, Mount Rainier, Adams, McClellan Butte to name a few) the foreground a gorgeous clutter of bear grass. We also saw a couple large serviceberry shrubs and even a pine tree near one of the switchbacks. McClellan Butte looked like a stone eagle about to soar above the squiggly earthworm of I-90 below.

By the time we got to the “tarns” we discovered the summer trail was under snow and didn’t want to deal with that so took the “other” trail toward the “scramble” route. There, near the start of the boulder field we stopped for lunch. After lunch I scrambled partway up the boulders but turned around when I saw it would take longer to get to the lookout than we had time for. At that point I was probably only about 400 feet below the lookout – sigh - maybe next time.

On our way down we visited the tarns; on the slopes above them a couple of folks were practicing ice axe arrest on a steep finger of snow. It looked like they were doing very well.

Though it was a weekday there were quite a lot of hikers on the trail. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hike there now on a summer weekend. I know I won’t be one of them.

Gorgeous hike, great exercise.