Monday, August 3, 2009

Sourdough Gap to Crystal Lakes, August 2, 2009


Perhaps like me you’ve hiked to Crystal Lakes from SR 410 and looked longingly at the craggy, enigmatic ridge looming above the upper lake. Maybe you wondered if there was a way to get up there without risking your life. Near the head of the upper lake alluring paths lead hither and yon. Perhaps you’ve explored some of them and found a hidden campsite or a knoll with a view.

Or maybe you climbed to the high point on Crystal Peak for a way to get down to Crystal Lakes without breaking your neck (Crystal Peak is far enough for most). Those who hike on a frequent basis have probably been to Crystal Lakes or hiked to Sourdough Gap on the PCT from Chinook Pass. You can also hike from Sourdough Gap to Crystal Lakes though the route doesn’t show on the Green Trails map (oddly it does show on the Mount Rainier map given to visitors when they enter the park). .

Silverback had done it years ago and we wanted to give it a try. We took two cars so we could hike the trail one way. We left a car at the Crystal Lake trailhead and drove to the PCT trailhead just below Chinook Pass where the hike begins.

We’d only been there a few days before and already the flowers along the PCT have changed; the Western amenone has gone to seed, harebells, asters and pearly everlasting border the trail. There are still lots of lupine and Indian paintbrush along the trails.
Mount Rainier looked a little hazy; due to the smoke from several wildfires in the state. We were surprised we could see it at all.

It’s about 1.5 miles to Sheep Lake and those miles are easy. There are pleasing views down to still-green valleys; we turned around a couple of times to admire the view of Chinook Pass above the sensuous curve of SR 410 and the diagonal line of PCT contouring the flowered hillsides.

Sheep Lake is an understandably popular trail; it’s an easy backpack or day hike and ideal for families. In early August the lake was still bordered with flowers and the meadows were green. We got a kick out of watching adults and children alike frolicking in the water.

The PCT continues, gaining about 700 feet to Sourdough Gap. If it had been a hotter day we might have renamed it Sourdough Gasp. The climb is scenic with views of Sheep Lake and surrounding mountains. We took our time, enjoying every step of the journey through the flowers.

Sourdough Gap is actually a gap between a peak-studded ridge that allows egress to lush meadows and a continuation of the PCT. As we climbed toward the gap my eye was drawn to a fortress-shaped peak. It’s not named on the map so we looked it up in the Fred Beckey Cascade Alpine Guide at home. It has a name; Cupalo Rock but it’s not for hikers. Not even close! According to Beckey this hunk of rock has several routes ranging from Class 3 (a gully) to low Class 5.

After a pause at Sourdough Gap we dropped down to a junction for the PCT. An un-named trail goes off to the left, contours below the craggy ridge and a long scree slope before a short climb to an un-named gap with an incredible view of Mount Rainier. Just below the gap is the Mount Rainier Park boundary and a sign.

The trail dropped to an unsigned junction; here we dropped down to a knoll with a knockout view of Crystal Lakes, Crystal Peak and more. After a break we returned to the main path as it descended through lush meadows toward Upper Crystal Lake. In addition to the meadows and wildflowers we enjoyed views of Three Way Rock, another challenging peak for climbers, not hikers.

The trail was easy to follow down to the lakes. It looks like this had been an official trail once upon a time as there is evidence of use over the years. We didn’t see anyone between Sourdough Gap and Crystal Lakes.

There are still wildflower displays at Upper Crystal Lake including elephants-head lousewort and monkeyflowers. After a break we hiked the Crystal Lakes trail down to SR 410 and Steve’s car. The hike was about 7 miles with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet and a loss of 2,800 feet back to the Crystal Lake trailhead.

The adventure wasn’t over. I’d heard of Ghost Lake and even glimpsed it a few times along SR 410. I’ve always meant to stop and hike down to the lake; I knew it had been done. It’s hard to spot from the highway but we did find it – it is just past milepost 65 on SR 410 a little below Cayuse Pass.

There is no sign. There are two roadside parking spots, about 150 feet apart. We stopped at the first one and followed a steep, rough path to the lake. The lake is bigger than it appears from the highway; it may be possible to circumnavigate the lake. We walked clockwise part way around the lake. That involved a short rock scramble (a hiker can do it!) and a path that led to a peaceful grove of evergreens. Near the grove our feet solved the puzzle of logs where high water has backed up debris into the lake. This is easy to get around and we stopped again at the base of a cliff you can’t see from the road.

While Steve and I were tempted to see if we could get around the lake and find another path up to the highway we knew Silverback was waiting for us and we didn’t know how long it would take. We retraced our route, scrabbling up the lunatic path back to the car. It’s about 100-foot descent to the lake.

We stopped at the second roadside parking spot where we spotted a more-obvious path that looked steep but much easier. We’ll go back and try it again.

Back at Chinook Pass we convoyed down to Silver Springs campground. Steve knew of a historical grave we wanted to visit. We parked in the day-use area and walked to the grave of Henry Allen, a civil war veteran who moved to Washington after the war. He became a hunter and trapper. There’s more information about him at the site; a quiet, poignant spot near the White River marked by several American flags and other tokens; a fistful of loose change, a can of fishing bait and toys left by children. He was buried here because that is where he died; Allen was found frozen to death near the spot of the memorial. It is presumed he was hunting and either had a heart attack or died of exposure.

All in all, one of the most interesting days we’ve experienced in the mountains.


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