Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paradise Glacier trail, Mount Rainier, September 23, 2009

Paradise Glacier Trail (MRNP), September 24, 2009

What a difference a few weeks can make!

A few weeks ago the Skyline Trail was bordered with wildflowers; today the trail was framed with fall color. While the colors are not yet at their peak they are off to a good start at higher elevations; the blueberry shrubs are turning crimson, the meadows range from gold to green and the air is spiced with the fragrance of fall.

At Paradise we took the Skyline Trail to the junction with the Paradise Glacier trail, passing junctions for the Fourth Creek Crossing and the Lakes Trail. Our pace was moderate; this wasn’t a hurry-up get-into-shape hike, but rather a meditative walk and exploration.

As we worked our way up Mazama Ridge I couldn’t help but think back to past overnight snowshoe trips with The Mountaineers and with my late ex-husband and our Boy Scout troop in the 1990s. I then realized it was the first time I’d been on Mazama Ridge without snowshoes! In the early1990s there were still enough of the ice caves left that you could venture inside them; now there are only remnants.

We’d encountered a few hikers on the Skyline Trail but once we were on the Paradise glacier trail we met only five; one, a friendly park ranger and two couples. The park ranger pointed out a small speck above the moraine (mountain goat!) – we would have missed it if not for the young ranger’s sharp eyes. We did not see or hear marmots or pikas.

The Paradise glacier trail is an interesting trek, beginning where meadows and moraines overlap. Early in the morning the view of Mount Rainier was sharp and clear; by afternoon the peak looked diaphanous, as if we were looking at it through sheets of tracing paper. Conditions change quickly – the sky went from clear to hazy in less than an hour.

Amazingly a few flowers were still holding on; a sole monkeyflower, a bit of arnica, even a bit of magenta Indian paintbrush below the moraine. The trail leaves the transitional zone and follows the contours of a moraine; the scene is austere, the beauty stern. When we reached the “end of maintained trail” we continued hiking on the trail following the track of the outflow from the Paradise glacier, the birthplace of the Paradise River.

At first glance the terrain appears devoid of life but there’s quite a bit of life on the moraine; it would take an expert to name the yellow-green cushions of moss and dark mahogany-colored sedges that cling to life here. Suffice it to say the colors are remarkable.

We met a young couple on a high point who pointed the way to a remnant of an ice cave at the edge of the glacier. They’d ventured inside – but only long enough for a photo near the entrance.

En route toward the “ice cave” we met the young ranger who warned of the dangers but said it would be OK to look in. He had crossed the glacier to look for mountain goats but admitted he was nervous about crossing (he could hear rushing water underneath the snow). He told us (but didn’t need to) that we shouldn’t cross on the snow or venture inside.

On our way we ran into the deteriorating remains of a once-bold sign warning of the dangers of entering ice caves. Though the ice caves are just about gone, it still remains as a warning to those unaware of the dangers of cave-ins and/or being swept away under the snow.

We found the remnant of an “ice cave”, I peeked in but the drip-drip-drip of the melting snow made me uneasy and I stayed only long enough for a photo or two. Here, I met a young couple also interested in peering inside (Silverback took a took a break as I explored); they, too, only peeked in long enough for a photo.

After lunch on the moraine we headed back the way we came, amazed anew at the vivid foliage at lower elevations, backlit by a low-slung sun.

It was early enough that we drove back to Seattle via the Stevens Canyon road rather than drive back the way we came. We stopped at Reflection Lakes but the fall color was nil as were the reflections. We also stopped at Sunbeam Creek (one of my favorite “little” photo stops), the bridge over Stevens Creek (site of a huge avalanche/blowout) and Box Canyon. We walked part of the little Box Canyon loop but it was too dark for photos.

By the time we were back on SR 410 heading west the sunset we’d hoped to catch en route had come and gone. Dusk descended so quickly we had to brake for elk standing right on SR 410 near the White River trail. We let them have the road and drove more slowly the rest of the way.

Red Pass, Commonwealth Basin, September 20, 2009

Red Pass via Commonwealth Basin (September 20, 2009)

This was a solo hike to Red Pass via the PCT and Commonwealth Basin. It was another warm September day, ideal for hiking. I got an early start and was pleased the PCT trailhead/parking lot had plenty of room to park. I filled out my Wilderness Permit and set out on the PCT, saving the “old” Commonwealth Basin trail for my return.

Big mistake; the PCT is longer and with additional elevation gain before the turn-off into Commonwealth Basin. It’s also much busier and I needed solitude. From the PCT I dropped down into Commonwealth Basin and picked up the trail toward Red Pass. The Commonwealth Basin trail is not in great shape; it isn’t maintained (except by occasional volunteers) and social trails wind throughout the basin. Of course, the plus side is that there are fewer hikers.

The trail climbs – steeply through the forest and with no breeze the heat was oppressive. It appears the trail has been damaged; it is much rockier than it used to be and many of the rocks are loose.

I broke out of the forest near Red Pond, saving Red Pond for another day. The trail contours below Red Mountain, climbing above Red Pond with growing views. This was a colorful stretch; the mountain ash is changing color and the sky a vivid blue. After contouring below Red Mountain the trail dips into the forest and follows a narrow ridge with views out to Mount Thompson and other peaks (bring the map to ID them).

The official trail “ends” at Red Pass where the old PCT once switchbacked down into the valley of the Middle Fork before the PCT was rerouted. Volunteers have made great progress in re-establishing this old trail (the Cascade Crest Trail); experienced hikers with route-finding abilities can explore beyond Red Pass if so inclined though the terrain looks steep.

Instead I continued on the climbers trail to Lundine Peak; here I met two young women picking huckleberry and blueberries (this is a good spot to pick them). The rough but discernible path leads to airy views of the Snoqualmie Peaks (my eye was continually drawn to Mount Thompson). I was a little too early for fall color; it should be at its best by mid-October.

After a lazy lunch and a peek at Lundine, I retraced my route and was soon back to Commonwealth Basin. I opted to hike the old Commonwealth Basin trail out, rather than the PCT (the “old” Commonwealth Basin trail is a remnant of the Cascade Crest Trail). The trail through the basin had a tough winter too – fortunately the crossings of Commonwealth Creek were manageable but the trail is overgrown in spots and social trails may confuse hikers who haven’t hiked this trail before.

The “old” trail reverts to an alder-lined road that grows narrower year by year. The “road” ends near the beginning of the PCT near the parking lot.

Stats: It’s about 7 miles round trip with 2,600 feet elevation gain via the “old” Commonwealth Basin trail to Red Pass. Add a bit more elevation if you go beyond Red Pass and onto the climbers trail.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tahoma Creek, Emerald Ridge, September 16, 2009

Tahoma Creek, Emerald Ridge (Wonderland Trail), Mount Rainier National Park
September 16, 2009

We met up with Craig Romano on the West Side Road for this loop on a perfect September day. After parking at the road closure we hiked to the “trailhead” for the Tahoma Creek Trail (about a mile from the gate). The trail starts at a switchback in the road and is marked with a trash barrel (right). As soon as we stepped off the trail we came upon a “trail not maintained” sign but that was not a deterrent - it was more like an invitation to what promised to be an alluring, enigmatic route.

The West Side Road and the Tahoma Creek trail have been so badly damaged by floods in recent years the park had no choice but to “abandon” this trail in principle, at least until funding is available to repair it (if it can be repaired). I’d hiked the trail years ago and it was in bad shape then – the trail is still in bad shape with missing stretches marked with ribbons or cairns. The route ventures out onto ever-changing river bars; hikers with discerning eyes should be able to follow the flagged route, at least until the next series of storms sweep in.

Eventually the trail leaves Tahoma Creek for good and ¼ mile from the Wonderland Trail we ran into a group of SCA volunteers working on the trail. They explained the upper stretch of the trail will link to a higher point on the West Side Road (this will make it easier to access the Wonderland Trail from where the road is gated). As it is now hikers must either hike the West Side Road (or take a mountain bike) or wrestle with the Tahoma Creek Trail.

While the Tahoma Creek trail may be too challenging from some hikers it is fascinating to see the changes nature has wrought - one wonders where the line between creation and destruction can be found.

When we reached the Wonderland Trail we took a short side trip to the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge. Craig walked across, I walked out far enough to get photos. At first glance the bridge looks like something you’d see in “Outside” magazine but the bridge is safe. You can also get to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground from here - cross Tahoma Creek and continue hiking on the Wonderland Trail.

Instead we followed the Wonderland Trail toward Emerald Ridge and Klapache Park. After a steep stint through forest we were out in the open, contouring above a moraine with views of Saint Andrews Rock and Glacier Island. Craig had gone ahead (Craig is a very fast hiker) and picked a lunch spot; we were glad he finally stopped hiking. As we gasped for breath Craig pointed out Tokaloo Rock above the Puyallup glacier – apparently there is a scramble route.

As we approached Emerald Ridge we enjoyed displays of Western pasqueflower dotting the scrappy meadows below the ridgeline. Once you are on the ridge you can follow a way trail (right) to a viewpoint or continue (left) on the trail along the crest of the ridge. Here the trail is narrow but not intimidating. From the edge look down into the kaleidoscope of colors from moraines and sluggish glaciers; the hues are amazing. Gold-colored rocks vied with purple-hued rubble, all flowing downhill so slowly you cannot see them inching along. At the head of the moraines the Tahoma glacier splits to spill (slowly) over a dark outcropping, the blue-green glacier slashed with crevasses and streaked with grit, looming over the moraine like some monster being born.

Gradually the nature of the terrain changed; subalpine evergreens gradually replacing the boulders perched at the edge of crumbling moraines. Sedges, partridge foot and harebells bordered the still-narrow path, even a flicker of Indian paintbrush now and then. The long, slow gradient of the trail morphed into switchbacks and grew more forested.

We left the Wonderland Trail where the trail crosses the South Puyallup River on a thank-God footbridge, continuing our hike on the South Puyallup River trail. After crossing the river the Wonderland Trail continues to Klapache Park and beyond. For a view of the South Puyallup River the bridge is just a short side trip from the junction.

As we passed South Puyallup Camp we stopped to gaze at andesite columns formed by geologic processes thousands of years ago. These are not a few columns, rather an entire cliff composed of these columns (God’s hardware store, we called it – the tubes of rock reminded us of giant 2x4s). Some of the columns are gracefully curved (Craig likened the formations to spaghetti). The late Harvey Manning referred to them as colonnades in his “50 Hikes, Mount Rainier” guidebook. However your eye interprets these remarkable formations, you will certainly never forget them.

To get back to the West Side Road we climbed to Round Pass (about a 400 foot climb), that additional elevation was nothing to Craig but Silverback and I were happy to get the 400 feet behind us and take a break on the West Side Road near the Marine Memorial before the 3.8-mile hike back to the cars.

We were all dreading the last miles back to the car on the West Side Road but lively conversation made the miles fly, if not our feet.

Our GPS data doesn’t match up – Silverback’s GPS read 12.4 miles whereas Craig’s read closer to 14 miles. Well, it was a lot of miles any way you look at it. The elevation gain (Silverback’s GPS) reads about 3,141 feet of gain.

It was a lot of work but well worth it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vesper Peak, September 12, 2009

Headlee Pass, Vesper Peak (September 12, 2009)

This was the destination for the annual Unbirthday hike. While it didn’t fall on my birthday, we couldn’t have picked a better weather day for this strenuous undertaking. Incidentally, I am not telling how old I am except to say I’m a year older than I was last year and this trip was proof that, well, uh … I’m feeling older too.

Stats differ on this hike – ranging from 8 to 10 miles (trailhead to summit) with elevation gain ranging from 3,900 feet to 4,200 feet. That being said, let’s just say it was a tough trip and the only reason I made it to the summit was desire (it wasn’t stamina).

Each time I’ve been there, I say “never again”; however, the passage of time is deceptive. I forget how rough the trail is but remember the wild, desolate beauty of Wirtz Basin and the rocky bowl below Sperry and Vesper Peaks.

This year was tougher than usual. For starters, there no longer any user-friendly bridges (man-made or otherwise) on the trail – in late summer/early fall the crossings are tricky but manageable. The fat, user-friendly log that spanned the Stillaguamish crossing for years bit the dust a year and the rocks are slippery.

After crossing the Stillaguamish we faced the next challenge; steep, brushy switchbacks in direct sun and the rocks under our feet were slick from morning dew. Thankfully, someone (WTA?) had brushed out this stretch of the trail so we could at least SEE the trail, an improvement over some of my visits in the past.

The trail continues to climb and enters shady old growth forest – here, there are many splendid Alaska cedars. This is a good spot for a break before tackling the next stretch. The trail then drops into Wirtz Basin, a conglomerate of talus, blueberry shrubs, mountain ash and shrubby evergreens.

You won’t see Headlee Pass until you are almost directly below it but you will get great views of Morningstar Peak at the head of the valley and Sperry Peak (right). This year the trail through Wirtz Basin was easier to follow than I anticipated.

The rocky trail contoured below Sperry Peak (gorgeous views!) toward the head of the valley. Blocky talus alternated with snippets of forest, a few old growth trees still stand, having survived countless avalanches and winter storms.

Headlee Pass comes into a view, a narrow gully lined by cliffs. It looks just about impossible to climb until you are actually on it; the danger here is rock fall, of course. We were careful on the switchbacks, staying close together just in case one of us kicked a rock loose. Once a rock is kicked loose, there’s no stopping it on such a steep grade. At Headlee Pass (2,600 feet) we took a well-needed rest.

The “trail” between Headlee Pass and Lake Elan (also called Vesper Lake) crosses a talus field below Sperry Peak. As Vesper Peak came into view it was inspiring enough for a second wind.

When we got to the lake we took another break (much needed, at least by most of us). After the break some of my friends decided to hang out at the lake; the rest of us continued to Vesper.

We crossed the outlet stream (an easy rock hop) and followed discernible trail through heather and evergreens, many of the stunted. The trail has been beaten so deep into the ground that it’s more like a ditch than trail.

The combination of heat and age caught up with me below the fabled granite slabs. I had to sit down and rest; the GU packets on which I rely were not quite enough to keep me going. Alan remarked that I looked “terrible” and advised me not to continue but after a rest I felt better and was able to carry on (Alan insisted on carrying my pack part of the way). I didn’t argue with him.

Once we were on the slabs (following cairns and relying upon memory) I felt much better and insisted on carrying my pack. A “third wind” kicked in and it was easy going on the sticky granite. Take the time to enjoy the view on the way – Lake Elan below (often with ice still afloat) and Sperry Peak rising above.

There’s more than one correct way to get to the summit – cairns mark the most obvious route but once you have attained the ridge, the rest of the route is easy. From the summit ridge there are views of Spada Lake and an endless sea of ridges and peaks.

From Vesper you can look down to jade-green Copper Lake, one of the most stunningly beautiful lakes in the North Cascades. Above Copper Lake Big Four Mountain rises – and beyond, more peaks and ridges.

There was no summit register; instead there were flying insects (not mosquitoes) and whatever they were, they were annoying (but not annoying enough to drive us away). We lingered as long as we dared, not wanting to hike out in the dark.

On our way down we met a couple that were backpacking and spending the night on the summit. Further down we met a group of four who were also heading up to Vesper for the night. We envied them getting to spend a night on Vesper but did not envy the gear they were packing.

Usually a hike down is easier than climbing; not so on this trail. Only about ¼ mile of the trail is a real “trail”; the rest a rugged route of rocks, talus, slippery roots and more rocks. Descending Headlee Pass was trickier than climbing it; we took our time, glad that no one else was coming down above us as we descended.

By the time we left Wirtz Basin (a lot of pika activity here!) we were losing daylight and were glad we had headlamps. When we got to the crossing of the Stillaguamish it was getting dark; here, we met a young man and his son heading back. The father had sprained his ankle and their plans to camp in the basin were scrapped.

It was probably about 7 or shortly thereafter when we emerged from the darkening forest (the father and son were just behind us). Our companions had been waiting for about 45 minutes – we were glad they didn’t wait for us at the lake.

We were tired, ravenous and overjoyed to find the Timberline Café still open in Granite Falls.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Iron Peak, September 8, 2009

Iron Peak (Teanaway, Alpine Lakes Wilderness) September 8, 2009

Iron Peak is one of my all-time favorite hikes. It’s only about 7 miles round trip to the Iron Peak saddle (8 miles round trip to the summit).

The trail is in excellent condition and with views the entire way. We only encountered two people (mid-week); bow and arrow hunters on horseback. The flowers are just about gone but the views are as outstanding as ever.

The trail is partially in the forest – alas, so much of the forest has been devastated by infestations of pine bark beetles. Trees that were once green are now mahogany-colored – the beetles mostly seem to be attacking white pines and lodge pole pine in this region. Fire resistant Douglas firs seem able to resist the onslaught, at least along the lower to middle elevations of this trail.

It was a perfect day for hiking – sunny, warm and clear. We stopped at the “pass”, marveling at the array of colors in the rocks. From the pass we continued another half mile or so to the summit where the views of Mount Stuart and Mount Rainier are startlingly clear.

Here Florida Bob and Silverback signed their first summit registers. The summit register was pretty full; this is a popular and accessible summit. I was glad the register was there for them to sign – I remember what a thrill it was to sign a summit register the first time.

We lingered as long as we could, snacking, lazing and admiring the beauty surrounding us. Between the pass and the summit we saw bluebirds, ladybugs, lichen-splattered rocks, remnants of summer flowers, endemic ferns still blooming in the golden rocks along the summit ridge.

It had been a perfect, golden day.

Approach: Teanaway River Road (Road No. 9737), Iron Peak trailhead (just short of the Esmerelda/Ingalls Lake parking lot at the end of the road).

Stats: About 8 miles round trip, 2,700 feet gain – map (Green Trails No. 209, Mount Stuart).