Monday, July 5, 2010

Howson Creek trail, July 4, 2010

Howson Creek Trail (July 4, 2010)

What better way to celebrate July 4th than hiking? Given it was raining on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass we headed east (as usual).

This trail has been on my agenda (again) for some time. I first wrote about the trail in “Hidden Hikes” and wanted to find out for myself how “hidden” it was after a few years have passed.

The hike is just as steep as it ever was; finding the trailhead is harder. Unless, of course, you hike this trail every year – a few years ago a sign made finding the trail pretty easy. Now – the sign is missing. Therefore we drove right past it and had to backtrack to find it again (the map and “Hidden Hikes” helped). The driving directions in “Hidden Hikes” is just about right on – the odometer reads 6.1 miles from the Last Resort on the highway heading toward Salmon la Sac.

The trailhead (as you head toward Salmon la Sac) is on the right-hand side of the highway at an elevation of 2,246 feet. There’s plenty of roadside parking on the other side of the highway. The trail – an old jeep track – once you spot it soon becomes genuine trail though there are no signs to clue you in. In a short mile or so (elevation 2,663 feet) Howson Creek is crossed – an easy crossing in early July.

After this gentle start the trail gets down to business – it starts to climb steeply and doesn’t relent. Despite the lack of signage we found the trail easier to follow than it was a few years ago – though faint in spots we were always able to find our way. Someone (the forest service? A friend?) has blocked off the game trails with branches and placed a couple of flags where the trail is a little confusing. We would have been able to follow the trail without the flags but I’d been there before and recognized some of the terrain. If you find the flags leave them – for first-time visitors who could be confused. The game trails are many and some are almost as good as the trail. Or would it be better to say the trail is almost as good as the game trails? You can be the judge of that.

The trail falls roughly into “thirds” – the first third climbs through an old clear-cut, the second third through mostly mellow forest with a few wildflowers (not very many) and the last third a long contour on talus below a rocky ridge. The steep grade does not relent; it is a thigh-burner so we paced ourselves accordingly.

It was a cloudy day so the views we anticipated never materialized – other than a sliver of Cle Elum Lake on the way down that was about the extent of our views. We were a little disappointed not to see Lemah Mt, Mt Stuart and others but we were gratefully for the cool, cloudy day. It was perfect hiking weather for a steep trail.

Our favorite part of the trail was the “third” – here the trail is mostly on talus and rocky, a few “pointy” evergreens anchor the trail in place. Once you are on the trail that contours below a rocky ridge (left) you will see Hex Mountain (just a little bump on this cloudy day) and Sasse Mountain (a forested summit a half mile from the “end” of the Howson Creek trail).

Stay on the main trail – a couple of rocky spurs lead to the ridge (left) and another trail drops into the valley below (right). I have no clue where the lower trail goes – if anywhere – some time we’ll go back and explore it.

We stopped where the trail meets the rocky ridge (saddle) at about 5,422 feet. You can continue to Sasse Mountain from this point. There is a faint trail juncture just a bit below the saddle to the right. A faded flag marks the continuation of the trail to forested Sasse Mountain, a half mile away (the left uphill fork is the correct path). We skipped Sasse there’s no view – however, you can hike from Sasse over to Hex. That would make a dandy one-way hike via the Sasse Mountain trail with a car shuttle. Hmmmm – maybe one of these days!

On our way back the clouds had cleared enough we got a better view of Cle Elum Lake; the water is very high. Some of the trees along the shoreline appear to be inundated. We heard muffled fireworks as we descended the steep trail but were not surprised we had the trail to ourselves. I have yet to meet another hiker on this trail.

There are reasons why this trail is not as popular as many in the region – for starters it’s hard to find. It’s a steep, difficult trail. There are easier trails that lead to better views. But if you like lonesome trails and like to explore this one is fun.

We checked out one of the spurs on our way back down and climbed to the ridgeline we’d contoured below. From where we clambered the ridge was narrow and other than a glimpse of Red Mountain there were no outstanding views. If we had accessed the ridge closer to the saddle it would probably have been more interesting – looking back at the ridge it “fattens” as it approaches the saddle.

I bet there are some nice views up there.

Stats: 8 miles round trip with 3,381 feet of gain (including our side trip). The map is Green Trails No. 208 Kachess Lake.

Flowers: Indian paintbrush, vanilla leaf, lomatiums, penstemon, phlox, lupine, thimbleberry – with the exception of vanilla leaf the flowers were few and far between.

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