Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, December 2010


It was another black and white day on the western side of the mountains with a non-descript gray sky thrown in. Rain was in the forecast but it often is in the Pacific Northwest; we were prepared. Under these conditions we knew there wouldn’t be much to photograph but we enjoying trying. In fact, some of my best photographs have been on those days when the light was poor because I’ve had to look harder for subject matter. On black and white days like these I long for a better macro-lens because the microscopic world is fascinating and often provides exceptional beauty to those willing to look. A broken branch beside the trail can provide Van Gogh reds and yellows; and a wisp of lichen can take on the intricacy of tattered lace and moss the lime-green of hippie-days Day-Glo extravaganzas.

It being mid-week there were only a couple other vehicles at Red Town where we began our wandering and musing. We had no idea where we wanted to go; Coal Creek Falls was rejected because of the lack of light or ice formations and we’d recently hiked other trails on Cougar Mountain. We’d left the map at home not because we are mindless idiots but because we wanted to wander and be surprised at what we discovered. Besides, the trail system is generally well signed and you never have to venture far before you come out at a trailhead.

One of the trails we hiked was the Old Man’s Trail (we joked we took that trail because we were feeling old). Why it is called the Old Man’s Trail remains a mystery to us but it is a relatively gentle trail that eventually comes out near the Sky Country trailhead, a trailhead that was new to us. We also hiked the Cave Hole Trail, the Coyote Trail and the Klondike Swamp Trail not in that order (We’d started at Red Town and hiked the Cave Hole Trail, turning off onto the Old Man’s Trail (also new to us), came out at the Sky Country trailhead, retraced our route back via the Old Man’s Trail back to the Cave Hole Trail then took the bypass trail to the Klondike Swamp Trail then took the Coyote Trail back to the Cave Hole Trail, then back to Red Town.

The hike ended up being about 6 miles with 615 feet gain – not a strong work-out but a pleasant leg-stretcher with fresh air; plus, the little bit of photography we were able to indulge in was good for the soul.

By the way if you do forget your Green Trails map (No. 203S, Cougar Mountain/Squak Mountain) there are printed maps available at the trailheads.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mount Washington, December 18, 2010

Mount Washington, December 18, 2010

You never really know what the trail to Mount Washington will be like until you’re on the trail. This time of year the snow-line is fickle and the weather capricious. All we knew for sure is that we’d be hiking in snow at some point before we turned around - we didn’t feel like toting snowshoes (a necessity if the summit is your destination).

There was about an inch of snow at the trailhead (Exit No. 38) and it was a chilly, albeit sunny day. Most hikers know how to find the trail by now (it’s not signed but hard to miss) a little west of where the spur trail from the parking lot connects to the Iron Horse Trail. If you get to the spur down to Twin Falls you’ve gone a little too far!

Surprisingly there were only a couple other vehicles at the trailhead – hard to believe on such a beautiful day. We were equipped with Stabilicers, Yak Trax and ice axes but nothing would have helped much on the first stretch of the trail once it left the Iron Horse Trail. A very thin layer of snow concealed loose rocks/pebbles on the trail and it was slow going – the trail providing a great opportunity to sprain an ankle. Not enough snow for traction devices but just enough to make it entertaining.

I’d hoped there’d be a good crop of icicles to photograph and though they were beginning to melt we found several “batches” to play with (photography, not climbing!). It didn’t occur to me until later but it might have been interesting to shoot a short video of the ice as it melted. We passed the overhang (cave) where hardware dangles from the ceiling tempting climbers to practice their skills (no one was practicing).

About 2/3 of the way to the Owl Spot we hit enough snow that hiking became a joyful experience rather than a balancing act. The snow was beautiful but in dappled light, hard to get decent photos. Instead, we just enjoyed walking through the Christmas-y scene.

There was about 4 inches or so of snow at the Owl Spot (the view from the Owl Spot shrinks a little more each year as the trees grow) – we usually stop for a bite to eat but we weren’t hungry so continued hiking, making the stream our next potential turnaround. Strangely enough the snow deepened significantly as we made our way to the “designated” junction with the Mount Washington/Great Wall trail though we weren’t gaining much elevation. Just beyond the junction is the stream; not a problem to cross whatsoever but we turned around – the snow was more than deep enough to warrant snowshoes (the snowshoes were in Seattle). We bare-booted the Great Wall trail a short way just out of curiosity then retraced our route back to the car. En route we checked out a few of the “unofficial” trails.

We met a few hikers coming up on our way out, including a friendly gal who asked us where the trail went – she’d forgotten her map and was pretty sure she was on the Mount Washington trail. She’d started from Twin Falls so had already hiked quite a way. We told her she’d need snowshoes if she went beyond the Owl Spot – like us, she’d left her snowshoes behind.

There was still an inch or so of snow on the loose pebbles/rocks so though it looked odd we used our ice axes to keep our balance until we were on the Iron Horse trail.

As for photographs – I am not an expert photographer nor do I have high-end photo-gear but I get annoyed at what I call the “blue factor”. Snow and icicles that look white to us appear blue in photographs unless we’re out in bright sunshine. It is undoubtedly the color of evergreens reflected back onto the surface of the snow but it’s disappointing to get home, download the photos and find that most of the snow/ice shots are “blue”. Gives me the blues, in fact!

I do utilize my digital camera program and can either turn the blue shots into black and whites or play with the color a bit, adding a bit of red and yellow to brighten the snow.

A great day – is there any other kind of day in the mountains?

Stats: About 6 miles round trip with 2,400 feet of gain including side-trips.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mount Si Rambling, December 2010


What else can anyone say about Mount Si that hasn’t been said?

It’s convenient, the trail provides a great workout and the views from the Haystack are splendid.

Though it’s been said that familiarity breeds contempt Mount Si is like an old friend you are comfortable with and can count on - even when you abandon Mount Si for higher realms Mount Si patiently awaits your return in the fall when days grow short and snow covers the high trails.

You know that Mount Si will always be there for you. Or will it? Now there’s talk about additional fees for recreation including the possibility of hikers needing a pass to hike on land managed by the Department of Natural Resources (State Parks are also in trouble; the future uncertain). I’m not a fortune teller but it is probably just a matter of time before it’s going to cost all of us more to recreate.

Me? I’d be willing to pay a modest fee for an annual pass to hike on DNR-land – better that than not be able to hike there at all. How much would I be willing to pay to hike Mount Si or another park in the vicinity? Well, let’s see – we’ve already purchased a Sno-Park permit, a pass from the Department of Fish and Wildlife (the Vehicle Use Permit) and my Golden Age Pass to access Washington National Parks and United States Forest Service land. I already donate to Washington State Parks when I renew my license tabs – so, OK – how much more would I be willing to pay? I’ve heard of $8 per vehicle, even $8 per person to recreate in a DNR-managed park. That, of course, is outrageous – I don’t care how much money you make. $10 or $15 a year per vehicle, OK – I’d be OK with that. Most hikers, mountain bikers, runners and climbers probably would be OK with that too though I can’t speak for everyone.

Recently there’s talk about the major land-management agencies combining passes – that strikes me as not such a bad idea. That makes it easier for everyone, including the land management agencies. For the latest information on proposals and updates on specifics check out the website for Washington Trails Association ( Click the stewardship link for the latest news and how you can make your opinion heard.

And now a confession - I didn’t mean to get into politics – generally a subject I avoid. Like I read once, “each man is right according to his point of view”. I have the curse – or is it a blessing – to see more than one side of things and it’s hard for me to make a stand. Truth is like a diamond – like a diamond there are more than two sides and on issues such this there’s dozens of sides to reflect upon before making – or not making a stand. I can always find a little bit of right in the worst opinions and a little bit of woe in the best opinions. So I generally prefer to leave most politics to others and live with the consequences (by not participating in politics I don’t have a right to grumble about the outcome of controversial issues).

However, this is an issue I’m keeping a close eye on and depending on how it all shakes out I might have to step into the no-man’s land of politics.

The first time I hiked Mount Si I felt I had climbed a “real” mountain. After all, I had only done a few easy hikes up to that point. I forget how many hours it took to get to the top but a strong hiker today would find my “time” pathetic. Even when I was at my best there was always someone faster than me so I stopped playing that game a long time ago. I look at my watch when I get to the trailhead and when I get to the top, not the duration. I “find” my pace and stick to it and I don’t stop until I get there. I don’t need “rest” breaks if I am hiking at the right pace; I only need to stop for water on hot days when drinking frequently is a must.

My memories of Mount Si are good ones - in the 1980s a group of us would meet to hike up Mount Si after we got off work. We always made it down before dark, we had a good time and afterwards we’d chow down at a nearby restaurant (to replace the calories we hoped we’d lost).

A lot has changed in 30 years – there are fewer wildflowers at the base of the Haystack than there were my first visit in1980. The trail has been rerouted a couple of times. Some hikers like the changes; others don’t. The trail is more user-friendly than it used to be and a lot busier. On weekends the parking lot is overflowing with cars, hikers starting out, hikers returning, dogs on leash and off – a virtual river of hikers of all ages, shapes and sizes. I am but a mere drop in that human river except perhaps on a rainy Tuesday morning when there are only a few cars in the lot and you don’t have to stand in line to use the facilities.

Our last visit was a weekday (December 16th) and there were only a few cars in the parking lot at 10:15, a late start. There had been a windstorm the day before so we weren’t surprised to see a few trees had come down near the trailhead (none impeding a hiker’s progress). The snow line was low – but we didn’t get into snow until we’d climbed past Snag Flats (roughly the half-way point of the 4-mile trail).

We were well into snow by the time we reached the non-designated junction with the Old Si trail but the snow still wasn’t a problem. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the dirt and that made for good traction; no Yak Trax or traction devices required. We’d planned to hike to the base of the Haystack – en route a few hikers came down and mentioned that it was extremely windy on the top.

About last stretch of the trail became more challenging as the fresh snow now covered old snow; we were still able to hike without traction devices but most hikers would prefer to wear them on the descent. The vegetation was covered with new snow; we’d never seen Mount Si so pretty. When we broke out of the last clump of sheltering trees near the “rocks” we were almost blown off the trail. The wind was so cold as to be unbearable – we stayed only long enough to take a couple photos and beat a retreat into the trees; our hands were screaming from the cold.

The descent was a more challenging – without poles or traction devices it was easy to slip and slide on the steep grade but we managed to make it down without falling. Silverback utilized his staff; I depended on my good balance to keep from falling (I’ve tried hiking with trekking poles but don’t like them). We were both equipped with traction devices (Stabilicers and Yak Trax) but didn’t use them partly because even with gloves our hands were too cold to put them on. (Hint: Put them on a little before your fingers get so cold they can’t function).

We made it back down within a respectable time given that everyone we met on the trail was at least half our age. We changed out of our damp boots/sox into dry shoes and socks and could hardly wait to get our hands on that thermos of hot coffee we’d left in the car. As we drove back to Seattle I indulged myself in more Mount Si-related nostalgia – the New Years Day I climbed with friends (we were all wearing crampons) and even with crampons we lurched from tree to tree, laughing the whole way down. The wedding ceremony we encountered near the base of Mount Si – the happy couple turned out to be members of The Mountaineers that I knew. The time we hiked up Si on Super Bowl Sunday and the trail was just about as close to being deserted as you can get. The summer evening I met a fellow on the trail climbing with a huge pack who told me he was going to live on Mount Si (I often wonder what happened to him). The numerous hikers who have passed me as I grow older (once I grumbled “you might as well pass me, everyone else does”). The time I climbed the Haystack alone (my first and last climb) and found it easier than I thought it would be. On the summit I met a young woman who had just graduated from law school – she was celebrating (that was also her first time on the Haystack). The countless times I’ve run into acquaintances on the trail and how much fun it is to run into someone I know. The countless times I’ve hiked alone and found a lonely niche in the rocks below the Haystack to dream or to ponder a problem.

I look forward to seeing Mount Si again soon. Maybe I’ll see you there too.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Duwamish Hill Preserve, December 2010

Duwamish Hill Preserve (Beaver Monster Hill)

We don’t always go to the mountains. Sometimes we can’t afford to fill the gas tank, other times the weather is dire enough that staying closer to home seems like a better idea.

When the budget is lean and winter days are short – we walk. In addition to Alki Point, Lincoln Park, Longfellow Creek, Schmitz Park and other parks nearby we’ve walked around Georgetown, South Park (before they dismantled the bridge), Allentown (a small community under the umbrella of Tukwila), the Duwamish Longhouse on West Marginal Way and nearby a few abandoned, ancient houses that intrigue (sorry, no trespassing allowed)

We’ve also walked the Green River trail (from Boeing) to Allentown, stopping along the way where historical tidbits of earlier times can still be seen (and photographed). In short, we won’t to run out of “material” for many years – if ever. Mostly, though, these urban walks raise more questions than provide answers.

Take today for example – we wanted something close to home (the Pineapple Express was due to arrive) so decided to explore around Tukwila (Allentown) and see what we could find. On our way to the Tukwila Community Center we noticed what appeared to be a small park (no signage but obvious parking available). Since one of our objectives was to find Beaver Monster Hill and since the parking area was right under a hill with a trail on it, we figured this was it.

The hill is sometimes referred to as Poverty Hill by locals and is also known as Beaver Monster Hill. Silverback related the Native American story of Wishpoosh, the Beaver Monster to me as we walked. Long ago the Beaver Monster lived in Lake Cle Elum and according to the legend ate all the salmon in the lake on which the Native Americans depended. People were starving so Coyote (the trickster) and Wishpoosh fought – as they battled they chewed their way south to where the Columbia River meets the ocean. Finally Coyote managed to kill Wishpoosh and from that time the people could eat the salmon and continue to live along the river. Beaver Monster Hill is al result of that great battle.

If you’re interested in finding the hill you can follow our convoluted directions, get help from Mapquest or refer to recently published “Hiking Washington’s History” by Judy Bentley. From Seattle we headed south on I-5 and got off at Exit 158, turned west to Interurban Avenue, turned south onto Interurban (you can see the hill from Interurban Avenue but not the park). From Interurban we turned left onto South 115th Street – Duwamish Riverbend Hill (is on the left side of 115th Street).

The park appears to be open despite lack of signage; there is an obvious parking area. From the parking area a trail climbs a gentle grade with steps to the summit. Along the way there are benches where one can sit. There are views to the north of the Seattle skyline and on a clear day, probably views of Mount Rainier to the south.

From the summit we enjoyed views of the tannin-hued Duwamish River, bordered with industrial sites interspersed with pockets of forest and bottomlands. Once upon a time fishing villages lined the river; today the hill is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of industry – traffic on Highway 509, airplanes, semi-trucks and light rail hurtle by - it is reassuring to look down upon the Duwamish River as it still makes its way to Puget Sound. The river lives on despite us.

After the hike we looked on The Internet for additional information about the park; hence an article by the Cascade Land Conservancy (the 8-acre park opened in September this year). They refer to the park as the Duwamish Hill Preserve; the project took 10 years to complete. We didn’t count the steps; they say it takes 80 steps to reach the top. In addition to benches and trails a storytelling area was also built. The City of Tukwila was able to purchase the land thanks to the Cascade Land Conservancy and volunteers who put in many hours clearing the land of ivy, blackberries and trash. Even Foster High School students got involved in helping to preserve the site - they wrote a play about the hill and how it has changed over time (the students donated over $1,000 in ticket sales to the cause).

According to the CLC the site is estimated to be about 40 million years old (older than Mount Rainier). In the geological past the hill was underwater; marine fossils have been discovered there. Today the hill is a pretty place with rocky outcroppings covered with moss, sword ferns and in spring, wildflowers.

For additional information or to volunteer contact the Cascade Land Conservancy at

Friday, December 10, 2010

Kamikaze Falls, December 10, 2010

Kamikaze Falls, December 10, 2010

We know that the weather forecasters get a little carried away with their dire predictions but the system coming in this weekend does really appear to be nasty. Lots of snow, followed by a pineapple express (snow level ranging between 7-8,000 feet) – much of the snow that has fallen will melt. Friday was correctly predicted to be mostly dry (at least along the I-90 corridor) with a few showers. We leapt at the opportunity to escape our confines (cabin fever has set in).

After considering and then rejecting a hike (possible snowshoe trip) starting from the Carbon River entrance of Mt Rainier National Park we settled for something closer to home, especially as the cost of gas is going up. Again. Plus, recent trail reports indicated that it would likely be another brown hike (possibly hitting snow at 3,000 feet or above) and the Carbon River Road is much lower than that.

What, you may ask, is a brown hike? It’s a term that hikers have been kicking around for a few years used to describe the time of year when fall color has fled and snow has yet to fall and stay. The ground is a mash of wet leaves the color of meatballs forgotten in the back of the refrigerator and the branches of deciduous trees are bare.

However, knowing that this is the time of year for brown hikes we’ve learned to cope with them in a variety of ways. As a published photographer (nope, I’m not famous and will never put Art Wolfe out of business) on a lean budget and a low-end digital camera I’ve learned to view the mountains in a different way this time of year.

Take today for example – as soon as we got up, we knew where we wanted to go. There was only a slight chance of showers (we are okay with that and prepared) and the trailhead is close to home (Seattle). We could afford hit the road!!

On hiking websites there has been much to-do about the Kamikaze Trail near North Bend – the “old” trail departed from a service road and went up, up, up beside Kamikaze Creek and over the years enough hikers found their way to the boot path that it became the legendary route to not only Kamikaze Falls but a boot-trail went all the way to Mount Teneriffe.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wasn’t happy with all those hikers using the “old” trail and they attempted to keep the hikers out. That didn’t work – not even the signs warning of fines and “THIS IS NOT A TRAIL”.

At that time I was still writing “Hike of the Week” for The Seattle Post Intelligencer (printed version, not on-line). I was still pretty na├»ve about the ins and outs of land-management agencies when I first wrote up lowland trails so when I wrote up Kamikaze Falls for the PI I got some flak from readers. Some suggested that I had “ruined” their “secret” trail while others grumbled about ecological damage to the creek. Humbled, I resolved never to speak of Kamikaze Falls again.

Until I got a call from a DNR employee who said they were considering building a trail to Kamikaze Falls and would I like to accompany them on a hike? They wanted me to hike with them and give them my input on what it was like to hike the “old” trail and where the “new” trail (if they did build a new trail) should go.

As we hiked toward one of the overlooks of the falls on the “old” trail we agreed that nothing was going to keep hikers away from Kamikaze Falls and that perhaps building another trail was some sort of solution. A few years passed. Next thing I knew there was word of a “trail” being built to an overlook of Kamikaze Falls (the old trail would still be discouraged).

Last summer the trail was not finished but we hiked part of it on a quiet weekend and well, we liked the new trail. It wasn’t as dramatic as the original route but it was safer and there were – and are – some gorgeous spots along the trail (besides the die-hards have probably figured out a way to use the “old” trail anyway and at the very least are continuing on to Mount Teneriffe).

Since it had been a while we wanted to see how the new trail was getting on. We drove to the “School bus turnaround” on the Mount Si road and parked – it was a weekday and since it is a school bus turnaround you’d better get back to your car before the school buses turn around – just to be on the safe side). There’s another “way” to get to the new Kamikaze Trail but that’s another story. Let your imagination get to work.

A few other cars were also parked there and the DNR road was gated – as usual. As before we hiked up the road approximately a half-mile to where the signed trail to Kamikaze Falls takes off. As we hiked along the first stretch of the road we were amazed by the number of small trees that had been broken off by high winds earlier this week – some trees looked like they had exploded.

There did not appear to be any wind damage along the Kamikaze Falls trail, though. We had the trail to ourselves and the hike was pleasant, even on a drab day such as this one. It wasn’t a day to take superior photographs but it just felt good to be outside (Hell, it always feels good to be outside, doesn’t it?)

While there aren’t magnificent views along the trail we found beauty along the way. First of all there are the moss-slathered rocks, the ferns, the blue-green lichen and though the light was poor it was fun to photograph some of the quiet beauty as we hiked. Silverback mentioned – more than once and he was correct – that the trail is finely engineered and well built. Frankly – having hiked the old trail in the past – I like the new trail. The trail traverses several open slopes graced with boulders and views to Rattlesnake Ledge (and beyond on a better day). Apparently some hikers don’t like the new trail because the “adventure” has been taken out of it but you find any complaint here. Isn’t it a good thing there are lots of other “secret” places where they (or we) can still experience an adventure?

After contouring across the talus slopes the trail skirts Kamikaze Creek before it turns into dark, quiet forest. A little further along is a mossy outcropping at the end of a switchback; from here is a view you can’t miss nor would you want to.

Beyond the outcropping the trail continues to zigzag mostly through the forest, at one point joining the old trail, then leaving it again. The sound (and the fury too) of the waterfall can be heard and finally a white blur through the dark stands of trees gives a hint that you’ve reached the “first” overlook at the end of another switchback.

Here we were close enough to the waterfall that we were satisfied to make this our turnaround point (about 2,570 feet). We expected the waterfall to be amazing – and it was. Only one small snow patch remained; the rest was a blur of white water cascading over dark, semi-submerged rocks. We took a few gingerly steps down for a closer look, hanging on to trees for balance as we went.

We considered climbing further but beyond the first overlook the path is a little rougher and more of a scramble (we’re not quite sure where the official trail ends and the other begins). It looked like we had about another 150 feet or so to climb before we reached the top of the falls (it also appeared we weren’t far from the snowline). With an earlier start we might have gone on but going to Mount Teneriffe that way was out of the question (no ice axes, lack of time, lack of desire).

As we retraced our route we met a few other hikers coming up – the trail was a wise choice given the weather and the storms to come. We made good time back to the car without feeling we were hurrying – 3 hours up and back. Round trip 6 miles with about 1,600 feet gain.

Silverback enlightened me as to the meaning of “Kamikaze” – in Japanese it translates to “divine wind”.

A good day!