Friday, October 21, 2011

Granite Mountain, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, October 2011

GRANITE MOUNTAIN (Alpine Lakes Wilderness)

We have a love/hate relationship with the Granite Mountain Trail. It’s a hard hike for many with significant elevation gain and mileage; the reward for the toil is worth it for hikers who stick to it. Those who have hiked to Granite Mountain and the Granite Mountain lookout on a regular basis get to know each switchback by name (we’ve never counted them) and after several trips over the years we look for the tree that designates the beginning of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Our hike yesterday (10-17) was no exception though the weather was exceptionally good for mid-October. Though it was cool in the shade when we started by the time we were out of the forest and onto the open slopes of Granite Mountain the sun was warm and the fall colors so intense it looked like the mountain was on fire.

The first stretch of the trail – as many trails in the Pacific Northwest – starts out in forest but this is old forest, quiet and deep. When you get to the junction for Pratt Lake/Granite Mountain go straight uphill – you’d turn left if you were heading to Pratt Lake.

Still in the forest the trail continues its intense climb and eventually enters the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (designated by a sign). The foliage thins out a bit and there are a few peeks ahead to blue sky and swatches of fall color.

Views improve every step of the way – this is high country at its finest with views down to I-90 and McClellan Butte resembling a great bird with its wings spread about to soar. The trail continues through the Halloween candy colors of fall – the blueberry shrubs were turning red; some still held bountiful berries. The beargrass that lined the trail earlier in the season has lost it’s white plume of a flower but the ragged, skeletal stalks remain amidst bright pockets of mountain ash, hanging meadows with occasional white snags and then looking very far away – the lookout comes into view.

The climbing relents as the trail approaches two small tarns in a meadow; the fall colors above the tarns were reflected in the water. The tarns are the ideal spot for a break before girding yourself for a still-steep ascent.

From the tarns the trail spurts upward again then winds more gently through large boulders and meadows. The lookout appears again, still looking very far away though it’s closer than it looks.

The trail relents again and is level for a bit before one more steep push through forest to a boulder field; then suddenly you are there. The lookout is closed for the season but there are plenty of places to settle and the views will take what breath remains away.

First we stopped for lunch at the lookout; where it was warm and sunny enough that a chipmunk popped up from the rocks and dashed about hoping for handouts. From there we enjoyed views of Mount Rainier amidst a sea of undulating ridges and Mount Adams further to the south.

Two companions opted to hike the trail back to the tarns; three of us opted for the scramble route on boulders to the tarns where we’d rendezvous. The scramble is not particularly dangerous though good balance and some off-trail hiking experience comes in handy. Later in the year when snow falls, the scramble route over the boulders becomes hazardous as snow fills in crevices between the rocks and it’s all too easy to twist an ankle or worse.

We suggest you hike this trail soon – once significant snow accumulates the trail becomes dangerous in the open areas and avalanches can roar down without warning.
However, with a dusting of snow the hike can still be done and is spectacular then, especially when there is still fall color (watch for ice as temperatures drop).

As always never hike beyond your comfort level and always tell someone where you are hiking and when you are expected to return.

The map is Green Trails No. 207 Snoqualmie Pass.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Kendall Katwalk, October 15, 2011


What can I say about the Kendall Katwalk that hasn’t been said before? It’s a fairly long hike (12 miles round trip with about 2,700 feet elevation gain via the PCT at Snoqualmie Pass). The scenery is spectacular from beginning to end.

The first stretch is mostly forested but with occasional flashes of colorful vine maple here and there. Devil’s club has turned yellow, its big leaves reminiscent of maple leaves but with treacherous needle-like stickers. It was no surprise there are few flowers now along the trail – in the forest remnants of Canadian dogwood, aged Solomons seal and vanilla leaf. At the Katwalk there were a few harebells and a bit of yarrow.

We always looked forward to that first view of Guye Peak as the PCT leaves the forest to contour below a boulder field. There are also growing views of Red Mountain and Snoqualmie Mountain (Snoqualmie Mountain was dusted with fresh snow that melted away by afternoon).

Shortly past a slightly tricky stream crossing there’s a junction for the Commonwealth Basin trail (it’s signed). The trail to Commonwealth Basin can be used as a shortcut back to the PCT trailhead but stream crossings in the basin can be dicey, especially after recent rain and some snow-melt. The “old” Commonwealth Basin trail is a stretch of the original PCT before the trail was rerouted – it was called the Cascade Crest Trail then.

Past the junction to Commonwealth Basin the trail climbs through dense vegetation - blueberry shrubs, bracken, fading hellebore and mountain ash. After a while the dense vegetation gives way to old-growth forest and another stream crossing, this one easier than the first though at first glance it looks worse than it is.

The next stretch climbs through old-growth forest and you’ll see where trail crews cleared a large blowdown earlier this year. You’ll begin to see bits of sky through the forest canopy and about the time you think the forest will never end the trail breaks out below Kendall Ridge. In October the views are mesmerizing. Colorful fall foliage extends to the base of the ridge (right) and you will unconsciously slow your pace to take in the colorful displays. There are also views of the Snoqualmie peaks.

I’ve only been on the true summit of Kendall Peak once and that was a few years ago. It was the last Mountaineer scramble that the late Paul Wiseman led for the Seattle Mountaineers. The scramble to the true summit is trickier than it looks (at least I thought it was so) and from the trail it is hard to tell which of the high points is the summit.

The PCT its way around Kendall Ridge and here we found a thin layer of snow and occasional ice in the shade; not enough yet to warrant Yak Trax or traction devices but that can change any day now. There was a definite winter chill in the air despite the sun and blue skies.

If you have time notice the boulders beside the trail – they are splashed with lichen in just about every color you can imagine and in places sparkled with a glaze of ice. After some minor ups and downs the trail reaches a viewpoint – this is not the Kendall Katwalk but the views are impressive.

The PCT continues, making a long curve as it contours above a talus slope then comes to the Kendall Katwalk. Just before you get to the Katwalk the trail is narrow and a sign encourages horseback riders to dismount. It’s no place for a fall. Just before you get to the Katwalk peer through a window in the big boulders that border the trail for an interesting frame and view of Red Mountain, Lundine and more.

The Katwalk is snow-free and was the ideal place to stop on this chilly, sunny day. Here we enjoyed views of the Four Brothers, Chikamin Peak and other peaks we weren’t sure we could properly identify. Since we’ve hiked this trail often we didn’t bring the map – that’s a mistake if you want to identify the surrounding peaks.

Since it was a sunny Saturday there were many other hikers on the trail but who can blame them? Most of the hikers we met were younger and probably work full-time – who can begrudge their desire for a golden hike on a Saturday? I used to be one of those weekend-warriors after all. In my 30s, 40s and 50s I mostly worked full-time positions and hiked, scrambled, snowshoed or skied both days of the weekend.

Bob and I dawdled both coming and going – you can blame that on the somewhat futile attempt to immortalize these splendid scenes with our cameras.

Don’t forget your Northwest Forest Pass as we did in our eagerness to get outside on a sunny day. I didn’t realize it was sitting at home until we were half-way to Snoqualmie Pass. We ended up having to use my debit card to purchase a day-hiking permit at one of the grocery stores at the pass. I don’t remember the name of the store but it’s the first one grocery/gas station you come to as you approach Travelers Rest from the west (Exit 52). You will need a permit to park at the trailhead and parking is not allowed near the freeway interchange. You’re likely to get towed if you attempt to park there. Buck up, admit you’re getting old and forgetful and purchase a pass if you need to (to be completely honest …. I often forgot important items in my 30’s too, like the time I forgot my blue foam sleeping pad on a wintry, snowy backpack but that’s another long story…..).

I guess that’s called being human.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In Search of Color, Talapus and Olallie Lakes

October 13, 2011

Today the two Bob's and I trudged to Talapus Lake. Trudged? Well ... yes. One Bob is recovering from a cold (as am I) and the other Bob is still getting used to heart medication. Plus, a summer of hard hiking has caught up to me as well as another blankety-blank birthday. I'm getting long in the tooth - how did that happen?

It felt like fall today. A chilly morning and cold in the shadows. No fall color until we reached the trailhead; then a visual shout of fall color right there. That whetted our appetite for more.

For some strange reason I find the trail system to Talapus/Olallie lakes confusing; that's perhaps due to the social trails that weave in and out of the main trail and near the lakes. No matter, we made it to both after one false turn.

We didn't see any more fall color until we reached Talapus Lake; the view of the lake and the surrounding boulder fields was stunning. Perhaps we should have called it a day there - it was a pretty scene but we were greedy and wanted more.

On to Lake Olallie where there was little color but there were wisps of mist rising from the lake as if they were living entities (perhaps they were). Again, we had the lake to ourselves and even in the sun it was chilly. The mountain ash was still green; there was only a smattering of dull orange on talus slopes above the lake. Nothing as vivid as the trailhead!

Most of the hike was/is in the forest with several sections of boardwalks in various ages of repair, none lethally slick. No formidable stream crossings, no wildlife sightings, no other hikers until we were on the way down. There are some handsome old-growth trees here and there, vine maple, Canadian dogwood (sans berries), fading vanilla leaf, bead lily without the bead. The forest looks old and feels old too.

If you hike this trail notice the moss-covered trail sign not far from the trailhead. It's been there for a long time. It may even be older than us.


Oh yeah - the stats (7 miles with 1,350 feet gain but that includes some lost time and additional gain on the network of social trails near Talapus Lake.)