Teanaway Ridge – Mountain Views and Wildflowers

It’s Memorial Day weekend, which I consider the kick-off to fair weather hiking season in Washington. Not necessarily Western Washington – everyone knows summer in Seattle starts on July 5th. But a quick trip over the mountains now is almost guaranteed to be sunny and gorgeous!

A few of my favorite outdoorsy friends and I discussed our summer backpacking bucket lists, and decided to head over to Teanaway Ridge for a perfect moderate hike to start conditioning for the ones we hope to get to check off this year. At under 7 miles and 2000 ft elevation gain, this trail is easy enough that I would consider bringing my 10 year old, but hard enough that I am definitely a little sore the next day! The real draw, however, isn’t the work-out but rather the stunning views from the top, and the beauty of the wildflower meadows and pine forests all the way up.

Stuart Range from Teanaway Ridge

The path winds up through the woods and out again, crossing a few clear streams and edging along rocky slopes scattered with bitterroot, lupine, balsamroot and plenty more colorful blooms. About halfway up is Iron Bear Pass that offers peeks at the mountain views better seen from the top, and a refreshing breeze after the steep climb.

Bitterroot at Iron Bear Pass

Glacier Lillies on Teanaway Ridge

 

The summit of this hike is a rewarding one – after shoving through thick overgrowth and trekking up some seriously steep sandy hills, you’re led over one last rise and suddenly you’re on top of the world. 360 degree views of this gorgeous part of the state with Mt. Rainier towering over all of it, and a clear view of the snow-capped Stuart range as well. We could even see the windmills and dry hills of Naches to the South.

Mt. Rainier from Teanaway

We snacked and enjoyed the surreal experience of listening to birdsong among a rainbow of flowers at 5500 ft. It is a whole different feeling of springtime, eating lunch next to a scattering of glacier lillies coming up as the last patches of snow melt and a golden eagle soars in lazy circles over the hills, but level with us.

The excitement and promise of more hikes to come is always intensified for me when I’m up so high. Looking to the north I think of Lake Ingalls, Navaho Pass, Colchuck, and the eventuality of getting a pass into The Enchantments. Rainier is a must for me this summer. Camping  in the east where it is dry and we might find lizards among the sagebrush. The possibilities all laid out like looking at a topographic map are exhilarating.

This was a wonderful first real hike of the season, and I cannot wait for the rest to come.

Panorama from Teanaway Ridge

Teanaway Ridge | 6.5 miles | 1900 ft. gain | Highest point 5489 ft

Species observed: Turkey Vulture, Golden Eagle, Chipping Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Common Raven, Yellow-Pine Chipmunk, California Tortoiseshell Butterfly, Mourning Cloak Butterfly, Giant Stonefly.

Wildflowers Identified: Bitterroot, Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Glacier Lily, Columbia Puccoon, Thinpetal/Upland Larkspur, Robinson’s Onion, Harsh Paintbrush, Western Trillium, Panicled Zigadene, Ballhead Waterleaf, Penstemon, Showy Jacob’s Ladder.

 

 

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Cowiche Canyon in Spring

The weather has finally started to turn around here! The sun has been out, everything is greening up, and I have found myself forgetting a jacket in the mornings. I’ve been dying to get out and actually enjoy it, but unfortunately last weekend happened to be the few days it decided to rain. So, we chased the sun over the mountains and into the desert of the Columbia plateau.

Cowiche08

I love the way the environment transitions along the drive from Seattle to the Yakima Valley. The trees are all leafy springtime on both sides of the Cascades, but through the Pass they shrink back up into budding, brown branches. Walls of snow still line the highway up there, making it all that much more glorious to drive back down the other side to grassy plains and swollen rivers. The dry side of the mountains is different, but it sneaks up on us slowly – the firs and cedars give way to Ponderosa pines over here, and the undergrowth is sparse, but suddenly we come around a bend and the hills all around are completely naked – their weather-worn peaks and gullies are exposed, save for a barely fuzzy golden brown from last summer’s grass, not yet recovered. Traveling through these hills into the shrub-steppe land, sagebrush begins to dominate and my mind pulls up images of the childhood drive to my Grandma’s house in California. All of this within 2 hours until we arrive at the time-worn crack in the plains that is the canyon.

Cowiche06

I’m not much of a geology buff, but thankfully the signs along the main trail gave me a lesson quick enough to answer the kidlet’s questions as we wandered through the area. It’s hard not to feel a little small and insignificant when learning about how the volcanic events that created the stunning basalt columns happened as long as 17 million years ago, and that after erosion wore away a valley, another eruption poured andesite lava into it. After Cowiche creek carved out a canyon between the two types of lava the cliffs left behind clearly showed the two types of rock – clean-lined vertical basalt on one side, and pillowy looking andesite on the other. Slowly, the rock walls are being eaten away by the landscape – rainbows of lichens and scrubby vegetation are swallowing them up.

Cowiche01

The lower trail is pleasant, with occasional shade from the blazing Eastern Washington sun. The creek provides for hawthorne and dogwood, which are swarming with blue butterflies. Hiking up the hills a few hundred feet brings on a sudden temperature difference and the need to watch out for snakes in the dry sagebrush. We didn’t see any on this trip, but a tiny mouse ran across our path into a burrow, and the scattered carpet of wildflowers kept us going up and up.

After taking in the 360° views of the nearby orchards and patchy farms in the hills, we headed back down and crossed a series of bridges as we went deeper into the canyon. At one point we walked through a narrow spot with recent rock-slides that I found comically reminiscent of a Disneyland attraction, except that the danger of falling rocks was certainly real.

Cowiche02

We saw few animals in the reluctant spring weather. Evidence of them was everywhere, however. Coyote fur and scat; burrows of all sizes; hidden rustles from the sage. I was pleased to see a rare Merlin fly over, and a Sage Thrasher which crossed another bird off my list. A “volt” of vultures circled overhead, waiting for us to drop, perhaps?! I’m certain that a hike here at dusk would be very interesting indeed.

We reached the end of the out-and-back trail and climbed a basalt wall to sit for a quick snack break before hurrying back to the car to cross the mountains before it got too dark. That was wise, since it was raining harder than I have ever seen in my life… but even though we only spent a few hours soaking up the heat before returning to our soggy side of the state, I’m feeling recharged and able to weather a few more storms before solid hiking season is really here.

Cowiche07

Areas visited: Cowiche Canyon near Naches, WA.

70°F | Lightly overcast | 12PM-4PM | About 6 miles

Species observed: Lucia Azure Butterfly, Merlin, Sage Thrasher, California Quail, Black-billed Magpie, Turkey Vulture, Dark-eyed Junco.

Wildflowers: Long-leaf Phlox, Bonneville Shooting-Star, Panicled Death Camas, Sagebrush Violet, Sagebrush Buttercup, Upland Larkspur, Carey’s Balsamroot, Pursh’s Milk Vetch, Thyme-leaf Buckwheat, Bicolor Triteleia, Ballhead Waterleaf.

Skyline Lake Snowshoe

Snow. It’s a big weakness for me. Whether I’m up in the mountains and it’s coating every tree like frosting or I’m in the city and we get a dusting overnight, snow makes me giddy like a little kid. Maybe it’s because growing up in Seattle, with its notoriously difficult to predict weather, we would hear about the possibility of snow for 6 months out of the year but the forecast would be right only a tiny percentage of the time. When it would finally fall the entire area would be so unprepared for the icy mess on the roads that everything would shut down and we would get the day off of school, even if it was only half an inch. I can remember sitting up most of the night hoping that the news would be correct and I’d wake up to a yard blanketed in white, checking out my window every 15 minutes to see if it had started, and inevitably being disappointed most of the time. Let’s be honest, I still do that sometimes. But lucky for me, now I’m an adult with an AWD car and I can have a snow day any day I feel like making the drive!

I have a friend who understands my ridiculous love of snow, and she has been promising for a while to take me snowshoeing at Skyline Lake. She said it was unlike anywhere else – a quick trip up would lead us into a whole other world of snow, so magical it doesn’t even seem real. How could I say no to that?! We decided the conditions were right to make it the perfect end-of-the-year hike and set off into the mountains on New Year’s Eve day.

Skyline Snow

This trip also marks my first time using snowshoes. We’ve always brought them and never needed them, but I finally got to try them out. I have to say, they were much more natural feeling than I expected, and I loved being able to tromp through deep fluffy snow without a care. I’ll definitely be looking for my own pair pretty soon!

Our hike started out at the ski resort, and with 6 feet of snow on the ground it was already feeling pretty magical. And cold. At 20°F at the base of the trail I knew we were going to have to keep moving to stay warm, but I quickly found out that wasn’t going to be a problem. This hike is short, but steep! The gain is about 1,100 feet over a mile and a half and in the snow it certainly was a workout. We would be puffing up the hill, shedding layers and panting and then would come around a corner to an exposed section and quickly bundle up again against the stinging gusts of wind. The biting, icy wind is part of what makes this place so beautiful, however, and once we reached the lake I could see the effect it has on the winter landscape. Snow drifts looked like rolling sand dunes and strange shapes were created by the trees and boulders that had become completely buried. The whole world up there looked straight out of Dr. Seuss.

Skyline Drifts

We had expected a bluebird day, but the ridge here funnels clouds right into the bowl of the lake, and we found ourselves pretty socked in. We decided to flop in the snow by the “shore” for a picnic to see if we could wait out the clouds. The weather never fully cleared up, but the view was still magnificent. As the wind blew through it picked up snow and all of the shapes around us disappeared into a white-out. The trees and snowy dunes would reappear in shifting pockets. I know the views from the top are supposed to be spectacular, but I don’t regret at all coming on a beautifully misty day.

Skyline Whitout

When we tired of making snow angels we heading up the ridge to see if there was much visible up there at all. The extra 100 feet up to the unprotected ridgeline made for a huge change in the weather. We looked straight down the other side into a swirling abyss of grey and got blasted by the intense wind from a system that was trying to push itself up over the cliff. We were admiring the thick hoar frost on the trees there, when we looked at each other and noticed that both of our hair had frozen as well! Each strand was coated in thick white frost, just from those few gusts of wind. I’m sure if we had stayed there for an hour we could have each grown beards as well!

Skyline Hoar Frost

We traversed the ridge until we were overlooking the lake again and came upon the boulders dubbed “the rock garden”. They towered over us, some as big as houses, and all of them coated in drifts of deep snow. From up there, in an absolutely alien landscape, with occasional sun breaks revealing snippets of the Cascade range I completely understood why my friend pushed to get me here. This was probably the best snow I’ve ever seen!

Finally we were fully chilled to the bone and frolicked the our way down hill. I regretted not bringing something to use as a sled, but some spots were steep enough to just sit down and slide! As we headed back into the forest we yelled, “Goodbye magical snowy wonderland, see you soon”! And I’m sure I will!

Skyline Rock Garden

Snowshoe: Skyline Lake | 3 miles | 1100ft Elev. gain

If you go: Dress for the North Pole – apparently it is always exceedingly cold on this trail and a quick system moving in can drop the air temperature rapidly. Be aware of the avalance risks if going off trail. And I definitely recommend bringing some kind of sled for the way down!

Cherry Creek Falls

I woke up this morning to a bluebird day, a few hours to kill, and a husband who looked just bored enough to convince to go on a hike with me. I love days like these because they are perfect for crossing smaller, closer hikes off of my list. You know, the ones that don’t warrant a 5:00 AM start and a full Saturday to get them done. We had just enough time to make it out to Duvall and check out Cherry Creek Falls.

Frost at Cherry Creek

The forest was misty and thick frost coated the trail in many places. We even found some wet spots where the ground had turned into a sheet of ice. But the cold felt good for the walk up and down many steep hills, and we found ourselves shedding layers pretty quickly.

The woods were that intense, shocking green that we see on so many of our lowland adventures. The firs are so coated in moss that they look like crowds of furry little men, and the ferns and salal cover every inch of the under-story. The long slanting rays of the winter sun streamed through the trees here and there, bathing the trail in an emerald glow. The path meanders through the highs and lows of a stream gully, with numerous water crossings and mud puddles to keep things interesting.

Moss and Ferns

We reached the falls much faster than I expected – perhaps the more difficult hikes I have been doing lately have skewed my perception. It’s a stunning waterfall to come across in such dense woods, spilling over a sheer rock face that looks almost man-made. The pool at the bottom is so dazzlingly clear that its depth is hard to gauge, but I’m betting that even in the hottest days of summer this would make an excellent swimming hole. You can be sure that I’ll be back to find out!

CherryCreek1

Areas visited: Cherry Creek Falls – Duvall, WA

About 6 miles round trip | 870 ft Elev. gain

If you go: Download a map and the trail directions. There are many unmarked junctions on this trail and a few of them can add quite a bit of time to the hike if you end up having to backtrack.

Snow at Annette Lake

As usual for this time of year my job has kept me indoors and much too busy for anything else. I start preparing for Christmas at my work in September and by the time Thanksgiving rolls around my sense of seasons is completely off. I have been too occupied to notice the transition between summer and fall, but now it is almost winter and as much as I tell myself to bundle up and think of holiday cheer I just can’t wrap my head around it. This weekend I was finally able to step away and give myself just what I needed – a re-set in the fresh mountain air and the new-fallen snow.

Into the Woods

A friend and I went looking for the perfect early season hike – a trail at the right elevation to be snowing and not raining, but not with so much snow that it would be impassable without snow shoes. It’s a tricky time of year for trail reports (likely because so many summer hikers are now hitting the slopes instead), but after much searching we settled on Annette Lake near Snoqualmie Pass. Lucky for us, we had the perfect conditions for this particular hike and happened to be the first hikers on the trail that morning, which meant beautiful, pristine, untouched snow for us to frolic through!

Our drive up was a drizzly one, but the few hundred feet up from the highway to the trail head made the difference, and we found fluffy flakes falling and a dusting on the trees all around. We walked through the forest, enjoying the verdant green ferns and rushing waterfalls slowly becoming enshrouded in white. As we climbed higher the snow deepened and we quickly found ourselves putting our traction and poles to good use. This hike is a steady incline until the end and with the snow to slog through we were getting quite a workout.

Humpback Creek Waterfall

Annette Lake Trail Snow

By the time were neared the top we guessed there were probably 4 feet of total snow, but thanks to the number of hikers over the last few days we had a nice compacted path to take and didn’t have to break out our snowshoes at all. When I say we hit this trail on the perfect day, I really mean it – tons of snow with an easy path to follow and stable snow pack across the 5 or 6 avalanche chutes we had to cross. We haven’t been so lucky with snow conditions on our past hikes, so it felt fantastic to miraculously be in the right place at the right time!

Looking Down Avalanche Chute

Avalanche Chute

It took us about 3 hours to reach the lake and we started to feel the chill of the gusts whipping the snow off the tree branches and into our faces. We found a secluded spot at the frozen lake’s edge and hunkered down out of the wind with hot cocoa and sandwiches. While we sat admiring the icy blue of the snow dusted surface we were witness to the ever changing mountain weather – one moment blue pockets would open up in the sky and the snow would glow and then suddenly we would be veiled in mist and the grey clouds would pass right around us. For a while a turkey vulture circled overhead looking large and imposing over the small clearing. The snow muffled all sound and all we could hear were the occasional piles of snow falling off of the firs.

Frozen Annette Lake

Once we decided we were too chilly to stay any longer we turned around and found that our private lake had becoming a bustling destination, with more hikers coming up the path every minute. We left our choice spot for the next group and hurried back down the mountain, noticing that the noonday temperatures had started to thaw and refreeze the trail, turning it into a precarious sheet of ice. Grateful that we had gotten an early start we slid our way down into the lower forest; now bright green and slightly slushy. The bridges we had crossed with feet of snow on them were now uncovered and the waterfalls beneath them were full and thundering. Back to the lowlands, back to the drizzle, back to real life.

We reached the bottom with Jello-y legs and frozen fingers, not quite ready to head back to the city, but at least happy to know that we would see our own snow soon enough. And of course, that the mountains are always here when we need them.

Snow Line at Snoqualmie

Areas visited: Annette Lake | 7.5 miles | Elev. gain 1800ft | 5 hours total

If you go: Start early as this hike is popular in any weather. Later in the season it becomes a true snowshoe and checking conditions are very important because of the avalanche prone terrain.

Northern State Hospital | Outdoor History

Last weekend we had a bit of a different outdoor experience. Rather than a hike with a start and an end where the focus is on nature, we decided to wander the grounds of one of Washington’s many “ghost towns” and check out how nature is reclaiming something man-made instead.

On a beautiful sunny day (probably the last one we’ll see in a while) we drove to the edge of the mountain foothills and set out to explore the remains of Northern State Mental Hospital. The hospital opened in 1909 and housed thousands of patients until it closed in 1973. After its closure, the buildings fell into disrepair and the 700 acre grounds were opened to the public. As of our visit, the hospital and staff quarters were off limits, but the agricultural land that the patients worked on as part of their occupational therapy were open to freely roam.

Northern State Mental Hospital

I have always found it sad but fascinating how the mentally ill have been treated and sequestered from society throughout our country’s history. As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression myself, I wonder how I would have fared a hundred years ago or longer. Studies of my own family’s genealogy have provided some clues – a wife who refused to cook and clean consistently was permanently institutionalized so that her husband could remarry; a boy who was deaf was sent to a mental institution so that his family would not have to bear the burden of his needs. Northern State seems to have provided a bit of a mix of help and harm to its thousands of patients over the years. They would have been subject, of course, to the treatments of the times, such as lobotomies and shock therapy, but the main goal was to help them to live happy, productive lives. The beautiful, bucolic setting and the opportunity to work the land to provide for themselves and their fellow patients played an important role in the healing mission of the hospital.

The buildings that remain on site, though dilapidated, are open to walk through. The barns for livestock, the slaughterhouse, the dairy farm, and the cannery and storage houses are still standing. You can stand inside them and see the evidence of the lives lived here. A picture of a duck drawn in a concrete slab; rungs of a ladder worn smooth in the center.

Barn at Northern State

The most poignant stop we made was the cemetery. The tiny headstones of over 1,400 people are slowly sinking into the boggy thatch, but the ones still visible merely list the patient’s number and initials. Only one grave has a formal headstone, placed next to their paltry slab. Perhaps they were the only person whose family cared enough about them after dropping them off at this institution to have a real stone made. The rest of them are as forgotten and anonymous in death as they were after mental illness invaded their lives.

Northern State headstone

This trip was a thoughtful one, but not all melancholic. There is something quite beautiful about nature erasing the work of civilization, and that is what is plain to see in this place. Every year the rains slowly dissolve the wood and stone and the blackberry vines and moss envelop what is left. A warning sign that this is a heavy bear traffic area immediately reminds you that you’re not in the city anymore. Along the crumbling roads we found caterpillars and snakes and tree frogs. The creepy looking slaughterhouse was swarming with ladybugs looking for a warm place to overwinter. The eaves of the barns housed bird  and wasp nests. Elk and deer graze through here, as they would have when the facility was open, but now there is no one to shoo them away from the crops. The history of this place is being absorbed into the natural world once again.

Northern State Collapsed Building

Pacific Chorus Frog

Northern State Cannery

Baby Garter Snake

Sedro Woolley

Walk: Northern State Mental Hospital – Sedro Woolley, WA | about 3 miles

If you go: Of course, be careful in old collapsing barns – they’re not entirely safe. Also, note that this place is an oddly popular location for frisbee golf. For some reason, there are disc golf baskets set up throughout the park, which creates an odd juxtaposition between the sad history of this place, the beautiful setting, and a rowdy college crowd making the rounds. We still found plenty of moments of solitude, however, and it is definitely worth the trip.

North Cascades | The Larch March

Despite having lived in Washington State and loved the outdoors my entire life, this summer marked my first time ever visiting the North Cascades region. With my trips to Diablo Lake and Maple Pass I was sufficiently hooked, but there is so much more to see.

Take, for example, the larch tree. Before this year I had never even heard of them, until a friend gushed to me that she was anxiously awaiting their brief period of fall color and was hoping that the weather would hold up for her to see them before the highway became too snow-covered and closed for the winter. She explained to me that larches are a special kind of conifer that drops their needles for the winter, but that they turn a stunning bright gold before they do. I’d never noticed them before, for a few good reasons: Most of our larches only grow above 5,900 feet and for most of the year they blend in with the pines; their period of color is quite short – lasting for only a few weeks with a short peak and a rapid dropping of needles; and these colorful weeks coincide with the first of the mountain snows, making for trickier travel. For these reasons, every year thousands of people pile into their cars and hike up into the subalpine zone, hoping to see sweeping views of yellow forests nestled into the rugged mountains. The annual “Larch March” as its called.

Now, I’m not one for hiking in crowds. I prefer my outdoors experience to include a few wild animals rather than cars full of wild children. But the North Cascades Wilderness is big enough to share, and as I learned, worth the trip regardless. So when my larch loving friend offered to get a few girls together for a weekend of camping and hiking I jumped on board without a second thought.

Cairn with Larch - Washington Pass

This weekend marked another first for me – camping in winter weather. I was a little apprehensive as the date approached – the weather forecasts in such a remote area are a little tricky for me to read, especially since we were going to be covering big changes in elevation, but it was looking more and more like we might see a dusting of snow. Being moms, all of us, of course we over-packed and would have been prepared to spend a week or more in the mountains if it came down to it! I have to say, I enjoy the solidarity of camping with fellow worriers! We did, of course see some snow – quite a lot of it in fact – and the temps never exceeded 35°F during our entire trip. But what I gained from this was confidence – I now know how my gear will hold up. I learned that I’m more comfortable hiking in base layers and a rain shell, but that I will absolutely want that down jacket for sitting by the fire. Two sleeping pads is not an indulgence, but a necessity when the ground is frozen. A thermos of warm weak decaf tea worked way better for staying hydrated because my icy water made me cold and it was hard to warm up again. Camping in inclement weather feels much less daunting now than it did before, and because of that I know I’ll seek out more opportunities to get outside in the “off-season”.

Cutthroat Pass Snowy

Our trip itself was fantastic. Everything I wanted it to be, and more. We started out Saturday morning with a plan to cram as much beauty into our short time frame as we possible could. First stop – Cutthroat Pass.

Our long drive into the mountains was met by unrelenting, pouring, drenching rain. I shuffled items in my backpack during the ride – camera and snacks went into plastic baggies. I was feeling grateful that I thought to bring extra dry clothes to sleep in. Suddenly, we rounded the last corner before our turnout and found ourselves in a flurry of fat wet snowflakes! We arrived at the trail head at 3:00 pm sharp (perfect timing for this beating the crowds) and looked around, amazed at the world quickly turning white before our eyes. Giddy with the unexpected winter wonderland all around us, we started up the path with smiles on our faces. This had been a very busy trail during the morning, but now all of the other hikers were heading down, many of whom had been unprepared for the change in weather and were glad to get back to their warm cars. After the first mile we found ourselves completely alone on the trail, enjoying creeks and waterfalls running through the deepening snow and misty glimpses of mountain slopes through the storm. After a few hours we were stomping through about 6 inches of fresh powder when one girl stopped and yelled, “a LARCH! Our first one”! There it was – its amber branches bowing under the weight of the snow; icicles dripping from the tips. We climbed higher and saw more and more until we were walking through a strange forest of simultaneous autumn and winter. Our more experienced leader lamented that the storm was dampening their beauty – this spot on a clear day with no snow would be awe-inducing with views for miles. But I quite liked the ambience of being socked-in in such a beautiful spot. We stopped for hot cocoa near a back-packing site, admiring the huge bonfire the campers had constructed and took in the odd glow of sunset through the misty clouds. Marmots whistled bedtime songs which echoed across the pass.

Cutthroat Pass - Snow at Night

Dark crept into the forest and we started back down. It took us about 3 hours to hike out; our head lamps casting eerie shadows through the snowy woods. Back in the car, we drove off in search of a campsite and were lucky enough to take the last one at Lone Fir, just down the road. Also lucky was the location of this particular campground – just enough in a rain shadow that while the surrounding areas saw more snow, we stayed relatively dry, with just a light dusting off and on overnight. We piled wood on our fire and tucked into chili and cornbread, exalting the beauty of the mountains and the crisp, fresh air. If I could sleep out under the stars every weekend of the year I would.

We woke in the morning to a less than pleasant surprise – a few snacks stored in the car had been eaten, and we found droppings on the dash. Chipmunks! Those little sneakers, how had they gotten in?! A man from the next campsite came over and said they had gotten into his car too, and several other cars near us. He suspected they climbed in though the air vents and that they were running quite the crime ring around here. Lesson learned for next time, I suppose. We were so worried about keeping the food in the car because of bears we hadn’t even considered that adorable little chipmunks might pose a threat. We cleaned up as they watched from the trees, squeaking at us, and got ready for another beautiful day of hiking.

Cutthroat Pass with Snow

Not knowing what to expect in terms of snowfall as we drove back toward the trails, we debated our hiking options. But before we could make a decision, we had to stop and pullover. Washington Pass was lit up with morning sun, shining on the smattering of snow! The weather had cleared up and the views were absolutely incredible. We piled out of the car, open-mouthed with the beauty of it all. We wandered up a rocky gully and found the hiking register for Liberty Bell peak which was stunning, towering over us. I hope that someday I can learn the climbing and mountaineering skills to explore off-the-beaten-path places like that… but as it is I’m still pretty happy to sit at the bottom watching the pikas pop in and out of cracks between boulders and look out at the countless peaks in all different colors.

Washington Pass Liberty Bell

Pika at Washington Pass

Washington Pass Larches

Finally we decided we had better get to the actual hike, and drove on, settling on Blue Lake. The parking lot was about as full as we expected – spilling out onto the highway. I complain about hiking in crowds like this, but honestly, once we were moving it wasn’t too bad. For the most part we were on our own, and whenever we passed other hikers it always resulted in a pleasant conversation. It’s nice that everyone out in a place like this has the same appreciation for how gorgeous it is. We’re all just sharing the experience together. My favorite part had to be when we were in between two other groups of hikers and a drone flew low over us. All 8 of us raised our hands and flipped it off at the same time! Ahh, these are my people.

But enough about that – it’s impossible to really pay any attention to other people when the views are like they are up at Blue Lake. The snow had melted off of the trees but still coated the ground and the golden foliage against the bright white made for some truly stunning scenes.

Blue Lake North Cascades

Gray Jay North Cascades

We made it to the top quickly and enjoyed some time at the lake, which was the most gorgeous shade of blue-green in the sun. It was a bit crowded, however, so we continued on to a small frozen tarn and stopped on some rocks overhanging a cliff for a lunch break. Not a single other hiker made it this far, so we spent the better part of an hour in solitude, with only the food-stealing gray jays for company. We gazed out at mountainsides covered in deep scarlet patches of berry bushes and others completely barren ochre tinged rock. The talus fields around us were completely covered with white, but the backside of Liberty Bell behind us was dry and we saw caves in the rock where boulders had fallen out. We marveled at how amazing this place looks in its seasonal transition and how beautifully different it must look under dozens of feet of snow, or in the spring when the wildflowers are returning. These mountains are the most gorgeous I have been in yet, and I can’t wait to keep returning to explore them from all different angles.

Blue Lake Views

Areas visited: Cutthroat Pass via the PCT, Lone Fir Campground, Blue Lake.

Species observed: Townsend’s Chipmunk, American Pika, Gray Jay, Stellar’s Jay, Swainson’s Thrush, Bald Eagle, Common Raven.

If you go: Remember that the North Cascades Wilderness is truly wilderness. Though many of the trails are very popular, they are far from cell-service and civilization. Trails have dangerous spots and weather changes quickly in the mountains. All hikers should be prepared to spend the night if they have to. We saw many people hiking up Blue Lake in sneakers with few layers. On the way back down those same people found themselves sliding down on packed ice on their bottoms, one girl with a bad head injury. Even if you’re not expecting snow you should wear layers and pack traction and poles for steep icy sections.

 

 

 

Old Sauk River Trail | Wildfire Season

Last week was a rough one for our Pacific Northwest. An already devastating wildfire season across Washington and Oregon worsened as our temps soared above 90°F and humidity plummeted. For a few days we saw ash falling like snow and the air was thick and grey, with the sun glowing through as an eerie blood-red orb. The weather has turned since then, and firefighters are thankfully making some headway at battling the flames, but we are still on edge as an outdoorsy community, watching our beloved wild places burn, one after another.

The urge to get outdoors, into the beautiful forests and mountains, has been even stronger for me this month, despite the sadness I feel walking through unscathed woods when I know others are burning. With road closures and smoke making many areas inaccessible I turned to the lowlands last weekend to hopefully find a little pocket of nature that I could still enjoy. Surprisingly, I was able to find it less than 20 miles away from the Suiattle Fire, in the foothills of the North Cascades.

As we drove toward the river the smoke became thicker and thicker, obscuring the mountain peaks that are normally such a showstopping view on the drive north. Signs warned of the extreme fire danger and the statewide burn ban. I began to worry that we would have to backtrack and find a different hike farther away. The thermometer read 92°F before noon, so it was already going to be uncomfortable even without irritated eyes and lungs. But as we pulled up to the forested trail head of the Old Sauk River Trail I could tell that my plan was going to work.

Old Sauk River Forest

What I had been banking on, that ended up working out*, was that the river and dense tree cover on this trail, along with White Chuck Mountain directly between us and the fire, would work together to filter out much of the smoke and ash. We were able to complete a 6-mile trail run in almost complete shade and without even a whiff of campfire smell in the air. Even better, on a sunny Labor Day weekend we only came across two other people during our entire hike.

This trail has not really been at the top of our list. It’s easy, very low elevation gain, no big sweeping vista or magnificent waterfall at the end. Just a second growth forest along a river about an hour and a half away from home. I probably never would have made the time to go if not for the situation this day. But I am grateful that I did, and will probably make a return visit in the rainy season for a relaxing day spent in the woods.

Sauk River

The forest is like every other you can find this side of the Cascades. Once heavily logged, but recovered enough that there are finally a few cedars here and there among the firs. Salal and thick moss coat the ground in a carpet of green, and stumps from the area’s logging past now host huckleberry bushes and staircases of mushrooms. The trail follows the Sauk river upstream, and a gorgeous river it is, though fairly unfriendly. The color is the same surprising aqua blue as the creeks around Diablo Lake  and the river rocks are painted with a coating of rock flour silt from the glaciers far away. The opacity makes the depth of the river hard to gauge, and it runs in rapids past this stretch of woods despite the hot dry weather. We found a few sandy trails down to the banks, but never found a spot safe enough to wade in. Luckily for us, there was still water at the end of the trail at Murphy Creek, which made for a nice lunch spot and a dip in the clear stream with baby fish swimming around our ankles.

Sauk River Murphy Creek

Along the way we listened for birds and heard none. The quiet of the forest was offset only by the rushing of the river that faded in and out as we meandered through the trees. But as we got deeper into the woods we began to hear animals startling in the brush next to our feet. It took us a moment to realize what they were, when suddenly I noticed a toad trying his best to camoflauge in under a bush. A toad! I haven’t seen a Western toad since I was a child – they are elusive, quiet, and are often nocturnal. But as we continued to walk we saw many of them, along with a number of garter snakes. I don’t know if the unusual heat pushed them out looking for water, or if this is just a perfect habitat for reptiles and amphibians, but it certainly was a treat to see one of our lesser seen but still fairly common forest animals.

Western Toad

I’m glad that circumstances pushed us out to this place. No hike in the PNW is ever unrewarding, this one included. If I lived closer, I’d make it a regular trail running spot, but as it is, I’ll probably just make it an easy off-season hike to get some fresh air when the mountain passes are socked in. Always a silver lining, even when the cloud is made of smoke.

Sauk River

If you go: Consider camping in the area, or adding this one to another easy hike nearby. Or just enjoy the beauty of a mellow day in the forest 🙂

*Don’t mess around with wildfires. Check before your trip for road closures and areas on watch for potential evacuation. For this trip I knew that the wind conditions were not a threat and that the fire was nearly 95% contained, and evaluated the conditions when we arrived with back-up plans, extra water and food, and a map of the area in case we found ourselves stuck. A wildfire nearby means another could start just as easily at any time, so play it safe, and if in doubt, cancel your trip!

Neighborhood Walks 8.2017| Night Hikes

This month we have been beating the heat by exploring our regular neighborhood trails after dark instead of during the day. Seeing our familiar, everyday stomping grounds in a whole different light (um, literally) has been especially fun for the kidlet, and it has become a regular thing now that she won’t stop asking to go out once the sun starts to set!

Wetland Sunset

It all started when we decided to go look for weasels. Usually we see the cute little guys at some point during the summer, crashing around in the bushes or running across the boardwalk with a frog in mouth, or sneaking up on us from behind to sniff our shoes. This must be a low population year for them, because we haven’t seen a single one, though we have found their kitten-sized footprints in the mud. So, we got the idea that maybe we should go out at dusk to take advantage of their crepuscular nature.

We walked to the end of our trail, pausing to wait around all of their favorite spots along the way. We headed over to our neighborhood beaver dam and sat for a while, watching salmon jump in the pond as the sky turned from pink to purple. There was not a human sound, as all of the other walkers had gone home for the night. Just us and the breeze.

Sunset Spider

Standing back on the trail we waited, listening, squinting into the dim light for hopes of a rustle or a squirrely little shadow. Nope, nothing.

But then, just over our heads, a barn owl flapped smoothly and silently across the trail! We watched as it banked and wobbled in its strange, otherwordly flight across the wetland and then back again, scanning the reeds for sounds of movement, just like us. We have never seen an owl out here before, and had no idea there was such a cute little moonfaced predator so close to our home! We gasped and stared, waiting and watching as it glided all around again and again.

Finally, it became too dark to see the path well and we reluctantly headed back for the mile-long return home. As the light continued to dim we began to see sparrow sized bats flapping low over the marsh, some almost hitting us as they went for the clouds of gnats and mosquitoes that we were swatting on our way. An American Bittern glided overhead as well, looking just like a heron, save for his stunning stripes. A Wilson’s snipe startled as we passed, and flew off with its screeching call echoing in the still twilight. We came out of the wetland into a tunnel of cottonwoods – shade we relish during the hot midday, but looking like an eerie fairytale wood in the dark. We talked loudly to ward off our local pack of coyotes and made our way back up to the land of streetlights and dinnertime smells coming from open windows.

It was exciting to experience a new side of our neighborhood, and a good reminder that what you see when you’re out in nature certainly isn’t ever all there is. It also brought up a great conversation with the kidlet about how we had expectations set for seeing one animal, but ended up seeing several others that we didn’t expect, and how keeping an open mind about the way an experience may potentially turn out makes something that could have felt disappointing into it’s own good time. Life lessons from barn owls, I suppose!

Now, we wait for the sun to go down before we go out. It happens earlier and earlier every night now. Each time we have gone we’ve been lucky enough to see our owl friend again, along with the bats and the bullfrogs, and the scuffling of things just waking up or going to bed. Still, no weasels though.

We go home after our walks with the refreshed appreciation for the beautiful land we get to share with all of this amazing wildlife. We consider the value in revisiting the same places in different times of day and year and weather. The wonderfulness there is in truly getting to know a place to its fullest, rather than considering it a day hike to check off a list, never to visit again. It fills me with that same feeling I get after completing some farther flung and more hyped adventure – the fervent internal itch to get out again, do more, see more, and to pay attention enough to enjoy it all.

Sunset Moon

 

 

 

Maple Pass Loop | Hiking in the North Cascades

This weekend I left my lovely little family at home and went out to tackle a harder hike with a friend who can keep up a bit better than a 9-year-old. Actually, “harder hike” is an understatement, let’s call it a “butt kicker”. Maple Pass Loop starts at almost 5,000 feet and gains over 2,000 more across just a few miles. My friend and I both found the difference in oxygen a bit of a surprise in how much it wore us out, but pushed on to complete it nonetheless. Now I know to add an extra hour or so to a high-elevation hike. We are sea-level people, I suppose!

Maple Pass is a seriously gorgeous area. The steep trail follows a few connecting ridgelines around the bowl in which Lake Ann sits. There are several more of these glacially carved circques visible during the hike including Lewis Lake, Rainy Lake and a tiny little blue tarn that flows into Rainy. The height of the ridgelines make for unobscured views in all directions of the surrounding mountains – all the way to Glacier Peak on one side, and the rusty looking Cutthroat Peak right in our face on the opposite.

View from Maple Pass

Glacier Peak from Maple Pass

The lower elevations are thick with shrubs (including some delicious blueberries) and forests of pine and larches. I’m sure the fall color here is quite a show to be seen. Ascending the slopes, it is also obvious that it’s quite stunning here early in the summer – we saw the last of the fading lupine and paintbrush that must light these hills up with color. Flowers were still blooming in the delicate alpine meadows near the top – aster and gentian mixed in with the carpets of heather. The real color, however, came from the crazy clear lakes. Lewis Lake holds the same glacial flour in its waters as Lake Diablo, giving it the look of a saucer filled with turquoise paint, but Ann and Rainy were as clear as could possibly be – little blue gems standing out against the talus. I would love to find a way to make it up here when those lakes are still just thick snowfields, but the season is short and unpredictable, so who knows.

Lake Ann North Cascades

Glacial Lake North Cascades

This trip was such a perfect opportunity to experience late summer in the wilderness. All the way along we were serenaded by clicking grasshoppers, chirping pika, whistling marmots, and the occasional “scree” of a hawk. Some of the grasses and leaves were beginning to redden; the perfect contrast to the cobalt blue skies that only this time of year can offer around here.  The heat of the day made a dip in frigid Rainy Lake at the end a must for cooling off and easing sore muscles. Around our feet swirled pretty green trout with their speckled tails, and we watched a dragonfly emerge from its larval casing right in front of our eyes. It was pure magic, everywhere we looked.

Rainy Lake Washington

If you go: Know your route options. The main trail is a loop, but there are several spurs you can take out and back to extend your trip. We took the short trails to the shores of Lake Ann and Rainy Lake, and if we had had the time, could have extended it out for a boulder scramble to Lewis Lake as well. Our roughly 9 mile version took us about 6 hours including a break for lunch, but we would have loved to have planned for more time to fully enjoy floating on a lake for a while (fishing is an option as well, if that floats your boat). Also important to consider is which direction to hike – we opted for counter clockwise to enjoy the ever increasing views along the way and a steep but short hike down. This was great for such a beautiful day, but it definitely extended the difficulty of the hike over a longer period of time and made for a knee burning downhill trek. Going clockwise would have given us 3 miles of incredibly steep switchbacks on the way up and a long easy way down. Apparently this second option is a better choice if you start out in fog or clouds that will burn off when you reach the ridge. As far as gear goes, we appreciated having our poles but would have been okay without them, and thought that a decently soled trail runner would have sufficed for the mostly sandy paths. Sunscreen, however is a must, as there is very little shade.

Species observed: Red-tailed hawk, heard quite a few jays and nuthatches in the forests, Pika, Marmots, Townsend’s chipmunks, Black-tailed deer (mama and a spotted baby!), grasshoppers, dragonflies, thousands of bees, cutthroat trout.