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.

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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.

Summer on Whidbey Island

I have finally reclaimed my weekends from my busy July & August work schedule, and I’m determined to squeeze the most out of our remaining month-ish of summer. Even though autumn is my favorite time of year, I’m putting off thinking about the fall color hikes and ghost-town adventures I have on my wishlist, and am trying to stay in the moment. Sand + Sea is my mantra, and the islands are the way to get as much as possible.

I’ve written about our visits to Whidbey Island before, but only in the wintertime. Summer brings lower tides and golden wildflowers and a much more relaxing experience overall. It’s funny, I love the islands so much in any time of year that I rarely think to visit them in warm weather anymore.

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First stop: Coupeville. I knew I wanted to check out some tidepools, and the beaches in Penn Cove are my favorite for critter watching on the island. Every corner of Whidbey has a slightly different type of beach and I have my top picks for all sorts of occasions. Sand castle building, stone skipping, seashell gathering, sea duck watching, and so on. Coupeville hosts a long stretch of public tidelands with piles of boulders on a sandy shore and beds of eelgrass in the mud. The sheltered nature of the cove creates a safe habitat for all kinds of sea creatures from tiny shore crabs to the errant orca or porpoise. Being on the western side of the island also gives it the advantage of having a later low-tide than the rest of the Sound, which meant we didn’t have to get up at 4am to get out there in time.

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We explored until the incoming tide pushed us up to high ground, and then headed north to Deception Pass State Park. The Cranberry Lake area there is a fun and easy place to wander with a marshy lake, a sandy forest and a rocky shoreline.

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The sand dunes are at their best in August, swarming with red and yellow dragonflies and scattered with scraggly wildflowers. The forest was all filled in with greenery and sunburnt madrona trees, but still just as creepy as always with its witch-hair lichen and tunnels of spiderwebs. The West Beach area of the park is such an otherwordly environment! It was strange, too, to see all of the shorebirds and hawks and eagles of the colder seasons missing from this place and instead clouds of gulls in the air and quick little mammals foraging in the forest. We meandered around the many trails until dinnertime and then headed home over the bridge, catching one last spectacular view of the sparkling sea and the islands that we love.

Just a perfect summer day in the most Pacific Northwest-y of places.

Areas visited: Coupeville and Deception Pass State Park on Whidbey Island, WA

Species observed: Eurasian Collared Dove, Barn Swallows, Black Turnstone, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Rock Pigeon, Glaucous-winged Gull, Northwest Crow, Bald Eagle, Brewer’s Blackbird, Norway Rat, Harbor Seal, yellow and red Dragonflies, Green Urchins, Sand Dollars, Shore Crabs (and some raccoon footprints).

 

 

Diablo Lake Camping

How do I describe the last few days spent camping in the North Cascades in words, when all that’s in my head is color? A milky turquoise blue ringed with moss and evergreen and bleached stone grey. Color that looks fake to the eye; that looks unreal in photos – more evocative of a tropical vacation than of a trip to the mountains in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll just have to take my word for it that my photos aren’t ‘shopped.

Thunder Creek at Diablo Lake

We camped for a few nights at Colonial Creek, which is right on Diablo Lake, and spent most our time with open mouths, gaping at how stunning everything is. The atmosphere of the forests and the lake is just so different from everywhere else we have been.

Diablo Lake from Thunder Knob

The incredible blue of the lake comes from the glacier water that feeds it. The surrounding glaciers ground rock into such fine dust that the particles stay suspended in the water and make it look opaque and kind of magical. I had no idea until our visit that there are over 300 glaciers in the North Cascades National Park. The lake feels just like you’d expect glacial runoff to feel, too – wading in to launch our kayaks was like stepping into an ice bath, even after the air temperature last week hit 100°F!

Colonial Creek at Diablo Lake

I was absolutely enchanted by the way the creeks running into the lake were perfectly clean but had this soft milky blue color to them, just like the lake. I hiked Thunder Knob and Thunder Creek Trail during our stay, and loved the strange, sudden changes in the landscape. The trails meander through leafy undergrowth close to the lake, and as the path rises in elevation a carpet of yellow-green moss coats the cedar trees and softly furrowed ground in a velvety carpet. But then there will be a creek crossing, and not only is the creek itself this strange pale color, but the rocks are all stark white too. It’s obvious that the springtime snow-melt has a truly powerful impact on this landscape from the destructive looking rock-slides and downed trees where the stones are all stripped of moss and no undergrowth has taken hold. Climbing higher still, the landscape quickly transforms again, to windblown lodgepole pines and striated boulders of schist and gneiss and other rocks that I’m only loosely familiar with enough to vaguely identify but can at least tell are beautiful and different from the norm in the lowlands. And then, while dangling my feet off of one of these sunny crags on the side of a cliff, I can see that all around are peaks towering thousands of feet above me, with their own completely different terrain and flora and fauna, not so far out of reach from where I am now. It’s mind-blowing, the variations on beauty this one little region contains.

Davis Peak from Diablo Lake

Honestly and truly, I would have been happy enough to sit by the fire, reading a book and shooing away nosy chipmunks from my snacks at our mossy, secluded little tent site. I would have breathed in the fresh air under the low canopy of vine maples and marveled at the sliver of the lake through the trees and entertained myself watching the raven taking a bath under the park’s water spigot. But to get to enjoy some relaxation in the forest and to get to explore as many breathtaking views and captivating trails as I did just made my heart completely full. It was an adventure I’ll remember, and one that will probably spark a dozen more.

Diablo Lake in North Cascades

Areas explored: Camping at Colonial Creek Campground, Diablo Lake (by kayak), Diablo Dam, Gorge Creek Overlook, Thunder Creek Trail, Thunder Creek Nature Loop, Thunder Knob Trail, Trail of the Cedars (in Newhalem).

If you go: Plan your trip thoroughly, but leave room for spontaneity. There are lots of details to consider, but also a lot of little places to explore that can be done on a whim. We chose to download maps for all of the trails near the lake and on the drive home that were doable for a 9-year-old, and made our decisions based on our mood at the moment. There were a few harder ones that I would have loved to do that we missed, but this area is a gateway to so many incredible hikes that to do them all over a long weekend would be impossible, so plan for the highlights that appeal to you! There were also some safety concerns to consider – bears frequent the area, so using appropriate caution when hiking and camping is a must, and kayaking presented its own slew of preparations! Conditions change quickly on the lake and wind is a daily constant – if you’re planning to do some exploring outside of the slightly more sheltered Thunder Arm, I’d really recommend having a sea kayak with a spray skirt and being fully prepared for immersion and potentially being stranded on shore while waiting out the midday gusts. Our inflatables were definitely not up to the challenge and I would not use them on this lake again. If we had the right equipment, however, it would have been an amazing excursion!

Mt. Townsend | Wildflowers and Views for Days

I have a friend who has a wonderful way of looking at an opportunity and seeing only the potential and none of the difficulty. She plans for the challenges and then leaps without dwelling on them, finding herself stronger on the other side and often with a good story to tell. I am quite the opposite – the planner, the worrier, the cautious. But, I have learned that when she shoots me a text asking if I’m free on Saturday, I should absolutely say yes. The best kind of friends are the ones who push you just outside of your comfort zone.

This Saturday, I went along for the ride. It was a  *catch the first ferry to hope for the last parking spot at the trail head which leads up a mountain twice as tall as any I’ve climbed before in an area where bear spray is a necessity but you’re more likely to be charged by a mountain goat* kind of day. Of course, as always, it was worth it a thousand times over, and my comfort zone has expanded, noticeably.

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Mount Townsend is in the Olympic range – a small group of Mountains crowded between Puget Sound and the actual coast. The foothills are a mossy rainforest that looks straight out of a fairy tale, and the peaks are snow-capped year round. Truly, the Olympic peninsula epitomizes the uniqueness of the PNW with the close proximity of lush forests to stunning beaches and steep peaks rising above it all.

We started our hike in a mid-elevation forest, with thick undergrowth representing every shade of green, and the last few blossoms of the numerous rhododendrons reminding us that every hike should be done in as many seasons as possible to fully experience. As we climbed higher (immediately, continuously, and steeply I might mention) the undergrowth thinned and the trees became scraggly and weathered looking, smelling toasty and wonderful in the early morning sun. The numerous switchbacks became less shaded and every sunny meadow was suddenly bursting at the edges with wildflowers of every color – lupine, phlox, Indian paintbrush, columbine, columbia lily, Olympic violets, and too many others for me to even try to stop and identify.

The higher we climbed the thicker the carpet of wildflowers, and the fewer shady spots to rest. The views of the Cascades in the distance grew more and more spectacular with every switchback we rounded, and soon we were able to see an ocean of clouds separating us from our more iconic mountain range. We pushed on until we reached a nice overlook, desperate for a snack and a rest. With our legs hanging over a cliff we had lunch; aware of the lone young mountain goat casually snooping around the trail.

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With our energy renewed and the goat making us nervous, we took off for the final short push to make it to the peak. There we were greeted by unexpectedly clear views in all directions. The Sound and Canada beyond; the entire Washington Cascade range; a slight glimpse of a foggy sea to the west, and just behind us the stunning crowd of the other Olympic mountains. I could only think of how this peak (6,243′) felt like the top of the world compared to my other frame of reference for 360° views of this part of the state – Mt. Constitution (2,398′). This is easily one of the most rewarding hikes I’ve been on, not just for the incredible view at the top, but for the ridiculous amount of beauty crammed into every step of the way up.

It is remarkable to me that I have lived this close to this mountain range for most of my life, and have never really bothered to try to explore it. This hike, while a bit strenous, was certainly always within my capabilities, but I never really considered it to be an option. It took someone else giving me a nudge to get me up there, but I could have been pushing myself! Maybe next time I can be the one asking my friend if she is free to try a new adventure with me.

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Areas visited: Mt. Townsend (upper trail) – Quilcene, Washington.

Species observed: Mountain Goat, Snowshoe Hare, Robins, Juncos, and a yellow-throated warbler.

If you go: Get there e-a-r-l-y. Like 6AM early. This is a very popular hike and parking is quite limited. Also, consider bringing a map with you – there is no cell service on the forest road and the are many confusing turnouts. For the hike itself I would definitely be prepared for a tough one – we were thankful to have brought hiking boots, poles, and lots of high-calorie snacks. If you really want to enjoy those magnificent views, you might consider backpacking up and camping at the peak to see the sunset/rise!

Lake Twenty-two | Snow in June

I have had a major itch to get outdoors lately. Like, a can’t sit still, bouncing up and down, browsing trip reports during work meetings kind of itch. When I get like this, I just have to go with it. Planning a trip in advance does not work for me.  I fill up a backpack, push my family into the car before they know what is happening and set out with a vague idea of place in mind. Today was one of those days. I was up at 6:00 AM on a mission to get out the door and was downloading trail maps and calling the ranger station for a trail report while ordering a coffee and picking road trip tunes on the car radio. We set out for the Mt. Pilchuck area and settled on Lake Twenty-two when we got out there.

Part of the perk of these spur-of-the-moment trips is that we go into them with very few expectations, which means that we almost always enjoy them with an open mind. But Lake Twenty-two would not have disappointed me even if I had been looking forward to it for weeks. It was the perfect day for it – mostly overcast, temps in the 60s, but decent visibility for the mountaintop views. The landscape felt similar to nearby hikes we have done like Lime Kiln and Heather Lake, but it was nice to try out a new spot. The trail follows a pretty steady incline the entire time, gaining almost 1500 feet, but is spread out over about 3 miles, so it doesn’t feel too grueling. It winds back and forth through the mountain rain forest and scrambly boulder fields in the avalanche zone, and much of the path is pretty much a running waterfall. No really, sometimes we had to stop and wonder if we were actually on the path at all, or if we had just followed a creek.

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When we finally made it to the top, tired and achy and ready for about a dozen sandwiches, we found ourselves at the most amazingly crystal clear lake with a skim of ice still floating on top and snowy caves all around the edges, with blooming spring flowers inside. The peak behind the lake is so tall I couldn’t fit the whole thing in my camera frame, and it was laced with gushing waterfalls.

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I could have stayed up at the lake all day if we didn’t have to get home eventually. But having a snowball fight in the middle of June before heading back down the trail was a pretty good experience to stumble upon on a whim.

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Areas visited: Lake Twenty-two – Verlot, WA

Species observed: Literally none. Unless you count humans. It was a pretty busy day on this hike.

If you go: Don’t think too much about it, just go!

But seriously, I would suggest wearing waterproof boots and maybe bringing trekking poles, particularly if you are planning on making the full loop around the lake. This is also a very popular hiking trail, and while we weren’t too bothered by the crowd, you won’t find any solitude here on a weekend or even on most weekday afternoons. Start (very) early if you want to get a parking spot and an unobstructed view. If you’d like a slightly less busy and easier hike that feels just like this one, I would suggest Heather Lake, which is located just on the other side of the same peak and will give you pretty much the same experience.