Saturday, September 24, 2011

A sparkling oasis

Location: Stevens Pass

Distance: 11 miles

Elevation gain: 1,500 feet

The lure of water on a sunny day drew me to Lake Valhalla, an oasis in the midst of craggy rock roughly 40 miles from Leavenworth. A bonus was that the route follows the Pacific Crest Trail, one of the most famous trails that winds from the Mexican border all the way to the Canadian border. Several couples I encountered in the first two miles eagerly asked if I was headed for Canada – I almost hated to disappoint them with the truth.

It was pretty flat going and for the first mile or two, I could see the highway below and Bavarian hotel and cottage rooftops peeking out of the forest. Eventually I crossed two creeks and indulged in blueberry picking in an open meadow before Lichtenberg Mountain and Nason Ridge commanded my attention.

I arrived at the sparkling lake after 5.5 miles, anxious to dig my feet in the cool water and let the sun warm my face. Unfortunately, there is a backdoor to Valhalla and dozens of families had beat me to the spot. I tried relaxing beside a fisherman for some time, but it wasn’t long before the splashing of dogs and shrieks of young children nudged me on my way. Still, it was pretty as a postcard.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Two for one: wonder and disappointment ahead

Location: Snoqualmie Corridor

Distance: 9 miles

Elevation gain: 2,000 feet or so

The warm weather seems to be lingering in Washington so I couldn’t help but take advantage – even if it meant rising at 5 a.m. to beat the clock for work. Rattlesnake Ledge appears to be quite a popular hike with people in Seattle, probably because it’s a quick drive to a quick hike with outstanding payoff.

The trail starts at Rattlesnake Lake, which didn’t look too impressive as I rubbed sleep out of my eyes. We warmed up quickly as we climbed the well-maintained path through the forest and onto a monolithic block of rock. Summit came quickly since this hike is only four miles but seeing the fog settle over the lake below and creep through the valley made it my favorite moment of the day.

After descending, I walked a half mile up the road and started down the Iron Horse Trail, which I veered off of shortly after crossing Boxley Creek. My sights were set on Cedar Butte, which guide books had deemed the most underappreciated hike in the region. It was billed as a 3-mile hike with “plenty of scenic spectacle.” I have to disagree. The trail was pretty standard forest and there wasn’t much view at the top, even though there was an official summit marker. Popular Mount Si and Mailbox could barely be seen in the distance between the tree branches. Nonetheless, knocking out nine miles before breakfast is nothing to complain about!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ain't it grand!

Location: Greenwater/Mount Rainier National Park

Distance: 9 miles

Elevation gain: 1,100 feet

The best (and shortest) way into Grand Park is through the backdoor. Some hikers do a 14-mile jaunt from the Sunrise area but my hiking partner and I opted to bump along some dirt roads and come in through the Eleanor Creek basin to shorten our trek a few miles.

After an effortless mile through the forest on a boot path, we arrived at Lake Eleanor and snapped a quick picture before letting a band of rowdy children chase us back on trail. The trail wasn’t challenging but it quickly opened to a mesa-like meadow spotted by silver forests. We missed out on the wildflowers and couldn’t find any wildlife to spruce up our adventure but it was a nice change of pace to be in an open space as opposed to struggling up a mountain.

The meadow stretched more than a mile with a cloud-covered Mount Rainier right in our face. We moseyed along the extremely narrow path (can’t damage the natural resources!) until we hit a junction that offered to take us either to a campground or far in the distance. Even homemade blueberry muffins couldn’t convince my partner to keep trucking so we let the breeze carry us back to the trailhead.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Enchanting wilderness

Location: Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Main objective: Mount Cashmere

Distance: A long way…

Elevation gain: At least 8,501 feet

The Enchantments are an area most climbers in Washington dream of going but rarely do since there are few permits and a lot of interest. We lucked out and got a five-day permit for the Eight Mile Area, which doesn’t encompass the most challenging peaks but had enough to keep us preoccupied for our mini-vacay.

We started out slow, promising that we would take things day by day rather than pushing to summit as many peaks as we could physically handle. It took a few miles before we passed all the day hikers and paused to enjoy a snack at Little Eight Mile Lake, which we immediately designated as our “bath” spot on the descent. The trail then began to climb rather steeply, winding up a series of switchbacks that finally brought us high enough that we could see two lakes below and the impressive mountain range in the distance.

It was a decent climb, more strenuous than I’d been expecting with my 50-pound pack (I’d shoved a LOT of chocolate in, for bribery, reward, motivation, you name it), but I was distracted by the colorful wildflowers long enough to forget the pain. We finally reached Lake Caroline and stopped to filter water, debating whether we should throw the tent up or push on. Since the shoreline seemed to be a breeding ground for black flies and mosquitoes, I armed myself with bug spray and begged to keep trekking to the meadows at the base of our first destination.

In another two miles, we came around a ridge and found ourselves in Windy Pass. The meadow was so inviting we couldn’t help but follow the stream to a flat, grassy area beneath the trees and pitch our tent. The area lived up to its name – the wind blew so hard and frequently through the night that I never quite shook the shivers.

In the morning, we made our tea and started for the ridge. It was a rocky path that traversed more than two miles to the mountain, which didn’t seem very big the closer we got. Mount Cashmere, at 8,501 feet, is the 58th tallest peak in the state and comprised completely of boulders. Sensing a long haul ahead, we dumped everything but our food and climbing gear, figuring we’d have to come back that way after summiting since our next peak was in the opposite direction.

After what seemed like an eternity on the ridge, peering below at unnamed lakes and possible rock routes to climb in the coming days, we found ourselves at the base of Cashmere. We crossed some snow gullies to the back of the mountain and scrambled up some sketchy boulders before realizing we had somehow missed the path. We examined our options (summiting the east side of the peak, traversing the top of the rocky mountain, etc.) and decided to drop our packs and climb straight up. Daylight was waning and we still had a long way back to our remaining gear, which we’d hidden in the bushes near Windy Pass.

All things considered, it didn’t take long to scramble to the summit and gaze out at the Enchantments, which were captivating. I could see Dragontail Peak and Cannon Mountain, which are high on my list to tackle. On the way back to the pass, we somehow lost elevation on the ridge and found ourselves several hundred feet below our original trail. My partners decided we would keep trucking over the loose shale, which took me out twice, further swelling my screwy ankle and bloodying my left knee. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so excited to return to the day’s starting point! But, there was chocolate.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A laid-back day at the lake

Distance: 12 miles

Elevation gain: 600 feet

Location: Packwood Lake

This hike was exactly what I needed: a low-key stroll through the woods that led me to a serene lake. There was no climbing, no technical work, no severe elevation gain or shaky ridge to maneuver. Just a pleasant, easy day in a lovely setting.

The dirt path was well-maintained and flat as could be. In fact, it was so flat that I nearly doubled my hiking time and made it through the second-growth forest and to the lake in just over an hour. After crossing a bridge and passing an abandoned ranger station, I could see the crystal clear water peeking out from behind low hanging branches.

Several prime campsites lined the lake, which was much bigger than I anticipated and sported an island of trees in its middle. The views were supreme. A hazy Mount Rainier could be seen in the distance but the jagged peaks of Goat Rocks were much more impressive from my vantage point.

I followed the trail around the lake, gaining a few hundred feet in elevation, before the path hit a creek and became quite difficult to follow through the scratchy underbrush. After a quick battle with mosquitoes and black flies, I gave up and returned to the lake shore for lunch.