Friday, October 30, 2009

Two "little" hikes

Mount Pilchuck (October 24, 2009)

Mount Pilchuck!! It’d been a while since my last visit so when friends suggested going there, I happily joined them.

As we drove the Mountain Loop highway we saw snow on the peaks above; we couldn’t wait to hit the trailhead. There’s something about that “first” snow that is special.

There were only a couple of other cars at the trailhead much to our surprise. We set out on a trail-turned-stream, not too surprising given fresh snow and rising temperatures. We encountered a creek crossing that was a little dicey but managed to get across without getting our feet wet.

Though much work has been done on the trail to improve the tread it had rained hard enough that the trail was a stream in places and roots were slick.

We didn’t get to Pilchuck proper; one of my pals wasn’t feeling well so they turned around to head back to the car hiking slowly. I hiked for another 30 minutes then turned around, planning to get back to the trailhead about the same time they would.

With one eye on my watch and the other on the trail I was compelled to stop to marvel anew at the snow-dusted scenery. The boulders and trees were bedecked with fresh snow and the summit ridge was backlit by the sun; it was lovely.

By the time I turned around the crowds were coming up the trail; hikers (many of them with dogs) and it was getting too crowded for my comfort so I raced down the trail to join my friends and head back home.

Talus Loop (Mount Si Recreation Area) October 25, 2009

After Saturday’s short hike I opted to hike on Sunday. Weather was “iffy” so I headed for Mount Si to hike the Talus Loop. Wanting to avoid weekend crowds the Talus Loop was perfect. Never have I run into another hiker on that trail.

As it often the case I didn’t run into anyone on the Talus Loop and the trail has a “wilder” feel than the regular trail. As I approached the talus field for which the trail is named I stopped for the view, noticing that vine maple was still aflame at the edge of the boulder field.

Back in the forest I dawdled, taking photographs of mushrooms and the last of the fall color.

All too soon I was back on the main trail but I won’t grumble; Mount Si is a place for hikers of all ages, shapes and abilities. When I hike the main trail I usually run into someone I know; that’s always fun too.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Umtanum Canyon, October 22, 2009

Umtanum Creek, October 22, 2009

We were so intrigued with the Umtanum Falls Creek trail last week we went back to Ellensburg, this time to hike the Umtanum Creek trail from Highway 821 (Yakima Canyon Road). The weather was perfect for hiking, a golden October day with mostly blue skies and comfortable temperatures.

The hike starts off by crossing the Yakima River on a suspension bridge – though the bridge sways and creaks, it is perfectly safe. Then you can go over or under the railroad tracks to a network of trails that are not signed.

If you are unfamiliar with the area the trails (left) lead to various points on Umtanum Ridge; the Umtanum Creek trail goes (moreorless) straight. These are not your typical hiking trails – these are trails designed to roam and wander. As far as we are concerned “somewhere” is destination enough.

The Umtanum Creek trail heads into the canyon, following the creek, at times veering away. The first mile or so can be a little confusing; the trail changes each season depending on what the beavers are up to and social trails run hither and yon. Aim yourself toward the canyon and follow the “best” trail.

It used to be that you could find the remains of an old homestead at about a mile; but now there is little left but posts and a few apple trees gone wild. Imagination comes into play in such a setting; where would you put a homestead if such a thing were possible? How sweet it would be to live in a cabin and fall asleep to the chorus of frogs and wake to meadowlarks. Idyllic as this sounds, it would take a lot of hard work to set up a homestead and keep it going. In such an isolated spot you’d learn to read the weather and the land, you’d learn how to fix things when they broke down. Though these lowlands are lovely now in their golden October attire, in the spring it is tick-laden and you need to be on the alert for rattlesnakes.

We stopped at the remains of another orchard; an ideal spot for lunch. Here was a stumpy, lichen-encrusted apple tree laden with fruit; some apples had fallen to the ground, some we picked and ate on the spot.

Hunters we met said we might spot sheep on the canyon walls but I never seem to have much luck when it comes to spotting wildlife. Therefore when Jim spotted sheep I was delighted to actually see them; two of them sitting on a rocky shelf a hundred feet or so above us. As for wildlife photography, I will never put Art Wolfe out of business but I did get some decent images; so did Maxine and Silverback.

The bighorn sheep seemed aware of our presence but were not alarmed at our being there. We waited and watched; soon four rams headed purposefully toward the single ram and the doe. Not knowing much about the life cycle of bighorn sheep, we wondered if it was rutting season yet and would there be a fight for the doe?

Then, somewhat humorously, the rams joined forces and bounded off together, away from the doe. They reminded me of a bunch of gossiping teenage boys that weren’t that comfortable around girls. No girls allowed!!

We resumed hiking through mostly open terrain but the canyon began to gradually close in; at times the trail narrowed through brushy thickets and along the edge of beaver dams. At one point the trail contoured a talus slope; here, someone had built an elaborate walkway of steppingstones, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Who?

A few hardy Ponderosa pines graced the rocky slopes, alluring trails led to draws and rocky outcroppings that called out for further exploration. Always bound by the tyranny of Time we knew the hours were moving faster than our feet; we’d dawdled too long in the autumn glory of the canyon.

When we reached a thicket of tough, interlocking vegetation we knew it was time to turn around. Jim estimated we were still a couple miles from Durr Road so that would have to wait for another day.

On our way out an amazing thing happened: we had only seen a few people on the trail, the hunting party, a woman and her dog and a young local who had hiked all the way around the rim. So I was amazed when the brush parted and a familiar red jacket appeared; it was a local Mountaineer I have known for 30 years. It’s surprising how often this kind of encounter occurs when one hikes on a regular basis.

Back where the trail goes under/over the railroad tracks we met the young hunter again. He’d left his truck a few miles from the trailhead on Canyon Road so we gave him a ride back to his truck.

Stats: About 6 miles round trip, no significant elevation gain.

Hardy souls with rugged rigs can leave a car at Durr Road where the road crosses Umtanum Creek but since we have not done so, I cannot attest to what kind of rig you’d need to tackle the purportedly rough road. You’d need two cars for a one-way hike with a car shuttle.

As for hiking out to the Umtanum Creek Falls. trailhead on Umtanum Road, that would add up to about a 10-11 mile hike one-way. Perhaps a long summer day with a car shuttle; perhaps someday.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Squak Mountain, October 18, 2009

Squeaking By on Squak Mountain

I always wondered about the Old Griz trail, having heard it was an undefined trail, perhaps a challenge to follow. This week I found out more than I needed to know about the Old Griz trail. Squak might be tame as mountains go but Squak has a bag of tricks for unwary hikers or those who don’t hike there on a regular basis. It’s not a dangerous mountain; it can be annoying.

Just about the time you think you’ve got the trail system figured out (or at least your favorite trails) and figure you can hike your favorite loop without the map, Squak Mountain might trick you. No excuses here; guilty as charged. I didn’t take the map; I’d heard there was a new map available - so no worries there. It was a perfect golden day in October so I’d hike my favorite loop (East Ridge Trail, East Side Trail), no problem.

My goal was not only exercise but also photography; namely fall color shots and hopefully, mushrooms. I approached the East Ridge trail from Issaquah; that way I could enjoy the views of Issaquah Creek before hitting the trail proper. Issaquah, by the way, is aflame with fall color now as is Issaquah Creek.

The fall color continues along the East Ridge trail; there’s a grove of vine maple mid-way that is stunning right now. Also, at lower elevations the trail is lined with maidenhair ferns; I have never seen so much maidenhair in one place. There are a couple of small blow downs on the East Ridge trail before the junction with the East Side trail; but not too hard to get over or around.

The East Side trail was familiar; I especially like the stretch where the trail crosses a small creek and weaves between house-sized boulders. I met very hikers on any of the trails; a couple of runners and a young couple with a dog. Most savvy hikers were probably taking advantage of higher country before it shuts down for the winter.

As is so often the case, I dither as I hike and change plans as I go. Planning to hike toward SR 900 I stopped at a spanking new sign for the Old Griz trail. That intrigued me so I changed my plan and decided to follow the Old Griz trail instead of continuing on the East Side trail.

The Old Griz trail is in excellent condition; perhaps it always has been. Either that or someone has been doing a lot of work on the trail because it is easy to follow and junctions are signed. There are also a couple of original signs for the Old Griz trail nailed to trees that have grown high enough over the years that you’d have to be a giant to reach them now.

Since the Old Griz trail was climbing when I came to a signed junction for Central Peak I went that way. I could use the extra elevation gain so I continued on the Old Griz trail, following the signs to Central Peak.

Central Peak is one of my least favorite summits; it doesn’t feel like a summit at all. It’s the site of a microwave tower but that is not the only thing from detracting from summit ambience; it’s the lack of a view. Even minor summits provide a view as a rule (there are exceptions in the Issaquah Alps) so I didn’t linger.

I started down the mountain on Phil’s Creek trail; but somehow became confused by new signage and at one point thought I was descending toward May Creek valley. I continued on the Old Griz trail, relieved to find the junction to the East Side trail. I had been entertaining visions of ending up in May Creek valley and having to climb the mountain again to get back to the trailhead.

No GPS either; by the way. After all, who would need one on a tame mountain like Squak Mountain (well, don’t answer that question). I retraced my route on the East Side trail back to the East Ridge trail, still puzzled by not being able to find what I remembered as Thrush Gap. Oh well.

Soon I was striding beside Issaquah Creek again and I got another surprise; this one special. Right beside the trail was a huge pileated woodpecker, working away at a snag. I stood perfectly still so as not to startle him in hopes of taking a photograph but no dice, he sensed my presence and flew away.

I still can’t locate my old Cougar Mountain-Squak Mountain map but I know I gained about 2,000 feet of elevation and probably hiked about 7 miles round trip.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Rainy Day in West Seattle

The weather was not conducive to going to the mountains today so between showers I walked about my neighborhood - Delridge, in West Seattle.

Everyone probably has favorite places to go or look at on a day like this or any day when they have the blues (whether the "blues" is weather-related or personal makes no difference). I just know that when I am "blue" that on days I don't hike, getting outside is a must.

My companion on days like this is the camera. The camera is patient with me, doesn't mind if I dawdle or spend 15 minutes on my knees in a garden looking for exquisite rain drops. I've hiked with friends and will again but sometimes it's good to be alone.

Today, a double whammy, a blues-induced by loss of what I believed to be a lifelong friendship; that combined with the weather inspired me to escape my thoughts and what better place to go than outside? Whether it's the neighborhood, Mount Si or an abandoned trail doesn't matter; getting out. Out! Out! Out!

On such forays I don't see much to photograph at first. It takes me a while to get into "seeing" mode. After I've walked a while I begin to see "differently"; I notice small things I would not usually notice. Things like rain drops on leaves, the many shades of yellow spotted on a discarded corn stalk, a clutter of leaves at a curb. The ordinary becomes spectacular; at least to my eyes. The camera doesn't always agree with me but sometimes it does.

My first stop was Greg Davis Park on the corner of 26th and Juneau Street, not far from our little yellow house. Next was the neighborhood P-patch. After that I wandered through alleys and down Delridge for a ways.

I'm home now; listening to music that some might consider an odd combination: Dead Can Dance, Smetana, Vaughn Williams, The Doors -- it seems to lift me up and carry me not only to the past but into the moment. This moment.

Right now.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Old homestead, Umtanum Road, Ellensburg

On our hike to Umtanum Creek Falls yesterday we also did some road-side photography and found an old homestead just off the road.

Here are a couple of photos from the old place, I hope you enjoy them.

Umtanum Creek Falls, October 14, 2009

Umtanum Creek Falls, October 14, 2009 (L. T. Murray State Wildlife Recreation Area)

The last time I was at Umtanum Falls the cliffs above the waterfall were coated with ice and lethal; venturing beyond was then out of the question. Yesterday venturing out into the rain was almost out of the question too; where to hike without getting soaked? The weather forecast thundered that rain would most likely be statewide, even on the east side of the Cascades.

Umtanum Falls came to mind. Even if it were raining in Ellensburg, we figured we could put up with it for a three-mile hike. Indeed it did seem to be raining statewide; usually by the time we get to Easton rain is light if there is any but it was raining hard. It didn’t begin to slack off until we hit Cle Elum. Here we made a decision to drive to Ellensburg via Old Highway 10 rather than I-90. We stopped for photos a few times above the Yakima River en route to Ellensburg, then turned off onto Umtanum Road, driving approximately 10 miles to the trailhead. It had stopped raining by then but anvil-shaped clouds were stacking up in the sky; not a good sign.

Not too surprisingly we had the place to ourselves and set off on the trail hoping to spot some wildlife before we finished our hike. Other than a couple of Douglas squirrels and either a muskrat or a beaver dashing into the brush near the creek, we didn’t see wildlife but did see some fall color. The sweet smell of alders and cottonwoods accompanied us as we hiked, the trail was muddy in places near the creek and we could tell from wet vegetation we had just missed getting rained on.

In about a mile we came to the overlook of the waterfall; much smaller than it was in May but still a dramatic sight as the creek plummets into a punch bowl shaped by vast, geological processes. You’d never know that this dramatic place is so close to the road, sandwiched in between gentle, rolling hills dotted with Douglas firs; the drive to the trailhead gives no hint of this grandeur.

Striving for a closer look we crossed the creek to pick up the trail that continues down into the bowl and eventually comes out at the other end of Umtanum Ridge on the Umtanum Creek Canyon Trail. Years ago we’d hiked the Umtanum Creek Trail but lost it in dense vegetation before we got very far; hikers that hike the entire trail are likely few and far between.

Again, we must caution that the trail from the overlook to the punchbowl is exposed and narrow in places and drops very steeply into the bowl on a talus field. Down in the punchbowl below the waterfall we felt like we were in the Columbia Gorge with many waterfalls and dizzying cliffs. Here someone had formed a large cross of stones; there must be a story behind that.

The colors in the punchbowl were so intense they looked artificial; the walls were slathered with blue-green and orange lichen, bright green grass grew in profusion near the pool, shrubs in shades of yellow and orange were strung like hanging lights across the dark cliffs, shedding leaves as brilliant as coins.

There is a campsite of sorts near the pool; sadly, a few beer cans littered the area (Silverback carried them out). We continued on the trail as it contoured below rock outcroppings, cliffs and lowland forest of firs and Ponderosa pines; we didn’t get much further. The trail soon became much more difficult to follow; brush not only borders the trail but has become part of the trail. Good tread alternated with tread that was almost non-existent. The shrubs that lines the trail were soaking wet; we became soaking wet too as we shouldered our way through the wet jungle.

Despite this unpleasantness we were compelled to keep at it; we could see open terrain ahead and rocky outcroppings that begged for a visit. Just when we thought we might get to the base of a colorful outcropping we came to a brush-choked draw where we lost any semblance of trail. Given more time we would have persevered but we were a long way from home and days have grown shorter.

Reluctantly we turned around and retraced our route back to the punchbowl and the overlook. Denied the outcropping we desired we crossed the creek above the waterfall and climbed the outcropping I’d climbed earlier in the year with my friend Jim. Getting to the top of this outcropping is on a user-made trail that wastes no time getting to the base of the outcropping. From there it’s a walk-up to the high point (2,543 feet) and views of the surrounding hills.

Back on the trail Silverback spotted what he believes were cougar tracks; fresh scat further along the trail seemed to confirm that we might not have been as alone as we thought.

Stats: About 3-1/4 miles round trip with roughly 6,00 feet of gain (according to the GPS).

Notes: If you’ve got one display your Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Vehicle Permit; though there is no sign requesting the permit according to guidebooks this pass is required.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Denny Creek, Franklin Falls (Snoqualmie Pass)

October 10, 2009

Denny Creek and Franklin Falls, October 10, 2009

This was a Mountaineer hike led by my friend Steve with me operating as co-leader. What this really means is that I “sweep” and that gives me a chance to focus on photography as well as my duties as co-leader.

Just about every hiker in the Pacific Northwest has been to the Denny Creek “bathing rocks” and/or Melakwa Lake. It has been – and remains – one of the most popular trails off the I-90 corridor.

Last winter floods took out the bridge that spans Denny Creek; this time of year it’s not a problem but when the rains begin (or snowmelt in the spring) that will be a different story. I don’t know what the Forest Service plans to do regarding the missing bridge but when I know more about that, I’ll clue you too.

Most of the hikers we met on the trail were continuing on from Denny Creek to Melakwa Lake. Our hike would be easier and with much less elevation gain. When we got to Denny Creek there wasn’t much water in the creek; it’s just an easy rock hop across a narrow channel as of this writing. Looking upstream we were amazed to see how small the waterfalls were; I’m used to seeing those waterfalls roaring, not trickling. In fact you can even walk up beside the waterfalls for a closer view. The “bathing rocks” are dry slabs, you couldn’t slide on these slabs no matter how hard you tried.

After taking a look at Denny Creek we backtracked to the Franklin Falls trailhead where we’d left the cars for Part II of this easy ramble. Last year at this time Steve and I led the same hike and there were tons of mushrooms (that hike turned into more of a photography trip than a hike) but this year there were fewer. The trail is in good condition – no problems as of this writing.

The last stretch of the trail to the waterfall can be dicey; the rocks are slippery and tilt to the downward side. Today the down-sloping rocks were drier than I had ever seen them; there has been so little rain to date. We got down to the base of the waterfall without difficulty save one hiker who elected to stay back and enjoy the view from a different perspective.

The waterfall is in a strange setting – above are the supports of I-90 though you can’t see the waterfall when you are ON I-90. Between I-90 and the waterfall is one of the most splendid fall color displays I’ve seen so far this year. This was our lunch spot; who could ask for a better view? A waterfall surrounded by fall color (you just have to ignore I-90 or perhaps pretend it’s an ancient structure left by aliens).

We made a loop back to the Franklin Falls trailhead via the Wagon Road; that’s a much less traveled trail. The trail crosses the forest service road 2-3 times before it returns to the trailhead where our hike to Franklin Falls began.

Since the hike was short we extended the day by a stop at IHOP in Issaquah for various treats and hot drinks.

Stats: Both hikes are short – perhaps 1-1/2 miles for Denny Creek round trip and 2 miles (max) for Franklin Falls. I didn’t take the GPS or my altimeter.

Kendall Katwalk, NOT (October 13, 2009)

Kendall Katwalk, October 12, 2009

Kendall Katwalk NOT – I’m not sure what happened to autumn but there were few traces of fall-like conditions on the trail today. Knowing that winter is not far off, though, I was prepared to hike in less-than-ideal conditions – one more trek into the high country before it is covered with snow. The weather report was more optimistic than reality – before I got to Snoqualmie Pass the skies were leaden and the sun looked like a hole poked through a gray blanket. I also noticed driving to the pass that the winds were kicking up so wondered if the inclement weather was coming in “early”.

There were 6-7 cars at the PCT trailhead; more than I expected on such an ominous day. I toyed with the idea of going up from Commonwealth Basin but decided to save that for the end of the hike; it makes a nice finish. I hoped for some fall color photography but the fall colors were almost non-existent; the vine maple leaves were dun and brittle, the leaves of alders were yellow but withered. I carried on, hoping there might be one more color show from the Katwalk.

Hoar frost poked up through the dirt near damp areas; exquisite forms shaped like rude diamonds but difficult to photograph. The first stretch of the trail is a good beginning to what’s ahead; a warm-up to loosen the muscles before steeper terrain. I also looked for mushrooms but didn’t see as many as I expected.

Just past the first major talus slope with a view of a moody Guye through a ragged screen of alders, I reached the turn-off for Commonwealth Basin and Red Pass. I continued on the PCT still hoping to get to the Katwalk before bad weather rolled in.

The stream crossing was a non-event; there was very little flow. A bit past the stream crossing the trail opens up as it climbs through a short, steep pitch through geriatric fireweed and some maple sporting shades of orange and red. That’s not all I saw; it was cold and the snow was falling horizontally driven by a strong, bitter wind. I almost turned around but I couldn’t resist the call to go higher.

Back in the woods there was shelter from the wind but it was cold. The snow was just starting to stick on the trail like a fine sprinkling of sugar but the forest was deep and peaceful. Then I began to run into hikers who had turned around short of the Katwalk due to the hostile conditions. One hiker had made it to the Katwalk but it was so cold his digital camera died. He said there were still a few parties going on up but I met most them coming down soon after running into him. One guy said, “This feels like the last hike of the season, snow’s coming!”

I at least wanted to get to the big talus slope near the base of Kendall Peak; and I did but did I linger? No. It was so windy and cold that I turned around. It was snowing hard enough that little could be seen and the wind was relentless.

Back at the junction with Commonwealth I decided to hike back to the trailhead via the old trail, rather than the senseless switchbacks on the PCT. The Old Commonwealth Basin Trail is shorter and in such conditions makes sense; besides, it’s pretty in there, even in ugly weather. The stream crossings were a non-event; I didn’t even need to rock crop (that could change any day given the impending forecast).

It was still snowing when I got back to the trailhead; I couldn’t get into the car fast enough to wrap my cold paws around a hot thermos of tea.

Stats: From trailhead to the talus field – 2,200 feet elevation gain; I didn’t keep track of the mileage.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Koppen Mountain, October 7, 2009

Koppen Mountain (October 7, 2009)

The Boulder DeRoux trail to Koppen Mountain is a tricky trail; maybe that’s why its lonesome. The first time we hiked the trail was in 1982 and it was about this time of year. There were no other hikers on the trail then, nor were there other hikers on this golden, October day in the Teanaway.

The Boulder DeRoux trailhead is about 9 miles past 29 Pines Campground on Forest Road 9737 (North Fork Teanaway Road). A short spur off No Road 9737 (left) leads to a generous parking area and one of the cleanest outdoor toilets we’ve ever seen.

The trail crosses the Teanaway River almost immediately on a solid footbridge; remnants of an older bridge that was washed out by floods still clings to nearby boulders.

The hike gets off to a gentle start on this trail that is popular with horseback riders; the trail parallels DeRoux Creek though the creek is not always within sight. In spring the trail is lined with sweet vanilla leaf; in October the vegetation is mottled and shrubs are turning from green to orange and red.

In about 1.5 miles we reached a well-signed trail junction; here hikers stay right if Gallagher Head Lake is their destination. Ours was Koppen Mountain (left) – here, we crossed the creek on a bridge and the trail began to climb.

The now-steep trail switchbacks through forest interspersed with open areas where greenish deposits of serpentine compelled us to stop and marvel. As the trail climbs, views improve. We reached a pass at about 5,017 feet; here there are options. For Koppen Mountain an unsigned steep trail leads off (left) through semi-open forest toward the peak. The saddle is also a convenient place to take a break and so we did, commandeering an empty hunters’ camp near the trail junction.

Though it is not signed another trail drops down the other side of the ridge from the saddle; this spur that leads to the Middle Fork Teanaway Trail and other temptations, savvy hikers with route-finding skills may be able to loop back to the Boulder-DeRoux trailhead via seldom-hiked trails (study the map or the out-of-print “Teanaway Country” by Mary Sutliff for additional information, bear in mind some trail numbers have changed since her book was written).

After our break we tackled the steep trail toward Koppen Mountain, soon breaking out into the open. We enjoyed expanding views of Mount Stuart, other Teanaway peaks and Mount Rainier (on a clear day from higher elevations). There are several false summits along the scrabble trail that once served as a sheep driveway (we found old metal signs on trees). Silverback and Maxine elected to take advantage of a lower viewpoint and finish their lunch; Jim and I were summit-bound.

The last stretch of the trail is not user-friendly; the tread is scant in places and in the final push to the summit the path is eroded and exposed as it snakes its way to the summit of Koppen. You will probably want a hiking staff or trekking poles unless, of course, you go early in spring when snow covers higher elevations in the Teanaway (then, bring an ice axe and know how to use it).

We were surprised to find a summit register; we signed it. Murphy, Jim’s black poodle, did not sign the register though it was his first “official” summit. Though this is a lonesome path, the summit register shows there have been a number of visitors in recent years. Incidentally, you can also get to Koppen Mountain via the Johnson-Medra Trail as well as from the Jungle Creek trail; these trails can be difficult to follow, plus the 3-mile Jungle Creek Road is closed (you can also link up to the Jungle Creek trail from the Johnson-Medra trail and make a loop). The Johnson-Medra trailhead is also on the North Fork Teanaway Road just past the Beverly Creek campground.

We didn’t linger; it was sunny but the breeze was cold. A few sluggish bees hovered around the summit but there were few signs of life, the flowers had gone to seed. From our high point we could see some of the Enchantment Peaks and more Teanaway peaks but it was too chilly to get the map out to identify them all.

Jim and I retraced our route back to Silverback and Maxine. After a brief rest we hiked back to the trailhead, surprised how much shorter the trail seemed than it did going in. That’s why I call this a tricky trail – it’s a little less than 3-1/2 miles to the summit but it sure feels like more.

Stats: 6-3/4 miles round trip with 2,290 feet of elevation gain according to the GPS. Map: Green Trails No. 209 Mount Stuart.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Granite Mountain, October 4, 2009

Granite Mountain, October 4, 2009

Even with an early start this popular trailhead was so full I had to park along the frontage road. Well, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to get high (no pun intended) on what could be one of the last warm autumn days of the year.

Usually I can cope with crowds on popular trails but there were so many hikers on the trail today that I felt annoyed (mostly at myself for being there in the first place). At times it was almost like being in a queue at the bank and the only chance for any kind of solitude was to go off trail in the lower basin.

I made good time (for me) to the marker for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Then I began to slow down as the scenery began to open up and the fall color began. I’m not sure how to gauge this years’ fall color in comparison to other years but some of the vegetation at lower elevations seemed more dead than colorful. The higher I went, the better the color, especially the reds.

The conditions were perfect for hiking this steep, rocky trail – cool, crisp and sunny. No one could complain about the weather. By the time I got to the lower basin with the tarns I was in need of a rest and solitude so I found a nice boulder off trail and hung out there for a while before getting back in line to reach the summit.

There’s a little bit of snow in the upper basin and just before the lookout; if there’s a hard freeze this could complicate the last stretch. Yesterday, the sun was warm enough that it was just snow, not ice. The lookout is closed for the year.

There was a large group of hikers gathered under the lookout, hikers here and there, just about everywhere on the summit rocks and a little below. After sitting for a while and eating lunch I “caught” the “good cheer” all around me. Everyone seemed happy – even those who chose to sit alone on a rock and gaze into the distance.

The walk back down was uneventful though I felt a little sadness at leaving Granite Mountain, perhaps for the last time this season. It’s not an easy place to get to at my age (for some, not at any age) and once I’m there, I find it hard to leave.

Getting to the trailhead: Go east on I-90 from Seattle to Exit 47, turn left over the freeway, left again into the Granite Mountain/Pratt Lake parking lot. Pray for a parking spot.

Stats: 8 miles round trip – 3,800 feet gain (according to “100 Hikes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness”. I didn’t bring the GPS today.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Kautz Creek, September 30, 2009

Kautz Creek Trail (Indian Henrys almost!) September 30, 2009

We made a last-minute stab at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground via Kautz Creek and almost made it.

The first ¾ mile or so parallels mineral-daubed Kautz Creek – floods tore out existing bridges and rearranged the topography dramatically over the last few winters. The first section of the trail no longer resembles the trail as we knew it years ago – it still parallels Kautz Creek and has an unfinished feel to it, as if waiting for the next weather-related calamity.

Alders are growing back in, filling in the blanks, playing their role in settling the landscape. The rock-lined trail near the creek is sandy, almost like a beach.

Kautz Creek looks like a madman’s playground; the old footbridge lays asunder, the water here copper-colored from minerals - boulders, sand, rootballs, uprooted trees tangled together – all attest to violent weather. Gaze long enough upon this scene and you’ll understand there is a very fine line between destruction and creation.

Once we crossed the creek the trail reverts to good trail as it starts to climb toward Indian Henrys. I have hiked the Kautz Creek trail in all seasons over the years, including snowshoe treks to Mount Ararat with The Mountaineers. It wasn’t an easy snowshoe or hike 20 years ago; it’s still a challenge.

With recent rains mushrooms are popping up, breaking through the duff, lighting the dark forest with their luminescent colors. Angel wings peek out from under decaying logs, speckled amanitas glow as if lit from within.

As we gained elevation we encountered bear grass long past bloom; snow had settled in the well of each plant, an indication of more snow to come. We crossed a quiet stream on a footbridge; soon after we came to a viewpoint though there was no view today.

The forest gradually opened up to small meadows; fresh snow had fallen and was melting. Hellebore lay yellow and flattened, the boughs of evergreens were weighted down with melting snow, blueberry shrubs glittering with water soaked us as we passed through.

Mount Ararat soon came into view above crimson, high-angled meadows. The scene was resplendent with fall color beneath a pewter sky broken by a silent stampede of wind-driven clouds.

By now our feet were soaked but we kept hiking, stopping only long enough to eat, drink and change into dry socks. A turnaround time was established; we suspected we wouldn’t have time to get to the patrol cabin at Indian Henrys.

The trail continued with ups and downs, none terribly steep; we hiked through wan meadows where flowers had gone to seed and grasses were bent by snow. The clouds lifted from time to time giving us an odd view of Mount Rainier and peaks we could not identify without consulting the map.

Though turnaround time was rapidly approaching we continued to a rocky pass where we hoped for a view of the patrol cabin but our high point only revealed we had further to go; the patrol cabin would have to wait until next year.

Reluctantly we turned around though found it hard to leave the moody, ever-changing landscape of snow, clouds, light and shadow. Only the promise of a hot thermos of tea waiting in the car enabled us to hike a little faster.

Stats: According to our GPS we hiked 11-1/2 miles and gained about 3,138 feet of elevation, including ups and downs.

Snow and Gem Lakes, September 29, 2009

Snow and Gem Lakes, September 29, 2009

Snow Lake is just about the worst trail you can pick for solitude on a golden afternoon in late September. It’s also one of the prettiest so a hiker has two choices: prepare to share the trail with other hikers or go elsewhere. I chose to share the bounty.

Though the sun was shining it was chilly and I hiked at a brisk pace to warm up. I passed hikers on my way and was passed by others – that’s how it goes on popular trails. As I age, my ego has relented and it doesn’t bum me out as much as it used to when I step aside to let others pass. I am simply grateful that I can hike as often as I do without sustaining injury. My bones and joints have been good to me; I cannot complain.

The trail is in good condition and there is a hint of fall color at lower elevations; the best color is yet to come. From Snow Lake I continued on the main trail around the lake as Gem Lake was my destination for the day.

As I climbed toward Gem there was more fall color bordering the trail; unofficial paths through colorful meadows invited one to roam but I stuck to the main trail wanting to spend time at Gem Lake without needing to hurry.

I reached Gem Lake sooner than expected and found a sunny spot for lunch. There were a few other hikers at Gem Lake but not as many as I would have suspected. After lunch I still had the itch to wander so hiked around Gem Lake to the junction with the Wildcat Lakes trail. I was tempted to continue because I knew that the trail to Wildcat Lakes had been worked on since my last visit but days have grown shorter and I hate to hurry.

Instead I explored a path above the lake that led to an official campsite with a view above the lake. Having found this campsite I wondered why anyone would camp anywhere else; perhaps that is why the campsite is not designated but is rather “discovered” by those whose interest is piqued by unwritten paths.

As I hiked back to Snow Lake the sun was in position to backlight the vegetation enhancing the colors even more. As I rounded Snow Lake it had grown windy; whitecaps scudded across the deep, blue water.

The trail from Snow Lake back to the parking lot was crowded but I dare not complain. What right do I have – or anyone – to keep such a splendid place all to myself?

Stats: About 9-3/4 miles with 2,700 feet of elevation gain.