Friday, November 6, 2009

Eagle Peak Saddle, November 4, 2009

Eagle Peak Saddle - November 4, 2009

We felt like we’d got away with something. Pulling off a last-minute high elevation hike without significant snow or foul weather. Last weeks hike to Rampart Ridge was snowy and icy. Today’s hike to Eagle Peak Saddle was like a return to early fall.

To get to the Eagle Peak trailhead park at Longmire, then walk through the parks administration buildings and cross the Nisqually River on a solid bridge. The trailhead can be found just past the bridge on the left-hand side. There’s also a great view of Mount Rainier from the bridge.

The hike starts off in forest with salal, deer ferns and old growth trees; the trail is in good condition though there is one fallen tree to maneuver over or around. At the end of the switchbacks spur trails lead to an un-named tributary that flows into the river. We checked some of these out but the creek is hard to photograph, at least with our digital cameras.

The trail seldom stops climbing until it gets to Eagle Peak Saddle. We set our pace accordingly, what I call my “forever” pace. As we gained elevation the forest became more expansive and it brought back memories of previous visits, including a snowshoe trip on a cold, foggy day a few years ago. I also remembered a summer visit when the meadows below the saddle were a riot of wildflower displays. Mostly, I’ve hiked here alone – it is a good trail for solitude.

The climb is relentless and offers few level stretches to hikers but it’s a small price to pay for the rewards ahead. The forested, secluded trail does not attract many hikers – there are easier trails to get to for views but this trail can be hiked or snowshoed year-round. It’s a good place to go in winter when the road is gated at Longmire and safe as a snowshoe trip, at least for the first 3-1/2 miles.

After crossing the nameless stream on a footbridge the trail levels out for a bit before it resumes its climb. The trees thin out and a rocky peak comes into view above tawny meadows with dabs of fall color here and there. The trail contours below a talus slope then heads uphill again into another forested stretch.

There we ran into a little bit of snow but the snow was soft and didn’t obscure the trail. As the trail emerged from the last stand of trees short, steep switchbacks made quick work of the climb to Eagle Peak Saddle. Here a sign warns hikers they have gone far enough. I almost forgot to mention the views en route to the saddle – once we left the trees we enjoyed views of Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens, too far away to photograph.

The last stretch of the trail was snow-free; we were glad to get to the saddle without having to negotiate steep snow.

In winter the first 3-1/2 miles of the trail offer a safe snowshoe trip. With snow the summer route becomes hazardous; only experienced hikers with avalanche awareness and winter-travel skills should venture beyond the last forested stretch. Even those experienced in the arts of winter-travel take a different route to get to the saddle, avoiding the open, exposed slopes where danger of avalanche is moderate to high.

As you approach the saddle on the last of the switchbacks Eagle Peak is to the left. There a climber’s path leads to the summit; I tried it once but turned around short of the summit. I was alone and getting to the summit was beyond my comfort level. Besides the view of Mount Rainier and the Tatoosh peaks from the saddle are eye-candy enough for anyone. Bring the map to identify other peaks in the region.

On our way down from the saddle we stopped for another break at the end of the switchbacks for one last view of Mount Adams, Mount Saint Helens and the dark surrounding foothills. As we approached Longmire we spotted a raccoon near the administration buildings, our only “wildlife” sighting of the day.

I bet it’s snowing like Hell up there today.

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