Monday, May 3, 2010

West Fork Miller River, hiking

West Fork Miller River (mid-April, 2010)

Hikers with cross-country hiking and route-finding skills will get a kick out of this hike as will history buffs; it’s not a hike for a novice.

It’s not the mileage or the elevation gain that make it a challenge; it’s the rugged terrain. The “hike” is an old road that it is becoming trail-like over time; this road will never be repaired – it is the kind of place where likely the only other people you might run into are fishermen, hunters and those looking for old mines.

For some, a place like this is a hiker’s paradise. The terrain is so scenic it’s hard to take it all in. For starters, the road parallels the West Fork of the Miller River for quite a way (nothing but clich├ęs come close to describing the essence of a wild river), huge old growth trees, wildflowers (in season), boulders dripping with beaded moss and ferns, some with overhangs deep enough to provide shade for bears and such. The biggest tree we saw was a cedar tree; you can’t miss it, it’s on the right-hand side of the road, not very far from the trailhead.

Did I say trailhead? There is not a designated trailhead per se; nor is there a sign, not even a road number. However, it is easy to find if you want to find it (see driving directions below).

The scenery is not the only thing that will slow a hiker down – watching where you place your feet will also take concentration. Parts of the road resemble a stream; in fact, are a stream, especially the first mile or so. In April we did not have to cross raging torrents or resort to wading shoes but rock-hopping on slippery rock skills will come in handy. You might want to bring poles - again, nothing dangerous, just painstaking.

In late April flowers are becoming to bloom; trilliums, bleeding hearts, yellow violets were prevalent, especially along the first mile or so. There is also an ideal campsite a few steps from the “trailhead” above the river with a campfire ring.

There are several blowouts where streams came down and tore up the road. Avalanche activity, stream blowouts and floods have completely taken out sections of the road but again, not impassible.

When the fall rains return (or the spring snow melt) you may not be able to safely negotiate crossing these gullies and streams. You’ll have to check that out yourself; you won’t find trail conditions of this place at ranger stations or in guidebooks.

As the forest opens up cliffs comes into view on the right-hand side of the road. These are impressive cliffs indeed. A little further along a waterfall comes into view (right); to the best of our knowledge it is without a name.

The Cascade Mountain massif comes into view on the left side of the road as elevation is gained. At about our half-way point the road climbs above the river where you can see an enormous landslide or avalanche has taken a huge bite out of the landscape; it must have been a devastating climatic event to cause that amount of chaos. The slope all the way down to the river is composed of nothing but downed trees and debris. Past the avalanche debris the road returns to forest and is road-like for a while. We soon began to encounter snow with fresh boot prints (there had been one other car at the trailhead) and wondered if we would encounter other hikers before turnaround. Later we did meet the other hikers – they turned out to be a couple of young fishermen.

We also noticed a few cairns beside the road – where do they lead? Old mines? Secret campsites? Seldom-climbed summits?? Following the cairns is no easy task for a hiker; such temptations are best left to those with scrambling skills and in-depth knowledge of the topography.

Those who know how to do so safely can ferret out mines that can be accessed from the West Fork Miller River Road but proceed with caution – entering old mines can be dangerous and the terrain rugged. Hiking cross-country above the old road is about as far away as you can get from even a strenuous hike. According to what we have read from other sources, none of the mines are easily accessible.

Past the big landslide the road pulled away from the river through forest; here the road was in relatively good shape and out of harm’s way. The last mile or so was mostly in snow; not deep enough for snowshoes.

When we got to Coney Creek there was no safe way to get across. The creek was running high and wild; rock hopping would be impossible (upon more research we read an account where someone almost got swept down the creek while attempting to ford). This, Coney Creek is probably the logical turnaround point for most hikers.

Another caution; watch out for the resident bear. We almost met him on our way back to the trailhead. About ½ mile from the trailhead we stopped at a large boulder with an overhang; an ideal spot to pose a friend for a photograph. Silverback agreed to pose – I could not hear him about the sound of the river but just before getting into a sitting position under the overhang he yelled “Pinocchio!” to make sure there wasn’t an animal inside.

He reasoned that if there was an echo, there was “nobody” home. Much to his surprise he heard muffled snarls and snorts (which I could not hear) so I couldn’t understand why he was backing away from the overhang until he said there was a bear inside. We backed away slowly from the cave then picked up our pace, turning around every so often to make sure we weren’t being followed. We weren’t.

Don’t make the mistake we did – we should have known better. Make sure there’s “nobody” home if you think crawling under an overhang is a good idea.

6.7 miles round trip to Coney Creek, elevation gain about 1,000 feet

To get there head east on US 2 toward Stevens Pass and in about 1.9 miles past Skykomish and just past the Skykomish Ranger Station turn right onto Money Creek Road. The road is in good condition for passenger cars as of late April 2010. In about 3.5 miles from US 2, look for a green gate barring vehicular access to an old forest service road (right) and park in the unofficial parking area near the gate (no Northwest Forest Pass required). The old road that serves as “trail” is not signed.

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