Category Archives: Washington

Columbia River Gorge wildflower hunting

May 22-24, 2023.

Photo album

Tom McCall Preserve

6 miles | 1330’ ele. gain |3.5 hr.

After dropping Aaron off at the airport for a work trip, I pointed the van north and drove towards the Columbia River Gorge. I’d spent countless hours there when I lived in Portland, so I was excited to revisit an old friend. I parked at the Rowena viewpoint, where I could go on two short hikes. I started on the trail that ambled along the edge of the plateau above the Columbia. The wind blew ferociously. I remembered how bad the wind could get here, but this seemed even a bit much for the gorge. I cinched up the hood on my wind shell and began walking.

It was evident from the beginning that I missed the peak balsamroot blooms; the withering yellow flowers looked battered and sad. But there was plenty other things to see: arrowleaf buckwheat, lupine, yarrow, onion, peas. And my old pal poison oak!
I was ready for poison oak now. I could see it from a mile away. Instead of comfy shorts and sandals, I wore long pants, socks and trail shoes. I would no longer brush off poison oak as no big deal. Now on day 2 of steroids after 8 painful, itchy days of a vicious poison oak attack, I gave that heinous plant a wide berth.

The sign at the trailhead implores visitors to stay on trail, but it’s not well-marked and user trails braided this way and that. I did my best to follow the main route plus the side loop, but somehow I veered off onto another path. If you want to keep hikers in line, you gotta let them know where to be!

Back at the parking lot, I reset my trip odometer and headed uphill towards Tom McCall Point. This trail was much more my style, switchbacking uphill through blooming meadows and pockets of shady forest. Here, I saw large-flower triteleia, paintbrush, bedstraw, wild roses, white-stem frasera and the star of the show: sticky penstemon. These gigantic purple flowers stopped me in my tracks as they stood tall and vibrant in the upper meadows. Stunners!

After that hike, I’d pretty much had it with the wind. I drove to nearby Memaloose State Park to find a campsite and relax. I knew I had an early wake-up the next day.

Dog Mountain

7 miles | 3075’ ele. gain | 5:50 hr

I met up with my friend Greg just after 6 am at the Dog Mountain Trailhead. I remembered this place being popular, and I know I’d hiked it a few times before. But its popularity had grown since I lived in Portland. Plus, the flowers were peaking and people lose their minds over this trail. I’d never actually gone for the wildflowers before so this would be a new experience. All of this to say: the 6 am start time would be crucial for enjoying this hike!

A few short steps up the trail and I realized that I’d met my match for photo-taking. It was nice to be able to take our time, identify every little flower, and try to document as much of the interesting flora that we could on the way. We had all day, in fact, so why rush?

Before getting remotely close to the famous yellow blooms, we saw so much: ookow, inside-out flower, spotted coralroot, Columbia anemone, to name a few. Every time I stopped to look at one thing I discovered three more things. The cool, dark forest was resplendent with a staggering diversity of plant life. I know there are plenty more flowers I don’t even have photos of, mostly because I’ve already got a zillion (I’m looking at you, woodland stars).

The famed balsamroot meadows were, in fact, spectacular. And even though I’ve seen the same damn image more times than I can count on social media, it was still really cool to be standing among thousands of cheery, yellow blooms swaying in the incessant wind.

Although the wind was not nearly as bad as the previous day, the sky was overcast and the air was cool. Despite my layers I was chilled to the bone. These conditions did not stop Greg from taking many, many photos. So at one point I headed up to the summit to wait for him as he captured every last thing that needed capturing. I gladly found myself a coniferous La-Z-Boy, downed some food and savored being out of the wind.

Eventually, Greg joined me at the top and he got to take his break as well. It was too cold for me to paint today, and I had other people to see in the afternoon, so we headed back down. We took a slightly different route that detoured into a light and beautiful forest filled with new wildflower treats. Fendler’s waterleaf, vine maple, Hooker’s fairybells, Oregon grape and the very last of the Dutchman’s breeches were on display. In addition, there were more checker lilies than I’d ever seen on a hike before, wow!

Each section of trail had its own joys and surprises. Among the shadows of the darkest parts of the forest, Phantom orchids sprouted in the hundreds. They were not quite in bloom yet, but they were getting ready to put on a good show.
But alas, I had to leave that to Greg for a future hike. Back at the parking lot, I spied a familiar face en route to the trailhead. “Is that Linda?” I cried.

Yes, it was. I had a nice time catching up with one of my old climbing buddies from Portland and remembered that this was my home for a while. I’ve got roots here. And I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting a few more old friends, watering the roots so to speak, and preparing for the next leg of the journey.

Eagle Creek

14.5 mi | 1080’ ele. gain | 6:20 hr.

The last stop on my top Gorge hikes tour came on Greg’s recommendation: Eagle Creek. Again, my only preconceived notions/memories of this hike were something like: this is really popular and ten million people are going to be tripping over each other on this trail. Again, I showed up early, and there were only three cars in the parking lot.
I started at the Fish Hatchery and did the short road walk to the actual trailhead, where I immediately stopped to take a bunch of photos of the wildflowers growing on the vertical walls along the trail. Water seeped down the steep rock and moss, creating a perfect growing environment for arnica (probably), monkeyflower, maidenhair ferns and a new one to me: Oregon bolandra. I knew I had a 14 mile day ahead but I didn’t care. Nature made me stop.

The last time I hiked Eagle Creek, it was during a blizzard that shut down the highway in the Gorge just hours after we drove back towards Portland. I had only a vague memory of this trail, with its narrow passageways and bolted cables. As I hiked, I tried to imagine the work it took to create this trail on the side of a canyon, with vertical basalt walls, numerous waterfalls, inlet creeks and a host of other natural barriers. It must have taken a grand effort to make this come to life.

And how grateful was I at that moment that this trail existed! Every stretch had its own special beauty, despite the fire that ripped through mere years ago. Wildflowers blossomed and stretched up towards the sunlight. Shrubs and tiny trees sprang to life. Among the burned and scarred corpses of trees, many others grew lush and tall. After spending years hiking through the massive burn scars across Central Oregon, this landscape did not feel jarring at all. In fact, it was much livelier and robust than I’d imagined from what I’d read.

After hiking several miles, I finally began to hear the roar of Tunnel Falls. I appreciate a well-named entity, be it a waterfall, wildflower or mountain. The trail literally enters a tunnel behind the waterfall, making for a rather exciting experience. The anticipation grew as the sound got louder and the waterfall spray filled the air. I rounded a corner, walked into the belly of the beast, and emerged on the other side, surrounded by white shooting star and a carpet of vertical green vegetation. The trail was barely wide enough for me to stand, with a precipitous drop down to a pool of churning water. I could see how a fear of heights would paralyze any visitor here.

From there, I wasn’t sure how much further to go. I knew the Eagle Creek trail went on for many more miles. But there seemed to be some more waterfall commotion up ahead. Plus, I wanted to find a nice spot to sit and have a snack. Those opportunities were few and far between on this narrow trail! I was glad to have only seen two other people so far on my walk.

At this point, the dramatic trail paralleled a narrow, rocky gorge. Happy green plants sprung from every crack and crevice, seemingly reaching for the suspended droplets of water from the rambunctious creek.

To my surprise and delight, I came to the also-well-named Twister Falls. It took my breath away. I thought that I must have come here before, but after looking back at my hiking spreadsheet it appears this was my first time.

Occasionally, when out in nature, I am overcome by a feeling that must be described as “awe,” although I find it impossible to truthfully describe. It is a visceral feeling that takes over some part of my body. In this case I could feel a kind of expansion and warmth in my chest. I stood there at the falls, surrendering to this unusual but overwhelmingly positive sensation, as I felt a deep connection to this place at this time.
Once the feeling had passed, I sat down in a small gravel bar near the top of the falls and ate some food. The warmth of the day had begun to set in, and I still had a seven mile walk back to the car, so I didn’t linger long. Plus, I wanted to do some painting. I had scouted a good spot near one of the bridges about halfway back, which would serve as a good painting and secondary snack break.

I opted for a quicker pace on the way back, since I’d stopped for seemingly every wildflower and riffle of water on the way up. But, that did not stop me from discovering a few more flowers and scenic viewpoints that I’d missed on the way in.

Yes, the Gorge hikes are crowded. I did pass a bunch of people hiking in while I was motoring out. But, there are many reasons why these hikes attract so many visitors. I felt privileged to be able to return to the Gorge this week and hike three classics in near peak condition without feeling suffocated by weekend crowds.

But, if the only time you can get out there is on a summer weekend, I say go anyway. Go early or late in the day if you can, and either way brace yourself for an absolute mob scene. These trails are there to be enjoyed. And most normal people don’t abhor crowds as much as I do. Right now, the flowers are absolutely popping!

Olympic South Coast Trail

July 16-18, 2021.

Photos from the trip

olympic south coast trail

I’m huge on planning, but I’m not a person who chooses to hike in places that require advance permits. Emily is the opposite, and she is the person who inspired this trip. Based on a previous visit to the Olympic South Coast trail, she was itching to do it again. Backpacking in Olympic National Park requires purchasing permits ahead of time, packing in bear canisters and (in our case) setting up car shuttles. While this usually is not my cup of tea, I decided to go along on this adventure. Now that it’s done, I can say I am really glad I did.

Day 1: Third Beach to Strawberry Point

5.2 mi | 600′ ele. gain | 3:50 hr.

Emily, Renee and I arrived at the already crowded Third Beach trailhead on a Friday morning and shouldered our packs. I noticed how different it was here; we’d just come from the hot, dry high desert of Central Oregon the day before. Now, we stood surrounded by towering trees draped with lichen. A cool mist hung in the air. Ferns, shrubs and ground cover created a thick understory on either side of the trail. I took a deep breath of the moist air and fell in line for the walk down to the beach.

It always takes a mile or two for my body to adjust to carrying an overnight pack. I had the bear canister, packed to the brim with food, as well as all my necessary gear and a liter of wine. I guess that was necessary, too.

At least the beginning of the trek was downhill on a well-groomed trail. This was not a good representative of the remainder of the route. We blissfully descended towards the beach, following the sound of the ocean.

A thick blanket of clouds greeted us when we arrived at Third Beach. Nonetheless, we could see interesting sea stacks in the distance and lots of sea creatures at our feet. I grew up on the East Coast and fondly remember spending all summer on the beach, hopping across rocks and playing in tidepools. Those memories came springing back as I looked at colorful sea stars, sea anemones, barnacles and other critters clinging to life on the water’s edge.

Soon, though, I snapped back to the present day: “There’s the first rope,” someone said. And then I began to understand what we were in for on this trip.

olympic south coast trail

The beach came to an end at an impassable stretch of boulders and cliffs. In order to get back on the headland, we needed to go up. Straight up. A steep sand hill led us back to the forest, and to ascend the hill, we used a knotted rope that someone had tied to a tree above us. It didn’t look terribly official, but it would have to do, so up we went. After that rope, there was a ladder. Then another rope. All these trail accoutrements looked to be marginally maintained, but good enough. The ladders had missing rungs. The ropes seemed to be old marine rope that had washed up on the beach. All part of the adventure, to be sure…

We slowly plodded along the steep, muddy, narrow forest trail. This was nothing like the promenade we started on just a couple hours before. I was happy we got an early start so we had all the time in the world to get to camp.

Next, we dropped onto another beach, then quickly came to a section of big boulders buffering the forested cliffs from the crashing ocean. Huh, I thought, there must be a trail here, but Emily insisted that this was one of the rock crossings. We went for it.

Luckily, this section was short. The ocean pounded into the rocks just feet away from where we were scrambling. We moved as quickly as we could while carrying our heavy, awkward loads. Everything was wet, slippery and dramatic. Once I could see the flat, sandy beach on the other side, my heart rate relaxed a bit. There was not much longer to go.

Our reward: a long stretch of sand and tidepools that led right to camp. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Night 1: Intro to hammock camping

At Strawberry Point, Emily picked out a nice campsite and we dropped our gear there. The ocean air calmed me as I ate my lunch and searched for the best spot to hang my hammock.

I’d never hammock-camped before, but I thought I’d give it a try on this trip. I borrowed a hammock and webbing from a friend, and threw in the footprint from my 3-person backpacking tent to use as a tarp just in case. There was no rain in the forecast, but this was the coast…

All afternoon we lounged around, reading books, napping, exploring tidepools and taking casual walks on the beach. We waited as long as we could to make dinner: dehydrated turkey chili with fresh toppings. Then, we drained the bottle of wine and watched a curious seal head bobbing in the waves for hours. A curious deer wandered into our camp, nibbling on fresh greenery as it went. She was completely unbothered by us; it was her home, after all.

At bedtime, I hopped into the hammock, nestled in and went to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable even though I later learned that I set it up all wrong. The sea breeze kept the bugs at bay. Nailed it, I thought…

At 2 am I woke up to the song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Actually, I woke up to a soaking rain that would make my down sleeping bag useless and put me in a hypothermic state if I didn’t figure out a way to make shelter, and fast. I grabbed my headlamp and pulled my emergency tarp out, then began looking around to improvise a rain cover for my hammock. I’ve been here before, I thought, and it was way more serious then. My mind flashed back to the night I unexpectedly had to bivy on Mt Hood in a sleet storm. Memories of past shenanigans help me remain calm and confident. Knowing I’d survived more heinous conditions reminds me how strong and resilient I am.

From all the years I’ve camped and backpacked, I’ve got a pretty solid and foolproof system down. So, abandoning the known and venturing into the unknown put me back in to beginner mode. But, this is how we develop skills, so I spent a moment reflecting on past experiences before focusing on problem-solving.

As disgusting as all the trash washed ashore was, it sure came in handy. I scavenged large pieces of rope from the marine debris to use for my shelter. I tied a length of rope over the hammock and threw the tarp over top like an upside-down taco shell. Then, I had to stake out the corners to make the tarp taut. I used the long ends of webbing that held my hammock in addition to a thin rope I cut from the large piece and some sturdy fronds of grass (yes, grass). At this point I was wet from being out in the rain, but still reasonably warm. I crawled into my damp sleeping bag and looked for flaws in my system.

“Huh, even though the tarp doesn’t cover the hammock completely, I’m not getting wet.” Scanning up and down the hammock with my headlamp, I wiggled my toes, felt the sleeping bag over my head and noticed my body temperature. I was warm, comfortable, and reasonably dry. I turned off my headlamp, curled up in my sleeping bag, and drifted back off to sleep.

Day 2: Strawberry Point to Mosquito Creek

6.2 mi. | 530′ ele. gain | 4:30 hr.

First off, let me tell you that the statistics for this hike do not in any way tell the story of the character and difficulty of this route. As I look back at the measly elevation gain numbers and short miles, I can hardly believe these data are accurate. That’s how deceptive the Olympic South Coast trail is. You get a big bang for your buck on this one. Now, on to day 2…

In the morning, I hopped out of my dry cocoon and inspected my handiwork. Not too shabby for a rush job. Note the red strap on the bottom right corner, tethered only by a few strands of grass. Bushcraft, I guess.

hammocking on Olympic South Coast

It was my turn to make breakfast in the morning, so I took my sweet time assembling ingredients and creating a delightful egg scramble with veggies and chicken sausage. Hooray for home dehydrators!

We enjoyed a lazy breakfast on the uncluttered shoreline near our camp, opposite the trash pile. Leave No Trace, eh ocean? Today’s hike seemed much less daunting than the previous day, but since we survived that I felt ready for anything. Bring it on, obstacle trail…

olympic south coast trail

The day began with a mile-long beach walk to Toleak Point, where a number of groups were camping (we were essentially alone last night). There, we stopped to filter water. Out of nowhere, a beautiful young buck trotted along the sandy beach, then sprung straight up into the thick forest. Quite majestic! We continued along the beach for a while before going up into the forest. There was only one forested section on the route today, with no crazy low tide crossings to plan.

deer on Olympic South Coast

But the forest trails involved lots of scrambling, climbing over trees, negotiating tree roots and using hand lines to get up and down the steepest bits. I sure was glad the rain cleared out and the ground was mostly dry. Doing this trek in the rain would potentially bring this into the type 3 fun category.

During our short tromp in the forest, we ran into an endangered species, one I had not expected to find here: a park ranger. We had a pleasant exchange in which he inspected our permit, asked us the standard questions, made some boring small talk and went on his way. Shortly after, we ran into his ranger partner. She sounded like an alien trying its best to disguise itself as a young human woman. I don’t know how much training is required to be a park ranger, but it would seem that communication skills are not so much taught to this group. She was nice enough, and harmless, and we got back to putting one foot in front of the other.

An hour and a half after entering the forest, we followed one last handline down a dirt ramp back to the wide, flat beach. While soaking up that sweet, sweet sunshine, I searched the rock crevasses for critters and dipped my toes in the wet sand. Aaron had just gotten me a pair of Bedrock sandals for my birthday, which I wore through the entire trip. They were bomber on the mud, the rocks, pretty much every surface I had to walk across. And they let my feet dry off in between dipping them in mud puddles or ocean surf.

Once we got to Mosquito Creek, we spread out to scout a good camp for the night. I had hoped to string up my hammock from the big driftwood stumps like I’d seen on trip reports posted online, but no such spot existed here. Instead, we followed a steep sandy path up off the beach into a magical, well-loved campsite. It had multiple rooms for us to lay out gear, set up a cooking station and arrange the tent and hammock. But, it was dark and gloomy in there. We spent much of the afternoon laying on the beach letting our legs rest before the big day. I got into my swimsuit and took one very chilly dip in the Pacific before retiring to my beach towel…

Since we had nothing but time, I carefully crafted a stout hammock fly set-up just in case the weather turned overnight. I made use of the extra tent stakes and cord from Renee’s tent, and practiced incorporating my hiking pole into the rigging. As with all skills, it takes practice in a different kinds of situations with a variety of supplies to become proficient, so I took this opportunity to experiment. I remembered a few useful knots and hitches from my climbing days, but made a mental note to review a few more releasable hitch types and practice them before I take a hammock out again.

We enjoyed a hearty dinner of fresh veggies and mac and cheese, and tried really hard to stay up late enough to watch the sunset.

We didn’t make it.

Day 3: Mosquito Creek to Oil City

6.6 mi. |960′ ele. gain | 7:10 hr. (including 2 long rests)

Anticipating our last major hurdle, a rock crossing that can only be made at low tide, we set an alarm for an early get-up. I woke up 5 minutes before the alarm, freaking out that I’d overslept, then checked the time. Turns out the others did the same.

We scarfed down some oatmeal, packed up, and got moving a half an hour before our projected start time. Knowing that most of the trail would be in the forest, and that our hike pace was particularly slow in the forest, we gave ourselves plenty of time to complete the trail leading up to the rocks.

As we walked from our camp, I gazed at the beautiful, wispy cirrus clouds overhead. I remembered reading about these in the book The Secret World of Weather by Tristan Gooley (highly recommend, by the way). But I could not remember what they meant. Since reading that book, I’ve been obsessed with clouds, and paying attention to them much more than I ever have. I suppose I’ll need to read the book a few more times and start taking notes to really make the information stick. But, step one is just being aware. What information is stored in those clouds…

This day’s stretch of woodland trail felt like the most challenging of them all. It is the longest continuous trail in the forest, with many obstacles to overcome. Ladders and stairs and other built trail features were in sad states of disrepair. We didn’t always love the rope choices, but we had to use what was there. I recall lots of throwing my legs over the top of some downed trees, slithering under the ones that were too gnarly to mount, clambering up “steps” chopped out of logs and stepping over rotten boardwalk pieces. We took several breaks, not only to rest our legs but also to rest our overworking brains. It was tough!

When at last, we could see the beach peeking through the trees, we took a somewhat premature sigh of relief. The trail here dropped nearly straight down, with a broken ladder and a rope to help us make that final descent to the sand.

At last, some easy beach walking. We found a spot about halfway between the forest and the rocks to sit and hunker down for a bit. I used my InReach to contact Emily’s husband, aka our shuttle driver, to coordinate a pickup time. Then, we just saw and waited until our safe crossing time: an hour before low tide.

I wondered if we’d planned it right, because we watched several groups walk by us, continue down the beach, and begin hopping across the rocks. But, we stuck to our plan and were the last group to begin the crossing.

Compared to the hairy scramble from day one, this felt like a piece of cake. It was a much longer section of rocks than we’d done before, but the rock was textured and sticky, there was plenty of dry land between us and the ocean, and the whole scene just felt far less ominous. We were moving so quickly that we caught up to the group ahead of us. And before long, our feet hit dry sand.

At this point, all that was left was a short beach walk followed by a half mile trail in the woods to the parking lot. Instead of waiting for our ride in the parking lot, we decided to chill on the beach and watch the birds for an hour. It was peaceful and relaxing, a fitting end to a difficult day. A pair of bald eagles perched like sentries on the mouth of the Hoh river, while hundreds of gulls alternated between milling about on the beach and flapping furiously into the sky. I worked through a few crossword puzzles to pass the time.

The last little trail walk was more work than I was anticipating, and it’s likely because I mentally switched from work mode to “I’m done” mode. It was a good reminder that it’s not over, til it’s over.


Do not underestimate the South Coast Trail. It will challenge even experienced hikers and backpackers, in one way or another. And the things that challenge you might not be the ones you planned for.

Hammock camping ROCKS. It takes no time at all to set up a hammock (minus the, ahem, fly situation). It’s extremely cozy, even when you do it all wrong (as I learned later, whoops). And it’s a nice place to hang out and read, have a snack, etc when you’re just spending time in camp. The gentle back and forth rocking is rather soothing.

Bedrock sandals are well worth the investment. I normally don’t take a pair of shoes right out of the box and into a 3-day backpacking trip, but these were perfect. They fit my feet well, allowed my toes to breathe, provided excellent grip on challenging surfaces and went from wet to dry without a second thought. Please note that I packed my trail shoes as well, thinking I’d mostly wear those, but they ended up being just camp shoes on this trip.

Hip, hip, hooray for sun shirts! This was another new piece of gear I tested on this trip. I normally don’t like wearing long sleeves because they never fit me quite right and they feel hot. But this sun shirt was buttery soft and comfortable, cool on my skin and saved me a bunch of sunscreen applications throughout the weekend. It didn’t even stink after several days of wear.

Did I change my mind on permits? Nah. I get why they’re used in certain places, but with a half bazillion places to explore in this world, I’ll choose the ones with the least red tape. I’m glad that there are plenty of options for all types of users who want different types of experiences out there. But I will not turn down an invite to a permitted area if someone else is willing to navigate the system.

Exploring the Channeled Scablands

November 22-25, 2018.

Photo album

Thanksgiving weekend, 2018. I asked my husband Aaron to pick a destination for our outdoor holiday adventures. He said “how about Eastern Washington? We’ve never been there.”

Eastern Washington. A land with no mountains, no points of interest that immediately captured my attention. I did some research and saw a lot of the same: lakes, rivers, rolling hills. It was a landscape formed by the Missoula Floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. Glacial Lake Missoula, held in place by a 2,000 foot tall ice dam, periodically broke through the dam and sent cataclysmic floods across the Pacific Northwest. The coulees, channels, rock islands and giant current ripples in modern Eastern Washington were formed as the floodwaters scoured the earth. So this year we’d take a tour through some of this unique and fascinating geology.

Gingko-Petrified Forest

Our first stop took us to one of many Washington State Parks we’d visit on this trip. We began at the interpretive center, which was closed for the day. But just outside the front doors lay several examples of petrified wood. Down a set of stairs we found a display of basalt pillars covered in petroglyphs. The pillars had been moved from their original location and put behind a fence to protect them from vandalism. More on that later.

From there we drove up the road to the Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail. The landscape had suffered from what looked like a recent burn. We walked under a thick, gloomy fog across a nearly barren landscape. Every few yards we’d spy a chunk of petrified wood. How would we know? They were all cached inside thick metal cages. Yes, we’d entered a rock zoo.

It was depressing and I couldn’t wait to get back to the car.

To learn more about this park and to find out when the visitor’s center is open, check out their website.

Lenore Lake Caves

In advance of this trip I saw lots of cool photos coming from this area so I arrived at the trailhead eager to explore. A clear path led uphill towards a series of “caves” in the basalt cliffs. The caves were more like overhangs, carved out by water and subsequent erosive forces. As we hiked we picked up trash near the trail. And in the first cave, we were instantly disappointed. Graffiti. Everywhere.

Well, I thought, maybe if we walked a bit further, the other caves wouldn’t be so marked up. I was wrong. We walked from cave to cave, seeing loads of signs of obnoxious visitors. None of the trails were marked so herd paths led all over the place. The caves were all marked up. There were cans and bottles and debris strewn about the rocks. We got over this place real quick.

In an effort to get away from the human impact, we searched for a way to return on a loop, off-trail. Luckily, Aaron spotted a little ramp that led down the seemingly impenetrable cliff and we circled back towards a path near the water. Along the way we found lots of interesting things: animal bones, cool plants, cracked soil. It was scenic and beautiful and mostly unscarred by humans.

At the trailhead I unloaded the trash from the side pockets in my backpack; there was a garbage can right at the trailhead. I noticed that the bulk of the garbage came from single-use beverage containers: soda and beer cans, glass beer bottles, plastic water bottles. How complicated is it to pack a re-usable water bottle and bring it back with you? I wonder about the future of our natural spaces if people can’t even be bothered to carry an empty drink container a half a mile back to their car.

Soap Lake

As we headed towards our next park I eyeballed the map. In my research I had noticed a “Unique Natural Features” symbol near the town of Soap Lake. I’m a list person, I love checking things off of lists. And visiting all the the Unique Natural Features list in my Delorme Road Atlases is something I’ve been working on since moving west.

And so we pulled in to the not-quite-thriving town of Soap Lake. The mineral-rich lake had been known since before pioneer time to have “healing waters.” Thus, it became a destination for tourists to come and seek a cure for their ailments. We walked through a city park on the water’s edge and dipped our hands in the water. Felt like water.

Today the town had more boarded-up buildings than operable ones. On one corner downtown a small Ukrainian food market seemed to be doing quite well. We stopped in for some snacks and continued on our way.

Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park

I had been really excited to see Dry Falls and it  did not disappoint. Even on this dreary, cold and gray day, the vista from the Dry Falls Visitor Center was absolutely stunning. From the edge of the parking lot we looked into a chasm that rivaled the views at the Grand Canyon (minus the people and stench of pee).

The sign indicated that during the floods, Dry Falls would have had torrents of water rushing over its 3.5 mile wide edge. Niagara Falls, by comparison, is only a fifth of the width of Dry Falls.

There wasn’t much hiking to be done from the top, so we drove through the main park entrance to a trailhead 400 feet below.

As we strolled among the grasses and rocks in the basin I looked all around me in a state of awe. It was difficult to comprehend the size of the space I was in. I felt small. We climbed on top of rock piles, took lots of pictures and then checked the time. It was Thanksgiving, and it was time to find a place to camp so we could eat some turkey.

Steamboat Rock State Park

We rolled into Steamboat Rock State Park just before sunset, giving us enough daylight to find a nice campsite to call home for the evening. There were hundreds of campsites in three separate campgrounds; only a few areas were open during the winter and I could count on one hand how many people were actually camping. Only one other tent was pitched nearby.

As soon as we set up our tent and got a fire started, it started to rain. I worked quickly to warm up our Thanksgiving meal and get everything ready to eat. As the rain picked up we made up our plates and shuttled into the tent to eat our dinner out of the cold rain.

In the morning, we had some hiking to do. Steamboat Rock, a flat-topped butte rising up out of Banks Lake. The lake lies within the Grand Coulee, one of the most impressive features left behind by the Missoula Floods. We packed up for a cold and possibly rainy day and set off from a marked trailhead below the rock.

The trail passed through a surprisingly colorful sandy hillside. The sagebrush and other hardy plant life had taken on hues of gold, orange, brown and red for the winter. At the base of Steamboat Rock, we hiked up a jumble of talus that led to the rock’s broad summit plateau. From there, social trails led every which way. Nothing looked terribly official up there. So, we went left.

For the next hour or so, we walked where our curiosity led us. We hiked to overlooks above the slate-blue lake. We explored erratic boulders, left behind an ice age ago. We looked for wildlife but mostly found poop and tracks. There were lots of poop around the boulder piles. The animals up there apparently liked to hang out in the same places I liked to go. After circling around much of the rock formation we headed back down.

Grand Coulee Dam

Just before lunchtime, we rolled into the parking lot at Grand Coulee Dam. Grand is an understatement. Here we found another impossibly big structure, this time one constructed by man. We watched streams of water trickle over the edge of the 550′ tall concrete dam, then walked through the Visitor’s Center to learn more about the construction, history and impact of the dam.

I remained interested in the educational nature of the center until my hunger got to me. Back at the car we assembled some lunch: a turkey leftovers wrap for me and a meat and greens salad for Aaron. We had a long drive ahead.

Palouse Falls

We were tight on time yet again. These short November days were really hard to manage. The dark skies were sprinkling down rain. As we turned down the road to the falls we were greeted with a flashing highway sign that foreboded: “Danger. Four recent deaths.” I had read about one of them while I was planning this trip. Our goal today was to stay on the marked trails, get some views, and hurry back to the car to find a campsite.

The falls and the canyon below the falls were gorgeous. I was blown away by the dramatic cliffs, colors and churning water. I could see why it lured so many people in.

But the rain and cold was getting pretty grating. We walked a short path along a railing and then returned to the car. Finding a campsite that evening was not as easy as I thought, since the campground I planned on staying at was closed. Another 40 minutes of driving brought us to Potholes State Park well after sunset.

Potholes State Park

I happily gobbled down a piece of pumpkin pie for breakfast as we burned a pile of firewood to warm up. It froze last night; we awoke to a landscape covered in ice crystals. With earplugs it would have been an idyllic morning. But the constant whine of motorboats and frequent, piercing shotgun blasts reminded us that most people don’t come here to just quietly be in nature.

We took a short hike before heading to our destination for the day. The signboard at the park indicated a trailhead, with dots leading off the sign in the direction of an indeterminately long trail. We walked a short loop in no time at all, strolling through a lovely wetland near a bright blue inlet stream. We could see snow-capped mountains far in the distance.

Hanford Reach National Monument

We arrived at Hanford Reach on a perfectly clear, bluebird morning ready for a full day of hiking. I’d read about the White Bluffs, a stretch of cliffs above the Yakima River, which offered pretty trails and wildlife viewing opportunities.

This monument is unique in that it preserves an area around World War II nuclear reactors. The land in this area has been undeveloped since the 1940’s, when the nuclear program was active there. As a result, this “involuntary park” remained a sanctuary for wildlife and was designated a National Monument by Bill Clinton in 2000.

The Subaru stood alone in a small, empty parking lot as we began hiking up the hillside.

I breathed deeply, the crisp and dry air filling my lungs. It felt good to get out on a real hike. Today was the first day since catching a cold three weeks ago that I felt like a whole person again. Down below we heard whining coyotes. Over our head we saw vee-formations of geese. And all along the trails we saw animal tracks. It was a wild place.

The trail climbed up to the top of the bluffs through familiar high desert brush. But then it revealed its other side: long, undulating sand dunes that disappeared into the distance. It was beautiful. I took my socks and shoes off to explore the cushy sand.

The first set of dunes became engulfed in brush for awhile, then it re-emerged into open sand. As I was adjusting my footwear a man popped up from the sage. We chatted for awhile. He’d lived in the area and had lots of great stories and hiking recommendations for us. As he was leaving he said “Well this is the end of the line for me. It’s just a lot of sand up ahead.”

Just sand.

That’s what I was excited about. We bid adieu and I gleefully strode barefoot out on the sand. We eyed the highpoint of the dunes for our lunch spot. And as we were up there I started thinking. Could we get to the river? The bluffs were sheer, but it appeared that there were a few ramps cutting through the cliffs. Yes, we’d give it a try.

We dropped in elevation and Aaron scouted a route down to the flatlands below. With not too much trouble we made our way to the water’s edge. The earth was mushy and unstable here. There wasn’t much of a beach to hang out on. We re-traced our path towards the dunes in fear of getting cliffed out. The rest of the walk was an easy ramble.

Hat Rock State Park

That night we stayed in Kennewick. The following day was just a drive day. But I threw in a couple of bonus stops outside the Channeled Scablands to enjoy some lesser visited parts of Oregon.

Located on the Columbia River, Hat Rock State Park preserves a basalt plug that was allegedly used by Lewis and Clark as a navigational landmark. The rock was set behind a chain link fence, which was quite disappointing, but we managed an interesting hike on and off the trails. We hiked out to a beautiful viewpoint of the river and then walked cross-country to the top of Steamboat Rock, another highpoint in the park.

John Day Fossil Beds: Clarno

Lastly we took a quick detour to the quietest of the John Day Fossil Beds units in Clarno. This place is on the way to nowhere, so you really have to make a point of coming here. But it has one of my favorite trails in the state: The Trail of Fossils.

We first assembled a lunch of all the scraps left in the cooler before hiking all three trails in the unit. Our route began on the Geologic Time Trail, where trail markers told the story of the rock and fossils here as if we were literally walking back in time. Next we hiked among the fossil-laden boulders, searching for leaves and sticks encapsulated in stone. Finally we trudged uphill to a viewpoint beneath the Clarno Arch. It’s a very scenic park that would no doubt see more visitors if it was in a different location. I’m glad it’s not, though. We only saw a handful of people and it was a lovely way to finish our Thanksgiving adventures.

Oyster Dome

November 21, 2015.

6.5 mi | 1900′ | 4:15 hr.

I arrived at the Chuckanut Drive trailhead and set out for Oyster Dome nice and early this morning. It was cold and dark in the dense, coastal forest. Although I knew Samish Bay was closeby, for most of the hike my view was blocked by trees.

The trail went consistently up, and up and up. I paused frequently to catch my breath. I was on a time schedule, as I would be meeting with a training group later in the day. But I made good time up the trail, reaching the Samish Overlook and then continuing on towards the top. Signs on the trail indicated that work crews were making trail improvements. Being unfamiliar with the area, I wasn’t sure if there was some recent damage to the trail or if it was work that needed to be done for awhile. I cautiously proceeded around the signs and eroded areas to continue on towards the top.

The summit was a bit anti-climactic. It was choked with trees. A small bald spot on the bedrock provided something of a view. But the rock sloped off steeply towards, presumably, a cliff…so I didn’t venture out too far.

It was still pretty early and cold. I sat there and took in the views, keeping an eye on the time. I had to be back at Larabee State Park for a workshop later this morning.

I only saw two people on my way up. On the way down, it was another story. People had woken up and gotten out to the trailhead. Many were tromping up the trail now.

On this hike I had passed by a few signs for the Pacific Northwest Trail. I’d never heard of it before. When I got back home I did some research. Turns out it was a 1200 mile trail leading from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, traveling along the northern borders of Montana, Idaho and Washington State along the way. Interesting. It certainly didn’t get the same amount of press as, say, the PCT or the AT.

Back on the trail, the forest passed me by like a blur. I raced back down, traveling more quickly than I had on my way up. Downhill was always easier. When I got back to the road, now packed with cars all over the place, I already missed the forest. Funny how you don’t always appreciate things when they’re right in front of you.

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

November 20, 2015.

4.5 mi | no ele. gain | 1:30 hr.

On my way to an event outside of Seattle, I stopped at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. I’d been here once before on a similar mission. Its location right by the highway makes it a perfect rest stop. Well, active rest stop I suppose.

I started out on the Twin Barns Loop behind the visitor center, walking at a brisk pace in the bitterly cold air. It sure felt like winter this afternoon. The birds didn’t seem to mind, though. I shared the trails with Canada geese, great blue heron and other waterfowl. The cool forest, creaky boardwalks and huge mudflats wouldn’t be complete without the array of bird life.

As the hiking loop emerged from the trees I walked straight ahead towards the Puget Sound Overlook. This stretch of boardwalk led far into the distance along an inlet. Today, however, the end portion of the boardwalk was closed, so I didn’t get that epic view at the terminus. But I was still able to see snowy Mt. Rainier poking up above the lowlands. I guessed that would do.

What a lovely way to spend an hour or so on a fall afternoon. I’ve only been here a couple of times, but I imagine that there’s lots of wildlife to see any time of year. Fall visitors get the added benefit of finding relative solitude here, too. Well, that is unless you count the birds.

Leadbetter Point hike

November 7, 2015.

4 mi. | minimal ele. gain | 1:30 hr.

Aaron and I drove up to Washington to spend a weekend exploring a new area. Neither of us had really spent any time on the southern Washington coast, so why not check it out in November?!

We arrived at a nearby campground the night before and set up our tent in the dark. When we awoke the next morning to the sound of rain, we knew we were in for an interesting visit. I stepped out of the tent and noticed that we were sitting in a couple inches of water. Miraculously, there was not a drop of moisture inside. I’m not saying the MSR Hubba Hubba is the best tent ever, but I was shocked at how well it kept us dry in those conditions!

As usual, the sound of rainfall inside the tent is much worse than the actual rainfall outside. It was sprinkling as we made breakfast and got ready to hike.

At the trailhead, a color-coded sign illustrated a variety of hiking loop options from the parking lot. We chose the 4-mile loop that was also mentioned in the Sullivan book. It started off pleasant enough, in a pretty coastal forest. The sky and the ocean were shades of gray. The trail led to a short beach walk, where we watched the waves rolling into shore and the raindrops plopping into the sea. Thick, hardy coastal shrubs and trees created a natural buffer from the ocean weather and we soon dropped back behind the vegetation to join the yellow trail.

The forest was stunning. Mushrooms in all different colors, shapes and sizes grew along the forest bottom. Plants thrived in the moisture and nutrient-rich environment. The rain kept pouring down, but we were shielded from the brunt of it by the trees.

That is, until we hit the shoreline again. It was only a 0.7 mile stretch, though, so how bad could it…

Yeah, it was pretty bad. We battened down the hatches. Rain cover, check. Rain jacket, check. Rain pants, yep, you get the idea. Gloves, hats, everything went on. The wind was fierce. Now we were getting blasted with rain, wind and sand. The sand was the worst. It was comically bad, so we decided to have fun with it. I think we spent twice as much time as we needed to here because we were busy taking videos of the sand and waves, posing for silly pictures and generally laughing at the conditions we found ourselves in. Knowing the hike was only 4 miles long, and not like 14, we knew we were in no danger.

By the time we made it to the blue trail and back into the forest, we were soaked through. My camera lens was covered in water and all of my pictures after that point were blurry. The rain kept pouring down.

We sloshed ahead without a care in the world. When you’re already wet, what’s another puddle? It was evident that this area historically saw a lot of rain, based on the signage that we found on the ground.

Once back at the car we were able to dry off, change clothes and head into town for some normal-people activities. Like visiting the cranberry museum and visiting shops. And then, starting to dream up the next outdoor adventure.

Panhandle Gap

August 15, 2015.

12 mi | 3000′ ele. gain | 6.75 hr

Rick wanted to go to Mt. Rainier National Park. For climbing, of course, but not to the summit of Rainier. Instead to a lesser peak, a jumble of rocks really, called Cowlitz Chimneys. Our chances of doing this in a day (on THIS day) was pretty slim, but we’d already committed to the dates so we were going. The weather was pure misery: rain, fog and rain/fog. It was summer. Or so the calendar said.

We started at o’dark-thirty to get the most of our day. Last night we camped in a cramped, flooded campsite and got okay sleep. At least now I was fed and on my feet.

We walked, mostly oblivious to our surroundings. At every vista, our faces were in the clouds. I appreciated the occasional splash of color from late summer wildflowers like fireweed. By 7:45 we reached Summerland, one of those awe-inspiring meadows that postcards and jigsaw meadows are made of. But today, the low fog bank cloaked its beauty. The vegetation was bogged down with moisture and the sky was dark gray.

Continuing to Panhandle Gap, the vegetation all but went away and we found ourselves on a Martian landscape. Glacial streams poured over slate gray rock beneath slate gray skies. Everything blended together. Patches of snow clung to the cliffs, providing a constant flow of water to the tarns and creeks.

At Panhandle Gap we sat and chatted about our options. It was plenty early to tackle another objective, but we couldn’t see anything. Hoping the fog would lift, we hung out a bit and watched and waited. Nothing.

Marmots teased us from the rocks as we retreated.

A long day in the mountains is never wasted. We made the right call. Mountain weather can be tricky to predict days in advance, let alone months in advance. So when trying to coordinate outings with certain people, sometimes it won’t go the way you’d hoped. I was happy to have had some time to hike with Rick and to see an unfamiliar place, in any kind of weather.

Mt. Thomson, West Ridge

August 16-18, 2014.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Mt. Thomson peeks over the ridge” type=”image” alt=”DSCN4538.JPG” ]

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It had been about 2 years since I’d even attempted to lead any outdoor rock, and I’d only been to the rock gym a handful of times in that period. So when my pal Rick recruited me to take him up a 5th class route on Mt. Thomson, of course I said SURE!

To be fair, the climbing on Thomson is pretty easy by climbing standards. The hardest moves are rated 5.6, but most of the climbing is 4th class scrambling and easy rock climbing. But the lack of practice with ropework, reading routes and dealing with exposure made me a little nervous about the climb. Nevertheless, I felt confident that I could rally and make the climb work for our little team.

Mt. Thomson looked impressive from the photos I’d seen on the Internet. It lay tucked away, buried deep in the woods (by climbers’ standards) 7 miles from Snoqualmie Pass on the PCT. Rick and I rolled into the trailhead at about 5 pm on a Saturday evening, hoping to make camp by sunset.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Rick approaches the Kendall Katwalk” type=”image” alt=”katwalk1.JPG” ]

With hardly a few words of conversation, we busted out the 7 miles to camp above Ridge Lake in about 3 hours, barely pausing to admire the famed Kendall Katwalk (shown above) on our way. The lakes below us were overrun with campers, so we were happy to have our own little hideaway just a couple hundred feet up the trail.

We awoke the next morning to a view obscured by fog. We lazily ate breakfast and got our things together to head up the PCT in search of our climber’s trail.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Cloud layer in the morning” type=”image” alt=”cloud layer.JPG” ]

In about a half mile, we turned straight uphill in a steep drainage to reach Bumblebee Pass. The view from here looked just as cloudy as our view from the tent. We dropped down into the basin from the pass and traversed west across heather meadows and meandering mountain streams to the base of a large talus field. From there, we should have had a striking view of the south face of Mt. Thomson. Instead, we saw the talus rise into a low-hanging, gray cloud. I took out my photo of the route and tried to match up features on the base of the mountain with the view in front of me. We sat and waited for the clouds to rise.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”The best views of Thomson we’d have all day” type=”image” alt=”thin clouds.JPG” ]

In the meantime, a couple trotted down from the pass and told us they were also headed up to the West Ridge. We waved them good luck as we continued to wait for a little clearing.

The curtain of clouds slowly began to rise. We ascended the jumbled talus up to the low point of the west ridge. Once there, we attempted to scout the route. After much futzing around, we made one dicey move to get to the belay ledge for pitch one.

And now, the climbing begins

Here’s where the gears in my brain began whirring at a mile a minute. We methodically got rigged up for the first pitch and triple checked everything. I looked up at the chimney, and over at the sloping traverse to get there, noting one very important thing. I’d need a 0.5 cam to protect the bottom of the route and I decided to leave all my small cams at home. Brilliant.

I looked behind me at the other team, waiting in the batter’s box for the two of us to get going. I noticed the leader’s bright, shiny, well-equipped rack. Luckily, he let me borrow his 0.5 and I was on my way. On. My. Way. Well, I’m not sure how long it took me to make that first move, but once I got up a ways and put that cam in, I slowly plodded my way up pitch one.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”One of many small chimneys on the route” type=”image” alt=”looking up p2.JPG” ]

The first belay ledge was nice and roomy, with a big tree for an anchor. Yay. Now I was feeling back in the groove again. Pitch two felt a little more challenging for me, with a couple of bulges, not a lot of great pro (I needed those damn tiny cams again) and a lot of zig-zagging, causing too much rope drag. I called it good about halfway up and rigged up a belay station there. Once Rick joined me on the tiny and awkward belay ledge I started up pitch 2.5. I was sure glad I broke up this pitch because soon I was stopped in my tracks by a vertical wall with seemingly nowhere else to go. It looked harder than 5.6, I thought, but maybe that was just my rusty leading skills talking. I located every hand and foot placement I needed to tackle that wall, then all at once worked my way up to the next ledge. Rick told me afterwards that he made some pretty sick Chris Sharma moves to follow me up there. I pictured him gripping the rock tenaciously with one hand, swinging his hips powerfully to one side to plant a toe perfectly on the next rock nubbin, where he’d regain his balance and glide effortlessly to the next hold.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”A nice slab traverse” type=”image” alt=”traverse p4.JPG” ]

Pitch three: the slab. Certainly, I was excited to float up an easy slab after all that stressful vertical. Pitch four: more slab and blocky climbing. One account described it as a “5.4 staircase,” although this was not evident from the get-go. The exposure and not super obvious routefinding occupied my brain. I’d forgotten how much rock climbing can dial in your focus and allow you to remain entirely present. That’s the part I love.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Looking back at the false summit, with a second team behind.” type=”image” alt=”top of final pitch.JPG” ]

At the top of the false summit, we scrambled down a steep gully along a trail that led to the base of the final pitch. There was one last pitch of easy climbing to reach the summit. Thank goodness. Rick patiently dealt with a serious rope tangle, since I had absentmindedly forgotten to re-flake the rope, while I perched on a nice ledge. I knew a huge notch lay below me, but I couldn’t see the depth of it since it was filled with cloud.

Nearing the end of my rope (literally) I had to stop short of the summit, build a belay with the loosely piled rocks on the ridge and bring Rick up. From there, we untied and meandered over to the summit, reaching the top about 8 hours after we left camp in the morning.

Up until this point I had subsisted on about a half liter of water and an energy bar. I figured it was time to eat some food. We didn’t bring much water, since neither of us wanted to carry it up there, so we’d have to wait for a resupply down in the meadow. Good thing it wasn’t warm today.

Down the East Ridge

Again, our goal was to make it to camp before dark, so we headed into the unknown yet again to descend the east ridge.

We dropped down to the first rappel station, made a quick rap, then saw another tree wrapped with slings and rapped a second time. From there, it was not obvious where to go. We followed a faint path for a short while, then it seemed to disappear. Stupidly, I went to scout the rocky ledges and Rick split off to wander around in the trees. After much yelling back and forth, it was decided that Rick had the route that would work. We found a trail through the heather meadows that followed the east ridge down. My first thought was that the East Ridge as a climb would be boring as hell, switchbacking up a trail 95% of the way to the summit, so I was extra glad that we’d fumbled up the West Ridge.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”A nicer section of the East Ridge trail” type=”image” alt=”more trail.JPG” ]

Eventually the trail led us to a notch that dropped down into the basin beneath Mt. Thomson. From there we traversed across talus and meadows, refilling our water bottles with stream water, then headed straight up to Bumblebee Pass.

We were both thrilled to catch sight of the PCT once we descended from the pass. That meant we were nearly done. At 7 pm, we crashed back into a soggy camp and quickly began refueling and rehydrating.

The retreat

The next morning, the clouds had released their grip on the valley and a beautiful sunrise brought us out of the tent. It was going to be a bluebird day.

We took our time on the return trek, taking the opportunity to actually see the area we’d just spent a day and a half in. There were beautiful peaks, glassy lakes, and stunning vistas. The Kendall Katwalk, which had been mired in fog just two days before, looked a bit more like the pictures I’d seen (albeit still a little disappointing).

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Heading home, seeing the mountains for the first time.” type=”image” alt=”rick heading to catwalk.JPG” ]

While we didn’t set any speed records on this trip, I’m glad we made it happen. I felt great getting back onto alpine rock and facing head on all the challenges it brings. It’s not always glamorous; in fact I find it so rare that people actually write about the hard stuff. Everyone’s always ready to inflate their ego retelling the epic awesomeness that they achieve on exotic and aesthetic climbs. But even the “easy” climbs present problems that need to be overcome. I appreciate the opportunity to be challenged, to be humbled and to be forced to think on the fly. Alpine climbing is truly an opportunity to apply everything you’ve learned and practiced, recognizing that the textbook placements you studied and easy as pie sequences are not always realistic.

I hope that Rick will again entertain the thought of spearheading another alpine adventure and force me to get out of my comfort zone again.

Glacier Peak Wilderness Backpacking

July 27-30, 2014.

N. Fork Sauk Trail > PCT > Kennedy Creek and back, plus a side trip to Portal Peak

37 miles | ~8500′ ele. gain | Hike photos

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Lousewort” type=”image” alt=”lousewort glacier.JPG” ]

Backpacking. It’s one of those activities on par with cleaning the basement, doing my taxes, and going to the dentist. It is not one of the things I prefer to do with my precious time off. However, this was supposed to be a mountain climb, and I was invited to go by two people I was really interested in meeting. So I blocked off some time and met up with my shiny new hiking partners in preparation for a 4-day climb of Glacier Peak.

Day 1: the approach

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”One of many stream crossings” type=”image” alt=”stream1.JPG” ]

Day one was hot and long. We set off along the North Fork Sauk River, gaining roughly 1000′ in the first 5.5 miles to the Mackinaw Shelter. This was the easy part. In the next four miles, the trail rocketed up 3500′ in a series of switchbacks leading to Red Pass. The lower portion of the trail kept us relatively protected in the shade of the forest, but as we climbed higher, we entered longer and longer stretches of wide open meadows. The meadows were green, lush, and dotted with colorful wildflowers. But the sun felt extra hot here. I was overjoyed when we hit the PCT. The grade mellowed, and we were on the home stretch.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Heading up steep meadows on the way to the PCT” type=”image” alt=”up through the meadows.JPG” ]

When we crested Red Pass, we dropped our packs and took a deep breath in. The scenery was magnificent in all directions. Behind us, Sloan Peak stood out from the numerous snow-capped ridges and hills stretching in all directions.  Over the pass, a broad, snow-filled basin provided a look at some new features on the south side of Glacier Peak. As the sun set, we prepared dinner and then nestled into our sleeping bags for a good night’s rest.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”The sun sets over the basin beneath Red Pass” type=”image” alt=”basin pano.JPG” pe2_single_image_size=”s650″ ]

Day 2: search for the climber’s trail

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Slippery log crossing” type=”image” alt=”log crossing.JPG” ]

We got off to a late start the next morning, and began hiking in the heat of the day. From the pass, the PCT dropped over 2500 vertical feet in the next five miles. It was depressing to lose that much elevation after working so hard to get up there. We trudged along, through bright meadows and dark forests, along snowmelt trickles and rushing streams. We were on the hunt for the Sitkum Glacier route. We had a couple of maps and a little bit of beta to go on, but no recent trip reports with updated conditions or directions. Regardless, we hiked for several more miles to the WC trail. Here we kept our eyes peeled for a cairn, a brushy trail, or any other indication of the climber’s route.

We found no such clue, and found ourselves eventually at a broken bridge over Kennedy Creek, which we knew was too far along the trail. We then headed back the way we came, scouring the trail for any sign of the way to go. I sat down for a while while my partners wandered through the forest. It was almost 5 pm. We had 3500′ to climb to get to the basin. Tonight. I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”At Kennedy Creek, we realize we missed our turn” type=”image” alt=”went too far.JPG” ]

I had to be the Debbie Downer to break the news. We were all exhausted and frustrated. But we’d recently passed a sweet backcountry campsite, so we returned there and set up camp for the night.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Defeated, we set up camp along a creek on the west side of Glacier Peak” type=”image” alt=”backcountry camp.JPG” ]

A quick wash in the river followed by a fire-side dinner brought our spirits up. We chatted until well after the sun set, then retreated to bed.

Day 3: splitting the group

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”The well-trodden trail traverses many meadows” type=”image” alt=”sharp trail.JPG” ]

After a nice long sleep in, I bid farewell to my hiking partners and began the trek to Red Pass. They had already planned to circumnavigate the mountain post-climb, so their journey led north and mine led south. I walked in solitude back through the woods and meadows I’d traveled the day before, seeing everything from the reverse perspective. Again, it was brutally hot and now I was headed uphill. My legs were tired and I just couldn’t drink enough water. As lunchtime approached I desperately looked around for an adequate spot to rest and refuel. After passing a few so-so locations, I stumbled into the most perfect location for lunch. A small stream tumbled down a green meadow dotted with snowfields. The huge basin beneath the pass fanned out before me, and Glacier Peak stood like a sentinel over the whole scene. I inexplicably broke into tears, the combination of adrenaline, hunger, thirst, fatigue, and awe spiraled out of control. I wiped my face, broke into a smile, then quickly got to work filtering water and setting out my lunch.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”View of Glacier Peak” type=”image” alt=”pano wilderness.JPG” pe2_single_image_size=”s650″ ]

From here, it was a quick walk up to the pass. The easy switchbacks of the trail allowed me to move steadily, despite the intermittent snow. The Crocs handled like a champ. As I approached the pass, I saw a couple of humans and their huge dog. This was the first sign of life I’d seen since leaving camp. I worked up a friendly conversation starter in my mind as I continued up, but was startled by their dog who’d bolted down the snowfield towards me. It barked and growled, running circles around me as I stood and shot an angry look towards the couple. They made a half-ass attempt to get control of the dog, which failed. I waited, prepared to wail on the beast with my hiking poles if it got any closer, but they finally grabbed its collar and pulled it in. I walked by with a brief “hi” and kept on going until I reached my camp. What a horrible encounter.

Portal Peak

Two nights ago, while camping at Red Pass, I’d eyeballed Portal Peak. From the pass, it looked to be a stone’s throw away, just about 400 feet of elevation gain and a quarter of a mile’s walk. I was dying to get a summit, so I made this my goal.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Rocky ledges lead up to Portal Peak” type=”image” alt=”ledge hiking to portal.JPG” ]

With not much more than a water bottle and camera, I scrambled up rocky ledges and heather meadows to the top of the peak. I was overjoyed to see a summit register and USGS marker, as well as an unobstructed view of Glacier Peak. I hung out up here with the butterflies and wildflowers as I scanned the horizon trying to identify the mountains. I was completely out of my element; it was my first trip to this area. I thought about all the PCT hikers who had walked just a few hundred feet below this spot but never paused to leave the trail and take in this view. Amazing.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Seed heads of Western Pasqueflowers decorate the meadow” type=”image” alt=”muppets.JPG” ] [pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”A summit, at last!” type=”image” alt=”jess1.JPG” ]

Day 4: back to the car

I awoke to a beautiful sunrise, finally an early wake-up. After breakfast, I packed up and began the descent. The early morning air was cool and breezy. But that didn’t last long. The summer sun picked up and I shed layers. I was under no time crunch to get back to the car, but I really wanted to be done.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Tiger lilies” type=”image” alt=”tiger lilies.JPG” ] [pe2-image src=”–Ziqu3AgAGo/U_OF7Uo8mYI/AAAAAAAAfv4/f94B9liK95E/s144-c-o/big%252520trees.JPG” href=”″ caption=”Huge old-growth trees on the North Fork Sauk trail” type=”image” alt=”big trees.JPG” ]

On the way back down I passed by a trail crew working to clear vegetation and divert water from the trail. I also passed a ton of hikers coming in, and a train of mules and horses carrying gear. It felt much different from my wilderness solitude the day before. I was pretty ecstatic when I saw the trailhead.

And now, for something completely different

I had a couple of days before I would meet up with my next climb team near Stevens Pass so I planned to do some car camping along the river. I drove just a few miles back along the North Fork Sauk River and found an excellent dispersed campsite on the left side of the road. There were no other campsites nearby.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Finally, time to relax by the river” type=”image” alt=”toes.JPG” ]

I spent the rest of the afternoon and the following day relaxing by the river, reading, stretching, and basically doing as little as possible. It was a perfect end to a strenuous trip. Car camping in the right place can feel just as much a wilderness experience as camping in the backcountry. The roaring river drowned out any noise from passing cars, the canopy of trees offered respite from the summer sun, and the soft, flat ground provided a comfortable, low-impact place to pitch a tent. A nice, big fire ring gave me a safe place to build a campfire and ample deadfall in the area provided the fuel. If I’d only left a couple of beers in the car, it would have been the perfect end to a lovely trip.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Sunshine on a rest day” type=”image” alt=”sunshine.JPG” ]

Mt. St. Helens Worm Flows

March 23, 2014.

12 mi | 5500′ ele. gain | 10:30 hr.

Headlamp, check. Lunch, check. Crampons, check. Snowshoes, yep, I got it all. Is everyone here? Great. Let’s go!

We left the parking lot before sunrise to charge up the ski trail in the dark. We’d only need sunlight for the upper mountain anyways, so it was nice to get a jump start on the day.

At 6 am, just as enough sunlight began brightening up the snowy trail, we got a glimpse of the mountain. As we headed towards treeline, the clouds lit up in shades of pink and orange. It looked like we had a pretty day ahead.

By the time our team reached the 4800′ sign, the summit of the mountain was socked in by clouds. The rest of the mountain was illuminated with early morning sun and soft, blue shadows. Behind us, an endless views of peaks and valleys, a mixture of green and white.

The snow was patchy, leaving large outcrops of bare rock here and there. We negotiated the best route we could in the conditions present today. As the mountain steepened and the snow hardened up, we put crampons on our boots. That little extra purchase gave us the mental and physical boost we needed to climb higher.

The cloud layer dropped down, revealing the shiny summit of Mt. St. Helens. Mt. Adams also poked its head above the clouds to our right. There were climbers in front of us, behind us, to our left and right. It was a good day to be in the mountains.

We walked, one step after another, for an endless amount of steps. With the summit in view nearly the entire trip, it felt so close and yet so far from our present position. The mountaintop never seemed to come closer, no matter the effort! But, the iciness of the upper slopes made me realize how close we were to finishing. With a firm boot pack I was unlikely to take a slide down the mountain but I placed my feet carefully with each step.

Finally, after several hours of walking we reached the edge of the crater. One by one each team member arrived, jubilant and overwhelmed with excitement! Suddenly all the pain and suffering of the trip up here just vanished into dust. We chose a resting spot far from any potential cornices and ate heartily. Many photos were taken. It was now a crisp, bluebird day.

Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier came into view beyond the summit crater. There was no rush to get down the mountain. We made sure everyone on the team had enough time to revel in their success today and take in all the views.

On the way down, we reviewed the plunge-step technique and made good time getting below the steep, icy stuff. Then, it was time to glissade! Great snow conditions made for some fun glissade runs and took some time off of the descent. Eventually those rock outcrops forced us to get back on our feet and descend in our boots along the ridge. The long slog through the trees began. But everyone was still riding high on that summit rush so we all chit-chatted and filled the time well.

The parking lot came into view just before 3:45 pm, a perfect time to end the day. We geared down and drove into Cougar for a well-deserved greasy dinner and lovely conversation. A superb day in the mountains with a team of mostly first time climbers. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip.