Saturday, August 29, 2015

Burroughs Mountain

The summit re-emerges, on the way back up Second Burroughs
9 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Mount Rainier National Park Entrance Fee ($20 in 2015, $25 in 2016), paved road to the trailhead

Burroughs Mountain is the most outstanding hike in the Sunrise area of Mt. Rainier National Park. While the first summit is quite close to the visitor center and attempted by many visitors to the park, it is Third Burroughs, the final of the set of three flattopped summits, that delivers the most thrilling up-close view of the most prominent mountain of the contiguous United States. Along the hike, there are magnificent views of the meadows around Sunrise and of the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers, the largest glaciers in the United States outside Alaska. The hike to the first peak is doable by most people in decent shape; the second peak can be climbed with just a slight bit more effort. Hiking to Third Burroughs requires following an unmaintained path up a steep, rocky slope and is more challenging.

I hiked this trail with a good friend who I had known in Virginia who came to visit at the end of August. The weather was unfortunately quite poor during the weekend of his visit; Saturday saw pouring rain in Seattle. Sunday was still quite cloudy but I wanted to take my friend to Mt. Rainier, so we set out from Seattle towards the mountain, taking I-5 south to its junction with Route 18, just north of Tacoma; we then took 18 east for a few miles and then hopped on Route 164 south at Auburn, turning left at the end of the exit ramp from Route 18 onto Route 164. We followed 164 for about twenty minutes past the Muckleshoot Reservation to Enumclaw, then took Route 410 east from Enumclaw for about an hour into Mount Rainier National Park. Less than 10 minutes after entering the park, we took the turn off to the right towards Sunrise and followed that road to its terminus at the meadows of Sunrise, over 6000 feet above sea level on Sourdough Ridge. While parts of the glaciers on the volcano were visible, we couldn't see the summit of Rainier itself on the drive in; Columbia Crest was still socked in the clouds.

At Sunrise, we hopped on the trail to Frozen Lake, which departs near the Sunrise Day Lodge. We followed the main trail towards Sourdough Ridge and headed left at the trail junction. We very quickly reached the top of Sourdough Ridge and its views of the far-reaching Cascades and of the rocky meadows below. At the top of the ridge, we took the trail to the left, which led us west in the direction of Mt. Rainier. We continued to follow the ridgeline, providing frequent wide views to the north and constant views of Mt. Rainier and the flat summit of our first objective, Burroughs Mountain. During sunnier visits, I've often enjoyed the jaw-dropping views of the Emmons Glacier flowing down the summit of Rainier from this perspective.

Burroughs Mountain on the trail to Frozen Lake
After crossing a rocky scree slope, the trail came to Frozen Lake, about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Even at the end of August, there was a small patch of snow left on the north shore of what was essentially a large pond.

Frozen Lake
At the end of Frozen Lake, the trail came to a five-way junction. We took a slight left, heading up the only trail that went immediately uphill from the junction. From here, the trail started a direct ascent up the side of First Burroughs, going uphill at a decent incline. During the climb, we gained increasingly impressive views across a high alpine tundra valley to Mount Fremont.

Ascent up the first Burroughs
It wasn't as hard as expected to reach the first summit, which was initially a bit of a letdown. The top of First Burroughs is flatter than it looks from a distance. My friend, who had just flown in to Seattle from Iowa, quipped that it didn't look any different. Due to the clouds, the summit of Rainier was hidden from view.

The flat summit of the First Burroughs
The odd flatness of Burroughs Mountain results from its volcanic origins: it is composed of horizontally layered lava flows from neighboring Mt. Rainier.

The trail followed the northern rim of First Burroughs closely, providing spectacular views of the rocky, jagged outcrops on the slopes of Second Burroughs and of the lush, green meadows of Berkeley Park, which is nestled between the rocky peaks of Skyscraper Mountain and Mount Fremont.

Second Burroughs viewed from First Burroughs
Skyscraper Mountain and the meadows of Berkeley Park
After crossing the flat plateau of the first peak, the trail reached a junction for the Sunrise Rim Trail. We took the right fork, heading up Second Burroughs. This climb was also at a decent incline but was shorter in duration than the ascent up the First Burroughs. Hiking along the rocky south rim of this peak, we found a spot overlooking the massive Emmons Glacier and decided to stop for lunch, about 3 miles from the trailhead. The Emmons Glacier is the largest glacier in the United States outside Alaska and makes up a sizable portion of the one cubic mile of ice that crowns Rainier.

Emmons Glacier from Second Burroughs
We also met a chipmunk that was overly habituated to humans at our lunch spot. It approached us to beg for scraps; we made sure not to give any but took advantage of the situation to take close-up photos of the tiny resident. Many small animals in the park have become unfortuately accustomed to handouts from humans, which discourages them from seeking their native sources of food and can be ecologically disruptive.

Chipmunk on Second Burroughs
After lunch, we decided to continue on rather than heading back immediately. Continuing forward on the trail, we soon descended off the summit of Second Burroughs, dropping almost 400 feet very rapidly over the course of a switchback through the alpine tundra. At the saddle between Second and Third Burroughs, we turned right off the trail onto an unmaintained path marked by cairns that headed off towards the last of the three summits. Although an unofficial path, this trail was fairly easy to follow, having been well beaten out by other park hikers through the rocky terrain. After an initial gentle ascent, the path soon began a more aggressive climb and maintained that angle throughout the mile and a half to the final summit.

After a good two and a half hours of hiking and staring at clouds where the summit should have been, the skies finally opened up for a brief moment to reveal the glorious snow-capped summit of Mt. Rainier. The clouds just as quickly returned and stayed atop the mountain until after we had started our descent from Third Burroughs.

The summit appears on the way to Third Burroughs
After a final steep, rocky ascent the path brough us to the cold, wind-whipped summit of Third Burroughs. Even without seeing the summit of Rainier, the view from here was still outstanding. We stood high above the seracs and crevasses of the enormous Winthrop Glacier, which poured down the northeast flank of Mt. Rainier. Although we hoped to enjoy the view for longer, we decided to head back after a short period at the summit in the interests of time and to escape the bone-chilling wind.

Winthrop Glacier from Third Burroughs
The descent of Third Burroughs was uneventful until we returned to the maintained trail at the saddle between Second and Third. As we began to climb up Second Burroughs, the rapidly moving clouds began dissipating to unveil the summit. From this perspective, so close to the mountain itself, Rainier appeared unimaginably massive.

Rainier and Third Burroughs
After returning to First Burroughs, we came to the junction with the Sunrise Rim Trail. Deciding to add some spice to the hike, we took the right fork to return on the Sunrise Rim Trail (returning via Frozen Lake is just as doable and is roughly the same distance). The trail traversed the flat plain of First Burroughs before cutting straight into the steep south face of the mountain, at the rim of the 2000-foot deep valley of the White River. This section of trail was utterly spectacular. As we followed the rocky trail along the rim of Burroughs Mountain, we had could see not only Mt. Rainier but also the steep drop-offs from the summits of surrounding mountains down to the White River and the Emmons Glacier. At the bottom of the valley we spotted a small glacier fed lake below a glacial moraine in the area just recently abandoned by the Emmons Glacier. Those with a fear of heights would do best to avoid the Sunrise Rim and return to Sunrise via Frozen Lake.

Goat Island Mountain from Sunrise Rim Trail
Rainier and the Emmons Glacier from Sunrise Rim
At the conclusion of the Sunrise Rim Trail, we had a good view of the peaks of Sourdough Ridge and the meadows of Sunrise itself. The trail soon intersected the Wonderland Trail; we followed the Wonderland Trail east towards Sunrise, passing the tiny Shadow Lake along the way. After three-quarters of a mile on the Wonderland Trail, we continued back on the Sunrise Rim Trail back to Sunrise itself, returning to the car just slightly before sunset time.

Sourdough Ridge and White River
This hike spends almost no time in the forest and almost all its time in the open alpine tundra. The hiking is challenging but manageable to the fit and has unreal views throughout the entire hike; I recommend it highly.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mendenhall Glacier- West Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier
7 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Free; trailhead can be reached by public transit

In a state where glaciers routinely exceed the size of Rhode Island and the volume of some of the smaller Great Lakes, the Mendenhall Glacier isn't much to boast about. A mile wide and a mere thirteen miles long from its source in the frozen sea of the Juneau Icefield to its terminus as Mendenhall Lake, it is dwarfed by giant Alaskan glaciers such as the Hubbard, Bering, or Malaspina. But even in a state with such impressive amounts of ice, no glacier is as easily accessible from an urban area by road than the Mendenhall; and no trail gets more personal with the blue ice than the West Glacier Trail. This is one the most popular trails in the Juneau area and is a worthwhile hike to see a glacier up close.

I hiked this trail at the end of my Juneau trip, experiencing the blue ice on a day of mixed sun and rain. The trailhead is at the end of Skaters Cabin Road; if you're driving from downtown Juneau, take Egan Drive north to the Mendenhall Loop Road, then follow the Mendenhall Loop road north (counterclockwise) to Montana Creek Road, turn right, and follow Montana Creek Road until it becomes Skaters Cabin Road; then continue to the ample trailhead parking at the end of the road. I took the Juneau Capital Transit bus to reach the trail; both bus 3 and bus 4 pass by the trailhead. I got off the bus at the Montana Creek stop along Mendenhall Loop Road and then walked along Montana Creek and then Skaters Cabin Road to the trailhead; this added a little less than a mile to the hike each way. Skaters Cabin Road was not far from the shore of Mendenhall Lake, so I popped over to the lake to get some initial views of the glacier and of the surrounding mountains.

Mendenhall Lake and Glacier
From the trailhead, the broad, well-marked trail headed off into the rain forest. A few spur trails branched off the right side of the trail, leading to the shore of Mendenhall Lake and views of Nugget Falls. The first mile of the trail was very pleasant, featuring a lot of very mossy trees and some well-built bridges across tumbling streams with no elevation gain.

Rainforest along West Glacier Trail
Creek along the trail
After about a mile of flat hiking, the terrain changed very suddenly: the trail made a sudden switchback as it began to ascend a rocky hill. The trail had reached the end of the floodplain next to the lake and began to ascend the rocky peninsula that jutted out from Mount McGinnis. The trail began a steady climb of a few hundred feet through increasingly rough terrain in the next half mile or so, with some sections featuring steel handrails for safety. As the past couple days had been quite rainy and much of the terrain consisted of slippery rock, the trail was a little treacherous and unpleasant in spots. After a period of alternating between uphill and flat, the trail crested the rock peninsula and came to a poorly marked intersection: the trail ahead headed downhill and to the ice caves of the Mendenhall Glacier, while the trail that switchbacked sharply to the left was the main West Glacier Trail. A wooden sign marked the intersection, but it was easy to miss it and head directly down the ice caves spur. I skipped the ice caves as I was somewhat short on time and because I have little experience wandering around glacier ice on my own.

I took the sharp left at the intersection to continue on the West Glacier Trail. Shortly after the junction, I passed a small clearing with the first nice view of the Mendenhall Glacier on the trail. I stopped here for half of my lunch, as it was already midway through the afternoon, to enjoy the view. Under cloudy skies, the ice of the Mendenhall Glacier was remarkably blue.

Mendenhall Glacier
As the trail continued, it became progressively less pleasant to hike; steel railings became a bit more common and the trail became much narrower. For the most part, the trail remained in the forest but from time to time, it did break out for views of the glacier or of Mendenhall Lake and Nugget Falls, which looked impressive from a few miles away.

Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Lake
Then the rain returned and made the last mile of the hike mildly miserable. The trail continued onwards, sometimes rocky, often slippery, featuring some bridges over streams but requiring one rock-hop to cross a larger braided stream. The trail was never very steep but the ascent did still feel like quite a bit, possibly due to the terrain of the hike. The last third of a mile was the worst: the trail became rock, requiring a scramble over a 20-degree slippery rock surface before following a series of rock ledges with only occasional trail tape to mark the way. At least the views were equally rewarding: halfway up the rockiest stretch, the trail broke out onto rock ledges that had views over the lake and Mendenhall Valley all the way back to Auke Bay.

Mendenhall Lake
Glacier meets lake
At one final sharp turn, the trail approached the east edge of the ridge and provided a stunning view over the terminus of the Mendenhall Glacier. Here, the blue ice came down to meet the water beneath towering snowcapped peaks with emerald slopes. After taking a turn left and following the top of the ridge, the trail came to a viewpoint to the north of an enormous section of the Mendenhall Glacier with incredible rock spires and ice rising above it. While the trail tape continued onwards, I stopped here, having had enough of the slippery rock on the trail and hoping to avoid slipping badly while out hiking by myself. The viewpoint put me a few hundred feet above the glacier; how much was hard to tell. The glacier was so large that it was difficult to gain a sense of scale: it was only when the red helicopters bearing tourists from Juneau flew over my head and landed on the glacier that I could get a sense of how much blue ice filled the valley. I sat at the viewpoint for an hour; the rain stopped, the clouds rolled out and then back in, the ice fluctuated between shades of blue, the harsh rock of the mountains played peekaboo with the mist.

Blue ice
After finally breaking away from the view, I turned back and returned to the trailhead, working my way quickly but carefully through the rock scrambles to beat the return of the rain. I was lucky I didn't stay longer: while the weather held up until I got back to the bus stop, it began raining shortly thereafter and had not yet stopped when I boarded my flight back to Seattle early the next morning.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Thunder Mountain

Mendenhall Glacier from Thunder Mountain
6 miles round trip, 3000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Free; trailhead can be reached by public transit

Can any other hike claim to combine such easy access from a populated area and such an unparalleled view of a massive glacier? There are certainly none that I know of; at least in the United States, Thunder Mountain may be the only hike that you can reach via public bus that ends with a view over the snaking Mendenhall Glacier descending from the Juneau Icefield as well as the multitude of peaks and islands that make up Southeast Alaska. Thunder Mountain is a tough hike that packs in some extremely steep segments- but for hikers willing to endure mud and switchback-less climbs up the side of a steep Alaskan mountain, expansive meadows and even more expansive views await.

Juneau, Alaska is the most remote state capital in the United States: it is not connected by road to any other part of the country or, for that matter, any other part of Alaska. Getting to Juneau involves a trip by air or water; the town is completely cut off on one side by the tortuous fjords and straits of the Inside Passage and on the side by the icy tongues of the Juneau Icefield. The Mendenhall is one of the many glaciers pouring out from the icefield, snaking 13 miles down a steep valley before terminating at a milky lake; the suburbs of the Mendenhall Valley lie less than three miles away. Thunder Mountain rises above the Mendenhall Valley, providing an unequaled view across the lake to the path of the glacier.

Thunder Mountain isn't only easily accessible by bus; it's also less than an hour's walk from Juneau International Airport. It's possible to get to the Heintzleman Ridge Trailhead for this hike by taking either Bus 3 or 4 (Mendenhall Valley) from either the valley, the airport, or downtown Juneau and getting off at the Alaska Department of Transportation; from the DOT, walk, northwest for 100 yards along Glacier Drive to a construction site parking lot; the Heintzleman Ridge Trail starts from the back of the lot and is labelled with a trail sign. I reached the trailhead by foot from the airport: after flying in on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle, I dropped off my bag with Alaska Seaplanes, which provides $5/day luggage storage, and walked out of the airport. I followed Glacier Highway northeast to its junction with Egan Drive; then followed a trail east along Egan Drive until it reconnected with Glacier Highway. From here I continued on to reach the trailhead near the Alaska DOT on Glacier Highway, a little over two miles from the airport.

The trail, marked with pink tape, wasted very little time before becoming a rough, narrow, easy-to-lose route through the Alaskan rain forest. Mud was everywhere, both on the trail and off it, and often the only alternatives to sinking shin deep in mud was to tread on wet, slippery tree roots. After a short period of fairly flat hiking, the trail reached the foot of Thunder Mountain and began a steep climb. Some scrambling was necessary at first up a steep slope filled with tree roots and rocks; soon the trail became a little more reasonably steep but was still covered in mud. Following the pink trail tape, I ascended slowly up a ridge until breaking out into a meadow on a saddle about a mile and a quarter into the hike.

Meadows on the Heintzleman Ridge Trail
The meadow provided a nice change from the tree-covered terrain that I had encountered earlier. However, this part of the hike was particularly muddy, with my boots sinking two inches into the wet meadow surface with each step. A stagnant stream filled the saddle, requiring a running leap to avoid getting soaked to my waist. Past the stream, the trail quickly returned to the forest and resumed climbing up the southwest ridge of Thunder Mountain. The trail was unrelentingly steep, often requiring scrambling up roots or rocks; I was very glad to have bought a pair of hiking poles after arriving in Juneau before beginning my hike.

About half a mile and a few hundred feet of ascent from the meadow, the Heintzleman Ridge Trail merged with the white-blazed Thunder Mountain Trail, which ascended from Jennifer Drive in Mendenhall Valley. From the intersection, I continued an uphill ascent, soon passing a sign informing me that I had entered Tongass National Forest. From here on, the trail began passing through a mixture of forest and meadows, with occasional views of clouds and the glacier through the clouds. Finally, after two hours of uphill slog, the trail broke out of the trees for its first real views of the summit of Thunder Mountain and of Auke Bay and Mendenhall Valley. Just a bit further on, the trail finally broke entirely into the alpine: a final steep climb up the meadows of Thunder Mountain laid ahead and the suburbs of the Mendenhall Valley laid bellow.

Approaching the summit meadows
Tiny blue and yellow flowers dotted the trailside as the path steepened to a nearly 45 degree pitch, tackling the final climb head-on with no switchbacks. After some scrambling, I reached the summit plateau, where the trail leveled off and reached a junction. A cairn marked the path to the left, which headed to the summit of Thunder, while the main trail continued off to the right towards the even steeper terrain of Heintzleman Ridge. I took the left branch, having had enough of mountain goat terrain.

The next half mile of the hike was the most enjoyable: I followed the path along the meadow-filled flat top of Thunder Mountain, passing tarns and lupine filled meadows filled with the whistles of marmots. I made noise to declare my presence to any possible bears, which I had read frequent the summit meadows. Unfortunately, there wasn't much for views at first, as a series of clouds had just rolled in when I reached the summit.

Lupine atop Thunder Mountain
Heintzleman Ridge
Meadows atop Thunder Mountain
Marmot in the meadows
The path grew progressively fainter as it traversed each of the bumps on Thunder Mountain's summit. Soon, the trail came to the massive cliff edge of Thunder Mountain that towered over Mendenhall Valley. Although the better established trail seemed to end here, a barely beaten path continued onward along the bumps that formed the edge of the cliff, heading north to the other edge of the summit plateau. From the north end of the cliffs, I could see straight down to Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall Glacier; I also spotted Nugget Falls plunging into the lake from this vantage point. The final stretch to reach this point was poorly marked and overgrown; be careful if you choose to hike out to this point, especially if you lose the path, as there are occasionally accidents on the cliffs that form the west face of Thunder Mountain. Appropriately, I spotted a mountain goat atop this mountain that seemed most suited to those animals.

Mountain goat above the subdivisions of Mendenhall Valley
I spent nearly two hours taking in the views at the summit, watching the Mendenhall Glacier and its nearby peaks float in and out of the clouds. At one point, it rained; at other times, it was sunny; usually there were clouds, once there was a rainbow. I saw ravens and a bald eagle, the waters of Auke Bay and the ice of the Mendenhall Glacier. The summit was quiet save the whistles of marmots and the occasional droning from helicopters carrying cruise ship tourists that flew by on their way to the Mendenhall Glacier. The view to the west was quite impressive: I could see the airport and the north end of Douglas Island and farther away I could see a peek of the Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Range, as well as Admiralty Island the mountains out by Gustavus and Glacier Bay. However, the most impressive view was still to the north, where the Mendenhall Glacier snaked down from the Juneau Icefield through imposing mountains, an icy road from a meltwater lake to a frozen plain. The ice of the Mendenhall Glacier was remarkably blue, a feature absent from the smaller glaciers that I often saw in the Washington Cascades.

Foggy lake and glacier
Auke Bay and the Mendenhall Valley
Mendenhall Lake and Glacier
Rainbow on Thunder Mountain
Auke Bay
Glacier detail
After sitting and gazing at the glacier for over two hours, I finally dragged myself from the view and started the return to the trailhead. I found the skies much clearer than during my ascent, when the summit was clouded in: there were now good views of Douglas Island, the Lemon Creek area of Juneau, Gastineau Channel, and the peaks that rose directly behind Juneau itself. The descent was no more easy than the way up; the steepness of the trail made going downhill slow going as well.

Gastineau Channel, Douglas Island, and Lemon Creek
Having had enough of the mud on the Heintzleman Ridge Trail on the way up, I chose to take the Thunder Mountain Trail down to Jennifer Drive on the way back. This trail was quite direct and to the point, wasting no time in dropping down the west side of the mountain. At times, the trail felt more like a root-covered slide. While this trail avoided the mud of the Heintzleman Ridge Trail, the (un)pleasant adventure of slipping down tree roots on a steep slope more than made up for that.

An hour of stumbling and falling later, I finally arrived at the base of the mountain, where I crossed a creek and followed the trail along a set of boardwalks to Jennifer Drive. On my walk out to Mendenhall Loop Road, I turned around and saw the cliffs of the mountain I had just summited.

Thunder Mountain from Glacier View Elementary, Mendenhall Valley
This was an excellent hike, but I can not recommend it for everyone. Unless you're in good shape and have experience following poorly marked trails through very steep terrain, you're better off sticking to some of the easier hikes around Juneau. But if you're up for an adventure, Thunder Mountain is a boatload of fun packed with wildlife and unbelievable views.