Monday, October 26, 2015

Bumpass Hell

Sulfur-stained landscape of Bumpass Hell
3 miles round trip, 450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead. As of autumn 2015, Lassen Volcanic National Park entrance fee is $20.

Bumpass Hell: what a name! The steaming fumaroles and hot springs aren't too shabby, either, and all this is easily accessible at the end of a 1.5 miles of hiking with just a bit of up and down. The hell is a small valley filled with bubbling mud, huge boiling pools, and the constant smell of sulfur, a geothermal wonderland formed by the heat from the volcanism of the Lassen Peak area. It's one of the highlights of Lassen Volcanic National Park, an oft-overlooked protected area in northern California that preserves the recently-active Lassen Peak and the surrounding landscape of varied volcanic features. Bumpass Hell is the most extensive area of geothermal features in the park. While you can't find geysers here, you can see Big Boiler, one of the hottest fumaroles in the world, and a barren landscape of wild colors.

I visited Lassen Volcanic with three friends from the Bay Area; we camped for a night at Manzanita Lake Campground, in the north of the park, before exploring the park and hiking Bumpass Hell the next day. The appeal of this hike lay of course in its geological features, but our interest in this hike was at least somewhat attributable to our (unfortunately) childish delight at the name. The Bumpass Hell trailhead is at least 4 hours driving from the Bay Area, so I won't go over driving directions. The trailhead lies to the south of the road just west of Lake Helen and is on the right side of the road for those northbound on the Lassen Park Road. The trail starts at over 8000 feet above sea level, so it's prudent to spend time acclimtatizing before heading out, though most will find this fairly easy hike doable despite the higher elevation when just barely removed from sea level.

The trail departs from the east end of the fairly large parking area for Bumpass Hell and proceeds to parallel the road for the first 200 meters or so, passing an excellent viewpoint of Lassen Peak rising behind Lake Helen. Past this point, the trail begins a gradual but fairly gentle ascent along the rocky west side of Bumpass Mountain, with increasingly impressive views to the west of Brokeoff Mountain. The views are the most impressive at a viewpoint about a mile into the hike that is accessible by taking a short spur to the right of the trail. From this point, there is a magnificent view of Brokeoff and Pilot Mountains, which are annotated on a series of interpretive plaques. These signs also detailed how Brokeoff Mountain is a remnant of the former Mt. Tehama, a great stratovolcano (a similar style of volcano to Mounts Shasta, St. Helens, and Rainier) that has since eroded. Brokeoff Mountain once formed the south side of that volcano. Views also stretch to the southwest into California's Central Valley.

Brokeoff and Pilot Mountains from Bumpass Hell Trail
Past the viewpoint, the trail swung toward the east and continued a gradual ascent. After another turn towards the south, the trail cut through a meadow that featured a clear view of Lassen Peak to the north. We could see Vulcan's Eye, a prominent round spot on the south face of the mountain that was once a volcanic vent.

Lassen Peak along the Bumpass Hell Trail
Soon after this viewpoint, the trail reached its high point on a saddle. From here, we could smell the sulfur wafting out of the valley of Bumpass Hell below. After reading some signage warning us of the dangers of wandering off-trail in the geothermal area, we began the descent into Hell. This was the steepest section of the hike and made for a decent workout on the return; during our way in, we were able to sneak peeks of the steaming valley below through the pines.

Bumpass Hell
Once we reached the bottom of the valley, we hopped onto the boardwalk leading through the geothermal area. It's prudent to follow the instructions posted around the area and stay on trail: the crust of the valley is very thin in many places and can often give way to boiling water below. The geothermal valley actually received its name from Kendall Bumpass, a European settler who severely burned his leg when it broke through the crust and came in contact with scalding water.

A short spur from the boardwalk led to a view of fantastically-colored pools of high-mineral content turquoise water nestled in a yellow, sulfur-stained rockscape. Bubbling pots of yellow and gray mud popped up in every little crustal depression; a steaming stream flowed down a mineral-stained gully from Big Boiler, one of the hottest fumaroles on the planet; an unseen pool flung occasional globs of mud a few feet into the air. The stench of sulfur was everywhere. Hell, indeed.

Fumaroles and mudpots in Bumpass Hell
The immense amount of geothermal heat under the cluster of volcanic features at Lassen Volcanic is responsible for the unusual features of Bumpass Hell. A large amount of magma lies fairly close to the surface beneath the park; groundwater that seeps down to that magma is heated to incredible temperatures, causing that water to rise back to the surface in the form of hot springs and fumaroles.

Sections of the boardwalk were closed off during our visit, so we were unfortunately unable to see the entire area. It took us just half an hour to make our way back to the trailhead.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Keelung Mountain (基隆山)

Banping Shan, Jinguashi, and the Bitou Cape coast
2 kilometerss round trip, 270 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; direct uphill on a stair climb
Access: Frequent public transit to Jiufen from Taipei

Keelung Mountain (Jilong Shan) is a massive green hill that towers over the former mining town of Jiufen in northeast Taiwan and over the waves of the great Pacific. It is recognizable from a distance from throughout the northeast coast as it stands alone, separated from the other coastal peaks. Unsurprisingly, the peak delivers a 360-degree panorama of the green coastline of northeast Taiwan, the tourist towns of Jiufen and Jinguashi, and the steep mountains at the northern terminus of the Snow Mountain Range. The peak is popular with the tourist hordes that crowd Jiufen, so expect plenty of company.

This is less a hike than it is a stair-climb, as stone stairs seem to be preferred over single-track switchbacks for ascending steep slopes in Taiwan. This has its advantages: the trail is extraodinarily straightforward, simply following the southwest ridge of the mountain to the summit. On the flip side, this isn't so much a traditional hike as it is a stairmaster workout. The summit is unfortunately crowned with some transmission towers, but this doesn't detract too much from the views. The hike can easily be combined with a hike up nearby Teapot Mountain at Jinguashi for a day of hiking along the northeast coast.

Jiufen is a former gold mining town in a spectacular setting on a saddle between Keelung Shan and the ridges of the Snow Mountain Range to the south; after mining ended, the town caught the attention of local filmmakers, who revitalized interest in the town with the Taiwanese movie City of Sadness. The town now attracts many foreign tourists, who visit its old temples, climb to Shinto shrines, eat taro dumplings in the small shops on the Jiufen Old Street, and dine in the retro teahouses.

There are many ways of getting to the Jiufen from Taipei; I recommend taking the direct bus from Taipei. To catch this bus, get off at the Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station on the Bannan MRT line and wait for Keelung Bus 1062 heading to Jinguashi outside exit 1. The fare is around 100 NT (~US$3) as of late 2014; take the bus for over an hour until it reaches the center of Jiufen. Alternately, you can take a bus or train to the town of Ruifang and catch a bus towards Jiufen from the Ruifang train station; trains are a little more expensive. Coming back in the evening was a pain during my visit: few tourists take the early buses from Taipei to Jiufen, but everyone is trying to get on a bus from Jiufen back to Taipei at 5 or 6 PM; I ended up having to wait an hour to get on a bus to Ruifang and then took another bus from there back to Taipei.

The bus stop at Jiufen is on one of the many switchbacks that the road takes through the town. To get to the Keelung Mountain trailhead, follow the road uphill, making a switchback at a 7-11. The road is narrow with no shoulders, so be careful when heading up; after passing 7-11, go to the end of the next switchback, where a staircase breaks off to the left of the road. Head up the staircase to start the hike.

View of Keelung Shan from trailhead
The only somewhat flat section of the hike is at the very beginning, where there's a slight lull before the trail becomes just stairs. Not far from the trailhead, a viewing platform offers a view of Keelung Shan itself as well as Teapot and Banping Mountains and Jinguashi across a valley.

Teapot and Banping Mountains viewed from the start of the Keelung Shan hike
From here on, the trail is a relentless stair climb through a silvergrass slope. Even though it's under a kilometer long, plan on between half an hour and 50 minutes for getting up. The trail passes a junction for a more circuitous route to the summit; skip this and keep going up the stairs. At roughly the halfway and three-quarters marks of the climb, there are pavilions for tired hikers to rest.

Neverending stairs up Keelung Shan
The stairs end at the summit, which is topped with communications equipment, another pavilion, and a flat platform with views of the Pacific. The void of the vast Pacific lies to the northeast; to the east lies the rugged coast near Bitou Cape and to the west the convoluted coastline near Keelung, with the peninsula at Yehliu prominently protruding into the Pacific. The view south is of great green mountains rising above Jinguashi and Jiufen.

Jinguashi viewed from Keelung Shan
Keelung Shan shares its name with the nearby city of Keelung (Jilong), the major port of northern Taiwan. The city's name initially meant "chicken cage," but later underwent a homophonic change to gain a more pleasant meaning.

Having ascended Keelung Shan at the end of the day (having earlier hiked Teapot and Banping Mountains and consumed copious amounts of stinky tofu and sweet taro dumplings at the Jiufen Old Street), I stayed at the summit for the sunset, watching the December sun disappear beneath the haze to the west over the town of Ruifang.

Sunset from Keelung Shan
Descent was much quicker than coming up; imagine descending roughly the height of the Washington Monument by stairs. As I dropped downhill in the dusk, both the town of Jiufen and the Keelung coastline lit up, creating an especially beautiful sight.

Northeast coastline at dusk

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Teapot and Banping Mountains (無耳茶壺山和半屏山)

Northeast coastline of Taiwan from Teapot Mountain
8 kilometer shuttle, 500 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous and occasional lack of English signage
Access: Frequent public transit to Jiufen and Jinguashi from Taipei

Jiufen is a popular destination along the coast of northeast Taiwan that draws throngs of Japanese and mainland Chinese tourists; visit the vendors selling taro balls along the Jiufen Old Street at midday and you're guaranteed to be overwhelmed by the mass of humanity in such a small cramped space. But the freedom of the hills awaits for anyone who wants to escape the crowds: the thrilling ridgeline hike and scramble along the spine between Teapot and Banping Mountains starts just meters away from some of the most crowded tourist sites in the area. Atop these two peaks are views of rocky crags topping lush, green mountains that tumble down to the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Although neither the length nor the elevation gian of this hike are excessive, the hike is quite difficult for multiple reasons: the hike itself contains many roped scrambling sections that can be a bit difficult to navigate, it is difficult to find adequate maps of the area, signage often lacks English, and those who want to continue on to Jiufen from the summit of Banpingshan will have to walk along a section of a fairly well-trafficked mountain road. You'll want to bring a decent map as the road walking section of this hike is not intuitive or well-marked.

Jiufen and Jinguashi are two towns that once boomed from mining: there was once gold in the mountains behind the towns. The gold craze only lasted so long before the two towns, one built high on a hillside on Keelung Mountain and the other in a valley just above the sea, finally began to fade; but the picturesque towns caught the attention of filmmakers. Jiufen was either the setting or the inspiration for the Taiwanese movie City of Sadness and Miyazaki's Spirited Away, both of which brought Jiufen back into the public eye. In the last few decades, inns and teahouses have sprouted all over the town's narrow, steep streets and tourists from all over Asia have poured into the town, Jiufen being just an hour out of Taipei.

There are many ways of getting to the trailhead in Jinguashi from Taipei; I recommend taking the direct bus from Taipei. To catch this bus, get off at the Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station on the Bannan MRT line and wait for Keelung Bus 1062 heading to Jinguashi outside exit 1. The fare is around 100 NT (~US$3) as of late 2014; take the bus for over an hour to one of the last stops, Cyuanji Temple in Jinguashi. Alternately, you can take a bus or train to the town of Ruifang and catch a bus towards Jinguashi from the Ruifang train station; trains are a little more expensive. Coming back in the evening was a pain during my visit: few tourists take the early buses from Taipei to Jiufen, but everyone is trying to get on a bus from Jiufen back to Taipei at 5 or 6 PM; I ended up having to wait an hour to get on a bus to Ruifang and then took another bus from there back to Taipei.

I hiked this trail on a blue sky December day that still had its fair share of Taipei smog. After an hour on the bus from Taipei- partially spent on the freeway, but mostly spent navigating Taipei traffic and the windy mountain roads between Ruifang and Jiufen- I hopped off the bus at Cyuanji Temple, which is a stop down from the Jinguashi Geological Park. I checked out the temple briefly; the temple itself lacks the ornate detail that can be found in some more prominent temples, but the temple did have a remarkably large statue of Guangong, a historical figure from the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history who is now revered as a god of war and wealth. I started the hike from a staircase just downhill on the road from the temple, which led uphill (to the right when coming away from the temple). This path yielded a nice view of the Guangong statue before quickly meeting a second road; I turned right onto the road and followed it briefly until I saw a staircase head off to the left of the road. At the start of the staircase, a sign indicated that Teapot Mountain was uphill; I followed the stairs up.

Statue of Guangong near Jinguashi
As you might have noticed, stairs form a pretty key part of this hike. The trail ascended the surrounding terrain in an extremely direct fashion that's quite common in Taiwan- stairs instead of graded switchbacks. After ascending an initial stretch of stairs, I came to a trail junction; here I turned right for more stairs towards the direction of Teapot Mountain. This junction was signed as well.

Staircase up Teapot Mountain
Stairs, stairs, more stairs. I appreciated that the ascent was rapid and not drawn out, but the steady uphill made the hike more tiring than you'd expect for a mountain of this size. The trail crossed another road on the way up the mountain before suddenly ending when it again met a road. At this junction, I turned left and followed the road (a fairly narrow road) for a few hundred meters; the relative flatness was a nice respite from more stair climbs.

The trail up Teapot Mountain continued near the end of the road: the road itself lead towards a small pavilion lookout, while the path branched off to the right, starting a climb through a valley of silvergrass. The silvergrass itself was quite a sight when backlit by the morning sun.

The remainder of the stair climb to the summit was fairly short in terms of distance, but quite a bit longer when considered in terms of actual time due to the aggressive uphill. Two pavilions along the way provided nice respites from the continuous up. The views expanded greatly as I climbed higher: soon I could see the great green mass of Keelung Mountain towering over Jiufen, with the blue waters of the Pacific behind me and the coastline stretching eastward to Bitou Cape, the northeasternmost point of Taiwan. There was also interesting murky-colored water where the stream in the Jinguashi valley flowed into the Pacific; I later learned that this coloration was due to water draining from the old gold mines.

Ascending Teapot Mountain
After passing the second pavilion along the trail, the well-maintained staircase up the mountain finally ended. The teapot- the rocky promontory that gave the mountain its name- rose up above right in front of me. I passed a warning sign cautioning about the upcoming rock scramble and noting that hikers have died on the teapot in the past. The last section before the rock scramble involved a fairly steep pitch with no stairs, but a decently sturdy rope that I used to pull myself to the entrance to the teapot.

The trail doesn't actually lead to the summit of Teapot Mountain- instead, it leads through the rocky teapot, with a scramble that allows you to go through a rocky cave and pop out on ledges just short of the summit itself. The scramble was a bit challenging as the boulders which I had to traverse were pretty large, but the entire section had ropes, making things a bit more manageable. Although the ropes continue leading up to the left after entering the cave, the actual path through the teapot heads to the right, soon emerging back in the daylight on ledges along the north face of the teapot. At that point, the summit isn't too far away, but I don't recommend trying to scramble up as this section is quite exposed.

Rock scramble through the teapot
As it wasn't possible to reach the true summit, views were limited to the north side of the mountain. I could see much of the same scene visible during the ascent: Keelung Mountain now appeared at almost eye-level and the towns of Jiufen and Jinguashi were now far below. I could also see further west now to more mountains in the interior of the island.

Keelung Mountain from Teapot
After scrambling through the remainder of the ledges on the teapot and descending a bit into a saddle, Banping Mountain, the second summit of the hike, came into view. Banping means "half flat" in Chinese and probably refers to the fact that the mountain has a serrated but fairly long level ridge that drops off steeply to either side; thus, it's half flat. Teapot Mountain is arguably not truly a separate peak from Banping, since it rises probably only about 100 feet higher than the saddle between the peaks. The trail between the peaks follows the top of the ridgeline, allowing for constant views of both Jiufen and the Pacific. Silvergrass as tall as a human lined the trail.

View of Banping Mountain from Teapot Mountain
Teapot Mountain viewed from the saddle between Teapot and Banping
The trail was steep at times as it approached the base of the cliffs that lined the summit of Banping Mountain: as the path followed the ridge directly, there were no switchbacks. This section of trail was quite a change from the wide rock staircase that led up to the base of the teapot: the trail was a narrow single-track that alternated between dirt, grass, and rocks and that was quite slippery at times. The most exciting part of the hike up Banping Mountain was saved for last: the trail led into a small gap between two sections of cliff and then proceeded to ascend up a narrow, rocky gully. The scramble was made easier by ropes and was not too difficult, but added some extra fun to the hike.

Final roped scramble up Banping Mountain
The trail emerged from the top of the scramble onto the summit ridge. The true summit was hard to distinguish; numerous bumps of similar height lined the ridge. The back side of the ridge leading between each of the summits was quite steep, so the trail continued to use ropes in spots; additionally, some sections of the trail were only a few inches wide and required a bit more scrambling.

I eventually settled on having lunch at one of the multiple summit humps, taking in the wide views of the Pacific and the mountains around Jiufen. Looking to the southwest, it was possible to see some of the northernmost peaks of the Snow Mountain Range; unfortunately, the air was generally quite smoggy and faraway views were unclear to say the least.

Summit view from Banping Mountain
After enjoying the copious sun at the summit, I continuned along the trail and made my way south along the summit ridge. Soon the trail began a steep descent, dropping quickly through the silvergrass and passing a large and notable rock outcrop to the left of the trail before reaching a saddle. Around this area, I passed a sign for hikers going the other direction that warned of the dangers of the scramble on both Banping and Teapot. From the saddle, a short uphill brought me to the end of the single track trail at the junction with a little-used road.

I turned right onto this road and began following it back towards the direction of Jiufen. This section of road walk was fairly flat and uneventful except for the views back to Teapot and Banping Mountains on the right.

Banping and Teapot Moutains
I left the road at the second signed intersection on the right side of the trail, which pointed down a fairly wide path (a road, really) towards Jinguashi Geological Park. Following this path, I descended down a set of wide switchbacks- probably 10 or so- before this path merged into another wide path at a signed junction. To the right, the trail continued leading towards Jinguashi Geological Park and Jinguashi itself; I took the trail to the left, which took just a minute to reach Route 102, a main arterial road. If you find yourself at a flattened concrete area with a geological exhibit in the center, you've probably found yourself on the right fork somehow; for those who wish to shorten this hike, it's also possible to follow the trail down the right back to Jinguashi, returning to close to the hike's start site.

There's no trail from the trail's intersection with Route 102 back to Jiufen, so I followed the road for the next 2 kilometers or so to the edge of town, passing by more views of Teapot, Banping, and Keelung Mountains. There's not too much of a shoulder on the road and it's a pretty windy mountainous road, so be careful if you choose to hike this option. After passing a cemetery to my right and then a temple, I came to Jiufen itself. The road switchbacks through Jiufen; to make my life easier, I got off the road and followed a set of stairs downhill into Jiufen's winding maze of pathways and stairways.

The town itself is fairly picturesque, set onto the side of a mountain with views of the harbour at Keelung in the distance. Many tourists come not for the views but for the town's Old Street; I soon found myself on the Old Street and wandered around it for a bit, stopping at different shops to try stinky tofu and Jiufen's famous taro dumplings. I couldn't stay for too long though; there were much too many tourists crowding the narrow alley and much of the place had the unpleasant feel of a tourist trap, with vendors hawking some surely overpriced goods to visitors from Japan and mainland China.

The touristy Old Street of Jiufen
I ended up hiking up Keelung Mountain to see the sunset before heading back to Taipei. Returning from Jiufen ended up being a much harder task than arriving here: at six or seven PM, all of the day-trippers from Taipei were ready to go back, creating an hour-long wait line for the return bus. I ended up taking a bus to the nearby town of Ruifang and catching an emptier bus from there back to Taipei.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mount Pilchuck

The jagged peaks of the North Cascades
6 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Bumpy gravel road, Northwest Forest Pass required

Mount Pilchuck was one of the first hikes I did after arriving in Washington state and even two years later, it still sits near the top of the list of my favorite hikes in the state. Check with the Washington Trails Association for detailed directions and updates on this hike. I liked enough to revisit in the low-snow winter of 2015.

There are few grander views so easily accessible from Seattle than that from the summit of Mount Pilchuck. It's less than an hour and a half to the trailhead for Pilchuck off the Mountain Loop Highway from Seattle and just 3 miles to the summit; in return for this minor investment of time and energy, the summit rewards with a 360-degree panorama of the wild, jagged Cascades, three great volcanoes, countless glaciers, the cities of Seattle and Everett, the Olympic Mountains, and the Puget Sound. By Washington state standards, this is a easy to moderate hike (more of a moderate by Virginia standards), with no real obstacles except a very short bit of scrambling just below the lookout. Be sure to visit on a clear day!

Mt. Pilchuck was a special hike for me: it was only my second hike after my move to Washington. I had spent much time indoors or in the city until I was finally able to get away by renting a car. The forecast looked good and Pilchuck was the featured hike on the WTA website, so I figured why not? I headed out from Seattle an hour before dawn, driving north on I-5 to Everett; then east on US 2 briefly, following the signs onto Washington Route 204 north, which then merged quickly ended at Washington Route 9. I followed Route 9 north to Route 92, the turnoff for Granite Falls. As I drove this stretch of road, I finally caught views of the Cascades, with the sun lighting up the sky behind Three Fingers and Pilchuck. I stayed on Route 92 into Granite Falls, passing through the town before turning left to head north on the Mountain Loop Highway. I stayed on the Mountain Loop until passing the Verlot Ranger Station and a bridge shortly afterward; immediately after the bridge, I turned onto Mt. Pilchuck Rd, a lengthy and bumpy gravel road that I followed to its terminus.

The trailhead for Pilchuck is already beautiful: it is situated on the northern slope of the mountain, high above the valley of Stillaguimish, with Anacortes and the San Juan Islands visible in the distance. The trail heads up from the near end of the parking lot, quickly delving into second-growth forest. The beginning of the hike is relatively uneventful, climbing gently through a mossy forest and entering Mount Pilchuck State Forest. As the climb continues, the trail grows rockier, until it finally comes to a talus slope with a view of Mt. Rainier. From here, the trail turns sharply left and continues climbing.

The forests on Pilchuck
The forest begins to thin out as the terrain to the north of the trail grows progressively steeper. Soon, I came to a view of the Stillaguimish Valley, with Pilchuck's shadow stretching toward the Puget Sound. Just a little further on, I turned a corner and saw for the first time the icy summit of Mt. Baker.

Pilchuck's shadow
First views of Baker
The next half-mile was spectacular. The trail came out into a rocky slope beneath the steep north face of Pilchuck. The summit was visible from this point, but it looked terribly far away (luckily, it wasn't!). As I ascended through the rocky and open field, I enjoyed views of Baker, Shuksan, Three Fingers, and many of the other peaks ringing the north end of the Stillaguimish Valley.

Three Fingers
After climbing around a tiny false summit, the trail ventured onto the broader south slope of the mountain. The ascent was steady and moderately steep, but views of the Puget Sound and the Olympics in the distance rewarded the necessary effort well. At points, Rainier and even Seattle were visible in the distance.

View towards Puget Sound
Finally, after some brief switchbacks, the trail gained the top of the ridge, providing a jaw-dropping view down the rocky north face of Pilchuck to the great peaks of the North Cascades. White Chuck, Sloan, Pugh- all the big Mountain Loop peaks were clearly visible. Behind it all, Glacier Peak reigned, held aloft on a throne of great granite peaks. Far below, the Stillaguimish River flowed through a deep valley hemmed in by steep forested peaks such as Dickerman and Big Four.

View towards Glacier Peak
The lookout was now visible just to the west, perched atop the sheer north face. I made my way up the final stretch of trail and scrambled across a pile of large boulders, then pulled myself up the short ladder at the base of the lookout to reach the summit of Pilchuck. The inside of the lookout was open and had panels describing the lookout's history and detailing the views. The outside of the lookout was the reason to hike all the way up though: endless, endless views.

Pilchuck Lookout

Looking east from the lookout, every inch of the horizon featured yet another craggy granite spire or tumbling glacier. To the west, the Olympics, the Puget Sound, and even Vancouver Island were visible. To the north, the ground dropped off precipitously from the side of the lookout to the lakes scattered under Pilchuck's north face. I could see Mt. Baker, the great white-capped volcano; to its left, the Twin Sisters and the Pacific Ranges north of Vancouver, Canada; to its right (east), Mt. Shuksan, a sharp pinnacle that is the tallest non-volcanic peak of the North Cascades. Further to the right (east): the closer peaks of Whitehorse Mountain and snow-capped Three Fingers, which from here displayed just two summits; the endless maze of frigid North Cascades summits in the distance; and the great summit of Glacier Peak towering above it all. The summit ridge of Pilchuck pointed directly east into the ferocious, jagged peaks of the Monte Cristo group; heading to the south, the distant but commanding summit of Mt. Stuart was in the same direction of sight as the closer Spada Lake and the dramatic Route 2 peaks of Baring, Merchant, Gunn, and Index rose above their surrounding foothills. Far to the south was Rainier itself and even farther to the south I could see the gaping crater of Mt. St. Helens, over 130 miles away.

The North Cascades
View from the lookout
Glacier Peak from Pilchuck
Since I arrived at the summit so early in the morning, I had this glorious vista to myself for an hour before I heard the second group of the day approaching the summit. Reluctant to share the summit, I started on my way down through the October foliage on the mountain and returned to Seattle.

Fall color on Pilchuck

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Seven Autumn Hikes in the Blue Ridge

Fall color sunrise at Bacon Hollow Overlook
Fall is one of the most beloved seasons in the Appalachians for good reason: the haze of the summer finally lets up, skies turn blue with cirrus streaks, the morning air is crisp, warm apple cider is plentiful, and of course, the green Blue Ridge puts on a spectacular color show before shedding its foliage for the winter. Fall is the time for big views: when it's not raining, skies are usually quite clear. What it's usually not time for is waterfalls: with few exceptions (such as Whiteoak Canyon and Dark Hollow Falls), you can expect most Shenandoah cascades to be running near empty, although 2015 might an exception with recent heavy rains. But even when the skies are cloudy or the fog rolls in, limiting the views, there's still plenty of options: forest hikes are the most beautiful during the time when maples and poplars turn orange and yellow.

The panorama of golden ridges and rocky outcrops from Mount Pleasant is so spectacular it's almost unreal. Mount Pleasant is a bit of a longer drive from Charlottesville and an especially long drive from DC, but it's worth the effort to reach for it's nearly unrivaled Blue Ridge views. The loop hike involves some elevation gain to reach the peak, but can be done by most people who are reasonably fit.

Few Blue Ridge outcrops are as impressively sized or offer as far-reaching views as Spy Rock. No time is better to visit than mid-October, when big peaks like the Priest, Mount Pleasant, Maintop, and Three Ridges begin to exhibit their fall colors. The trailhead is poorly marked and difficult to find, so be sure to bring good directions and a map.

This gentle hike leads to sweeping views of the South District of Shenandoah and a peaceful stroll through the woods back to the Loft Mountain Wayside along the Appalachian Trail. There are few better ways to cap off this hike than to enjoy the pumpkin fudge sold at the wayside afterwards.

The colors of Whiteoak Canyon start changing early as the trail meanders down the slopes of Stony Man, Shenandoah National Park's second tallest peak. Come in early October to see the bright red of the maples and the eerie yellow of dying ferns. The Robinson River maintains a steadier flow than most other park streams, so the waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon can be expected to have water even in the fall.

5. Old Rag
Old Rag needs no introduction: the rock scramble up this craggy peak is a Virginia classic. The best time of year to visit is undoubtedly autumn: the numerous tulip poplars dot the slopes of Old Rag and the floor of Weakley Hollow and make the area glow golden in the fall. Clear skies make the peak's far-reaching views even more impressive than during the hazier summer. Come on a weekday or start early to avoid the inevitable weekend rush and hiker traffic jams in the rock scramble.

6. Hawksbill Peak
The highpoint of Shenandoah National Park is a fine vantage point for gazing out over the sea of reds and yellows in the Virginia fall. The easiest path up is the 2-mile round trip from the Upper Hawksbill Trailhead; those looking for a longer challenge can combine Hawksbill with either a hike up Cedar Run or a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. If you come early in October, Hawksbill is one of your better bets for color.

7. Humpback Rocks
Humpback Rocks is a Charlottesville favorite, bringing hikers from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the top of an enormous outcrop in a mile. Color often sticks around here a little longer than it does in the park and Humpback is often still a pretty colorful hike into early November. For unbeatable lighting to accompany the fall colors, hike to the summit to catch a fall sunrise over the Piedmont.

Happy hiking!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Naches Peak Loop

Mount Rainier above wildflowers on the Naches Peak Loop
3.2 miles loop, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no pass required; in most years, the trail is snowed in all months save July to October

The Naches Peak Loop provides one of the highest return on investment for any hike in Mt. Rainier National Park. The trail is not at all difficult, with some uphills and downhills that are manageable for hikers of most abilities, but provides stunning views of Mt. Rainier, many lakes and tarns, and a wealth of wildflowers in season. Starting from Tipsoo Lake, the hike circumnavigates Naches Peak, passing through mountain slopes with views of the Chinook Pass peaks, meadows of lupine, and viewpoints above Dewey Lake in the William Douglas Wilderness. The hike ends with nearly constant views of glacier-capped Mt. Rainier towering up its attendant mountains.

I hiked this trail in late June during a low snow year, coming at just the right time to see the peak wildflower bloom. My friend and I drove down from Seattle by taking I-5 south, then Route 18 east to Auburn, then Route 164 south to Enumclaw and Route 410 east through Greenwater to the entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Once in the park, we continued on Route 410 to the parking lot for Tipsoo Lake, which was just before Chinook Pass.

From the trailhead at Tipsoo Lake, we followed the trail leading to the lake. Prior to looping around Naches Peak, we looped around Tipsoo Lake itself, taking the trail that followed the lakeshore. There is a maze of trails near the lake; any trail that appears to circle lake probably does. Once by the lake, we were astonished by the field of lupine and other wildflowers that bordered the lake itself. Wildflowers of all imaginable colors were densely packed in the lush green meadows.

Lupine at Tipsoo Lake
We circled the lake clockwise, coming to a great view of the lake with Mt. Rainier rising behind on the far end of the lake. To the north, we observed an interesting peak with a castle-like summit.

Tipsoo Lake
After circling the lake and returning to the junction for the path back to the parking lot, we headed off on the Naches Peak loop clockwise. The trail began to climb through lupine-covered meadows on the north side of the lake and soon entered the forest, where there were still plenty of wildflowers in small pocket meadows. After a short ascent, the trail popped back out by the road at Chinook Pass coming to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. We took the PCT south (to the left), crossing Route 410 on a bridge. From here, there was a good view down into the canyon that led up to Chinook Pass from Yakima.

After crossing the pass, the trail followed a forested slope with occasional views of the mountains to the north, soon entering the William Douglas Wilderness. This section of trail was actually a little unpleasant: we found ourselves surrounded by bugs. Even after an ample application of bug spray, we were still continuously swarmed, with mosquito bites all over our arms, legs, and neck by the end of the day.

This was somewhat made up for by the patches of avalanche lilies that we found along the trail. These beautiful white flowers are usually the first to pop out after snowmelt and were at the end of their bloom in a low snow June.

Avalanche lilies
As we continued onwards, the bugs didn't let up; luckily, the wildflowers stuck around, too.

Fields of lupine
Western anemone, lupine, paintbrush
We soon passed by a small tarn on the left of the trail, with plenty of nice picnic rocks in a meadow. The entire area around the tarn was surrounded by wildflowers as well.

Tarn on the north side of Naches Peak
The trail soon crossed a small pass, leading to a view of more peaks to the east. At one point, the trail entered a clearing overlooking Dewey Lake, a sizable lake in the William Douglas Wilderness. Just after the viewpoint, we came to an intersection with the Naches Peak Loop heading to the right and the Pacific Crest Trail turning left to head down to Dewey Lake; we stayed to the right.

Dewey Lake in the William Douglas Wilderness
Soon after crossing the intersection, we came to one of the most magical spots of the hike: the trail crossed a wide, green meadow packed with wildflowers of every color. At the far end of the meadow we could see a small tarn; rising behind it all was the massive Tahoma. The flower-filled meadows stretched far up the slopes of Naches Peak, which occupied the north end of our view.

Tarn on the loop
From here on, the trail continued to flirt with meadows and views of Rainier; soon views of the Ohanapecosh valley opened up as well and Mt. Adams was barely visible to the south. The rest of the loop was a gradual descent through forest back to Tipsoo Lake punctuated by occasional views of Rainier. The trail soon brought us back to Route 410; to wrap up the loop, we crossed the road and hiked along the lakeshore back to the parking area we started in.

Mt. Rainier, viewed near the end of the loop
Tipsoo Lake and Mount Rainier
This easy loop is highly recommended for anyone who visits the park but lacks the time or energy to do hikes such as Burroughs Mountain, the Skyline Trail, or Camp Muir. The 3-mile hike visits some of the beautiful alpine meadows for which Rainier is well known and is particularly spectacular during the peak wildflower bloom. The timing of that bloom is unfortunately a little unpredictable: while I caught the lupine and avalanche lilies in June of 2015, a low snow year, a previous June visit to Tipsoo Lake in a normal snow year found the area covered in as much as three feet of snow. In a typical year, July would likely be a better month for the loop; check conditions before hiking.