Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Enchantments via Aasgard Pass

McClellan Peak and the Enchantments
15 miles round trip, 5300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Extremely strenuous due to elevation gain, excessive rock scrambling, and rockfall danger
Access: $5 Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annual) required at trailhead; arrive by bumpy gravel road that is 2WD accessible; backpackers must obtain camping permits by lottery months in advance

There are few places on Earth more appropriately named than Washington State's Enchantment Lakes. A string of clear and turquoise gems splayed across the alpine granite of the Stuart Range, the Enchantments are both one of the most gorgeous and one of the most sought-after hiking destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Meandering through the Enchantments is the highest form of hiking bliss: few experiences can match that of gazing across sparkling, reflective pools to rugged granite peaks, golden autumn larches, and munching mountain goats. It's easy to dismiss such talk as hyperbole; yet the steady stream of hikers who submit to the siren song of the Enchantments despite the extraordinary physical demands necessary to reach the lakes attests to the extraordinary beauty of this landscape.

It is important to note that this route up Aasgard Pass is extremely difficult. While experienced hikers will probably find the terrain manageable, this hike is not kind on hikers who are not prepared. Both 2016 and 2017 saw hiker fatalities along the route up to the pass. If you don't know what you're doing, you shouldn't attempt this hike.

Don't visit the Enchantment Lakes as a day hike. In fact, unless you're in good shape, you probably shouldn't visit the Enchantments at all. There is no easy way into the Enchantments. The two access points are from Snow Lakes and Colchuck Lake, on opposite sides of the basin. Access via Colchuck Lake is probably faster and is definitely shorter and requires less elevation gain, but involves the arduous ascent up Aasgard Pass, one of the steepest sections of trail probably anywhere. The trail via Snow Lakes may be gentler, but requires over 18 miles round trip of hiking and over 6000 feet of elevation gain. Thus, one may conclude that backpacking the Enchantments is surely preferable to a day hike.

However, backpacking to the Enchantments isn't as easy as it sounds, for not only physical but also bureaucratic reasons. From the beginning of summer until mid-October, a very limited number of backcountry camping permits are issued for camping in the core Enchantments zone- those wishing to visit and camp must enter a lottery with slim chances of snagging a permit. Due to these restrictions, most people who end up visiting the Enchantments do so on a day hike. A popular journey is the 18-mile one way push from the Colchuck Lake/Stuart Lake trailhead to the Snow Lakes trailhead, but this shuttle hike requires dropping off a car at each trailhead. When my friend and I tackled the Enchantments, we decided to do visit the lakes as an out-and-back hike from Colchuck Lake, tackling the ramparts of Aasgard Pass to reach the high lakes of the Upper Enchantments. Of the three separate groups of lakes at the Enchantments, we ultimately only had time to visit the Upper Enchantments.

I hiked to the Enchantments during the fall, when the alpine larches of the high basin were turning brilliantly golden. Since autumn days were short, my friend and I realized that we would need all the daylight we could get for the hike, so we drove out to Leavenworth and camped nearby the night before. We set out from Seattle in late afternoon on Saturday, taking US Highway 2 east and crossing Stevens Pass just before the sun set, arriving just after dark in Leavenworth. The town was packed: we had unwittingly arrived in the faux Bavarian town during Oktoberfest. Poor timing. We initially felt it would be most appropriate to grab a German-themed dinner before heading out to Icicle Valley to camp, but the long lines at most beer and brat places drove us instead to a Mexican restaurant. After dinner, we backtracked slightly on Route 2 to Icicle Road; here, we turned left and followed the road south into the canyon of Icicle Creek. We initially hoped to camp at Eightmile, but the campground was full by the time we arrived, so we continued onwards along Icicle Road to the Johnny Creek Campground, where we were able to snag one of a few remaining open campsites.

The next morning, we were up by 5 AM. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal, we packed up our campsite and backtracked along Icicle Creek Road to NF 6701, which led towards the Eightmile and Stuart Lake Trailheads. We turned right onto this gravel road and followed the bumpy, washboarded track uphill past the Eightmile Trailhead to its terminus at the Stuart Lake Trailhead. The air was chilly and the sky still dark when we stepped out of the car. Other headlamps dotted the trailhead parking: we were far from the only hikers about to attempt a day hike to or through the Enchantments.

We started up the Stuart Lake Trail from the parking area in the dark. The first two miles of the hike were a bit of a blur: we made a steady uphill along a creek and crossed the creek on a bridge before delving into a steeper climb with some switchbacks, but I saw very little of our surroundings as we were hiking in pre-dawn light. By the time we reached the turnoff for Colchuck Lake, a little over two miles in, it was finally becoming light outside. Along the way, we entered the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, one of the most heavily used wilderness areas in the nation that, true to its name, contained the densest concentration of alpine lakes on the continent.

We took the left fork for Colchuck Lake, which took us back across the creek and then along the side of a boulder field. The trail then began a steady switchback climb through the drier forest characteristic of the Eastern Cascades. This section of somewhat uncomfortable, rocky trail was a harbinger of the conditions on the route to Aasgard. After a mile and a half of steady uphill, the trail began to pass a few rocky viewpoints of the granite crags of the Stuart Range, Cashmere Mountain in the distance, and the sheer wall of Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks close by.

A little over four miles into the hike, the switchbacks finally leveled off as we approached Colchuck Lake. The trail headed off to the right when it approached the lake, staying in the trees for a while and passing a camping zone and a toilet. We came to the main viewpoint of Colchuck Lake, an open slab of granite along the trail. From the rock, we looked across the aquamarine waters of the lake to the imposing granite peaks of Dragontail and Colchuck. Midway through fall, all of the snowpack from the previous winter had melted, making the remnants of Colchuck Glacier clearly visible high in the crevice between Colchuck and Dragontail. The lake and most of the peaks remained in the shadow, but a beam of sunlight poured out over Aasgard Pass, the steep saddle to the left of Dragontail. The shadowy, sheer face of Dragontail seemed almost menacing. Colchuck Lake was already the equivalent of a moderate strenuous day hike, at over 4 miles and 2000 feet elevation gain from the trailhead, but the path to the Enchantments was about to demand even more from us.

Colchuck Lake
We followed the trail past the viewpoint. A first short scramble section ensued. Soon after, we came to a small pond just barely separated from Colchuck Lake. The calm water of the pond perfectly reflected the Stuart Range peaks surrounding the lake basin and the golden larches higher up on the mountains.

Pond reflections near Colchuck
Past the pond, the trail stayed on the west shore of the lake, often cutting through the forest well above the lake itself. At the far end of the lake, the trail descended towards a large talus slope at the base of Dragontail Peak. As we dropped towards the talus slope, a stunning view of morning light pouring over Aasgard Pass and into the lake basin appeared before us.

Morning light pours over Aasgard Pass
Upon reaching the talus slope- really more of a boulder field- we realized the navigating the field would be quite difficult. There was no true trail here, simply cairns marking the way through bookshelf and car-sized boulders. Finding the route through the rocks difficult to follow, we decided to scramble down the boulders to the lakeshore and walk east along the beach towards the foot of Aasgard Pass.

The beach was much easier hiking than the boulder field, but at a few points a boulder would come down and meet the lake itself, requiring some scrambling to work our way around. As we hiked along the lakeshore, a perfect refleciton of rocky Cashmere Mountain appeared on the surface of Colchuck Lake.

Cashmere Mountian reflected in Colchuck Lake
At the far end of the beach, we followed a path back through the trees towards Aasgard Pass. This path quickly joined back up with the trail coming out from the boulder field. Here, the forest was a mix of conifers, with many gorgeously yellow larches mixed among true evergreens.

The path was angled gently uphill until it emerged from the trees at the base of Aasgard Pass. Before us lay one of the single most formidable segments of trail in the state. A poorly defined footpath of loose scree cut nearly straight uphill, covering 2400 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile. We tried to follow the cairns but often found ourselves slightly off-trail as we worked our way uphill. About a third of the way up, the trail came to a massive rock blocking the route towards the pass. Following the hiker ahead of us, we initially went towards the right, but quickly found that route impassable, forcing us to backtrack and ascend around the left side of the rock.

At times, the ascent was made easier with views of the perfect waters of Colchuck Lake below and with the morning sunlight brilliantly illuminating the golden larches. The ramparts of Dragontail Peak soared above us to the west. The massive granite wall remained in the shadow even as the sun began to move towards midday.

Dragontail above the larches on the climb to Aasgard
The ascent was excessively grueling. It took us nearly two hours to get from the lakeside to the pass, meaning that we traveled at a pace of less than half a mile per hour. I was glad that I brought a helmet: even though it never actually came in use, the loose rock on the trail and what would surely have been high rockfall danger from the cliffs on either side of the route to the pass made it a reasonable precaution.

Harvey Manning, a famed guidebook author who wrote some of the definitive guides to hiking in the Northwest, considered the Aasgard Pass route to be "tasteless" and claimed it to be the realm of mountain climbers alone, discouraging hikers from the route by claiming it to be "silly to the point of suicidal." I wouldn't go as far; once the route is clear of snow, it is doable by fit hikers. However, Manning was spot on about the route's dangers and the level of caution appropriate for tackling the route. If you have to ask yourself whether or not you could hike Aasgard Pass, you probably shouldn't.

As we ascended high above Colchuck Lake and approached the pass, mind-blowing views began to unfold behind us. Colchuck Lake appeared like a jewel nestled beneath Dragontail Peak. The many peaks of the Stuart Range rose nearby; Cashmere Mountain's distinctive shape was particularly memorable. In the far distance, Glacier Peak and Mount Baker appeared on the horizon. Sloan and the other sharp peaks of the Mountain Loop also appeared quite prominent.

Colchuck Lake from Aasgard Pass
The trail passed by a small bowl along the steep slope to the pass about 80 percent of the way up to Aasgard. After passing the larches in that bowl, the trail made a final steep push through massive piles of granite boulders towards the pass. To our right, we could already see the back side of the sheer face of Dragontail: the south side of the mountain hid a cirque with a small glacier and a tiny milky-colored glacial tarn.

Glaciers on Dragontail Peak
At noon, we finally came to the top of the pass. Dragontail dominated the view to the southwest; Colchuck Lake was now hidden below. The far side of the pass was much flatter than the approach from Colchuck Lake: we could see that this side of Aasgard Pass was a gentle but rocky basin stretching towards McClellan Peak. We had arrived in the Enchantments.

Dragontail from Aasgard Pass
A narrow trail led through the boulders and the meadows through the Enchantment basin. The generally flat nature of the hiking in the basin was a welcome reprieve from the brutality of the climb to Aasgard Pass. The first lake we came upon was Tranquil Lake, a small and appropriately named lake just pass the Pass. Another minute or so of hiking brought us to the much larger Isolation Lake, which was boxed in by the smooth, silvery granite of Dragontail and Little Annapurna Peaks. Among these highest lakes in the Upper Enchantments, there was little plant life to be found: this world was too harsh for even the hardy alpine larch.

Isolation Lake
However, grasses in the sparse meadows near the lake were sufficient enough to allow mountain goats to graze. We spotted a nanny and kid munching on the dried autumn grasses above Isolation Lake. Mountain goat sightings are frequent in the Enchantments. It's important to be careful though: mountain goats are occasionally aggressive around humans. Goats crave salt, attracting them to human urine. This brings them closer to heavy-traffic trails and increases the chance for human-goat interactions. A fatal encounter occurred a few years ago when a man was gored by a goat in Olympic National Park.

Mountain goat
We continued past the gleaming granite at Isolation Lake and began a gradual descent past a series of small ponds. The contrast between rock, water, and sky was striking. We caught our first glimpse of the Temple, a serrated granite fin that rose to the east. Before descending to one of the ponds, we could see past both the Temple and McClellan Peak to the flat dry desert of the Columbia Basin near Wenatchee. We hiked past trickling waterfalls and scrambled across smooth granite benches above calm ponds. Although there were no sustained up or down hill segments, the trail still posed some challenges: my friend missed a step during part of a rock scramble and ended up plunging his foot into one of the many ponds in the basin.

At the far end of the Upper Enchantments, larches began to reappear. After circling around a beautiful, nameless pond, the trail followed the lazily flowing outlet stream through the isolated stands of larches. Larches are rare deciduous coniferous trees: although clearly conifers, with needles rather than leaves, larches shed their needles annually. In early October of each year, the high country on the dry side of the North Cascades lights up with a brilliant display of autumn gold. The Enchantments and Lake Ingalls in the Teanaway are the southernmost reach of the alpine larch.

Upper Enchantments
The trail through the larches very abruptly came to an outcrop with a stunning view to the south. McClellan Peak and Little Annapurna framed a wild canyon that dropped down towards Ingalls Creek and the Teanaway. Shimmering Crystal Lake and a few stands of aurulent larches were nestled in the head of the valley below McClellan Peak.

Crystal Lake
Past the viewpoint for Crystal Lake, the trail began a descent down the right-hand side of a narrow ravine. We had to scramble during sections of this somewhat rocky descent. When the blue waters of Inspiration Lake came into view, we scrambled onto a ledge overlooking the lake. The Temple and a forest of larches rose across the lake; we caught a view of a corner of Perfection Lake, which lay just downhill of Inspiration Lake. Enchanted by the view and realizing that it was getting quite late in the afternoon, we decided that the ledge would be our stopping point for the day. The Middle Enchantments lay just downhill, but the views along the shorelines of Perfection and Inspiration Lakes and the Lower Enchantments would have to wait for another day.

The Temple, Inspiration Lake, and Perfection Lake
I ate lunch and gazed out at the Temple; my friend took a nap while drying out his socks and shoes in the sun. We were both tired: the combined challenges of waking up so early to get to Colchuck Lake and tackling Aasgard Pass had done a number on us. During the middle of our reverie, a man walked by to ask if we had cell phone service. We didn't: the Enchantments are at the heart of Alpines Lake Wilderness. He informed us that a hiker had broken a leg on Little Annapurna and was in need of medical assistance. We promised to make a call as soon as we were off the mountain and back in service range.

We made fairly quick time from our turnaround point back to Aasgard Pass. Just as we were about to begin the descent down the pass, we heard a faint buzzing: a search and rescue helicopter had come for the hiker on Little Annapurna. We stayed at the pass to watch the helicopter hover above Little Annapurna and ferry out the injured hiker. Gazing down the treacherous downhill before us and realizing that we had a vertical mile of descent to go before we returned to the car, we joked about how we too could have used a helicopter ride out.

It took us as long to descend Aasgard Pass as it did to climb up in the morning. By the time we got back to the lakeshore, my knees were shot and the sun was about to set. We made the final descent from Colchuck Lake back to the Stuart Lake Trailhead in the dark. Oktoberfest was long over when we rolled into Leavenworth at 9 PM: the town was quiet and every restaurant was closed save McDonalds. We chose to drive back to Seattle for dinner instead, traveling another two hours across Stevens Pass to pick up the last slices of vegetarian pizza at Hot Mama's.

Ancient Lakes

Dusty Lake in Potholes Coulee
7.2 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Washington State Parks Discovery Pass required ($10/day, $30/annual); trailhead at the end of a good gravel road

Washington State's Columbia Plateau can seem largely featureless and drab for drivers traveling through the region along I-90, but just a few miles off the interstate lie some fascinating landscapes shaped by the many violent geological phenomena. Hidden among the desert and reclaimed farmland of Eastern Washington lie dramatic coulees cut into cliffs of columnar basalt. Nowhere is this landscape more beautiful and easily explored than at Potholes Coulee with the hike to Ancient Lakes, just southwest of Quincy. On the dry side of the Cascades, Ancient Lakes usually stays at least somewhat sunny when winter rains drench Seattle. The hike itself is generally easy and flat and recommended to anyone in the area with a few spare hours, as well to Seattle residents hoping to rediscover the sun during the drabbest, stormiest days of the year.

I headed to Ancient Lakes with two friends from Seattle on a rainy Sunday. We followed I-90 west for two hours past Snoqualmie Pass, Ellensburg, and Vantage to George, where we exited the interstate at Exit 149 and followed Route 281 north. We followed 281 through the farmland of the Quincy Basin to the junction with White Trail Road; we turned left onto White Trail Road and followed it around a wide bend to the right until we reached Road 9; we turned left onto Road 9 and followed it downhill past views of the Columbia River and its beautiful gorge all until it turned into a gravel road; we continued on the gravel road until it dead-ended at the trailhead for Ancient Lakes, where a sign indicated that we should display a Discover Pass.

The trail was simply a continuation of the gravel road. We followed the wide gravel path south through the sagebrush, following the base of the a set of columnar basalt cliffs that rose prominently to the east. About half of a mile in, the cliffs to the east opened up to expose Potholes Coulee, a wide canyon filled with shrubs cut into the surrounding basalt landscape. We skipped the initial path leading left into the coulee but took the second, narrower trail that branched off to the left. There were numerous use trails in the coulee that split apart or came back together; it was difficult to keep track of which exact path we were on. However, for the most part, this mattered little; we followed the general direction of hiking deeper into the coulee.

The layers of regularly shaped hexagonal columnar basalt that formed the walls of the coulee were the result of massive volcano eruptions in what is now the Pacific Northwest around 15 million years ago. These eruptions differed greatly from the eruptions that formed the modern Cascade stratovolcanoes; instead, the ancient eruptions occurred in the form of flood basalts, in which lava emerging from the volcanic source covered the entire Columbia River Basin, forming the Columbia River Flood Basalts. Multiple eruptions from this source led to many layers of flood basalts, each set atop the previous eruption's layer. Quickly cooling mafic lava, such as that found in the Columbia River Flood Basalt eruptions, contracts to form joints between sections of exposed lava, eventually forming the vertical columns so commonly seen in Eastern Washington. The source of these massive flood basalts that covered much of the Eastern Washington and Oregon is still disputed; one suggestion is that the basalts formed from an earlier manifestation of the Yellowstone Hot Spot, which may have later migrated across Idaho to form the Snake River Plain as the North American Plate moved before reaching its current position beneath the hot springs in Wyoming.

Potholes Coulee
We followed the flat trail through the coulee, hiking through the sage and the tumbleweed under the cliffs of columnar basalt that flanked us to the left. About a mile after turning into the coulee, we came to a small waterfall that tumbled off the north wall of the coulee, a pretty drop without much flow.

Waterfall in Potholes Coulee
Hiking further down the coulee, we came to the first of the four lakes in the coulee. This smallest of the lakes was ringed by trees and denser brush and was at least temporary home to a sizable flock of waterfowl. The uneven, jagged walls of the ridge separating the two halfs of Potholes Coulee rose behind the lake, an oddly juxtaposed sight of brush, water, and basalt.

First pond in the coulee
Just further down the trail, we came to three more lakes. The first of the three was large and more oblong; the remaining pair were separated by a flat, defined grassy ridge. The walls of the coulee closed behind these last two lakes, with a waterfall plunging from the land above the coulee into the northeastern lake. While the landscape seemed remote and almost prehistoric, we were reminded at times of our proximity to civilization by the power lines we could sometimes see running across the flat Columbia Plateau above the coulee.

Ancient Lakes
We saw a group camping along the ridge between the easternmost two lakes in the coulee, so rather than heading onto that ridge we chose to hike around the northeastern lake to reach the waterfall at the head of the coulee. We followed the west and north shores of that lake towards the waterfall, with good views of the lake and reflections of the surrounding basalt cliffs. The north shore of the lake was formed by a talus slope of crumbling fragments of the basalt cliffs, so we had to scramble over sections of the talus to reach the waterfall at the end of the lake. Along the way, one of my friends discovered that flattened shards of basalt made for decent skipping stones, so we stopped in the talus to skip rocks into the waters of the Ancient Lakes.

Ancient Lakes
At the end of the talus slope, we found a slightly flatter area with more solid ground at the foot of the waterfall, which made a pretty plunge down the basalt layers of the Columbia Plateau. Unfortunately, some rocks in the area had been vandalized, with graffiti decorating what would otherwise have felt like a remote and almost unspoiled place.

Waterfall at the head of the coulee
Tens of thousands of years ago, a much larger waterfall cut into the head of Potholes Coulee: in fact, it is likely that the entire head of the coulee was filled with falling floodwaters. While the basalt cliffs of Potholes Coulee were formed by the fiery outpouring of molten rock from the earth, the actual coulees themselves were carved out by cataclysmic floods of unimaginable volume and power. These floods were released by the draining of glacial Lake Missoula during recent ice ages. Glaciers in the Rocky Mountains dammed what is today the Clark Fork of the Columbia, creating a lake nearly four times the volume of modern Lake Erie. At times, the glacial dam that held back the lake would break apart, causing a sudden release of water across the Columbia Plateau with a flow rate more than tenfold that of the Amazon River. Floodwaters scoured the flat desert landscape and carved numerous channels through the Columbia Plateau, including Potholes Coulee. The block-like nature of the columnar basalt walls caused the columns to come off one by one or in blocks, forming coulees with nearly vertical walls.

It took geologists a long time to come with grips with the idea that the desert coulees of the Columbia Plateau were carved out by massive Ice Age floods. After all, modern geology was born with James Hutton's principle of uniformitarianism- the idea that geological processes occuring today are the same as ones that have occurred in the past. Geologist J Harlan Bretz first hypothesized that the coulees and the Channeled Scablands of the Columbia Plateau were formed by massive floods, but was written off by more established geologists as a lunatic, a fool, or an amateur. If massive, catastrophic floods of the scale Bretz proposed never occur today, they reasoned, why and how would they have occurred in the past? Yet increasing evidence pointed to the validity of Bretz's theory: both the head of Potholes Coulees and Dry Falls on the Grand Coulee showed signs of having been ancient waterfalls and the discovery of a "bathtub ring" along the mountains above the Clark Fork in Idaho and Montana validated the existence of glacial Lake Missoula. Today, the combined effects of the Columbia Plateau flood basalts and the the Missoula floods on this landscape make it one of the most geologically fascinating areas in the country.

The waterfall that today flows down the head of Potholes Coulee is fed by a non-natural source: it is only a year-round waterfall because of irrigation runoff from the Bureau of Reclamation's Columbia Basin Project. The Columbia Plateau is a desert with just enough water to support sagebrush and tumbleweed, but the Columbia Basin Project turned the area into farmland. A massive works project during the Great Depression led to the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. Today, river water is stored in Banks Lake and reaches farms near Quincy, Ephrata, and Moses Lake through irrigation canals, allowing for agriculture in an arid land. The agricultural benefits are clearly great, but the price tag of the project and the environmental consequences on water quality and Columbia River salmon populations have perhaps been equally large.

After lunch at the foot of the waterfall, we retraced our steps along the lakeshore back to the ridge separating the three lakes. From the ridge, we followed a trail that traced the west lakeshore of the southeastern lake, which had a particularly round and pleasant shape. We followed the trail past the lake and briefly uphill and found an unmarked trail heading off towards the left. At this junction, we decided to check out what we would find on the spur and left the wider main trail.

The spur began the first steeper climb of the hike; we soon realized it wasn't actually a spur trail but instead a longer trail that followed one of the higher benches on the coulee. We found a small cave to the right of this trail: the cave wasn't deep but allowed us to explore a small basalt overhang that must have been carved out by the Missoula Floods. Inside the cave, we could clearly make out the polygonal shapes of the basalt columns.

Cave in the basalt
Across the trail from the cave, there was a good view of all three Ancient Lakes and of the north wall of Potholes Coulees.

Ancient Lakes
The trail continued onwards towards the base of a set of basalt cliffs, then curved to the right and followed the foot of those cliffs for the next half mile or so. We passed by one unmarked trail that led off to the left at a break in the cliffs; after checking Google Maps afterwards, it appeared that this trail led up and out of the coulee to the roads and farmland above. We then came to a second junction with a trail heading off to the left towards a notch in the basalt cliffs. We took this left fork and followed the trail steeply up through basalt talus to the notch itself, where we found an incredible view into the other half of Potholes Coulee. Dusty Lake filled this half of the coulee and was much larger than any of the lakes we had seen earlier. From this pass, the basalt columns appeared at eye level. The line of basalt columns forming the cliffs on either side of the notch made for a striking scene. The opposite wall of the coulee was a solid line of cliffs; above the cliffs, we could see the neat rows of fruit trees of Columbia Basin Project farmland. We saw a hiker use this notch as a pass between the two halves of the coulee, following a trail that ran along the base of the upper cliffs before descending to Dusty Lake. We chose to stay on the Ancient Lakes side of the coulee as the hike out from Dusty Lake appeared to involve a decent amount of scrambling.

Looking towards Dusty Lake from Potholes Coulee pass
We returned from the pass to the upper trail along the high bench on the south side of Potholes Coulee. Continuing west along that trail, we soon came to another left fork leading to yet another notch. We decided to explore this spur trail as well and were glad we did. The short spur led very quickly uphill through loose talus up to the notch, where there were simultaneous views of both halves of the coulee and of all of the lakes in both halves of the coulee. Even more impressive were the well-defined basalt columns just to the right of the notch. A path led up from the notch onto the top of the ridgeline itself, providing sweeping views of the coulees and a close look at the hexagonal columnar basalt. I've never seen columnar basalt anywhere else as impressive, close-up, and well-defined as I did along the clifftops at Potholes Coulee; Shenandoah's Compton Peak got nothing on these basalts.

Columnar basalt in Potholes Coulee
We followed another use path from the ridgeline back to the upper bench trail. Immediately after returning to the bench trail, that trail began to descend off the upper bench and back to the floor of the coulee. The path made a steep and quick descent through the talus back to the valley floor. We followed the left fork at the base of the talus to head west out of the coulee. By this time, the sun had just set and the cloudy skies were beginning to darken, so we made our way quickly along the trail all the way west until we met exited the coulee and met up with the initial wide gravel road trail from which we had come; we turned right at the trail and followed it north back to the trailhead. We made the drive back to Seattle over Snoqualmie Pass in the dark and arrived back in the Sound area early enough to grab dinner at Chaat House in Bellevue.

The landscape of Potholes Coulee is remarkable and geologically fascinating. While many hikers may prefer to stay in the Cascades to enjoy Washington's alpine terrain, I found the desert to be equally interesting and enjoyable, if in different ways. Don't write off the desert: go and explore this terrain of eroded basalts and lakes.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Windy Hill

Windy Hill
6.8 miles loop, 1350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: No pass required; paved road to trailhead, limited trailhead parking

Windy Hill is one of the many open space preserves along the Peninsula in the California's Bay Area. The meadows high on the hill provide sweeping views of the Bay, the Peninsula, and the Pacific; come during spring for the hillside blooms of California poppies. This is an enjoyable hike in Silicon Valley's backyard that makes for a pleasant half-day out.

A friend of mine at Stanford recommended the hike when I visited him in Palo Alto, so we decided to head to the open space preserve and check it out on a clear weekday morning in April. From the Stanford campus, we took Juniperro Serra Drive west to its terminus at Alpine Road, then turned left onto Alpine Road and followed it south past I-280 and the junction with Portola Road. Near the junction with Willowbrook Road, as the road narrowed and just before it wound its way into ravine, we parked on the side of the road and walked a short distance along the road to a gate that marked the start of the hike. If there's no room to park at the trailhead I've described, I've read that there's more ample parking from the access point for the preserve on Portola Road.

We followed the fire road a fifth of a mile into the park, crossing a stream along a way, to its junction with the Meadow Trail, then turned right to follow the Meadow Trail uphill. The aptly named Meadow Trail meandered through a mixture of oak forest and open fields while steadily working its way uphill to the junction with the Spring Ridge Trail. At that junction, we began following the wide Spring Ridge Trail uphill into the open meadows of Windy Hill.

The Spring Ridge Trail was full of beautiful surprises. The trail made its way uphill through green, grassy meadows with the two peaks of Windy Hill itself in full view up ahead. After rounding one corner on the trail, we noticed a herd of deer grazing on the meadows on a hillslope across a small gully.

Deer on Windy Hill
As the trail made its way progressively upward, incredible views began unfolding behind us. The mountains in East Bay rose above the thin sliver of the Bay that we could see, with peak of Mount Diablo prominently displayed. Closer in, we could see the Hoover Tower at Stanford as well as the spread-out, tree-lined suburbs of Silicon Valley.

Spring Ridge Trail
The uphill climb along the Spring Ridge Trail eventually brought us to Skyline Boulevard, about 1.6 miles and 1000 feet uphill from the junction with the Meadow Trail. From here, we switched to taking the Anniversary Trail, which followed the east side of the high open slopes of Windy Hill. A couple hundred yards after starting on the Anniversary Trail, we came to a spur trail on the right that led to the summit of Windy Hill. This spur wrapped around the summit, yielding our first and only views of the blue waters of the Pacific before reaching the summit.

The summit featured a 360-degree view of the South Bay, Mount Diablo across the Bay, the Stanford campus, the Pacific, and the backbone of the Santa Cruz Mountains running down the peninsula. We could see Skyline Boulevard's winding route as it made its way along the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The open hillsides dotted with occasional forest were verdant in the spring, though it was only a matter of time before they turned yellow and brown for the summer.

Pacific Ocean from Windy Hill
After spending a short time at the summit, we returned to the Anniversary Trail. The views from the Anniversary Trail were constantly good: as the trail followed an open slope, we had many views of the grassy hill itself as well as the many peaks across the Bay. Along the way, we passed Bob's Bench, a memorial trailside seat that featured a stunning vista.

South Bay view
Equally impressive were the wildflowers along the Anniversary Trail. In early April, the California poppies were blooming all along the trail, adding dashes of orange to the green meadows. Other spring wildflowers were also in bloom, creating streaks of purple on the grassy slopes.

California poppies
At the end of the Anniversary Trail, we arrived back at a trailhead along Skyline Boulevard. From here, we took the Lost Trail and continued south. The Lost Trail started out by cutting through the meadows as well, but after a few turns it founds its way into the more forested slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Four-tenths of a mile past the junction with the Anniversary Trail, the Lost Trail met up with the Hamms Gulch Trail. We took the left fork onto the Hamms Gulch Trail and began a beautiful descent through a forest of great oaks.

Hamms Gulch Trail
Part of the way through the descent, the trail came to a clearing with a good view of the Windy Hill and Spring Ridge, which we had followed on our way up to the peak.

Windy Hill from Hamms Gulch Trail
The Hamms Gulch Trail made a steady but relatively gentle descent all the way back down the hill. The trail actually stayed fairly high above its namesake gulch, generally following a nearby ridge until near the end of the descent, when the trail dropped into the ravine and passed by a few giant coastal redwoods. Finally, after following the Hamms Gulch Trail for 2.5 miles, I arrived at a junction where the right fork led back to Alpine Road. We followed the left fork instead, which returned to the initial junction with the Meadow Spring Trail in another two-fifths of a mile, thus closing the loop. From here, we took the right fork and followed the fire road we had taken to come in the final 0.2 miles back to the gate on Alpine Road where we had parked.

Redwoods on Hamms Gulch
This hike was most remarkable in that it is so close to a major populated area: the sweeping views of the Peninsula, the Bay, and the Pacific were accessible by just a 15-minute drive from Stanford and could easily be reached within an hour from any point in Silicon Valley. The scenery itself was very enjoyable and was easily equal to more popular hikes such as Castle Rock. This is a good hike for Bay Area residents and a decent introduction to South Bay hiking for visitors looking for a nearby but scenic half-day.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Mount Rose

Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens from the summit of Mount Rose
6.5 miles loop, 3500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

Do you like hikes that take you to jaw-dropping views with minimal effort? If yes, don't do this hike. While the views at the summit of Mount Rose are good, they aren't exceptional for Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. What is exceptional is the trail's grueling 3500 feet of elevation gain in less than 3 miles from the trailhead to the summit. Hikers looking for an intense workout will find that Mount Rose fits the bill quite well; hikers who just want a view will regret not having just driven up to Hurricane Ridge. The peak offers decent views of Lake Cushman and the southern Olympic Peninsula as well as far views of three Cascade volcanoes, a reasonably satisfying reward for those who choose to subject themselves to the steep uphill.

I did this hike towards the tail end of the winter that wasn't- a year when the Olympic Peninusla got less than 10% of its average annual snowpack. In early March, the Olympic peaks are usually blanketed with snow; Mount Rose typically has snow well into May. When I hiked Mount Rose, I saw no snow on Rose or any of its surrounding peaks and a waterfall that usually flows until June had already run dry. While these factors made it possible for me to visit in March, it was also shocking that the weather was so abnormal.

I headed out from Seattle on a clear March morning, following I-5 south to Olympia and then taking US 101 north from Olympia to Hoodsport. At Hoodsport, I took the North Lake Cushman Road, which branched off to the left from US 101. I followed the road past Lake Cushman Resort to a T-intersection; here, the right fork led towards Mount Ellinor while the left headed towards the Staircase region of Olympic National Park. I followed the left fork to the west. The road soon became unpaved; I followed it slightly further until I came to the trailhead for Mount Rose, still in Olympic National Forest. I parked by the side of the road and decided to check out Lake Cushman first before beginning my long uphill hike.

A short descent brought me down to the shore of Lake Cushman, a natural lake that was later augmented in size by a hydroelectric dam. The waters of the lake were perfectly calm that morning and reflected both Mount Rose and Lightning Peak nearly perfectly.

Lake Cushman
After enjoying the view of the lake, I returned to my car and then walked up to the trailhead. The trail itself headed off from the far end of the trailhead parking area and quickly crossed a pretty cascading stream via a bridge. This was the most substantial water source and waterfall seen on the entire hike.

Cascading stream near the trailhead
After making its first switchback, the trail began a brutal climb. The first mile utilized some switchbacks to climb from the more moist lower forest to the drier upper slopes, where I saw quite a bit of the peeled bark of Pacific madrones. Although there were no clear views at any point along this part of the trail, I was able to catch glimpses of the shimmering lake below through the foliage.

About a mile into the hike, I passed a wooden sign indicating that I had entered the Mount Skokomish Wilderness. From here forward, the trail became even steeper. Soon, the trail swung up onto a ridge and followed the ridge steeply up. A short spur trail on the left of the trail led to a stream where there is usually a small waterfall during the early season. However, the extremely low snowfall that winter meant that there was no snowmelt to feed the stream when I visited; thus, no waterfall.

The never-ending uphill
About two miles from the trailhead, I came to the junction for the two sides of the summit loop. I chose to take the left fork, which continued heading directly up the mountain. The remaining one-mile climb continued to be direct and intense the entire way up to the summit. The first true views of the hike came as the trail wandered out into a former burn area: I could see Lake Cushman by looking almost straight down. As the trail charged up this final slope, partial views of the Cascades, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and even the Seattle skyline emerged. A last push brought me to the forested summit ridge. A rock outcrop jutted to the south from the ridgeline; I climbed onto it and enjoyed the 180-degree views. My calves were glad to finally take a break from 3500 feet of climbing.

The views were very enjoyable: I could see up the North Fork Skokomish Valley into the Staircase region of Olympic National Park, with many craggy but forested ridges. Lake Cushman was directly below and Lightning Peak appeared commanding across the lake. Far in the distance behind the southern peaks of the Olympics, I could see the Pacific coast and even the indentation of Grays Harbor. To the southeast, the southernmost reaches of the Puget Sound were visible. Behind the Sound rose the wall of the Cascades, with snowcapped Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens standing out from the pack. Looking north, I could spot the summits of Mount Pershing and Mount Ellinor through the trees.

Staircase Valley
Lightning Peak and Lake Cushman
Lake Cushman
Rainier view
After lounging on the summit rock for about an hour, I continued onwards along the loop. The next couple hundred yards followed the fairly level summit ridgeline of Mount Rose. At spots, there were peeks of the surrounding peaks; however, the ridge was mostly forested. The trail descended slightly as it continued on the ridge until it dropped to a saddle between Mount Rose and Mount Ellinor. From here, the descent picked up speed as the trail began dropping quickly downhill. While not as steep as the uphill on the first half of the loop, the trail was still quite steep here as it descended quickly to the fork where the loop started. The return leg of the loop was 1.8 miles from the summit back to the junction.

I made quick work with the rest of the descent and found myself back at my car less than an hour before sunset. It took me a day or two afterwards to recover from the muscle strain of this hike. Although the hike was only 6.5 miles, it took me a little over 5 hours to complete.

While the views are quite nice, I can't really recommend this hike to anyone but Puget Sound area locals looking for a workout. The trail is generally easy to follow, although it was a little faint in areas along the summit loop; however, the hike was steep at just about every point except for the brief respite along the summit ridge. Good views are common in the Northwest as are intense workout hikes; many workout hikes provide even more sweeping views than Mount Rose (i.e. the Kamikaze Trail up Mount Teneriffe). If you're up for both and want to visit the Olympics, this could be a suitable hike.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Shi Shi Beach/Point of the Arches

Point of the Arches sunset
8 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead; $10 Makah Nation Recreation Pass required; for overnight camping, $5/person Olympic National Park permit required and $20 overnight parking in private lots near the trailhead

A wilderness beach is one of the rarer sights in the Lower 48 of the United States: on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there are few places where roads don't provide immediate access to the oceanside. In many ways, Shi Shi Beach, hidden on the far Northwest coast of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, epitomizes the wilderness beach. It's a five hour drive from Seattle, the closest major city, and access requires a few miles of hiking through the rain forest. The beach itself is a gem, a two-mile stretch of soft sand sandwiched between craggy cliffs to the north and ragged rocks to the south. Yet Shi Shi almost certainly does not feel wild- at least not on a summer weekend. The secret of this beautiful beach has long gotten out: stay on a summer night and expect the entire two-mile beachfront to be lined with tents and perhaps as many as a thousand campers. Nevertheless, Shi Shi is a beautiful enough destination to warrant a visit despite its popularity and can still be an enjoyable albeit a non-wild experience. The beach is part of the coastline preserved in Olympic National Park but can only be easily accessed from land belonging to the Makah Nation, which results in a tremendous amount of red tape to cut through to actually legally do the hike.

I camped overnight with three friends from Seattle on the July 4 long weekend. On the 4th itself, a beautifully blue day, we drove out from Seattle, taking the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and crossing the Hood Canal Bridge to connect with US 101 on the Olympic Peninsula. In Port Angeles, we stopped by the Olympic National Park Park Headquarters near Heart o' the Hills on the Hurricane Ridge Road. Here, we picked up overnight camping permits for Shi Shi, which required no reservations but were $5 per person. After the ranger briefly went over camping rules with us, we rented a bear canister from the NPS for $3; all hikers traveling along the Olympic coast are required to store their food and scented items in bear canisters to prevent animals from accessing human food.

From Port Angeles, we followed US 101 west past Lake Crescent to Sappho, where we then took Highway 113 north and then Highway 112 west past Sekiu along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Neah Bay in the Makah Nation. We stopped off at a convenience store in Neah Bay to pick up a $10 Makah Recreation Pass, which allowed for a year's access to recreation sites on Makah Reservation land. At the western end of town, we followed the Cape Flattery Road southwest along a river valley until we hit Hobuck Road; we turned left on Hobuck Road and followed it south. From here on, we stayed on roads that followed the beach closely for the rest of the way south to the trailhead, which was on the right side of the road perhaps 4 miles south of the turn onto Hobuck Road. However, since overnight parking is not encouraged at the trailhead, we doubled back and drove back half a mile to a house on the inland side of the road that provided overnight parking. Parking here was $10/day and an overnight stay counted as parking for two days, so we paid another $20 for parking here.

We set out with our overnight backpacks from the overnight parking area and followed the road about half a mile to the true trailhead. From the actual trailhead, we followed a fairly flat path through the woods. The first two miles of the hike was more or less through a forest, traversing impassable headlands on the inland side. The trail was mostly flat and at times featured sections of boardwalk and bridges. The second half of this forested trail followed an old road and was very muddy in many spots.

Trail through the forest
A little under an hour of flat hiking brought us within earshot of the breaking waves on the Pacific. A short spur to the right of the trail brought us to our first view of the ocean and of the line of sea stacks at Point of the Arches. It was my first sight of the Pacific in Washington State since moving to Seattle.

Pacific Ocean near Shi Shi Beach
A little past this viewpoint, the flat trail ended as we entered Olympic National Park. Here, the trail began a very steep descent down the bluffs bordering the coast down to Shi Shi Beach itself. Ropes aided the descent. While day hikers would likely find the downhill more manageable, backpackers may find it quite unpleasant to go down such a steep slope with heavy packs. Luckily, this is the only challenging section of the hike: after descending about 200 feet, the trail leads past a toilet to the beach.

If it were not so crowded, Shi Shi would be a miracle of a beach. We walked out onto the soft sand and down to where the waves broke as they hit beach. In front of us, we could see the vastness of the Pacific and hear the roar of water slapping the shore; behind us rose evergreen-covered coastal bluffs. At the junction of the land and the sea near the north end of the beach, a number of picturesque sea stacks marched confidently into the ocean.

Shi Shi Beach
We walked south along the beach, intending to camp closer to Point of the Arches. On that holiday weekend, the beach was packed: hundreds of campers were present and tents were set up every hundred feet or so along the length of the beach.

As we walked south towards Point of the Arches, we noticed some signs of wildlife: jellyfish that had washed ashore and a bald eagle that flew across the beach before perching atop the trees on the coastal headlands.

Bald eagle
The sea stacks and arches of Point of the Arches became progressively clearer as we made our way down the beach. We ultimately decided to set up camp about three quarters of the way down the beach, just north of Petroleum Creek and within sight of the arches at the Point.

Shi Shi Beach
By this time, it was quite late in the day; even though it was midsummer and the days were long, we had managed to use all of our daylight on driving to the trailhead and hiking out; it was already 8 PM. We decided to make use of the remaining daylight to watch the sunset at Point of the Arches before returning to cook and eat. Setting off at a brisk pace, we made it to Point of the Arches in about 10 minutes.

We spent the next half hour wandering around the maze of sea stacks at the point. Tidepools, oddly-shaped rock towers, crashing waves, and barnacle-encrusted boulders occupied our attention. The setting sun painted the sky progressively richer hues of pink. From the point, we looked out to the north along the coastline and could see the hills near Cape Flattery and even Vancouver Island in the far distance.

Shi Shi Beach sunset
Shi Shi Beach and the coastline near Cape Flattery
The Pacific Ocean
By dusk, we were back at our tents. We sat on the sand, eating hot dogs and playing Cards Against Humanity until the night was pitch black and a fistful of stars had been splattered across the sky.

The next morning, we woke late to a heavy fog. Once the fog cleared, we found that the blue skies of the day before had turned to an oddly smoky sky. At the time, we were a little annoyed, as the forecast had originally called for beautiful clear skies all weekend; we later learned that the smoke had made its way down to the Olympic Coast all the way from the intense wildfires burning in the Pacific Ranges near Vancouver.

After an oatmeal breakfast, we returned to the Point of the Arches to explore a bit more. Arriving this time at low tide, we explored the tidepools around the sea stacks. Amidst the barnacles and kelp, we found colorful starfish, sea anemones, and hermit crabs.

Starfish at low tide

Sea anemones in a tidepool

Olympic tidepool life
We decided to press on and explore the coast further south. Past the Point of the Arches, we found a secluded, rocky beach. It was incredible how Shi Shi had been so crowded, yet turning the bend and heading to the next beach allowed us nearly complete solitude. We followed the shoreline to a hole-in-the-wall carved into one of the coastal bluffs; from this point we could look south and see more bluffs. As it was already midday, we decided to turn back here and end our beach exploration.

Rocky beach south of Point of the Arches
After a quick lunch and packing up our gear, we retraced our steps to the trailhead. It was surprising how much more quiet the beach had become. The previous night, people were everywhere. The second afternoon, at the end of the weekend, the beach was nearly empty: the long weekend was over and everyone had apparently gone home to Seattle. We went home to Seattle as well and saved ourselves a bit of driving by taking the Bainbridge ferry back into the city.