Friday, June 17, 2016

Mount Ellinor

Mount Washington from Mount Ellinor
6.2 miles round trip, 3300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Mount Ellinor is the southeastern anchor of the Olympic Mountains and thus provides outstanding views of both the interior of the Olympic Mountains and the southern Puget Sound area. Ellinor is a popular hike not only during the summer, but also during the spring: after avalanche danger calms down, a fairly straightforward winter route allows those with sufficient snow hiking equipment and experience to access the summit. The hike packs a pretty substantial elevation gain, but those in good shape will find the summit panorama more than worth it: although not easy, this is still one of the easiest hikes to a craggy summit in the Olympic Mountains.

I've hiked this trail twice, once in early April in a year with below-average snowpack and the second time in late May in a year with above-average snowpack; the conditions were very similar both times. My first visit was on a partly cloudy but mostly beautiful April day, setting out from Seattle with a group of four friends. We took I-5 south to Olympia, then US 101 north from Olympia to Hoodsport. At Hoodsport, just past the IGA, we turned left onto Route 119, or Lake Cushman Road; we followed the at times windy road to a T-intersection. Here, we turned right onto an unpaved road, following the sign towards Mt. Ellinor; after following this road for about two miles, we turned left onto the NF-2419, a gravel road that departed sharply to the left and headed uphill. We followed this road until we came to the lower trailhead for Mount Ellinor, where we parked.

The trail set off from the south side of the road (the left side of the road from the direction of approach), climbing immediately through forest to a ridge. The first mile and a half of the hike consisted of a steady but fairly gentle climb through the forest along the ridge, with some stretches of old growth with fairly large trees. The trail is mostly dirt, not too rocky, and generally pleasant hiking through this section.

Forest on the lower trail
At one point along the lower trail, the forest opened up slightly to the north, offering initial views of both Mount Ellinor, our destination, and Mount Washington, a taller neighbor. This view also looked out over a tract of land that had been clearcut in recent years.

Mount Washington from the lower trail
Soon after passing by the small view, the trail came off of the ridge and began cutting north and climbing through switchbacks up the side of Mount Ellinor. At this point, we ran into our first snow of the hike, which was not surprisingly for April. We donned our microspikes to get more traction on the slippery ground.

About a mile and a half from the trailhead, the lower trail came to a junction with the upper trail, which departs from a higher elevation trailhead. Summer hikers may prefer the upper trailhead to cut out distance and elevation gain; hikers in other seasons will usually find that they must use the lower trailhead due to snow on the road at higher elevations. After joining the upper trail, the combined Mount Ellinor trail switchbacked aggressively up a ridge, then veered north into a small clearing at the foot of an avalanche chute. Here, the summer routes and the winter routes diverged: the summer trail, an established route, tackled the slopes to the northwest, but was completely covered in snow and was impossible to follow in April. We instead followed the winter route, which was simply to ascend up a steep gully towards an alpine bowl between Ellinor and Washington.

The winter route presents numerous dangers, so it's important to have the ability to assess conditions and decide whether or not the route is safe and doable. The main fact to note here is that the winter route ascends an avalanche chute: if there appears to be any chance of an avalanche, it's best to leave the rest of the ascent for another day. If avalanche danger is low, it's important to figure out what gear is best suited to existing snow conditions. We were able to successfully tackle (although not without some struggle) the slope with poles and microspikes. However, icier conditions might have demanded an ice ax and crampons, while substantially softer snow would have required snowshoes. The snow was still fairly soft, so we postholed quite often, but we were able to make slow but steady progress upslope.

As we ascended along the avalanche chute, views started opening up to the south. We could see Lake Cushman and the lower southern peaks of the Olympics; Mount Rainier came in and out of our field of view.

View towards the lower peaks of the southern Olympics
The full ascent along the chute took the good part of an hour: from bottom to top, we climbed about 1000 feet in about half a mile. As we ascended, many hikers who were on their way down glissaded rapidly past us.

Winter route
The long chute finally ended after a final steep snow climb that was perhaps as steep as 40 degrees. Emerging at the top of the chute, we found ourselves in a snowy bowl, surrounded by craggy rock. The bootpath led to the left up to a false summit, so we followed the footprints. Views out from the bowl encompassed Mount Rainier, the southern lobes of Puget Sound, and many of the lower summits of the southern Olympics.

Mount Rainier viewed from the climb up the winter route
At the false summit, we realized that we were still a final climb away from the true summit, which was still coated in deep snow.

Summit of Mount Ellinor
A final uphill push put us at Ellinor's summit. The view into the Olympics from the summit of Ellinor is nearly indescribable. Layers upon layers of jagged peaks filled the view, each coated high up with the winter's snow and lower down with the dense evergreen rain forests in this rainiest place in the continental United States.

View into the Olympics
The rocky massif of Mount Washington, which lay to our northeast, drifted in and out of the scattered clouds. Farther north, the snowy peaks of The Brothers and Mount Jupiter, the Olympic sentinels visible from Seattle, formed the eastern front of the range. Yet most remarkable in the view into the interior Olympics was a distant sighting of Mount Olympus itself, crowned in glaciers, locked in forever-ice.

Mount Olympus from the summit of Ellinor
The views out to the Puget Sound were equally impressive: the many arms of the southern Sound gave more depth to our perception of the lowlands. Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens rose above the horizon, seemingly floating atop the hazy mass of lower peaks.

Ascending the chute up the winter route was a tiring and difficult challenge, but descending was fast and exhilarating. Since the day was fairly warm and sunny, the snow was soft enough for safely glissading in such steep terrain. We took two short glissades to descend from the summit to the top of the chute, then launched ourselves down the glissade chute that had already been carved out in the gully through which we had ascended. In less than two minutes, we had descended one thousand feet, probably exceeding over 10 miles per hour at some points in our slide down.

If you plan to glissade, be sure to monitor conditions when you come up and make sure you have all the necessary equipment to glissade safely. In icier conditions, an ice axe is absolutely essential; later in the season, when the snow is further melted, rocks may make the glissade much more dangerous.

Lake Cushman and the glissade chute down the winter route
The glissade ended in a run-out on a flatter, snowy field. We emptied out the snow that had found its way into our clothes and into unexpected areas of our body and descended back to the trailhead, driving back to Seattle in time for dinner.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ryan Mountain

Pinto Basin and Little San Bernardino Mountains from Ryan Mountain 
3 miles, 1100 feet round trip
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road, $20 entrance fee for Joshua Tree National Park

Ryan Mountain sits near the heart of California's Joshua Tree National Park, offering hikers a bird's eye view not only of the park's distinctive Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems but also, seemingly, of all the vast expanses of desert of Southern California. An added bonus is that this airy viewpoint is not difficult to reach: most hikers in reasonably okay shape who bring plenty of water will be able to reach this summit. It is an unmissable hike for any visitor to the park.

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses mountains, mines, and two distinctive desert ecosystems. The Colorado Desert, or the low desert, forms the eastern half of the park and contains none of the park's namesake yucca; instead, the drier and hotter landscape is dominated by cholla cactus, ocotillo, and creosote. The Mojave Desert, or high desert, is home to the Joshua Tree, a yucca named for its outstretched arms which reminded early Mormon settlers of the Biblical Joshua praying. Ryan Mountain lies within the Mojave Desert, but is situated close enough to the boundary between the two to offer sweeping views of both areas. The mountain is easily recognizable from most of the park: it towers over the flat Mojave Desert, towering over the forests of Joshua Trees found along the Park Boulevard.

Ryan Mountain amidst the Joshua Trees, seen from Keys View Road

I hiked this trail on a crisp, clear November day on a day visit to Joshua Tree. The trailhead is accessible either by driving in via the Park Boulevard from Twentynine Palms or Joshua Tree, or by driving in from the Pinto Basin Road from the park's southern entrance. Accessing either approach from the Los Angeles metropolitan area requires following I-10 east into Coachella Valley. Most visitors come by the Park Boulevard from Joshua Tree, which is the fastest route; I came from the Pinto Basin Road, which is far less traveled but undeservedly so. The Pinto Basin is quite a remarkable landscape and it's certainly worth the extra time to drive in from the south to explore the rest of the park. When I reached the junction between the Pinto Basin Road and the Park Boulevard, I turned left on the Park Boulevard in the direction of Joshua Tree rather than Twentynine Palms, and followed the road until I reached the trailhead for Ryan Mountain, which from this direction was on the left side of the road.

Heading south from the parking area, the trail immediately began climbing up the slopes of Ryan Mountain, passing some large rocks near the trailhead. The trail soon began to climb along the west face of the mountain, ascending up the side of the slope with views of the flat desert to the west of Ryan Mountain and of the Wonderland of Rocks, the fascinating jumble of monzogranite in the northwest of the park. The hike was quite popular, with heavy traffic going both ways, so I was glad that the trail was fairly wide as it traversed Ryan Mountain's slopes.

Wonderland of Rocks and the forest of Joshua Trees
As I ascended along the trail, there were consistent good views to the right. Huge rock buttresses on the west side of Ryan Mountain framed a view of the high desert and of Mount San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Peaks, which peeked out over the Little San Bernardino Mountains.

Mojave desert from Ryan Mountain
As the trail climbed along the side of Ryan Mountain, it began curving to the left into a gully. The views shrunk away and I began focusing on my local environs: the desert slopes were dotted with creosote and yucca. As the trail winded its way up the gully and began to approach the summit ridge, views reappeared of Queen Mountain to the north.

Queen Mountain and the ravine approach to Ryan Mountain
The hike ended with a final push uphill along the broad ridge back of Ryan Mountain up to its summit. The wide dirt trail here cut through the low-lying desert vegetation with newly opened views to the east of part of the Mojave Desert and the Pinto Basin in the distance.

Approaching the summit
In just over a half hour's hiking from the trailhead, I arrived at the summit, which was marked by a large and growing pile of rocks. The 360-degree panorama was stunning: it felt as if I could see the entirety of Joshua Tree National Park from the summit (which is nearly true!). Both the Colorado and the Mojave Deserts were visible, as were the two tallest peaks in Southern California, Gorgonio and San Jacinto. Cholla and yucca decorated the mountain's flat top.

San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Peaks from Ryan Mountain
One particularly impressive part of the view was of the Pinto Basin to the east. Although hard to tell from ground level, from Ryan Mountain I was able to make out the gentle slope of the basin.

Pinto Basin
Although there aren't many hiking trails in Pinto Basin, it is a fascinating place to drive through: it's a good place to see the spindly-armed ocotillo and the fluffy-looking but deadly sticky cholla. I highly recommend that you include a stop in Pinto Basin in any trip to Joshua Tree.

Cholla Cactus Garden in the Pinto Basin
After enjoying the views from the top for a while, I returned the trailhead by the way I came.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Mount Jupiter

Duckabush drainage viewed from atop Mount Jupiter
14.5 miles round trip, 4700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: No pass required; rough gravel road to trailhead.

Mount Jupiter's distinct eastern position along the Olympic Mountains allows hikers who make the long trek to its summit the chance to see both the many lobes of the Puget Sound and the interior Olympic Peaks that rise above the Dosewallips and Duckabush valleys. From the summit, there are sweeping views of the Olympic peaks, including rare close-ups of both The Brothers and Mount Constance; on a clear day, it's possible to see across the Sound to Seattle and all five of Washington State's Cascade volcanoes. The incredible summit panorama is accessed by a long hike that follows Mount Jupiter's long ridge through forests of rhododendron that bloom in the late spring and early summer.

This hike is tough. The distance and elevation gain aren't the only factors here: the trail is dry, overgrown, and potentially hot depending on the weather. While much of the ridge walk is in the forest, the final mile and a half of the hike that features much of the elevation gain is out in the open on the mountain's southern slopes, making the ascent an oven on a hot day. It's necessary to carry sufficient water for 14 miles of hiking and 4700 feet of elevation gain because there are literally no water sources. While the trail is overall often overgrown, it's substantially more of a problem in the final ascent, as trees and rhododendron in that stretch of trail often cover the trail entirely when the trail is negotiating steep drop-offs. Which brings up another potential issue: those afraid of heights likely won't deal well with the narrow trail and substantial drop-offs at the end of the hike.

I hiked this trail on a sizzling June Sunday, when temperatures in Seattle topped 90 degrees. It takes roughly the same amount of time to access the trailhead from Seattle by going around the Sound entirely, taking the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, or taking a ferry; either way, you'll need to get onto US 101 along the Hood Canal to access the trailhead. I arrived from the north: from Quilcene, I took US 101 south past Brinnon and Dosewallips State Park to the turnoff on the right for the Mount Jupiter Road. The road quickly turned to gravel as I followed it a little ways up the Duckabush Valley before it made a few steep switchbacks up the lower slopes of Jupiter Ridge. The road was rutted in places and quite steep here- it would have been useful to have a four-wheel drive but the sedan I was driving made it through okay. At an unsigned fork in the road after the switchbacks, I took the left fork, which headed uphill and passed by a gate where the road is occasionally closed. I followed that road another 2.5 miles to the marked trailhead on the left side of the road. Parking was limited to wide spots on the side of a spur road. While doable with a small car, having a four-wheel drive on this road certainly wouldn't hurt.

The hike began in the middle of a recovering clearcut; the first mile of the trail traverses privately-held lumber land. The status of the forests in the first mile of the hike are thus very much subject to change; by the time you read this, there may not be forest where there was forest when I hiked. The first couple hundred yards through the recovering cut had views of the Hood Canal, Mount Rainier, and Seattle. Small trees had popped up and the recovering slopes were populated with lupine and paintbrush. As I hiked, the two-peaked massif of the Brothers came into view to the southwest. The trail made a steady ascent through the lumber property.

Seattle in morning light from the trailhead
The trail then alternated between young second-growth forest and recovering clearcut three more times before it entered a very recent clearcut, which could not have been more than a year old at the time when I hiked; here, the soil was still intact but almost nothing was alive. While some might find that the devestation of the clearcut detracts from the experience, I found it interesting to see the effects of cutting. This cut also provided a bit of view up the Duckabush valley and the first view of Mount Jupiter, far in the distance.

The Brothers and Mount Jupiter viewed from the clearcut
At the far end of this last clearcut, the trail reentered the forest and passed from private land into Olympic National Forest. Here, the trail also leveled out, staying relatively flat for the next mile or so as it traversed the south slope of Rhodie Mountain. Rhodie Mountain is appropriately named: many blooming rhododendrons filled its slopes, populating the trail through the forest with numerous clusters of pink and white blooms.

At the west end of Rhodie Mountain, the trail embarked on a set of short ascents and descents as it either climbed or circled around numerous small knolls on Jupiter Ridge. A few of these ascents were more extended and brought the trail higher up as I hiked west along the ridge. A little over four miles into the hike, an outcrop to the left of the trail offered a nice view of the Duckabush valley and the Brothers, the first good view of the hike.

View from outcrop along Jupiter Ridge
Past this viewpoint, the trail climbed steadily up the next few bumps in the ridge, passing the boundary for The Brothers Wilderness at about five miles. From here, the trail continued steeply onwards, quickly gaining elevation as it continued through the rhododendron-filled woods.

Entering The Brothers Wilderness
At about 5.5 miles, the trail started becoming seriously overgrown. As I hiked through a saddle on the ridge, the trail was nearly obscured by the undergrowth and by the rhododendrons that extended their branches into the path. The trail followed the south side of the next knoll and soon broke out of the forest into the rocky upper slopes of Mount Jupiter.

On the exposed slopes, the trail was narrower and steeper, with some eroded sections and other sections blocked by vegetation in such a way that I was forced to work my way somewhat precariously around to not tumble off the mountain's south slope. There was also a decent scattering of blooming wildflowers: I spotted scattered growths of Indian paintbrush, phlox, and beargrass.

The open slopes were hot and steep, making for tough hiking, but made up for it with stunning views to the south of the Duckabush drainage. The Brothers now seemed just a stone's throw away across the valley; as I ascended, Mount Washington came into view further south.

The Brothers and Mount Washington and the trail to the summit of Jupiter
After an earnest climb through switchbacks, the trail popped out on a knoll along the ridgeline that offered the first open view to the north. From this vantage point, I could look back along the ridge that I had hiked in along and see the many bumps I had traversed. To the north, one of the Jupiter Lakes was nestled in a basin far below. The peaks of the Dosewallips and Quilcene drainages appeared to the north and the summit of Jupiter itself appeared directly west. Snow still covered much of the northern aspect of the mountain, but the trail itself stayed snow-free through the summit.

Jupiter Lakes
The last few hundred yards of the trail felt tortuous under the hot sun. I reached false summit after false summit, convinced each time that the rock ahead of me was about to be the last. Yet the summit was ever further on, requiring set after set of switchbacks. I'm not sure if it was the heat, the long approach, or just the fact that the last mile was quite steep: I felt drained in the last push to the top.

Jupiter summit and Mount Constance
I had more or less no company on the trail unless the last few hundred yards, when two hikers passed me on the final switchback push to the summit. On arriving at the summit and spending some time there, I soon saw more or less all of the three other groups that chose to start the hike early that day, which was nearly everyone I saw on the mountain that day. It's hard to find such a spectacular location in the Pacific Northwest during such spectacular weather without having to deal with hordes of other people, so this was a refreshing change.

The view to the west was dominated by the Olympic peaks. Most prominent were Mount Washington far to the south, The Brothers close in, Mount Anderson directly to the west, and Mount Constance to the north; countless other snowbound peaks defined the valleys of the Duckabush and Dosewallips rivers. The view is unsurprisingly good, considering Mount Jupiter's prominence and the peak's former role as the site of a fire lookout.

Dosewallips valley
The Hood Canal and the other arms of the Puget Sound lay to the east. The day was clear enough to spot many features in the lowlands around the sound: I could see the Seattle skyline, SeaTac Airport, the Boeing plant at Paine Field, and the cliffs at the southern end of Whidbey Island.

Puget Sound
The Cascades rose from behind the Sound. All five volcanoes were visible, although a bit of haze to the south made St. Helens and Adams fainter than their sister volcanoes. Baker shared the North Cascades skyline with Shuksan and Glacier Peak was attended by Three Fingers, Sloan, and the other Mountain Loop summits. Rainier was its usual self, rising regally to the southeast.

Glacier Peak and Sloan Peak
Mount Rainier
After enjoying the views for about an hour, I decided that the heat really was too much and made my way back to the trailhead along the same path I came on, hiking for a total of about nine hours.

Mount Jupiter is an excellent hike for those who have explored some more accessible summits in the Olympics such as Ellinor or Townsend and want to try something more difficult with a less often seen view. It's an appropriate hike for fit hikers who can handle a tough summit push after a five mile approach along a dry, hot ridge. It's not an ideal or even a reasonable hike for hikers new to the Olympics or anyone who hasn't had a decent amount of prior hiking experience.