Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Heliotrope Ridge

Coleman Glacier and Mount Baker
5.5 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain to Coleman Glacier overlook; 7 miles, 2500 feet to Hogsback Camp
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous due to difficult stream fording and steep trail to Hogsback Camp
Access: Bumpy gravel-and-paved road to trailhead okay for most cars, Northwest Forest Pass required

The only reason you could leave Heliotrope Ridge disappointed is if you were looking for heliotropes. Wildflowers? Check. Mount Baker? Check. The main reason to hike to Heliotrope Ridge, though, is for the massive view of the crevasses and seracs of the tumbling Coleman Glacier, one of the most close-up viewpoints of a major glacier reachable by trail in Washington State or anywhere, really.

The most difficult part of the hike is fording Heliotrope Creek. The trail makes a total of four unaided stream crossings, of which the hardest by far is the third crossing, over Heliotrope Creek. As the creek is the principal drainage for meltwater from the upper Coleman Glacier, the volume of the creek is quite large and thus crossing the stream is quite difficult. Rock hopping is somewhere between difficult and impossible, depending on the rate of flow; your best bet is to hike through the shin-deep stream itself. Bring hiking poles and appropriate shoes for the crossing and keep in mind that glacial meltwater is literally almost freezing. Also be aware that flow rates fluctuate during the day and are typically highest in the afternoon, meaning that the water may be substantially higher and faster and the crossing thus substantially more difficult on your return hike.

I hiked this trail on a hot, sunny Saturday. Setting out from Seattle in the early morning, I followed I-5 north to Bellingham and then followed Highway 542 (the Mount Baker Highway) east just past the hamlet of Glacier to Glacier Creek Road. I turned onto Glacier Creek Road and followed the sometimes paved, always narrow, usually winding road for 8 miles to the parking lot at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead; even before 9 AM on a Saturday, the parking lot was entirely full so I had to park along the side of the road just up from the trailhead itself.

Heading out from the trailhead lot, the Heliotrope Ridge trail immediately crossed a creek via a well-built bridge and then entered the Mount Baker Wilderness. This bridge was the only assisted stream crossing of the hike; from there on, all other streams had to be forded. The trail started by delving into the forest, climbing at a moderate grade. Although the trail was at times rocky, it was generally a pleasant uphill and at times crossed through swampy and muddy areas via well-placed wood planks. There were no real views to speak of but the trail itself was nice if not very remarkable for the first mile and a half. Bugs were all over the place early in the hike and were quite aggressive whenever I stopped, which kept me going along the trail at a fairly constant pace to keep the biting insects at arm's length.

Forest along the trail
As the trail ascended further, it began to make a series of stream crossings. The initial stream crossings were easy; one of the crossings afforded a nice uphill view to a small but tall tumbling cascade.

Waterfall along the trail
Meanwhile, views of the green ramparts of Skyline Divide and Chowder Ridge to the north began to emerge as the trail made a second stream crossing, which could be easily rock-hopped. After the trail made an ascent up a few more switchbacks, at two miles it passed a junction for the Climbers' Route, which branched off to the right. The sign for the Climbers' Route was nailed to a tree on the left side of the trail and is easy to miss if you're not looking for it.

Past the junction, the  trail immediately entered a clearing with a reasonably good view of Chowder Ridge and more importantly of Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier. For hikers who don't choose to cross Heliotrope Creek and forgo the Climbers' Route, this view is as good as it gets- so you should almost definitely plan for one of those two options!

First view of Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier
After wrapping around some increasingly open mountainsides with flowers and views of the Pacific Range near Vancouver, the trail came to Heliotrope Creek. As the creek drains from the Coleman Glacier, the flow rate is quite heavy, making this crossing potentially dangerous. I switched to a pair of hiking sandals and used my poles for support to cross the stream at a wider but shallower and slower point, forgoing the riskier approach of rock-hopping across. I advise that you do the same.

Heliotrope Creek
After crossing Heliotrope Creek, the trail took just a few minutes to wind into the subalpine valley of the next creek. While following the main trail up the west side of the creek, I noticed a spur breaking off to the left; I decided to follow this spur, which crossed the creek and then led directly to the edge of the Coleman Glacier's lateral moraine.

My first view of the Coleman Glacier was stupendous. The blue ice of the glacier was torn open into numerous crevasses as it cascaded down Kulshan's slopes in spectacular icefalls. The glacier was enormous, dominating my entire field of view, and was complemented by an equivalently large field of ice beyond, the Roosevelt Glacier. Waterfalls thundered off the terminus of the Roosevelt Glacier, where meltwater from the ice momentarily underwent freefall at the edge of the ice-carved cliffs.

After briefly enjoying the view at this initial viewpoint, I followed a social trail along the rim of the moraine uphill to an enormous rock that marked the main viewpoint at Heliotrope Ridge. Here, the path along the rim rejoined with the principal trail to Heliotrope Ridge at a viewpoint with a magnificent view of the glacier's many folds and the many ice rivers emanating from the summit of Baker itself.

Coleman Glacier
The most impressive ice features noticeable were the jagged seracs of the Coleman Glacier just uphill from the viewpoint: here, the glacier passed over uneven bedrock, creating wild, soaring towers of ice and a rare hole in the ice in one particular serac. These towers are short-lived, collapsing soon after their birth as the glacier grinds its way downhill.

Seracs on the Coleman Glacier
The view to the back was substantially less impressive but still nice: from the slopes of Mount Baker, we could spot peaks such as Robie Reid and Golden Ears that lay across the border, forming the wall of the Pacific Range north of Vancouver. We could see as far as Mount Tantalus out by Howe Sound, but haze made faraway views less impressive than on a clear day.

View into Canada
The nearby views of the meadow-filled slopes of Heliotrope Ridge and the ice of the upper Coleman Glacier were equally impressive, made more beautiful by the numerous waterfalls formed by the mountain's steep slopes.

Subalpine basin at Heliotrope Ridge
After admiring the icefall, seracs, and crevasses, I opted to retrace my steps to the juntion with the Climbers' Route, crossing Heliotrope Creek again along the way. As this trail branches off the main trail prior to the least pleasant creek crossing, the Climbers' Route is a decent alternative for hikers who don't feel comfortable making the ford. However, it is by no means an easy route: the path briefly switchbacks in the woods before making a beeline for the Coleman Glacier along the steep spine of Hogsback Ridge. The trail climbs a thousand feet in three quarters of a mile, making it a fairly steep challenge.

As soon as the Climbers' Route exited the trees, views were excellent in all directions. Views of the Roosevelt Glacier and Bastile Ridge, the red colored arm hugging the Roosevelt Glacier, improved as I climbed up. I noticed many more waterfalls tumbling downwards throughout the meadow-filled slopes. The Coleman Glacier above the camp area became progressively more clear as well and it soon became possible to spot the tracks left by numerous climbers heading out from Hogsback Camp to summit Kulshan itself.

Mount Baker and the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers from Climbers' route
The latter portion of the uphill along the Climbers' Route featured a ridgetop walk along the Hogsback. At the end of the uphill, the trail seemed to dead-end at a small bowl; however, I soon realized that the trail was at this point just substantially less well marked and found a path that brought me uphill another hundred feet or so to a flatter area with sparkling streams, wide meadows, huge mountain views, and blooming lupine and arnica.

Wildflowers blooming along the Hogsback
This was the landscape around Hogsback Camp. I wandered around, first admiring the wildflowers and then taking a nap on a large flat rock with views of Baker and Colfax Peak.

Mount Baker, Colfax Peak, and the wildflowers at Hogsback Camp
After some rest, I wandered off-trail up to the edge of the Coleman Glacier. The upper portion of the Coleman Glacier rested on a bench just above Hogsback Camp. Although less impressive than the views at the Coleman Glacier overlook of the icefalls, my proximity to the crevasses of this upper portion of the glacier still made the experience quite unique. Climbers headed to the summit of Baker from Hogsback Camp follow this calmer portion of the Coleman Glacier up to a col between Mount Baker and Colfax Peak and then follow the upper reaches of the Deming Glacier to Baker's summit.

Coleman Glacier above Hogsback Camp
Having finally seen enough ice, I retraced my steps to the trailhead. This is an excellent hike due to the unique glacier views at both the overlook and at the end of the climbers' route; I recommend anyone in appropriate shape to visit both destinations. Be prepared for the difficult crossing of Heliotrope Creek and you might find this hike to be one of the more enjoyable in the Cascades.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Ptarmigan Ridge

Mount Baker, Park and Rainbow Glaciers, the Portal, and Sholes Glacier
11 miles round trip, 1900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

There are many good hikes in the Pacific Northwest; Ptarmigan Ridge is an exceptional hike. The views start from the parking lot at Artist Point and never stop, improbably becoming ever more expansive at every turn of the trail. This entirely alpine hike explores the rocky slopes of Ptarmigan Ridge, the meadows around Coleman Pinnacle, the snowfields above Goat Lake, and the stark, harsh glaciated terrain of Mount Baker's East Portal. The full hike starts at Artist Point and ends atop the vertigo-inducing cliffs of East Portal with its front row view of Mount Baker and the Rainbow Glacier, but hikers who choose to do even just a short portion of this hike will find spectacular scenery. The hike requires less effort than trails that provide a similar alpine experience, but still requires navigating snowfields, hiking through rocky terrain, a bit of rock scrambling, and occasional routefinding; it's certainly not an easy hike.

Ptarmigan Ridge is typically entirely snowbound until August or September. If you don't have experience route-finding in the snow, don't go before then! There's probably only a month or two each year when the trail is in good condition for hiking and I highly discourage visiting outside that window.

This hike can be divided into roughly six portions, each roughly a mile long except for the last segment, a shorter half-mile rock scramble. The first portion runs from the trailhead at Artist Point to the junction with the Chain Lakes Trail; the second starts from that point and ends when the trail enters a grassy saddle. The third segment ends at a sharp turn where the trail rounds a jutting ridge; the fourth ends at the base of Coleman Pinnacle, above the snowfields at Goat Lake. The fifth segment runs to the flat area at Camp Kiser, while the final segment is a half-mile through scree to the summit of East Portal. Hikers looking for shorter options can turn around after completing the third or fourth segments, both of which offer superb views and a more moderate hike; if you've reached Camp Kiser, you might as well continue to the summit of East Portal, provided you're up for a bit of scrambling and aren't acrophobic.

I hiked this trail alone on a August Sunday that started out sunny and clear but ended up cloudy with a few drops of rain. I drove up to Artist Point the night before to stargaze and see Mount Baker illuminated by the moon. From Seattle, I took I-5 to Bellingham and then followed Highway 542 (the Mount Baker Highway) to its terminus at Artist Point.

Star trails over moonlit Mount Baker
I woke at sunrise, spent some time admiring the alpenglow on Mount Baker, and was on the trail at 7 AM.

Sunrise light on Mount Baker
The trail departed from the west end of the huge parking area (opposite the bathrooms). The trails for Table Mountain and Chain Lakes branched off immediately from the trailhead sign; I followed the trail on the left heading towards Chain Lakes. After an initial downhill and about three minutes of hiking in the trees, the trail came out onto the open slopes on the south side of Table Mountain. The first mile of trail cut across the side of the mountain and provided a good view of Mount Baker and Coleman Pinnacle ahead and of Mount Shuksan and Mount Ruth to the back. Whitehorse Mountain, Mount Watson, and Bacon Peak also appeared to the south; I'm sure that most of the peaks along the Mountain Loop would be visible on a clear day, but the sky that day was a little smoky from wildfires on the Olympic Peninsula. The trail was fairly rocky through this stretch; marmot whistles echoed and at one point I saw a chubby marmot glancing at me from just off of the trail.

Mount Baker views from the Chain Lakes Trail
The first segment and the first mile ended at the fork between the Chain Lakes and the Ptarmigan Ridge trails at the far end of Table Mountain. I headed along the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. Just past the fork, I caught a clear view of the next segment of trail, which made a downhill drop of over a hundred feet and followed the north side of the ridge before climbing back to the ridge in about a mile.

Ptarmigan Ridge Trail
The ensuing section of trail was the rockiest of the hike. The trail descended via switchbacks onto the lower slopes of the ridge, then crossed multiple tiny streams as it made its way across the mountainside. Some of the best wildflowers of the hike were on this segment of the hike: lupine, arnica, and daisies bloomed in patches of greenery that were interspersed with the generally barren landscape. Views of Mount Baker and Church Mountain accompanied me through this stretch of the hike.

Lupine blooming by stream, Church Mountain in the distance
After traversing the mountainside for a stretch, the trail angled off to the left and began a short but aggressive climb to a saddle along Ptarmigan Ridge. I was greeted at the saddle by a grassy meadow and by views of Table Mountain, Mount Shuksan, and Hagan Mountain.

View from second saddle back towards Table Mountain
The third segment of trail started from this grassy saddle. The trail meandered along the broad top of the ridge for a bit before it committed to following the south slope of the ridge again. Mount Baker and the Coleman Pinnacle disappeared from view, but Shuksan and the rest of the North Cascades provided good company. The trail climbed gradually but constantly for the next mile. After crossing a sloped snowfield, I reached a sharp turn in the trail along a southeast-extending ridge, roughly three miles into the hike.

The view from this turn in the trail was fantastic: to the northeast, I could see Sefrit, Redoubt, Ruth; to the east Shuksan and the Lower Curtis Glacier, Blum, Hagan, Bacon, Watson. Mount Baker and the Coleman Pinnacle dominated the view ahead of the trail. This is a decent turnaround point for hikers looking for less than an 11 mile hike.

North Cascades views from Ptarmigan Ridge Trail
Mount Baker and Coleman Pinnacle from turn on the trail
View from the turn
Continuing onwards, the trail crossed through scree slopes and through pretty meadows; snowfields dotted the mountainside below the trail. Many of Mount Shuksan's glaciers, including the Hanging, Lower Curtis, Upper Curtis, and Sulphide Glaciers, were visible from this angle. The view to the south and the east widened even further and I caught a glimpse of Glacier Peak's summit poking above the wildfire haze.

Mount Shuksan and Mount Ruth
Along this stretch of trail, I passed by a notable set of columnar andesite. Although igneous in origin, this andesite isn't from Mount Baker- in fact, much of the columnar andesite seen here and at Table Mountain and Arist Point was formed by eruptions of the ancient Kulshan caldera, which predated Mount Baker by a few hundred thousand years.

Columnar andesite along the trail
The trail wrapped around the base of Coleman Pinnacle and climbed through a snowfield before turning around another ridge, roughly marking the four mile mark on the hike. Mount Baker reemerged, with the Park and Rainbow Glaciers pouring down its eastern flank. A barren, snow covered ridge led out to the jewel-like waters of Goat Lake. The twin Portals rose at the base of Mount Baker. For hikers not going all the way to the top of West Portal, this is as good as the view gets before the very end of the hike.

Goat Lake
While admiring the scenery from the ridge, I caught a glimpse of a herd of at least 30 mountain goats relaxing in a basin below Ptarmigan Ridge.

Mountain goats
After rounding the turn, the trail climbed through meadows on the west side of Coleman Pinnacle, providing constant views of Mount Baker, Rainbow Glacier, and the Portals. After reaching a high point with an excellent view back towards Goat Lake, the trail descended to a snowfield and then continued descending as it traversed southwest across the slopes of two burnt-red colored bumps on the ridge. I crossed intermittent snow patches and even more intermittent wildflower patches that featured brilliantly colored lupine.

Wildflowers blooming, Mount Baker and the Portals
Soon, the trail came to another saddle. The view ahead was a barren world of rock and ice: Mount Baker and East Portal loomed ominously and the Sholes Glacier was splayed out on the slopes of the Portals. Views to the north also opened back up: I could now see Skyline Divide, Church Mountain, and Excelsior Ridge.

The Portals and Sholes Glacier
From this point onwards, the trail stayed just above the Sholes Glacier, heading slightly uphill to a glacier-bound plateau with many rock shelters for camping that I assumed was Camp Kiser (the area was abandoned when I hiked through). Here, the Sholes glacier was right next to the trail, making it a logical route for traversing to the Portal for the Park Glacier climbing route. Looking back, there were good views of Coleman Pinnacle from the back side and reemergent views of Mount Shuksan. The camp marked a distance of five miles from the trailhead.

Coleman Pinnacle and Mount Shuksan from Camp Kiser
I stayed on the trail, which became even narrower and fainter past the camp as it began a stiff uphill climb. The path was easy to lose, so I relied on cairns for most of the ascent up the loose, rocky slopes of East Portal. This final climb from Camp Kiser to East Portal was the longest sustained ascent of the entire hike and the most difficult part of the hike. The path crossed two more snowfields and skipped the false summit of East Portal before emerging onto the almost knife-thin summit ridge of the mountain. I followed the ridge until its very end to come to a harrowing, stomach-churning overlook of the Portal and Mount Baker's Rainbow Glacier. From this viewpoint, there was a vertical drop of a few hundred feet to a rocky col between the Rainbow and Sholes Glaciers, with West Portal rising jaggedly and dramatically on the other side of the pass. Mount Baker itself was resplendent, a splattering of yawning blue crevasses and crumbling ridges of sawtooth rock on a shimmering white canvas.

Rainbow Glacier on Mount Baker
The name "The Portal" is quite confusing here: The Portal refers to the low pass that connects the Sholes Glacier and the Rainbow Glacier. The Portals typically refers to the set of rocky peaks that bound the Portal on either side; each of the Portals is in turn named by their relative positions (East and West Portal).

In the opposite direction, my view was a feast of Cascade peaks. Closer in, I could see Sholes Glacier as it spilled downhill to its terminus over a thousand feet below me; just slightly further away was Coleman Pinnacle and Ptarmigan Ridge, which I had followed to reach this lofty vantage. Even further out was a sea of peaks: Skyline Divide, Excelsior, Church, American Border, Larrabee, the Pleiades, Goat, Sefrit, Ruth, Redoubt, Shuksan, the Pickets, Blum, Hagan, Bacon, Watson, Eldorado, Spider, Formidable, Snowking, White Chuck, Pugh, Sloan, and countless other spires that I didn't recognize, including some peaks in Canada.

Sholes Glacier and the North Cascades from East Portal
I sat in amazement of the views until clouds started rolling in around midday, covering Baker and obscuring the endless parade of peaks on the horizon. I had the trail mostly to myself in the morning due to my early start but ran into hordes of hikers on the way back that afternoon. I returned to the trailhead just in time to avoid an afternoon rain shower and arrived back in Seattle by evening.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Rampart Ridge

Mount Rainier viewed from Rampart Ridge
 4.6 miles loop, 1340 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee required

There aren't many good things that I can say about the hike to Rampart Ridge. There's a single good view all hike and the hike is too popular to enjoy as a quiet wander in the woods. National Park Service literature and many guidebooks recommend this hike; while this isn't necessarily a bad hike, it is certainly not one of the highlights of Mount Rainier National Park and only makes sense as a hike if higher-elevation trails have not melted out yet.

I did this hike with two friends, one of whom was on a short visit to Seattle, on an early May day. We intended originally to hike near Paradise, but my friends lacked appropriate gear for hiking in the snow, so we settled for stops at Paradise and Narada Falls for photos before returning to Longmire to do this hike.

Rainbow at Narada Falls
From Seattle, we took Hwy 167 and Hwy 512 south to Puyallup, then followed Hwy 161 south until it joined with Hwy 7. We took Hwy 7 east (left turn) to Elbe, then stayed straight through the town to take Hwy 706 into Mount Rainier National Park. We parked next to the visitor center at Longmire to start the hike.

We took the Wonderland Trail heading north from the north end of the Longmire parking area (near the Longmire Museum). The first few hundred meters of trail roughly paralleled the road to Paradise, which meant we were never far from the sound of traffic.

We followed the Wonderland Trail across the Paradise Road and then hiked through a gentle uphill for the next couple hundred meters. The trail passed some large old-growth trees before it embarked on a much more substantial uphill climb. About 1.5 miles from the trailhead, we reached a junction with the Van Trump Park Trail, which led off to the right; we stayed left to stay on the Wonderland Trail. Another fifth of a mile farther, we came to a junction with the Rampart Ridge Trail, which marked the end of the climb for the hike.

We took the left fork for the Rampart Ridge Trail, which followed the top of the forested ridge. There were no views to speak of for the next mile, which featured little elevation gain and little else of interest.

The best portion of the hike was a mile after coming to the top of the ridge- and a little over 2.7 miles past the trailhead- when the trail emerged into an open talus slope overlooking the Kautz Creek watershed. At the southern end of the talus slope, we looked back and saw a beautiful view of Mount Rainier in its snow-capped spring glory.

View of Mt. Rainier from the talus slope
After leaving the talus slope, the trail followed the ridge slightly further before beginning to gradually dip off to the southeastern side of the ridge. A signed trail for a viewpoint branched off to the left, leading to an overlook with a very, very limited view of the Nisqually valley. Continuing further, the trail began to descend in earnest down a set of graded switchbacks through the forest. We found an interestingly arched tree along the switchbacks.

Arched tree
The switchbacks continued until the trail returned to the base of Rampart Ridge in the Nisqually valley. The trail made its way around the swamp at the base of the valley; we smelled the distinct odor of skunk cabbage and soon spotted some of its odd yellow flowers blooming the wetlands.

Skunk cabbage in wetlands near Longmire
When we made our way back to Longmire and the National Park Inn, we noticed a final decent view of Mount Rainier while we crossed the road back to the parking lot.

Mount Rainier viewed from Longmire
All in all, it was a reasonably nice walk in the woods, a tad of a workout, and one good view of Mount Rainier. It's not a bad hike- but also not a spectacular one. It's worth doing if you've seen the highlights of the park and want to explore more.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Hall of Mosses

Maple grove in the Hall of Mosses
 0.8 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Olympic National Park entrance fee required

The Hoh Rainforest in Washington State's Olympic National Park is a magical forestscape of huge trees and omnipresent moss in a valley that receives some of the highest annual precipitation of any place in the contiguous United States. This short and easy trail is a good way to enjoy some highlights of this forest and learn about its fascinating ecology. Although it's hard to justify a drive out from Seattle just for this short hike, this hike pairs well with other short Olympic hikes for a road trip circumnavigation of the peninsula.

I hiked to the Hall of Mosses with two friends visting from the Bay Area. We drove out from Seattle, taking I-5 south to Olympia and then heading west to Aberdeen, from which we then followed US 101 north. After stopping by Kalaloch and Ruby Beach to check out the tidepools and the sea stacks, we made a turn off US 101 to the right onto Upper Hoh Road, an intersection which was clearly marked with a sign reading "Olympic National Park: Hoh Rain Forest." We followed the road through miles of clear cut and second growth forest before finally arriving at the national park; after passing the entrance station, we drove to the Hoh Campground and snagged a first-come, first-serve campsite.

We started our hike at the visitor center, which was within walking distance of the campground. By the time of our hike, it was late afternoon and the mosquitoes were out in force. I unwisely forgot to apply insect repellent before we began hiking and was thus partially consumed by the time we returned to our campsite.

The trail started at the visitor center parking lot. The first hundred yards followed the same path as the Spruce River Trail, another short nature hike, and the Hoh River Trail, a longer trail leading down the length of the Hoh River to its source at the glaciers on Mount Olympus. The Hall of Mosses Trail branched off to the left; we followed the signs for Hall of Mosses, passing another junction for a trail back to the visitor center and coming to a placid stream in the middle of the forest. We crossed the stream on a well-built bridge and then hiked up a short incline to reach a trail junction with the loop trail. We chose to hike the loop clockwise, taking the left fork first.

The rainforest areas on the early parts of the trail actually weren't particularly impressive: the trees weren't particularly big and the moss wasn't particularly thick. We did pass through an oddly shaped tree that arched directly over the trail, which was an unexpected sight.

After a few minutes of walking along the loop we came to a spur trail for the maple grove. Hounded by mosquitoes, we almost chose not to take this spur, but at my insistence we took the trail a couple dozen yards up to a dead-end next to some of the mossiest trees I'd ever seen. A number of mature maple trees with sinewy trunks were adorned crown to roots with moss. The trail indeed lived up to its name. Moss-covered maples were actually substantially more attractive than their coniferous counterparts, due to their relatively higher geometric complexity compared to the cylindrical trunks of firs and hemlocks.

Mossy maple
Back on the main loop, we found that the trees around the trail were only becoming more mossy. Greenery was everywhere and the moss covered everything. Maples, Douglas fir, Sitka Spruce, Western cedar- the trees were enormous and almost luminescently green. Like the Hulk, but trees.

You wonder why it's called Hall of Mosses
This extraordinarily verdant forest is formed due to orographic rainfall in the Olympic Mountains. Moist air is blown east from the Pacific Ocean from the autumn through the spring; as the air is forced upward in elevation over the Olympic Mountains, the air cools and moisture condenses and precipitates, delivering an average of 150 inches of rain to the Hoh Rain Forest and the slopes of Mount Olympus each year. The abundant precipitation supports the extraordinary amount of plant life in the temperatre rainforests of the Olympics; besides the Hoh River Valley, the valleys of the Queets, Quinault, and Bogachiel also receive enough precipitation to be classified as temperate rain forests. Ample precipitation on the western slopes of the Olympics means that air that makes it to the east side of the Olympics is substantially drier, resulting in a rainshadow of drier climate and sunnier weather on the northeastern corner of the peninsula.

Hoh Rain Forest
One of the more interesting phenomenon that we encountered on our hike was nurse logs. These logs were from trees in the rain forest that had toppled. Instead of simply decomposing away slowly, these fallen logs provide the nutrients necessary for new saplings to grove. Thus, many trees grow directly off of the fallen trunks of thee "nurse logs," creating interesting patterns in which trees growing from the same nurse log fall along a single line.

Line of trees growing from a nurse log
Once we finished ruminating on the rainshadow effect and nurse logs, we decided that we had all gotten enough mosquito bites and made a hasty retreat to the trailhead and then to the comfort of our campfire.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Lake Ann and Curtis Glacier

Lower Curtis Glacier
8 miles round trip, 1900 feet elevation gain to Lake Ann; 10 miles, 2400 feet to Curtis Glacier
Difficulty: Moderate to Lake Ann; Moderate-Strenuous to Curtis Glacier
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required for trailhead parking

This hike visits a pair of stunning destinations in Washington state's North Cascades: gem-like Lake Ann and the glistening ice of the Lower Curtis Glacier. While Lake Ann usually gets top billing and is the main destination for most hikers, hikers shouldn't pass up the opportunity to continue along the trail for a closer look at the icy seracs of the Curtis Glacier at the foot of imposing Mount Shuksan. This hike is one of many excellent hikes along the Mount Baker Highway; the easy access to its high elevation trailhead and the excellent scenery en route make this a popular and oft-crowded hike. The hike spends much of its initial three miles in the forest, descending from the Mount Baker Highway into the meadow-filled basin of Swift Creek and then cutting through forest along the slopes of an arm of Mount Shuksan before climbing through alpine meadows and talus to a saddle and access to Lake Ann. If you haven't hiked much before, it's important to know that you can handle the return uphill before attempting this downhill-first-then-uphill-last hike.

I hiked to the Curtis Glacier with a friend on a hot but beautifully clear August day. Setting out from Seattle in the morning, we took I-5 north to Burlington, then Highway 20 east to Sedro Wooley, then Highway 9 north to the junction with the Mount Baker Highway (Route 542). We followed the Mount Baker Highway east until reaching the Lake Ann Trailhead, which is just short of the road's dead end at Artist Point. The parking lot had a reasonable number of spaces but by the time we arrived cars were parked all along the side of the extremely narrow road to Artist Point as well. The views were already excellent from the trailhead: looking north, we could see Mount Larrabee and the assorted rocky peaks by the Canadian border.

The trail departed from the parking lot and remained flat for the first few hundred meters, roughly paralleling the road; at one point, the trail has a view of the peaks visible from the trailhead that is within a stone's throw of the road.

Trailhead view
The trail continued to wrap around a forested bowl, with peekaboo views of distant arms of Mount Shuksan. After a quarter mile of hiking, the trail descended down a set of switchbacks to a pretty meadow in a basin, passing a sign informing us that we had entered the Mount Baker Wilderness. We found a wide assortment of wildflowers still blooming, including daisies, paintbrush, columbine, and Sitka valerian.

Swift Creek basin
Paintbrush in bloom
We crossed Swift Creek twice as we passed through the basin. Mount Shuksan provided good company as we made our way to the end of the valley. After the second crossing, the trail delved into the forest and began a gentle climb followed by a gentle descent, following the lower slopes of one of the arms of Mount Shuksan.

Shuksan from Swift Creek basin
The trail reemerged from the forest at another set of meadows. At a stream crossing here, we caught our first view of glacier-coated Mount Baker.

First view of Mount Baker
Past the stream crossing, the trail began the hike's longest sustained uphill, climbing a little over 900 feet in the next mile. As the trail headed uphill, there were excellent views of the rust-stained mountainsides to the north and of the rocky, barren alpine cliffs towards which we were climbing. The trail passed by a small meadow with a view of Mount Baker, switchbacked through a talus slope, and then emerged onto the higher meadows in an alpine basin. The many sharp protrusions of Mount Shuksan- including the mountain's summit pyramid- looked remarkable from the angle of the trail.

Shuksan spires
As we climbed further up the side of the basin via a set of switchbacks through the heather-strewn rocky slopes, we found even better views of Mount Baker and of Artist Point and Table Mountain.

Mount Baker
We crossed an extremely small snow patch right before reaching the top of the ridge; the patch was on flat ground and was thus entirely no problem to cross. After passing the last remaining snow on the trail, we came to a saddle in the ridge and our first view of the lake.

Lake Ann was a pretty lake nestled in a high basin. From the saddle, we could see a nice backdrop of various North Cascades peaks rising behind the lake.

Lake Ann from trail saddle
We ate lunch by the lake's shimmering waters and took a quick dip in the lake's cold but not frigid water, which provided a welcome respite from the heat of the midday sun. After lunch, we made our way to the far side of the lake for views of the lake with Mount Shuksan's soaring spires of metamorphic rock as backdrop.

Lakeside views
Lake Ann, Mount Shuksan, Curtis Glaciers
Since the trail continued onward from the lake, we decided to follow it towards Curtis Glacier. When viewed from the perspective of Lake Ann, Mount Shuksan displays two major glaciers: the Upper Curtis, a tongue of which descends from Shuksan's summit plateau, and the Lower Curtis, a collection of towering seracs at the base of Shuksan's mighty southwest face. The trail towards the Curtis Glacier rounded a hillock above the lake and then cut through a stream-strewn, rocky meadow.

Upper and Lower Curtis Glaciers, Summit Pyramid of Mt. Shuksan
From the meadow, we had an extraordinary view to the south of wispy waterfalls tumbling down the slopes of Shuksan itself, Whitehorse Mountain far off to the south, and the turquoise waters of Baker Lake below.

Waterfalls tumbling off the slopes of Shuksan towards Baker Lake
We continued from the meadow towards the glacier. From the trailhead to the four-mile mark at Lake Ann, the trail had been fairly wide with a good tread. Here, the trail narrowed substantially. The trail passed through sparse forest and a huge huckleberry patch via a set of sharp switchbacks and entered North Cascades National Park from the Mount Baker Wilderness. Past the sign marking the entrance into the national park, the condition of the trail deteriorated substantially. The trail came out into open slopes of meadows and talus but was heavily eroded in more than a single place. Hiking here required scrambling and careful footwork while traversing fairly rugged terrain. We were compensated for the poor trail condition with views behind us to Mount Baker, Lake Ann, and the faraway emerald ridge of Skyline Divide.

Lake Ann and Mount Baker
After crossing a crumbling scree slope and a meadow full of thistles, the trail appeared to dead-end a couple hundred yards away from the terminus of the Curtis Glacier. While it seemed possible to hike cross-country to reach the glacier itself, the terrain was extremely steep, the scree was loose in many places, and a number of unstable snowfields still separated where we stood from the glacier. We decided to call it a day at this viewpoint and enjoyed the sunlight reflecting off the Curtis Glacier's remarkable blue ice. The glacier's toe was particularly beautiful: we could see the many bands on the glacier separating each year of the accumulated centuries of ice. Although the glacier wasn't particularly large, it was one of the more up-close glacier experiences that I've had in Washington state.

Terminus of Lower Curtis Glacier
We turned back and retraced our steps from the glacier, making it back to the trailhead in 2 hours and 15 minutes with stops to munch on huckleberries in the switchbacks above the lake.