Friday, November 4, 2016

Mount Catherine

Granite, Kaleetan, Chair, Snoqualmie, Red- the Snoqualmie Pass peaks seen from Mount Catherine
3 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to short scrambling section at end of trail
Access: Bumpy unpaved road to trailhead (no high clearance okay), Northwest Forest Pass required

Mount Catherine is likely the easiest hike to a summit in Washington State's Snoqualmie Pass corridor east of North Bend. This relatively short but fairly steep trail quickly elevates hikers to a rocky summit with nice views of the Snoqualmie Pass peaks, Lake Keechelus, and Mount Rainier. If you've got less than a half day and you want to summit one of the mountains off I-90, Mount Catherine is your hike. Although the summit view cannot compare to the views seen from higher nearby peaks such as Alta Mountain, Granite Mountain, or Silver Peak, it's still an impressive viewshed considering the relative ease of reaching the summit.

I hiked Mount Catherine along with neighboring Silver Peak on an extremely nice November day. I left Seattle on I-90 heading east and drove out to Hyak at exit 54; upon leaving the interstate, I turned right and followed Hyak Drive through the village of Hyak until the road turned into NF 9070. I continued on the road, now unpaved, for five miles, passing a set of switchbacks and some rocky patches in the road to the trailhead. The trail started off to the right (north) of the road; there was parking along the road on the downhill side. As the trailhead is extremely poorly marked, I've photographed the marker for the trail (which simply reads "1348" and does not mention Mount Catherine). If you come to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail in a recent clearcut, then you've gone too far.

Mount Catherine Trailhead
The first three hundred yards of the trail followed an old roadbed, making a gentle ascent through the second-growth forests on the southern slopes of Mount Catherine. The trail deviated from the former road at a sharp left turn and began to climb aggressively. The next half mile was a constant ascent via switchbacks up the south side of Mount Catherine, entirely in the forest with only occasional views through the trees of Tinkham Peak and Silver Peak, which along with Mount Catherine bound the watershed of Cold Creek.

About three-quarters of a mile into the hike, I reached the top of the ridgeline and found a brief respite from the uphill. The switchback ascent had been cut into a fairly dry southern slope with little soil and no mud; atop the ridge, I found a much damper environment, with mud often covering the trail for the remainder of the hike.

Trail along ridgetop
At first, the ridgetop provided easy, flat hiking. Occasional breaks in the trees to the north revealed partial views of the rocky peaks surrounding Snoqualmie Pass, although the pass itself was not visible.

First views of Snoqualmie, Chikamin, and Alta
The lack of elevation gain didn't last; soon, the trail was once again climbing steeply as it followed the ridge towards Mount Catherine's summit. I passed by a well-situated campsite with a fire ring that offered nice partial views to the north. As I ascended further, I glimpsed more and more peaks through the trees; looking back, I could see McClellan Butte, Granite Mountain, Bandera Mountain, Mount Defiance, and other peaks that defined I-90's route through the South Fork Snoqualmie Valley.

Just before reaching the true summit, the trail emerged at a wide north-facing clearing. This was the best view of Snoqualmie Pass on the hike. All of the immediate peaks near the pass from Granite Mountain through Alta Mountain were visible; looking just east of the pass, I saw I-90 emerge from the the top of the pass and lead east towards Ellensburg. The cluster of buildings and ski lifts at Snoqualmie Pass were clearly visible. The real show stopper, though, was Chikamin Peak and Alta Mountain, two lofty, rocky peaks that were now coated in early-season snow.

Chikamin Peak and Alta Mountain from the clearing just below the summit
Past the clearing, the I followed the trail upward through two short switchbacks to the base of the rocky summit block. The final stretch of trail required a bit of scrambling: the path headed directly up a 60-degree slope to the rocky summit of Mount Catherine. Two cables offered additional support for hikers needing assistance for the ascent; the cables are probably unnecessary for most hikers.

At the top of the cables, I found a rocky ridge running east to west offering wide open views to the south. Silver, Tinkham, and Abiel Peaks were visible nearby, but the real star of the show here was Mount Rainier. The Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers were both visible and distinguishable on the eastern half of the mountain; the Willis Wall and Liberty Cap were the most impressive features of its western half. Other, lower peaks, many snowcapped, crowded the horizon.

Mount Rainier from Mount Catherine
Cascade ridges from Mount Catherine
Keechelus Lake was visible to the east. I watched from afar as larger tractor trailers threaded their way on I-90 along the lake towards Snoqualmie Pass. To the west, McClellan Butte, the skyscrapers of Bellevue, and the Olympics were visible through the sparse trees at the summit.

Keechelus Lake from Mount Catherine summit
The view to the north was a little underwhelming. Trees block much of the view, meaning that the partial views of the Snoqualmie Pass peaks and of the mountains lining I-90 to the west were no more clear than they had been along the ascent. As the forest on Mount Catherine continues to recover from former logging operations here, I expect that all northerly views from the summit will gradually disappear. For now, there are still a few interesting things to spot: the lookout atop Granite Mountain sticks out quite a bit from the pile of the rocks that appears to make up that mountain. To the northeast, I spotted Mount Stuart, the second tallest non-volcanic peak in the state, crowned with snow from recent storms.

Mount Stuart
After appreciating the views, I descended the way I came. On an extremely nice weekday, I shared the trail with just three other hiking parties. All in all, a decent though not remarkable hike near I-90 that is both relatively easy to get to and to hike.

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