Friday, November 4, 2016

Silver Peak

Snoqulamie, Thomson, Chikamin, Alta, and Hibox rise above fog at Snoqualmie Pass, seen from Silver Peak
6 miles round trip, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; rock scrambling necessary and routefinding skills are helpful
Access: Bumpy unpaved road to trailhead (no high clearance okay), Northwest Forest Pass required

Silver Peak is the tallest peak immediately south of Washington State's Snoqualmie Pass and is one of the more prominent peaks in the region. These attributes explain the peak's excellent views of Snoqualmie Pass and its attendant mountains. While the stats for this hike may suggest that Silver is a much easier climb than other I-90 peaks such as Bandera or McClellan Butte, the copious rock scrambling required at the end of this hike make this climb a bit of a challenge. Hikers who follow the Pacific Crest Trail and then an unmarked, unofficial climbers' trail to the summit of Silver Peak can experience an incredible panorama of peaks of the Central Cascades.

I hiked Silver Peak along with neighboring Mount Catherine 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 to the trailhead, passing a set of switchbacks and some rocky patches in the road. The road came to a clearcut at Windy Pass after I passed by the trailhead for Mount Catherine; a wooden sign here marked the road's junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. I parked on the side of the road just past the Pacific Crest Trail access point; there's no parking lot so all hikers will need to park alongside the road here.

From the PCT junction, I followed the Pacific Crest Trail south. The first tenth of a mile of trail passed through a clearcut from a decade or so ago; new evergreens had begun filling the landscape but trees were sparse enough that I could still across from Windy Pass to the rocky peaks rising across the valley. I passed a small pond in the clearcut that reflected the snow-capped summits of Snoqualmie Mountain and Kaleetan Peak in its calm morning waters.

Pond in clearcut near trailhead
At the end of the clearcut, the trail entered a second-growth forest, immediately crossing a number of small streams before coming to and crossing Cold Creek, the main stream in the valley bound by Mount Catherine, Silver Peak, and Tinkham Peak. Looking through the trees to the northeast, I spotted the forested ridge of Mount Catherine rising on the opposite side of Windy Pass.

Cold Creek
Past Cold Creek, the well-maintained trail climbed gently through the forest. At rare spots, I could look down on the fog filling the Cold Creek Valley, hemmed in by the mountains to the east of Snoqualmie Pass.

Fog fills Cold Creek Valley
Although the bright colors of fall were gone and huckleberry bushes had shed both their leaves and their berries, I found that winter colors could be equally eye-popping. At one point along the PCT, moss covering a rock almost seemed to fluoresce.

Pacific Crest Trail south of Windy Pass
The trail crossed many small streams as it traversed the eastern slopes of Silver Peak. Few, if any, of these crossings were difficult; I found that most fords were easy either due to low flow of the creeks I crossed or due to a number of well-placed rocks that allowed me to cross easily. Many of these creeks formed pretty waterfalls as they plunged down the mountain towards their eventual confluence with Cold Creek and then the Cle Elum River.

Waterfall along the Pacific Crest Trail
Recent rains made the trail extremely muddy; after passing the mile mark, the trail was often rocky as well. After passing through a small clearing with limited views of Silver Peak's rocky ridge and neighboring Tinkham Peak, the PCT made a short descent through two sets of switchbacks. Just under two miles from the trailhead, I came to the unmarked turnoff for Silver Peak. The path towards the peak heads directly into the forest and was only marked by a small cairn. I didn't realize that I had reached the junction at first; instead, I only knew I had gone too far when I saw a small pond to the left of the trail. I retraced my steps from the pond until I found the unmarked trail off the PCT.

If you see this pond, you've hiked past the turnoff for Silver Peak
This narrow, unmarked path was much more of a challenge to follow and to hike than the PCT. Three major blowdowns blocked the trail between the turnoff and Abiel Pass, the saddle between Tinkham and Silver Peaks. I followed the path past two waterfalls along a constant uphill grade until reaching Abiel Pass. This unofficial footpath was both muddy and rocky, an unpleasant combination. Here, a path branched off to the left, heading for Tinkam Peak; I stayed to the right to continue on the main path, which led towards Silver Peak. The path quickly led to a steep scrambling section that required a 20-foot ascent up a 60-degree rock face. Once atop the short scramble, the trail grade became gradual as I followed it across a flat section of ridgeline. At one point, I noticed a "No Trespassing" sign to the left of the trail: although the Cedar River watershed to the southwest of Tinkham and Abiel Peaks belongs to the public, the valley is off limits to human travel due to its role as the Puget Sound metropolitan area's water supply.

The footpath was occasionally difficult to follow as it wound its way through the ridgetop forest.

Near the junction of ridges emanating from Silver, Abiel, and Tinkham Peaks, I caught a first view of my destination of the day: Silver Peak, reflected in a tiny rainwater pond.

Pools of water above Abiel Pass
As I approached the peak, the ascent route through the talus slope and up the summit block became apparent.

Silver Peak
The path ascended through a large talus field on the southern side of the peak. Loose rock slowed the ascent. Despite recent rains and snowstorms, the talus was neither wet nor icy, making my life a little easier.

Talus slope on the route up Silver Peak
My uphill effort was rewarded with a jaw-dropping view of Mount Rainier, which appeared particularly massive when viewed from Silver Peak. In morning light, I could tell many of the details on the Emmons and Winthrop Glacier, including the position of Steamboat Prow, Mount Ruth, and Burroughs Mountains.

Mount Rainier seen from Silver Peak
Past the talus slope, the path cut through a grassy knob along the ridge, offering views of Chikamin Peak and Mount Stuart. Fog still filled the valley to the east. Contuining onward, I soon came to the base of Silver Peak's summit block. A steep scramble up the many rocks that composed the peak brought me to the summit itself.

Silver Peak summit block
Silver Peak's prominence and its position grant the mountain a huge viewshed. The most striking part of the view was the collection of snow-covered rock spires to the northeast of Snoqualmie Pass: peaks such as Hibox, Alta, and Chikamin were showing off their new winter coats. Mount Stuart formed an impressive site to the east, while the line of peaks along I-90 were all visible to the west. In the far distance, I saw the Olympics, including the Brothers, Mount Constance, and Mount Anderson, rising above McClellan Butte in the foreground and the Bellevue skyline in the background. The blue waters of Annette Lake lay just below the peak, next to Abiel Peak. To the southwest of Rainier, I spotted the very top of Mount Adams.

Mount Catherine and Mount Stuart rise above the fog
Si, Mailbox, Defiance, Bandera, Granite, Kaleetan, and Chair- the I-90 peaks
Abiel Peak rises above Annette Lake
I stayed at the summit for an hour to enjoy the views before returning. During my five hour hike, I ran into just two other parties on the either trail, a stunning occurrence for such a nice Northwest day.

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