Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Mount Townsend

San Juan Islands
8 miles round trip, 3000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Bumpy paved road and short stretch of gravel road to trailhead; no pass required

Due to its position at the northeast edge of the Olympic Mountains, the summit of Mount Townsend offers unparalleled views of the Salish Sea and its winding waterways. Here is a rare spot to observe the Strait of Juan de Fuca meet the Puget Sound from a lofty perch; it is an excellent spot to see the many winding waterways of the sea and the islands of all sizes that dot the water. Views into the interior Olympics are stunning as well: Mount Townsend offers close up views of the jagged peaks of the northeast Olympics. While not an easy hike, it's also not terribly difficult, making it a suitable choice between late spring and early fall for hikers looking to reach their first high Olympic summit.

I hiked this trail on a beautifully clear late April day with two friends, leaving Seattle early in the morning. April is extremely early for this hike; an early snowmelt in the year of our hike made it possible for us to reach the top during the spring, but in most years you'll want to wait until May unless you have microspikes and don't mind substantial hiking in the snow. From Seattle, we took I-5 south to Tacoma, then followed Washington Highway 16 north across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to Bremerton, continued north along Washington Highway 3 up to the northern end of the Kitsap Peninsula, then turned left at the juunction with Highway 104 to take the Hood Canal Bridge onto the Olympic Peninsula. We followed Highway 104 until reaching US 101, which we took south just past the town of Quilcene to an almost unmarked turnoff on the right for Penny Creek Road. Turning onto Penny Creek Road, we followed it past a quarry; when NF-27 split off to the left (signs indicated the turn for Mount Townsend and Marmot Pass), we took the left fork on NF-27 and followed it for about 15 miles. While the road was paved, it was fairly narrow and often had potholes, so the drive still took a while. 15 miles in, we made a left turn at the sign for the Mount Townsend Trailhead and followed a bumpy gravel road for a final mile to the parking area at the trailhead.

The trail began by ascending steadily through an old growth forest littered with rhododendrons; unfortunately, we had arrived too early in the year to catch anything blooming. Within a mile, the trail had entered the Buckhorn Wilderness, which protects much of the upper watershed of the Quilcene River. The trail switchbacked as it climbed through the forest for the first two miles of the hike.

Entering the Buckhorn Wilderness
About two miles in, the trees gradually began to thin out and nice views of the rocky walls and small waterfalls in the valley high on Mount Townsend appeared. Mount Rainier made an appearance on the other side of the Sound and we could see past rolling forested foothills to the Hood Canal. At about two and a half miles, we arrived at the area apparently known as Camp Windy; it was not clear to us why this area was given this name. A short spur trail here led down to a nearby pond.

Pond near the trail
Past Camp Windy, the trail was covered with snow, so we donned our microspikes for the next part of the ascent. A few switchbacks uphill from Camp Windy, the trail came to a junction that was difficult to spot in the snow: the path heading straight headed towards Silver Lakes while the trail to the summit of Mount Townsend made a sharp switchback to the right. We initially missed the turnoff here; a good way to tell whether or not you're on the right path is that the trail up Townsend continues switchbacking, while the trail to Silver Lakes ascends along a direct path.

The trail continued switchbacking as it ascended through increasingly sparse forest until it broke completely out into the open. From the high slopes of Mount Townsend, both Mount Rainier and Glacier Peak were visible on the Cascade skyline.

Views along the climb
Soon, the trail brought us to the broad, grassy ridgeline, where the expansive views to the east included the Seattle skyline. We could make out a remarkable amount of detail, spotting the Columbia Tower and CenturyLink Stadium from nearly 40 miles away. Closer in, we could see the waterfront of Poulsbo, a cute Norweigan town on the Kitsap Peninsual, and the Bangor Trident Base, part of Naval Base Kitsap.

Seattle skyline from Townsend
We continued along the grassy open meadows atop the ridge until coming to an unmarked fork in the trail, at which point we followed the right fork to reach the broad summit of the 6,260-foot tall mountain. At the summit, we turned around to find an absolutely spectacular panorama of peaks of the northeastern Olympic Mountains. Mount Constance, Warrior Peak, and distant Mount Jupiter were among the most eye-catching of the jagged snowcapped peaks to our south.

Constance and the Olympic peaks from Townsend
From the summit, we were also able to see deep into the Dungeness River watershed to the east; rows of rugged peaks separated the various river valleys of this corner of the Olympic Peninsula.

View into the Dungeness watershed from Mount Townsend
Yet perhaps the most extraordinary part of the view was that of the water. We continued a couple hundred meters further to the northern false summit for a better panorama of the point where the Puget Sound meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A maze of straits and inlets spread out to the east and north, separated by countless islands and peninsulas. The line of sight separating us from the distant glacier-capped summit of Mount Baker crossed Discovery Bay, the Quimper Peninsula, Admiralty Inlet, Whidbey Island, Saratoga Passage, Camano Island, Skagit Bay, and the Skagit lowlands. Lining the Salish Sea were some towns whose glory days were in the past and some whose fortunes had recovered. We could see Port Townsend, once a bustling harbor home to the US Customs Office, which has today redefined itself as a haven for artists. Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, lay across the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Vancouver Island. The Dungeness Spit stretched out north of Sequim and the many forested members of the San Juan and Gulf Islands dotted the sea to the north.

Mount Baker and Port Townsend
Vancouver Island across the Strait of Juan de Fuca
This hike has much going for it: it is one of the easier hikes to an Olympic summit, starts at a high elevation trailhead and visits a fairly high elevation summit. The reward is not only extraordinary mountain panoramas, but a unique vantage point of much of the Salish Sea. Hikers in the Pacific Northwest- and even hikers visiting from elsewhere- should not pass up a chance to check out the views from atop Townsend.

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