Monday, April 24, 2017

Boulder River

Feature Show Falls plunges into the Boulder River
8.5 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain (or 2.5 miles round trip to Feature Show Falls)
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Bumpy gravel road with many potholes to trailhead, no pass required

The Boulder River tumbles through an unbelievably verdant forest and past numerous cascading waterfalls on its descent from the soaring ramparts of Whitehorse Mountain and Three Fingers, two of the most distinctive Cascade peaks visible from the Puget Sound lowlands in Washington State. While this hike into the Boulder River Wilderness neither ascends those peaks nor even offers views of them, it does trace the watery path of the Boulder River itself. The highlight of this hike is Feature Show Falls, surely one of the prettiest waterfalls in the Cascade Range, which leaps directly off rocky canyon walls down into Boulder River. The waterfalls come early in the hike: the latter end of the trail follows the Boulder River to a riverside collection of campsites. While the full hike is enjoyable, many hikers may prefer just the 2.5 mile round trip journey from the trailhead out to Feature Show Falls and back.

I hiked this trail on a rainy April Sunday with two friends, leaving Seattle midmorning and taking I-5 north to Arlington. From Arlington, we followed Washington Highway 530 east past Oso to milepost 41, where we turned right on the reasonably well-signed turnoff for the Boulder River Trailhead. From here, we drove four miles up a bumpy, pothole-filled gravel road to the trailhead, where parking was a bit limited. Potholes were copious and large enough that a vehicle with some clearance would have been prefereable, although we ended up making it to the end in a Mini Cooper. Although in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, as of spring 2017 no Northwest Forest Pass was required for trailhead parking.

From the trailhead, we started off along a wide former logging road, quickly passing an information board and a trail register. The first three-quarter miles of the hike were along this fairly wide former road, along which we made a gentle uphill ascent. After rounding the side of a ridge, the trail narrowed and began to drop downhill, approaching the Boulder River, which was now visible far below. A little over a mile into the hike, the trail began to approach the river more closely and arrived at a meager, dripping cascade down the rock face on the south side of the canyon. A spur trail led to a closer view of the tiny falls.

Just beyond this first spur trail, we heard the roar of water ahead; just a few steps further, the silvery strands of Feature Show Falls came into view. A creek plunging down the canyon wall on the south side of the river fanned out into as it leaped over 150 feet down the rocky wall defining the falls. Feature Show Falls is unique: it's a rare waterfall that occurs at the confluence of two streams.

Feature Show Falls
We followed a rough social trail down to the base of the falls and watched the water flow down over the moss-covered cliff. Although less than a third of the way to the end of the trail, this spot was the undoubted highlight of the hike: while many Pacific Northwest waterfalls may outperform Feature Show Falls in flow rate, height, width, or natural setting, few tumble as gracefully as these falls.

Feature Show Falls
Continuing on, we reached a second pretty waterfall a little over a mile and half into the hike. This waterfall lacked the charisma of Feature Show Falls, but it too was a rare example of waterfall-as-confluence. Here, too, we followed a spur trail down from the main trail for closer and less obstructed views of the waterfall. This waterfall is the last major scenic highlight of the hike: for hikers uninterested in the more subtle scenery found by following the rest of the trail through old growth forest and along the river, this is a good place to turn around.

Last waterfall along the trail
Past the second waterfall, the trail became narrower and muddier. Occasional ascents and descents brought the trail further or closer to the river, with occasional views of the forested but still snow-covered nearby ridges of the Boulder River Wilderness at higher points along the trail. Although net elevation gain on this hike is not high, there is substantially more cumulative elevation gain due to the many short stretches of ups and downs on the trail. Many of the Douglas firs in this old growth forest were massive: one trailside tree reached at least six feet in diameter. Big trees also meant big blowdowns: at multiple points, the hiking the trail involved climbing over large fallen logs. Although the trail handled one stream crossing via a log bridge, we had to rock hop through multiple other stream crossings. Additionally, one section of trail was a little overgrown: although it appeared that recent trailwork had cleared some underbrush, the trail corridor through the vegetation was still very narrow.

At times, the trail approached close to the river, providing nice views of the glacier-fed stream rushing through tight, rocky canyons and splitting around large boulders in the river. The milky color of the river is due in part to the source of the water- while much of the spring runoff was from snowmelt, a portion of the flow comes from the glaciers on Whitehorse Mountain and Three Fingers. Glacial runoff carries fine glacial silt that results in a milky complexion downstream.

Boulder River
A little over four miles from the trailhead, the trail ended as it came to a set of campsites at the side of the river. Here, the valley was wider and the river flowed a little more leisurely that it did downstream near the waterfalls. We ate lunch on the riverbank and turned back to return to the trailhead as a heavy rain approached.

Boulder River at the trail's end

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