Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Lookout Mountain (Methow Valley)

Twisp River Valley, Gardner Mountain, and the Pasayten peaks from Lookout Mountain Lookout
3 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Rocky, steep gravel road to trailhead; no pass required

Lookout Mountain is a reminder that generic doesn't mean bad. Peak names don't get much more generic than Lookout Mountain and the view from the summit of Lookout Mountain really is just another generic view of the North Cascades; but what that means practically is that this is a hike with a sweeping view and that the view from atop Lookout Mountain Lookout encompasses some beautiful and rarely seen peaks. This hike is short and the scenery excellent but not exceptional; while it's certainly worth hiking if you happen to be in Methow Valley, it's not worth a dedicated trip if you're traveling from Seattle or farther. It also appears to be a decent bit off the beaten path: I saw only one other group of hikers on a sunny June Saturday when hundreds of hikers were crowding Lake Serene, Mason Lake, and other overloved Seattle area hikes.

I set out for this hike from Seattle in the morning, taking I-5 north to Burlington and then Highway 20 east all the way to Twisp; at Twisp, I turned right (west) onto the Twisp River Road and soon after turned left onto the Lookout Mountain Road. The Lookout Mountain Road was initially paved but soon turned into a good gravel road, which I followed into the boundaries of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The road was in good condition until making a sharp switchback for the final ascent to a saddle just north of the peak. Here, the road became filled with sharp rocks and steep and a bit rutted in a few spots; I took it slow and made it up to the unmarked trailhead parking at the saddle in a Prius. The road continues slightly past the saddle, but you should park at the saddle itself because the road becomes much rougher and there's no parking further up.

The start of the trail follows the old road uphill along the north ridge of Lookout Mountain. The road quickly narrowed into a single track trails, which ascended through a pine forest dotted with blooming paintbrush, lupine, larkspur, and penstemon; the arrowleaf balsamroot was unfortuantely already past prime when I hiked but presumably would have been in bloom earlier in June or May.

Trailside paintbrush
Penstemon and Larkspur
The trail started out following the east side of a wire fence but crossed a cattle guard to the other side of the fence about a third of a mile into the hike. Continuing to ascend along the north ridge, I passed some beautiful trailside meadows with peek-a-boo views of the North Cascades in the distance.

Meadow-lined trail
The trail was generally in great shape, save for five or six instances of blowdown. None of the fallen trees were difficult to navigate around. Parts of the trail were a little rocky, making for unpleasant footing, but nothing about hiking this trail was difficult besides, perhaps, the fairly steep grade.

About three-quarters of a mile in, the trail swung towards the west and began to traverse along the wooded northwest aspect of the mountain towards the west ridge. At points, the trees cleared briefly to open views of the Okanogan Range to the northeast and the peaks of the Pasayten Wilderness to the north.

Trail with a view of the Okanogan Range
At about 1.2 miles into the hike, the trail rounded the west ridge and came to wide open, sweeping views to the south and west. Hoodoo Peak and Oval Peak, both part of the Sawtooth Range in Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness, rose to the south above lower, wooded foothills. The green southern slopes were still dotted with blooming wildflowers, though the balsamroot here, like those lower on the trail, were done for the season.

Hoodoo and Oval Peaks from Lookout Mountain
The last quarter of a mile of trail followed the open terrain along the south side of the west ridge up to the summit, delivering constant views to the south of the Methow Valley and the flat, arid Columbia Plateau in the distance.

View down the Methow Valley towards the Columbia Plateau
An elevated lookout tower stood atop the open summit area. I took the staircase up to the top of the lookout: the cabin itself was locked and is now inaccessible to the public, but the place was still furnished: a mattress, a map of the area, a stove, candles. This lookout was once one of hundreds of fire lookouts around the state used to monitor the landscape for forest fires; it was decommissioned about two decades ago but has so far escaped the fate of being torn down.

Lookout Mountain Lookout
The principal reason for this hike is the 360-degree view from the lookout, unsurprisingly for a peak named Lookout Mountain. To the northeast, I spotted the town of Twisp in the Methow Valley; behind Twisp rose the peaks of the Okanogan Range, including Tiffany Mountain, the highest peak in the range. On the mountain opposite Lookout to the east, I spotted an exposed mine. To the southeast, the burnt ridges of the Methow Valley faded towards the flat expanse of the Columbia Plateau. The southern and western skylines were defined by the Sawtooth Range, a subrange of the Cascades that featured, prominently, Hoodoo, Oval, and Reynolds Peaks. Black Peak and Goode Mountain, two of the taller peaks in the Cascades, poked above the wall of snowy peaks that defined the headwaters of the Twisp River.

Tiffany Mountain and the Okanogan Range rise over Twisp and the Methow Valley
Cascades reflected in Lookout Mountain Lookout
To the northwest, Gardner and North Gardner Mountain filled the space between the Twisp and the Methow drainages. North Gardner was tall enough to block out Abernathy, Silver Star, and other major peaks along that divide. To the north, I could see Robinson Mountain along with the snowcapped summits of the Pasayten Wilderness in the Harts Pass area. Goat Peak Lookout was recognizable by the Goat Wall rising above the Methow River drainage; Winthrop was also spottable directly to the north in the Methow Valley.

Robinson and the Pasayten Peaks
I passed one group of hikers coming down when I was on my way up, but had the summit entirely to myself during my visit. This was likely due to my late arrival- I didn't start hiking until 3- but I was still pleasantly surprised to have such a nice view all to myself on an extraordinarily sunny weekend.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Twisp Pass

Goode and Frisco Mountains and Dagger Lake viewed from Twisp Pass
9.5 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, due to a rocky trail
Access: Unpaved road to trailhead has small, crossable washout; Northwest Forest Pass required

Twisp Pass is your run-of-the-mill North Cascades mountain pass- which means it's absolutely stunning. This remote pass straddling the Stehekin and Twisp watersheds offers views of the jagged peaks in both areas. The hike to the pass travels through the drier forest characteristic of the eastern slope of the Cascades and across rocky mountain slopes with patches of wildflower-littered meadows. The fact that the Twisp River Valley is a long way from anywhere means that this is a good spot to enjoy the Cascades without the crowds.

I hiked this trail on a clear June Sunday, the hottest day of the year so far. To avoid hiking in the midday heat, I drove out to the Twisp Valley the evening before and started hiking at 6 AM. It's a long drive out to the trailhead from Seattle, nearly a five hour drive regardless whether you take US 2 or Highway 20 to get to the area. I arrived via Highway 20, taking I-5 north to Burlington and then following Highway 20 east across Washington Pass to Twisp; at Twisp, I turned right (west) onto the Twisp River Road and followed it until I reached the Gilbert Trailhead, just a half mile before the end of the road at Road's End Campground. The Twisp River Road is unpaved for the last seven miles and included a spot where a creek was flowing over the road; I drove through it in a Prius so most cars should be able to handle it. The road was otherwise in decent shape besides some washboarding a few potholes.

Two trails leave from the Gilbert Trailhead: the Twisp Pass Trail heads west, while the North Lake Trail instead heads to the northeast; there's no clear marking at the trailhead which trail is which. The correct path to Twisp Pass is to follow the trail that heads to the left from the parking area. The first part of the hike was fairly flat, with minimal elevation gain as the trail traveled westward up the valley a decent way uphill from the Twisp River. The trail was badly overgrown more or less from the start. It was pretty obvious that this part of the Cascades doesn't see many visitors: the trail register indicated that there were few hikers here even on one of the nicest weekends of the year so far, the tiny Roads End campground wasn't even filled on a nice weekend, and the trails themselves are often brushy.

About half a mile from the trailhead, the trail passed just uphill of the Roads End Campground. An unmarked, brushy social trail led from the Twisp Pass Trail down to the campground; while it's theoretically possible to park at the campground and shave a mile round trip off the hike, it's not a great option as there's little additional parking space at the campground and the connector trail itself is difficult to spot at the campground.

Past the campground, the trail began a gradual uphill climb to reach a crossing of the North Fork Twisp River, 2.2 miles from the trailhead. This stretch of trail was often overgrown and mostly stayed in the forest, but at times broke out into small clearings with views of nearby Crescent Mountain, Abernathy Peak, and Hock Mountain. There was a profusion of wildflowers along the trail, most notably lupine, paintbrush, phlox, arnica, and columbine.

Trailside wildflowers
At 2.2 miles, I came to a log bridge crossing over the tumbling North Fork Twisp River. This was an unsigned trail junction: the trail to Twisp Pass crossed the bridge, while the unmarked trail for Copper Pass branched off to the right, staying on the north side of the river.

Log bridge over the North Fork Twisp
After crossing the bridge, the trail began a steady ascent as it wrapped around the eastern slopes of Lincoln Butte. As the trail made its way onto the south slopes of Lincoln Butte, peek-a-boo views of the stony butte itself emerged in clearings profuse with lupine. Starting from this point, the trail tread was fairly rocky for the rest of the hike.

Lupine and paintbrush bloom along the trail, Lincoln Butte rises behind
The trail passed by a large rock on the left of the trail that delivered nice views downvalley to Abernathy Peak and some limited views upvalley towards Hock Mountain. It's okay to miss this as there are better views ahead: the trees gradually thinned out as I followed the trail uphill as it traversed the southern slopes of Lincoln Butte and before long I arrived at a wide open view of the snowy peaks that defined the headwaters of the South Fork Twisp River. The sharp, fin-like form of Hock Mountain stood out amongst the craggy jumbles of rock and snow.

View of the South Fork Twisp River Valley
The wildflower bloom continued unabated here: phlox and penstemon decorated the rocky open slopes along the trail.

A short segment of the trail was blasted into a steep rock face, similar to the Kendall Katwalk along the PCT near Snoqualmie Pass but without the crowds of hikers often found there. Views back downvalley to Abernathy Peak were good here and improved as I hiked higher up.

Blasted trail with a view of Abernathy Peak
Soon afterward, the trail passed through what I considered to be its most spectacular stretch. Wildflowers filled a large, green hillside meadow and snowcapped peaks ringed the other side of the valley.

Trail to Twisp Pass
A little under four miles into the hike, the trail returned to the forest for the final ascent to Twisp Pass. As the trail went deeper into the valley between Lincoln Butte and Twisp Mountain, the views across the Twisp River Valley narrowed; soon only Crescent Mountain and South Creek Butte were visible at the occasional clearings. While glacier lilies had already wilted lower down on the trail, they were still in full bloom here, flaunting their showy yellow petals.

Glacier lilies
About a third of a mile short of the pass, I came to the first patch of snow on the trail. As the trail continued through the forest, it soon became completely snow-covered. At this point in the year, there wasn't yet a clear bootpath leading through the snow- since this trail sees little traffic- but the path towards the pass was not too difficult to discern. However, the snow conditions weren't great- although the snow was solid enough in the morning, I postholed multiple times during my descent midday. The most critical section of the snow-covered trail is catching a switchback at which the trail turns and heads due north for the pass; this section was completely snowcovered and a little nonobvious, so be on the lookout.

The final section of trail was mostly melted out and had turned more or less into a stream for snowmelt coming off of the pass. Meadows carpeted with glacier lilies soon welcomed me to the alpine parklands near the pass. A wooden sign marking the boundary of North Cascades National Park and the Stephen Mather Wilderness welcomed me to the pass. The pass itself was forested, with no real views to the north or west, though Stiletto Peak's sharp form peeked through the trees at points. The trail continued through the snow into the park, dropping towards Dagger Lake, but my destination for the day was the pass.

Although the pass itself was forested, there were a few viewpoints nearby that offered some extraordinary views into North Cascades National Park; it's a shame if anyone comes this far and then misses seeing them. Two social trails break off to the northeast from the pass: the more defined path followed the southern side of the ridge leading towards Lincoln Butte, while the less defined path branched to the left and followed the tree-lined top of the ridge to a small rocky viewpoint at a brief break in the trees. This spot had an incredible view down the Bridge Creek Valley to the icy peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse on the other side of the Stehekin watershed. Spider Mountain, Mount Formidable, and Hurry Up Peak, all peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse and clear on the other side of the national park, were visible as a wall in the distance. To the right of those peaks was the great spire of 9,200-foot Goode Mountain, the tallest peak in North Cascades National Park and one of the tallest nonvolcanic peaks in all the Cascades. Frisco Mountain and Corteo Peak- the summits that define the landscape of the Maple Pass Loop- poked above a nearby forested ridge. Below this wall of peaks, the McAlester Creek Basin nestled the reflective, dark waters of Dagger Lake.

View into North Cascades National Park from Twisp Pass
To the northwest, Stiletto Peak pierced the North Cascades skyline, its tower-like ridges rising so dramatically that I could've mistook the scene for a Bierstadt painting. Some snowy ridges were visible behind the saddle between Stiletto and Lincoln Butte that I think are ridges in the Copper Pass area, which likely forms the backside of the peaks visible from Washington Pass Overlook on Highway 20.

Stiletto Peak from Twisp Pass
I arrived at the pass at 9 in the morning and had the entire area to myself, on a weekend when a friend who hiked at Lake Serene reported hundreds of other hikers. After eating an early lunch, I decided to explore further, this time taking the more established social trail. This path passed through many patches of blooming glacier liles and delivered sweeping views of the peaks ringing the South Fork Twisp valley. After topping out on a small knoll, the path descended through the snow to a small, partially-frozen pond at the base of Lincoln Butte. Crossing a snowbridge over the headwaters of the East Fork McAlester Creek, I lost the trail that continued past the pond to Stiletto Lake; instead, I scrambled up to a nearby outcrop with a 180-degree view of Crescent Mountain, South Creek Butte, Twisp Mountain, and the peaks in the park, where I could see both the unnamed pond and Dagger Lake in the valley below. I spotted the first marmot that I've seen this year munching in a meadow of glacier lilies nearby.

Crescent Mountain and South Creek Butte rise above a pond near Twisp Pass
Budget at least an hour or two to explore the environs near the pass if you come: don't turn around once you've reached the forested saddle with the North Cascades National Park sign. I've read that outcrops south of the pass on Twisp Mountain provide good views as well, but snow conditions south of the pass made travel annoying enough that I stuck with the views from the north side. As the day grew progressively hotter, I decided to return to the trailhead before turning into sun-dried Chuhern. I ran into about twelve to fifteen other hikers coming up the trail on my way down, still a small enough amount for me to declare that this hike is well off the beaten path, by Washington standards. It was 91 degrees by the time I returned to the car at 1:30 PM and it was 101 degrees a little later in the day when I drove through Wenatchee on my way back to Seattle.

A side note: the Gilbert Trailhead is just a few hundred yards away from a few structures that remain in the ghost town of Gilbert. This was once a mining community, though I'm unsure what was mined in the Twisp Valley and the internet has so far been unhelpful (elsewhere, copper and gold mines are quite common in Okanogan County).

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Robertson Mountain from Skyline Drive

Berry Hollow view from Robertson Mountain summit
6.2 miles round trip, 1250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead access off Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Although the eastern approach to Robertson Mountain from Weakley Hollow is known for being one of the steepest segments of trail in Shenandoah National Park, this western approach to the summit via the Old Rag Fire Road from Skyline Drive is not too difficult. This rarely-visited summit is undeservedly overlooked, providing sweeping views of the Central District of the park and plenty of mountain laurels blooming in the spring with just a fraction of the crowds that pack nearby Old Rag, Hawksbill, and Stony Man.

I made my third trip to the summit of Robertson- but the first on the route described here- with my family on a trip home to Virginia over Memorial Day. We set out on a comfortable, partly cloudy day from Fredericksburg, taking Route 3 to Culpeper, US 522 north to Sperryville, and then US 211 west to the Thornton Gap Entrance of the park. Once in the park, we followed Skyline Drive down to milepost 43 and parked at the small parking area for the Limberlost Trail, accessible via a short spur on the east side of the Drive. There are many trails emanating from the Limberlost Trailhead: we followed the Old Rag Fire Road, which from the parking lot initially looks as if it is a continuation of the road.

After we passed the gate on the road, the Old Rag Fire Road turned to gravel. In the first third of a mile of the hike, the fire road closely paralleled one of the legs of the Limberlost Loop Trail; the scenery was similar, with young hemlocks and almost-blooming mountain laurel lining the road. We spotted deer along the trail not far from the trailhead.

Deer on the Old Rag Fire Road
Barely over two hundred meters into the hike, the fire road passed an intersection with the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. We stayed on the fire road and continued onward, passing a second intersection with the Limberlost Trail one-third of a mile into the hike.

About two-thirds of a mile from the trailhead, the fire road crossed over the Robinson River. The river splits into two separate channels here, each with small, pleasant cascades; further downstream, the Robinson River plunges down the six wateralls of Whiteoak Canyon, one of the most popular and scenic spots in the park.

Robinson River
Past the river, the trail embarked on a brief uphill climb before flattening out and passing two marked trail junctions with the Skyland-Big Meadows Horse Trail; soon after, the trail passed by what appeared to be a Park Service cabin on the right (south) side of the fire road. From this point on until the junction with the Robertson Mountain Trail, the fire road followed a gradual downhill.

Spring is one of the best times to hike in Shenandoah: the return of flora to the Blue Ridge is eye-catching in its patterns, verdancy, and showy colors. Fields of ferns blanketed many parts of the forest floor; wildflowers of various colors lined the fire road. In winter, young evergreen hemlocks that have sprouted since the plague of the hemlock wooly adelgid provide some of the only color in the Blue Ridge forests here; in spring, their deeper green needles contrast nicely with the more vibrant green of new vegetation. Most of the hemlocks along the trail seemed free of adelgids- perhaps the trees that survive have developed resistance. I'm hopeful that two or three centuries from now, massive, towering hemlocks like the ones that once ruled Limberlost and Ramseys Draft will reclaim the upland forests.

Ferns on the forest floor
Trailside wildflowers
Hemlocks line the Old Rag Fire Road
At about one and two-thirds mile from the trailhead, we passed a junction with the Corbin Mountain Trail on the north (left) side of the trail. This trail led towards the Indian Run Trail, which in turn connects down to Corbin Cabin. We were struck by the fact that we had so far had the trail to ourselves despite being in the heart of one of the most popular parts of the park on Memorial Day weekend: Robertson Mountain is surrounded by spots such as Corbin Cabin, Old Rag, Skyland, and Whiteoak Canyon.

At 2.2 miles, we passed a junction to the left (north) of the fire road for the Corbin Hollow Trail, a rarely-visited trail down one of Shenandoah's most historically significant hollows that I had explored a few years earlier. Just a hundred yards further downhill, we came to the junction with the Robertson Mountain Trail, also on the left (this time, east) of the Old Rag Fire Road.

We took the left fork here to start up the narrow trail to Robertson Mountain. This trail, which immediately began burrowing through a thicket of mountain laurel, was much different in character than the wide fire road and was honestly much more enjoyable to hike- the flowers seemed closer to the trail and the landscape a little less manicured.

Whereas the mountain laurel at Limberlost, higher up the mountain close to the Blue Ridge crest, was just budding and still a week or so from blooming, many of the mountain laurel that lined the trail at Robertson Mountain had just began to bloom. It was my first time seeing laurel in bloom since I had moved from Virginia four years earlier. Many of the buds that were yet to bloom were beautifully pink.

Mountain laurel in various stages of bloom
Blooming Mountain Laurel
We continued up the Robertson Mountain Trail, which after an initial gentle climb started a more steady ascent with occasional switchbacks up the mountain. The trail finally leveled out upon reaching the ridge and followed the ridge towards Robertson's summit. Mountain laurel was plentiful here; we also spotted some pink azaleas blooming along the trail.

Wild azaleas on Robertson Mountain
The spur for the summit viewpoint at Robertson Mountain was unmarked but noticeable: a social path led off to the south (right) of the trail about 3 miles from the trailhead, winding up a last short uphill to an area of open rocks on the south side of the summit. Robertson Mountain has one of the better views in Shenandoah National Park, but there aren't many visitors that come up here: we saw three other hikers at the summit on a busy holiday weekend who were actually the only other hikers that I've seen at this summit in three visits.

View of Old Rag from Robertson Mountain
The southern view encompassed a 180-degree slice of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont from Old Rag to Stony Man. The rocky summit of Old Rag was visible to the eastsoutheast at roughly horizon-level: Old Rag and Robertson are the same height. The Southwest Mountains and Carters Mountain were visible directly to the south; Charlottesville lies at the foot of Carters Mountain. The most eye-catching part of the view was the jumble of granite and granodiorite peaks to our south across Berry Hollow: the steep, accented ridges of Doubletop, Jones, and Fork Mountains rose out of the Piedmont. Fork Mountain is the third tallest mountain in the park section of the Blue Ridge but lies outside the park proper; instead, the third tallest peak in Shenandoah is Hazeltop, which lay just to the right (west) of the tower-topped Fork Mountain. Closer in, we could see the more gradual forms of Hawksbill and Stony Man, two Catoctin formation peaks that together are the tallest two peaks in the park.

Hawksbill Mountain from Robertson Mountain
We lunched at the summit and explored around the nearby boulders. I scrambled up the boulders at the true summit of Robertson for a slightly obscured view to the north of Mount Marshall and the Peak. I was glad to be back in Shenandoah.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Timber Creek Overlook

The Navajo Sandstone of the Kolobs Canyon from Timber Creek Overlook
1 mile round trip, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Zion National Park entrance fee required

The hike to Timber Creek Overlook in Zion National Park's Kolob Canyons area is short but sweet, packing in views of snowy peaks and redrock cliffs into a mile of walking with minimal elevation gain. It's a good leg-stretcher for visitors who are passing through the area or a good addition to the hike to Kolob Arch for hikers in the area for a day, though I wouldn't make a dedicated trip out to this part of the park just for this hike.

This was my first hike during a recent trip to Utah- I arrived at the Kolob Canyons area of the park after picking up a rental car in Las Vegas that morning. The Kolob Canyons are removed from the main Zion Canyon area of the park; it's accessible directly off I-15 north of St. George, Utah. I reached the Kolobs Canyon area by taking I-15 north from Las Vegas past St. George to exit 40 in Utah, then turning right (heading east) once I came off the freeway ramp to head towards Kolob Canyons. I checked in show my park pass at the visitor center before driving five miles up to the Kolob Canyons Overlook, at the end of the Kolob Canyons Road. The view is already quite good at the parking lot, with Timber Top Mountain and the Kolob Finger Canyons visible directly across the Timber Creek.

From the parking lot, the trail headed to the south, passing a few picnic tables at the start. The trail generally stayed near the top of the ridge; due to recent snows, the soil was wet and the trail resembled a mudpit at points.

Trail to Timber Creek Overlook
The sparse vegetation along the trail (Utah is more or less a desert, after all) provided continuous open views of the Navajo Sandstone cliffs that define the Kolob Finger Canyons.

Kolob Canyons
After a half milfe of gentle descent, the trail ended at a rocky knob on the ridgeline. The views here were very open, with nearly a 360-panorama of the Kolob Canyons to the east and the snow-capped Pine Valley Mountains to the west. Nearby ridges of the Hurricane Cliffs were covered in low-growing pines and junipers.

Pine Valley Mountains from the Overlook
As the name of the hike suggests, the viewpoint at the end overlooks the Timber Creek watershed: the most impressive aspect of the view was flat-topped Timber Top Mountain, which towers over the Kolob Canyons. The overlook had a good viewshed to the south: I could see cliffs of Navajo Sandstone marching continuously southward, marking the western edge of the great Colorado Plateau.

View of Timber Top Mountain
The Navajo Sandstone of the Kolob Canyons was formed from massive ancient sand dunes that compacted into the rock. While most of the Navajo Sandstone at the Kolob Canyons is a beautiful burnt red, much of the same formation is white in Zion Canyon- although both colors of sandstone result from the same sand dunes, the red sandstone, which is typically lower in the formation, derives its color from a higher iron content. This sandstone is the principal formation in the White Cliffs, one of the multiple layers of the Grand Staircase that reaches from high on the Colorado Plateau's Pink Cliffs at Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon down to the Grand Canyon.

Despite the clear weather that day and the brevity of the trail, I saw only a handful of other hikers on the trail; of course, I arrived on a Friday during winter, so hiker density is likely higher during the summer and on weekends.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Monte Cristo Ghost Town

Monte Cristo Ghost Town
8 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; river crossing on log and a few eroded sections of trail
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The rugged peaks of the Monte Cristo Group in Washington State's North Cascades hide the crumbling ruins of a mining town with an outsized impact on the history of both Washington State and these United States. The Monte Cristo Ghost Town is the remnant of what was once a bustling silver mining town that brought investment and fortune-seekers to the Northwest; the failure of the mines to produced the promised quantities of silver led to the town's demise. This fairly easy hike visits the town by following an old road trace down to the ghost town from the Mountain Loop Highway. While the history at the end of the trail is itself worth the trip, the hike delivers some nice views of the Cascades along the way as well as a fun-for-some, difficult-for-others log crossing over the Sauk River.

I hiked to Monte Cristo with two friends on a June day that was sunny in Seattle but overcast with showers at times in the mountains. We headed northwest from Seattle to Granite Falls via Everett, then followed the Mountain Loop Highway east about 30 miles past the Verlot Ranger Station to the trailhead at Barlow Pass. There was parking both alongside the road and in a gravel lot to the north of the road at the pass. After putting up a Northwest Forest Pass, we walked briefly east along the road to a gated road on the south side of the Mountain Loop Highway. This road, which was once the main vehicle route to Monte Cristo, is still the principal trail leading to the ghost town today.

The first mile of the hike was a straightforward walk along the old road to Monte Cristo; this road was once the main access route to Monte Cristo and was open to traffic until 1980. The primary route to Monte Cristo varied greatly over the course of the town's short history: the earliest miners arrived from what was perhaps the most rugged route, climbing over Poodle Dog Pass to reach the townsite from Index, Galena, and other points in the Skykomish River watershed. A later route connected the town to the Skagit Valley via a road along the Sauk River, while a railroad connection funded in part by the Rockefeller family connected Monte Cristo with Everett through Barlow Pass and the Stillaguimish River, a route that is today covered by the Mountain Loop Highway.

At points, the road was washed out by the ever-changing course of the Sauk River, so the trail was frequently rerouted around those washouts. A little over a mile into the hike, the trail emerged alongside the Sauk River, with decent views of the surrounding mountains. Here, the road was mostly washed out but the trail had yet to be rerouted, so a short stretch of trail required following the narrow remaining strip of road along the riverbank, which may be challenging for some hikers.

After the narrow riverbank trail, we found ourselves on a much narrower single track through the forest. At this point, I became a little confused about the route: the smaller trail seemed as if it might be the Gothic Basin Trail rather than the trail to Monte Cristo, which made me worry that we had missed the river crossing over the Sauk River. My concern was poorly founded; the actual crossing point was about 300 yards further along. We hiked further along the trail past a sign for Gothic Basin and past a turnoff to Weeden Creek down to the riverbank of the Sauk River, where we crossed the river on a fairly wide log. We found good views of the surrounding peaks at the river crossing.

Sauk River with peaks of the Monte Cristo group rising in the distance
The log for the river crossing was not difficult to negotiate, as it was sturdy and fairly wide, but it may be troublesome for those with poor balance or a fear of heights. Falling off the log ultimately seemed fairly tame, as the fall to the river was just a few feet, so despite any potential difficulties this did not seem like a dangerous crossing.

Sauk River crossing
After crossing the log, we followed pink tape marking the trail on tree branches to a bridge: while the other bridge on the road had washed away, making the log crossing necessary, this second bridge had survived, allowing a much easier crossing over the remainder of the Sauk River.

The remaining three miles to Monte Cristo consisted of easy hiking along the road with occasional detours at washouts. While the trail came to clearings with views of the nearby mountains at multiple points, many of the summits remained cloaked in clouds for the remainder of the day. The mossy forest and views of waterfalls tumbling down distant cliffs kept us good company. We were joined along this stretch of trail by Renee, who was also headed to Monte Cristo and like us had experienced a brief moment of confusion on the trail near the river crossing.

Four miles into the hike, we arrived at an info board with a hand-drawn map informing us that the Monte Cristo townsite was just ahead. After crossing a bridge over the South Fork Sauk River, two faded signs welcomed us to Monte Cristo.

Entering Monte Cristo
Walking a little further down, we came to a clearing with a number of well-preserved wooden houses set beneath the stern rock walls of the mountains of the Monte Cristo group. The center of the clearing was littered with artifacts from the ghost town: wheels, axles, tools, even a kitchen sink. All artifacts at Monte Cristo are protected under the Antiquities Act: don't remove pieces of a history that belongs to us all.

Well-preserved houses at Monte Cristo
A few picnic tables and a bike rack were scattered around the perimeter of the clearing. We sat underneath a tree near the porch of one of the houses to avoid the light drizzle while we ate lunch.

This pail has seen better days
An old railway turntable was preserved right next to the set of houses. The turntable, which was used to rotate rail cars and locomotives between various tracks, was in remarkably functional condition: we found it surprisingly fun to push the turntable around its track.

Railway turntable- it still turns!
In 1889, silver was discovered near the headwaters of the South Fork Sauk River near the townsite. Speculation that the surface deposits were only a hint of the area's greater mineral wealth led to a frenzy of development resulting in the construction of the town of Monte Cristo. By the early 1890s, the town was connected to the Puget Sound region by rail and road, with the rail link and many of the mines owned by the Rockefeller family. In the mid-1890s, the town boasted over a thousand residents.

In 1894, Frederich Trump, a German immigrant who had arrived in Seattle after the city's great fire, sold his restaurant in Seattle and traveled to Monte Cristo. Instead of joining the miners, Trump sensed a more lucrative opportunity, opening a hotel near the town's train station to mine the miners. By the late 1890s, as it became apparent that the promised silver lodes of Monte Cristo were only a myth, Trump was one of the few people to walk out of the town with more in his pocket than when he arrived. Frederich Trump later participated in the Klondike Gold Rush, opening a restaurant in the Yukon to feed miners heading to Dawson. With his combined earnings from the silver veins of Monte Cristo and the gold of the Klondike, Trump returned to Germany, married Elizabeth Christ, and moved to Queens, New York. Following his death, Elizabeth Christ Trump and their son Fred founded a real estate development company; a little over a cenutury after Monte Cristo's heyday, Frederich Trump's grandson became the president of the United States.

Events in the United States today likely reflect underlying concern about the future due to accelerating economic, social, and technological change and are perhaps not as strongly shaped by individual public figures as we'd like to imagine; but still, I couldn't help but wonder throughout this hike what the world would look like now had Frederich Trump's time at Monte Cristo turned out differently.

We chose to continue past the clearing and explore the ghost town further. We first came to the foundation of the Monte Cristo Resort, which operated in the town after the end of silver mining but burned down by the second half of the 20th century. A little further, we came to an info board detailing the trails to Glacier Basin and Silver Lake; at the trail junction just past the info board, we followed the bridge across the Sauk River towards Glacier Basin.

Sauk River
Across the bridge, we followed the trail up a few short switchbacks uphill to Dumas Street, where we found a number of abandoned dwellings. These houses were in much shoddier shape than the ones at the clearing and more resembled our imagined appearance of century-old houses. I wondered to myself whether the choice to name a street Dumas in a town called Monte Cristo was a deliberate reference to the French novelist.

Decaying house on Dumas St.
Rather than continue towards Glacier Basin, we chose to turn back and return to the trailhead after seeing the ruins on Dumas Street. We saw plenty of other hikers that day, which was unsurprising: Monte Cristo is a good hike for a cloudy or rainy day, as the history at the end of the trail is equivalently intriguing (or boring, depending on your point of view) regardless of the weather.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Green Mountain (North Cascades)

The North Cascades viewed from Green Mountain
8.5 miles round trip, 3300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous due to snow conditions; moderate after snowmelt
Access: Long, bumpy gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

Buried deep in Washington State's North Cascades, Green Mountain is a much more exciting (and unique) destination than its generic name would suggest: the summit lookout boasts a dizzying panorama of peaks that is unforgettable even for a state packed with impressive views. The hike to the summit passes through the many open meadows that give the peak its name and ends at a historic fire lookout. Early season hikers who arrive before the snowmelt completes face a trail-less climb to the summit through the snow but also the opportunity to glissade the better part of a thousand feet down the south face of the peak. Midsummer hikers will find fields full of flowers, while early autumn visitors are welcomed by sprawling patches of huckleberries on the mountain's upper slopes. This hike was long inaccessible due to the washout of the Suiattle River Road; even with the road restored, it's still a long, bumpy drive from Seattle to this spot in the heart of the Cascades.

I've made two trips out to Green Mountain: the first was on an early autumn day a few years back, not long after the Suiattle River Road reopened. Although I found beautiful autumn color in the meadows and some ripe berries, the mountaintop was socked in all day and I missed out on the lookout's views. On my second trip, I found both blooming wildflowers and a snowy summit in early June; cloud cover was high enough on my second visit for me to see much of the vast sea of peaks surrounding Green Mountain, but overcast skies still blocked out views of Glacier Peak, Dome Peak, and Mount Baker.

I headed out to Green Mountain from Seattle with three friends, following I-5 north to Arlington and then Washington Highway 530 east past Darrington. After crossing the Sauk River bridge on Highway 530, I turned right at the Suiattle River Road and followed it 19 miles, first on pavement and later on decent gravel, to the junction with the road to the Green Mountain trailhead. The final six miles of the drive followed an even bumpier road up the forested slopes of Green Mountain; while there were some potholes along the way, the road was generally in passable condition and I made it to the trailhead in a sedan with no problems. The trailhead itself is not particularly well marked and is noticeable only due to a widening in the road on the right; the trail starts to the left of the road.

The trail set off into the forest and immediately began a steady ascent. At one point, the trail approached a small, tumbling stream and at other points we passed by some stately trees, but otherwise the first mile and a half of the trail was fairly nondescript. One exception was the trillium that lined the trail at the upper reaches of the forest, just before the trail entered a large meadow: white, pink, and violet trillium were in full bloom on the forest floor.

Trillium blooming in the forest
We crossed the first snowpatch on the trail just before exiting the forest; a hundred yards later, we found ourselves at the edge of an expansive meadow running down the slopes of Green Mountain. Although clouds still covered most of the nearby mountaintops, we spotted both White Chuck and Whitehorse Mountains to the west.

Open meadows of Green Mountain
The drooping yellow petals of blooming glacier lilies filled the meadow. As we hiked uphill through the meadow, we ran into a few small patches of snow nearing the end of their melt; here, we spotted eager glacier lilies that had emerged to blossom even while the ground around them was still covered in a thin layer of ice.

Glacier lilies
The next two-thirds of a mile of trail consisted of pleasant hiking through open meadows with views of far-off peaks. The trail required a few easy creek crossings at a few points and at other points seemed eroded after a winter buried beneath the snowpack but was overall easy to hike.

Lower meadow along the trail
After switchbacking uphill through the meadow, the trail turned to the north and reentered the forest while also entering Glacier Peak Wilderness. We encountered deeper snow here; the trail was snow-covered from this point on to the summit. Donning our microspikes and gaiters, we followed tracks through the snow past a small clearing to the top of a low hillock, from which we spotted Green Mountain Lookout ahead of us for the first time. While this stretch of trail is easy to follow during the summer, hikers arriving early in the season when the trail is still under snow should come with a map and reasonable navigation skills to avoid losing the route.

The trail descended down the hill into a basin holding a small pond, which in early June was still mostly covered by five or so feet of snow. Continuing a little further in the snow, we arrived at a basin at the foot of the south face of Green Mountain, about a thousand vertical feet below the summit. In the summer, these open slopes are filled with heather and other blooming wildflowers; in late summer and early autumn, the mountainside turns into a berry buffet. When we arrived, the steep slopes were snowbound, which made for promising terrain for a post-summit glissade.

Perfect glissading terrain
From the bowl at the base of the summit, the summer trail winds up to the southern ridgeline of Green Mountain and then follows the ridge to the top. The winter route that hikers before us appeared to prefer instead directly ascended the snowy slopes to a saddle on the western ridge: a number of glissade chutes descending from the saddle and steps kicked into the snow suggested that this was a common route for both ascent and descent. We followed the glissade chute up, checking to make sure that the chute would be an appropriate path for descent. The slope was quite steep in spots, approaching 40 degrees in spots, and the snow was slushy, slowing our ascent. Our effort was rewarded with ever-widening views of the snowbound Cascades to the south.

View from atop the glissade chute
Atop the west ridge, we were welcomed by views to the north and the sight of the lookout towering above us atop a set of stern cliffs. From the saddle, we followed a social trail along the ridge towards the summit through patches of heather. After crossing a final steep snowfield, we gained the south ridge and followed it a short distance to the summit lookout. We took care to stay off the cornices on the north side of the east ridge: although the snowmasses at the edge of the ridge seemed solid, they were unsupported underneath. Cornice collapses are a frequent cause of death or injury during winter hiking; avoiding cornices is an important safety consideration.

Final approach to the lookout
We hiked up to the boarded lookout and ate lunch on the leeward side of the structure. Green Mountain Lookout is one of a series of former fire lookouts in the Cascades that has been preserved for their historic significance. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a station for Forest Service rangers to monitor wildfires deep in the North Cascades, the Green Mountain Lookout was subject of an intense battle between wilderness advocates and historic site preservationists over whether such a structure belonged in Glacier Peak Wilderness. The controversy stems from the federal definition of wilderness in the United States, which bans roads, commerical activity, and buildings from federally designated wilderness. Wilderness advocates argued that the Green Mountain Lookout was a building within a federally designated wilderness and should thus be removed: they won their argument in the courts, with a judge ruling that the lookout needed to go. However, political action by Washington State's congressional delegation birthed a bill saving the lookout, which President Obama signed into law in 2014.

Green Mountain Lookout
From the lookout, we had a stupendous view. Although the tops of many high peaks were covered by the clouds, we could still see peaks of the North Cascades surrounding us on all sides. Views to the north and east were most impressive: we could see many of the jagged and glaciated peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse. On a clear day, Glacier Peak would have lay directly to the south of where we stood. An unbroken snow slope dropped well over a thousand feet down the east face of the mountain. The rugged northern ridgeline of Green Mountain connected the summit to the pointed spires of Mount Buckindy.

Much of the peak's viewshed is encompassed by Glacier Peak Wilderness, which covers over half a million acres in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. Combined with the Henry Jackson and Wild Sky Wildernesses to the south and the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth and Stephen Mather Wildernesses to the east, Glacier Peak Wilderness is part of the largest roadless region in Washington State.

Green Mountain
We returned to the snow bowl below the summit by glissading. Two of my group decided to glissade down the south face from a spot just below the summit, completing what appeared to be a fast run down a very steep but slushy snow slope. Another friend and I chose to glissade down the chute that we had followed up, which was a little less steep. We brought ice axes and poles for controlling our descent; I generally recommend bringing an ice axe whenever you choose to glissade, although we found that poles were more than sufficient for control in the slushy snow on the day of our hike.

Glissading down from the summit
We ran into just a handful of other hikers along this trail, even though we came on a Sunday with reasonable weather in late spring.