Monday, July 17, 2017

High Rock

Mount Rainier from High Rock
3.5 miles round trip, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; walk up the rock at the end may be challenging for some
Access: Bumpy gravel road to trailhead

High Rock is a lofty viewpoint in Washington State's Gifford Pinchot National Forest that delivers an outstanding view of Mount Rainier and the Cascade volcanoes near the Columbia River. Crowned with an old fire lookout, High Rock rises above the nearby forested ridges, making it one of the best viewpoints of Mount Rainier's southern aspect. The price of admission is a short but steep hike up from Towhead Gap and- perhaps more limiting- a very bumpy drive down a pothole-littered road to reach the trailhead. This is a fairly popular hike but still sees just a fraction of the crowds that pack the nearby national park on nice weekends.

I hiked this trail on a July Sunday with two friends; due to a forecast of cloudy morning weather clearing in the afternoon, we got a late start, waiting until almost noon to head out, a decision that was vindicated when the clouds burned off during our hike. From Seattle, we took State Route 167 and then SR 512 south to Puyallup, exited onto SR 161 and followed it south past South Hill, Graham, and Eatonville to the junction with SR 7; we turned left and followed Highway 7 to Elbe and continued on Highway 706 from Elbe towards Mount Rainier. Just past Ashford, we made a right turn onto Forest Service Road 52 and followed it across the Nisqually River for five miles until reaching Forest Service Road 84, which was poorly marked. We turned right onto NF-84 and followed it for 9 miles on gravel to the trailhead, turning off onto NF-8440 about two miles before the trailhead. Signage after turning onto NF-84 is extremely poor; I found that the best rule of thumb for reaching the trailhead was staying on the more major road at all junctions when there is a clear difference in road quality, and then taking the left fork the first two times and the right fork the last time at the three junctions where the two forks are of similar road quality. Make sure you figure out directions before you make the drive. While for the most part the gravel roads were pretty smooth, there was one section halfway through the drive where the road was filled with large potholes, some potentially capable of axle-busting if you don't slow down. Most cars should be able to handle these potholes as long as they go slow.

The trailhead was at Towhead Gap, a sharp bend in the road. Parking was alongside the road at the bend; there were perhaps 20 cars at the trailhead when we arrived. The lookout itself was visible from the trailhead. We hopped onto the main trail, which was indicated by a sign stating "High Rock Lookout 1.6 miles." The trail began an immediate ascent through the forest, generally following the top of the ridge.

Trail through the trees
Although there were no meadows, wildflowers dotted the side of the trail at multiple spots through the climb. Blooming flowers included tiger lilies, columbine, lupine, paintbrush, valerian, and daisies. While a few flies and bees skitted around the flowers and forest, there wasn't a major insect problem on the day of our hike.

Blooming wildflowers
Wildflowers on the trail
The trail climbed steadily for 1.3 miles before coming to the first viewpoint. The trail tread was mostly dirt, making the hiking pleasant for the most part, although the steepness of the grade may still make it a bit of challenge for some hikers. At the first viewpoint, the trail broke out of the woods and came to the edge of the cliffs that define Sawtooth Ridge. At this point, Mount Rainier was still covered in clouds, but we still had a beautiful view of the meadow-filled Tatoosh Range, the snow-covered Goat Rocks, and the mini-Rainier that is Mount Adams. We also spotted the lookout itself, which still appeared to be high above us.

First view of Mount Adams and Goat Rocks
In the last third of a mile, the trail passed through multiple small meadows near the summit. Here, beargrass was blooming profusely, complementing the array of wildflowers that we had seen earlier on the hike; we also spotted phlox growing in the rockier, more exposed spots near the trail. Mount St. Helens with its gaping crater appeared to the south through clearings in the forest.

Beargrass blooming
The trail made a tight switchback upon reaching a cliff just west of the summit. We stopped here for a bit to enjoy the views of the jagged cliffs of Sawtooth Ridge and the gradually clearing view of Mount Rainier before making the final push to the summit. The trail died out at the base of the summit block, a large, angled rock. Some hikers may find this final walk up the rock to be challenging; some people may regard this as a bit of a rock scramble. Regardless, a few minutes of walking up angled rock brought us to the lookout structure at the summit.

Approaching the lookout
The lookout was unfortunately in pretty bad shape; even though the inside of the lookout was open to the public, it was more or less empty and the outside of the lookout was pretty beaten up, with multiple windows smashed and glass littering the summit. It was unclear whether the damage to the lookout was due to vandalism or natural causes.

The 360-degree more than made up for the poor shape of the lookout. Mount Rainier towered to the north, with the extraordinary Tahoma Glacier pouring down between Liberty Cap and Point Success and Little Tahoma barely poking above the right side of the mountain. The forested Kautz Creek and Nisqually River valleys led outward from the mountain. Cora Lake lay nearly directly below us at the foot of massive cliffs.

Mount Rainier
To the south, we could see three more volcanoes: Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood. Goat Rocks, the tallest non-volcanic peaks in the southern part of the state, lay to the east.

The crater of Mount St. Helens is clearly visible from High Rock
The view to the west was defined by the craggy ramparts of Sawtooth Ridge. Beyond the ridge, we spotted the blue-green waters of Alder Lake and the even more distant sinewy waterways of the Puget Sound.

Sawtooth Ridge
This is one of the better hikes between Rainier and St. Helens and is a good alternative to hiking in the park for anyone who wishes to see Rainier up close. Come on a clear day to truly appreciate the far-reaching views from this summit.

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