Saturday, September 30, 2017

Brasstown Bald

The Blue Ridge Mountains stretch into the distance from Brasstown Bald
1.2 miles round trip, 440 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $5 entrance fee required (Federal Interagency Passes accepted)

The 4784-foot high summit of Brasstown Bald is the highest point in the state of Georgia and hosts an observation deck with views over four states. While it's possible to ride a bus shuttle to the summit, a slightly more rewarding though almost equivalently easy approach is to walk up a paved trail to the visitor center and observation deck atop the mountain from the large parking area on the mountain's shoulder.

I visited Brasstown Bald on a one-day whirlwind tour of the north Georgia; after arriving at Atlanta Hartsfield early in the morning on a red-eye, I hopped in a car and drove north, doing other short hikes at Blood Mountain and Anna Ruby Falls. The road up to Brasstown Bald had closed following Hurricane Irma, so I was lucky that it reopened shortly before my visit. For hikers driving up from Atlanta, the fastest approach is through Helen by taking I-85 north, then I-985 north until it turns into US 23 and the freeway ends; turning left onto Georgia 384 a while after passing Gainesville and following it until coming to Georgia 75; turning right onto Georgia 75, merging onto Georgia 17 and following it through faux-Bavarian Alpine Helen and across Unicoi Gap to the junction with Georgia 180. Turn left at Georgia 180 and follow it west uphill to a saddle on Brasstown Bald, where the Highway 180 spur leads steeply uphill to a parking lot just short of the summit.

The entrance fee for Brasstown Bald is $5 per person including the shuttle, or $3 per person for those who choose to walk up instead of taking the shuttle. As Brasstown Bald is operated by Chattahoochee National Forest and thus run by the US Forest Service, entrance to the site is included with any federal interagency lands pass, including the America the Beautiful Pass; however, my experience both here and at Anna Ruby Falls suggests that these passes very rarely show up in north Georgia, as USFS employees at both sites were initially hesitant to accept the pass before I explained the scope of lands covered by the federal interagency passes. If you have a federal interagency pass and it is refused at the site, you can direct USFS employees to the Chattahoochee National Forest webpage covering this site.

The paved trail from the parking lot to the summit started between the waiting pavilion for the shuttle to the summit and the gift shop. Although the path is short- less than 2/3 of a mile each way- it packs in over 400 feet of elevation gain, so it's a pretty steady, steep incline the entire way. The trail wasted no time getting into the ascent, immediately heading uphill through a tunnel of rhododendron and mountain laurel. I'd love to revisit the southern Appalachians in June to see the mountaintop rhododendron blooms; I'm sure Brasstown Bald would be even lovelier at that time of year than it was during my visit.

Rhododendron and mountain laurel line the paved trail
The trail quickly passed a junction with the Wagon Train Trail, which headed north into the Brasstown Wilderness, one of the Chattahoochee National Forest wilderness areas in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Interpretive plaques along the trail explained aspects of both the mountain's history and ecology. At two-fifths of a mile, the trail crossed the shuttle road to the summit and a couple hundred meters later, I arrive at the visitor center itself.

The visitor center and fire lookout atop Brasstown Bald
The visitor center had a number of exhibits on the area's natural and human history; notably, it addressed the role of gold mining in catalyzing the European-American settlement of the area and discussed how this led to the removal of the Cherokee from the Southern Appalachians on the Trail of Tears. Brasstown Bald was known to the Cherokee as Enotah, though some severe misunderstanding led European settlers to believe that "Brasstown" somehow approximated the Cherokee name for the mountain. This highest summit in Georgia is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains but is separate from the main Blue Ridge crest in Georgia and is situated fully in the Tennessee River watershed.

I took the stairs up from the visitor center to the large, circular observation deck, which provided a view encompassing parts of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The front ranges of the Blue Ridge stretched to both the southwest and the northeast; other Appalachian ranges were layered one after another to the north into North Carolina and Tennessee.

View from Brasstown Bald towards Tennessee
Looking along the Blue Ridge in Georgia, I spotted Blood Mountain, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and the spot that I had hiked at earlier that morning. Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, was less than 100 miles away. The parking area was clearly visible below and lone sentinels at the edge of the Piedmont like Yonah Mountain were also visible. On clear days, both the Atlanta skyline and Stone Mountain are purportedly visible to the south in the Piedmont.

Showers and shadows; Blood and Slaughter Mountains and the Blue Ridge in the distance
To the north, the ridges of Enotah stretched out towards the town of Hiawasee on the shores of Lake Chatuge; beyond the town was the state of North Carolina and the height of the Appalachians. While the Georgia mountains remained mostly cloaked in summer green, touches of fall color had begun to settle on the trees near the top of Brasstown Bald. As I gazed out at the endless views (there were surely no less than a hundred peaks visible from this summit), a late summer thunderstorm began to roll in. Not wishing to be atop the summit in a storm, I made a quick return to the parking area.

A tinge of autumn and a late summer thunderstorm sweep across the north Georgia towards Brasstown Bald
This isn't much of a hike- it's more of just a spot to visit- but it's certainly worth visiting as it's hard for me to imagine that the state of Georgia has any better views (I'd be more than happy to be proven wrong if you know of one, though!).

Anna Ruby Falls

Anna Ruby Falls
1 mile round trip, 160 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $3/person entrance fee required (Federal Interagency Passes accepted)

Tumbling off the slopes of Tray Mountain in the north Georgia Blue Ridge, Curtis and York Creeks together form the parallel pair of cascading water at Anna Ruby Falls. The hike through lush forest along a burbling Appalachian stream to this waterfall is paved and easy, making this a perfect scenic hike for hikers of just about any skill and fitness level.

I hiked this trail on a one-day whirlwind tour of the north Georgia; after arriving at Atlanta Hartsfield early in the morning on a red-eye, I hopped in a car and drove north, doing other short hikes at Blood Mountain and Brasstown Bald. This was the last of the three hikes of the day before I returned to Atlanta; I was lucky that I was able to see the falls at all, as the access road had only reopened after being temporarily blocked by debris from Hurricane Irma just two days before I arrived. For hikers driving up from Atlanta, the fastest approach is likely to take I-85 north, then I-985 north until it turns into US 23 and the freeway ends; turning left onto Georgia 384 a while after passing Gainesville and following it until coming to Georgia 75; turning right onto Georgia 75 and following it through faux-Bavarian Alpine Helen, then following the signs for Unicoi State Park and turning right onto Georgia 356 a mile north of Helen. About a mile up the road, I took a left onto the road signed for Anna Ruby Falls and followed it past the Unicoi State Park facilities until I reached the USFS-operated recreation area around Anna Ruby Falls at the end of the road.

Faux-Bavarian Helen
The entrance fee at the falls is $3 per person. As Anna Ruby Falls is operated by Chattahoochee National Forest and thus run by the US Forest Service, entrance to the site is included with any federal interagency lands pass, including the America the Beautiful Pass; however, my experience both here and at Brasstown Bald suggests that these passes very rarely show up in north Georgia, as USFS employees at both sites were initially hesitant to accept the pass before I explained the scope of lands covered by the federal interagency passes. If you have a federal interagency pass and it is refused at the site, you can direct USFS employees to the Chattahoochee National Forest webpage covering this site.

The trail starts right behind a gift shop and visitor center at the large trailhead parking lot. The wide, paved trail starts on the west (left) bank of Smith Creek, ascending fairly gently through a hardwood forest with plentiful rhododendrons and mountain laurel in the understory. This would undoubtedly be a splendid hike in May and June when floral blooms would decorate the trailside.

Trail to Anna Ruby Falls
In 200 yards, the trail crossed Smith Creek on a well-built bridge and offered close-up views of the small cascades on the burbling stream.

Smith Creek cascades down Tray Mountain
The trail continued on the east bank of the creek, following the creek close enough that I could closely observe many of the small, pleasant cascades. I was surprised that there was still decent flow in the stream at the close of summer, as most Blue Ridge streams in Virginia tend to dry up late in the summer; I wasn't sure whether Georgia streams fared better or whether the reasonably good water flow was due to a thuderstorm earlier that afternoon. The slopes around the trail steepened as the trail began entering the canyon that housed the falls; large rock outcrops rose directly from the side of the paved trail.

Cascades on Smith Creek
A few more minutes of walking brought me to two viewing platforms at the foot of Anna Ruby Falls marking the end of the hike. The lower platform, on the right (east) side of the creek had a better view of the falls as a whole: the waterfall is really three separate drops, two on Curtis Creek totalling a 150-feet drop and one smaller drop on York Creek; the lower drop on Curtis Creek happened to lie just yards away from the waterfall on York Creek and the two creeks merged to form Smith Creek immediately below the twin falls. The upper viewing platform, on the other side of the creek, had a close-up view of the lower Curtis Creek falls; however, the other two drops were at least partially obscured there.

Anna Ruby Falls
There were a fair number of people visiting the falls even on a hot, humid midweek day with thunderstorms, so it's likely that this spot attracts hoards of visitors on nice weekends. Nonetheless, the waterfall is very pretty and certainly worth a visit for hikers in Atlanta or elsewhere in north Georgia.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Yellow Aster Butte

Mount Baker and Yellow Aster Butte
8 miles round trip, 2900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate to lower peak; rock scrambling necessary to obtain higher summit
Access: Rough gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

From its position north of the North Fork Nooksack River in the North Cascades, Yellow Aster Butte offers a commanding view of two giants, Mounts Baker and Shuksan, as well as a sweeping panorama of the rest of the North Cascades. The North Cascades is known for the difficulty of its hikes; while not an easy trail, Yellow Aster Butte is certainly an exception to the idea that every good hike in the North Cascades requires a mile of elevation gain. The second half of the hike is fully in the open, making this an utterly enjoyable journey through open slopes of heather and huckleberry to the top of a small mountain. Hikers who wish to add on a rock scramble can tag the true summit of the butte for a fun, short scramble and even bigger views. In autumn, the changing foliage of the berry bushes along the trail make this an excellent fall color hike.

I hiked out to Yellow Aster Butte on a September Sunday when summer turned to fall. Leaving Seattle, I took I-5 north to Burlington, then Highway 20 east to Sedro-Woolley, then Highway 9 north to its junction with Highway 542, the Mount Baker Highway. I turned right to head east on the Mount Baker Highway, following it past Glacier until I reached the turnoff for the Twin Lakes Road (if you cross the Nooksack River and see signs for the Silver Fir Campground, you've gone too far). I turned onto Twin Lakes Road and followed it over five bumpy miles to the Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead. The road is in poor shape, with a few severe, car-eating potholes and protruding rocks, but it was manageable in a sedan driving slowly. There is no real lot at the trailhead, but the road is wide enough for roadside parking on each of the two switchbacks on the road leading out from the trailhead; I arrived a little after 10:30 AM and parking was more or less full, as this is a popular hike.

From the start, the trail immediately embarked on an uphill climb, pushing through some short switchbacks in the forest before emerging into an open avalanche slope on a long switchback. The open slope allowed views back down to the cars parked alongside the road below, upvalley towards the mountains around Twin Lakes, across to Goat Mountain, and southwest to Mount Baker.

Mount Baker view at the start of the trail
Upon re-entering the forest, the trail climbed steadily as it traversed the southern side of Yellow Aster Butte and soon entered the Mount Baker Wilderness. The climb through the forest here was surprisingly pleasant due to a soft dirt trail tread.

Entering the Mount Baker Wilderness
About three-quarters of a mile into the hike, the trail ascended through a series of switchbacks through the forest; at the top of the switchbacks, the trail emerged into a clearing at the bottom of a small basin with views of the nearby meadow-filled slopes, about 1.2 miles and 1100 feet up from the trailhead. Huckleberry patches dotted this clearing and I noted two campsites in the basin.

After passing through the basin, the trail recommitted to the ascent, climbing through forest briefly before breaking out into subalpine meadows of heather and huckleberries. Views were initially limited to the red and golden hues of autumn on the slopes near Gold Run Pass and Yellow Aster Butte but soon expanded to include Mount Baker rising to the southwest. Soon afterwards, I arrived at a trail junction, about 1.5 miles and 1500 feet uphill from the trailhead; Yellow Aster Butte was to the left, Tomyhoi Lake was to the right. I took the left fork and started on the trail to Yellow Aster Butte.

Views of Mount Baker near the Tomyhoi Lake-Yellow Aster Butte trail junction
Once on the Yellow Aster Butte trail, I got a reprieve from the constant ascent: the trail gained just 400 feet over the next mile and a half. The trail began to trace the huckleberry-filled slopes of the High Divide just below Gold Run Pass, soon moving onto the slopes of Yellow Aster Butte itself. Views to the south widened: after initially just being able to see Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan and Goat Mountain joined the fun.

Shuksan and Goat Mountain
The trail re-entered the forest for a short stretch, then reemerged into the open at a small basin wedged between two ridges of Yellow Aster Butte. Here, the trail ventured near a snow patch that had lasted through the summer and crossed a stream; this was the last reliable source of flowing water on the hike. Past the creek, the trail stayed out in the open for the rest of the way to the top of Yellow Aster Butte.

Stream flowing off Yellow Aster Butte
After crossing the creek, the trail made a brief climb as it began wrapping around towards the south side of Yellow Aster Butte. The lower summit of the butte was visible directly above and I spotted multiple people standing atop the peak. Although it was still early September, fall colors were everywhere: the berry bushes had all turned maroon.

Yellow Aster Butte
Once Mount Baker reemerged, the views became stunning and stayed that way for the rest of the hike.

No words.
When the trail finally turned around the southern end of the ridge of the butte, an extraordinary panorama unfolded of the open ridges of the High Divide, dotted with lakes, with Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan to the south. In the gap between Shuksan and Baker, I spotted the Mount Baker Highway snaking up from the Nooksack River to the ski area and Artist Point; farther way, behind Artist Point, I could see layer upon layer of peaks, including Whitehorse, Big Four, and Del Campo peaks, which were as far away as the Mountain Loop Highway.

Shuksan and Baker
High Divide
Fall colors at Yellow Aster Butte
At 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail arrived at the base of the west ridge of Yellow Aster Butte. Views opened to the north of bulky Tomyhoi Peak and the collection of jewel-like tarns at its foot. American and Canadian Border Peaks made their first appearance to the north.

Tomyhoi Peak and lakes
At this point, an unmarked trail broke off to the left, heading downhill into the lakes basin. I stayed on the Yellow Aster Butte trail, which at this point began heading steeply up the ridge, making a beeline for the summit. This was by far the steepest portion of the hike, packing 500 feet of elevation gain into about a quarter of a mile. Although steep, the ascent was made easier by the sweeping views of Baker and Shuksan.

Shuksan along the final ascent
Final ascent to the summit
3.75 miles from the trailhead, I finally arrived atop the south peak of Yellow Aster Butte. The summit had copious flat space to accommodate multiple hiking groups, although the top wasn't too crowded when I arrived. I lunched with views of Baker and Shuksan towering over the North Fork Nooksack River watershed. The summit provided an incredible vantge point to study the glaciers on both Shuksan and Baker. The north face of Shuksan displayed the Hanging Glacier, White Salmon Glacier, and the Price Glacier; I even spotted Price Lake at the foot of the mountain. On Baker, the Rainbow and Park Glaciers coated Kulshan's eastern face. I had a direct view of the Mazama Glacier and of the Sholes Glacier, which sits on the slopes of the Portals and Ptarmigan Ridge, where I had hiked the year before. The high, green ridge of Skyline Divide extended north (to the right) from the bulk of Baker itself and the craggy spires of the Black Buttes appeared behind the Roosevelt Glacier.

Mount Baker
To the west, the open ridgetop of the High Divide (not to be mistaken with the identically named ridge in Olympic National Park) stretched out to Church Mountain, the sharp peak that initiates the range. Tomyhoi Peak was joined in the north by American and Canadian Border Peaks and Mount Larrabee and the Pleiades. The true summit of Yellow Aster Butte was also visible to north.

High Divide and the tarns below Tomyhoi
To the east, I spotted both the lookout and the flagpole atop Winchester Mountain. Farther out, Mount Redoubt and the Pickets dotted the horizon; I also caught a rare glimpse of the massive Challenger Glacier covering the upper reaches of Mount Challenger. Closer in, Goat Mountain and Mount Sefrit were pointy spires on the skyline.

Mount Redoubt
After sufficiently enjoying these views, I decided to continue onward to the true summit of the butte (hikers who choose to skip scrambling to the true summit will shave a half mile round trip and 400 feet of elevation gain from the hike). The true summit is north along the ridgeline from the south peak and is about 40 feet or so taller. To reach that summit, I followed a well-trod social trail north from the lower peak: this trail descended the better part of 200 feet as it dropped from the south summit down to the ridgeline connecting the two summits. The quarter mile of trail along the spine of the butte between the two summits was absolutely spectacular, with open views to both sides.

Ridgeline walk connecting the two peaks
Yellow Aster Butte rigeline
The last hundred meters up to the true summit was a Class 2 rock scramble. This was not a difficult scramble; before I knew it I had arrived at the rocky true summit of Yellow Aster Butte. This summit is much quieter: while I ran into at least ten or so people at the south peak, I only saw two other hikers atop this peak.

From the summit, the view north featured Tomyhoi Lake at the foot of the Border peaks and Mount Larrabee. I also observed that the border was easy to discern: while the American side of the mountains is fully protected in the Mount Baker Wilderness, logging roads and a recent clearcut made clear where those protections ended and Canada began.

Canadian Border Peak, American Border Peak, and Mount Larrabee rise above Tomyhoi Lake
While the viewshed atop the true summit was more or less the same as that from the lower south peak, there were a few interesting additions of note: this peak offered a good perspective of the wall of the Pickets stretching south from Mount Challenger.

Mount Challenger and the Pickets, Goat Mountain
The views from Yellow Aster Butte were so beautiful that I was loathe to leave, finally heading back only to honor commitments I had made in Seattle later than evening.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Image Lake

Glacier Peak rises above Image Lake
31 miles round trip, 5000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous (this is a long, multi-night backpacking trip)
Access: Long, pothole-ridden gravel road to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required

Few Washington vistas are as iconic and memorable as that of Glacier Peak rising above the calm waters of Image Lake. Glacier Peak Wilderness is one of the largest roadless tracts in Washington State; this hike enters deep into this vast wilderness, visiting a remote lake perched high on the side of a meadow-filled alpine ridge. The hike to Image Lake is long and requires a multi-night backpacking commitment, but the rewards are ample enough to warrant the time investment demanded. The trail also visits Miners Ridge Lookout, a remote fire lookout with a stunning view of the North Cascades; I'll also discuss an option for visiting another nearby summit with even wider views. Even on a holiday weekend, I saw less than 50 people in 3 days while hiking to a spot renowned in Washington hiking circles.

I have had multiple negative experiences with mice in the Suiattle River area; I advise that you not leave food in the car to prevent mice incursions into your vehicle.

I hiked to Image Lake with three friends over a long holiday weekend at the end of summer. We chose to approach the hike as a three-day, two-night backpacking trip, using the first and third days to tackle the fairly flat 10-mile approach to the Miners Ridge Trail along the Suiattle River and visiting the lake and the lookout as a day hike from our camp on the second day. To reach the trailhead, we followed I-5 north to Arlington, then took Highway 530 east past Darrington to the Sauk River bridge; after crossing the bridge, we turned onto the Suiattle River Road and followed it to the end of the road at the Suiattle River Trailhead. The second half of the Suiattle River Road was unpaved, with many potholes and severe washboarding, which made for an unpleasant drive; however, the road is wide enough for pothole avoidance that any car should be able to reach the trailhead.

On our first day, we hiked 10 miles with 1200 feet of elevation gain, starting from the Suiattle River Trailhead and ending at a campsite right next to the junction between the Pacific Crest and Miners Ridge trails.

From the trailhead, we set off on the Suiattle River Trailhead, quickly passing the turnoff for the Sulphur Mountain Trail and the sign indicating our entrance into Glacier Peak Wilderness. The next three and a half miles of trail followed the milky Suiattle River, which drains the north side of Glacier Peak. Views of the river itself were just okay from the trail; the forest near the trail was typically fairly dense, prohibiting unobstructed views of the river. The old growth forest was quite impressive, with Douglas Fir and cedar trees measuring up to five feet in diameter standing tall near the river. The weather was blazing hot on the day of our hike, tempered only by occasional cool breezes when we crossed streams tumbling down the sides of the mountain towards the Suiattle River.

Waterfall on a creek along the Suiattle River Trail
After about three miles of hiking, the trail began to climb away from the Suiattle River, staying at least a hundred feet or so above the river for the rest of the way. We passed a few campsites and crossed multiple streams en route to the suspension bridge over Canyon Creek 7 miles from the trailhead. At Canyon Creek, there were multiple campsites; late in the afternoon on a holiday weekend, there were still two unoccupied sites remaining.

Canyon Creek Bridge
After crossing Canyon Creek Bridge, we soon came to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail: the right fork led south to Mexico, the left headed north towards Canada. We took the left, continuing about another three miles to our campsite for the night.

PCT junction
After starting on the PCT, we soon realized that the streams flowing down from Miners Ridge (the streams crossing the trail after the Canyon Creek bridge) were much less reliable than the streams earlier on; while there had been plenty of water along the first seven miles of the Suiattle River Trail, we found only two trickles of water in the three miles between the Canyon Creek bridge and the junction between the PCT and the Miners Ridge Trail. Luckily, the second of these two trickles was only a third of a mile away from our campsite for the night.

We found about four small campsites near the junction of the PCT and the Miners Ridge Trail; two were occupied on the holiday weekend by the time we arrived at dusk. We set up camp, ate dinner, and then rested to prepare for the next day's ascent to Image Lake. We noticed that mice were a big problem in the area: we heard the constant patter of their feet at the edges of the campsite as we ate dinner.

On our second day, we hiked 11 miles round trip with 3600 feet of elevation gain as we ascended to the Miners Ridge Lookout and Image Lake and then returned to camp.

We started the second day by hiking up the Miners Ridge Trail, which was marked by a wooden sign indicating "Image Lake" just off of the PCT. The trail made a steady ascent uphill, crossing a stream and then climbing steadily via a series of long switchbacks. The switchbacks ended after about 2 miles of uphill trail from the PCT junction; shortly afterwards, we began catching our first views of Glacier Peak. Glacier Peak is the most remote of Washington's five volcanoes; unlike the other volcanoes, Glacier Peak is embedded deep within a range of other high peaks, making it stand out less from the surrounding landscape than Baker, Rainier, St. Helens, or Adams. Thus, Glacier was not initially named by George Vancouver during his reconaissance of the Northwest. Despite its name, the southern and western aspects of the mountain have fairly scant glacier cover; however, the northern face of Glacier Peak, which we saw from Miners Ridge, is heavily coated in flowing ice, making this one of the most beautiful faces of the mountain.

First view of Glacier Peak
At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, we came to a trail junction between the Miners Ridge Trail and the trail that continued towards Suiattle Pass. A campsite lay just downhill of the junction; the trail straight led towards Suiattle Pass and the surely fantastic landscapes of Lyman Lake and the Entiats; however, those mountains would have to wait for another day, as we took the left fork to continue ascending up Miners Ridge.

Another two miles of constant climbing up switchbacks and through thickets of ripe huckleberries brought us out into the open meadows near the top of Miners Ridge. The long, 3000-foot climb we had endured was suddenly worth it as we broke out into open slopes with a commanding view of the Suiattle River Valley and lordly Glacier Peak. The twisting Suiattle River flowed below down a forested valley that appeared to have never seen the mark of man, complemented by a backdrop of imposing glaciated mountains.

View over the Suiattle River and Glacier Peak
After over three hours of hiking, we arrived at the ridgeline of Miners Ridge, where views cut both directions. From the junction at the ridge, the trail to the left led slightly uphill to the Miners Ridge Lookout, while the one to the right led to Image Lake. We headed to the left to first visit the lookout, which was perched atop the meadow-draped slopes on a local highpoint of the ridge.

Miners Ridge Lookout
In season, I imagine that the meadows atop Miners Ridge would be carpeted in blooming wildflowers; at the time of our hike, late in the season, I only spotted the moptop western anemone seed heads. As we hiked up, views to the east improved: we spotted Mount Plummer further down Miners Ridge and could see the hulking forms of Fortress, Chiwawa, and Dumbell Mountains across Suiattle Pass from Mount Plummer.

Trail along Miners Ridge with Mount Plummer, Chiwawa, and Fortress Mountain
The lookout tower was only able to accommodate four people at a time and was staffed when we arrived, so we took turns visiting the top. We met Russ, a volunteer manning the lookout, who gave us a brief tour of the inside of the lookout. The lookout still had a fire finder, a tool that would allow fire watchers stationed at lookouts to easily pinpoint the direction of a smoke source on a map. We learned from Russ that phone lines once connected the lookouts to the outside world and that the individuals manning these lookouts would occasionally call people from other lookouts to socialize; at a lookout as remote as Miners Ridge, fire watchers would have led solitary lives. Before Image Lake became a popular destination, only a handful of humans would make it up to Miners Ridge each year.

Inside the lookout
The views from the elevated lookout cabin were spectacular. To the west we could see back down the Suiattle River valley from which we had we come up; to the south, Glacier Peak was crowned in ice, ruling over a landscape without any noticeable traces of human presence. To the north, the barely discernable tips of Dome Peak and Sinister Peak poked out above the ridgeline of Bannock Mountain.

Glacier Peak towers above the Suiattle River when viewed from Miners Ridge Lookout
Leaving the lookout, we returned to the junction for Image Lake and this time headed east along the ridge towards the lake. The trail stayed exposed on the south side of the ridge, delivering constant jawdropping views of the Suiattle Valley.

Fortress and Tenpeak hold court over the Suiattle River Valley
Tenpeak Mountain and the Suiattle River
A little less than a mile from the Miners Ridge Lookout junction, we came to another signed junction where the left fork led towards Horse Camp and Lady Camp and the right fork led towards hikers' campsites. We took the left fork, which would take us above the lake first. The trail ascended via a few switchbacks before bringing us into the lake basin, a hundred feet or so uphill from the lake itself. The trail began wrapping around the north end of the basin, delivering heart-melting views of Glacier Peak rising above the lake's sparkling waters.

Image Lake
Just north of the lake, we found a trail that descended from the high trail down to the lakeshore. We descended to the lake through a hillside of huckleberry and heather, finding a spot on the lakeshore to rest for a nap and a swim.

Image Lake
Image Lake
We shared the whole lake with just a handful of other hikers. It wasn't always like this: Image Lake has had a long and controversial history. The lake has had to fend off threats from grazing sheep, hikers, and miners. The meadows on Miners Ridge, remote as they are, were once used for grazing; once this threat was mitigated, overzealous hikers from large outdoors groups like the Mountaineers and the Sierra Club began large expeditions to this utterly picturesque lake, gradually damaging the fragile habitat of the nearby meadows. Later restrictions on group size and where groups could camp (no camping is allowed on the lakeshore) helped the environment recover. A final threat came in 1988, when the Kennecott Copper tried to obtain permission to mine copper close to the lake. Strong opposition from environmentalists helped save the lake.

Image Lake
The area around the lake was rich with huckleberries; our group spent a good amount of time picking and snacking on the nearby berries.

Having made it to the lake, I wanted to venture a little further up to a nearby highpoint on Miners Ridge. My friends were reluctant to leave the lakeshore, so I headed up to the top of nearby Peak 6758 alone; visiting this peak adds about 2 miles round trip and 700 feet of elevation gain to this hike.

To reach Peak 6758, I headed east along the trail from Image Lake to a junction with a high trail at a ridge; I took this trail northwest, following the slopes of the basin high above Image Lake. Western anemone seed heads lined the slope as I ascended gently along this trail with great views of Image Lake below.

Western anemone-covered slopes of Miners Ridge
The trail led up to a saddle between Peak 6758 and the Mount Plummer ridgeline. The views at this saddle were good: an open meadow lay below and the summits of Dome and Sinister Peaks were now easily recognizable. From here, the trail descended down the north side of the peak, heading off towards Canyon Lake. I left the trail here, instead scrambling up Miners Ridge to the west.

View north from the saddle
There was a small social path leading up from the saddle to the top of Peak 6758. I encountered a bit of Class 2 scrambling along the way but there was nothing terrible and I was at the summit about 10 minutes after leaving the saddle.

The views atop Peak 6758 were similar to those from the Miners Ridge Lookout, except better. The summit provided an overhead view of Image Lake and Glacier Peak, but also brought in views of a whole set of new mountains. Glaciers were visible on jagged Dome and Sinister to the north, while Canyon Lake was visible at the base of Bannock Mountain. To the west, I spotted the summits of Sloan, Pugh, and White Chuck- the Mountain Loop giants- poking above the ridgelines above the Suiattle Valley. Three Fingers was also visible, as was the Miners Ridge Lookout itself, which now seemed far below. To the northwest, the very tops of both Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan were visible. To the east, the panorama of Plummer, Dumbell, Chiwawa, and Fortress was now joined by Bonanza, the tallest non-volcanic peak in Washington State and one of the most difficult of Washington's highest peaks to spot.

Bonanza, Plummer, Dumbell, Chiwawa, Fortress: 4 of these are among Washington's 100 tallest
Dome Peak, Sinister Peak, Bannock Mountain, and Canyon Lake
Mount Pugh rises in the back with Miners Ridge Lookout in the foreground
View of Image Lake from Peak 6758
Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan were barely visible from Peak 6758
After making my way back down to the lake, my friends and I moseyed our way back to the Miners Ridge Lookout junction, enjoying the berries and the views along the way; we then made quick work of the descent back to our campsite and enjoyed an excessively sodium-heavy dinner.

On our third and last day, we hiked 10 miles and climbed 200 feet on our way back to the trailhead. While the return trip was mostly downhill, we ran into a few short uphill segments. We hiked back at a quick pace under hazy skies filled with smoke coming from the Chetco Bar fire in Oregon and the just-initiated Eagle Creek fire that had begun ravaging the Columbia River Gorge. We made just one long stop to observe the work of carpenter ants carving a home into a tree. The work of ants chewing away at the tree and scurrying out with bits of sawdust was audible, which was an extraordinary experience. We spotted ants with varying amounts of work ethic: a few conscientious ants carried their sawdust from the entrance of the nest down to the base of the tree, dropped off their load, and returned to work further; other ants would simply chuck their sawdust particules out of small windows further up the tree.

Carpenter ants and the sawdust they deposit
We returned to the trailhead to find that mice had partied in the car all weekend while we were hiking: the bag of Hawaiian chips that we had left in the car as our return treat had turned into mouse food. It was an unfortunate ending to an otherwise excellent trip; after dusting out the mouse droppings from the car, we made up for the lost Hawaiian chips with jalapeno poppers from the prepared foods section at the Darrington IGA.