Friday, December 22, 2017

Floe Lake

Floe Lake
13 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain to Floe Lake
15.5 miles round trip, 3100 feet elevation gain to Numa Pass
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous to Floe Lake; strenuous for Numa Pass day hike
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canadian National Parks pass required

The cobalt waters of Floe Lake lie at the foot of an immense set of ramparts in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park known as the Rockwall. This is a location of unrivaled drama: fiery larches, towering cliffs, fracturing glaciers, and piercing blue lakes amidst a landscape scarred by massive fires a decade ago. The hike to Floe Lake is long and typically done as either an out-and-back backpacking trip or as part of a multi-night traverse of northern Kootenay National Park along the base of the Rockwall. However, strong day hikers will find Floe Lake to be a feasible day hike destination and even the sweeping views of Numa Pass are achievable to day hikers with some stamina who start early. Although the area does get a fair share of visitors, as one of the most famous spots in the Canadian Rockies, it has surprisingly avoided being overrun by tourists and day hikers; I found plenty of solitude throughout my day to and at the lake.

I hiked to Floe Lake during a weekend trip to the Canadian Rockies in which I spent a day in each of the four main parks; Floe Lake was my hike of choice for Kootenay National Park. I visited in mid-September, hoping to see the larches at peak color in the Rockies; unfortunately, I came about two weeks too early to Floe Lake and only saw a few larches that had turned for the season. I did, however, arrive late enough in the year that I spotted the aurora borealis in the dark night skies the evening before I headed out to my hike at Floe Lake.

Northern Lights
From Banff, I took Highway 1 west to Castle Junction, from which I took Highway 93 south across Vermillion Pass into Kootenary National Park and British Columbia. I followed Highway 93 south until it reached the bottom of the Vermillion River valley and pulled off at the Floe Lake Trailhead, arriving about 20 minutes before sunrise. Although there were 20 or so cars already at the lot, I appeared to be the first day hiker to arrive on a Saturday morning with excellent weather.

From the trailhead, the trail heads south through the flat valley bottom of the Vermillion River for a few hundred meters through the burnt forest. The forests of Kootenay were largely devastated by a fire in 2003 that burned nearly 40000 acres in the park; the hike itself stays almost entirely within the burn area until reaching Floe Lake.

The trail soon dropped down to the banks of the Vermillio River and crossed the river on a sturdy bridge.  The Vermillion River was a brilliant turquoise color and at the bridge, it was cutting a small canyon through the tilted sedimentary layers characteristic of the Canadian Rockies.

Vermillion River
After crossing the bridge, the trail began to head north along the river, which remained in view briefly. The trail returned to the forest but paralleled the river, which I could hear but not see. In about a kilometer, the trail came to a bridge crossing over Floe Creek. After crossing the creek, the trail began an uphill ascent along the slopes of Numa Mountain. Peering up the valley of Floe Creek, I got my first good look at the Rockwall, a vertical  spine in the Vermillion Range that defined the western boundary of Kootenay National Park. Sunrise alpenglow lit the massive cliffs of the Rockwall.

Floe Creek and the Rockwall
The trail first ascended via switchbacks along the side of the mountain facing the Vermillion River Valley, allowing nice views of the broad, mostly-burnt valley and of the peaks surrounding it. A peak that I believe was Mount Assiniboine made a brief appearance to the southeast.

The trail then made a turn into the valley of Floe Creek. For the next three miles, the trail ascended steadily as it paralleled Floe Creek far below. Unlike other hikes at a similar elevation, this stretch of trail was surprisingly open, with constant views, due to the burnt forests from the 2003 fires. It's probably a good idea to be careful for treefall in this area during times of high winds. The Rockwall was visible ahead and Isabelle Peak and Mount Ball were visible across the Vermillion River valley.

The Rockwall rises above the burnt forest
Burnt forest and Kootenay mountains
The trail corridor was well cleared for the first three miles or so of the hike, but the later portions of trail were quite brushy. As I was hiking early in the morning with no company on the trail, I knew a ran a sizable risk of running into the bear on the trail. Having neglected to buy bear spray the day before, I hoped that if I did see a bear, it wouldn't be a grizzly. My prediction soon came to pass: I found a black bear staring at me about thirty yards or so off the trail. We both gave the other a curious look; then the bear turned and disappeared into the underbrush.

Hello, bear!
I was happy to not see any other bears for the rest of the hike and surprised still that I had so little company in a relatively well-known hiking spot on such a beautiful day. I shook off the surprise of seeing the bear and continued along the trail, which soon began to approach the base of the Rockwall, where Floe Creek cascaded down steep slopes from the lake, high above. The trail had been relatively easy up to this point, with relatively gentle uphills, but after crossing a stream, the trail kicked into higher gear and began barreling uphill.

At the base of the Rockwall
At the start of the uphill, the trail crossed a fresh avalanche path, a fifty-meter wide swath of mountain slope strewn with debris. Shockingly, I found a large body of well-packed snow buried beneath this debris: this snow must have been left over the avalanche and thus meant that it had lasted from spring until late September.

Avalanche debris
Past the avalanche path, the trail committed to the climb, embarking on a steady series of switchbacks. The switchbacks danced between living and burnt forest: I had reached the outer extent of the 2003 fire. In a little over a mile, the trail climbed about 1200 feet to reach the elevation of Floe Lake. As the trail leveled out, the grim face of the Rockwall appeared before me and just barely golden alpine larches dotted the side of the trail: I had reached the basin of Floe Lake.

Just-golden larches at Floe Lake
I hiked Floe Lake in September with the intention of seeing the larches at the lake in golden color, but I soon realized that I was a bit too early for the best color. While a handful of larches had turned, for the most part, the deciduous conifers near Floe Lake were still green.

Larches near Floe Lake
Once at the lake basin, the trail stayed in the forest for another quarter mile, staying in the trees to the north of the lake. Finally, when the trail arrived at the Floe Lake Campground, I found a spur trail that led me down to a picnic area by the lakeshore.

Floe Lake has been described as one of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies. While I hesitate to back up such a claim- the Canadian Rockies have a wealth of beautiful places- I was very impressed by both the lake's beauty and the imposing cliffs of the Rockwall. The fierce towers of stone rose on the other shore of the lake like the walls of an impenetrable fortress. Having missed the brief window of the day when light strikes the wall, I gazed up at the detailed lines of compressed sediment of the Rockwall darkened by a gloomy midday shadow.

Floe Lake
The color of the lake was an almost otherworldly blue in direct sunlight. The intense saturation of color of the lake made the scenery appear almost unnatural. The lake's color results from rock flour resultant from erosion by the glaciers across the lake. The remnants of a few glaciers sat at the base of the Rockwall, grinding the vertical walls into fine particulate matter. Compared with historical photographs, it was astonishing how much the glaciers had shrunk. Floe Lake's name is derived from the ice floes that used to fill the lake from glacial calving; as the glaciers have shrunk, they've ceased to produce floes, ending the unique phenomenon for which the lake was named.

Floe Lake
Leaving the lakeshore, I continued a little further along the trail and came to the warden cabin at Floe Lake. The cabin is staffed occasionally by park rangers and offers a good view down to the lake from its front porch.

Floe Lake Warden Cabin
Past the warden cabin, the trail made a turn to the north and left the lake, heading towards Numa Pass. Many day hikers will find Floe Lake itself to be a sufficient destination, but strong hikers can reap even greater rewards by continuining on to Numa Pass.

The trail climbed in fits, alternating between short steep ascents and flat strolls through open meadows. Larches were everywhere but most unfortunately were still in summer color. I found many great views of the Rockwall at the frequent clearings along the trail.

Numa Pass Trail
The trail soon began ascending in earnest, switchbacking through a forest of larch trees. As I gained elevation, I noticed increasingly more larches that had started to assume their autumn colors.

Larches on the trail to Numa Pass
As the trail finally emerged from the forest, I had an immense view of the Rockwall to the south. Floe Lake was visible at the foot of the massive ramparts of the Rockwall, which then tapered off to its southern end. The northern continuation of the Rockwall could be in nearby Mount Foster.

Floe Lake and the Rockwall from the trail to Numa Pass
The muddy trail cut through open alpine meadows to reach the pass; the last quarter mile of the trail was fairly flat, consisting mainly of a northward turn towards the pass.

Numa Pass
Whereas earlier sections of the hike had stuck to forested or meadow-covered areas, Numa Pass was a barren, rocky place. I could see along the length of the Rockwall, which stretched in either direction from the pass; to the north, a grove of larches lay high in the valley of Numa Creek. Far off, the unmistakable forms of the Ten Peaks rose near Moraine Lake. The Rockwall Trail continued through the pass, descending towards Numa Creek and the heading off for the eventual meadowlands at Wolverine and Tumbling Passes.

View along the Rockwall from Numa Pass
After briefly enjoying the views at the intensely windy pass, I decided to go a little farther for some better views and climb up the knoll just east of the pass. The views from atop this summit were much better than those from the pass and required just one last extra bit of effort (about an additional 500 feet of elevation gain). There was no trail, so I made my way up the loose pile of sedimentary rocks to the top of the ridge. Views improved steadily as I climbed until becoming absolutely stunning once I was atop the mound. The pyramidal form of Numa Peak rose nearby to the east; fresh snow coated Stanley Peak and other Kootenay summits across the valley of the Vermillion River. Mount Assiniboine, the Matterhorn of the Rockies, was buried amongst the clouds to the southeast.

Numa Peak
Far off, I could clearly make out the forms of the Wenkchemna Peaks near Moraine Lake, with snowy Mount Temple poking just above the other peaks. Hungabee and Biddle Peaks, near Lake O'Hara, were also visible. The upper reaches of nearby slopes had patches of larches in the early stages of color change, making for a particularly beautiful scene.

Hungabee, the Ten Peaks, Temple, and larches
The Rockwall defined the western skyline. An impenetrable line of cliff-faced mountains stretched to the north and south, one of the most awesome sights of the Canadian Rockies. Foster Peak rose directly across Numa Pass, while Tumbling Peak lay to the north. Floe Lake appeared to be just a pond at the foot of the Rockwall from this angle. I spotted many glacial remnants along the length of the Rockwall; it was disheartening to think that these last bits of glaciers were likely to disappear within decades.

View along the Rockwall from the knoll on the shoulder of Numa Peak
This is a spectacular hike and probably the easiest way to see Kootenay's famed Rockwall in a day. Fit hikers will find this trail to be manageable in one long summer day. With more time in the future, I'd love to return to Kootenay and hike the full length of the Rockwall and see the alpine meadows of Wolverine Pass; having seen the beauty of Floe Lake, it's hard to resist returning.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Clatsop Loop

View of Tillamook Rock Light from the top of the trail
3 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, Ecola State Park entrance fee required ($5 as of 2017)

The short Clatsop Loop in Oregon's Ecola State Park, just outside Cannon Beach, delivers outstanding views of the Northwest coastline and travels through terrain once visited by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The best views of the hike come early in the loop, but the end of the hike also delivers a satisfying view of Tillamook Rock Light, a lonely and windswept lighthouse battered constantly by the Pacific.

I hiked this loop with my mother and sister during our trip to Oregon for the solar eclipse. The day after the eclipse, we drove out to the seashore, spending the morning at Cannon Beach before coming to Ecola State Park for the hike. To reach the trailhead from Portland, we took US 26 west from Beaverton through Tillamook State Forest and the Coast Range until reaching US 101; we then followed US 101 south for 4 miles to the turnoff for Cannon Beach, where we exited the highway. Shortly after coming off the highway, we made a right turn onto 5th St, following signs for Ecola State Park; we then followed 5th St as it narrowed, winding through the forest until it reached the Ecola State Park entrance. We made a brief stop at the Ecola State Park day use area with its iconic view of the Cannon Beach coast before driving to the end of the road at Indian Beach.

Cannon Beach viewed from Ecola State Park
The trail started at the beautiful, sandy Indian Beach, a popular waterfront access point near the wild seastacks of Ecola Point and Tillamook Head. The trailhead was at the north end of the parking lot; a sign at the trailhead detailed the loop and recommended hiking the trail counterclockwise, but we chose to tackle the loop clockwise to enjoy the views of the ocean first.

Indian Beach
The wide gravel trail headed north from the trailhead, quickly coming to a split between the Lighthouse Trail and the wider gravel road; we took the right fork for the coastal trail, which crossed a bridge over a creek and then immediately narrowed and began climbing. The trail quickly came to a series of viewpoints above Indian Beach, allowing us to look down the coast to the seastacks around Ecola Point and giving us an overhead view of the surf as it came onto Indian Beach. We also caught a closer look of columnar basalt cliffs and seastacks: even amateur geologists can easily recognize these as the result of volcanic activity. What is fascinating, though, is that there are no nearby volcanoes: these flood basalts actually flowed to Tillamook Head all the way from Eastern Washington, forming along with the Columbia Plateau flood basalts in massive eruptions over 10 million years ago.

Columnar basalt at Indian Beach
As a number of interpretive plaques on the trail point out, the Lewis and Clark expedition came to Tillamook Head and the area around Ecola State Park during their stay at Fort Clatsop, just to the north. They found the rotting corpse of a whale not too far from the current trail.

View of Indian Beach along the Lighthouse Trail
Indian Beach
This leg of the Clatsop Loop is also part of the Oregon Coast Trail, a 425-mile long distance trail covering the length of the Oregon Coast.

Past the initial viewpoints of Indian Beach, the trail continued ascending through the forest with fewer viewpoints. One of the intermediate overlooks delivered a stunning view over the ocean from a precarious, cliff-top perch. After this viewpoint, the trail delved deeper into the woods, climbing via switchbacks up the slopes of Tillamook Head.

Pacific Ocean
After the ascent topped out, the trail circled around the east side of the high point of Tillamook Head. The return leg of the Clatsop Loop- the fire road- was visible below as the trail began a gradual descent to the junction with that return trail. At the junction, I took the left fork and followed the trail a few steps further to Hikers Camp, the site of a number of small wooden structures in the forest that serves as an overnight shelter for hikers on the Oregon Coast Trail. Rather than head back from here, we chose to continue to the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Viewpoint. This trail descended slightly through the forest until reaching a small, fenced overlook with a view out to the ocean.

The view at the end of the trail was not very wide, as trees blocked the views along the coast to either side. However, looking out, we could see the lone silhouette of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse against the fog on the sea. The setting of the lighthouse was beyond desolate. The structure- nicknamed Terrible Tilly for the punishing weather conditions it endured- stood atop a large barren rock. A staircase cut into the rock led down to the base of the island, where hundreds of sea lions were beached. At the time of its construction, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was the most expensive lighthouse built on the West Coast. Constant battering from the elements led to frequent damage; although the lighthouse helped many ships naviagate down the treacherous Oregon Coast, it was retired in 1957 due in part to high operational costs.

Terrible Tilly
Returning to Hikers Camp, we followed the gravel road back to the trailhead. The descent was steady as it dropped about 800 feet in slightly over a mile through the forest; we soon found ourselves back at the Indian Beach trailhead. We ended our day by driving down to Tillamook for cheese-tasting.

This hike is an easy way to see a spectacular stretch of more wild coast. It's got something for most people- history, gorgeous views, a beach. I've done scant hiking on the Oregon Coast outside of this loop so it's difficult to make comparisons, but it's difficult for me to imagine this hike being anything outside of one of the better short hikes along the coast.