Friday, March 19, 2021

Mount Aix

Mount Adams, Goat Rocks, and Mount St. Helens behind Nelson Ridge
12 miles round trip, 4400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Bumpy dirt road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass may be required (but probably not)

The Cascades of southern Washington State hide a giant: Mount Aix, a high peak that caps the wild, rocky ridges of the William Douglas Wilderness Area. Mount Aix is the tallest peak in the southern Washington Cascades outside the three volcanoes (Rainier, St. Helens, Adams) and the Goat Rocks. Its height gives hikers that reach its summit commanding views of the range. This is a rarely-trod corner of Washington State where hikers can find far more quiet than at nearby Mount Rainier National Park or the highway corridors near Seattle and Portland. The hike to the summit is a demanding, relentless climb but ends with a spectacular walk along Nelson Ridge with the option of a fun but slightly exposed Class III scramble to the top. I enjoyed this hike immensely during my fall visit, when I also got to catch beautiful fall colors on nearby western larches.

I hiked Mount Aix on a sunny late October weekend. From the Puget Sound area, I took Highway 410 east and south from Enumclaw to Cayuse Pass in Mount Rainier National Park; at the junction with Highway 123 at Cayuse Pass, I stuck to the left to stay on Highway 410, crossing Chinook Pass and then descending into the valley of the American River. I turned right onto Bumping River Road, following it past Goose Prairie and Bumping Lake. Past Bumping Lake, the road became NF-1800, a dirt road; I followed it for 2.5 miles and then headed left at the junction with NF-1808, an even bumpier dirt road that led a final 1.5 miles to the trailhead, marking by a small sign for Mount Aix. There's a small turnoff to the left here but I simply parked next to NF-1808; there's no bathroom or sign indicating a Northwest Forest Pass is required, even though we were on National Forest land.

I followed the trail heading east from the trailhead, which headed into the forest and immediately began a steady but moderate climb for the first 0.25 miles to reach the foot of Nelson Ridge and enter the William O. Douglas Wilderness. Here, the terrain steepened substantially and the trail headed to the south (right) as it began a steep and relentless uphill that would make up most of the hike. Through this ascent, the trail stuck fairly close to a creek as it made innumerable switchbacks. A few breaks in the trees yielded views of nearby western larches, which were showing up bright color in late October; this otherwise the climb was a bit monotonous at times as it ascended constantly through the drier forests characteristic of the eastern Cascades. There were no larches directly along the trail.

Larches along the ascent
At 2.5 miles the trail left the creek and began switchbacking into more open slopes, coming to the first views at 3.3 miles from the trailhead. One of the rocky summits of Nelson Ridge, a major north-south ridge in the William Douglas Wilderness, rose ahead. 

Nelson Ridge
More notably, the open slopes brought view of Mount Rainier to the west. Nelson Ridge and Mount Aix provide a less common perspective on Rainier: viewed from the east, the three major summits of Rainier- Columbia Crest, Point Success, and Liberty Cap- could be seen at the same time. Little Tahoma was visible but instead of standing out to the side of the larger Tahoma, it blended into the rock and glaciers of Rainier's eastern face. This was a lovely angle from which I could nearly see the full lengths of the Nisqually, Cowlitz, Ingraham, Emmons, and Winthrop Glaciers, all of which are among Rainier's most impressive glaciers. Disappointment Cleaver cut through the glaciers down the center of the mountain. This was a good angle from which to study the entirety of the Disappointment Cleaver climbing route up Rainier (which I had just completed a few months prior).

First views of Mount Rainier
As the trail continued to make broad switchbacks while ascending Nelson Ridge, trees thinned even further and soon the widening views soon also encompassed Bumping Lake and the western larch forests near the reservoir. While Rainier and the surrounding peaks would still be visible later from Mount Aix, views of the Bumping River valley were only to be had during this stretch of the ascent.

Bumping Lake
After 4.7 miles of hiking from the trailhead and 3500 feet of elevation gain, I arrived at an intersection with the Nelson Ridge Trail just slightly below a saddle on the crest of Nelson Ridge. Here, I took the right fork, which kept me on track for Mount Aix. The trail paralleled Nelson Ridge as I headed south, continuing to ascend until the trail made a sharp left turn as it wrapped around a small summit on the ridge. At this point, I decided to visit this small side summit and left the main trail by turning to the left and ascending up the slopes of loose rock through a hundred additional feet of elevation gain to the local high point. While this is not a requisite detour for the hike to Mount Aix, this small summit provided fantastic views of mountain to the north and south along the dramatic spine of Nelson Ridge, with Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens visible to the south on either side of the ridge. Mount Aix, the sharp peak that was my destination for the day and the tallest peak in the area, rose steeply to the east: I thought that this summit gave the most impressive view of Aix.

Mount Aix from a summit on Nelson Ridge
I returned to the main trail and followed it east as it began heading towards Mount Aix, taking the high ridge connecting Nelson Ridge to Aix. The trail lost 160 feet in a brief descent from Nelson Ridge to a saddle; after passing the saddle, the trail followed the top of the rocky ridge directly in a thrilling stretch with views in all directions. 

Mount Rainier and Nelson Ridge from the ridge out to Mount Aix
The trail gained 300 feet from the saddle as it came to an unmarked junction one mile past the previous junction with the Nelson Ridge Trail. There are two routes to the top of Mount Aix from this trail: the first is a steep, Class III scramble route that departed to the left of the main trail here, while the other is a longer route on trail that circled around the east side of the summit before reaching the top. I chose to ascend via the scramble route and returned via the trail; you can cut off a half mile round trip from this hike by taking the scramble route both ways or add a half mile if you skip the scramble altogether. This unmarked scramble route left from the main trail and made a very steep ascent up the rocky slopes of Mount Aix, requiring a few exposed scrambling moves towards the very top as it ascended 300 feet in just a tenth of a mile up through a rocky gully. This was the most challenging and arguably the most fun stretch of the hike and ended at the summit.

Looking back down the scramble route
From the 7766-foot summit of Mount Aix, I had a magnificent view of the peaks of the William Douglas Wilderness as well as of the great peaks of the Cascades to both the north and the south. The surrounding rocky peaks included the north-south crest of Nelson Ridge, which ended at Bismarck Peak to the south. Forests of golden western larches filled the Hindoo Creek valley to the south as well as the two cirques to the north of Mount Aix.

Aix's prominence meant that the view farther afield seemed to encompass all of the southern and central Cascades. Every inch of skyline to the west was filled with a peak. All five Washington State volcanoes were visible, although Baker and Glacier Peak were both very far away and very faint. Fifes Peak, the Goat Rocks, and the Tatoosh Range were notable mountains at a medium distance, while farther afield the view included Mount Si, Kaleetan Peak, Snoqualmie Mountain, Summit Chief, Mount Daniel, Mount Maude, Mount Stuart, and just about any other peak you can think of between here and US Highway 2. To the east, the rocky ridge of Mount Aix faded out and forested plateaus stretched east towards Yakima, which in turn faded into the bare desert ridges that rise above Yakima Canyon. A layer of haze blocked the view out into the Columbia Plateau.

Mount Rainier and Nelson Ridge
Mount Adams and Goat Rocks
Snoqualmie Pass peaks and Mount Stuart on the horizon
These mountains were a favorite haunt of a young William O. Douglas, for whom this wilderness area in Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests is named. Douglas grew up in nearby Yakima and wandered these mountains before he left this wilderness for the world of law, becoming the youngest justice in the history of the Supreme Court when he was nominated by Franklin Roosevelt and confirmed by Congress in 1940. He went on to become the longest serving justice in the history of the Court.

After soaking in the views for over an hour and enjoying the summit by myself, I started my return. Rather than descending the scramble route that I had come up, I chose to follow the proper trail down. The trail followed the east ridge of Mount Aix after an initial descent onto the mountain's north slopes. A steep descent down talus slopes brought me down to a small permanent snowfield that remains on the north side of Mount Aix. Here, the trail skirted the moraine of this snowfield; it must have once been a glacier and indeed it's of a size such that a similar snowfield in a more southerly state might be called a glacier. After passing the snowfield, the trail crossed over the the east ridge of Mount Aix and then followed the ridge down to join back up with the Mount Aix Trail, 0.3 miles after leaving the summit. Here, I took the right fork to head west back towards the trailhead. After another 0.3 miles of traversing the loose rock on the south slopes of Mount Aix on a narrow trail, I returned to the spot where I had previously departed the trail to start the summit scramble. Returning via the trail added an additional half mile of hiking relative to simply coming back down on the scramble, but it was substantially easier hiking. From there, I made my way back for the final 5.7 miles, making a small ascent to reach Nelson Ridge and then pushing myself through the lengthy and knee-busting descent to reach my car by sunset. 

Snowfield along the Mount Aix summit trail
Washington State has plenty of beautiful hiking destinations and it is tempting to write off Mount Aix as just another hike. Visitors and novice hikers will find more rewarding experiences at the national parks, in the North Cascades, or at easier hikes closer to the Puget Sound; however, hikers looking for wide-open views and solitude will find that Mount Aix is a good antidote to the increasingly over-crowded nature experiences around Mount Rainier or even the Goat Rocks. 

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