Thursday, January 31, 2019

Precipice Trail

Porcupine Islands from Mount Champlain
2.2 miles loop, 950 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, with scrambling, ladders, and extreme exposure
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Acadia National Park entrance fee required

There are many routes to the summit of Champlain Mountain, a long granite ridge that rises from the Atlantic Coast in Acadia National Park on Maine's Mount Desert Island. The Precipice Trail is by far the most spectacular and thrilling route to its summit, ascending directly up the cliffs on the peak's eastern face via a stomach-churning series of iron rungs and ladders. These obstacles make this hike a wonderful challenge and the sweeping views of ocean, forest, and rock en route to the summit make this a superb experience. The North Ridge of Champlain offers an easier while still scenic return. While the Precipice Trail is certainly a highlight of Acadia National Park, the extreme exposure on the route should not be taken lightly and makes this hike inadvisable for anyone with a fear of heights. Think of this not as a hike, but almost as a via ferrata. I strongly advise that you do not descend the Precipice Trail, but find some other route to return: the route is not accomodating of two-way travel, making a descent more dangerous for both yourself and hikers who are going up.

I hiked the Precipice Trail on a warm, muggy September morning after watching the sunrise from atop Cadillac Mountain. From Bar Harbor, take Main Street south to the Sieur de Monts entrance of the park and then follow the one-way Park Loop Road south for two miles to the Precipice Trailhead. The climb ahead is visible from the parking lot: the cliffs of Champlain Mountain tower directly above.

Champlain Mountain cliffs- previewing the climb
Leaving the parking lot, the trail hits rock immediately and begins with a scramble across outcrops of granite. As the trail weaved through the rocks at the base of the cliffs of Champlain Mountain, it encountered obstacles that gave a taste of what was to come: I climbed over a rock by pulling myself up via one waist-height iron rung and then rock scrambled uphill through a pile of giant boulders.

Rock scramble, previewing the climb ahead
The rocky landscape at the bottom of the mountain meant that I quickly came to clearings with views out to sea. A morning fog danced with the islands in Frenchman Bay while the forest below was showing the first hints of fall color.

The trail then led up through a talus slope, requiring scrambling moves both over and under massive granite boulders.

Rock scramble
Soon the trail began to climb up the cliffs, with handholds and iron railings to assist as I began to work my way up. The trail then began a horizontal traverse across the cliff and included a stretch in which I crossed a beautiful wooden bridge.

Precipice Trail
Soon after, I came to an intersection. The Orange and Black Path led to the right; the Precipice Trail headed straight up. I took the left fork and followed the iron rungs up the cliff.

The next fifteen to twenty minutes were packed with adrenaline as I climbed up ladders and rungs secured to the cliff. The trail generally led straight up, making multiple ascents at over 80 degrees. At times, the path traversed narrow ledges that were as little as two feet wide with extreme exposure. Although iron rungs and handrails were present all along the route, an accident here could mean (and has meant) a fatal fall. This high adrenaline ascent was accompanied by widening views of the islands and of the sea battering the pink granite coast. It was an experience that was mixed a little terror with sheer exhilaration.

Iron ladders
Precipice Trail- exposed ledges
Precipice Trail
The worst (or best, depending on how you view things) of the iron rung segments ended when the trail finally flattened out onto the gentler granite slopes just below the summit. Be sure to stop here to enjoy the views, as the views here may actually be better than those at the summit of Champlain Mountain. Standing at the top of the cliff, I could look along the great east face of the mountain in either direction as it led down to forests by the ocean. The Porcupine Islands dotted Frenchman Bay and the peninsula of Great Head was visible just slightly down the coast of Mount Desert Island, jutting into the Atlantic Ocean.

Porcupine Islands
The trail led up the lower-angle granite slopes until coming to a final iron rung climb up summit cliffs, a route that was much less intimidating after the much more extensive ladder sections from earlier in the hike.

More ladders
Atop the last iron ladder, I stood on the summit of Champlain Mountain. A wooden sign marked the summit of the park's fifth highest peak. The rocky summit was generally open, but a number of trees prevented the view from encompassing 360 degrees. The forested but rocky ridges of Dorr Mountain and Cadillac Mountain- the two tallest peaks on Mount Desert Island- rose to the west. Out at sea, the waves and the fog danced around Egg Rock Light on a lonely island.

Egg Rock Light
Champlain Mountain summit
Cadillac Mountain and Dorr Mountain
After enjoying the views, I began descending on the Champlain North Ridge Trail. Following the summit ridge to the north, this trail started out by remaining on the open granite slabs, providing frequent nice views to the north of the Porcupine Islands and Bar Harbor. The view of the town itself- a patchwork of houses and trees on the shores of the glimmering waters of sailboat-dotted Frenchman Bay- was idyllic, interrupted just slightly by the the jarring facilities of the Jackson Lab on the other side of Beaver Dam Pond. While I admire the Jackson Lab's work- it is a leading biomedical research facility and I am, after all, a bioengineer- the industrial look of its research facilities looked quite out of place on the otherwise idyllic Mount Desert Island scene. It's hard to fathom that there wasn't a less visually obtrusive location for the lab.

Bar Harbor
As the trail dropped along the ridge, trees began crowding out most of the view. Occasional openings still provided glimpses of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands.

Porcupine Islands
When the Champlain North Ridge Trail met the Orange and Black Path, I took the right fork to head back down to the Park Loop Road. As the trail came off the ridge, there were some nice views of the rocky Champlain Mountain east face and of the forested coastline of the Atlantic.

Mount Desert Island Coast
A fifth of a mile after leaving the ridgeline, the trail descended via stone steps to another intersection; here, I took the left fork, descending steeply on the Orange and Black Path to reach the Park Loop Road. I then followed the Park Loop Road south (to the right) for a final half mile to return to the trailhead. It's possible to take the Orange and Black Path back to the middle section of the Precipice Trail for the descent, but as that option still required a decent amount of rock scrambling and I had come off of four days in a row at Tumbledown, Kineo, Katahdin, and now this hike, I chose the less scenic but easier path back.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Goat Peak (Chinook Pass)

Mount Rainier and the American Ridge larches
6.5 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Washington State has many excellent summits named Goat Peak; this one, located just east of Chinook Pass, stuns with its views of the east side of Mount Rainier and the fall colors of the western larches along the trail. With a trailhead easily accessible from a paved highway just outside Mount Rainier National Park, you'd expect Goat Peak to see crowds, but at least in the autumn, this panoramic summit in the William O. Douglas Wilderness provided a beautiful experience with lighter than expected traffic. Western larches are common in the valley of the American River, making this one of the best hikes to see this lower-elevation larch in the Northwest.

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. The trailhead for Goat Peak was directly off the south side of 410, across the road from the Hells Crossing Campground and just east of a bridge over the American River. There was parking for twenty or so cars; at the time of my hike, there was no sign indicating that a Northwest Forest Pass was necessary, but the trailhead is on Forest Service land so I put my pass up regardless.

From the trailhead, the trail made an initial quick climb to gentler slopes before beginning a steep climb alongside a small stream in a ravine. A few autumn larches already dotted the lower forest in the American River valley, although the densest groves of larches were still to come on the upper mountain. In fall, the streambed was dry in the ravine but earlier in the year, there would almost certainly be a creek flowing down this narrow and steep gulch. The trail paralleled the creekbed, crossing the stream twice before swinging back along the slope of the mountain after the second crossing. Here, the trail flattened out very briefly as it traversed to the east, cutting along the slopes of lower Goat Peak and offering the first glimpses of rocky Fifes Peak across the valley. Portions of the trail were eroded here at spots where the trail crossed open gravelly slopes, so be cautious if you go!

The trail wrapped around one corner of the ridge before finally turning uphill at the easternmost flank of the ridge, a little over a mile from the trailhead. As the trail approached the ridge, it entered a stand that almost purely larch, emitting a golden glow in the low-angle autumn sun. A few berry bushes near the trail added splotches of red autumn color.

Western larches on the ascent up Goat Peak
As the trail gained the ridge, it came to an intersection with an unmarked social trail that led off to the north towards a prominent outcrop along the ridge. I scrambled onto the rocky outcrop for an airy view of the American River Valley and of rocky Fifes Peak across the valley. Looking up towards Goat Peak, I saw vast swaths of western larches spread over the mountainside.

Larches and Fifes Peak from the first overlook
Western larches
For the next two miles, the trail followed the ridge uphill, climbing steeply at times. Views were frequent, with clearings either to the east into a larch-filled gully or west into the American River Valley. As the trail climbed progressively higher, Mount Rainier emerged from behind the Chinook Pass peaks.

Larches and Rainier
The climb was constant but was ameliorated by the many views. In spots, the trail had eroded substantially, clinging onto barely-remaining ledges while cutting across some crumbly scree slopes; however, it should remain manageable for hikers who frequently deal with terrain of intermediate difficulty.

Western larches lit by sunlight
About 2.5 miles into the hike, the trail finally matched the height of the ridge that lay to the east across a ravine. This ridgetop was actually a small plateau coated with larches- this color display was one of the highlights of the hike.

The larches of American Ridge
Having completed the majority of the climb, the trail carved its way east through the forests and a talus slope on the north slope of Goat Peak and met up with the American Ridge Trail (Trail 958). Here, a ridgeline outcrop provided a stupendous view to the north: the ramparts of the distant Stuart Range rose above a shining grove of nearby larches.

Stuart Range, larches
At the junction, I took the right fork, embarking on the final leg of the ascent. A few switchbacks brought me to the foot of the summit block; the trail wrapped around to the south side of the summit block, where the American Ridge Trail continued westward while an unmarked but clearly trod spur trail led the final few meters to the summit of Goat Peak.

The summit boasted a 360-degree view of the South Cascades dominated by Mount Rainier to the west. From this perspective, I could see much of the Disappointment Cleaver route which I had ascended earlier in the year. Little Tahoma seemed to blend into the mountain from this angle, which provided a head-on view of the Ingraham, Emmons, and Winthrop Glaciers. Larches dotted the ridges that flanked either side of the American River valley between the peak and Chinook Pass; at the head of the valley, I could see the roadcut of Highway 410 ascending towards the pass.

Mount Rainier
To the immediate south rose the high peaks of the William O. Douglas Wilderness: Mount Aix rose above the great ramparts of Nelson Ridge. Below lay Bumping Lake, surrounded by forests of larch. These mountains fostered a love for nature in William Douglas, a native of Yakima who became the longest serving Supreme Court justice in US history who passionately argued for the preservation of wild lands across the continent.

Mount Aix, Mount Adams, Bumping Lake
Mount Adams and the Goat Rocks were visible to the far south; the Alpine Lakes Wilderness peaks were visibile to the far north. Lemah, Chimney Rock, Overcoat, Summit Chief, and Daniel were all easily identifiable from this point far to the south. The northward and eastward views also encompassed many burnt areas devastated by the Norse Peak Fire the previous summer.

Lemah, Chimney Rock, Overcoat, Summit Chief, Daniel
An inversion layer on the day of my hike meant that the summit was warm but that air pollution in Eastern Washington was trapped at ground level, limiting my views out into the desert. I could see out to Manastash Ridge- one of the multiple folds separating Yakima from Ellensburg- but couldn't see any towns in the Kittitas or Yakima Valleys themselves.

Western larches and the view towards the desert
Having gotten an early start, I had the summit to myself for an hour in the morning and returned to Seattle early enough for donuts and a cookie ice cream sandwich in the afternoon.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Big Moose Mountain

Katahdin and the Hundred Mile Wilderness peaks rise above Moosehead Lake
4.5 miles round trip, 1850 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

Big Moose Mountain towers 2000 feet above the southwest corner of Moosehead Lake, a massive sprawling jewel of a lake surrounded by the Maine Woods. The summit offers a sense of the vast scale of the Maine Woods, one of America's most extraordinary wilderness areas. The sweeping views from the summit give ample justification for why this peak once picked as the site of the first fire lookout in the country; that historic structure has since been removed. Big Moose Mountain sees just a fraction of the visitors of the much more popular Mount Kineo but delivers similarly jaw-dropping views of Moosehead Lake.

The trailhead is just a few miles outside Greenville, the main town in the Moosehead region. From Greenville, I followed Highway 6 north to North Road, where I made a left and followed that gravel road for about two miles to the marked trailhead for Big Moose Mountain.

The trail starts out as the remnants of an old road. After an initial steeper, rocky ascent, the trail soon leveled out with a smoother tread as it climbed very gently through a hardwood forest.

Maine Woods
After over a mile of a fairly gentle grade, the trail began to ascend at a more moderate grade and soon came to an abandoned warden cabin. In 1905, the first fire lookout tower in the United States was built atop Big Moose Mountain (known earlier as Big Squaw Mountain); this privately run fire lookout was staffed by a warden who lived at this cabin at the base of the mountain. The structure was still fairly intact and made for some interesting exploration.

Old warden cabin
Past the cabin, the trail crossed a creek that was once the water source for the warden cabin and then began the steep principal climb of the hike. The ascent here was quite steep and direct, often climbing via stone stairs.

Staircase on the trail
After a direct and brutal but quick ascent the trail came to a saddle at 1.7 miles from the trailhead, where a spur trail to the left led to viewpoints on the shoulder of Big Moose Mountain while the trail to the right led to the summit. I was initially torn about whether to go all the way to the summit and decided to check out the viewpoint first. The short spur trail quickly led to an outcrop with a decent but not overwhelming view of the southern portion of Big Moose Lake and Greenville. Having come this far, I decided that I would in fact finish the hike and visit the summit to see if there were better views.

View from the shoulder viewpoint
Returning to the junction, I continued uphill on the main trail, which switchbacked through a dense forest of small trees and climbed steeply until gaining the summit ridge. The trail leveled out at the ridge and came to the former lookout site a half mile from the junction. Although the structure was removed recently, this was once the site of the first fire lookout in the United States. From here, there was a wide view of much of Moosehead Lake that stretched from Borestone Mountain in the south to the lofty summit of Katahdin to the northeast. This was the first time that I saw Katahdin and I was in awe at its commanding and royal presence. Across the lake were the wooded mountains of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the most primitive and untouched lands along the Appalachian Trail.

Moosehead Lake view at the former lookout site
While it's tempting to turn back after reaching the lookout site, you need to continue further down the ridge for more views if you've already come this far. A fenced-off communications tower was just beyond the summit, but continuing even further along the ridge I came to a wooden helicopter landing pad. This helicopter landing pad boasted views better than those from the former lookout site: here, I could see the entire view to the northeast that I had previously enjoyed, but I also had beautiful views of Indian Pond and the Bigelows to the southwest (the Bigelow Range is the second tallest in Maine after Katahdin). The Maine woods stretched nearly unbroken in all directions, its dark green coat just barely hinting at the autumn colors about to explode.

View out towards Borestone Mountain from the helicopter pad
View west towards the Bigelows
It's important not to end your hike here, either, as there are still more views to come. I continued along the ridge from the helicopter pad until I reached a north-facing clearing that finally delivered the open views of the whole of Moosehead Lake that I had sought from this hike. The shimmering waters of the lake- the largest in Maine- sprawled to the north, its labyrinth shoreline embracing islands and dancing around ridges. Big and Little Spencer were the tallest peaks near the shoreline to the north but the dramatic cliffs of Mount Kineo, rising from a peninsula in the lake, were the most impressive features of the lake. Burnham and Mountain View Ponds added nearby splotches of blue. The mountains on the horizon roughly marked the Canadian border.

Moosehead Lake
Mount Kineo
After enjoying the sweeping views at this last and most spectacular viewpoint in peace on a beautiful Saturday, I retraced my steps to the trailhead to begin the long evening drive to Millinocket for my Katahdin hike the next day.