Sunday, August 30, 2020

Index Town Wall

Mount Baring rises above the foggy Skykomish Valley
2.6 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, a very steep trail
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no pass required

The steep, narrow, and challenging hike up to the top of Index Town Wall in Washington State's Cascade Range rewards hikers with beautiful views of steep, dramatic mountains rising above the Skykomish River Valley. Just over an hour's drive from Seattle and low enough in elevation that it's often snow-free even mid-winter, Index Town Wall was one of my favorite off-season hikes in the Pacific Northwest to stay in shape, avoid snow, avoid a long drive, avoid crowds, and still enjoy some outstanding views. If Index Town Wall sounds too good to be true, it's because the trail up the wall is one of the roughest and more strenuous trails in a state known for them: not an officially maintained trail, it's actually a climbers' path used to access the many climbing spots on this huge cliff just outside the town of Index. But if you can deal with the challenges of this hike, you'll find a true gem here.

I've hiked Index Town Wall many times, usually coming during the winter and spring when higher-elevation hikes are snowed in but the Index Town Wall is often still snow-free. From Seattle, I follow Highway 522 (Lake City Way) northeast to Monroe, where I then take US Highway 2 east past Gold Bar. Shortly after Highway 2 enters the mountains and crosses the South Fork Skykomish River by bridge, I turn left onto the Index-Galena Road, following it a mile to the town of Index itself. I enter town by crossing the bridge on 5th Street, turning left at Index Ave and then following it west as it merges with Ave A. The road parallels the North Fork Skykomish River and reaches the unmarked trailhead parking lot a half mile after leaving town. There is a reasonable sized parking lot to the right of the road here: there are often plenty of climbers parked out here, but there's no signage to indicate that you're at the right trailhead.

The trail departed from the west side of the trailhead parking area, climbing quickly to meet a set of railroad tracks. I crossed the tracks and then dropped down to follow the trail on the north side of the tracks, which led to the right (east). The trail followed the railroad for 200 meters along the base of the towering lower Town Wall, where I've frequently seen rock climbers, before dropping a bit as it headed left towards the base of the wall. This slightly wider stretch of trail brought me to a sealed tunnel at the base of the wall; this tunnel was once used by the University of Washington Physics Department. The relatively flat 0.3 miles that brought me to this tunnel was the easiest stretch of the hike; the climbers' trail to the top of the wall departed from here.

Almost all of the 1300 feet elevation gain of this hike came in the next four-fifths of a mile. Here, a narrow path led into the forest, quickly embarking on a steep and narrow uphill climb. The trail tackled the climb in three segments, with two brief respites at ledges between the major cliffs of the wall. Although there is no substantial exposure here, as the trail remains in the forest, the terrain is extremely steep, so it's important to be cautious. Hiking poles would be helpful here. 

Blue diamonds on trees marked the way up. The trail is generally easy to follow, although at one point, below the second ledge, the trail splits from a well-trodden dead-end path; a painted arrow on rock at this junction indicates that hikers should stay left, but many head to the right as the main trail appears to head in that direction. If you do end up on the wrong path, you'll realize when you arrive at a flat forested ledge where the trail dies out; follow social paths through the forest to the left and you'll rejoin the main trail.

At times, the trail is steep enough that you may want to use your hands. The intense climb finally started to level out after a particularly rocky section of trail; past here, the terrain became slightly less steep as I approached the top of the Town Wall. The last part of the ascent was still steep, though far less so than the most aggressive climb encountered earlier. The trail leveled out and then joined an old logging road. In winter and spring, this old roadbed is frequently a stream, as winter rains co-opt it to flow downhill. The final tenth of a mile followed this logging road until coming to an airy, open ledge at the top of the Index Town Wall.

Gunn, Merchant, and Baring over the town of Index
Standing 1300 feet above the floor of the Skykomish River valley, I've enjoyed many spectacular views of the dramatic mountains that welcome hikers to the Highway 2 corridor. The peaks surrounding Index are some of the more dramatic in the Cascades and Index Town Wall provides an excellent view of all of these sharp, rocky summits. Gunn and Merchant Peaks have high rocky pinnacles that are coated in snow during winter and spring. The north face of double-peaked Baring Mountain is an extremely dramatic vertical drop, one that qualifies Baring Mountain as being one of the steepest mountains in Washington State. That's saying a lot, once you consider the ruggedness of the mountains deeper in the North Cascades! None of these peaks are particularly tall by Washington State standards- they top out at just over 6000 feet- but the vertical relief from the Skykomish River, which is just 500 feet above sea level, is extremely impressive. It never ceases to amaze me that such beautiful and dramatic mountains are just over an hour from Seattle, yet still draw less traffic than the more pedestrian peaks lining I-90.

To the south is another dramatic giant: Mount Index, with the soaring cliffs of its magnificent north face. The cliffs of Mount Persis lay further to the west; Persis would in itself be an impressive summit anywhere else, but here it is overshadowed by its magnificently vertical neighbors. Thousand foot-tall Bridal Veil Falls plunge down the lower slopes of Mount Index, fed by Lake Serene and the frequent winter avalanches down Index's sheer north face. The forks of the Skykomish River joined below at the foot of Mount Index, the North Fork doing so after flowing by the small grid of the town of Index. While other Index area hikes- notably, Heybrook Ridge and Heybrook Lookout- may offer parts of this view, none offers a view quite so complete and quite so commanding as this high climbing cliff opposite those great peaks.

Index and Persis, Bridal Veil Falls flowing
One of my favorite memories from Index Town Wall came from a hike with inversion layer fog filling the valley below. After driving under overcast skies all the way from Seattle, I hiked to the top of the Town Wall on a January day and found this impressive view of peaks rising above a lake of fog in the valley. This was a long time favorite hike of mine; it is beautiful, it is close to Seattle, and I could hike it at nearly any time of year. It's absolutely not a hike for novices, but if you've hiked plenty in the Northwest and are up for a challenging, steep climb, you can enjoy this absolute gem of a hike as well.

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