Monday, August 31, 2020

Mount Defiance (Snoqualmie Pass)

The Cascades rise over Lake Kulla Kulla
11 miles round trip, 3600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The view of sparkling lakes and an array of craggy peaks makes Mount Defiance one of the better hikes along the immensely popular I-90 corridor in Washington State's Cascade Range. Reached by just a one hour drive from Seattle, this well-loved hike uses a long and at times steep ascent to visit pretty Mason Lake and then deliver views of Mount Rainier, the peaks and lakes of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and the Puget Sound lowlands. This can be an enjoyable workout and the views at the summit are excellent, but be sure to come at a time when the trail won't be overrun by the residents of the Puget Sound metropolis.

I've hiked Mount Defiance at two different points during summer: once on a cloudy June weekend and again on a clear August weekday. My advice: never come here on a summer weekend, regardless of the weather. The trailhead's proximity to the Puget Sound area makes this hike far too popular on weekends: even early in the morning on a cloudy day we had to park along the road a half mile from the trailhead because there were so many hikers. I came alone on my August weekday hike: from Seattle, I took I-90 exit 45, turning left on Forest Service Road 9030 and following this unpaved road 3.5 miles to the Ira Spring Trailhead. The gravel road was a bit bumpy with some sizeable potholes but is usually manageable by two-wheel drive sedans. There is a large parking lot at the trailhead, but it typically fills up on weekends, so cars will often park alongside the road for up to a mile leading out from the trailhead. If you can only come on a summer weekend in late morning, I'm just have to say that I'm not sure hiking Defiance is worth dealing with crowds like that.

From the trailhead, the Ira Spring Trail sets off as a continuation of the gravel logging road that I drove to the trailhead. After heading west for a fifth of a mile, the trail made a sharp switchback to the east and continued ascending through the forest at a moderate grade. At 0.75 miles, the trail crossed a footbridge over Mason Creek, which drains Mason Lake far above; from the bridge, there was an excellent view of McClellan Butte, a sharp peak across the South Fork Snoqualmie valley that was named for George McClellan, an inaccurate surveyor and mediocre Civil War Union general who unsuccessfully challenged Lincoln for the presidency in 1864.

The Ira Spring Trail- named after a legendary Washington hiker and photographer who cofounded the Washington Trails Association- continued following the old logging road for another half mile past the Mason Creek bridge before diverting off onto a much steeper single track, 1.2 miles from the trailhead. This single track trail began an aggressive ascent through the forest, passing through a few avalanche chutes that provided some views of I-90 below and the peaks across the valley. After ascending through a set of switchbacks, the Ira Spring Trail finally started to break out into the open at 2.7 miles from the trailhead. Coming out onto a massive talus slope, I had views of Mount Defiance rising above to the west, with Mount Rainier now looming above the ridges to the south. McClellan Butte and Mount Washington rose above snaking I-90 below, which led out past the Issaquah Alps to the Puget Sound lowlands. The Olympic Mountains were visible on the western horizon. In June, these slopes are usually bursting with blooms of beargrass.

Mount Defiance from the Ira Spring Trail
McClellan Butte rises over I-90
The Ira Spring Trail passed a steep spur trail for Bandera Mountain at the end of the second switchback in the talus slope; Bandera Mountain is another enjoyable but crowded summit hike in the area and can be reached by a 1000-foot climb in just over a half mile from this junction. The Ira Spring Trail continued with a moderate ascent through the talus slope to cross a ridgeline, after it which it reentered the forest and began to descend, dropping 100 feet en route to the outlet of Mason Lake at 3.5 miles from the trailhead. After crossing the outlet of the lake, some side paths led down to the lakeshore, which is popular with backpackers on weekends but was fairly quiet midweek. Bandera Mountain rose to the southeast above the lake. Mason Lake came after about 2200 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead, a little under two-thirds of the total elevation gain of this hike.

Mason Lake
The trail is a little bit hard to follow after leaving the outlet of Mason Lake. While signs here point out the main trail to distinguish it from the maze of social paths around Mason Lake, it's still easy to lose. The key thing here is to watch out for the junction between the trail to Mount Defiance and that to Rainbow and Island Lakes. At the junction, take the left fork to head towards Mount Defiance. This trail made an initial ascent before flattening out briefly on a forested ridge. Partial views through the forest revealed that I was hiking on a ridge between two lakes: Little Mason Lake on one side and the large, gem-like Lake Kulla Kulla on the other side.

At the end of this brief, flat respite from climbing, the trail entered another stretch of aggressive ascent, tackling the slopes of Mount Defiance itself this time with a sustained uphill push through the forest. A number of short switchbacks assisted in this uphill stretch before the trail rounded the southeast ridge of the mountain. The trail ascended along the ridge until it began wandering onto the southern slopes of Mount Defiance, flattening out as it exited the forest and came out onto meadow-covered mountainsides. The ensuing stretch of trail was one of the most enjoyable stretches of the hike: a single-track, generally flat meander through beautiful subalpine meadows with views of Mount Rainier to the south and the other I-90 peaks all around. Looking back, I spotted Mason Lake nestled under Bandera Mountain as well as the farther, lookout-capped rocky summit of Granite Mountain.

Bandera Mountain rising over Mason Lake from the high slopes of Mount Defiance
At 5.2 miles from the trailhead, after enjoying a third of a mile of hiking through open meadows, I arrived at the southwest ridge of Mount Defiance. Here, the summit trail headed uphill to the right along the ridge, leaving the idyllic stretch of trail that had come before. This summit trail was brutally steep and was perhaps the most challenging ascent in a hike that already packs plenty of elevation gain: following the ridge directly with no switchbacks, it ascended nearly 500 feet in just 0.3 miles. I threw myself into this final ascent, which was tiring but rewarded me with ever more impressive views, including the rocky ridge of Putrid Pete's Peak immediately to the west.

Putrid Pete's Peak and the Olympics rising over I-90
After this final uphill push, I found myself on the long summit of Mount Defiance. While there is no single point with a 360-degree view, due to both the length of the summit and trees that grow near the top, I was able to piece together most of the view by walking the length of the summit. The view to the north came first: gazing down the watershed of the Pratt River, I spotted the nearby cliffs of impressive Garfield Mountain, with the two North Cascade volcanoes, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak, just peeking above the horizon.

Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, and other Cascade peaks
Walking over to the west end of the summit, I came to the view for which Mount Defiance is best known: Lake Kulla Kulla and Mason Lake sparkling below, with the great peaks of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness arrayed in the distance. Peaks spotted earlier like Bandera and Granite were now joined by Hibox, Alta, Silver, Kaleetan, Chair, Lemah, and Chimney Rock. In the distance rose the greatest peak of the Central Cascades: mighty Mount Stuart, the tallest non-volcanic peak in Washington State outside the North Cascades.

Lake Kulla Kulla and Mason Lake with the Snoqualmie Pass peaks
Kaleetan, Lemah, Stuart, and Hibox
To the south, Rainier showed off its magnificent north face, the steep Willis Wall. The Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers poured down its east facade. Mount Adams emerged in the distance to join the party; Mount Aix and Nelson Ridge, which are among the taller peaks in the southern Washington Cascades, stood out as well. The view was excellent; however, just about all of the I-90 peaks promise similarly beautiful views, though Mount Defiance is unique in offering such a pretty view of both Lake Kulla Kulla and Mason Lake from above.

Adams and Rainier
My stay at the summit was unfortunately quite brief: bugs quickly swarmed me, making it impossible for me to enjoy this view in peace, so I retreated slightly downhill to a less buggy spot to enjoy views of Rainier and eat my lunch before returning to the trailhead. I encountered severe bug swarms during both of my visits to this summit, so keep that in mind if you choose to hike here.

If you're looking for a hike with excellent views and a hefty workout that's just an hour from Seattle, Mount Defiance fits the bill; just know that on any given summer weekend, perhaps a thousand other households in the area will have the same idea. It can be an enjoyable hike when crowds are thin but I'd avoid coming here on any weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Whether you're visiting or live in the Pacific Northwest, there are many far less crowded options that are equally or more scenic that would be a better fit for a summer weekend hike.

No comments:

Post a Comment