Saturday, June 27, 2020

Gobblers Knob

Lenticular cloud caps Rainier
11.5 miles round trip, 2600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee required

Perched atop a rocky peak across the Tahoma Creek valley, the fire lookout at Gobblers Knob offers one of the most impressive front-row seat views of the west aspect of Washington State's Mount Rainier. This is one of the best places to view the less-visited western side of this mighty mountain and is a good deal quieter than Paradise, Sunrise, and other more tourist-friendly parts of the national park. The hike to this lookout visits placid Lake George as well but does require a long, 3.2-mile walk up the carfree portion of Westside Road to reach the singletrack trail leaving from Round Pass. While the scenery here is still not as impressive as the wildflower meadows and close-up glacier views elsewhere in the park, it's a good place to enjoy amazing views of Mount Rainier without having too much company.

I hiked Gobblers Knob on a late June Friday, choosing a less popular hike on a weekday so that I could practice social distancing. Unfortunately, the timing for my hike wasn't great: there was still over two feet of snow on the upper parts of the mountain, making the trail hard to follow and requiring me to use traction on my boots.

From Seattle, I took Highway 167 and then Highway 512 south to Puyallup, exited onto Highway 161 and followed it south past South Hill, Graham, and Eatonville to the junction with Highway 7; I turned left and followed Highway 7 to Elbe and continued on Highway 706 from Elbe towards Mount Rainier. Passing Ashford, I entered the park and soon after the entrance booth I made a left turn onto Westside Road. I followed the gravel Westside Road up about 3 miles to the parking area at the road closure; there were some potholes but the road wasn't too bad.

From the trailhead, I followed Westside Road north, quickly passing by the massive rockslide that caused the northern portions of this road to be closed. Originally meant to be part of a ring road around Rainier, Westside Road offered car access between the Nisqually and Puyallup watersheds until the threat of rockslides from Mount Wow led the road to be closed at the current trailhead. After passing the rockslide, the trail followed the base of the massive cliffs of Mount Wow. In June, a seasonal waterfall cascaded down these cliffs with a number of gracefully plunging drops.

Waterfalls tumbling off Mount Wow
Westside Road maintained a steady but gentle uphill grade, soon crossing a bridge over Fish Creek. At about a mile in, the road came to the wide, debris-strewn path of Tahoma Creek. This spot offered the first good views of Mount Rainier: Liberty Cap and Point Success rose above the forested mountains that boxed in the Tahoma Creek valley. Tahoma Creek is a volatile geologic area: there are frequent glacial outburst floods from the South Tahoma Glacier that cause debris flows through the valley; at the time of writing, the last such flood had just occurred in 2019.

Tahoma Creek
After the road left Tahoma Creek, it embarked on a set of switchbacks through the forest as it climbed towards Round Pass. This is unfortunately the most boring stretch of the hike: there were no views and the road itself took two miles of switchbacks with a very gentle grade to cover a distance that it probably could've covered much more efficiently with some steeper uphill.

A little over three miles into the hike, Westside Road arrived at Round Pass. A former parking area on the left side of the road marked the start of the trail to Lake George and Gobblers Knob. There's a bike rack here: if you'd rather not hike the long, three-mile slog of Westside Road, you always have the option of biking up to Round Pass. The Lake George Trail left from the northwest corner of the lot and immediately began a climb with a steeper grade through a beautiful forest. Occasional breaks in the trees here provided partial views of Rainier and the understory vegetaion, having just recently melted out, was dotted with avalanche lilies.

Lake George Trail
A mile after leaving Round Pass and a little over 4 miles into the hike, I arrived at Lake George. A spur trail broke off to the left, leading to some campsites and a toilet; I took a brief detour from the main trail to the lakeshore to enjoy views of Mount Wow rising over Lake George. Lake George is a pretty alpine lake, although it's not necessarily a standout in the PNW due to tough competition. While nice, I wouldn't recommend the lake as a standalone destination.

Lake George and Mount Wow
The trail towards Gobblers Knob briefly followed the lakeshore before turning sharply into a stream valley. Here, the snow started: between Lake George and Gobblers Knob, I spent most of my time hiking in snow that was well over two feet thick in places. Luckily, the initial snow patch ended once the trail began to climb again and the first set of switchbacks above the lake were snow-free with beautiful carpet blooms of avalanche lilies. Avalanche lilies bloom immediately after the snowmelt and are one of the my favorite Washington wildflowers- their brief bloom requires good timing to catch. The Mount Rainier area is one of the most reliable places in the Cascades to see avalanche lilies.

Avalance lilies
Trillium and avalanche lilies
The snow-free trail didn't last: the next small basin was covered in snow and this time the trail ascending out from it was still snow-covered. As some parts of the hike required crossing steep snowfields, I donned my microspikes here and kept them on for the rest of the hike.

The trail was completely snow-covered by the time it ascended to a small pond on a bench beneath Gobblers Knob. Here, it became hard to follow the trail and the bootpack faded out. With this much snow, it would've been wise to turn back, but having limited time before I moved from Seattle, I was determined to reach the summit. I circled around the south end of the pond; with no clear path through the snow, I chose to head roughly due west as I ascended the snowy slopes of Gobblers Knob.

Frozen pond above Lake George
Unfortunately, I popped out on the ridgeline a little south of where I should've been, so I backtracked a bit and headed north and soon found myself at the intersection between the trail west to Goat Lake and the spur trail to Gobblers Knob: the trail sign was lower than the snow level but was visible as a snow well and melted out around it. The snowy terrain was slippery and disorienting and not recommended for hikers without proper traction gear and navigation skills. I followed the Gobblers Knob spur for a last half mile uphill push to the summit. After spending most of the hike in the forest, views finally started opening up as I approached the summit. Soon, the lookout appeared above on a large rocky outcrop.

Gobblers Knob and Mount Rainier
A final push into a terrain of meadows and rocks brought me to the summit. I climbed up onto the deck of the fire lookout for an excellent panoramic view of Mount Rainier and the South Cascades. Rainier dominated the view to the east. All three summits were visible: Liberty Cap, Columbia Crest, and Point Success. A lenticular cloud has just begun forming over the summit. Liberty Cap and Point Success together create the Sunset Amphitheater, a caved in portion of the mountain filled by the massive Puyallup Glacier that catches the sun's dying rays each day. Below Point Success was the South Tahoma Glacier, which fed Tahoma Creek. The debris flow-widened valley that I had hiked up was visible below.

Rainier from Gobblers Knob: Sunset Amphitheater and the Puyallup Glaciers
To the southeast were the Tatoosh Range familiar to tourists at Paradise and farther away were the Goat Rocks, the most impressive peaks in the South Cascades outside the three major volcanoes. Mount Wow's snow-streaked slopes were due south.

Tatoosh Range and Goat Rocks
Two more volcanoes were visible to the south: Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens. Mount Adams is blocked by Mount Wow from this angle. High Rock is a notable and sharp peak to the south and is home to another Rainier-area fire lookout. To the west, the Cascades faded into the lowlands and the hills of Capitol State Forest near Olympia. The Puget Sound can probably be seen from here on a clear day but the skies over the lowlands were not very clear so I couldn't see the Olympics, the Sound, or Cascade peaks to the north.

Mount Wow, High Rock, and Mount St. Helens
Due to the snow conditions, no one else appeared to have made it up to Gobblers Knob on the day of my visit and I had the spot to myself. On weekends, this area sees its fair share of visitors, although the hikers here are still far sparser than the crowds that ascend to Paradise. I got to enjoy the views from all four sides of the deck of the fire lookout at a leisurely pace. The fire lookout is one of four left in Mount Rainier National Park.

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout
This was a beautiful and enjoyable hike, with wildflowers and a lake on the way to a summit with stunning views of Mount Rainier. While not one of the highlights of the Cascades, this is nonetheless an excellent hike for locals who wish to see Rainier from a less frequently viewed angle.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Corona Arch

Corona Arch
3 miles round trip, 350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, some ladders and cables
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee

One of the most impressive arches near Moab, Utah is outside Arches National Park or any Utah national park, for that matter; Corona Arch is a 140 foot by 105 foot opening spanned by a muscular limb of sandstone near the Colorado River. Although popular, this arch on Bureau of Land Management land receives far less attention than its counterparts in Arches National Park despite being equally spectacular. The hike to this arch doesn't require too much elevation gain but but does offer some minor obstacles, with a ladder and a short cable necessary to maneuver through the slickrock terrain of the canyonlands. This is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Moab area and an excellent hike for visitors who don't mind the terrain. 

I hiked to Corona Arch during a Moab road trip with my mother. From Moab, we took US Route 191 north across the Colorado River and immediately made a left turn onto Potash Road (Route 279). We then followed Potash Road 10 miles along the Colorado River until we reached the Corona Arch Trailhead on the right side of the road. Along the way, we passed by multiple sets of Native American petroglyphs carved into cliffs rising above the road.

Petroglyphs off of Potash Road

From the trailhead, we headed up the steep path leading up from the entrance of the parking area. The trail made a quick and brief uphill and then flattened out and began heading north, crossing the railroad to the potash mines. The openness of the terrain meant that the views started from the very beginning of the hike: we enjoyed seeing the sunrise light paint the sandstone domes across the Colorado River.

Domes above the Colorado River at the Corona Arch trailhead
After crossing the railroad tracks, the trail stayed flat for a while, hugging the cliffs on the east (right) bank of the Colorado River. Rounded sandstone domes made this part of the Colorado River canyonlands very scenic. The trail then turned east (to the right) as it continued contouring on the cliff until it entered a gully; we then followed the trail through a short ascent as it climbed through the gully and came out on top of a slickrock bench at about 0.4 miles into the hike.

Sandstone domes along the trail
The trail was easy, flat hiking on slickrock up to about the one mile mark. Here, the trail traversed some angled slickrock at the base of a sandstone cliff; while the angle of the trail is not too steep there were some chains to hold onto for security.

Cables across the slickrock
Wrapping around into a new stretch of the canyon, Corona Arch and Bow Tie Arch came into view ahead. Corona Arch was a robust sandstone bridge with a perfect, rainbow-like form while Bow Tie Arch was simply an overhanging span over a deep recess in the cliff.

The next stretch of trail had a few bells and whistles as it headed uphill over slickrock. A ladder assisted one ascent while another climb over a steeper stretch of slickrock was aided with hand cables and small steps carved into the rock. There can be a bit of traffic at these two chokepoints; these obstacles may make this hike less suitable for children or for less agile hikers. My mom was able to handle both stretches, though she found both to be a bit challenging.

Ladder with Bowtie Arch and Corona Arch in the distance
Cables over slickrock
The trail hugged the rocky bench in between cliff layers on the canyon as it followed the canyon walls first to Bow Tie Arch and then to Corona Arch. Bow Tie Arch's opening is only apparent when we approached the base of the arch; from most angles it just looked like a deep alcove.

Bowtie Arch
The final stretch to Corona Arch was over slickrock, with angled surfaces and uneven footing at times. There was no defined path but the destination was clear. We arrived early enough in the morning that there was just one other hiker at the arch; this is quite a popular destination so expect company if you hike at midday on a weekend. Corona Arch is an immense and beautiful rock arch, easily as memorable as the more famous Landscape and Delicate Arches in nearby Arches National Park. Anchored on a sandstone cliff at one end, the rock span arcs down gracefully but with a muscular form. Many visitors have noted a resemblance between this arch and Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon, giving this arch the nickname "Little Rainbrow Bridge." In these Covid times, this might be the preferred name considering the arch's now-unfortunate given name.

Corona Arch
The arch was once the site of a rope swing that some claimed was the world's largest; daredevils visiting the arch would secure the rope swing to the arch itself and swing across the slickrock. Corona Arch went viral went a YouTube video of the rope swing went up. A death on the swing in 2013 led the Bureau of Land Management to ban the activity. For me, the adrenaline of seeing such a beautiful arch was enough.

Corona Arch
There's not too much elevation gain on this hike, but the ladders and cables and the uneven terrain may make this a slightly challenging hike for some. The rewards of hiking to Corona Arch are ample, though, and anyone who has more than two days in the Moab area should make time for this arch after visiting the national parks.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Horseshoe Canyon

Anthropomorphic pictographs of the Great Gallery
7 miles round trip, 750 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, but bring lots of water
Access: Long gravel road to the middle of nowhere, no entrance fee

Hidden in the remote Canyonlands of Utah, Horseshoe Canyon contains one of the most significant and haunting collections of rock art in the United States- the prehistoric Great Gallery, a panel of dark red, limbless anthropomorphic pictographs silently guarding these desert canyon walls. Painted over a thousand years ago, this is the largest and best preserved collection of Barrier Canyon style pictographs in the Southwest. The day hike to these pictographs is not too difficult, but be prepared to travel to the middle of nowhere- hours from any towns or cities, this is the landscape where Aron Ralston found himself trapped for 127 hours, inspiring the movie of that name.

In summer, the Canyonlands can get hot. It is absolutely essential to carry enough water, as there is usually none in the canyon. You may see that this is not a strenuous hike and assume you can get away without much water, but the sun here is relentless and the sandy bottom of the canyon can be tiring to hike through. Bring at least two liters of water per person.

I hiked Horseshoe Canyon on the last day of a weeklong fall trip to the Canyonlands region with my mom. The Horseshoe Canyon of Canyonlands National Park is about as close to the middle of nowhere as you'll get- 4.5 hours away from Salt Lake City and still an hour and a half from Hanksville, the nearest available services to the canyon. My mom and I came from Hanksville as we finished up a clockwise driving loop around the Canyonlands via Arches and Bears Ears. From Hanksville, we headed out early, taking Utah Highway 24 north until reaching a sign for a dirt road on the right for the Hans Flat Ranger Station. We turned here and started the long drive on unpaved roads to the trailhead. The dirt road initially headed east but soon came to somewhat of a T-intersection, where we headed to the right and followed the road south. The road made a sharp left bend after reaching a ranch at the foot of a hill and swung east, crossing a saddle between two buttes. The road continued across a flat stretch of desert before climbing a bit up a hill; at the top of the hill, a spur road broke off the to the right towards a house. We ignored that spur and continued taking the main road, which followed the top of the hill with views of the San Rafael Swell to the west until swinging east again. Soon, we passed a set of Sand Dunes on our right, which caught the morning sun and appeared quite dramatic with the Henry Mountains as a backdrop. Continuing past the sand dunes, the road came to a fork at a Canyonlands National Park info board; the road to the right led to Hans Flat Ranger Station and the Maze, so we took the left fork here to continue towards Horseshoe Canyon. We followed this road for about another five miles before we finally came to the turnoff for Horseshoe Canyon on the right. Taking this turn, we drove two miles to the end of the road and arrived at the parking lot for Horseshoe Canyon.

Sand dunes and the Henry Mountains
We were the only people in the parking area. Signing in at the trail register, I noted that a few groups per day made it out to the canyon on weekends but that the trail was often untouched on weekdays.

From the trailhead, the trail began a gradual descent into the canyon (it's important to remember that you'll have to ascend on your return!). The trail was quite rocky in places as it made its way downhill. The open terrain provided nice views of the surroundings; the La Sal Mountains were visible in the distance to the east and the flat mesa tops on the other side of Horseshoe Canyon gave no clue of the gaping Green River canyonlands that lay beyond.

Horseshoe Canyon
After about a half mile, we arrived at one of the points of interest in the hike: a fossilized dinosaur footprint. The footprint would not have been obvious to spot had there not been a a ring of rocks surrounding it. Many sedimentary layers of the Colorado Plateau were laid during the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the area that is today the Colorado Plateau was instead sandy beaches, a shallow sea, or great sandy deserts. The Colorado Plateau thus preserves not only dinosaur footprints but also has yielded a treasure trove of paleontological finds.

Dinosaur footprint
Short after passing the dinosaur footprint, we passed a water tank that was used by ranchers in the past who once grazed livestock in the canyon. After the water tank was a stretch of descent across slickrock. The Navajo Sandstone layers that defined the top element in Canyonlands stratigraphy formed series of domes and buttes here that added interest to the landscape.

Navajo Sandstone domes and buttes above Horseshoe Canyon, La Sal Mountains in the distance
Continued descent brought us to the edge of the cliff above the inner canyon. Here, the trail first descended while hugging the walls of the canyon before then taking a sandy ridge down from the canyon walls to the bottom of the canyon. This is the steepest part of the hike- the most difficult uphill during the return hike- and placed us at the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon about a mile and a half from the trailhead.

Horseshoe Canyon
Arriving at the sandy wash of the canyon floor, we followed the canyon south; from here to the Great Gallery, the trail was essentially flat. Around us rose the sandstone canyon walls. The trail danced in and out of the wash itself, often going through stands of cottonwoods on alternating sides of the canyon floor. Soon, the trail brought us to the foot of a high sandstone wall on the left side of the canyon adorned with the first of this hike's pictograph panels. Known as the High Gallery, this panel is indeed high up on the canyon wall- in fact, it's not intuitive how anyone could've painted these as the panel is well over ten meters above the bottom of the canyon. The pictographs show a collection of anthropomorphic figures, most of which have legs and some of whom have arms, differing slightly from the limbless figures at the Great Gallery later in the hike. One of the most notable figures in this panel is a pregnant woman in the bottom right of the panel.

High Gallery
The pictographs here are painted in what's known as the Barrier Canyon Style, which includes a series of rock art sites around Utah's San Rafael Swell and Canyonlands that exhibit similarities in the colors and the forms of anthropomorphic figures. Horseshoe Canyon has the largest and most significant collection of these pictographs- indeed, the name of the style actually derives from the name of the canyon, as Horseshoe Canyon had been earlier named Barrier Canyon. The Barrier Canyon Style pictographs were left by the Archaic culture, an early hunter-gatherer culture in Utah that preceded the later Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan cultures. Paleo-indians were the first humans to inhabit Utah, arriving over 10,000 years ago during a wave of human migration from Siberia in the last ice age. The extinction of ice age fauna in North America brought about the Archaic culture, hunter-gatherer societies that inhabited Utah until about 500 CE.

The next panel of rock art came soon after the High Gallery, this time at eye-level: the Horseshoe Shelter Gallery was on the opposite (right) wall of the canyon and displayed another set of figures, which included a dog. This panel lacked the unsettling, haunting visages of the High Gallery or the Great Gallery.

Horseshoe Shelter Gallery
Horseshoe Shelter Gallery
The trail continued along the sandy bottom of the canyon past Horseshoe Shelter Gallery. The sand made this flat canyon-bottom hike substantially harder that it seemed that it would be: the sensation was similar to walking on a beach, requiring more exertion for flat ground than would usually be expected.

Horseshoe Canyon
A half mile of hiking past the Horseshoe Shelter Gallery brought me to a massive rock overhang on the right side of the trail. An arched alcove was cut into the sandstone walls of the canyon.

The Alcove
Entering the alcove, we spotted the third rock art collection of this trail- the Alcove Gallery. This panel was in the worst shape of the four panels in the canyon: some of the figures had become a bit washed out and part of the panel had been vandalized. Nonetheless, it was interesting for displaying some horned figures quite different from the anthropomorphic forms in the other panels.

Alcove Gallery
This should really go without saying, but it's both against federal law and just morally offensive to deface archaeological sites like these. These pictographs and the other rock art and ruins left by the cultures that once inhabited southeast Utah are priceless artifacts linking us to the past. Don't vandalize or touch these panels- oils from human contact can cause degradation of fragile ancient artifacts.

Past the Alcove Gallery, we continued to trudge another mile along the sandy bottom of the valley. Beautiful buttes and domes above us on the canyon rim, a reminder that this hike isn't just about pictographs.

Horseshoe Canyon
A mile from the Alcove Gallery- and 3.5 miles from the trailhead- we came to the Great Gallery, on the right side of the canyon. This is certainly the most awesome spot of the hike: eerie ghost-like forms floating on the canyon walls, their eyes gazing out from their otherwise featureless faces.

The Great Gallery
This is one of the most significant and best-preserved rock art sites in the United States. Reproductions of this panel have been displayed at the MoMA in New York and the Natural History Museum of Utah. Many of the figures show intricate detail: one of the larger and more notable figures has two sheep painted on its torso along with some intricate patterns. Others exhibit multiple colors of paint in the patterns that make up their torsos, although many others are simply a dark red hue throughout. Most of the figures here lacked limbs, although a unique contorted figure who almost seems to be dancing had arms and legs.

The Great Gallery
The most interesting part of the Great Gallery is a panel of dark silhouettes surrounding an outlined form that's been named the Holy Ghost. There has been considerable scientific research into the age of this panel and a good amount of that research has concentrated on this panel. Some anthrolpologists and archaeologists have pinned the age of the pictographs to the Archaic Period, between 8000 and 1500 years ago, due to the similarities between these pictographs and clay figures that have been found which date up to 8000 years. A more recent analysis based off a cracked portion of the Holy Ghost panel, however, suggests that the panel was likely painted in the first millenium CE.

Holy Ghost panel of the Great Gallery
Regardless, the panel is an extraordinary communication between prehistoric peoples who lived on the Colorado Plateau and the people of today. We spent nearly an hour at the pictographs before retracing our steps, this time climbing uphill back to the trailhead. We saw just one other group on the trail all day.

Be prepared if you travel out here as this area is very isolated. Bluejohn Canyon- a tributary to Horseshoe Canyon- is the remote location where Aron Ralston's arm was trapped beneath a boulder during a canyoneering accident on a solo trip. Ralston survived by cutting his arm off, a story documented in the movie 127 Hours. There's no cell service anywhere nearby, so come with maps and directions and be sure to bring sufficient water and gas. If you come prepared, you'll be rewarded with one of the country's most fascinating and evocative hikes.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Sherman Peak Loop

Larch-filled valleys of the Kettle River Range
6 miles loop, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Every October, the Kettle River Range in northeastern Washington State explodes into color as the forests of western larch here display their autumn foliage; the Sherman Peak Loop is an easily reached loop that provides some incredible views of the range itself and the larch forests as well. The hike does not visit the summit of Sherman Peak, instead utilizing a stretch of the Kettle Crest Trail as it makes a loop around the mountain, giving nice views on all sides of Sherman Peak. On a clear day, this is a rare hike where you can see both the Cascades and the Rockies at the same time. Although the hike itself is not too difficult, visitors coming to see larches in October should check for snow conditions- the peak itself is around 7000 feet so snow is possible on the trail during the peak color period for the larches.

I hiked the Sherman Peak Loop during an October road trip to the Kettle River Range and the Selkirks; my goal was to come out to see the fall foliage of the western larches in this part of the state. The Kettle River Range is a long drive from Seattle- it's 6 hours from Seattle- and is still a 2.5 hour drive from Spokane, so it receives far less foot traffic than the trails of the western slope Cascades. I reached the trailhead at Sherman Pass from Omak: I took US Highway 97 north from Omak to Tonasket, then turned right onto Washington Highway 20 and followed it east through the former gold mining town of Republic. After passing the Republic, Highway 20 began to climb into the Kettle River Range, passing through a former burned area that had great views of western larch forests at the foot of snowcapped Sherman and Snow Peaks. Arriving at Sherman Pass, I made a left turn onto a short unpaved road for the Kettle Crest Trailhead and immediately entered a large parking lot. A moderate snowstorm had already moved through the area that fall, so there was a bit of snow on the ground at the trailhead. I donned microspikes immediately and used them for the entire hike. There were no other cars at the trailhead and I saw no other hikers all day.

Sherman Peak and the larches of the Kettle River Range
The southbound Kettle Crest Trail left from the east side of the road just before the parking area itself. The trail started by making an immediate descent into a ravine that was snow-coated during my October trip here before crossing the bottom of the ravine and ascending back up the other side to meet Highway 20. Be careful crossing the highway, as cars often are moving quickly coming down from the pass.

After crossing Highway 20, the trail made a sustained switchback ascent up the slopes of Sherman Peak. About a mile from the trailhead, I came to a junction: the Sherman Peak Loop trail led to the right, while the Kettle Crest Trail continued to the left. I stayed on the Kettle Crest Trail, choosing to hike the loop clockwise. Soon after leaving this junction, the Kettle Crest Trail began to wrap around a ridge and the forest opened up to the first views of the hike: ridge after ridge of western larch stretching to the east, with snowcapped Abercrombie and Hooknose Mountain in the Selkirks in the distance.

Distant Abercrombie Mountain with Sherman Pass larches
The Kettle Crest Trail stayed in low, dense forest as it traversed a basin on the northeast side of Sherman Peak while climbing gently. There were views from this stretch of Sherman Peak's rocky east ridge rising above. The trail turned east as it continued to wrap around the mountain while gaining elevation and then made a switchback before coming to a saddle between Sherman Peak and a small bump in its east ridge, about 2.2 miles from the trailhead. Passing through the saddle, I pushed myself until just a little further on where the trees cleared up a bit and views to the south began to open. The first view was of the Kettle River Range peaks south of Sherman Pass: Snow Peak was the next peak down the range, while White Mountain was visible farther to the south. The valleys below us were completely coated in forests of golden western larch, an incredible sight.

Larches of the Kettle River Range
This stretch of trail stayed out in the open as I headed southwest along the Kettle Crest Trail, affording continuous good views of nearby Snow Peak. The Kettle Crest Trail runs the length of the higher stretch of the Kettle River Range, its 44 miles tracing the backbone of the range; the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from the Olympic Coast to Glacier National Park, partially utilizes the Kettle Crest Trail on its east-west route. The Kettle River Range is named after the Kettle River, which flows along the eastern side of the range before joining the Columbia River at Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls is today submerged by Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake but was once one of the greatest salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest; native tribes from throughout the Northwest congregated here as salmon swam up the rapids during the summer and fall to fish the river's incredible bounty. The completion of Grand Coulee Dam flooded the valley of the Columbia River up to the Canadian border and submerged one of the most culturally important spots in the Northwest.

Snow Peak
Views over Sherman Creek and the lower peaks of the Kettle River Range to the east improved as I traversed the southeast slopes of Sherman Peak, passing the high elevation point of the hike. Soon, the trail began to descend a bit as it approached the saddle on the Kettle Crest between Snow Peak and Sherman Peak. At the three mile point of the hike, the Kettle Crest Trail met up again with the Sherman Peak Loop, just above the Snow-Sherman saddle. I took the right fork here to continue circling around Sherman Peak.

Western larches in the Sherman Creek drainage
The Sherman Peak Loop Trail stayed in the forest initially but soon entered a large clearing on the peak's western slopes. Incredible views opened to the west: the snowy Okanogan Mountains lined the distant skyline while Highway 20 snaked through larch forests below. As the Okanogan Mountains are a part of the Cascades and the Selkirks visible earlier in the hike are part of the Rocky Mountains, the Kettle River Range is a rare part of the US where it's simultaneously possible to see both ranges. The views here stretched to Mount Baldy, an isolated ski mountain in British Columbia.

Distant Cascades and the larches of Sherman Pass
There were many burnt trees in the forest below Sherman Peak: these were a result of the 1988 White Mountain Fire, which burned over 20,000 acres in the southern Kettle River Range. A major wildfire at its time, it has been dwarfed in size by events during more recent wildfire seasons in the Northwest, a number of which have burned more than 200,000 acres on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. The forest has begun regenerating since the fire, but the many clearings that the fire produced is still responsible for some of the nice views on this hike.

Sherman Peak is named after Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman's total war tactics were successful in bringing the Confederacy to its knees as he captured Atlanta and then marched to Savannah to cleave the South into two. Postwar, however, Sherman applied those same tactics in military action in the West, where he was responsible for leading the Indian Wars, in which the US government and Army worked together to push unequal treaties on Native tribes in the west and then used military force to push them onto reservations. Sherman traveled through the pass that today bears his name in 1883 during the Indian Wars; the peak today honors a man whose efforts helped bring an end to slavery but also suppressed countless Native cultures between the Great Plains and the Pacific (in an odd coincidence, three important Union generals- Grant, McClellan, and Sherman- all have ties to Washington State).

The trail began descending as it traversed the southwest aspect of the mountain, dropping downhill until it rounded the west ridge of the mountain about 4 miles into the hike. The remainder of the hike was on the north aspect of the peak, passing through partially recovered burn areas with plenty of western larch as it gradually descended. Forested Columbia Mountain, left untouched by the White Mountain Fire, rose to the north across Highway 20.

Sherman Pass larches
This section of the hike ended up having the densest larches, which were especially pretty in afternoon lighting. I had spent the day trudging through the snow and appreciated getting to see so many beautiful western larch trees up close.

Western larches
The western larch is one of three species of larch in North America and one of two found in the Pacific Northwest. Native to the boreal forests and the colder parts of temperate forests throughout the Northern Hemisphere, larches are unique among conifers in that they are deciduous conifers-
an oxymoron of sorts. Larches grow their needles each spring and then shed them each fall, when the needles turn brilliantly golden just before the approach of winter. In Washington State, the alpine larch grows in isolated patches on the high eastern aspects of the North Cascades and are among the most beloved trees in the state as they grow in harsh environments that can support few other trees. Western larches generally grow in more temperate climes, sharing forests with ponderosa pines and other drier-weather conifers throughout the eastern slopes of the Cascades and across the many mountain ranges in the northeastern part of Washington State. The Kettle River Range is one of the best places in the state to see western larches, supporting much more expansive forests of these trees than the Teanaway or the American River corridor near Yakima.

Western larches
The views ended as the trail reentered denser forest and passed near a small pond at the foot of a talus slope. The trail continued to traverse the north side of the mountain while descending gently until it came to the Kettle Crest Trail intersection I had passed earlier in the day to complete the loop at about 5 miles into the hike. The final mile of the hike descended down the switchbacks I had taken up that morning and then crossed Highway 20 to return to the still-deserted trailhead.

This trail was a little more difficult for me because of constant snow cover the entire way through the hike, but if you come in summer or before substantial snowfall during the autumn the trail should be reasonably easy to follow. Although the Kettle River Range lacks the drama of the spires and glaciers of the North Cascades, the glowing forested mountains of golden western larches each fall are also one of the more impressive sights of this extremely scenic state.