Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Sisters Rocks

Oregon coast south of Sisters Rocks
1 mile round trip, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Sisters Rocks is a hidden gem of the Oregon Coast, a state park featuring awesome coastal scenery that most tourists zoom past. Although it's directly off of US 101, at the time of writing there was no signage for the park and no formal parking area, meaning that only visitors on the lookout for this spot would typically stop here. Sisters Rocks is a set of two rocky headlands and an associated sea stack; an abandoned road serves as a hiking path down to these massive rocks, which deliver jaw-dropping views of the coast and ends at a thundering sea cave. This is one of the better kept secrets of the southern Oregon Coast and an excellent stop if driving US 101 in this area.

I hiked Sisters Rocks during a road trip from California to Seattle with Anna. From Brookings, Oregon- the closest large town- take US 101 north for 42 miles. At this point, the coastal view will be dominated by two massive rocks. As the highway passes by the isthumus connecting the rocks to the mainland, the road will pass through a road cut; look for an unmarked gravel pulloff with limited parking immediately past the road cut. This is the trailhead (42.5958, -124.3990); there's no bathroom, no picnic table, and no physical indication that you're at the right place.

From the trailhead, we followed the abandoned gravel road past a gate and a sign indicating that we were in Sisters Rocks State Park. The road was quite eroded in spots as we followed it along the backbone of the ridge on the isthumus down towards the rocks themselves. We had excellent views here of the three rocks, the largest of which was just barely connected to the mainland by a narrow beach.

Sisters Rocks
As we descended, excellent views of the Oregon Coast began opening up to both the north and the south. The view to the north was dominated by Humbug Mountain, the tallest point directly on the Oregon Coast, while the southern view was littered with a variety of interestingly shaped sea stacks, one of which resembled a teapot or a tortoise. 

Rocky beach on the south side of Sisters Rocks
The trail dropped to a saddle between the mainland and the first of the three Sisters Rocks; a branch in the former road led down to a rocky beach on the bay to the south of here. As there were already a few parties enjoying the beach, we opted to follow the road down to the north side of the ridge, which dropped to a rocky beach that connected the largest of the Sisters Rocks with the mainland. The wind coming out of the north was extremely strong here, which pushed dramatic waves onto the beach.

Humbug Mountain and the Oregon coast north of Sisters Rocks
Crossing the rocky beach, a path led slightly uphill through rocky terrain to a view of a massive sea cave carved into the largest of the Sisters Rocks. The cave- really more of a tunnel- connected out to the open ocean, so every ten seconds a wave would rush into the cave and crash against the rocks at the cave's mouth with a thunderous echo. It was a dark, forboding, and enchanting scene.

Sea cave carved into Sisters Rocks
After staring in wonder at the sea cave, the strong wind forced us back and we retreated uphill to the trailhead.

This is a short but sweet and overlooked hike, an easy hike directly off of US 101 that accesses the wild scenery for which the Oregon Coast is famous. I highly recommend this hike to anyone traveling this stretch of coast- just make sure that you remember where to turn off to find this unsigned gem.

Indian Sands

Indian Sands above the Pacific Ocean
1 mile loop, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Indian Sands is a small dune with huge views perched on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon Coast in the Samuel Boardman State Scenic Area. This short but steep trail is an excellent way to experience this wild stretch of the coast, combining the sand dune with classic Oregon Coast views of rocky headlands and sea stacks with roaring surf. This hike is particularly enjoyable because this corner of the coast sees relatively light traffic; however, don't mistake this hike's short distance with it being easy, as the trail is quite steep and narrow in parts.

I hiked Indian Sands on a road trip from California to Washington State with Anna. The hike is a far from any large metropolitan area: the closest town is Brookings, Oregon just to the south and it is just north of the Oregon border from California's Redwood National Park. From Brookings, we took US 101 north for 8 miles and then turned off to the left for Indian Sands. The trailhead has ample parking, but there were only a handful of cars when we visited on a summer Sunday afternoon.

From the trailhead, we took the trail leading off into the forest to the south (off to the left of the parking lot from the perspective of the drive in). This trail immediately started a steep descent through forest until intersecting with the Oregon Coast Trail after a fifth of a mile. This intersection can be a bit confusing: ignore side trails until you come to a sign marking the Oregon Coast Trail and then turn right to follow the Oregon Coast Trail to the north.

The Oregon Coast Trail is a long distance trail of about 400 miles covering the length of the Oregon Coast from Astoria to Brookings. Unlike its inland brethren, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Oregon Coast Trail has yet to receive specialized guidebook attention or to achieve superstar status among long distance hikes. We followed the Oregon Coast Trail north for a stretch, dropping further in elevation onto sandy terrain. We made a slight detour off the main trail to visit the top of a nearby bluff, which provided fabulous views of the coast and of the largest dune at Indian Sands. Many social trails branched out from this area leading down towards the top of the bluffs above the ocean, one of which leads to a view of a natural arch; we did not venture further downhill here. We spotted the Thomas Creek Bridge- the tallest span in Oregon- just to the north. Summer wildflowers bloomed to add some color to this somewhat severe scene.

Oregon Coast south of Indian Sands
Indian Sands
Continuing along the trail, we emerged onto a small sandstone bluff a beautiful sand dune below us. This was the main dune at Indian Sands: to reach it, we found a point on the left (west) side of the bluff to drop down to the dune. There was no defined trail across the sand but to continue the hike we aimed in the direction of a small sand saddle to the north.

Sand dunes atop cliffs
North winds poured out of the saddle as we crossed the small sand dunes. These winds are likely responsible for creating these dunes out of the sandstone that makes up the cliffs on the coast here. An archealogical dig at Indian Sands yielded evidence of human habitation some 12000 years ago, making this the oldest known site of human activity on the Oregon Coast.

Arriving at the saddle, we rejoined the formal trail as it headed east, hugging the side of a steep seaside slope. The views from the saddle and along this stretch were incredible and were perhaps the most enjoyable part of the hike. Dramatic seastacks lined the coast to the north and hammering waves crashed against the cliffs of the Boardman Scenic Area coast.

View north along the Oregon Coast from Indian Sands
The trail here narrowed to just a foot wide as it traversed a steep slope, although the narrowness of the trail was made less visually daunting by the grasses and shrubbery that surrounded the trail. Wind-shaped trees formed tunnels around the trail in places, but largely the trail was out in the open and delivered nonstop outstanding views of the coast.

Oregon Coast Trail
The trail began to make its way uphill as we traversed the side of the cliff, enjoying the stellar views of the seastacks and coast. Even as the rest of the north coast disappeared, we still had incredible views of the dramatic pillars of rock just below us that had been shaped into sharp fins by the pounding ocean.

Seastacks north of Indian Sands
Finally, the trail turned inland and began a short but extremely steep climb, pushing steadily uphill on a narrow and eroded trail for over a hundred feet of elevation gain until reaching a wooded stream valley. The Oregon Coast Trail continued heading north here but at an unmarked junction with an obvious trail, we made a right turn, crossing a stream and then pushing through some final uphill in the forest to return to the parking lot.

This is a short but very enjoyable hike with big views of the Oregon Coast, a nice sand dune, and not too many visitors. It's a great short hike stop for anyone passing by on a road trip and a good place to enjoy the ocean in a spectacular natural setting with no crowds.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Social distancing hikes: Virginia

This is not the year to hike Old Rag Mountain. It's about to be August and the Covid-19 pandemic is raging unabated across the United States. Yes, going outdoors and hiking is one of the few safer activities left during this time. But this is not the summer to pack onto popular, crowded trails- the outdoors are far safer when we can all practice social distancing. If you're wondering what steps to take when you go out to stay safe, I've compiled some advice on how to decrease risk when you go out hiking.

Picking hikes that are unlikely to be crowded or choosing trails that are wider (such as rail trails or fire roads) are ways to ensure that you can continue social distancing while outdoors, decreasing our individual risk of contracting the disease while also decreasing the risk that we become vectors for Covid-19.

What hikes should you absolutely avoid? Skip Old Rag, Humpback Rocks, Whiteoak Canyon, Crabtree Falls, Stony Man, Marys Rock, and most of the other well-known hikes of the North and Central District of Shenandoah National Park this year if you're looking to social distance effectively on your hike.

Most of the hikes on this blog will see moderate amounts of traffic throughout the summer, but many will still have too many visitors for effective social distancing. Here's a list of ten hikes in and around Shenandoah National Park that you might consider instead:

The bends of the Shenandoah River below Veach Gap
1. Veach Gap             Massanutten Mountain generally sees fewer visitors than Shenandoah National Park and the two crowning glories of this mountain, Duncan Knob and Strickler Knob, are worthy destinations that probably won't be too crowded, either. Veach Gap, however, likely sees way fewer visitors while offering a uniquely beautiful view of the bends of the South Fork Shenandoah River and some interesting anticlinal geology.

Shenandoah Valley from Rocky Mount
2. Rocky Mount            If you do choose to visit Shenandoah National Park, the South District is by far the least visited area, being the farthest from Washington DC. The South District of the park also has numerous hikes to rocky peaks with good views that aren't usually crowded, such as this hike to a peak literally named Rocky Mount. The trail is single-track and narrow in places but you shouldn't have to share this hike with too many others.

Page Valley from Lewis Peak
3. Lewis Peak            This far-flung ridge of Rockytop in the South District of Shenandoah is a good spot to avoid crowds while enjoying lovely views of Massanutten Mountain and Shenandoah Valley.

Sunset on Trayfoot Mountain from Ivy Creek Knob
4. Ivy Creek Knob           Even stretches of the Appalachian Trail are usually quiet in the South District of Shenandoah. A nice view from the trail near Loft Mountain from what I've informally named "Ivy Creek Knob" caps an enjoyable and usually not terribly crowded hike from the Loft Mountain wayside and passes tumbling Ivy Creek en route.

Furnace Mountain views of Shenandoah Valley
5. Blackrock and Furnace Mountain           While Blackrock is one of the most visited viewpoints in the South District of Shenandoah National Park, Furnace Mountain is quiet and rarely visited, making this a good place to hike while social distancing. The views peak at Blackrock but Furnace Mountain still has very nice views of Austin Mountain, Trayfoot Mountain, and Shenandoah Valley.

Fork and Jones Mountains from the Doubletop Mountain Lunch Rock
6. Doubletop Mountain Lunch Rock         If you insist on hiking near the intensely popular Central District of Shenandoah National Park, you can still find some peace and social distance if you avoid Skyline Drive. This massive rock on Doubletop Mountain makes the perfect lunch spot with beautiful views of the Blue Ridge; it's rarely visited, so you won't have to mask up often or deal with crowds here. The catch? The trailhead, near Syria, can only be reached via a rocky road that is best negotiated with a high clearance vehicle.

View atop Robertson Mountain
7. Robertson Mountain from Skyline Drive          If you insist on visiting both the Central District of Shenandoah National Park and taking Skyline Drive but still don't want to deal with crowds, you're not entirely out of luck. The Limberlost Trailhead is the start of this lovely hike to the summit of Robertson Mountain. Most of the hike is on Old Rag Fire Road, so it'll be easy to distance from others; the final single-track stretch to Robertson Mountain's summit does not see heavy use, making this one of the few sweeping mountain views in the Central District that you can enjoy while social distancing during these Covid-19 times.

Fork Mountain from Bear Church Rock
8. Bear Church Rock            Another Central District Skyline Drive option is the long hike to Bear Church Rock from Bootens Gap. It's a long hike along ridglines to this tucked-away viewpoint but this is another good way to avoid the majority of crowds that descend on the Central District.

The Blue Ridge Mountains rise above the hills of Fortunes Cove
9. Fortunes Cove            The best way to avoid crowds while hiking is to avoid the Blue Ridge; Charlottesville hikers may find that Fortune Cove, a small preserve run by the Nature Conservancy, is a good spot to enjoy some hiking in the high foothills of the Blue Ridge without dealing with the crowds at Humpback Rocks or Crabtree Falls. The trails are narrow but you'll likely be able to enjoy this preserve without too much company.

Upper Shamokin Falls
10. Upper Shamokin Falls             "What about a waterfall hike?" you ask. Upper Shamokin Falls off of the Blue Ridge Parkway is a rarely visited gem that will allow you to see a waterfall while escaping the crowds. I would generally avoid waterfall hikes if you're hiking on a weekend though: such hikes tend to congregate large numbers of hikers around narrow access points to streams, preventing social distancing.

Social distancing hikes: Pacific Northwest

It's about to be August and the Covid-19 pandemic is continuing to rage unabated across the United States. Going outdoors and hiking is one of the few safer activities left during this time. But this is not the summer to pack onto popular, crowded trails- the outdoors are far safer when we can all practice social distancing. If you're wondering what steps to take when you go out to stay safe, I've compiled some advice on how to decrease risk when you go out hiking.

The Northwest was one of the first places to report Covid-19 cases in the United States and the second wave of recent months has brought an influx of new cases to both Washington and Oregon. Picking hikes that are unlikely to be crowded or choosing trails that are wider (such as rail trails or fire roads) are ways to ensure that you can continue social distancing while outdoors.

What hikes should you absolutely avoid? Don't go to areas that are already usually crowded: Puget Sound residents should avoid hiking at Rattlesnake Ledge, Mount Si, or any of the other loved-to-death hikes along the I-90 corridor (Bandera Mountain, Mailbox Peak, and Snow Lake come to mind). Mount Rainier National Park hikes at Paradise and Sunrise are usually crowded, too. Near Portland, it's probably best to avoid popular hikes in the Columbia Gorge or around Mount Hood; the Bend area is getting a lot of traffic this summer as well so it's best to avoid popular hikes there.

Most of the hikes on this blog will see moderate amounts of traffic throughout the summer, but many will still have too many visitors for effective social distancing. Luckily for you, not too many people read this blog, so me posting about these places should only marginally increase the amount of people that you might at these locations. Here's a list of ten places that might be better choices during these Covid-19 times:

Oregon Dunes
1. John Dellenback Dunes Trail             Maybe you're looking to be near the ocean or want to play on the sand, but Covid-19 is driving you away from more traditional beach destinations. The Oregon Dunes have plenty of sand and the John Dellenback Dunes Trail is the best way to access the wildest part of the dunes, where you can stake out some sand for yourself without having to deal with off-road vehicles. It's a bit of a drive from Portland or other Willamette Valley population centers but this is a good place to social distance.

Larches and Tower Mountain from Grasshopper Pass
2. Grasshopper Pass            The Harts Pass area is far enough from Puget Sound population centers that you can finally escape the crowds that pour into the outdoors near Seattle each weekend. While social distancing can be more difficult on crowded trails in the Enchantments and around Mount Baker, on the hike to Grasshopper Pass you can follow the Pacific Crest Trail to some of the most spectacular scenery in the North Cascades with fairly light company. Beware the drive up to Harts Pass from Mazama: many regard this road as being one of the more difficult drives in the state.

Olympic views from Grand Ridge
3. Grand Ridge to Maiden Peak            This high alpine trail starts at the end of the Obstruction Point Road in Olympic National Park and offers a good alternative to the far more popular Hurricane Hill hike at the end of the Hurricane Ridge Road. Accessing this hike will require driving a steep and sometimes bumpy gravel road but the payoff will be views just as grand as those at Hurricane Hill with far fewer crowds.

Twisp Pass trail
4. Twisp Pass           The views into the heart of the North Cascades from Twisp Pass are stunning, but the trail gets light foot traffic as the trailhead is a long drive from Seattle.

Red Top Lookout
5. Red Top Lookout via Blue Creek Trail            Red Top Lookout is only two hours from Seattle in the Teanaway and may be frequented by visitors who drive up most of the way, but the Blue Creek Trail is a quiet and rarely used backdoor route to this scenic summit with sweeping views of the Stuart Range, the Teanaway, Mount Rainier, and Kittitas Valley. The drawback? The trail is very steep and can be easy to lose in spots. Make sure to bring a map or GPS on this hike.

Eldorado Peak from Lookout Mountain
6. Lookout Mountain (Cascade River)            The two highlight hikes along the Cascade River Road- Sahale Arm and Hidden Lake Lookout- are both extraordinarily scenic and extraordinarily well-loved by the PNW summer hiking crowds. Turn to nearby Lookout Mountain for an alternative- the uphill may be grueling but the stunning views of Eldorado and the Pickets from the lookout are more than worth it.

Hoffer Lakes
7. Anthony Lakes Loop            If you're in the Tri-Cities area and want to hike at some alpine lakes this summer, you might consider skipping the Cascades and instead heading south to the Elkhorn Mountains in northeastern Oregon. The Anthony Lakes Loop will take you past a string of beautiful alpine lakes situated beneath granite peaks; crowds here are far thinner than at popular hiking destinations in the Cascades.

Middle Fork Valley from Garfield Ledges
8. Garfield Ledges            Okay, so you're not looking to drive three hours from Seattle to go hiking. You'd usually go to Rattlesnake Ledge but it's just too crowded there right now and you want something similar: close, not too difficult, pretty.

While this hike will certainly still see some foot traffic, the new trail up to Garfield Ledges may for the moment be a decent alternative to hikers who are just looking for a better social distancing alternative to Little Si, Rattlesnake Ledge, and the other North Bend area hikes that are loved to death. The trailhead for Garfield Ledges is at the end of the pavement of the Middle Fork Road, just a half hour out of North Bend. The trail is single track, so you'll definitely still have to deal with other hikers here- just probably not as many as you'd have to deal with at Rattlesnake Ledge. Your reward will be some nice views over the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley, including- you guessed it- Rattlesnake Ledge in the distance.

Napeequa Valley below Clark Mountain at Little Giant Pass
9. Little Giant Pass           Perhaps you were hungry to head to classic North Cascade hikes like Sahale Arm or Hidden Lake Lookout this summer for that combination of stunning views of glaciated peaks and a stiff workout. While those destinations get a fair share of crowds in the summer, consider heading instead to the quieter Little Giant Pass off the Chiwawa River Road. The trail itself isn't the easiest place to physical distance and with 4000 feet of elevation gain it's quite a workout but there aren't too many hikers who come out here, meaning you'll get to enjoy those stunning views of the Napeequa River Valley and glacier-bound Mount Clark without having to worry whether other hikers are actually staying six feet away from you.

Mount Rainier from Goat Peak
10. Goat Peak (Chinook Pass)          You want an easy-to-access hike to see Mount Rainier? The trailhead for Goat Peak is easily reached off Hwy 410, although the hike itself up the mountain is brutally steep. The rewards is a panorama of Mount Aix, Mount Adams, the Stuart Range, and Mount Rainier without the crowds that you'd find in the national park.

John Dellenback Dunes Trail

Sunrise on the Oregon Dunes
3 miles round trip, 300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, some navigation skills required
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The Oregon Coast is best known for its rocky headlands and sea stacks topped with the Northwest's signature coniferous forests, but one of the most fascinating landscapes along that coast is actually a series of massive sand dunes, the tallest coastal sand dunes in North America. The Oregon Dunes stretch between Coos Bay and Florence midway down the Oregon Coast, with vast expanses of sand many miles long and more than two miles wide holding dunes that rise well over 200 feet in height. Many stretches of the dunes, which are preserved in Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, are heavily used by off road vehicle enthusiasts and thus may be suboptimal for hiking. The John Dellenback Dunes Trail accesses a wild part of the Umpqua Dunes that has been left untouched for hikers, making this the premier hike of the Oregon Dunes. The unique dune landscape makes this a perfect place for exploration: while there is a semi-defined route, many hikers come here to simply wander the dunes. The long drive to population centers in Portland and the Willamette Valley means that this trail usually isn't too crowded.

The John Dellenback Dunes Trail starts from a trailhead off US 101, leads to the dunes themselves, and then leads across the dunefield to what's known as the deflation zone, a vegetated area separating the main dunefield from the ocean. Here, there is a formal trail again that crosses the deflation zone and leads to the beach: however, this trail is flooded at times and the main attractions here are the sand dunes rather than the beach, so I'm describing a hike that makes a loop through some of the most spectacular stretches of the dunes.

I hiked the John Dellenback Dunes Trail during a road trip from California to Seattle. The trailhead is a short drive north of Coos Bay, Oregon: from Coos Bay, take US 101 north to Lakeside and turn left when you see the sign for the John Dellenback Dunes Trailhead. I camped at the nearby Eel Creek Campground and accessed the trail from there instead, but day use hikers will have to use the John Dellenback Trailhead.

From the Dellenback Trailhead, head out on the Dellenback Trail and then make a right when the trail forks. This trail passes through the Eel Creek Campground, then ascends slightly as it passes through forest at the edge of the dunes. The trail soon passes another junction with a trail that leads to the northern part of the Eel Creek Campground, then arrives at the dunes about a half mile from the trailhead. Here, the formal trail disappears as the route leads into a vast, sandy wilderness. Hikers who are uninterested in exploring the dunes themselves can complete a loop to return to the trailhead, but by far the more interesting option is to go out and explore the dunes. Hikers wishing to take an official route should follow the directions at trail signs for the beach and then follow a series of wooden posts that lead across the sand dunes; however, this is a great place for some free exploration. I made an initial trip up here to see the sunset the evening of my arrival before returning again for a more extended hike through the dunes the next morning for sunrise.

Sunset on the Oregon Dunes
On my sunrise hike, I made a loop through the dunes along the crest of a series of dunes just south of the official route; I then followed the official route back. While the trail continues all the way out to the deflation zone and a beach, I turned around after hiking through the tallest of the dunes to a tree island in the heart of the dunes.

After emerging onto the sand from the John Dellenback Trail, I headed south and picked up the crest of the nearest sand dunes. The dunes were about 200 feet in elevation but took a bit of effort to get up as I slid a half step back for every step that I climbed up the dunes. Before long, I had arrived at the peak of the first dune about 20 minutes before sunrise.

Dawn lighting on the Dunes
Around me was a vast expanse of sand. While the forests of the Oregon Coast Mountains lay just inland, sand stretched to the horizon in both the north and south and to the west a wide stretch of sand was bound by the forest of the deflation zone and the Pacific Ocean.

I continued hiking along the crest of the sand dunes, heading west. This high vantage point afforded me constant views across the dunefield to both the north and the south and was an excellent spot to watch the sun rise from behind the Coast Mountains.

Sunrise over the Oregon Dunes
As the sun rose, I approached a tree island in the heart of the dunefield. This pocket of Northwest vegetation grew on a stabilized portion of the dunes; the favorable climate for plant growth makes the Oregon Dunes far greener than desert sand dunes in the Southwest.

Oregon Dunes and a tree island
The John Dellenback Dunes Trail visits the Umpqua Dunes, which are the widest expanse in the 40-mile coastal stretch of the Oregon Dunes. The sand of the dunes originates in sediments eroded from the Oregon Coast Mountains by the Coos, Umpqua, and Siuslaw Rivers; steady winds on the central Oregon Coast then pile these sands into the great dunes that you see here today. The dunes are responsible for the many lakes found a few miles from the coast here: moving sand dams existing creeks to form new lakes.

As I hiked through the dunes, I found the contrast between coniferous forests, grassland, and open sand to be particularly striking in the morning hours as fog enveloped the forest further inland.

Dawn on the dunefield
Frank Herbert derived initial inspiration to write his science fiction classic Dune after traveling to the Oregon Dunes for a magazine assignment as a journalist. Herbert's Oregon Dunes-influenced works in turn inspired the look of extraplanetary worlds such as Tatooine in the popular culture staple Star Wars. After traveling through the lush Northwest, the stark landscape of the dunes is almost an otherworldly shock. 

The introduction of European beachgrass in the early 20th century to stabilize the dunes is having its intended effect and is contributing to the shrinking size of the dunefield as well: beachgrass is leading to stabilization of a deflation zone between the dunes and the ocean that grows as the dunefield diminishes.

Sand, grass, and forest: the Oregon Dunes
I ended my westward progress along the dune crest once I approached the large tree island in the dunefield. I was already approaching the other side of the dunes: the forest of the deflation zone and the Pacific Ocean behind it were visible from my perch atop a dune. After enjoying the views here, I descended to one of the trail markers for the John Dellenback Trail in the sand valley below and began to follow those wooden markers back towards the trailhead.

Dunes, forest, and ocean
While the crest of the dunes here were largely clear of vegetation, the troughs between the dunes were marked by pockets of bunchgrass and other plants as well as occasional trees.

Returning along a valley in the dunes
After returning to the eastern edge of the dunefield, I followed the John Dellenback Trail back to where I started.

This excellent hike is one of the best ways to explore the unique Oregon Dunes. Come at sunrise and sunset for some unbelievable lighting; if you're traveling the Oregon Coast, I highly recommend stopping for this hike.


Little Giant Pass

Little Giant Pass
9 miles round trip, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, river ford necessary
Access: Bumpy gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Buried deep within the Washington State's North Cascades, Little Giant Pass is a spectacular spot even in a range known for its spectacle. Glaciated giants rise nearby: Clark Mountain, Buck Mountain, and Glacier Peak add drama with their icy crowns, but the serene, grassy valley of the meandering Napeequa River below makes this spot truly magical. Known as the Shangri-La of the Cascades, this hidden valley indeed looks like a mountain paradise and makes Little Giant Pass one of the state's most worthwhile and underappreciated hiking destinations. Reaching Little Giant Pass can be a challenge though: the Chiwawa River Road is long and rough, fording the Chiwawa River itself can be cold and dangerous at high flow, and 4000 feet of elevation gain to reach the pass is no joke. You should make it out here- but be prepared to work for the views. This hike is best suited for late summer and early fall when the ford over the Chiwawa River can be done safely.

I hiked Little Giant Pass on a September day with a borderline weather forecast that called for rain on the west slopes of the Cascades. I figured that Little Giant Pass might have nicer weather as it lies on the east slope of the range and drove out on US Highway 2 from the Puget Sound area across Stevens Pass to Coles Corner. At Coles Corner, I made a left turn towards Lake Wenatchee State Park onto Highway 207. I followed Highway 207 for a few miles until crossing a bridge over the Wenatchee River; immediately afterwards, I took a right onto the Chiwawa Loop Road, following it until I came to the Chiwawa River Road. Turning left onto the Chiwawa River Road, I followed this road north into the Chiwawa River Valley. The initial section of the road was paved and made for easy driving, but after 10 miles or so the pavement ended and the road transitioned to a decent dirt road with some potholes and washboarding. The road became progressively worse as it approached the Little Giant Trailhead, which was a small pull-off on the left side of the road 18 miles down the Chiwawa River Road.

From the trailhead, the trail dropped immediately to the banks of the Chiwawa River. Here, it was necessary to ford the Chiwawa River, which in September was cold and knee-deep. This is the most significant obstacle on the hike: when snowmelt is heavy early in the summer, the water level may be high and fording the river may be difficult, dangerous, or impossible. Late summer and fall are most likely to provide safer river fording conditions. It is your responsibility to assess the conditions of this river ford and ensure that you can cross safely.

Fording the Chiwawa River at the trailhead
After crossing the Chiwawa River, the first half mile of trail was a very gentle ascent as I crossed the floor of the Chiwawa River valley. The Chiwawa River marked the boundary of Glacier Peak Wilderness, one of the most expansive wild regions in Washington State that encompasses the North Cascades between US Highway 2 and Washington Highway 20.

Soon the trail arrived at the foot of the mountain. From here, the trail embarked on a very steep ascent with constant switchbacks through the forest. In the next mile, the trail climbed 1200 feet before rounding a small saddle and leveling off at the 1.5 mile mark of the hike.

The following 2/3 mile respite was the only break in the otherwise relentless ascent; the trail contoured the mountainside through the forest with minimal ascent for a stretch, then made a steep, 200-foot descent down to Little Giant Creek. After crossing the creek, the trail resumed a steep ascent. Soon, the trail exited the forest into brushy slopes that provided the first views of the hike to the forested ridges across the Chiwawa River Valley.

First views emerging from the forest
After another brief stretch in the forest, the trail emerged onto a large rocky outcrop and began to ascend aggressively along its stone spine. The ascent then returned to a sparser forest until the trail finally broke out into the open for good after just over a mile and 1600 feet of ascent from the creek crossing. This stretch of trail was brutally steep and partially helps explain why the hike's incredible rewards hasn't attracted more hikers.

As I emerged into an open alpine bowl, the North Cascades high country exploded in fall colors around me. Huckleberry bushes had turned bright red and were heavy with ripe, sweet berries. The rocky ramparts of Little Giant Pass rose above.

Fall colors approaching Little Giant Pass
The last mile of the hike was extremely scenic: the long, strenuous ascent finally paid off. There was still 800 feet of elevation gain left, but as the trail made one long switchback on this final stretch of uphill, there were open and beautiful views of the North Cascades. Views across the Chiwawa River valley were excellent: fresh snow coated the summits of Ice Box, Chilly, and Fifth of July Mountains. Carne Mountain, home of an excellent fall hike for seeing alpine larches, was directly across the valley.

Icebox Peak and Carne Mountain across the Chiwawa River Valley
As I turned around the last switchback of the ascent, the surrounding subalpine scenery was spectacular: craggy peaks lined the ridge to the south and the high country around Little Giant Pass was all open meadows full of fall color.

Views to the south on the approach to Little Giant Pass
Soon the trail arrived at Little Giant Pass, a high saddle between the Chiwawa and Napeequa River valleys. The best views were not from the trail at the pass but rather along the social paths that ran to the north and south from the pass. From either of these paths, views opened up to the Napeequa Valley below and to the west. The meandering river flowed through meadows at the bottom of the valley; glacier-capped Mount Clark rose across the valley and the Dakobed Range defined the head of the valley. Clouds partially obscured Glacier Peak, which peeked out from behind the Dakobed Range. This was an extraordinarily beautiful scene; the Napeequa Valley lived up to its reputation of being the Shangri-La of the Cascades.

Napeequa Valley below Little Giant Valley
The sharp spires and pyramids of Clark Mountain were a highlight of this view: this beautiful glacier-capped peak is deep within the North Cascades and thus is rarely spotted from day hikes. Little Giant Pass and nearby Carne Mountain are some of the few day hikes that allow for close up viewing of the peak. A heavily crevassed glacier covered its upper slopes: Clark Mountain marks the southern end of the most heavily glaciated portion of the Dakobed Range, one of the icier parts of the Cascades: the Dakobed Range ends at Glacier Peak, which Native peoples of the Northwest know as Dakobed.

Clark Mountain
The Napeequa River's meadow-lined valley is a rarity in the Cascades, where most river valleys are instead heavily forested. The river meanders through the valley, passing groves of trees that are starting to settle the meadows and oxbow ponds left from the river's historic path. The Little Giant Trail continued from Little Giant Pass and descended into this valley, but I would have to settle with viewing this placid valley from above today.

Napeequa River
A stony mountain spine ran south from Clark Mountain on the other side of the Napeequa River Valley, one of many parallel ridges bounding streams and rivers that fed the Wenatchee River.

Views across the Napeequa River watershed
To the northeast, Mount Maude and Seven Fingered Jack- two 9000-foot giants, among the highest non-volcanic peaks in the state- were visible, dusted with fresh snow. Buck Mountain, another prominent peak above the Chiwawa River drainage, was visible to the north.

Seven Fingered Jack and Mount Maude
Buck Mountain
I had these extraordinary views to myself: although I passed a handful of other people on the trail, I was alone at the pass with the grand peaks of the North Cascades and Napeequa Valley. When fording conditions are safe on the Chiwawa River and if you're up for the strenuous ascent necessary to reach Little Giant Pass, I recommend this hike highly for hikers looking to escape the crowds and appreciate these striking views.