Saturday, January 17, 2015

Northwest Winter Hiking: Denny Creek-Melakwa Lake Trail

A rainy, mucky Northwest winter day is a prime time to seek relative solitude on our over-loved trails. You think a good rain will keep us Mossbacks inside? Think again.

Just west and below Snoqualmie Pass lies the scenic but often crowded Denny Creek-Melakwa Lake Trail.  It's an easy  45-minute zip out I-90 from Seattle and not far off the interstate. So I generally stay away. 

With avalanche-prone slopes, the upper portion of the trail is not normally a winter hike. But with much less snow than normal in the Cascades this season, some friends and I decide to aim for Melakwa Lake on a damp Saturday.

Jennifer checked with the Snoqualmie Ranger Station and was told the Melakwa Lake trail would be a fine destination for an early January hike.  With snow covering most of the trail this drippy day, we see just a handful of other crazies and a dog on the trail.

(Caveat: Since our hike last week, it has snowed over a foot up there. With avalanche potential along the upper trail, chances are this hike will be unsafe  past Denny Creek water slide for several months.)

After pulling Yaktrax/Ice Trekkers onto our boots for better traction on the packed snow, we start out criss-crossing Denny Creek over a few bridges. The first mile or so up to the famous Denny Creek "water slide", the trail meanders through verdant, rich green second- and old-growth forest.

Until we get to the water slide crossing, traffic noise from I-90 above competes with the rushing creek below. Passing under a freeway during a mountain hike is a visual collision of nature at her finest and, well, the antithesis of nature. I wonder what someone transported in a time machine from 1800 would think stumbling upon this scene.

Crossing Denny Creek at the water slide today isn't so bad with careful footing and trekking poles for support. 

A couple coming down tell us they went a ways farther but turned around when they started postholing up to their knees. We forge onward.

In general the snow is not too deep and is pretty packed, but things get messier when we hike across the first open slope. Then it starts raining harder too.  

When gorgeous Keekwulee Falls comes into view, we pause to snap shots before trudging upward, skirting some pretty steep drop-offs into the narrow gorge below. This would NOT be a good place to slip on the snow.

Up here, still about a mile or so below the lakes, we encounter much deeper snow and begin postholing (no snowshoes today).

Things level off higher up for another crossing of Denny Creek. John chooses the icy log bridge, and Jennifer and I plunge across the stream, getting boots wet between rocks.

Higher up, it's beautiful and quiet, not far below Hemlock Pass and the final push to the lakes. 

However, rain, wet feet, time constraints, postholing, emerging muscle cramps, and evidence of some big slides take their toll on me. After a break for hot tea, I have to say the dreaded words amongst some very fit and motivated hiking buddies:

"I think I should turn around now."

Sigh. Two solo guys who made it to the lake pass us on their way back down.  While hiking warrior goddess Jennifer would like to continue, she's gracious.  Not long after I do a major posthole up to my thigh and the cramping begins in earnest. Definitely a good choice to turn around.

But the waterfalls are just as lovely on the way back down. 

We get back to the car damp and tired (at least I'm tired, next time I take electrolyte supplements), but glad for the time outdoors in such a beautiful place. 

Now it's time to ski!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

When You Go
Here's a link to a detailed hike description with a map and driving directions at the WTA website. You do need a Northwest Forest Pass for the parking. Our total hiking time was about 4.5 hours to cover maybe 6.5 miles (slow going in the snow), without a major lunch break but lots of photo and snack stops.  We got about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way to the lake, which as mentioned above, could likely be inaccessible much of the rest of this winter. You could probably hike the lower trail with snowshoes before the water slide.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Olympic Peninsula Getaway: Overnight at Lake Crescent Lodge

Although it's just a ferry ride and a couple hour drive from Seattle, Lake Crescent Lodge in Olympic National Park feels a world away in a quieter time. During the recent frenzy of the holidays, we snuck over there for an overnight. I wish we could have stayed longer.

I'm in love with the historic early 20th century lodges scattered around many of our national parks, and Lake Crescent Lodge is one of the earliest, built in 1916. Give me a rustic lodge with wood-beamed walls and ceilings, a big  stone fireplace with a crackling fire, comfy chairs, and a good book and I'm happy for the night.  

With a stop in Port Townsend for lunch, we don't arrive until later afternoon. The drive there is always spectacular, especially after swinging south and west out of Port Angeles towards the lake on Highway 101.

 After skirting along the lake for a mile or so, we turn off into forest toward the lodge complex. Because I booked late, we're not in the lodge or prized Roosevelt Fireplace Cottages but in a modern lakeside unit (clean and comfy).

The main lodge is just a short distance away, where we check in. The guy relaxing on the porch has the right idea.

With the waning light just past the winter solstice, I run out to shoot some photos of beautiful Lake Crescent, just yards away from our doorstep.

Early evening we dine in the main lodge, where I'm pleasantly surprised at the excellent meal.  Sweet winter vegetables were roasted to perfection along with a couple chicken legs, a nice change from the usual breast and more flavorful and succulent. (BTW I asked that the rich-looking sauce with bacon fat be served on the side and didn't use it.)

 And then we settle into a sofa and read in front of the fireplace under the gaze of some big elk heads mounted on the walls.  A glass of wine from the bar across the room was tempting us until at just 9:15 we're told the lodge is closing, which seemed too early.

Lake Crescent Lodge decked out for the holidays.

After a dark and quiet night void of city sounds, the morning brings what looks to be clearing skies across the lake. Although breakfast in the lodge doesn't meet the quality of dinner, we're fueled and ready to go hike/explore.

In the summer I've kayaked on the lake and hiked on some nearby trails, but this trip we head back west for Hurricane Ridge, next blog post!

In between blog posts check out Pacific Northwest Seasons on FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter for regular photo updates.  Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
If you're seeking downtime or a base for exploring the lush forest and craggy peaks of the northern Olympic Peninsula, this is a prime spot for laying your head at night. The lodge is closed for the winter now and will reopen in later spring, but check their website. I got on an email list for specials and got the room for $82/night + tax. Expect to pay more in the summer.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Northwest Highlights: Revisiting and Discovering

Puget Sound sunset from West Point
It's time again for the annual wrap-up.  Did you get out and explore as much as you planned/hoped in 2014?

I love visiting or discovering places I've never been before, whether it's a new hiking trail, restaurant, or road I've never driven.  This year I hit some old favorites as well as places around the Pacific Northwest that were new to me, even after a lifetime of exploring here.  

And a beauty of this region is knowing there are still plenty of places within the Northwest yet to discover.

Here's my attempt at selecting highlights from 2014, a year-end challenge!

January wasn't the month for exploring new places in 2014. Some good skiing  at Crystal Mountain and Stevens Pass kept us going when the snows finally arrived in earnest, a bit late. But later than usual seems to be the new normal...

Freshies at Stevens Pass
Early February was all about the Seattle Seahawks thrilling Super Bowl run here in the Northwest. While I wasn't among the fortunate to score tix to any games at the CLink, the spirit of the Hawks infused the region with pride. On the day of the victory parade through downtown Seattle, hundreds of thousands of us endured subfreezing temps for hours for the huge party. But the warmth generated by thousands on the streets made it worth the freezing fingers and toes. Go Hawks!

Letting our freak flag fly! Edmonds-Kingston Ferry

 Oh yea, there was some great Northwest skiing in February!

 By March around here in the Upper Left Hand corner, we're ready for more...sun, longer days, warmth.  In the meantime, I enjoyed an excellent early spring meal at Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island, dubbed a "food haven for Bainbridge as well as day-trippers from Seattle." Fiddleheads anyone?

Salmon, fiddlehead, fennel mousse appetizer at Hitchcock
March also saw the demise of a piece of Northwest skiing history when Crystal Mountain's Chair 6 was taken out by a ski patrol avalanche control blast (since replaced this season).

Surveying High Campbell and toe of the avalanche
Now April was jam-packed with new Northwest adventures. From the first annual Bird and Wildlife Festival on Orcas Island, to a hike up the new Turtleback Head trail, to a spring wildflower walk in Deception Pass State Park with nature blogger Dave Wenning, to Skagit tulips, to a weekend camp-out and beach cleanup at the Washington Olympic National Park coast. We had it all here -- brilliant sun, spring skiing, torrential rain showers, and of course plenty of gray skies.

Wild rhododendrons at Deception Pass State Park, WA
Cape Flattery, WA

By May we've got a profusion of green here in the Upper Left Hand corner and the hiking season is cranking into high gear. While there's still too much snow at higher elevations for high country hiking, we got out for some great hikes in the I-90 corridor east of Seattle (Little Si, Mt. Washington). I also made my first ascent to Angel's Rest in the Columbia Gorge east of Portland. Marvelous!

Angel's Rest overlooking Columbia River, OR

With tendinitis in my right hand, hiking took precedence over kayaking for much of the year. June brought a beautiful misty hike at Larch Mountain east of Portland, Oregon, with high school friends reunited via FaceBook.  This was the first time I've done the loop into the ancient crater and back, and it was as lush and beautiful as any Northwest hike I've done.

Larch Mountain, OR
Ah the crest of summer!  Island time.  Some friends from Arizona joined for a getaway to Orcas Island, and we managed some hiking, kayaking, and fantastic meals at local gems Doe Bay Cafe and Hogstone Wood Oven. But really, any time is island time.

Mt. Baker from top of Mt. Constitution, Orcas Island, WA
Years ago I declared August my favorite month -- it brings the warmest, softest summer nights here in the Northwest. Early August brought a whirlwind kayak camping trip to Cypress Island, with a morning hike up to the stunning Eagle's Nest for breathtaking views of the San Juan Islands. 

Cone Islands, Bellingham Channel, WA
Northwesterners know that September is really just about the best month to get out and about in the region -- kids are back in school, Indian summer often rules, and more often than not the sun is shining. With trips to Vancouver, BC; Cama Beach Resort on Camano Island; and another trip to Orcas Island, it was a full month of fun weekends.

Hiking in Moran State Park, Orcas Island, WA
Okay, October is really my favorite month now. Golden larches and vine maples are dressed up in brilliant colors like there's no tomorrow. If you catch a hike in the high country before the snow flies too thick and deep, it's spectacular. A weekend at the ever wonderful North Cascades Institute included a gorgeous hike and good workout on the Maple Pass Loop.

Golden larches at their peak on the Maple Pass Loop, North Cascades, WA
Some years we're skiing in November, but not this year.  However, a late warm dry spell allowed me to sneak up with a friend for an awesome but challenging hike to Blanca Lake.  Talk about magnificent!  The trail to this glacial-fed alpine lake was fairly busy even on a chilly mid-November day. Worth every drop of sweat for the view.

Blanca Lake, WA Cascades
Sure it's a crazy busy month with the holidays, but it's also an excellent month to get out and away from the city bustle.  With late snow and start to the ski season, some friends joined me for a truly awe-inspiring hike to the summit of Silver Star Mountain, just northeast across the river from Portland, Oregon. And in the shot below is a sneak preview for an upcoming blog post about an Olympic Peninsula getaway.

Mt. Olympus from Hurricane Ridge, WA
So many more photos to share of this past year!  Lots more to come in the year ahead. Check out Pacific Northwest Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more photos between blog posts.

What were some of your 2014 highlights?  Did you do some hikes you'd never done before?  Found a favorite new cafe in your neighborhood? We've love to hear from you in the comments below.

Wishing you happy trails and a truly Happy New Year! May 2015 be the best ever.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Connections

We live in turbulent times, full of an eye-for-an-eye violence, environmental degradation, and other things that weigh heavy. While it's easy to feel despair with the news cycle, of course there are always reasons for hope and laughter too. (I think about the African-American boy in Portland, Oregon, for example, photographed being hugged by a policeman.)

This year for the holidays I'm keeping it close with family and friends and the great outdoors. Nothing boosts my spirit like getting outside in the woods, on the water, or in the mountains and savoring the joy of movement.

Christmas morning includes a walk in the lowland forest near my home, and the weekend is for skiing in the Cascades (snow willing) or hiking in the Olympics. Spending time outside in nature brings me back, grounds me, reconnects me to a sense of place. I know this is something we all need.

I hope you, too, enjoy the spirit of the season and nurture a connection to the natural world where you live, whether it's in the Pacific Northwest or across the continent or ocean.

Happy holidays and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hiking Silver Star Mountain: Above it All

The road to Silver Star Mountain is not for the faint of heart or low of undercarriage.  I wince while negotiating potholes the size of small lakes on the rough dirt road up to the north trailhead, wondering if the punishing drive on my car is going to be worth the trip.  

We soon find out that it is indeed worth every bounce and scrape. Just don't take a regular passenger car if you don't want to risk losing your muffler.

While this hike in the Cascade foothills northeast of Vancouver, Washington, is popular in the summer for its stunning volcano views, on a misty late fall day I say it's equally stunning.

Plus you'll have more solitude.

With low clouds and mist hovering overhead, we start up the Silver Star #180 trailhead late morning this December day. On our way up, we passed two cars coming down (two gals said they never found the trailhead and turned back...glad we persisted) and just one other is here.

After a short flat stretch, the trail switchbacks a short distance up a mild grade until we emerge out of the trees and onto the beginning of what is essentially a long and varied ridge.

The Silver Star trail along the ridge, which can be accessed from the south, east, and north, traverses an ancient, extinct volcano. (My brother remembers studying the Silver Star granodiorite at the University of Washington Geology Department.) Remnant exposed rocks and bluffs add to the drama up here.

 On a clear day I'm told the views of the Portland, Oregon, metro area and surrounding volcanoes (Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, Adams) are magnificent. But I think there's enchantment in the mist that rises and falls for much of our hike.

Ultimately we gain a little over 1,000 feet in elevation before reaching the summit, but it's all pretty mellow. Not long before reaching the saddle between the false and true summit,  we descend a bit into a subalpine fir forest.

While we don't have any views from the summit (marked by the concrete foundation of a former fire lookout), we get a peak-a-boo view during the approach.

True summit to the right.
On the summit as we toast a great day with pieces of Fran's Chocolates (thank you Bob!), a chill descends and it starts to snow.  It is December. In years past this spot would be covered in several feet of snow by now.

Marley does his best Rin Tin Tin imitation at the summit.
I welcome the snow, but the flakes dissipate as we descend.  By the time we get off the summit and start down the ridge to our cars, the sky is clearing. With the late afternoon sun this close to the Solstice, there's some drama in the interplay of light and clouds.

An especially cool phenomena is a halo effect, which isn't easily captured in photos.  I try, however.  Each one of us sees our shadow encircled in a halo (or maybe we're all just saints :).

My halo.....
We get back to the trailhead with just enough time to enjoy a beautiful sunset as we pack up and head back down. 

Perfect ending to a perfect afternoon hiking.

Have you done this hike? Would love to hear in the comments below about your trip there, other favorite hikes, or whether you're familiar with the halo phenomena. 

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
According to other guidebooks, trip reports, and trail signs, we hiked about 5.5 miles to the summit and back from the north trailhead. The elevation at the summit is about 4,364 feet above sea level. Here's a link to a map of the area. I recommend checking out a guidebook or Portland website for specifics on the hike and getting there.  It didn't seem that far, but perhaps we were just too exhilarated by the beauty around us.  The road up there is quite rough, so be forewarned. But it's a lovely drive out from Battleground up the East Fork Lewis River.