Friday, November 14, 2014

Hiking to Blanca Lake Before the Snow Flies

Some things are definitely worth the wait. 

Take Blanca Lake, crown jewel of the Cascades alpine lakes: Years ago I tried to hike there, but a road washout left us unable to reach the trailhead.  Then years passed, I developed chronic Achilles tendinitis, had to stop hiking for several years, worked back up to longer hikes again, and finally made my way to Blanca Lake.

We got a late start on this unseasonably mild and clear November day after driving several miles off Highway 2 and finding the road to Tonga Ridge gated closed. Thanks to my hiking buddy Jennifer for a  perfect Plan B, Blanca Lake.

After the long drive up backroads north of Skykomish and a wrong turn that led us to a makeshift shooting range, which was sort of scary,  we finally hit the trail around 11 a.m. (FYI, at the five-way intersection, take a true left.)

Essentially it's an upward grind through what seems to be mostly second-growth forest up 3 miles over 30 switchbacks, an elevation gain of 2,700 feet.  When we reach peek-a-boo views through the trees, over an hour has passed. In another 20 minutes we top out at a ridge with great views of nearby Glacier Peak.

A lot of this...

Glacier Peak

This late in the season we've missed what was likely, a few weeks ago, brilliant scarlet leaves on the thick huckleberry covering the steep slopes below. After pausing for a swig of water and snack above small Virgin Lake, we enter the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness (RIP Scoop) and plunge down somewhat rougher switchbacks for 600 feet in elevation loss feet to Blanca Lake. 

Columbia Glacier shown lower left feeds Blanca Lake

 We're not alone by any stretch.  Many are out taking advantage of this late season day in the mountains before the snow flies, and, thankfully, after the deer flies.  No bugs is a bonus for fall hiking.

First views of Blanca Lake evoke wows! and ooohhhs! Set in a basin below Monte Cristo, Kyes, and Columbia peaks, it's a postcard-perfect image of a beautiful mountain lake. For a relatively high, natural alpine lake, Blanca Lake is large and almost mirage-like.

Yes the water really is that turquoise-colored.

Of course photos don't capture what it's truly like to be somewhere, but I try with a zillion shots. The unusual opaque turquoise shade of the lake is caused by the glacial melt streaming down from the hanging Columbia Glacier across the lake.

One downside of hiking this late in the year, after the clocks have turned back to Standard Time, is much shorter days. Unfortunately we can't explore when we get to the lake because it'll likely be dark by the time we get back down. The sun is already setting around 4:30 pm.

So we backtrack after about 10 minutes, enjoying the alpine meadows above the lake and a last lingering view of Glacier Peak before dropping into the many switchbacked forest below.

Luckily we made it back down to the trailhead before it got too dark and managed without our headlamps.  I hope the numerous hikers behind us had  flashlights.

Some rate this hike strenuous and difficult; it all depends on your conditioning. I sure felt it the next day, with my quads and outside back of the knees talking to me. It's comparable to hiking Mt. Si, but perhaps a bit more. Various sources place it as about 7.5 miles with 3,300 feet in elevation gain and loss.

Regardless, it's a good workout, it's spectacular, and I'll do it again. Let me know if you do, too.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
It's about a 2-hour drive from the Seattle area to the trailhead. Reach the Blanca Lake trailhead via Beckler Road (FR 65) just past Skykomish. Take FR 65 for 15 miles all the way to the intersection of FR 63 and the private Garland Mineral Springs Road. Take a right on FR 63 and proceed about 2 miles. The trailhead is on a small spur road to the left, up another small hill. You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here.

 AND this late in the season the restroom at the trailhead is closed. DO NOT leave toilet paper lying on the ground in the woods behind the vault restroom. We go by a Leave No Trace ethic here in the Northwest, so bury it or better, stick it in a plastic bag and take with!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Yes We Have Fall Color in the Pacific Northwest

Seattle Japanese Garden
Here in the Pacific Northwest, our fall colors are a myriad tapestry of greens, yellow-golds, oranges, scarlets, and browns.  While our forests run more evergreen, brilliant displays can still be found scattered around the region.

Recent wind and rain have brought down leaves, but the show isn't over yet. As someone commented on Pacific Northwest Season's FaceBook page recently, our fall show is better than New England's because the season lasts longer than our northeastern compatriots.  Agree?

Over the last few years this blog has become as much or more about the photos than the prose (begrudingly admits this writer), but that's not a bad thing. I've also become more compulsive about taking pictures. Hey, most of the world seems more compulsive about taking pictures with their handhelds.

Autumn leaves and sunsets are two of my favorite subjects. Perhaps I'm drawn to warm colors (ergo my mango-colored dining room walls, pumpkin-colored hallway, and cinnamon-colored guest room) because I live in an often damp and chilly climate.

Golden Gardens Park, Seattle

So today's post is simply sharing shots of fall color here in the Northwest and where you can find it, whether it's vine maples, golden larches, or huckleberry shrubs in the mountains or bigleaf and ornamental maples in our cities.

Golden larches above Lake Ann on Maple Pass Loop Trail, North Cascades, WA

Sidewalk tree, Sunset Hill neighborhood, Seattle
Seattle Japanese Garden

Golden larches, evergreens, dry grass, and mist. Wallowa Mountains, Oregon
On their way down, leaves can land in unnatural habitats, like a slash of scarlet in an evergreen shrub, that create brilliant juxtapositions.

And in the aftermath, downed leaves drop into often artistic, graceful collages waiting to be captured.

Bigleaf maple leaves, Golden Gardens Park, Seattle

Downtown Joseph, Oregon
I love this season, when so many trees look like they're dressed up for the biggest party of the year. Which, in fact, they are.

And you? Where are your favorite fall colors? Would love to hear in a comment below!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween! Random Acts of Pumpkins

How are you celebrating Halloween?  My favorite holiday caps my favorite month here in the great Northwest.  

Sure it's fun to dress up, or dress up the kids, but to me pumpkins are the most evocative of this campiest of holidays. We grow huge and interesting pumpkins here (well, pumpkins grow well many places) and display them with pride.

Except for the obese-looking pumpkin pictured below that was part of a contest for the biggest pumpkin, the other shots here were what I call "random acts of pumpkins":  Pumpkins carved or decorated and placed in public places, sorta like a Halloween version of yarn bombing.

While torrential downpours here west of the Cascade have brought down many autumn leaves, pumpkins still glow with autumn orange. 

Pumpkin pie anyone?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Along the Cascade Loop: North Cascades Scenic Byway

Come along for a virtual road trip over Washington's scenic North Cascades Highway.  It's a "windshield tour" across this designated Scenic Byway that traverses the North Cascades National Park Complex through stunning mountain terrain.

By December each year, this stretch of State Route 20 in far northern Washington is usually closed for the winter, subject to avalanches and rockslides when storms roll in off the Pacific and dump heavy rain and snow in the North Cascades.

Up until the 1970s, there was no road across these mountains beyond present-day Ross Lake. The North Cascades are still vast and mostly roadless. There's deep wilderness lurking beyond the peaks, where wolverines breed and grizzlies are known to stray.

We're heading east-southeast from Newhalem, where we leave the upper Skagit Valley and enter the much more narrow Skagit River Gorge.  

Yes, the windshield needed a good scrub. :)

If you see the river flowing free (as in the photo below) in this canyon, consider yourself very lucky. Over 100 years ago portions of this Wild and Scenic River  above Newhalem were tamed by a series of hydroelectric dams developed for the City of Seattle.  Nowadays the river only flows free above Newhalem when the dams upriver are being drawn down. Above this gorge, the river is a series of dammed lakes (Diablo, Ross).

Skagit River
When it's raining, waterfalls course down the canyon walls.

Skagit River Canyon above Newhalem
This portion of the highway traverses a steep slope as it meanders up and down above the narrow Skagit gorge, with a few viewpoints and tunnels.

Be very careful along this highway and don't speed! On this trip traffic was stopped by an SUV that flipped while going too fast around a blind curve. Fortunately the driver was okay.

I've slipped in a couple lake shots from a summer trip across the highway because I didn't get any decent shots on this trip.

The highway crosses Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake just past Colonial Creek Campground.

After passing above the southern edge of Ross Lake, there's a lot of this for a good 20+ miles:

The highway gradually climbs (you really notice the ascent when bicycling) toward two passes. Mountains are now visible above the surrounding hills that bracket the highway.

Rainy Pass, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway, is the first and lower pass at elevation 4,875 feet. We stopped at Rainy Pass for a break when I bicycled over the North Cascades on a summer weekend.  This solo bicyclist had guts going it alone on a damp October weekend.

Rainy Pass

When we clear Rainy Pass and approach Washington Pass 4 miles beyond the Cascade crest, rain gives way to bits of blue sky. It definitely rains more at Rainy Pass.

Washington Pass

This is as far east as we go before turning back, but the Washington Pass Overlook just off the highway is worth the stop for the stunning views of the granite Liberty Bell spires and the glacially scoured valley below.

Liberty Bell spires

From here, after a dramatic switchback of the highway, it's all downhill for about 20 miles to the upper Methow Valley. Next trip...

The highway below heading northeast from Washington Pass Overlook.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
Here's a map of most of the route pictured, but starting farther east than Newhalem, just above Ross Lake. From where we started at Newhalem to Washington Pass is about 45 miles. There are no gas stations or public amenities along the North Cascades Highway between Newhalem and Mazama in the Methow Valley.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Northwest Fall Hiking: Golden Larches on the Maple Pass Loop

For a few magical weeks each autumn before the snow falls too thick and deep in the Cascades, Northwest hikers stalk the golden glow of larches. The rewards of this gold rush are a riches of startling beauty.

Peak viewing of these subalpline larches (Larex lyallii) in the North Cascades is generally mid-October, perhaps after the first snow dusting adds drama to the alpine landscape.  I was right on target for a hike on the Heather-Maple Pass Loop this past weekend with hiking writer/guidebook author extraordinaire Craig Romano and a group from the North Cascades Institute.

I should just stop with the prose here and post a bazillion photos. It was such an extraordinarily beautiful day/time to bear witness to the splendor that I could hardly stop taking pictures.

But I did manage to hike a good 7.2 miles up and down a few thousand feet in elevation (about 4,000 total) in the process.  We started the loop going clockwise at the Rainy Pass parking lot trailhead (elevation 4,875 feet) on the south side of Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway). Our trip co-leader Sam tells us this direction is steeper but a more mellow grade going down, which sounds just fine for fussy knees.  

But none of it seems that steep really. Or maybe we're  just so elated from the alpine landscape we don't notice. I do remember sweating.

We start up switchbacks through forest for a mile or so until we see the first golden larches. These trees only grow at 5,000 feet up to about 8,000 feet elevation on the eastern crest of the Cascades.

Just the beginning
From here on it only gets more and more spectacular. We skirt along a steep ridge with views down to Lake Ann and Rainy Lake on either side, and pass through alpine meadows laced with scarlet and gold.

 Soon we're hiking through rocky, mostly treeless slopes towards the passes above.

On a clear day, there are panoramic views along this hike of many North Cascades peaks, but today we're shrouded in mist that rises and falls. Which, I think, makes it even more lovely.

Because it's so cool and scenic up here, I've lost track of time and can't tell you how long it took to get to Maple Pass (a couple hours?). It's a party up here when we break for lunch, with at least a dozen other hikers around.

Holiday card shot, Lake Ann in cirque below
Looking back the way we came.
Then we continue down to Heather Pass, which is also dusted in snow, and beyond.  We pass many more hikers coming from the other direction now, including a young couple wearing nothing but shorts and thin tops, without packs (not smart). In contrast, I'm in four layers, with fleece, Gore-tex, hat, and gloves.

Sam, who was up here a few weeks ago putting up signs for the U.S. Forest Service telling people to stay off "social" (unofficial) trails, checks out how they're holding up. Reminder, DO NOT stray off the main trail in these fragile alpine areas.

Heather Pass area
As we descend below snow level and get closer to Lake Ann, the fall colors are even more stunning again, with the golden larches blending with colorful shrubs like huckleberry and Sitka mountain ash.

Don't they look like a happy family?
Writer/author Craig Romano on the trail.
Although Craig Romano is one of the most loquacious men I've ever met, I can't come up with a good quote from him. But as we hike together, his conversation is always entertaining, sincere, and informative. (Go hear him speak at one of his upcoming events if you can.)

 After we get below Lake Ann, the trail is mostly enclosed in forest, except one colorful patch of talus, where I've seen a resident marmot on hikes past.

Overall the going seemed relatively easy, what with the awesome scenery, enchanting fall colors, and fun company. Most hiking guides rate this a moderate hike.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
To hike this loop before it gets too snow covered, go soon (it's snowing as I write this above 5,000 feet in the Cascades, so....). Check the North Cascades forecast. With the snow flying today, you might already need Yaktrax for traction and hiking poles for stability when venturing there before the highway closes for the season. 

Rainy Pass is about a 3-hour drive from Seattle and about 50 miles east of Marblemount on the eastern edge of North Cascades National Park. Check out the topo map of the area on the WTA website.