Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter in the Pacific Northwest: Extra Spectacular Sunsets

When was the last time you couldn't tear yourself away from a sunset?

After missing two gorgeous sunsets in a row here in Seattle, I went to Golden Gardens to shoot the last in a string of bluebird day sunsets. A front was already on its way, so I had to carpe diem. This is February in the Northwest after all.

Winter sunsets on clear days in the Puget Sound region are especially gorgeous.  The sun sets farther south on the horizon, behind the jagged outline of the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound.

When clouds lay low behind the mountains and clear skies with wispy clouds rise above, the effect is especially aaah-worthy.

On this evening, I arrive about 20 minutes before sunset.  Sailboats on the Sound are getting good breeze, people are playing on the beach, couples are huddled together watching the sun sink, and even a few seals are frolicking just offshore.

After sneaking about a half dozen shots of the couple sharing the blanket, I hear my name when I walk in front of them to the beach.  Ha, someone I know! I love that my big city still feels like a small town. They offer me some of their wine/cheese/fruit, which is a perfectly romantic way to watch a sunset.  

 By now the sun has set and the colors in the sky are starting to heat up.

But the display is just cranking up.  Behind the mountains is a cool backlighting behind the clouds.

By now perhaps you've figured out this blog post is mostly an excuse to throw up a bunch of photos because this sunset just screams for it. No post processing or playing with exposure and color saturation on any of these shots. 

All for reals.

It's hard to tear myself away and stop shooting to just observe the glory happening in front of me, across the Sound.  I take little breaks, but soon the camera is back in front of my face and I'm snapping more photos.

Within another 10 minutes the color starts diminishing, first in the higher clouds, and darkness starts to predominate.

A few of the infamous Golden Gardens beach bonfires are burning bright when I finally take leave, exhilarated.

I never tire of a beautiful sunset. Have you seen a memorable sunset recently?

Happy trail and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! We're on FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter as well, so check in for more Northwest images between blog posts.

When You Go
There are many excellent places to watch the sunset from the east side of Puget Sound.  If you're not one of those lucky enough to have waterfront views, some great Seattle area places are Alki Beach in West Seattle, the bluff along Magnolia Boulevard in the Magnolia neighborhood just north of downtown and due west of Queen Ann, Golden Gardens as mentioned above, Carkeek Park in northwest Seattle, and if you're extravagant, atop the Space Needle or while riding a ferry across Puget Sound.

Where are your favorite sunset viewing spots?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Eastern Washington Getaway: Hiking Frenchman Coulee

From mossy temperate rain forests to arid sagebrush and exposed rock formations, the Pacific Northwest is rich with dramatic diversity. 

I like to head east of the Cascades every so often to rediscover this:  The "dry side" is just as compellingly beautiful as the lush green forests that to many epitomize this region.

On an unseasonably warm February weekend, our destination is to hike some of the coulees along the Columbia River in the Vantage/George/Quincy area.

When I was a kid, this was farming and scrub land we zipped past on the interstate. Today rock climbers flock to the Columbia River basalt columns above Frenchman's Coulee to hone their skills. Concertgoers make the pilgrimage to the nearby Gorge Amphitheater for outdoor summer concerts, while hedonists seek the wineries and luxury spa and resort at Cave B Inn.

And of course lots of us go to walk, jog, or hike through this striking landscape.

After missing the easy-to-miss turn off to Frenchman Coulee just off I-90 past the Columbia River crossing, we drive a couple miles down Vantage Road wedged close to the side of a sheer cliff, without guardrails.  Probably not a concern for the rock climbers who don't mind exposure. For me, a tad scary.

However, soon the road reaches a flat "bench" above the Columbia and we park near the clearly marked trailhead.

Basically you can't get lost here--start by following an old jeep track, which traverses the mostly flat but occasionally undulating coulee a couple miles to the very visible waterfall.

For the sake of the native shrubs, do your best to stay on the track. And there are rattlesnakes lurking about too, but they are hibernating until things warm up even more in the springtime.

Essentially it's a stroll up the coulee to the seasonal waterfall, which dries up in the hottest months.

Millions of years of Columbia River basalt breaking down.

I heard that the waterfall is the result of an agricultural lake formed during the Columbia Basin irrigation project in the 1930s and 1940s, an outgrowth of Grand Coulee Dam.

So we stop a lot and take shots of the stark but stunning landscape, which is such a contrast to the west side of the Cascades.

Looking back down the coulee.

On the way back, we traverse the north side of the coulee, which puts us a little higher. (And yes, we went off piste.)

All in all it's a lovely couple hours enjoying the landscape and incredibly sweet fresh air.  As the lichen crusting many rocks attests, the air quality out here is good.

With a mid-afternoon start, the sun is close to setting on this winter day as we get back to the car and meander back up the ridge. We walked a little over 4 miles, with a few slight detours to explore.

View down into Frenchman Coulee.
 Looking back down into the coulee, I'm reminded of looking down into New Mexico's Chaco Canyon (without the ancient dwellings) from the mesa above. But for whatever reason we don't call them mesas here in Washington.

After Hiking Eats
Even though it's Valentine's Day and we're told to not bother coming for dinner at Cave B's Tendrils Restaurant because it was fully booked, we stop by anyway. Because you never know.

View of Columbia River gorge from Cave B Inn at Sagecliffe Lodge.
We get there before 6 pm and are graciously seated at the bar for a full dinner.  What a treat after a hike! I'm so hungry that I don't bother snapping a shot of my excellent King salmon with seasonal veggies or salad.

And because this is a winery too, I have to get a glass of excellent viognier. Can you say happy hiker? Instead of ordering dessert, I indulge in a freshly made chocolate chip cookie from the cookie jar in the lobby. Nice touch.

We don't drive back to Seattle but instead booked a room at the Crescent Bar Resort on the Columbia a few miles upriver.  Because it's still winter with campgrounds closed and it's a splurge kind of weekend, we don't camp. We'll be up and out early for another coulee hike the next day (and another blog post soon).

Have you been to this area? Would be interested to hear your experiences too. Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

 When You Go
The turnoff to Vantage Road that goes down to the trailhead for Frenchman Coulee is just 0.8 mile north off eastbound I-90 Exit 143, 135 miles east of Seattle. You'll need a Discover Pass to park.  Cave B Inn/Resort/Winery is about 5 miles north up Silica Road from the Vantage Road turnoff. It is a splurge, with a meal for two with a starter, entree, and wine well over $100. But we all can use such a treat now and then, right?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gray Wolf River/Cat Creek Loop: The Hike We Didn't Tell You About...

Sure I show you an edited, glossier version of reality here on Pacific Northwest Seasons. Ask most bloggers and writers, and they'd be fibbing if they don't say they do the same.  

Some outings aren't really "blog-worthy," so I just move on to the next hike/trip/meal/ski/kayak trip.  Maybe I didn't get many decent photos, or they're just sort of meh.  It happens.

I was hoping to blog about a road trip east of the Cascades, but we got rained and virused out this past week. (Can you say cold and flu season?). My only everyday Northwest adventure in the last week was going through a whole box of kleenex in two days. 

(I exaggerate; I did get out for a few walks in the woods in Carkeek Park, but I've blogged about it several times already.)

So while I try to show as pretty pictures as possible and wax enthusiastic about Northwest adventures, today you're gonna get a dud. Maybe you'll thank me.

In late December we road-tripped on the northern Olympic Peninsula, with an overnight at Lake Crescent Lodge.  On our way home we were snowed out of a hike at Hurricane Ridge, so instead drove up the Dungeness River drainage for some lower elevation hiking.

After crossing the river and passing a campground, we stopped at the first trailhead, for the Lower Gray Wolf River. Maybe we caught it on a bad day, but the trail started out oddly lumpy and strangely graded as it wound down and then flattened along what apparently is an old logging road. 

Not particularly scenic, so after about a half mile, we took the Cat Creek Loop into what was a lush, lovely grove of moss-encrusted old trees. (See the photo at top of this post.)

But pretty soon we started noticing an excess of downed trees, a tangle of branches and trunks all around us.  

Not long thereafter the trail ended in a collision of splintered, broken trees, looking like a tornado or something more sinister and nefarious happened here. We can't figure out what caused such destruction in this little gully.

"This is creepy, let's get out of here!" I say with a tinge of anxiety.

It didn't help that as we backtracked, we noticed a 10-foot-long strip of bark, looking for all the world like a huge dagger, hanging directly over the trail.  

"Widowmaker," says John.

We hightailed out of there back to the car after only hiking a couple miles at the most and took refuge at the 7 Cedars Casino to watch the Seahawks game. 

Watching a football game at a casino is NOT the sort of thing I blog about here. But of course there are a lot of things I don't blog about. At least the Hawks won that day.  As for the Super Bowl,  we'll try to forget about how the game ended shortly after The-Play-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

But I digress.  

I'm curious if anyone else has hiked that Cat Creek Loop with more success. What are some of your regrettable outings? Tell us about about your dud of a hike/trip/dinner out. Perhaps we can spare each other a similar experience with the warning.

Happy trails (really!) and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Hurricane Ridge in the Winter

While people come from all over the world to see spectacular Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, most go there in the summer and fall to gape at the breathtaking views.  Locals know that winter is a quieter but equally wonderful time to visit.

We stopped by a few weeks ago on a short Olympic Peninsula roadtrip, thinking of a hike. We underestimated the  prior day's snowfall, and without snowshoes or skis, that didn't happen. 

No matter, we still have fun trudging through snow with cameras, taking zillions of shots of the gorgeous light and splendid scenery.  Nothing like a pristine fresh snow to make you feel renewed, cleansed, and refreshed (albeit with cold toes.)

When we start up the 17-mile access road from Port Angeles to the visitor center,  low clouds are spitting misty rain and then snow. Higher up, clouds are  floating in tufts and veils, partially obscuring views but allowing hints of the surrounding mountains.

Then  just below the top, the upper ridge comes into view, where I've hiked in the summer wearing just shorts and a T-shirt. Not today.

During the summer this is hiking country, with views along the ridge trail down to the the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island on one side and the craggy Olympics on the other. Now it's snow sports.

Sans anything but hiking boots, we set out from the visitor center armed with cameras to shoot. Blue sky, drifting clouds, white snow, ahhhh!

Snow crystals, just because.
View northward of Strait obscured by marine cloud layer.
Mt. Olympus
After about 30 minutes, it's time to stop inside the Visitor's Center to warm my fingers and toes.  The center boasted some impressive icicles when we were there.

Because we're on a timeline to catch a ferry back across Puget Sound to Seattle, our visit is fairly short and, I'd say, sweet. Like this blog post. :)

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go 
From mid-November to April 15, drivers are required to carry tire chains on the drive up to Hurricane Ridge. We didn't need to use them on our drive up. Also, it is a national park, so an entry fee is required at the entrance station just above Port Angeles. Since we were there, snowpack has likely diminished in this unusually low snowpack winter (thus far). When snow conditions are decent, a local sports club operates a couple rope tows and poma lift for skiing or riding.

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.