Monday, January 28, 2013

In Defense of Winter Hiking: Mountain Lake Loop on Orcas Island

Would you like to avoid the crowds when out hiking on popular trails in beautiful places? While the weather is frequently damp and cold during the winter here in the Pacific Northwest, our hiking trails are often nearly empty, even on weekend afternoons. 

Sure, warmth and sunshine are nice, but think that's going to stop some of us Northwesterners from getting out? We just pull on our rain gear and layer up in long undies, fleece, and Gore-tex or other water-repellent fabrics and waterproof our boots.  When I'm not skiing on winter weekends, sometimes I take to the trail at lower elevations.

Last Saturday on Orcas Island for the weekend, I joined some friends who live on the island for an easy 4-mile hike around Mountain Lake in Moran State Park.  My friend Steve says in the summer you could easily encounter 50 to 60 other hikers on the loop, but we passed just two with their dogs. (Earlier in the day the park trails were host to scores of Rainshadow Runners for an annual 25K trail running event. But that's the exception.)

To get some extra mileage, Steve and I started about a mile lower at the Cascade Falls trailhead.  As we walked the sometimes muddy trail along swollen Cascade Creek, Steve told me an interesting factiod: "Cascade Creek is the only year-round natural stream in the San Juan Islands."

Cascade Creek below Mountain Lake
A little mud never hurt anyone, right?

As we ascended higher, the rain subsided and a heavy mist permeated the forest.  By the time we emerged into a clearing at the base of Mountain Lake, visibility was only about 30 feet.  I found the effect magical, and I couldn't stop taking pictures of the misty lake.

Steve and Susan tell me I have to come back in the summer on a nice day to see the views across the lake and higher up Mt. Constitution. But that's months away, and on this day the rain and mist were lovely.

Besides obscuring the views and softening the edges of the lake, the mist added a velvety backdrop to the forest. 

Overall the hike was pleasant and fairly level, with mild elevation gains and losses as it meandered through the forest and around the lake. Even after about 6 miles with the extra leg from Cascade Creek below, I didn't get tired but rather, invigorated.

Do you have a favorite winter hike?  We'd love to hear in the comments below!

When You Go
Here is a map of Moran State Park, which shows Mountain Lake and other trails. Here's a link to a great brochure about Moran State Park, which describes 11 other hikes in the park, ranging from flat and easy to the challenging trek up 2,409-foot Mt. Constitution.  The park is about 14 miles from the ferry terminal on Orcas, but remember that you're traveling on two-lane roads with a maximum speed limit of 40 mph. Also remember to make sure your Washington State Discover Pass is visible in your car for parking in the park.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Northwest Winter Getaway: Low-Key Lake Quinault Lodge

While I appreciate contemporary architecture, my heart really belongs to the old, rustic National Park lodges full of sturdy wood-beamed ceilings.  Lake Quinault Lodge in Washington's Olympic National Park is a gem of the genre.  And a wonderful place to spend a few days in the winter away from it all.

If you're really lucky like we were a few days ago, it won't be raining and the sun might even be shining (however, it rained over 163 inches there last year). But no matter, this comfortable lodge, voted one of the best places to kiss in the Pacific Northwest, is a great place to relax any time. Set on the shore of glacially formed Lake Quinault and in the midst of some of the biggest trees on the planet in a temperate rainforest, the lodge and surroundings feel like an enchanted world apart.

When we were there a few nights ago (midweek), the place had a decidedly off-season feeling.  After driving 3 hours south from Seattle and looping back north up the coast from Grays Harbor, we arrived before dark on a cold, clear January afternoon. 

Our second-floor walk-up room was quite nice, with some of the most comfy hotel beds I've ever encountered in my travels.  Once we got settled and made dinner reservations in the hotel dining room, I strolled from the lodge deck across the lawn down to the lakeside to witness a truly spectacular sunset. (The photos below don't fully capture the intensity of the colors.)

Lake Quinault sunset, looking west

Looking across the lake from the lodge
With just a smattering of other guests at the lodge this evening,  I struck up a conversation quickly and easily with a lovely woman from Olympia warming up by the fireplace.  This friendliness continued, and we met numerous friendly fellow guests, mostly from in state. 

And that fireplace!  Big logs of wood crackled away, casting a glowy warmth beneath the head of a native Roosevelt elk.

Guest relaxing in one of many generous leather chairs in main hall

Dinner in the hotel dining room was excellent, featuring local bounty. We started with balsamic-drizzled and breaded Hood Canal oysters that tasted of the sea, and I dined on exquisite Quilcene River steelhead caught here on the Olympic Peninsula.  Our waitress was exceptionally friendly and accommodating.

Quilcene River steelhead
To work off some calories and unwind after dinner, I hit the indoor swimming pool and then struck up a conversation in the sauna with a young woman here for a few nights with her family.

In the frosty morning we walked one of the many nearby trails.  From the lodge we went down to the lake and followed a 1.1-mile route along the shoreline, skirting into forest, over a few streams, up to the rainforest loop above the lake, where moss grows thick and heavy on old growth evergreen trees such as Douglas fir and western red cedar.  A beauty of a winter visit:  we saw no other hikers.

Lake Quinault morning along the lakeside trail.
Rainforest loop trail
Since this was a quick one-nighter and we had lots of ground to cover driving up along the Olympic coast, we didn't have time to check out some of the world's largest trees of numerous species nearby: Sitka spruce, western red cedar, yellow cedar, and more.

A few guests we met were here for several nights to recharge, relax, and take stock for the year ahead.  Sounds like a plan for next winter; there are simply too many trails and things to see around here for one night. Nothing like maximizing the enchantment, right?

Have you spent time at Lake Quinault? I've love to hear about your experiences there in the comments below, especially if you've done more extensive hiking in the area.

When You Go
This map shows where Lake Quinault is situated just off Highway 101 north of Grays Harbor. It's about a 3-hour drive from Seattle going the southern route. I suggest making a loop and circling north up Highway 101 along the coastline past gorgeous beaches, Lake Crescent, and then east along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  However, it's a bit much for one night so take a few days or more if you can.
To lure visitors in the off season, rates are 25 to 40 percent or more lower than in the summer. I suggest doing a Google search for deal. I bought a Groupon that covered my stay.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Northwest Winter: Hoar Frost in the Shade, Carkeek Park

Do you ever feel like a binge photographer when confronted with something beautiful? 

As with the zillions of photos I've taken of Mount Rainier and other Cascade peaks, sunsets over the Olympic Mountains, mushrooms, ferns, spring flowers, autumn leaves, Puget Sound, the Oregon Coast, San Juan Islands, and more, the other day I was transfixed by the beauty of hoar frost in the winter shade of Seattle's Carkeek Park.  Like a junkie, I took shots and shots of this phenomena and had a hard time stopping. In the chill of the forest shade, the thick frost clustered on just about everything not moving:  blades of grass, picnic tables, fallen leaves, shrubs, and more.

Simply beautiful.  However, I imagine the complexity of the tiny crystals that form are anything but simple.

As happens most Northwest winters, we're in the grip of a week+ high-pressure stretch:  a temperature inversion of cold air and sunshine trapped in the lower elevations and much warmer air at higher elevations in the mountains. Yesterday it was a balmy 55 degrees at Paradise on Mount Rainier at over 5,000 feet, while we shivered in the high 20s and 30s in the lowlands!

So any moisture on the ground doesn't melt in the shade during the short mid-winter days, and the exquisite, delicate crystals of the hoar frost remain and get thicker by the day. The result:  a treasure hunt and visual feast.

I hope you enjoy these photos I just wanted to share. (FYI, these shots were all taken off my Nokia Windows phone, not my Canon.)  Have you noticed some beautiful frost around too?

Sword fern
Frost accumulating on the top of a picnic table in the Carkeek gully

Frosty remnants of a mud puddle

Frozen puddle over grass
Leaf on gravel

Friday, January 11, 2013

Northwest Skiing: Crystal Mountain Anytime

Why Crystal?  Crystal Mountain is an imperfect gem of a ski resort, which makes it so beloved amongst locals from around the Puget Sound region. Crystal boasts plenty of challenging double black-diamond terrain, hidden chutes, and private stashes to keep experts entertained. Avalanche-controlled backcountry for extra thrills. Decent intermediate runs to keep the family and relative newbies happy.  Bowl after bowl on the upper mountain and forest-lined runs on the lower mountain for all tastes and abilities.  Some of the best cookies in the world at the wonderful little Snorting Elk deli. The spectacular close-up view of Mount Rainier from the top of the mountain.  

Lots more reasons!

Imperfect? Getting freshies in the South Back or many other places on the mountain when temps stay low after a big snowfall is perfection.  But if it was always perfect, the sometimes hefty crowds would be overwhelming, right?  When it doesn't snow for a while, Iceberg (I just can't call it Ferk's) can get downright hard, scrapey, and unpleasant to ski, although they groom it better than in years past. Same for Lower Exterminator and a few other runs.  Best avoided.  Then there's the uneven lodge food, although it's truly getting lots better too. (For the best chow, fork out extra $$ for the Summit House or go all the way to the base to Snorting Elk deli.)  And who enjoys the long trudge up from the bottom of B, C, or D parking lots if you don't feel like waiting for the open-air shuttle?

Sidestepping, traversing, and hiking out to the South Backcountry
No doubt thousands of photos have been taken over the years of skiers up here atop Green Valley.

Mt. Rainier from top of Green Valley

Riding the Northway chairlift

Snow day skiing

 When You Go:  Most Northwest skiers know Crystal, but if you're new to the the region or will be visiting, come on up and make some turns. Be prepared to be shocked and awed by the view of Rainier on a bluebird day if you've never been.  Here are driving directions; give yourself close to two hours from central Seattle, an hour and a half from Tacoma.  Adult day lift tickets can be had for as little as $61 if you reload your Go Card (which you'll get the first time you buy a ticket at the mountain) on the Crystal website and don't pay extra for the gondola.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Northwest Snapshots: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

The Field Trip:  A morning, an afternoon, or a day in the small town of Ridgefield and the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge along the banks of the lower Columbia River in southwest Washington.

What's the Draw? The wildlife refuge is one of the few natural areas of wetlands, grasslands, and oak and Douglas-fir forests maintained for wildlife along the river today.  You can spot many species of waterfowl, raptors, painted turtles, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, deer, possibly river otters, and more there. Last week I saw and heard snow geese at the refuge, clumped together in a wetland beyond a row of trees.

Also enjoy the quaint stretch of old downtown Ridgefield and its shops and eateries.

What to Bring:  Bring binoculars for spotting wildlife. If you don't have binocs, go anyway. It's still lovely and bucolic there. If you go to the Carty Unit of the wildlife refuge where I went, the northern unit with walking-only trails, wear boots or shoes that you don't mind getting wet or muddy and a good waterproof jacket during the wet season (any time from October through June).  A field guide or two would be helpful for identifying birds and plants.

What's the History?  Humans have inhabited the site of the wildlife refuge for at least 2,300 years.  The Lewis and Clark expedition stopped here over 200 years ago on their way down and back up the Columbia River, when the site was the village of Cathlapotle. Today the Cathlapotle Plankhouse sits perched above Duck Lake (pictured above).  This replica of a Chinookan western red cedar plankhouse was built in 2005 and is similar to the 14 plankhouses that Lewis and Clark saw when they camped here in 1806.  Today the plankhouse is used for environmental education, resource interpretation, and special events.

Volunteers working on updates to the Cathlapotle Plankhouse
Walking the Trail: At the Carty Unit, walk the 2-mile Oaks to Wetlands loop trail any time of year.  After parking and crossing a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks, walk past the plankhouse and continue winding around Duck Pond past big old oak trees.  Smaller trails loop off the main trail into the adjacent woodlands.  You can't get too lost here.  Walk quietly and listen for wildlife.

This big old oak tree is home to hanging moss and fern gardens and tree frogs.

A great blue heron hanging out on the other side of the pond.
Where to Nosh and Shop:  With dark coming early when I visited in late December, I didn't have time to walk the whole loop trail before it got dark. So I made a few stops in town on  my way back to I-5.  The maple nut ice cream cone I got at the Old Liberty Theater, which doubles as a coffee shop, was delicious and made locally in Portland.  Around the corner on Pioneer Street is the Pioneer Street Cafe and Bakery, where they serve excellent meals and divine baked goods.  

On the eastern edge of downtown, the Dancing Rabbit gift shop is the kind of cozy and classy little shop that begs a stop.  I snagged some great earrings for a very reasonable price and picked up a bag of Kristi's sea salt caramel corn, made right in Ridgefield. Yummers.

Downtown Ridgefield
When You Go:  Ridgefield is a few miles west off of I-5 about 20 minutes north of the Columbia River crossing, just north of Vancouver, Washington.  The wildlife refuge day use fee is a mere $3. Here is a link to a map of old Ridgefield.  The wildlife refuge is not well-signed from I-5 until you get right to the refuge turnoff.  To get to the Carty Unit, follow Pioneer Street from I-5, take a right onto Main Street at the end of downtown Ridgefield and continue another mile or two until you see signs for the wildlife refuge on the left side of the road.