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.


Unknown said...

I can hardly believe you got so many good pictures on this day of very little light. Well done...

Dave Wenning said...

"...couldn't stop taking pictures of the misty lake.". You're just like me.

Steve said...

Another good one, Jill! Your posts and pictures are always a nice break. I like how the text and photos allow us to follow along! I also like the reminder they give me that I need to get outdoors more.

jill said...

Thanks Steve and Steve! Yes, getting outdoors more is good for the body and soul.

Ha, Dave, great minds think alike, right?

vwin said...

I hiked this same route this past summer when Lee and I were on Orcas for a few days! Gorgeous, and I didn't see too many people at all, other than at the far end of the lake. Loved hearing the bird songs and trying to catch glimpses of the forest denizens.

Unknown said...

What Steve said -- I didn't think you'd get any good photos, but they're wonderful. The contrast when you come back in sunshine will be intriguing!

Suezy P said...

Like Steve, I loved the text and pictures...they place me there... and that I need to get outdoors more as well.

Favorite Winter Hike? The Ozette Loop:
and one right out my back door: The Boeing Ponds for all the birds and waterfowl.

Unknown said...

I love the Mountain Lake Loop! I did it last August with my parents and my cousin while visiting family on Orcas. I did part of it again when I took some friends on the hike up to the top of Mount Constitution. I absolutely love winter hiking, no matter how drenched I get!

Great photos, too!