Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hiking to Mason Lake: Spectacular Views and Fall Color

With its southern exposure, the Ira Spring Trail to Mason Lake and Bandera Mountain is a perfect place to hike magnificent alpine scenery early and late each year when snow lingers elsewhere.
On a bluebird fall day when the vine maples are near their peak of scarlet brilliance, this trail just west of Snoqualmie Pass near Seattle is especially stunning. When it emerges above the forest into the open slopes below Bandera Mountain, the boulder-strewn mountainside above is splashed with patches of crimson, orange, gold, and forest green.

We luck on such a day this past weekend when a hike to Lake Ingalls was cancelled due to heavy snow on the trail. So we miss the golden larches, but we get a stellar display of vine maples and other shrubs instead. I say that's a decent trade-off.

Besides all that fall color, there are stunning panoramas of Mt. Rainier to the south and  the Olympic Mountains farther to the weststriking reminders of our active regional geology here in the Pacific Northwest.

Mt. Rainier looms large to the south from the Ira Spring Trail.

Of course we're not alone on a beautiful day when there's snow at most of the higher alpine trails in the Cascades.  After driving a few miles off I-90 on a dirt road and dodging some impressive potholes, we manage to find a parking space at the outer edge of the parking area. Get here fairly early on weekends to find a spot; otherwise you'll be parking a ways down the road.

While the first mile or so is an easy stroll through forest along an old road grade, the trail steepens when it loses the road and switchbacks upward.

Treading gingerly across Mason Creek
I keep asking my hiking buddy Julie, who hiked here more recently, if each boulder field we cross that windows onto the valley below is "the" boulder field she says is ahead.

"Not yet." she replies.

Looking west down upper Snoqualmie Valley and I-90 corridor.

Based on the heavy snow last week (skiing at Crystal Mountain even!), I dressed for cool weather and packed a thermos of hot tea.  When we do break out of the forest into the upper boulder fields, I shed as many layers as possible and gaze in envy at others on the trail in shorts and T-shirts. 

At 2.8 miles along and well into spectacu-land, we reach a junction with a sign for Mason Lake (left) or Bandera Mountain (right).  I'm very tempted to continue up to the mountaintop for even better views, but today we're both feeling a bit rusty and stick with the original plan:  Mason Lake. So we head left.

The road not taken:  upward to Bandera Mountain summit
We angle a quarter mile up to the ridgetop and then drop down about 300 to 500 feet in elevation (sources differ) through forest to Mason Lake. We share the trail with Chris, a friendly medic who volunteers for the U.S. Forest Service and knows the trails around here well. (Big kudos to Chris and others who donate their time and expertise helping rescue lost and injured hikers.)

Nearing the ridgetop, Mt. Defiance summit just beyond

As we drop down behind the ridge, we enter a different ecosystem of moss and fungi compared to the sun-drenched southern exposure on the other side. 

 After finding a spot on a big boulder to park beside the lake, we relax for a while at this lovely alpine cirque. Reflected sunlight sparkles like diamonds flung across the dappled water surface, and it feels a world away from Seattle just 50 miles west. 

Bandera Mountain's snow-dusted summit rises high above the opposite lakeshore, where I spot a few hikers way up there.

On our way back down, we pause to drink in the view at the ridgeline above Mason Lake.  If we're lucky, we'll have more glorious fall days like this for hiking, but the odds are against another warm day like today in October.

As we're descending, trail runners pass us along with clumps of students from the University of Washington, members of a climbing club who've just descended Mt. Defiance beyond Mason Lake as a training hike. I used to feel the need for speed when hiking, but these days I try to savor the experience unless I'm racing the weather or darkness. 

This is a hike worth savoring.

When You Go              
According to the Washington Trails Association, it's a 6-mile round trip to Mason Lake from the trailhead, with an elevation gain to the ridge top of 2,550 feet. You gain another few hundred feet when you hike back up from the lake.  This an easy-medium hike; it starts out very mellow along the old roadbed but does get a little steep on a few of the switchbacks. However, the trail is very well-maintained, thanks to WTA volunteers. And of course it all depends on your conditioning. Don't forget your Northwest Forest Pass, which is required to park here.

Driving Directions                            
From Seattle drive east about 50 miles on I-90 to exit 45 (Forest Road 9030). Drive north, then stay left on FR 9030. About 1 mile from the freeway, you'll encounter a fork. Stay left again, now on Mason Lake Road (FR 9031). At about 3.9 miles from the freeway, park where the road is blocked--the road continues on the other side, but only for foot traffic. There is an outhouse at the trailhead, but bring your own TP just in case; there was no toilet paper when we were there a couple days ago.


Carla said...
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Carla said...

Autumn has the most beautiful lighting and bright blue skies. Your photos are so crisp and really enjoy your blog Jill. Thanks for sharing.

Dave Wenning said...

Beautiful post. I have only seen Vine Maples growing in shady/part shady places.

Ron Mitchell said...

The PNW has it all! Crisp photos, Jill.

jill said...

Thanks Carla!

Dave, yea, down in the lowlands vine maples seem to lurk in the shade, but they are definitely exposed up in the mountains, maybe it has to do with elevation and growing conditions?

Yea, the NW does almost have it all, but well, it doesn't have lobster. :)

Lesley said...

Gorgeous! A member of my dance class tried Ingalls Lake last Thursday and got turned back due to snow...

martha said...

Breathtakingly beautiful

Suezy Proctor said...

Hey Jill....great photos...they just keep getting better...or, maybe I just love Fall! I like your narative on this piece...you are not super mountian goat girl...you get rusty too. I like the elevation info and the time it took. You practice what your preach...hike with a buddy. I love hte PNW. Thanks for sharing such rich experiences with us all to enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Really nice Jill. I hear that hike is quite a trudge -- good job. I climbed to that lake area from Talapus Lake (off trail) quite a long time ago. As usual, you took some great pictures.


Anonymous said...

Good story and lovely photos, Jill. I need to get up there. This hike is also stunning when the bear grass is blooming about late June. Imagine the hillside where the Bandera trail takes off covered in white. Betty