Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hiking the Mountains to Sound Greenway: Bandera Mountain

Mt. Rainier glows strawberry ice cream pink on the southern horizon as we zip east across the I-90 bridge on Lake Washington this early morning.  Sunrise is just minutes away, and we're off to beat the heat and weekend crowds on the Ira Spring Trail just west of Snoqualmie Pass.

"How many cars do you think will be in the lot this early?" I ask my hiking buddies John and Julie. Even at 6 a.m. when we arrive at the trailhead, there are at least 10. Some overnight backpackers no doubt.

These days the hikes from the Ira Spring Trail trailhead to either Mason Lake, Mt. Defiance, or Bandera Mountain are among the most popular in the region. Easy access from the interstate, well-graded and maintained trails, and stunning mountain views make this trailhead a target destination for Puget Sound area hikers.

Although it's going to be in the 80s today and the sun rose almost an hour ago, we start out in the cool of early morning.  For the first mile and a half we hike in solitude along the mellow old road grade through regenerating forest.

 Today the stream about 3/4 mile along is low enough that crossing is easy. (A bridge is being constructed there now).

When the trail leaves the road grade, it gets steeper and switchbacks gradually get shorter as we ascend.  A solo man passes us on his way down (he caught the sunrise), and soon thereafter a solo woman and her two dogs (she summited just after sunrise). And we thought we were earlybirds!

While we hike in the shadow of Bandera, the ridges south of I-90, and Rainier peaking above, are bathed in morning sun. It's a bluebird day all right.

 As we loop up switchbacks into more alpine terrain, the trail opens up more with views south and sprinkles of wildflowers. I'm not a plant geek, but I do recognize the "greatest hits": brilliant scarlet-orange paintbrush, purple lupine, and an occasional stately beargrass.

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax)
Scarlet Indian paintbrush (Castilleja)
And then we emerge out of the forest (approximately 2.5 miles along) into talus slopes that criss-cross the mountainside.  At the junction to Bandera versus Mason Lake, we head straight up to Bandera. (At least it feels like straight up.)

Thankfully the sun hasn't crested the mountain ridge and it's still shady and relatively cool as we scramble upwards, using our hands on the ohmygosh it's steep trail.

Julie's gloves were helpful for the scramble over rocks.
On this steep stretch (I read it's only 1/5 mile, but it felt like a mile), a group of four passes us on their way down. Considering we've hiked close to 3 miles for well over 90 minutes, the trail so far has been pretty empty. That of course will change on the way down.

Here comes the sun...
As we emerge from the steep part, the trail lightens up for a bit before plunging into a big jumble of talus boulders near the ridgetop, where I get temporarily lost. Stay right rather than climbing to the top through the talus.

Up here it's a scramble upwards to the right (east) along the ridge. While the views are fantastic, I'm attacked by vicious, bloodthirsty...mosquitos? Whatever they are, I'm bitten multiple times on my arms, abdomen, face, and ears when  stopping to find the trail. Note to self and anyone: Remember to bring insect repellent this time of year!

View north into Alpine Lakes Wilderness after cresting ridge.
Shortly before arriving at the false summit (Little Bandera), where most turn around, Mason Lake comes into glorious view below. (Here's a blog post about hiking to Mason Lake at the height of autumn colors.)

When I arrive a few minutes behind Julie and John at the false summit, I'm surprised by the dusty, small spot where we, too, will turn around. But that view! 

Mt. Rainier
Other hikers start arriving as we snack at the false summit, and as we descend, yup, eventually we pass a lot more coming up (including some neighbors I recognize).

Going down is easier, although my left knee screams at me on the steep stretch, while my right knee was screaming at me going up. Balance is good, right?

By the time we arrive back at the car, the parking is overflowing at least a quarter of a mile down the dirt road. But this trail, these views, are worth every drop of sweat.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

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When You Go
Round-trip to the false summit (the real summit doesn't have a view) is about 7 miles, with an elevation gain of just under 3,000 feet. It took us just an hour to drive to the trailhead from Seattle. Take exit 45 off of I-90 and turn north onto Forest Service Road (FR) 9030. A little over 3/4 mile from the exit, stay left onto FR 9031 (dirt and gravel) and follow it to its end at the trailhead for the Ira Spring Trail #1038. You do need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here. There's a decent outhouse at the trailhead, but bring your own TP just in case and hand sanitizer.


JoJo said...

Those views are incredible! But I was wondering how you did that 1/5 mile stretch going down w/o falling. It looked very difficult going up. I always found the descent a lot harder.

jill said...

JoJo, going down we sometimes got pretty low to the ground, and even sat on some rocks and swung my legs down. It wasn't that bad. The descent was harder on my knee..

Anonymous said...

Really like the picture of the sun peeking through the trees on the ridge, very nice. Going early certainly made for cooler hiking on that day. J

JoJo said...

Dan Lewis from KOMO just posted that he did this hike so I posted the link to your blog