Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hiking the Olympic Peninsula: Panoramic Mt. Townsend

When a friend from the East Coast asked me to take her on a Pacific Northwest adventure a few years ago, I wanted to plan a quintessential Northwest experience. We only had a couple days, so it couldn't be too far from Seattle.

Since I consider a ferry ride across the Salish Sea a must for visitors (sometimes you see whales!), I decided an overnight in historic Port Townsend then a hike up Mt. Townsend would be perfect. On a clear day, this mountaintop ridge at the northeastern corner of the Olympic Mountains offers sweeping, magnificent 360 views. 

From the summit, you can see downtown Seattle and the Cascades Mountains across Puget Sound to the east, Mt. Baker floating above foothills and islands to the northeast, Vancouver Island in Canada across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, and the craggy Olympics peaks to the west-southwest-south. 

Well....on a cloudy mid-July day, the higher we hiked up the mountain, the thicker the mist and fog. By the time we got to the summit, visibility was only about 20 feet. 

But still, it was lovely in its own damp, enveloping way. We Northwesterners don't cherry pick the nice days to get outdoors.

Fast forward to a recent beautiful September daythe best kind of hiking day around here. It's not too hot, not too cold. Pesky bugs are done for the year. Our days on the trail before the snow flies at higher elevations are numbered, so a fall hike is especially sweet.

And even sweeter if it starts with a ferry ride during a colorful sunrise.

Edmonds to Kingston

From the ferry terminal at Kingston, the drive to the trailhead off Highway 101 near Quilcene took about 90 minutes, some of it on gravel Forest Service Roads. When we arrived at the upper trailhead around 8:30 a.m., a group of volunteers from the Washington Trails Association tried to recruit us to help with trail work. Another time.

Rich green forest thick with rhododendrons encompasses the first mile or two of the hike, although we noticed the rhodies looking droopy, no doubt due our driest summer ever. (Come in May for a spectacular rhododendron blossom display.)

Within a mile or so, the trail starts moving in and out of the woods, revealing views up mountain and down valley. After about 2.5 miles, we cleared most of the forest, and the rest of the hike is through meadows, subalpine trees, and occasional krummholz to the top.

I remember thinking the switchbacks were brutal when I hiked here on a some backpack trips to Silver Lakes, but none of it is very steep. (I think the trail has been regraded a bit since my earlier trips.)

As we crested the up-and-down ridge that runs along the mountain top, we're out in the open, with unobstructed views.

Final push to the summit.
We found some rocks to sit on and eat lunch at the summit, and Betsy and I grabbed extra layers from our packs in the cool breeze.  Then we rambled to the northern end of the ridge for the views north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands/British Columbia beyond.

End of the line. Looking north, Salish Sea.
View northwest. Strait of Juan de Fuca to the right.

On our way back south along the ridge, we saw a low layer of mist rolling in and wondered if it was fog or smoke from our many forest fires. As it got thicker and brownish, we could tell it was obviously smoke.

Looking southeast, smoke to the left.
This is earthquake country. The Olympic Mountains are the result of a large uplifted and folded section of oceanic crust that has smashed into the continent and been thrust upward over the last 40 million years, at the margin of the Cascadia subduction zone

Some seismologists posit that the subduction zone is locked on the eastern side of the Olympics - that is, directly beneath Mt. Townsend. When the stress builds up too much, the plates will slip and produce a megaquake (9.0 or greater).

I'm glad it didn't during our hike. :)

With the smoke and morning clouds, we weren't able to see downtown Seattle nor much of the Cascade Mountains. Mt. Baker was barely visible above the smog. But no matter, it was still an exhilarating hike and workout.

And on the ferry ride back to Edmonds, I was lucky enough to notice something dark just above the waterline not far north from the ferry. Definitely not a boat. As it submerged I saw the unmistakable fluke tail of a humpback whale thrust up out of the water right before it disappeared. I've spent most of my life here and never before have spotted a humpback in my home waters.

Excellent cap to  a splendid day.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
Elevation gain on this hike is just a tad over/under 3,000 feet (depends on whether you trust your GPS or the WTA trail guide), and mileage is about 8 miles roundtrip. There are several trailheads for hiking up Mt. Townsend, but we chose the upper trailhead, accessed from Quilcene to the east. A lower trailhead starts a little over a mile below and goes through some impressive old growth forest, which I did some years ago.There is also access from the western/Sequim side, but it's a steeper trail.

To access the upper trailhead, take US 101 south from the Quilcene Ranger Station 0.9 mile, the take the slight right onto Penny Creek Road. In 1.5 miles, take the left fork onto Forest Road 27 and follow it 13.5 miles before turning left onto FR27-190. The trailhead is at the end of this spur road, and there's a vault toilet there. Since this is in the Buckhorn Wilderness, east of Olympic National Park, no passes are required to park.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

2017 Columbia River Gorge Fire: Grief and Hope

As I write this, the Eagle Creek Fire is still burning and growing in the Columbia River Gorge, threatening towns in eastern Multnomah County, Oregon.

In just one night, it engulfed some of the most unique and verdant landscapes on the planet in a maelstrom of exploding trees and racing flames, fanned by the Gorge's famous East Wind. A friend watched a whole mountainside go up in flames in about one minute.

It's too early and I've yet to see it, so I still can't quite conceive of what has happened. Has this sacred, nourishing, touchstone place for me, where I return as often as possible, been irrevocably changed, denuded, and altered forever (at least in my lifetime)?

This I can't yet comprehend.

Gorge lushness
 As a post on the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge FaceBook page said,   "We're hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst."

The Vista House on Crown Point. Still standing.

I'm having a hard time putting into words how important the Gorge has been to me throughout my life. It is, as they say, in my bones.

When I was three my family moved to the Troutdale area, where our home was just a few miles from the basalt cliffs across the Sandy River that mark the western entrance to the Gorge. I grew up there learning to love nature, waterfalls, and walking in the woods.

On warm summer nights, my mom would pack a picnic dinner and we'd head up to enjoy the particular refreshing cool in the woods near one of the waterfalls. We often had Oneonta Gorge to ourselvesonce my dad featured a shot of my sister and I there on the front page of his newspaper, calling us "woodland sprites" in the caption. (We got teased for that.)

Below Larch Mountain

As a teenager I started hiking/backpacking in earnest and explored the Gorge's trails more extensively.  Maybe it's because I was 17 and all my senses were heightened, but one great backpack trip stands out: 

Towards the end our hike from Mt. Hood down to the Gorge, I vividly remember the soft, forgiving earth underfoot and the richness of the forest as we descended switchbacks nearing Eagle Creek, singing silly trail songs. (Because back then there were no other hikers around to annoy.) To wash away some of the week's grime, we jumped into a pond in the upper creek. Decades later I can still almost feel the bracing, exhilarating chill from jumping into the icy cold water that left my skin tingling afterwards. When we arrived at the Eagle Creek trailhead, our parents had spread out a picnic for us, which we devoured after a week of Top ramen, dried salami, and homemade gorp. Fantastic memories!

Throughout my life the Gorge has been a place of refuge, a soothing balm for my soul. I’m a firm believer that Heaven is here on Earth and that it’s unique for everyone. My version encompasses the verdant western Gorge and its many trails.

At one of my happy places
 After hiking there I feel energized and especially alive. There’s something magical and life-affirming about the abundant and thriving plant life, coursing streams, and cascading falls.

I heard there are pockets of trees spared, and yes, there will be regrowth. But it will take time. A long time. And who knows how climate change will affect the ability of such a unique botanical treasure to return to its former fecund glory.

Lower Multnomah Fall. The cedar to the right appears to have survived the fire
So allow me, us, to grieve while we also carry hope that enough was spared from the flames to allow a quick natural regeneration and healing of the unique collection of ecosystems in the Gorge.

Remnant snags from an early 1990s fire atop Angel's Rest

Eagle Creek, Punchbowl Falls
Bicyclist on the historic Columbia River Highway just below Crown Point
Thanks for "listening." I'd love to hear what the Gorge has meant to you and your experiences there in a comment below.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.


Friday, August 25, 2017

Eclipse 2017: In Celebration of a Family Farm, Friends, and Pure Awe

The "diamond ring" emerging from totality. Photo by Allen Denver.

In today's hyper-speed news cycles, the 2017 total eclipse that sliced across the USA on August 21 is old news. But in the days since, I've been replaying that amazing 1 minute and 48 seconds in my mind, lingering over the too-brief spectacle.

It was the most thrilling, mind-bending, magnificent natural event I've ever experienced.

The bonus? It capped a wonderful weekend on a family farm in the Willamette Valley filled with happy, interesting people, great food, and kick-back fun.  Life doesn't get much better.

Over 40 people and 7 dogs converged on the farm situated conveniently in the path of totality. We ranged in age from 6 to almost 80. Many of us pitched tents in the orchard, some slept in RVs and campers, while others lodged in the barn.

As people arrived over several days from Seattle, Portland, and even Santa Cruz, California, it was fun to meet old friends and make new ones. As Tonia said, it was like "a family reunion with the people you like even though some of us had never met."

Some went hiking and exploring in this beautiful, pastoral patch of the valley near Silverton, and some stayed close to relax, cook, or read. Several kids picked fat, sun-ripened blackberries for pie, which hostess extraordinaire Mary Lou helped them make.

The taste of late summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Although there was a possibility of clouds, I awoke before sunrise on Monday morning and peeked out of my tent to see sweet clear skies. As fast as possible, I threw on a fleece sweater and jeans, grabbed my cameras, and ran out in the morning quiet to shoot the sunrise, my favorite time of day.

Eclipse day sunrise - minus 4 hours.

After another hearty breakfast of farm fresh bacon, eggs, fruit, pancakes, and more, the anticipation edged up several notches.  We spread out in a couple open fields and patches with good views to the east, set up chairs and cameras, got out our eclipse glasses, and watched as the moon slowly crept across the sun in tiny but increasingly large increments.

Sheet spread out to catch the post-eclipse wave shadows.
About half an hour in, the light started to visibly dim, the temperature dropped, and a slight breeze picked up. I reached for my jacket and put it on.

As the moon encroached more over the sun, the light was unlike anything I've seen, as if someone turned down the dimmer switch in the sky.

Shortly before totality the roosters started crowing, and I heard what sounded like an owl hooting from the patch of woods behind the field. A short hush fell while the last sliver of light faded from view, as if everyone held an intake of breath for an extra second.

When I could no longer see any light at all through the eclipse glasses, I tore them off.

That first stunning glimpse of a big black circle in the black sky, surrounded by the white glow of the sun's corona shimmering outward in delicate filaments of light, will forever be seared in my mind. 

(For you art history types, it reminded me a bit of the dramatic crown of thorns in Grunewald's famous Eisenheim alterpiece, only more exquisitely gossamer.)

All the photos I've seen don't quite capture it. But they're close.

Totality. Photo by Allen Denver.
People whooped, I heard what sounded like a bomb or fireworks go off in the distance, and I found myself bouncing around, saying to no one in particular, "THIS IS SO AWESOME!!"

I'd heard people say to look around, so I did. In this instant predawn/dusk, there was a tinge of red on the horizon in every direction. 

Then I grabbed my camera and snapped some shots, put the camera down, put on my regular sunglasses and gazed up at that wondrous sight above again. I remember thinking, if this was a few thousand years ago and I didn't know what caused this, it would be a fearsome sight indeed.

Far too soon totality was over. I wanted more.

Some of us drove away quickly to try and beat traffic (no such luck) and some people stayed another night at the farm. I waited until after dinner and headed north at 6 pm. After 8 long hours on the road without a break, I pulled up to my home in Seattle at 2 a.m.

Of course I want to see another total eclipse now. Next time I wouldn't try to take any photos and would instead focus more on the sun and surrounding sky during totality, without sunglasses. I'd heard conflicting things about the safety of viewing without any protective lenses during totality (consensus: it's safe). As a result, I missed seeing the stars in the background around the sun.

So how about you? Did you make it to the totality zone and see this spectacular phenomenon? If so, how did you react or feel? Would love to hear about your experience in a comment below.

And perhaps Chile in 2019?
Photo by Allen Denver.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

Thanks to Allen Denver for letting me use some of his great eclipse photos. And extra special thanks to our generous and gracious hosts Mary Lou and Ben.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hiking Mt. Rainier: Burroughs Mountain

"It's a five-wow day!" says my friend Mark as we're pulling into the Sunrise parking lot on Mt. Rainier. With blue skies overhead, a pleasant 70-ish degrees, and a day of hiking ahead, it doesn't get much better.

For maximum wow-ness, hiking up Burroughs Mountain on a bluebird day is ideal. This is my third time hiking up to Third Burroughs (beyond First and Second Burroughs to the trail's end), and each trip has been equally brilliant.

At elevation 6,400 feet on the northeast side of Rainier (which reaches 14,410 feet), Sunrise is higher and less visited than Paradise on the other side of the mountain. While several trails start and intersect here, the Burroughs Mountain trail goes the highest and closest to the jumble of crevasse-riddled glaciers on the mountain's flanks.

Even views from the parking lot are spectacular. A few weeks ago there, a visiting monk from Asia asked a friend to snap a shot of him sitting cross-legged on the pavement with Rainier in the background.

"If you don't have an ice axe and can't self arrest, the park is telling people not to hike up the Burroughs Mountain trail," says the friendly volunteer at the main trailhead. "There's snow on the trail and the potential for a dangerous slide down onto rocks."

I know they're being extra cautious. However, a couple minutes later we ask some hikers coming down the trail if they went up Burroughs.

"Yea, it's doable."

As we head up the dusty trail from Sunrise towards Frozen Lake and Burroughs beyond, we're definitely not alone. On a beautiful summer weekend, people from all over the USA and the world are out there with us Washingtonians.

Pretty much the whole trail beyond the initial stretch from Sunrise has sweeping, panoramic views. In about 1.5 miles we reach a junction just beyond Frozen Lake, and follow several other hikers on up First Burroughs.

When we arrive at the first patch of snow across the trail, it does indeed look a little dicey. I intentionally don't look down as I carefully tread on the slick, narrow track. I'm glad for my hiking poles, even though they mark me as a terminally unhip oldster.

The second and third snow crossings are shorter and easier, and soon we're atop the table-like summit of First Burroughs, with Second Burroughs not far ahead.

Atop First Burroughs

On a brilliant day like today, there's a festive atmosphere atop Second Burroughs. Everyone stops here for a break to revel in the splendid views, maybe snack and sip more water. At 6 miles roundtrip back to Sunrise, this used to be the turnaround point for most hikers, but today a steady stream is continuing on toward Third Burroughs.

Atop Second Burroughs, with Third Burroughs in the distance to the right.
After reaching elevation 7,400 feet on Second Burroughs, the trail drops about 500 feet down to a short plateau before the final, much steeper slog about 900 feet up to Third Burroughs at 7,820 feet. And today there's a significant snowfield over the trail. Onward.

Reminds me of trekking in the Himalayas
Slip-sliding up the steep snowfield is not fun. Some people were smart and brought slip-on traction for their boots. I'm lagging on the last few switchbacks before the summit, partly due to the intense sun reflecting off the high elevation snow (which gives me a bad sunburn on the back of my knees). Have I mentioned I'm a total heat wimp?

"Do you want to stop?" says Mark, being solicitous.

"I'm NOT coming this far and stopping," I shoot back, trudging up.

And then suddenly there we are, on a ridge that looks like you could hop and skip on straight up the mountain.

Which makes me feel like this:

Surprisingly, the crowds dissipate pretty quickly when we continue on a ways along the ridge. In about 30 minutes of lunching, gaping at the massive mountain/glaciers in front of us, and snapping photos, we only see one other guy up here.

On the back side of the rocky summit, the ridge drops precipitously, with a dramatic view down to the toe of Winthrop Glacier hundreds of feet below.  It has definitely retreated quite a ways since I was first here in the 1990s. (Yes, climate change is happening, and our glaciers are fast receding.)

Coming down the snowfield is much more fun than going up.  Mark zooms down in big leaping-sliding steps. So I follow, jamming my heels into the snow and sliding too.

Despite the 500 feet back up Second Burroughs, which is pretty mellow as far as climbs, the trip back is smooth sailing. We're not in a rush, so take a leisurely break on Second Burroughs again to soak it all in--this day, this hike, this massive volcano with impressive glaciers, dormant for now. Soon enough, we'll both be office-bound.

Snowfields across the trail on First Burroughs.
By the time we get back to the car, almost 7 hours have passed, about 2 hours longer than the same hike 2 years ago. We took lots of breaks, took lots of pictures, the snow slowed us down, and  I'm admittedly not in as good shape as a few years ago due to knee and foot issues. Mark's GPS indicated that we had hiked 9.9 miles.

"Do you want to walk to the end of the parking lot to hit 10 miles?" I joked. Nope. Both of us just want to liberate our feet from boots and get something cold to drink.

After Hike Eats
On the way back to Seattle, we stop at the classic Naches Tavern in Greenwater, the first town on the drive back down the mountain on Highway 410. Yea, the food is so-so (I got a grilled hot dog because they were out of veggie burgers and Mark got a cheeseburger), but the drinks are cold and there's great outdoor seating in the shade. It's worth a stop just to step inside this rustic old bar and grill, which was originally built in 1919. In the winter, it's hopping with skiers from Crystal Mountain.

Personally, I find hiking at and around Mt. Rainier exhilarating. Do you have a favorite Rainier hike?

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.  

When You Go
Although Mt. Rainier is only 53 miles from Seattle as the crow (or raven) flies, by car it's closer to 90 miles. There are a few different routes, but we took I-5 south to Auburn and cut southeast through Enumclaw and up Highway 410 to the White River entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park. We left Seattle around 7 am and got to the entrance around 9, by which time we had to wait about 15 minutes in line to enter the park. It was a sunny summer Saturday, and they restrict entrance when the parking lots fill up, so go early. Entrance to the park costs $25 for a single car, but it lasts for 7 days.

Here's a link to a map of the park and vicinity on the park's website. When hiking on the mountain, be prepared for changes in weather, even if it's a warm sunny day when you start. Now go have a wonderful hike!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Central Oregon Coast: Intimate Views, Stunning Vistas

When I was growing up near Portland, one of the highlights of summer was a trip to the Oregon coast. We got to indulge in saltwater taffy and fresh crab, but going to the beach was it.

To us western Oregon kids, the beach wasn't some puny stretch of sand on a lake or river. A real beach meant the windswept and feral Pacific Ocean coastline, where powerful waves relentlessly break onshore.

As we neared the coast, I'd get increasingly excited and fidgety waiting for that first glimpse of the magnificent Pacific. I still get that rush of exhilaration arriving at the western edge of the continent. 

The Intimate Views. Recently I spent a weekend with some childhood friends on the central Oregon coast, just south of Newport. Added bonus: We were there during the lowest tides of the year.

After dinner the first night, our host Judy said she'd be leaving for the beach at 7 a.m. sharp the next morning. Somehow 7 a.m. turned into 8 a.m., but no matter. When I dashed down to the water's edge, I was as giddy as my inner child.

 "I've never seen the tide this far out!" exclaimed Judy, who lives less than a mile away. A feast of exposed tidepools and rocky outcrops, some covered with otherworldly sea life, was spread out before us.

 We poked around for about an hour in the brisk ocean breeze, taking lots of pictures and inhaling all that clean air. I was happy to see the starfish (seastars) rebounding after the mass die-off a few years ago.

While the beach is the main event, the intimate views are not just in tidepools on the coast. In a lush coastal forest at Cape Perpetua Scenic Area south of Yachats, I found treasures too.


Less than half mile inland from the ocean, I enjoyed an easy hike one afternoon on the Giant Spruce Trail with friendly local Dennis. We passed huge Sitka spruce trees hundreds of years old as we walked on the trail above Cape Creek. Western redcedar is my totem tree, but Sitka spruce is a close second. The biggest old trees harbor so many plant communities in their sturdy branches that they remind me of Hometree from the film Avatar.

The Stunning Vistas. If you've not driven Highway 101 along the Oregon coast (part of the Pacific Scenic Byway), be forewarned: It's hard to keep your eyes on the road with such dramatic views. Plunging rocky cliffs, deep green forests, wide sandy beaches, and cute, kitschy towns blend in this spectacular mix of scenery.

After an excruciatingly slow drive from Portland through awful traffic, I hit the coast at Lincoln City (does anyone else remember the Pixie Kitchen?) and drove south along 101 toward Newport and beyond.

View north from Cape Foulweather
Cape Foulweather, which sits on a 500-foot-tall cliff above the ocean, is an easy stop off the highway. I walked down to the historic gift shop, which was originally opened as a coffee shop almost a century ago, and snapped a few shots before continuing.

After hiking with Dennis at Cape Perpetua the next day, he suggested I follow him up to the viewpoint overlooking the ocean. I'm so glad he did.

There's something about a breathtaking view that stirs wonder and awe akin to looking up at a dark sky full of stars. We walked a short path to the West Shelter, an open stone hut set on the edge of the cliff, and took in the immensity of the ocean and drama of the surf below.

While most of the weekend was about relaxing with friends, I came away with a healthy dose of Oregon coast magic. Never enough, but I fueled up on that bracing fresh air, brilliant sunshine, comforting ocean fog, and the sweet song of Swainson's thrush echoing through the coastal forest. 

When I get stressed or wound up (as I'm prone to), I'll pull that Oregon coast elixir off a shelf in my brain and take a strong whiff.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.  

I'd love to hear your experiences and memories of the Oregon coast, or any coast, in the comments below. :)

When You Go
While the beach where we went is accessed through private property, here is a map showing good tidepools along the Oregon coast and a link to an Oregon State Parks popular tidepools website. We were just south of South Beach State Park.

Check out this link to Cape Perpetua on the TravelOregon website that has a map you can expand to see Highway 101 on the coast. I barely scratched the surface visit of the trails and sights in my few hours there. Park ranger-led walks are offered on weekends from June through August.