Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hiking Central Washington: Seeking and Finding Solitude

On a blustery June day, hiking up through a lonely canyon to a ridgetop in central Washington provided us a measure of much-needed quiet time. Most trails with great views within an hour or two of Portland and Seattle don't offer much solitude anymore, even on week days.

 But in hiking through Black Canyon up to the crest of Umtanum Ridge, we got a taste of the old Northwest, when hikers were relatively few and far between. (Yea, I'm old enough to remember the days when you could backpack a week on the Pacific Crest Trail in late summer and see only a few other hikers.)

En route to the trailhead, we missed our turnoff and drove several miles beyond it on our first try. But we got to see more of the bucolic and historic Wenas Valley as a result.  

Despite being born in Seattle and raised in both Washington and Oregon, there are many places and trails left for me to explore in the region. So I was happy to see some new (to me) landscapes.

Wenas Valley
After backtracking, we managed to find the turnoff and proceeded very slowly up the bumpy, rough dirt road to a gate, where I had to hop out and unlatch, open, and close it after we passed through. In about another half mile, we reached road's end.

As we were lacing up trail runners and sorting out our packs, another vehicle rolled in and parked nearby. That father and daughter were the only other hikers on the trail, and we didn't cross paths. 

View back down valley from trailhead parking.
This being rattlesnake country, I carefully watched my step as we began walking up the narrow Black Canyon on an old road bed.

While it looks fairly arid, the bunchgrass, sage, cottonwoods, and abundant wildflowers were rich with a late spring green. Add the chorus of crickets, quaking aspen leaves, wildflowers, and a myriad of colors and sizes of butterflies, and it felt almost enchanted.

I wish I knew my native plants and wildlife better, so I could name everything I saw. I'm basically a "greatest hits" naturalist. But I did recognize the vivid pink wild Nootka roses as we ascended higher along the mellow grade now blocked to vehicles.

About a mile up the trail, we passed a vibrant green oasis beside a stream, where a dilapidated old log cabin still stood in a grove of quaking aspen.

At the top end of the canyon, where it widens out amongst sparse ponderosa pine forests, a three-wheeler ATV (all-terrain vehicle) came down the trail and turned up a fork in the road we didn't take. We didn't see or hear them again.

As we walked upward along the dirt road, I marveled at the lush and healthy pine forest, with almost no sign of the dreaded pine beetle damage that's killing forests all over the western U.S. (Yes kids, climate change is happening and wreaking havoc in ecosystems around the world.)

Along the way we passed a few forks in the gravel road/trail, but stayed right each time. When we topped out on the ridge, we were treated to views of the Kittitas Valley below, the jagged granite Stuart Range beyond, and miles of forest and range land. Unfortunately clouds obscured views of Mt. Rainer and Adams.

Stuart Range in the distance
Kittitas Valley
One could travel miles via foot or vehicle along the Untanum Ridge, which stretches 55 miles from the Cascades into eastern Washington. 

I was surprised to see the delicate flower pictured below growing on the windswept ridgetop in the dried, cracked soil. If any of you native plant geeks know what this is, I'd love to hear in a comment below.

I spied a coyote dashing through the forest below as we descended. Compared to the rangy coyotes I see around north Seattle, this one had a more brownish, bushy coat. I was very happy not to see any rattlesnakes, which aren't uncommon along this and many trails east of the Cascade crest.

Wind and spits of rain swept through the canyon as we trekked down, flattening the bunchgrass in waves and trembling aspen leaves like thousands of tiny cymbals. It was a visual symphony.

Aspen grove

 At about 7 miles roundtrip and an elevation gain of 1,250 feet, this was a good, not-too-strenous workout through lovely, quiet country. By now the wildflowers are likely past their peak and rattlers are probably more prevalent as the heat rises. Hiking guides say this trail is best from April through June, but I'd try it in the fall too when the aspens are turning gold.

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

With over 13 miles on dirt road from Ellensburg, overall it took us well over 2 hours drive from north Seattle to the trailhead. We took I-90 east and got off at Exit 109 onto Canyon Road, then turned left just about 1/4 mile onto Umtanum Road, which crossed back under I-90 and wound 22.5 miles to the trailhead  through a gap in Untanum Ridge and on into the Wenas Valley. The turnoff to the trailhead is marked by a big sign with a map for the Wenas Wildlife Area.
A Discover Pass is required to park at the trailhead. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Washington Coast Weekend Getaway: Long Beach Peninsula

Way down at the southwest corner of Washington on the Pacific coast is a lush land with rich coastal estuaries, the proclaimed world's longest beach (although it's really only #8), and a slower pace reminiscent of an earlier era. 

In early June I spent a weekend on the Long Beach Peninsula in a grand old rental home just a 15-minute stroll through scrubby forest and grassland to the ocean. As we drove into the quiet Seaview neighborhood of quaint houses with spacious green lawns and voluptuous rhododendrons, it reminded me of childhood trips to my grandparents' beach home.

But this weekend was no kids trip. It was an annual reunion weekend of high school friends, which eight of us have been doing now for a couple decades.

Home base for the weekend
While we cooked most of our meals instead of sampling the local restaurants and cafes, we did get out and explore. 

A mild, lovely June day with blue skies and wispy clouds overhead greeted us Saturday morning. After one of the longest and best nights of sleep I've had in months, first up was the walk down to the ocean, where a refreshing sea breeze cleared all the sleep webs from my groggy brain. 

On the ocean side of Long Beach Peninsula, you'll see horses and even cars on the beach, except at the north end where it's protected as part of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. Essentially the peninsula is a big sand bar from sediments washed out of the mouth of the nearby mighty Columbia River. And it's still growing.

Discovery Bicycle Trail along the coastline.
It's hard to get anyone to tear away from the intense catching up going on between eight women, but two friends joined me for an easy hike in the afternoon. 

About 20 minutes drive off the peninsula and northeast along Willapa Bay at the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters is the truly enchanting Willapa Art Trail. This short quarter-mile boardwalk trail through a wetland is scattered with sculptural pieces instead of interpretive signs to educate visitors. 

From the huge salmon carcass at the trail entrance to small bronze frogs and fish in trees, these pieces were created and installed by students from the University of Washington Public Arts Program.

From the art trail, we cut off to the Cutthroat Trail to make it a longer loop (1 mile). This trail heads up steep wooden steps and then meanders through lovely old growth hemlocks (the Washington State Tree) and ferns. 

Along the way we passed numerous interpretive signs showing a footprint and a description of an animal, quizzing us. Do you know what this one is?

After crossing a stream and heading back uphill, we passed a charming brick labyrinth alongside the trail. Of course we had to stop and follow its circuitous route to the middle and back.

On Sunday we weren't quite so lucky with the blue skies, but the cool, damp weather that characterizes the Washington coast much of the time makes it especially green and fertile. Personally I love a good walk in the rain.

And so I headed to the north end of the peninsula to Leadbetter Point State Park to walk along the inner tidelands. No one wanted to tramp in the rain with me, but I'm good with being alone in nature. In fact, I seek it sometimes.

Leadbetter Point Park is as far north as you can drive on the peninsula (which wasn't the case when I spent a Thanksgiving weekend here in the 1990s). When I arrived, only one other vehicle was in the parking lot. I decided to do the 1.2-mile Bay Loop Trail to see both forest and beach.

While the forest is young up here, it's very verdant and healthy, as you can imagine with an average annual rainfall of 76 inches, almost twice that of Seattle and Portland. Pacific storms slam onto the Northwest coast here before heading inland.

When the tide is out, like it was that day, the tideland provides fecund feeding grounds for birds and waterfowl. It's a birder's destination and protected habitat for the seriously cute but endangered snowy plover.

On the way back down peninsula I stopped at Oysterville Sea Farms on Willapa Bay, which I basically stumbled upon. I'm not an oyster fan, but the weathered wooden building with a big deck overlooking the bay invited me on in. Inside were a variety of local specialties besides oysters. I snagged some local smoked salmon, dried cranberries, and a bottle of their dry white wine specially blended to pair with oysters.

I'm a sucker for old cemeteries, and the Oysterville cemetery is definitely worth a stop. Chief Nahcati is buried there, for whom the peninsula town of Nahcotta was named. He is known for befriending the original Europeans settlers who founded Oysterville and showing them the prolific oyster beds on what was then called Shoalwater Bay.

Back in the town of Long Beach, I met up with my g'friends at popular Cottage Bakery on the main touristy business strip. I read later that it's famous for having some of the best doughnuts in the Pacific Northwest, although we just indulged in soup and tea.

Early Monday morning I was on the road by 6:45 a.m. with work obligations back home in Seattle. Instead of heading east to Interstate 5, though, I meandered up the coast along Highway 101 through lovely coastal estuaries. With the soft, misty morning light, I had to stop and snap some shots.

If you've not been along that stretch of highway before, be prepared for a lovely scenic drive as the highway winds through estuaries, across rivers, and past evergreen forests in various stages of regrowth from logging. After an hour of early morning driving, I lucked out by stopping at Elixir Coffee Shop in South Bend, where the high-quality hot tea and still warm, freshly baked cranberry scone were a sweet surprise in such a small town

With much more to do there, we'll be back in 2019, same weekend, unless the inevitable tsunami hits before then. But that's another blog post altogether. I'm already plotting where I'm going to explore next time around. Have you spent much time down there? What do you recommend if so?

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

The Long Beach Peninsula is close to the southern border of Washington along the Columbia River. Check out an area map, directions and travel options here. From Seattle, I drove down I-5 to Olympia and then cut southwest to Grays Harbor and down Highway 101 along the coast (here's my route on Google maps). It took me almost 3.5 hours to drive home to north Seattle on Monday morning with some rush hour traffic (but not that much).

We stayed at the historic Bloomer Mansion in Seaview, available for rent. It was spacious, private, well-stocked, and comfortable for sprawling out.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Southwest U.S. Road Trip: Bryce Canyon Sunrise

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep. - Rumi

By the time we get to Bryce Canyon National Park on a clear, starry spring night, the park entrance station is dark and shuttered closed. We've driven up from Zion after a full day of hiking and exploring, and it's sleepy time.

So we drive on into the park to look for a campsite anyway . Even in the off season, it's not a good idea to hit a popular national park without a reservation. But here we are.

We're not totally out of luck. We're traveling in a newly retrofitted camper van (its maiden voyage), which allows us to be stealth and park for the night. After looping through the one open (and full) campground, we drive slowly along the canyon rim, checking out viewpoint parking lots.

Ultimately we settle on a small lot not far past the Bryce Canyon Lodge, conveniently just a few yards from an overlook and a restroom. We join a Westfalia tucked at the corner of the lot and turn in for the night.

While I love my Pacific Northwest, I also enjoy straying beyond my region to see colorful and different landscapes. Excited to shoot the sunrise, I wake up before the alarm and crawl out into the freezing cold morning for a look.

As you can imagine, it's breathtaking! There's not much breeze, but I heed Rumi's advice. No sleeping in today. After snapping a few pre-sunrise shots, we take off for more viewpoints.

Back in the 2000s I spent a few days at Bryce, where we hiked down in the canyon around the otherworldly hoodoos. These enchanting formations are shaped by erosion over millennia into colorful limestone, sandstone, and mudstone spires, fins, pinnacles, and even arches.

 At our second stop we catch this lovely arch before sunrise still. It's hard to stop shooting amidst this visual feast.

But there's still more to see, so we hop back in the van and dash back towards the lodge, passing the rising sun to the east.

By the time we arrive at the lodge parking lot, the sun is cresting brightly, illuminating the canyon below in dramatic light and shadow. I literally run to the canyon rim to start shooting. Light changes quickly at the cusp of the day.

It's so lovely that I don't notice how freezing my hands are until I've snapped about a dozen shots. Then I shrug and continue in the sub-freezing temps

I could post a lot more photos, but I hope you get the picture that a sunrise at Bryce is a bucket list event.

Since it's close and warm, we walk into the Bryce Canyon Lodge for the breakfast buffet. I love these old historic national park lodges, although they're not necessarily known for their cuisine. But the food is hot and hits the spot.

Then we're off into the gorgeous southern Utah morning, heading north like homing pigeons.
NOT western Washington
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

Bryce Canyon National Park is in southern Utah only an hour or two northwest of equally spectacular Zion National Park and near other destinations like Kodachrome State Park and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. You could spend much more time exploring and hiking than we did on this trip. But a Bryce sunrise is a must!  This website has good info on lodging and particulars about visiting Bryce. BTW, how about letting your senators, Congress reps, the Administration, and others know that our national monuments deserve full protection. Just sayin'.