Saturday, July 20, 2019

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: White Pass to Chinook Pass, Part 1

This is the first of a two-part series about my recent 3-day backpack trip along the Pacific Crest Trail in central Washington. You can read the second post here.

To get away from civilization, with only basic essentials for walking the landscapeno smartphone, no music but the sounds of nature, just whatever greets you in the moment—this to me is a gift.

And so some of us hit the trail for a night or two or more when we can. Life on the trail in wilderness landscapes is stripped down and clarifying.

When my friend Lisa (trail name: Cedar) said she was going to thru-hike our home state of Washington on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, I asked to join her for a few days. I chose the relatively easy White Pass to Chinook Pass section of trail, a little over 28 miles and already on my list to hike.

When I hiked sections of the PCT as a teenager many years ago, we'd see hardly anyone else out there during a week on the trail. It's a very different scene today.

Back in the day, Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington
Now several thousand people come to the West Coast of the USA each year to walk from Mexico to Canada on the PCT. Many more hike sections, like us. (In PCT lingo, we're LASHERS, short for Lazy Ass Section HikERS). Total use each year is likely over 100,000 hikers.

On a Friday evening in mid-July, my friend Claudia (trail name: Rosario, for her bright pink pants) and I got dropped off at White Pass with backpacks and food for 3 days on the trail. It didn't take us long to find Lisa at the Leech Lake campground, where we snagged a nice campsite beside the lake.

Leech Lake Campground at White Pass, Washington
Dinner included a salad of greens from my garden, which I knew Lisa would appreciate since she started hiking north from the Oregon border over 2 weeks ago. (Trail food is notoriously short on fresh produce.) Not long after sunset the persistent mosquitoes drove us to our tents, where I drifted to sleep quickly after reading a few pages of my book.

Day 1: White Pass to Snow Lake
With early mornings this time of year, we were up by daylight and on the trail by 8 a.m. For the full-on thru hikers who walk up to 30 miles a day, that's a really late start. For us, just fine.

Soon we entered the William O. Douglas Wilderness adjacent to the east side of Mt. Rainier National Park. Although we climbed a bit, overall our first day on the trail was fairly level, mostly above elevation 5,000 feet+, and we hiked a tad over 9 miles.

This area is characterized by lush subalpine forest, vivid green mountain meadows, and lots of alpine lakes and ponds. Good mosquito breeding territory. 

By mid-afternoon we reached Snow Lake and pitched our tents in a nice clearing above the serene lake, where we spied a mama duck and a few ducklings skittering across the surface. Then we read and napped, and later in the afternoon saw more hikers pass.  

As we were cooking dinner, a guy in his early 20s wandered up and decided this was the spot to camp after a 30-mile day. Such is the social and friendly way of the PCT. Bear Magnet (trail name) told us he'd thru hiked the Appalachian Trail a year or two ago and lost 40 pounds in the process.

Snow Lake
After dark, cozy in my sleeping bag, I heard a young couple wander up beside my tent in search of a place to camp for the night. I'd seen a sweet campsite farther up the lake on an after-dinner walk, and told them about it. Off they went. Then I slept soundly.

Day 2: Snow Lake to Two Lakes Junction
So this was the day for us, the one with blue skies, not nearly as many mosquitoes, and spectacular gorgeous breakout views after a first day mostly in forest.

Bear Magnet was up and off so early I didn't hear him leave, but we had a lazy morning, not hitting the trail until about 9:30. A splashing in the lake below turned out to be a fly fisherman, who was otherwise so quiet we didn't know he was around.

At the Bumping River crossing, we stopped to chat with Tinsel and Rocket (trail names, of course), two sisters in their 20s from Los Angeles whom Lisa had befriended earlier on her hike. Sadly, they were aborting their thru hike and jetting back to California due to Tinsel's sore knee.

As we continued north, a few other hikers Lisa had met along the way leapfrogged past us. There was a stream crossing too, where we had to take off our boots and roll up our pants to wade across.

After pausing to gaze at a particularly beautiful meadow sprinkled with purple lupine (my version of Heaven), we started our first big climb. Up and up we ascended, first through forest, then along a rocky, talus-strewn ridge, for a few miles.

Nearing the top, we had views back to White Pass, the Goat Rocks, and Mt. Adams beyond. This is what I truly love about hiking: reaching high ridges and peaks with expansive panorama views.

Goat Rocks, Mt. Adams beyond
Then it got even better. After topping out on the high end of the ridge, boom: Mt. Rainier (Tahoma) came into view, from an angle I've never seen before. Even though I've lived in its shadow most of my life, massive Rainier is always a startling sight.

Mt. Rainier

Can I just say, even though we only gained a little over 2,000 feet, I was beat. I've aged past my trail name (Motor Mouse), which I was bequeathed when I was younger, faster, and didn't have a cranky right knee. After a break, another mile on I got muscle cramps in my legs.

But I kept going because I Do Not Quit. And, um, what else would I do out there? (Several days later I found out I'm depleted of a key vitamin, so that explains some my dragginess.)

Thankfully we found a nice level campsite perched above Two Lakes junction at the head of a valley not long after, and witnessed a stunning moonrise. And yes, we were joined later by another solo, twenty-ish guy thru hiker (trail name Juicy Foot) who pitched a tent at our site.

After an almost 10-mile day, we all slipped to our tents not long after. Two days on the trail, feeling somewhat clarified, I was ready for more.

Check back for our third and final day soon...

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

When You Go 
Well, go prepared. These days, there are trail runners who do the whole 28 miles in one day, others backpack this stretch in just 2 days, and some take maybe 4 days. It all depends on your conditioning, available time, and inclination. Here's what the Washington Trails Association (WTA) says about this hike along with directions and logistics.


Sylvia said...

Wonderful to be able to hike so high and far. Do you see any animals along the trail (besides people)?

Anonymous said...

Jill, some of my favorite places. My grandparent’s farm was in the Nile valley in a loop off highway 410. Lots of happy hiking and fishing when it was empty and we could eat the trout we caught. No catch and release required. Another hike would be to catch the road up Nile creek to clover springs. You need a plan since it’s on forest service roads, with lots of choices, many of which are wrong. You end at clover springs with a short walk out to the white pass highway. Obviously you could start at that end but I am less certain how to catch that end. Unlike the pct you are not going to find many, if any people. A different landscape but I love the pine and quaking aspen forest. And forest service roads are a different sort of adventure. Avoid this area during hunting season when you will find people, people with guns looking for deer and elk. Mary lou

jill said...

Mary Lou, thanks for the tip, I'll have to check that out!

Sylvia, we saw a rabbit, an elk, aggressive chipmunks, birds, and tons of mosquitoes. My friend Lisa was face to face with a big bear on the trail a few days earlier, but he ran away. Scary!

Unknown said...

sounds fun jill...nothing wrong with being a geizer lasher...

p.s., I think the moon is above Tumac Peak in your night pic...

== Mark (trail name from Lena, 'toot-ga')

Ron Mitchell said...

Motor Mouse! I was wondering what your trail handle was, and apologize for not knowing it sooner. You're not old, Mouse, not if you can still backpack even if just overnight. Beautiful trail you got there.

jill said...

And Ron, what is your trail name?

Mark, interesting, yea could be Tumac...

Lesley said...

Awesome... no other way to describe. Thanks for sharing!


jill said...

Thanks Les!!

Suezy P said...

Dearest Motor Mouse...

What a fantastic recap of your first two days. I loved the telling, and the fun trail names of the kindred souls you encountered along the way. Thank you kindly for the picture of the William O. Douglas Wilderness sign, Leech and Snow Lakes, and Mt Rainier....never can get enough of her, but WOW!! Thrilled to see them all.

Looking forward to the last episode!!!