Thursday, October 20, 2016

North Cascades Autumn Getaway: Hiking on the Cusp of Winter

While many stocked up on food and batteries and stuck close to home last weekend amidst predictions of a dangerous windstorm, I headed to the North Cascades in north-central Washington with a couple friends to hike and enjoy autumn's bounty. 

Our overnight destination was the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center (ELC) on Diablo Lake, where each October the North Cascades Institute hosts a sumptuous Harvest Dinner featuring mostly Skagit Valley fare. The ELC serves as a perfect launch point for many wonderful hikes in the North Cascades.

Day 1: Pacific Crest Trail, Rainy Pass toward Cutthroat Pass
With winds not predicted to extend as far east as the Cascade Crest, we left Seattle in a lull between storms Saturday morning. Our initial goal was to catch the end of the golden larch display, but the third weekend in October is pushing it for high country hiking.

Indeed, when we arrived at Rainy Pass (elevation 4,800 feet), the empty parking area at the Pacific Crest Trail North access was snowy-slushy and empty. Just a few days earlier (before the weather hit), someone reported seeing dozens of people on the way down from Cutthroat Pass.

As we hiked into the thick evergreen forest, the rain gradually turned to snow as we gained elevation. I was glad for hiking poles when crossing a few engorged streams.

Although we told ourselves we'd just hike an hour and then turn around (time constraints), it was too beautiful to stop so soon in the winter wonderland.  Fat snowflakes were quickly covering everything in a fresh coat of fluffy white. An hour turned into an hour and a half, and then some.

Ultimately we had to turn back before passing above timberline. We caught a few glimpses of golden larches high up the mountain, but they were mostly snow-covered like everything else.

Two things about this hike stood out: We hiked almost three hours alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, a rare treat anymore on popular trails in the region. And we had the pleasure and wonder of seeing a pine marten in a tree top about 25 feet off the trail. (Thanks to Nanette for spotting it.) This elusive little carnivore is a member of the weasel family but much cuter. Unfortunately I didn't get a good shot.

Soon the North Cascades Highway will close for the season, and the popular trails around Rainy and Washington passes will not be accessible by car until next spring.

Evening at the ELC
By late afternoon we arrived at the ELC, one of my absolute favorite getaway destinations, not only for the beautiful setting, wonderful food, and good people there, but for the excellent environment-focused speakers and workshops. I've blogged about the ELC several times before.

The evening's focus was disappearing glaciers. Dr. Jon Riedel of North Cascades National Park spoke about monitoring the receding Cascade glaciers, and John Scurlock showed us his stunning aerial shots of glaciers along the West Coast.

As usual, I slept deeply and well in the mountain darkness and quiet.

Day 2: Sourdough Creek Trail
With a break in the weather, Sunday morning we walked the beautiful Sourdough Creek Trail behind the ELC about 1.75 miles up to an exuberant waterfall. This gentle trail winds gradually upward through lush mossy forest thick with evergreens and maples.

"I don't think we could be here at a better time," said Nanette as we passed what at times seemed like curtains of gold leaves spiked with crimson. Indeed, I've been there many times and don't think I'd ever seen the fall color so brilliant.


Near the top of the trail, we skirted an old moss-covered rockfall before scrambling the final stretch up stone steps to waterfall views. (Tip: you need to walk out into the creek and look back upstream to see the big waterfall.)


So we straddled the seasons over the weekend, with winter and fall side by side. That's one of the things I love about my Pacific Northwest:  the proximity of widely diverse landscapes and conditions.

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  
If you're thinking of heading to the high country around Washington and Rainy Pass up the North Cascades Highway, check the pass conditions and weather. Current forecasts for the Rainy Pass area show snow off and on into the middle of next week. Winter has definitely arrived up there, so hiking might be done for the season. 

Lower around the ELC, though, things are still fall gorgeous. In fact, the last weekend in October 2016 is a stewardship weekend, with a deep discount on lodging and great meals in exchange for some help with projects such as planting and pulling invasive weeds.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Autumn Hiking in the Pacifc Northwest: Golden Larches at Ingalls Pass

Each October in the dramatic, craggy North Cascades mountains, golden alpine larches light up the landscape in an otherworldly, incandescent glow. Many hikers here in the Northwest are passionate about seeking these trees that shimmer brilliant gold a few weeks each autumn.

Call us larch groupies.

Yesterday I pretended to be a government employee and took off Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day to catch the glow before the next storm in a few days. My window to see this year's larch show was narrow, and I couldn't bear to miss this once-a-year magic.

Like I said, a passionate groupie. 

On a Monday (albeit a minor holiday), the parking lot at the Lake Ingalls trailhead was full and overflowing. We started up the well-maintained trail at the end of the North Fork Teanaway Road (FR Road 9737) and soon encountered the dusting of snow that fell overnight.

Surrounded by rugged peaks laced with fresh snow here in the Teanaway region, the views all along the steady but not-too-steep trail are splendid.

A couple miles along, we passed a junction for Longs Pass and emerged above the forest.  Even with freezing temps up at Ingalls Pass, I was warm enough to ditch my jacket and hike in just a T-shirt and long-sleeved shirt while slogging upward on the south-facing slope.

Nearing the top, I spied a few stray golden larches, but when I arrived at Ingalls Pass (just a tad under 6,500 feet in elevation and about 3 miles from the trailhead), I turned a corner to a magnificent panorama.  Golden larches were sprinkled all over the slope and down into Headlight Basin below, a fresh coat of snow added contrast, and jagged Mt. Stuart towered overhead, mist shrouding its summit.

An awesome sight indeed.

Cresting Ingalls Pass

Mt. Stuart
Ingalls Peak

Here at the pass, over a dozen hikers gathered, taking photos and gaping at the view. It felt like a party we all earned through stamina and sweat. Everybody was exhilarated. Well, almost everybody...

While many trudged onward to Lake Ingalls and even more amazing views, on this day Ingalls Pass was enough for my hiking buddy, so I obliged.  We got a late start, anyway.

So we ate lunch and stayed at the pass for a while, taking pictures and reveling in the sun, snow, and general gorgeousness all around.

Zoom shot of Mt. Stuart summit.
More Headlight Basin
In the waning autumn afternoon light we scrambled down in about half the time we took going up. At one muddy spot on the upper trail just below the pass, I slipped and suddenly ended up splayed flat on my back on a rock. Thank goodness for my day pack full of extra clothing that cushioned me from injury. Be careful on the slick trail!

As we were driving back down the Teanaway River Valley (after about 10 miles of very rough, washboard dirt road), I would have liked to stop every few hundred yards  to shoot the glorious fall colors along the Teanaway River. Next trip with an earlier start.

So golden larches bagged for this year, but I hope to see more this coming weekend, weather probably not permitting. I'd love to hear of your golden larch hikes/stories in the comments 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.  

When You Go
From Seattle, it's about a 2.5-hour, 140-mile drive to the trailhead. A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park. Be forewarned that this late in the season, snow and possible slides/rockfall from fall rains could obstruct the road/trail as the days slide into winter. While the 6-mile round trip, 2,500-foot elevation gain hike to Ingalls Pass isn't difficult, some might feel the elevation like my hiking buddy did. The trailhead is at about 4,000 feet elevation. 

And another blogger says "I wouldn’t bother hiking to Ingalls Pass unless you’re going beyond to Ingalls Lake.  The view isn’t very good compared to Longs Pass." Wow!  Do you agree if you've been?


Monday, October 3, 2016

Hood River Valley Weekend: Down on the Farm

Every year, for five summers now, we return to the farm.

Perched way up Hood River Valley in Parkdale, Oregon, beneath towering, glacier-encrusted volcano Mt. Hood, Draper Girls Country Farm is the pilgrimage destination for high school friends long past high school. We call ourselves the Great Eight.

To the farm employees, we're the "funny ladies," says friendly owner Theresa Draper. We have fun. I'll leave it at that.

But the point is, the Draper Girls farmhouse, surrounded by orchards, riots of seasonal flowers, goats crying like humans, a busy farmstand, and of course The Mountain, provides a homey, comfortable spot to relax into a country pace and reconnect.

Five years ago I posted about Draper Girls and our weekend there, but with so many repeat trips, I treasure going there more with each passing year. It feels like coming home.

Friday afternoon we all arrive from destinations near-ish (Portland), far (Seattle), farther (the Bay Area) and farthest (the other Portland, in Maine). After settling in, the last few years we've chowed down a fabulous barbeque dinner from Parkdale's homegrown Apple Valley Barbeque.

Sometimes we venture down to Hood River for meals, like Sunday brunch at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel or fancy dinner at Celilo. But really, it's so pleasant up at the farm, this year we just take turns cooking meals in the well-stocked farmhouse kitchen.

Chicken Marbella
Then we settle in and talk, like eight women who've known each other since childhood and haven't seen each other in over a year can talk: with gusto.

Some of us (me for sure) get restless inside too long, and long country walks are in order each day.  This year it's verging on autumn with the apple and pear harvest well along.  

And unlike years past, there's some rain involved. But we're all western Oregon raised, so what's a little (or a lot) of rain?  All that moisture is good for the skin.

Rain on the hills beyond.

Back on the farm, the goats crack us up with their human-like cries, and the fall flowers are at their brilliant peak. It's all so unpretentious and charming.

With dear friends, a comfortable farmhouse to gather, fresh fall fruit right off the nearby trees, and much more, it's another memorable, wonderful weekend on the farm. 

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
This year's autumn harvest is still in full swing, so think about a trip along the Hood River Valley Fruit Loop for cider tastings, heirloom apple celebrations, and other fall harvest events throughout October and into early November. Hint:  At Draper Girls Farm, their packages of dried apples dusted with cinnamon sugar are addictive. I never leave with just one. The rental farmhouse/cottage sleeps eight comfortably, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms and room for a few more in the living room.

Here's a link to a map of the Fruit Loop and the farm locations.