Mount Olympus

  • Date: May 25-27, 2019
  • Start: Hoh Visitor Center
  • Distance: 44 miles
  • Duration: 3 days
  • Elevation gain: 7,400 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Resources: The Mountaineers

Slivers of dark blue sky beyond the trees gradually gave way to a visible, mountainous horizon as we emerged onto the open meadow below the glacial moraine. The confinements of lowland and subalpine scenery–nearly 18 miles and endless hours of it–were now behind us. The half moon glowed above, bordered by pink, wispy clouds, and the sky grew lighter with every upward step we took. I knew what was located beyond the moraine. I’d seen the photos on various trip reports while researching the route. But as we stepped onto it, no longer obscured by forest and fog, I was once again reminded that no photo can ever do justice to experiencing a place like this in person.ย 

Before 2019, Mack and I had only ever experienced the Olympics once: backpacking *most of* the Hoh River Trail in early spring in 2016. It was probably one of the most miserable backpacking experiences because of the heavy rain. By the last night we were literally sleeping in a puddle in our tent, unable to get all the water out. We saw zero mountains on that trip and, even when summers rolled around, never felt quite motivated enough to make it back out. Regardless, Olympus remained high on our list of mountains we wanted to experience. Fast forward to April 2019 on a casual crag climbing trip with friends. Naturally, upcoming mountain goals is a hot topic of conversation. Stacia and Jon are pushing for Olympus the following month. Would we like to join?ย 

Day 1: Hoh Visitor Center to Glacier Meadows (17.5 miles; 12 hours 5 minutes, breaks included)

Mountaineering boots…trail runners…mountaineering boots…trail runners? The question raced through my mind as we stood in the parking lot waiting for Stacia and Jon to get the last of their gear packed. Three days in mountaineering boots and no back-up shoes to avoid strapping the boots to my pack, while everyone else in our group was doing just the opposite. “Meh,” I thought, “I can handle it.”

We all groaned beneath the weight of our packs as we started our long walk to base camp. I realized how soft “ultraneering” had made me. I was complaining about a 27 lb pack, and everyone was carrying well over that amount! We all moved pretty conservatively as we adjusted to the unfamiliar load, but it gave us a chance to enjoy our surroundings. Moss dripping from spruce and hemlock trees, lush ferns lining the narrow singletrack, the sound of flowing water always within earshot. Memories of our very first trip came rushing back to me as we sauntered beneath an endless canopy.

Despite our relaxed pace, the nine miles to the Olympus Guard Station passed quickly. We enjoyed lunch on the covered porch, happy to be eating off some of the weight in our packs (although no amount that Jon ate was going to alleviate the weight of the giant bag of chicken he’d packed in for his and Stacia’s dinner). A number of groups with ice axes, helmets, and pickets strapped to their packs walked by as we ate. Olympus was going to be crowded this weekend…

Mack takes fantastic iPhone photos sometimes
A smiling Stacia with her camera in hand
Me, Jon, and Mack (PC: Stacia)
Olympus Guard Station

Rain started to fall shortly after we passed Lewis Meadows. It began as light drizzle, but soon we found ourselves pulling out rain jackets and throwing on bulky pack covers. Moments later, we sat huddled in a dry spot beneath some trees, laughing and joking about the current conditions (expected though they were) but also hoping that we weren’t hiking all this way to get weathered out the following day. More folks–all loaded down with mountaineering gear, including a couple of crazies carrying skis!–passed us while we waited for a clear window. Another worry all crossed our minds: would we be able to find a campsite?

Following campsite 12.4, we began the five-mile ascent to Glacier Meadows. The forest became progressively moodier the higher we climbed. Fog and mist shrouded the tops of the trees but did not detract from their vibrancy. On the contrary, our surroundings were even more illuminated and, though a bit more anxious to reach camp, we stopped to soak it all in. At mile 15 or so, we arrived at Martin Creek, the furthest Mack and I had hiked before turning around due to snow conditions back in 2016. This time we crossed it–with shoes on instead of off!–and continued on. We were finally going to complete the Hoh River Trail!

Just before Elk Lake, another climber caught up to us and I noticed he was sporting a PMR (Portland Mountain Rescue) shirt. I looked up, hoping it was someone I knew so I wasn’t just staring awkwardly at some random person’s face. I was certain I recognized him (and fairly sure we were at least Facebook acquaintances), but just in case I blurted out, “Hey, don’t I know you?” Thankfully, I did. It was Matt, a climber who I’d run into a handful of times on the summit of Mount Hood! Unsurprisingly, he was also hiking in to Glacier Meadows to attempt Olympus the next morning. It was a funny and somewhat surreal experience seeing a familiar face all the way out here, but it also made me feel just a tad closer to the mountaineering community in the PNW.

These two are the cutest ๐Ÿ™‚
Starting the uphill section of Hoh River Trail
Typical moody PNW forest

We took one last longer break at Elk Lake before the final uphill push to camp. The clouds were starting to part a little bit and at long last we got a few brief glimpses of Olympus from the lake! Views improved the higher we climbed. While traversing a particularly steep slope, we could see Glacier Creek flowing thousands of feet below us, as well as look across at both Mount Olympus and Mount Tom standing guard over the entire valley. For some strange, illogical reason, I’d never thought much of the Olympic mountains, and I can’t exactly pinpoint the origin of my lack of appreciation. But now, the only words that came to mind as I stood there awestruck? What. Have. I. Been. Missing.

Looking down on Elk Lake
Mountains!!!

Sunset was close now and we were all very much ready to make camp. Once we reached the rickety ladder leading down a steep, scree-filled ravine, we knew we were getting close. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, we had to move one at a time down the ladder, which made covering this extremely short distance a tedious ordeal (but what a cool photo op!). After scrambling up to the trail on the other side, we arrived at Glacier Meadows within minutes, but it appeared finding a campsite was possibly going to be an issue. Fortunately, a friendly camper who saw us searching (and probably exuding a little bit of desperation in the process) provided some beta that led us to a campsite right off the main trail to Blue Glacier!

We dropped our burdensome packs and immediately set up. Mack was pretty adamant about getting to bed as soon as possible since we had an early, alpine start alarm set for the next morning. (As I’ve probably mentioned in many a post, he does not function well on low sleep) Following some brief excitement from a bear walking by our camp,–we only saw one, but apparently there were two or three more nearby!–we quickly moved through our in-camp routine and were soon tucked into our sleeping bags. Stacia and Jon remained outside, enjoying a meal of chicken, mashed potatoes, and, if I remember correctly, asparagus. The delicious aroma wafted through our tent wall and my stomach growled. They ended up cooking too much and I lucked out with some leftover potatoes and asparagus (thank you, Stacia!) a few minutes later. I went to bed with a happy (albeit a little gassy) stomach, both nervous and ecstatic about what the next morning would bring.

The dreaded ladder down climb
Black bear near our campsite (PC: Stacia)

Day 2: Glacier Meadows to Mount Olympus summit, then back to Glacier Meadows (9 miles; 14 hours 10 minutes, breaks included)

Our movement was slow going (more from sleepiness than pack weight this time) as we stumbled in the dark getting everything together for the long day ahead. Stacia and I were fairly awake and alert–maybe even a little bubbly with excitement–by the time we were ready to start hiking up. Jon and Mack would get there in the next hour or so. First light was upon us as we hiked to the top of the moraine overlooking the Blue Glacier. Here we were surrounded by rugged, snow capped peaks (a sight that immediately made me think of the North Cascades), looking out onto a sprawling sea of snow, ice, and rock, when less than 24 hours prior we’d been hiking through a rainforest!ย 

We sat for a few minutes at the top to watch the sunrise then began the careful, one-at-a-time descent to the glacier. With how loose the rock was combined with the grade of the slope, it was nearly impossible to not kick some rock down (always unintentional of course). The one and only time I ended up running over the course of our trip was when I had rocks–a few that could’ve caused some serious injury–barreling down toward me while navigating the final part of the descent. Despite the dangers of glacier travel, I was relieved to step onto one and be done with all the choss for a little while.

Traversing the moraine
Blue Glacier
Jon descending to the glacier

Although still in the shadows, we watched as sunlight gradually washed over Olympus’ three peaks as we roped up for the remainder of the climb. By this time, we could see other groups traversing the top of the moraine. There were already a few groups crossing the glacier and/or heading up to Snow Dome as well. It was time to get going if we didn’t want to get caught in rush hour traffic at the summit block. 

Navigating across the glacier went smoothly. We followed the boot track put down by the groups ahead of us. There were a few visible cracks, but overall the glacier was still well covered. The terrain steepened once we started the ascent to Snow Dome and I was grateful for the steps that had already been kicked in as it allowed me to conserve my energy. We took short breaks whenever we reached brief plateaus, taking swigs of water now that the sun was starting to beat down on us. We were high enough now that we could see beyond Matthias and Mercury to the southern peaks of the Bailey Range (the traverse of which is officially on my bucket list after this trip) and follow its curved shape to a slew of peaks to the north as well! 

Stacia and Jon crossing the glacier
Climbing up to Snow Dome
Mount Matthias and Mount Mercury (I think…)

After one final steep slope, we enjoyed a more gradual ascent (so gradual that it almost looks flat in the photo below) to the base of yet another steep snow section. At least from here we could finally see our objective: the West Peak of Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, we could also see the conga line of climbers all making their way up. As we got closer, we could make out a number of climbers hanging out at the saddle below the summit block, waiting in line at the base of the summit block, or crawling up various faces of the summit block. It was a shit show and none of us liked the look of it. My heart sank as I seriously began to consider that the summit might not be in the cards for us. We all decided it would be best to set our packs down and take a longer break rather than climb up to the saddle where it was bound to be colder and blustery.

The minutes dragged on as we watched (minus Mack who opted for a glacier nap) and waited, hoping to see groups beginning their descent. Nothing happened. The summit block was still crawling with climbers even after a half hour to an hour of sitting around. We decided to get moving. Afterall, we still had to climb up Fourth of July route, gaining at least another 1,000 feet to reach the saddle between the summit block and the false summit.

We followed the boot track, taking our time since we knew weโ€™d have to wait our turn once we topped out. Being early enough in the season, snowbridges were still intact and we were able to get up close and personal with the bergschrund, peering into the gaping, cavernous crack that usually prevents this route from being feasible. One last steep snow pitch above the ‘schrund brought us to the saddle and the continuation of the waiting game. A three-person group descended from the false summit (probably having done the Crystal Pass route) and Stacia, who was acquainted with at least two of the members, approached them about setting up one rope for the summit block so we could work together rather than wait for each other. They agreed, and as soon as the remaining teams were completely off the summit blockโ€”another half hour to an hour wait…ughโ€”we climbed up more steep snow to the base of the rock.

Clear view of the west peak now!
Glacier naps
Heading up
Me, Mack, and Stacia (PC: Jon)
Me and Mack near one of the crevasses (PC: Stacia)
Mack and the bergschrund

Jon led the rock pitch to the summit. I can’t quite recall if his route stayed more on the northern aspect (rated about 5.4) or the eastern aspect (mostly class 4 with some 5th class moves), but either way it was nice to have it protected, especially with ice and snow still obscuring some portions of the rock. Stacia followed and cleaned, then belayed the rest of us up one at a time. Waiting was a little bit harder in this spot now that we were socked in and completely exposed to the ferocity of the wind. I was grateful when it was my turn to climb because I was able to warm up as I scrambled up the rock. Aside from the snow patches and my clunky mountaineering boots, the scramble wasn’t too bad, and the wind was far less vicious the higher I got! At the belay station, I made one more 5th class (maybe 4th class?) step to the narrow spine of the summit ridge and carefully navigated the snow and loose rock to join Mack at the summit.

The clouds broke sporadically, but only for fleeting seconds at a time. Never long enough to truly capture what Stacia believed to be one of the best views in Washington (this was her third Olympus summit). Nonetheless, we were all incredibly stoked to have made it safely and completely free of the crowds! No more anxiety and questioning whether or not we would reach the summit. The long morning of slogging and waiting around had finally paid off. After a whole bunch of picture taking–yes, even with the lack of views–we rappelled back down. Of course, as soon as the last person reached the base and was pulling the rope through, the clouds parted almost completely and the summit was clear. *sigh*

Jon leading the rock pitch
Mack on belay
Stacia and Jon belaying me up
Third straight year of a Memorial Day weekend summit! (First year: Shasta; second year: Hood via Cooper Spur)
Mostly socked in at the summit
Me and Stacia (PC: Jon)
Me rappelling off the summit

It’s amazing how immediately exhausted and beat you feel after reaching the summit of something. Like, your mind and body seem to become superhuman on the way up, then, as soon as that push to the summit is all over, all that energy and willpower is drained within minutes (seconds even!). Thankfully, after getting past the bergschrund, the way back was mostly easy, mindless plunge stepping. The scramble up the moraine was a little annoying and tedious, but after that it was downhill on “trail” to our camp. 

It was already late afternoon/early evening by the time we dropped our packs and flung off our boots and socks. Without camp shoes–I really should’ve at least packed flip flops–I walked around barefoot to air out my feet and spent the better part of my relaxation time peeling sap off. Similar to the previous evening, Mack and I crawled into our tent pretty early while Stacia and Jon hung out and enjoyed another hot dinner. We set our alarms and tried not to think about the next day’s long walk back to the car.

Back at the saddle below the summit block
Descending from Snow Dome
Camp at last

Day 3: Glacier Meadows to Hoh Visitor Center (17.5 miles; 8 hours 53 minutes, breaks included)

Nothing particularly special to describe about the hike out. We spent the morning and early afternoon leapfrogging with all the other exhausted,ย  cranky climbers dragging ass back to the comfort of their cars. And once we reached Olympus Guard Station with nine miles left, I experienced a whole tidal wave of regret about not having trail runners. My feet were in a world of pain and I could no longer keep up with anyone in my group (unless we were hiking uphill). With every footfall, I rhythmically muttered “F*** me, f*** me, f*** me, f*** me.” To add insult to injury, it was sunny, hot, and stuffy, and my dumb ass had only packed running tights and a long sleeve shirt to wear for the hike in and out. Not sure which decision was more stupid: the mountaineering boots or my cold-weather running ensemble. Mmmm…actually the boots. The boots were definitely the worst idea.

Having Stacia and Jon as company–even though I could barely keep up with them those last nine miles–definitely kept us from going completely crazy, and we all worked together to keep the morale up (an exceptionally difficult task at times when all of you are completely out of snacks). Before we knew it though, we were squeezing our way through the Disneyland hoardes of dayhikers and pit-stop tourists crowding the trailhead. We paused at Stacia and Jon’s car to say our goodbye’s, thanking them profusely again for allowing us to join them and for helping us summit a mountain that had been on our “must climb” list for years. I’m not sure we would’ve managed it all without their expertise and determination to make it happen.ย 

Mack started the drive home so I could air out my atrocious looking, god-awful smelling feet. As I lay slumped in the passenger seat, feet up on the dash (sorry Mack) while cool air from the open window whipped through my pruney toes, I scrolled through the many photos I’d taken the previous day. One of our biggest mountain goals of the year was complete and already I wanted to be back up high, back in one of those photos, gazing out at these mountains I hardly knew but desperately wanted to see more of. Olympics, I think this goes without saying, but we’re just getting started.

Me in my stupid outfit rushing to get out of the sun

Artist Point

  • Date: December 31, 2017 – January 1, 2018
  • Location: North Cascades
  • Start: Heather Meadows at Mt. Baker Ski Area
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: Snowshoe Routes: Washingtonย by Dan A. Nelson; Washington Trails Association

The full moon shone brightly, illuminating a vast, snowy landscape crisscrossed with all the paths we’d taken that afternoon. I recalled the warmth of the sun from earlier in the day as I vigorously wiggled my fingers and toes within their gloves and boots, attempting the impossible task of staying warm with temps hovering around 10 to 12 degrees. Here we [Mack, Cassie, and I] were on New Year’s Eve freezing our asses off on a snow camping trip, just like the previous year. This time, however, we weren’t alone. Sitting out in the snow just a few yards from our tent, we were surrounded by strangers whose faces I only knew from their Instagram profiles. Before our trip began, I wasn’t entirely sure how camping with a new group of people would pan out, especially given my history of social anxiety. It turned out to be the best NYE decision we’ve ever made.

Our best family portrait ever captured by Stacia

 

Day 1: Heather Meadows to Artist Point, with side trip to Huntoon Point (3 miles)

The sun was high in the sky by the time we arrived at Mount Baker Ski Area. Bluebird weather meant everyone was out enjoying the superb snow conditions. What better way to spend the last day of 2017? Thankfully, a majority of our group (us included) had caravanned up from Marysville together and managed to get parking next to each other. Phew! At least one of my social anxiety-related fears—finding people I’ve never met in a crowded area–wasn’t going to be an issue. We hit the trail shortly after noon. After sitting in a car for nearly six hours, we were happy to finally be outside breathing in the mountain air. Cassie, who harbors an extreme aversion to being in a moving car, was especially ecstatic to be out and romping in the snow.

The snowpack in the Mount Hood area left much to be desired when we were there a few days earlier. The short trek up to Artist Point more than made up for it. For the first time in a long time we were getting legitimate use out of our snowshoes, too! I hung back, completely enthralled with our surroundings, trying to capture it all on camera. I found myself clumsily waddling to catch up with everyone more than a few times. Despite a couple of hills here and there, the hike up to the ridge was rather mellow. The incredible views along the way (in addition to those from the ridge itself) amounted to a seemingly disproportionate payoff. Even with heavier-than-usual packs, the reward far exceeded the amount of effort needed to reach it. It also meant we still had a few hours to make camp and roam about before sunset.

Austin Pass Visitor Center below Table Mountain

Another of Austin Pass Visitor Center

About half of our group

Typical snow-eating Cassie with Kulshan Ridge in the background

Mount Shuksan!

“Why are you humans so damn slow?”

As soon as we topped out, I was immediately overwhelmed. Southwest of us stood Mount Baker, her slopes glinting beneath the afternoon sun. Just east of us stood the rugged and mighty Mount Shuksan, whose sharp, jagged towers rose high above her long, outstretched arm. God it felt good to be back in the North Cascades. All I wanted to do was drop my pack and begin exploring the expansive Kulshan Ridge, but our first order of business was getting our camp set up. Another couple in the group had made it up earlier in the day and already set up their tent. We all followed suit and situated ourselves in a sort of line, forming a little city along the northeastern side of the ridge.

More “familiar” (i.e. I recognize them from social media) faces began to arrive, including Meghan, the organizer of this NYE snow camping bash, and Rose and Anastasia, the Musical Mountaineers. I’m a little embarrassed to say this because I know I’ll sound like a fangirl, but I was ridiculously excited to be in the presence of basically everyone in our group. Before this event, I already followed many of them on Instagram, consistently drawn to their ability to inspire adventure and foster a love for the outdoors through captivating writing and/or photography. Getting to meet them in person and find that they were all truly wonderful human beings was the cherry on top of the entire experience.

Good afternoon, Baker!

Yeah…we had a big group

Another view of our row of tents

Crowd gathering to hear the Musical Mountaineers!

Rose (keyboard) and Anastasia (violin), the Musical Mountaineers

The afternoon passed far too quickly it seemed. Following Rose and Anastasia’s absolutely magical performance (which I was so happy to have the opportunity to hear in person), the sun began to dip behind Baker. The formerly glistening white landscape took on a blue-ish hue with the receding light. We hustled to the Mount Shuksan viewpoint where Amanda, Stacia, John, Jon, Alissa, and Justin were also capturing the final moments of daylight. A few of us made the additional short side trip up Huntoon Point to watch the sun set behind Baker. The warmth of the sun had now officially left us, but the glow of the full moon beyond Shuksan, as well as the opportunity to continue conversations with new friends, kept us from returning to camp (and warmer layers) for a little while longer.

Photo by John

Photo by (other) Jon

One more Shuksan shot (by Stacia)

The gentle purple and blue of twilight gave way to complete darkness by the time we returned to camp. Everybody sat gathered in the snow, cooking dinner and keeping warm with stoves. We coaxed Cassie out of the tent–she’d been napping in there ever since we’d set it up–and joined the dinner circle. Continuous conversation has never been my forte in large group settings, so I listened, laughed, drank, chimed in occasionally, and enjoyed the unexpected sense of community. I hardly knew any of these people and yet I felt safe and comfortable; I felt a sense of belonging. There were still several hours left until midnight. I knew we weren’t going to make it, especially with the early start we’d had that morning and the long drive back we’d have the following day. Mack, exhausted and a little drunk from all the beer John lugged up to camp, turned in first with Cassie. I hung out for awhile longer until I couldn’t feel my toes then succumbed to the warmth of my sleeping bag.

As I lay inside the tent, unable to actually fall asleep despite being tired, I heard the rest of the group hunker down in their tents shortly thereafter. I tossed and turned for awhile, finding it difficult to fully relax because I had to pee so bad, but unwilling to leave the warmth of my bag and tent. It was 11:50 pm when I finally gave in, threw on my boots, and stepped outside into the cold. The ridge was empty, save for a couple of backcountry skiers; a stark contrast to the bustling crowds of the afternoon. The moon gave off so much light that I didn’t even need a headlamp to walk around. I wandered about for a short while. The only sounds that filled the quiet night came from a few nearby campers shouting “Happy New Year!” and the whoomph from my boots plunging into the snow with each step. A smiled to myself, realizing I’d actually made it to midnight (the first time in years I think). I allowed myself a bit more time to absorb the first few moments of the new year in solitude before returning to the tent. I whispered “Happy New Year” to Mack and Cassie, kissed them softly, then tucked myself back into my sleeping bag. It’s amazing how quickly you warm up (and fall asleep!) when you’re not holding in your pee.

Dinner in the dark

Cassie and Meghan

Such a bright and clear night!

Midnight wanderings

Midnight wanderings continued

 

Day 2: Artist Point to Heather Meadows, with side trip to Huntoon Point (3 miles)

Despite a somewhat restless night, the promise of a breathtaking sunrise got me out of the tent pretty quickly. Mack, Cassie, and I joined Stacia and Jon for another trek up to Huntoon Point. Cassie bounded joyously through the snow and up the boot path. She was well rested now and ready to run and play again. As we walked, I kept my eyes on the melding of colors taking place in the sky and their interaction with the mountainous landscape. The soft pastels of dawn perfectly complemented the wavy, quilted texture of the clouds. Shuksan was still a dark silhouette, but Baker glowed a rosy pink with the first light of day. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more beautiful “first-light-of-day-mountain-glow” than the one from that morning. From Huntoon Point, we could see the sun beginning to rise behind Shuksan and made our way back down to the spot we’d taken pictures at the previous evening. Capturing those first rays of light as our little group stood before it was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip; a perfect and glorious start to the year.

Morning snuggles

Chasing the sunrise

Morning light on Baker

Shuksan sunrise

Finally warming up

Back at camp, champagne bottles were popped in celebration and Meghan was busy whipping up a New Year’s Day feast of turkey bacon and pancakes. I don’t remember what Mack and I ended up making for ourselves (if we made anything at all), but I do remember partaking in the pancakes and sharing both the pancakes and bacon with Cassie, who shot us puppy dog eyes whenever the servings were passed around. The North Cascades had blessed us with yet another perfect weather day. More and more people seeking sunshine and deep snow were making their way up by this point. The solitude of my midnight wandering just a few hours earlier felt like a distant memory, but in its place was a scene filled with families, friends, smiles, laughter, and warm and welcoming exclamations of “Happy New Year!” One by one people our group began to disassemble to pack up camp or begin a new adventure for the day. Our celebration together was coming to an end. Thankfully, in the midst of it all, we did manage to come together for our one and only group shot to mark the occasion.

Breakfast time

Cassie with Stacia and Jon

The crew

2017 was filled with a number of new, outside-the-comfort-zone outdoor experiences for both me and Mack. I’m glad we decided to close out the year and begin the new one with one of those experiences. We’re ready for all the adventures that await us for this new year and, after this trip, look forward sharing a few of them with new friends. I mean, when you meet people who find joy in freezing their asses off outside in the dead of winter, why wouldn’t you hold onto them? Thank you Amanda, Meghan, Matt, Stacia, Jon, Alissa, Justin, John, Allison, and Mitch for your adventurous spirits and welcoming presence. We couldn’t have asked for a more incredible New Year’s.

Saddle Creek-High Trail

  • Date: November 20-21, 2017
  • Location: Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Start: Freezeout Trailhead
  • Distance: 16 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back

The search for a snow-free area to go backpacking in the Pacific Northwest can get a little tough by late November. I had originally wanted to head out to Utah or Arizona for some desert trekking, but the long drive there and back would’ve cut too much into our Thanksgiving vacation time. Searching more locally, the Honeycombs of the Owyhee Canyonlands were a particularly strong contender, but the notorious drive to reach the trailhead (and our lack of car-related emergency skills) eventually convinced us otherwise.

At the last minute (literally a day or two before we left), we decided on Hells Canyon in Eastern Oregon. It had actually been on our list for awhile, but we’d set it aside as a spring season trip. With our lack of options, we decided to give it a shot. In the end, it was a far from perfect trip (as evidenced by the trip’s duration and type, which was originally supposed to be a three to four day loop). However, despite the relatively minor setbacks that ultimately convinced us to turn around, our brief time spent in this rugged and remote section of Oregon only convinced us that we need to come back and fully experience everything it has to offer.

 

Day 1: Freezeout Trailhead to Log Creek (8 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)

After dealing with the stress of last minute trip/route planning and, thereafter, procrastinating on packing, we arrived at Freezeout Trailhead a day later than expected. My little Crosstrek was the only vehicle there that morning. Maybe it was because it was a weekday. Or maybe we were the only people dumb enough to be out there with rain and high winds in the forecast. At least we’d most likely have the place to ourselves!

The rain started as soon as we hit the trail and we got our first taste of what tread conditions were going to be like for almost the entirety of our hike in. The combination of prevalent horse use and heavy rain transformed the trails into a sloppy, shoe-sucking, mucky mess. Mud caked our boots from the get-go. Scraping it off was futile as it just continued to pile up as we hiked. In addition to the muck, sopping piles of horse shit (Cassie’s favorite trail snack unfortunately) covered our path. Thankfully, we had an expansive view of the area as we slogged up the switchbacks to Freezeout Saddle; a welcome distraction from the miserable aspects.

Looking down at all the switchbacks

Mack and Cassie nearing the saddle

According to our guidebook map and the signage at the trailhead, Freezeout Saddle is just over two miles in. However, it took us a whole two hours (with almost no breaks except to check our map) to reach it! I found it difficult to believe that we were actually moving that slow. Regardless, it meant we were losing daylight fast and still had a number of miles to cover in order to reach Saddle Creek camp. At this point, I had serious doubts about making it there or even continuing on. I wanted so badly to make our original 30-ish mile loop happen, but I knew it wasn’t likely. Knowing this fueled my desire to just turn around at the saddle, but Mack remained positive and insisted that we at least stay the night and make the most of our trip. I wasn’t thrilled in the moment, but in retrospect I’m happy he convinced me to push on.

In all honesty, we’ve dealt with worse conditions (I’m looking at you Hoh River Trail!), but for some reason, on this particular trip, I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with even the slightest amount of bullshit. If I’m being more honest, I was still feeling bitter about having to forgo our Utah plans (specifically Zion NP, where I’d seen a few friends sharing recent photos of absolutely impeccable trail and weather conditions) for something closer to home and it was messing with my attitude.

Freezeout Saddle

Looking back at where we came from

The rain had subsided by the time we reached the saddle (and blue skies were even starting to peek out from behind the clouds!), but the wind speed had picked up tremendously. We just couldn’t catch a break! We descended quickly in order to escape the blustery wrath and actually enjoyed semi-decent tread conditions and wind-free hiking for a short while. As we made our way down into the canyon, it felt more like we were journeying deeper and deeper into the heart of a vast mountain range straddling the Oregon-Idaho border. I managed to forget about my worries as I looked around me. Then conditions returned to their previous state just before the junction with the Bench “High” Trail. As if the slop fest wasn’t enough, there were even overgrown sections of tall grass thrown into the mix for an additional challenge.

Starting the descent

At the junction, we decided to turn onto the Bench “High” Trail rather than continue descending to Saddle Creek camp. With sunset less than three hours away, our best bet to avoid trekking in the dark on an unmaintained trail was to aim for Log Creek camp, only two to three miles away now. I knew by doing this we’d probably have to scrap the Snake River portion of our route, but I didn’t care anymore. I still half-wanted to turn around and go back to the car, especially when the wind picked up again and practically knocked us over for long stretches of time due to the exposed terrain. The majestic scenery along the Bench Trail managed to pull me back in though.

To our left, towering above us, was the rim of the canyon on the Oregon side. The Western Rim National Recreation Trail was somewhere up there paralleling our current path. To our right lay the Snake River somewhere far below and the outstretched rolling hills and rocky slopes of the Idaho side. We also happened to be moving in the same direction as a giant herd of elk! Over the course of two hours or so we encountered this large group of 30 to 40 at least four times. Cassie went crazy over them, barking and pulling hard on her leash. They continued ahead when they heard us, moving with grace and ease as a unit over the steep, rocky slopes.

Junction with Bench “High” Trail

We took the path on the left

So many elk!

We reached camp around 2:25 pm. (Side note: For those interested in hiking some of this route and camping here, know that this spot is completely unmarked/unsigned. Bring along a good map and be able to find Log Creek on it. The camping spot is a short ways off the trail on a noticeably impacted site.) It wasn’t raining anymore and we were out of the wind. Maybe our luck was about to change? Nope. Instead of getting to relax and de-stress, we were swarmed by gnats. It was impossible to sit outside and enjoy the nice weather and scenery, even if we moved around. They followed us everywhere! I spent our down time in camp swatting them away from my face and picking them out of Cassie’s hair. The gnat attack made cooking dinner an absolute nightmare of course. We barely managed enough to eat because of it.

The only time the swarm finally subsided was when it started to pour again. We were still finishing dinner when it started up. We scrambled to get our food hung and hauled ass back to the tent. Cassie was so desperate to get in she belly crawled under the rainfly and pawed at the tent. She was covered in mud though so she was forced to hold out a little longer until we could wipe her down. She was not happy about this and literally gave us the cold shoulder for the rest of the night. We attempted to salvage the rest of our evening with cocoa and holiday movies as we listened to the rain patter on the tent.

Looking up at the rim

Campsite near Log Creek (as seen from the trail)

 

Day 2: Log Creek to Freezeout Trailhead (8 miles; 4 hours, breaks included)

We awoke in better spirits the next morning, although I think a good deal of that can be attributed to the fact that we’d already decided to cut our trip short and hike back out. With the decent weather, the gnats were back in full force as we packed up the tent. Despite being extremely hungry (especially after not eating enough the previous day), we skipped the sit-down breakfast and stashed snacks in our pockets so we could get moving instead. I munched on my Poptart as we hiked once we’d put some distance between ourselves and the gnats.

Morning snuggles

We’re totally getting attacked by gnats in this picture

We hiked a lot faster this time around while still taking moments here and there to appreciate our surroundings. The conditions hadn’t improved of course, but by this point we were used to it and had clean socks and shoes to look forward to back at the car. Freezeout Saddle remained in view for much of the Bench Trail part of the hike. Always getting closer, but still feeling faraway. I wasn’t looking forward to the final climb up to it.

Storm a-brewin’ it seems

Still a ways from the saddle (upper right)

Miles and miles of this stuff

As expected, the two mile climb from the junction back up to the saddle was the most difficult part of the day. On top of that, the wind and rain had returned and clouds had descended upon much of the Idaho side (i.e. no more expansive views). The Poptart I’d scarfed down a few miles back had done little to satisfy my aching stomach. We were getting closer now though. I daydreamed about all the food we had stashed in the cooler in the car and it kept me moving.

Starting the climb up from the junction

Last bit of bushwhacking!

Cloudy views from near the top

The weather (with the exception of the wind) seemed to instantly improve once we began to make our way down the opposite side of the saddle. We had views again! Somehow though Mack and I had swapped places in terms of general demeanor. Now he was the one in a cranky mood, anxious to get back and change out of his mud covered pants and boots. (Oddly enough, I managed to stay mostly mud-free with the exception of the bottom and sides of my boots) Fortunately, this final stretch went by quickly and before we knew it we were back at the car by 1:15 pm, throwing on clean, dry clothes, and stuffing our faces with bagels and other snacks.

As we sat there in the car, resting up before the long drive back home, I actually felt a tinge of sadness that we were leaving so early. Despite the crappy weather, awful trail conditions, and swarming gnats, the beauty and solitude we’d experienced over the past two days were what stood out in my mind (even if they didn’t completely outweigh some of the negative aspects). Well, Hells Canyon isnโ€™t going anywhere anytime soon as far as I know. We’ll definitely be back to explore more thoroughly in the near future I imagine.

Salmon River Trail

  • Date: October 31-November 1, 2017
  • Location: Mount Hood National Forest
  • Start: Salmon River West Trailhead
  • Distance: 10.5 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Map: Adventure Maps: Mount Hood Area
  • References: Oregon Hikers

One of the perks of being a music teacher at the academy I work at is the built in vacation time during typical holiday breaks (generally coinciding with the local school district’s schedule). This includes Thanksgiving and Christmas, but in recent years, it has also included Halloween! This year, with Mack no longer working retail (and thereby having more control over his schedule), we were able to plan a Halloween backpacking adventure with Cassie. It was by no means ambitious or difficult (purposefully intended since our final 50K race took place a few days later), but it was the perfect mid-week getaway and a great inaugural trip for what will hopefully become an annual Halloween tradition.

 

Day 1: Salmon River West Trailhead to Goat Creek, with side trip to Frustration Falls viewpoint (5.5 miles; 3 hours 40 minutes, breaks included)

We took advantage of the short mileage day with a later-than-usual start at noon. There were only a couple of cars parked at the trailhead, so we could look forward to some solitude on this generally popular trail. Little to no fellow visitors also meant Cassie could be off-leash! It was a surprisingly beautiful fall day. Sunlight filtered through the dense canopy with an occasional picturesque sunburst. The changing colors of maple and alder trees contrasted beautifully with the vibrant green of the Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar trees, as well as the variety of ferns carpeting the forest floor. The trail remains close to the river for the first couple of miles. With practically no one else on the trail, the only sounds that filled the air were of rushing water, the rustling of leaves when a breeze passed through, and a few chatty birds.

After passing the wilderness boundary and the first two backcountry camp areas, we began the gradual climb up to the highlight of the trail: the Salmon River Gorge viewpoint. The river roars through the canyon a few hundred feet below this open, rocky bluff. The hillsides are completely draped in dense forest, so the river itself is actually difficult to see, but you can still hear it if you listen closely. Following the viewpoint, we continued along a narrow, very exposed (but brief) section of trail etched into a steep slope that led us back into the shade of the forest.

Stretch of trail after the viewpoint

Looking back at the viewpoint area

While planning our route, one of the side trip opportunities that came up during my research of the area was Frustration Falls. From the trip reports I’d read, I knew to keep an eye out for a steep side trail about four miles in. It also helped that I came out to run some of the Salmon River Trail with a friend just two days earlier. Although we didn’t follow it down, we did find the aforementioned side trail. I might’ve missed it on our trip if I hadn’t scouted it out a couple of days earlier! Although the side trail is short (about a quarter of a mile down to the view of the falls), it’s quite steep and slick. I imagine it can be treacherous after heavy rain. We stashed our packs about half way down as the incline steepened. Despite the tediousness of it all, the stunning three-tiered Frustration Falls was definitely worth the effort.

Frustration Falls

Back on the main trail, we were just a mile or so away from our campsite. It was a slow mile though. The fall colors were irresistible and I found myself pulling out my camera every couple of minutes. Before we knew it Goat Creek was right below us and we could look across the way and see the nearby campsites. Not a single tent was in sight. Our decision to do a mid-week overnighter was certainly paying off!

Goat Creek

It was already late afternoon and about to become early evening by the time we set up camp. We went about enjoying some hot drinks first. Mack packed in a small Nalgene containing butterscotch schnapps to add to our hot cider. The combination literally tastes like caramel apples and is probably my new favorite hot drink (although it might get bumped once I try hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps this winter). To celebrate Halloween, we also packed in frosted pumpkin shortbread cookies and a giant bag of mixed sour candies (Mack’s preferred treat). Cassie chose to hang out inside the new tent (that’s right! no more busted zippers and patched up holes!) and curl up on my sleeping bag. Not even the smell of our delicious Halloween treats could lure her out.

Hogging my sleeping bag even though her personal dog bed is right behind her

It started to get dark quickly, so we attached and staked down the rainfly, cooked up a batch of instant mashed potatoes (and one more round of spiked cider), finished up our treats, then crawled into our sleeping bags. Our new Big Agnes tent has sewn-in lights, so we tested them out. So much better than using our headlamps or flashlights! Hopefully this tent lasts us awhile because so far we love it! We capped off our Halloween themed trip with a “scary” movie. I say “scary” because I’m not sure Donnie Darko really fits this description, but neither of us was really in the mood for some slasher flick or even a supernatural one while we were alone in the woods. Maybe Hocus Pocus will be a more fun choice next year.

Pumpkin shortbread cookies!

Watching Donnie Darko beneath the tent lights

 

Day 2: Goat Creek to Salmon River West Trailhead (5 miles; 2 hours 20 minutes, breaks included)

It was strange waking up and knowing that we’d be going back to work later that afternoon. However, it was also a good incentive to actually get up and get moving quickly. We were packed up and on the trail by 8 am. The sky was still overcast, which made the fall colors along the trail pop even more. It also made the Salmon River Gorge viewpoint far more clear, richer in color, and photogenic now that the heavy sunlight wasn’t blinding me and washing out the image. I was so happy to pass through this section again and see it all in the (far superior) early morning light with the sun barely starting to creep through the clouds.

Trail leading to the viewpoint

Looking out on the Salmon River Gorge

After the mini-photoshoot at the viewpoint, we pressed on to make sure we would make it back to the car before 11 am. Now that we were going downhill our pace was effortlessly faster though. I even managed to find opportunities to take a few more photos (especially now that everything was less washed out by the sun) without adversely affecting our estimated arrival time. We made it back to the car at 10:20 am and even had time to spare at home before either of us went in to teach that afternoon. Despite being a little reluctant to go back to work for a couple more days, our first ever mid-week overnight adventure was just what I needed to get me through the rest of the work week. Hopefully there will be more opportunities to do something like this. At least we’ll be able to count on it for next Halloween!

Playing in the leaves

Salmon River

 

Copper Ridge-Chilliwack River Loop

  • Date: August 22-26, 2017
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Start: Hannegan Pass Trailhead
  • Distance: 49.8 miles
  • Duration: 5 days
  • Type: Loop (with out-and-back section)
  • Map: Nat Geo Trails Illustrated: North Cascades National Park
  • References: Backpacking Washington by Douglas Lorain; Washington Trails Association

It seems that most all of our biggest and/or longest adventures this summer have taken place in Washington (Glacier Peak, Leave No Trace Master Educator Course in the San Juan Islands, Mount Rainier, and Backcountry Rise preview run). As if all that wasn’t enough, I planned our final vacation of the summer to be a five day backpacking trip in the North Cascades, a place I’d been dying to explore since looking out over the expansive mountain range from the summit of Baker the previous summer. Simply put, it did not disappoint. Five days hiking stunning ridge lines and meadows, visiting alpine lakes, climbing up and down over mountain passes, bush whacking through a river valley, and experiencing a few “firsts” (keep reading!) was the perfect way to close out the most incredible summer we’ve ever had.

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Mineral Mountain as seen from Copper Ridge

 

Day 1: Hannegan Pass Trailhead to Egg Lake, with side trip up Hannegan Peak (10.6 miles; 6 hours 45 minutes, breaks included)

By the time we started our hike, we’d run 30+ miles (Backcountry Rise run two days prior), spent three nights sleeping in the car, and hadn’t showered in two full days. We probably already smelled like we’d been in the backcountry for a couple of days. At least we were wearing different clothes now. Since we’d decided to spend the previous night sleeping at the trailhead after picking up our permits in Glacier, we had kind of a lazy start and didn’t hit the trail until 10 am. The forecast called for cool temps, but the lack of shade and unrelenting sunshine made it feel much warmer.

The climb up to Hannegan Pass (with the exception of the final half mile or so) was moderate even with our heavy packs. A cakewalk compared to our hike in for Glacier Peak! Below us flowed Ruth Creek. Nooksack Ridge and Mount Sefrit towered above it while Ruth Mountain dominated the views to the southwest. We hadn’t even reached the most scenic portions of the route and already we were blown away by the immense beauty of the area. It was 12:15 pm when we reached the pass. We dropped our packs and, after some deliberation due to our later than anticipated start, decided to do the two mile (round-trip) detour up to the summit of Hannegan Peak. We unpacked our handheld water bottles, I grabbed my camera, and we headed up the trail, keeping our fingers crossed that nobody robbed us while we left our packs unattended.

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Hannegan Pass Trail with Ruth Mountain in the distance and Ruth Creek flowing below

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Looking back towards the trailhead

We were flying up the trail without our packs weighing us down, passing through wildflower meadows and grassy slopes as the trail switchbacked higher and higher. Mountain views continued to improve as we rose above the trees. The grade steepened and the terrain became a little more technical, but by this point we were nearing the summit.

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Hiking up the side trail

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There were only two other people hanging out on the summit when we arrived. They were using a map to identify the numerous surrounding peaks, ranges, ridges, and valleys. I knew there was something I’d forgotten to bring up with us! We circled the summit area, soaking in the mountain views from every angle. I made mental notes of the peaks that caught my eye so I could try to identify them once I had my map handy. I still couldn’t believe we were only a couple of hours into our trip. After a decent amount of time, hunger pangs reminded us that it was probably time for some lunch. We slowly made our way down the steep, sketchy section then jogged the remaining switchbacks down to the pass.

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Looking west: Mount Sefrit and Nooksack Ridge

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Looking northeast: Copper Ridge below

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Looking north: Granite Mountain (high peak on the left) and the Skagit Range

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Looking south: Nooksack Tower on Mount Shuksan

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Heading back down; summit of Hannegan Peak on the right

Back at the pass there were a few hiking parties taking a break. Everybody appeared to be carrying gear for a multi-day trip. We chatted with a few folks and found out many of them were doing the same loop we were planning. Some were going the same direction (Copper Ridge then Chilliwack Valley, the most popular choice), while others intended to hike it the opposite way. Maybe we’d see some familiar faces in the coming days…

After lunch, we continued another mile to Boundary Camp where we officially entered North Cascades National Park. Just over three miles to go until Egg Lake! However, packed within those three miles was a good deal of climbing to gain the ridge line. Maybe it felt difficult because of the weight of our packs. Maybe it was because we’d run the hardest 30 miles of our lives just two days prior. For whatever reason, this uphill section through the forest was more strenuous than I’d anticipated. Our hard work paid off though once we broke out of the trees and onto the meadow covered Copper Ridge. Not only were we treated to ย fields of alpine wildflowers, but we were surrounded by a plethora of magnificent peaks, stretching as far as the eye could see. My idea of heaven on earth.

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Mineral Mountain (center); Picket Range (left)

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Mack looking tiny on Copper Ridge

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The next mile on this glorious ridge top hike took us to the junction with Egg Lake, a somewhat hidden gem surrounded by trees within a small basin. We made our way down the short, rugged side trail and found a relatively concealed (designated) campsite at the other end of the lake. It was 4:45 pm. The sun was still shining on the basin, so we decided to make the most of it and take a brief (and I mean brief) dip into the lake. It was definitely far from the lukewarm waters of Havasupai! Nonetheless, it felt good to wash away the sweat and dirt of the day, as well as the previous two days for that matter.

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First view of Egg Lake

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Dusk seemed to arrive quickly. We enjoyed the colors of twilight reflected on the lake as we ate our dinner of instant mashed potatoes topped with nutritional yeast, a meal I’ve come to love a little too much both out in the backcountry and at home. The only downside to our entire day (though comical in retrospect) came as we were getting ready to turn in. As I mentioned in my Glacier Peak post, the zippers on our tent have been getting more and more unreliable since getting bombarded with desert sand in Havasupai. On our Glacier Peak trip, the rainfly zipper on Mack’s side finally broke and the only way we could close it was with safety pins. Mack’s mom sewed it up for us when we returned. As we sat in our tent this evening, I noticed Mack fiddling with his tent door. Uh oh. It took him 40 minutes to finally get it to close! We decided that for the remainder of the trip we would only use my door to get in and out. Ugh. It’s really time for a new tent.

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Egg Lake around sunset

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Campsite #1

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Working on the damn zippers

 

Day 2: Egg Lake to Indian Creek (11.8 miles; 8 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)

We awoke to clear, sunny skies. What a relief since earlier forecasts called for clouds and rain! In the last year, Mack and I have made more of an effort to enjoy hot meals in the backcountry. It usually ends up happening for dinner, but not for breakfast. I wanted to change that this trip. Instead of packing up right away, we made oatmeal and topped it with huckleberries that we picked near our campsite. Lovely way to start the day. A far better alternative to the tortillas or protein/energy bars I used to eat instead. Even with the extra time spent making breakfast, we were still hiking by 8:15 am.

The surrounding peaks were absolutely radiant in the early morning sunshine, particularly Mineral Mountain, the mountain I’d been making googly eyes at since yesterday afternoon. “One day,” I told myself. “One day.” It was our last day on Copper Ridge, so I made sure to savor every moment of it. I guess I can see the appeal of hiking the loop in the opposite direction. You get to end with the most beautiful section.

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Breakfast with a view

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Mineral Mountain (my favorite)

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Remember those “firsts” I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Well the first one of the trip happened as we were climbing the switchbacks to Copper Mountain Lookout. The sun was shining directly in our eyes during certain sections. At one point, as we turned up a switchback, the sun was suddenly obscured and we weren’t being blinded. Mack stopped dead in his tracks and said calmly, but firmly, “Bear.” I peered over his shoulder and there it was just a few feet in front of us directly on the trail, its face buried in a huckleberry bush. Had this bear somehow not heard us coming? We’d been making noise (talking loudly, hitting our trekking poles together) every few minutes since we left Egg Lake. Or maybe it just didn’t care/wasn’t scared? My guess is the latter because as we spoke calmly to it and started slowly backing down the trail, it didn’t even look at us. It just kept gorging on berries.

We walked back down to the switchback below, watching the bear above us. Now that we’d put some distance between us, I was actually enjoying the experience. How often do you get to spend ten minutes watching a bear go about its business seemingly unaffected by human presence? Of course, it was still on the trail, so we couldn’t continue on. Suddenly, we heard movement coming from the switchback below us. The trees covered the trail so we couldn’t see who/what it was. Oh god. What if it was another bear and we ended up getting caught between two of them? Fortunately, it was two other hikers who were totally unfazed when we told them there was a bear up ahead. We hiked together past the bear, who was now a few feet off the trail. For the first time since the encounter, it looked up at us with curiosity and I finally got to see its face before we were out of sight from each other. Our first ever encounter may have been a little close for comfort, but it was memorable experience nonetheless. We wouldn’t see another one for the remainder of our trip.

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View of the bear while we stood below it

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View of the bear while we passed

Following our exhilarating bear sighting, the second highlight of the day came when we reached Copper Mountain Lookout, the highest point of the Copper Ridge-Chilliwack River loop. Although we’d only hiked two miles since Egg Lake (and spent a good deal of time trying to navigate around the bear), the incredible mountain views (literally the best of the entire trip) warranted a long break here. Just outside of the lookout was a small lock box containing a summit register, as well as a booklet detailing the native flora in the area and photos of the surrounding peaks labeled with their names! We used the booklet to identify as many of the peaks as we could, including Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, Ruth Mountain, Icy Peak, Mineral Mountain, Whatcom Peak, Bear Mountain, Glacier Peak, Mount Redoubt. I could’ve sat there for hours ooohing and ahhhing, but we still had plenty of miles to hike before we could call it a day.

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Looking out on Copper Ridge

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Views to the southwest

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The lookout

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Just over a mile later, we arrived at Copper Lake. Another long break (this time for lunch) ensued. This would’ve been the perfect opportunity to get in one final alpine lake swim, especially with the sun to warm us after, but we still had over eight miles to cover to get to our next campsite. I stared longingly at the tropical blue waters. It was our final stop on Copper Ridge. Trading mountain views and alpine lakes for forest and river views honestly didn’t sound quite as appealing. At least I could look forward to climbing out of the valley again the following day for our side trip to Whatcom Pass.

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Copper Lake

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Beginning the descent into the Chilliwack River Valley

As we entered the forest to begin the neverending switchbacks down to the river, we were greeted by a large downed tree. It was one of those trees that’s too fat to get your legs over but also too low to the ground to walk or crawl underneath. I don’t remember what we ended up doing but the ordeal meant I was not looking forward to the remainder of this section. A moment later two female hikers came hiking up from the opposite direction, heading toward Copper Ridge. We mentioned the downed tree we’d just dealt with. To our dismay, one of the ladies informed us that we could look forward to at least 30 more before we reached the river.

The minutes dragged on into hours as we hiked down switchback after switchback and walked over (or under) the large number of downed trees. We actually kept track of the number so we knew when we were getting closer to the river! Once at the river, we realized this wasn’t a bridged crossing (not sure how I missed this detail in the trip description). I groaned as I sat down to unlace my boots. I just wanted to be at camp already! Mack crossed first and walked ahead a short ways to scout. There was still another crossing we had to do, so we kept our sandals on. Before we reached the crossing though, Mack stopped and peered into a shallow, slow moving section of water near the trail. “What is that?” A bright orange fish swam in place beneath the surface. A Koi fish in the Chilliwack? “I think it might be salmon,” said Mack. I decided to try out the underwater features on my camera for the first time to get a better look. Sure enough, we’d come across a salmon! After snapping a few photos, we continued to the crossing, thinking that that would be the only one we’d see. To our surprise, there was an entire group of them spawning in the shallow parts of the river! Another incredible “first” to add to our list. The river valley was finally becoming more enjoyable.

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Crossing the Chilliwack

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Sockeye salmon!

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After the excitement of seeing so many salmon, our next thought was “Where are all the bears?” We put our boots back on and hurried along, not wanting to find out the answer to that question. We arrived at camp shortly after and welcomed two other couples who arrived a couple of hours later. As much as I enjoy solitude, I definitely felt a little safer having camp neighbors in bear country. They were fun to talk to as well. When you’re miles and miles away from the nearest trailhead, the only people you tend to run into are the ones who also enjoy hauling their bare necessities around on their backs while walking in the wilderness. Being able to swap tales from the trails with people who don’t think you’re crazy is a beautiful thing. A great conclusion to a long second day.

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Campsite #2

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Day 3: Indian Creek to Whatcom Camp, with side trip to Tapto Lakes (10.1 miles; 8 hours 20 minutes, breaks included)

The weather didn’t look promising when we awoke the next morning. Skies were grey and heavily clouded. The rainfly was soaked from a little rain the night before. Would it be worth making the day long side trip up to Whatcom Pass/Camp? The junction with Brush Creek Trail wasn’t for another 2.7 miles, so we could decide then. We packed up and left at 8 am. After a surprisingly bouncy suspension bridge crossing to start off the morning, the rest of the time was spent bushwhacking through damp, overgrown vegetation, climbing over more downed trees, and clacking our trekking poles whenever we came across bear scat (which was quite often).

Once at the Brush Creek junction, we still hadn’t fully committed to a decision. It wasn’t raining, but the trees blocked our view of the sky. Were those ominous storm clouds still lingering? We agreed to push on to Graybeal Camp, just over two miles into the Brush Creek Trail. If weather started to deteriorate, we could always turn around and hike to U.S. Cabin Camp (which we had listed on our permit since Whatcom Camp, our intended destination, is first come-first serve). The trek to Graybeal was relatively flat. We arrived quickly and stopped for an early lunch. A little bit of sunlight was streaming through the trees, but we still couldn’t see the sky. A few hikers came down the trail while we lunched, so we inquired about the weather. Everyone remarked that it hadn’t been great the afternoon and evening before but that it was starting to clear up when they’d departed from Whatcom Camp. A glimmer of hope! We finished our meal and pressed on.

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Indian Creek

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Crossing the creek on a very wobbly suspension bridge

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Although we were hiking mostly uphill again, the sight of blue skies, as well as Easy Ridge and Easy Peak towering above Brush Creek, put a spring in my step. Huckleberries and wild blueberries had a similar effect on Mack. Despite lingering clouds, the sun was definitely forcing its way through. Thank goodness we’d decided not to back out! We arrived at Whatcom Camp at 1:10 pm. Plenty of time left to explore above the pass. We set up our tent and munched on a few more snacks before getting back on the trail.

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Hiking up Brush Creek Trail

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The hike up to the pass took maybe ten minutes from the campsites. There are several paths you can take once you’re up there. Little Beaver Trail descends southwest from the pass. To the south is a side trail that climbs to the base of Whatcom Glacier, and to the north there’s another less obvious path that takes you up to Tapto Lakes. We took the Tapto Lakes option. It was steep, rugged, and sometimes rocky, requiring careful coordination as we made our way up. Eventually, it opened onto a beautiful wildflower meadow with absolutely stunning views of Whatcom Peak and Challenger Glacier to the south.

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Hiking up to Whatcom Pass from Whatcom Camp

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Little bit of scrambling involved after the pass

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Whatcom Peak and Challenger Glacier

The trail, though not nearly as steep as the section prior to the meadow, continued to climb until we reached an overlook of the Tapto Lakes Basin situated below Red Face Mountain. Although the skies were still blue, the temps were anything but warm and the wind was starting to pick up. Guess we wouldn’t be swimming this time around. Instead we sat down and relaxed on a rocky perch looking out on the lake, enjoying the peace and quiet while filling up on yet more snacks. Once the chill started to get to us, we headed back down to enjoy a warm meal and a House of Cards episode while we curled up in our sleeping bags.

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Tapto Lakes beneath Red Face Mountain

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Stepping stones leading to campsites

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Campsite #3

 

Day 4: Whatcom Camp to Boundary Camp (12.3 miles; 7 hours 10 minutes, breaks included)

Despite knowing this would be our biggest day in terms of mileage, we had a relaxing start and even enjoyed another hot breakfast. It was going to be our last FULL day in the park, so why not make it last? We were still able to start hiking by 8:30 am. The previous day’s clouds had disappeared and we had far clearer views as we descended Brush Creek Trail. Those five or so miles passed quickly. Before we knew it, we had reached the junction with the trail leading up to the cable car.

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Mack ‘the berry glutton’ Robertson

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Unclouded views of Easy Ridge this time around

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Herein lies the final “first” of our trip: pulling ourselves via cable car across a river. I was actually surprised how high above the water it sat! I only thought it would be a few feet, not several yards! Mack and I took turns pulling our little car across. It also required more effort than either of us had anticipated (as indicated by Mack’s facial expression). Nonetheless, it was a fun, exciting experience. Not at all terrifying. In fact, the scariest part of the whole thing was climbing down the sketchy wooden ladder once we reached the elevated platform on the other side.

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Cable car!

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Working hard

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The rest of the morning (and some of the afternoon) was more or less a gradual ascent out of the river valley. So many ups and downs over the past few days! My knees were feeling it even with a lighter pack. We stopped for a couple of short breaks to eat lunch and refill our water bladders. Otherwise we kept moving. The “gradual” turned to “strenuous” following our break at Copper Creek, but at least it was somewhat brief. Our destination was only about two miles away from the creek. Once we left the forest and entered an expansive meadow I knew we’d made it. I remembered the exact spot from the first day of the trip. It was starting to feel like the beginning of the end. The end of a grand adventure and the end of an incredible summer.

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Filling up at Copper Creek

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Game changer for backpacking trips (and long adventure runs!)

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Big ole tadpoles in Copper Creek

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Meadow leading into Boundary Camp

Despite being our highest mileage day, we finished by 3:40 pm, the earliest we’d finished all week. This left plenty of time to laze around, read some of the book I’d brought (my first time opening the entire trip!), and eat as much of our remaining food as possible. We talked about where we would go to get “real” food on the way back home (I’d been craving fish tacos since we started the trip) and looked at photos of Cassie on Mack’s phone. Not being able to take her on many adventures this summer was difficult. Although we were both sad to be leaving the backcountry, we were incredibly excited to see our beloved Cass dog again. I fell asleep to the lovely thought of puppy snuggles in the near future.

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Campsite #4

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The last supper

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Day 5: Boundary Camp to Hannegan Pass Trailhead (5 miles; 2 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)

Knowing how short our hike out would be, I wasn’t very motivated to get up. The alarm on my stop watch went off and I ignored it. I wasn’t craving more sleep. I was just so content wrapped up in my smelly sleeping bag, watching the sunlight start to wash over our dew-covered tent. How could this be the last day already? We dragged ourselves out eventually and started the short journey back at 9 am. I spent most of the hike looking behind me at the magical place I was leaving. The seemingly infinite layers of rugged peaks were no longer visible at this point, but I kept picturing them tucked away beyond the forested slopes.

The sudden influx of day hikers and backpackers about two miles from the trailhead quickly reminded us that it was a Saturday. It made me all the more grateful that we had started our trip on a Tuesday. We arrived at a jam packed parking area. Cars were literally lined up an additional quarter mile down the road leading out of the lot! It was 11:30 am and the backcountry solitude of the previous four days was officially over. At least we left the trailhead filled with so many incredible memories. I still couldn’t believe all we’d seen and experienced as I skimmed through the photos on my camera when we stopped for lunch. Mack and I both agree that this trip was by far (even over the Eagle Cap Wilderness!) the best backpacking adventure we’ve ever done. North Cascades, we’ll be back soon and often.

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Back at Hannegan Pass

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One final look at Ruth Mountain and Ruth Creek

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