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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 isn’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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I first laid eyes on Glacier Peak during a NOLS Trip Leader Seminar back in 2015. At the time, it was only my third backpacking trip, mountaineering was still a distant dream, and I’d never even heard of Glacier Peak when we began the hike in. Once that beautiful, isolated–the most isolated of all the Cascade volcanoes–came into view on the third (maybe fourth?) day of the trip, I promised myself I would come back to climb her. Fast forward to July 2017, Mack and I had seven volcano climbs under our belts and the rope skills to cross glaciated, crevasse-ridden terrain without a guide. It was time to attempt our eighth volcano (and the fourth out of five Washington volcanoes).
Day 1: Sloan Creek Campground to White Pass (9.2 miles; 6 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
After a later-than-desired departure time and unexpected traffic (at 3 am!!!), we finally pulled into the trailhead/campground parking area a little after 8 am. Perfect timing since we managed to snag the last obvious parking spot before the need to get creative. By 9 am we were on the trail, already groaning under the weight of our packs, which were definitely not within the usual 20-30 lb range. It didn’t help that I’d pulled a muscle in my shoulder the night before when I’d attempted to swing my pack onto my back to feel out the weight. For the first time ever, I had to have Mack help me get my pack on because I was in so much pain before we started hiking. Not a good way to start a long, strenuous day (especially with a 9 am late start). Our goal was to make it all the way to high camp at Glacier Gap (about 14 miles in), but I was already having doubts.
Despite pain and discomfort (on my end mostly, but probably on Mack’s as well), we enjoyed the lush forest scenery on the North Fork Sauk Trail. We did experience a couple of downed old growth trees that required some time to maneuver and climb over with our packs, but that was all near the beginning. Most of our hike to Mackinaw Shelter (5 to 5.5 miles from the TH) was smooth sailing. We stopped at the shelter to eat lunch and relieve our bodies of our burdensome packs for a short while. Being here brought back fond memories. Mackinaw Shelter was the first place we camped on my NOLS trip two years prior. It also reminded me that the hike was about to get strenuous.
The switchbacks up to the junction with the PCT were the most difficult part of the day. We were starting to make our way out of the forest, which meant more exposure to the hot sun while we adapted to the steeper incline. It was slow going to say the least and made me contemplate upgrading our gear (particularly our packs and tent) to more lightweight brands. Although the heat wasn’t doing much for our spirits, the transforming landscape definitely helped to reinvigorate us. Hillsides carpeted with wildflowers. Numerous mountains on almost all sides of us. It was perfect.
After the junction with the PCT we continued on to White Pass about a half mile away. You can actually see it in distance because you walk along an exposed ridge line. Despite a few sketchy snow bridges we had to cross (in our regular boots), this last stretch was far easier than the three or so miles of climbing. We reached White Pass at 3:30 pm and followed the trail leading down to the campsites, traversing one more large patch of slushy snow (and snow bridges) along the way. After setting up camp, we hiked back up to the pass to take pictures, enjoy the views, and savor the feeling of walking without our packs. We hadn’t made it to our high camp (still another five or so miles away), but we both agreed it was for the best.
We spent the rest of the afternoon napping, listening to Crimetown podcast, and “cooking” instant mashed potatoes–how have we never brought these along before???– for the first time. It was exactly what we needed after a long day of driving and hiking. As Mack began to fall asleep, I decided to step out of the tent to take in the cotton candy sunset colors highlighting the surrounding peaks before turning in myself.
Day 2: White Pass to Glacier Gap (5.25 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)
We started our hike on the Foam Creek Trail at 10 am in a cloud. Along the way we passed several climbing parties who had attempted the summit that morning. Apparently, the forecasted clear skies and sunshine had failed to make an appearance. Many climbers turned around after getting blasted with high winds, rain, and, apparently, snow. I guess it was better that our summit bid had been pushed back a day by not making high camp the afternoon before. The weather gradually improved as we continued on the trail. After two miles or so, the trail petered out and we ascended the ridge to our left.
Climbing over that first ridge brought back memories of when my NOLS group hiked this exact section. I remember we were all kind of nervous as we carefully picked our way down the steep slope of loose rock, especially with heavy packs on. Mack and I were in a similar situation, except this time the slope was covered in snow and there was a pretty decent boot path etched into it. The carved out steps made climbing down a hell of a lot easier. The traction on our mountaineering boots–no regular boots today–helped, too. After that descent we followed the trail to the base of another steep slope a short ways ahead. At the top was a saddle that I knew would give us our first view of Glacier Peak if the clouds cleared. As we made our way up to the it, I resolved to take out my ice axe once we reached the top. I should’ve taken it out before we started traversing these ridges.
Once at the top, we dropped our packs and took a lunch break. It was around noon and we’d only hiked a little over two miles. My penchant for taking lots and lots of pictures tends to slow us down. Clouds still loomed overhead, so Glacier Peak had yet to make her grand appearance. As we ate, we watched a few marmots peek out from their dens or their hiding spots in the grass, eyeing us and waiting for an opportunity to snatch some of our food. Fortunately, they never got it. We reluctantly strapped on our packs again and traversed across another snow slope. Below lay the valley (or basin?) that my NOLS group had camped in on our third and fourth nights. There was no snow here in August 2015, so it looked completely different this time around! We ascended another slope (this one far less steep than the previous two) and dropped into the White Chuck Glacier basin.
The boot path cut through the mountainous basin and led us to a steep slope of scree and larger rocks. Another climb of course, and on my least favorite terrain. We stopped about halfway up to refill our bladders and water bottles in a glacier-fed stream flowing over the rocks. We looked out over the basin we’d just crossed and admired a couple of the turquoise-colored (but still snow covered) tarns dotting the landscape. There’s nothing but mountains for miles and miles it seems. Absolute perfection. Once we topped out, we crossed one final snowfield and made one more steep snow climb up to the counter known as Glacier Gap. We’d finally made it to high camp. It was 3 pm.
To our relief (since I decided not to bring a snow shovel in order to keep my pack somewhat lighter), Glacier Gap was completely free of snow. Similar to Lunch Counter on Mount Adams, there are several half circle rock walls up here so you can shield your tent from the wind. We found an empty one and set up camp. The clouds still hid Glacier Peak from sight, but I decided to climb up to the ridge above Glacier Gap in order to scout our route for the following morning. It felt so nice to run up a hill without my pack on. A smile spread across my face when I got to the top. Although the summit was still obscured, the rest of the mountain was visible. First glimpse of this beautiful mountain at last! Made the long slog worth it. I was able to make out a majority of our climbing route, too.
Back at camp, we enjoyed another dinner of instant mashed potatoes, got most of our equipment packed up for the next morning, then turned in early while the sun was still out. We slept a little off and on, but at some point (after the sun had gone down) Mack noticed there was something wrong with the rainfly zipper on his side. When he tried to fix it, the teeth refused to seal again. After a few more frustrating attempts, I dug out my safety kit and we used safety pins to close the fly. Hopefully it wouldn’t rain on us! Unfortunately, we had a difficult time falling asleep after that little debacle.
Day 3: Glacier Gap to the summit and back (5.1 miles; 8 hours, breaks included); Glacier Gap to White Pass (5.25 miles; 3 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
Our alarms were set for 2 am (with the goal of starting our climb between 3 and 3:30 am), but after a restless night, we decided to sleep in. We finally forced ourselves out of the tent just before 4 am, getting ready as quickly as possible so we could start moving and warm up. At 5 am we set off. Yesterday’s clouds were nowhere in sight and there wasn’t even a breeze. Today’s weather was going to be perfect. I could feel it. We hiked up to the ridge above Glacier Gap (where I’d been the day before while scouting) and stood in awe of the mountain before us, now completely unveiled, bathed in the light blue-purple hue of the pre-dawn sky. I don’t usually like starting this late on any climb, but I’ve got to say, it’s probably the most incredible time to see a mountain.
From the ridge, we descended to the base of the rocky spine leading up to Disappointment Peak, a smaller sub-peak on Glacier. The sun rose behind the mountains to the east, illuminating Gerdine Glacier, which we’d soon be traversing. Two other climbers followed close behind us. We were the only four on the mountain that morning. Another perk to climbing an isolated volcano on a weekday. Once we made it to the first gendarme on the ridge, we roped up and cut to the glacier. (Note: If you want to avoid glacier travel, you can continue on the ridge and scramble up Disappointment Peak to reach the final ridge leading to the summit of Glacier)
We didn’t encounter any crevasses on the first part of Gerdine, but rockfall hazard was very evident. Now that the sun was up, we’d have to move quickly. At one point, Mack shouted “rock!” I was so preoccupied scanning the ground for potential crevasses, I didn’t even see it when I looked up. Apparently, it tumbled by me, just a few inches from my right leg. It wasn’t a large rock and probably wouldn’t have done any significant damage, but the fact that we were experiencing signs of rockfall now made us a little nervous about the descent. We picked up the pace until we reached a rocky outcropping high on Gerdine. We breaked here to hydrate and get some food in our stomachs before moving through the next section, which would require some crevasse navigation.
Just below the saddle bordering Cool Glacier is a heavily crevassed section on Gerdine. Snow bridges still seemed to be in tact, but the crevasses, which had probably been filled with snow a couple of weeks earlier, were now very much open. I would’ve loved to take pictures or some video as we wound our way through this section, but for safety reasons I decided against it. We needed to move quickly and taking pictures presented a potential hazard and distraction. Thankfully, this section was short and only took a few minutes to ascend. Afterwards we walked along Cool Glacier on a relatively flat path leading to the saddle above Disappointment Peak.
Since the final climb was going to be on a pumice slope, we untied and stashed the rope for the descent. The two climbers behind us caught up as we were doing this. One of them was visiting from the Midwest and decided this was as far as he was going to go. His partner decided to continue on to the summit, charging up the slope. We stayed behind at a more leisurely pace. The slope was very moderate and didn’t present any technical challenges. It ended at a final steep snow climb up to the summit ridge, but the boot path here made it so it was just like walking up a frozen staircase (granted there is some exposure). As I neared the summit ridge, the other climber began his descent, letting me know that I was almost there. Mack followed a few yards behind. I waited for him just below the summit ridge and took the opportunity soak in the incredible mountain views, especially the one of Mount Rainier to the south.
We ascended the ridge together and dropped our packs on the western side at 9 am. Just to be certain we stepped on the actual summit, we walked the entire summit ridge. I’m still not entirely sure which side is higher. We stayed up there longer than we intended (about 30 minutes), but I’m happy we did. With all the work it took to get to this point, why not savor it for awhile? Plus, the views from the summit were hands down the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced of all the volcano climbs we’ve done so far. When you’re enamored with mountains, being surrounded by them while standing on top of one is the dream. I could’ve stayed up there for hours completely content.
Now that the sun was high in the sky and temps were warming up, we moved quickly down the mountain. Getting over the crevassed terrain on Gerdine wasn’t too nerve-racking this time around, but when we reached the bowling alley (i.e. the rockfall area below Disappointment Peak), my heart began to pound faster and faster. Before we started through it, I told Mack we needed to keep an ear out for falling rock. Literally, as soon as I said this, huge chunks of rock came crashing down, rolling over a giant swath of the snowfield we needed to cross. As soon as everything came to a halt, we started running–well, more like power walking/jogging since we were in crampons and roped up. We didn’t stop until we were walking alongside the rocky ridge we’d ascended that morning. After catching our breath, happy to be out of danger, we continued the descent. We were a few yards away from where we could untie and get back on the ridge when Mack said nervously, “Uhhhh, Teddy?” I turned around. “One of my crampons is missing.” Crap.
“Any ideas where you lost it?” I responded.
“I’m not sure.”
I was livid, especially since we’d just come through the most dangerous part of the route and there was a good chance it had fallen off while we were running through it. Mack untied and decided he’d walk back up as far as it was safe to to see if he could find it. I plopped down in the snow, anxiously awaiting his return and listening intently for rockfall. Minutes seemed to drag on and I became more nervous. I couldn’t see Mack in the distance anymore and worse case scenarios were plaguing my mind. After 30 minutes, he crested the slope above me, waving the missing crampon triumphantly in his hand.
Since we were close to the ridge, we decided to untie and pack up our crevasse rescue gear for the remainder of the descent. Our hope of getting back to camp by noon was definitely not happening after the crampon mishap. And I pushed us back even more when my bowels informed me that they needed to be relieved. We finally stumbled into camp at 1 pm.
We rested at camp before packing up and didn’t start out until 3 pm. Getting back to the car was still a possibility, but we agreed to play it by ear once we reached White Pass. Since our hike out was mostly downhill, we figured we’d be moving pretty quickly. I was wrong. Due to the afternoon heat, the snow was no longer packed down and firm. Descending steep snow slopes with our loaded packs was incredibly sketchy. Going down the scree slopes was even more terrifying! Mack was moving surprisingly fast through a lot of these sections, but I was less comfortable and picked my way down super cautiously. Getting back to the ridge above Foam Creek Trail took way longer than anticipated. We compensated by hiking as fast as we could once we were back on Foam Creek Trail. We reached White Pass at 6:30 pm (still an hour and a half faster than when we hiked in the day before). Getting back to the car would mean hiking in the dark for the last hour or two, so we decided to stay another night at White Pass and hike out early the next morning.
Day 4: White Pass to Sloan Creek Campground (9.2 miles; 5 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
We awoke to another morning of nice weather and started out at 7:40 am. As we were switchbacking down the North Fork Sauk Trail, two literally earth-shaking ‘BOOM!’s went off within a few minutes of each other. What the hell? Mack and I exchanged confused (but nervous) glances. “I think it was a gun,” said Mack, probably trying to reassure me and himself. It sounded like a war zone. We put the situation in the back of our minds and continued on to Mackinaw Shelter. We arrived at 9:40 am and walked down to the river to soak our hot, tired feet and eat a snack. We were pretty ecstatic that we only had 5 or 5.5 miles to go.
After Mackinaw, the trail was mostly flat and gradual downhill, so we moved quickly. Less than a mile out from the trailhead though, I slipped on a loose rock and rolled my right ankle, the one that I’ve injured nearly four times this year. So much for moving fast now, but at least we were almost finished. Then, when we were only a half mile from the car, we ran into a USFS trail crew. Now we knew who was responsible for the massive ‘BOOM!’s we’d heard earlier that morning. They were using explosives to clear the trail of the larger down trees that couldn’t be taken care of with a crosscut saw. Funny how you can’t bring machinery (like a chainsaw) into Wilderness, but explosives are okay. We had to walk back with them almost a quarter of a mile because they were about to blow up another obstacle just ahead of us. We were so close!
Although we were pretty bummed that we wouldn’t be able to get back to the car for another half hour or so, knowing we were close to the blast zone was kind of exciting. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard “Fire in the hole!” come through one of the crew member’s radios, but the ensuing sound is one I will never forget (and one I’d prefer not to experience again). The earth and trees violently trembled, and the shock waves created visible movement in the air. I couldn’t hear anything for a second or two after, and the forest went eerily silent for several moments, as if to recover from the disturbance. We thanked the trail crew for their hard work on the way out, staring in awe at the blast zones we walked through. What a way to end an already epic trip.
Back at the car, we packed up and changed into clean clothes. The gear we’d set aside to climb Mount Baker (part of our original plan if we finished Glacier Peak quickly) stared up longingly at us, and I was tempted to still give it a go the following morning. The pain in my ankle quickly reminded me that it would probably be a terrible idea, and both of us were incredibly exhausted from the three and a half day climb we’d just completed. We still needed to get home and pack up for another backpacking trip that we were leaving for two days later! We called it good and headed home, stopping only for our usual post-backpacking/climbing Red Robin food and milkshakes.
Although only a day trip, Tumalo Falls was our first of two adventures during a weekend in Central Oregon. Our original plan was actually to backpack past Tumalo Falls along Tumalo Creek and snow camp somewhere in/near Happy Valley. However, after coming down with a cold a few days prior and realizing we’d be in for two straight days of heavy snow according to the forecast, we decided to turn it into a day hike, then camp at Tumalo State Park before heading to Smith Rock (which will be covered in a separate post) the following day. I was a little bummed at first, but, ultimately, it ended up being a far better idea since we got to explore more of Central Oregon.
We started out from Portland somewhere between 6:30 and 7 am. It usually takes about 3 hours to drive to Bend, but winter road conditions on Hwy 22 slowed us down immensely. We didn’t reach Skyliner Sno Park until 11:30 am. Snow was already falling pretty heavily and the breeze kept blowing it into our faces. We didn’t have our goggles. Of course, the one time we needed them we forgot to pack them. We used our hoods and Buffs to cover up as much as we could and started out.
From Skyliner Sno Park you have two options for getting to the falls: you can continue about 0.4 miles down Skyliner Road to Tumalo Falls Road, which you’ll follow 2.5 miles to the Tumalo Falls Day Use Area, or you can follow the less crowded Tumalo Creek Trail, which begins at the sno park. Usually, we opt for the less crowded trail, but since we were starting much later than anticipated (and the trail option was a little longer), we decided to continue to Tumalo Falls Road.
The hike to Tumalo Falls was, in all honesty, nothing special. Don’t get me wrong, it looked beautiful! In the end though, it still felt like a plain road walk. Maybe I was just grumpy from the long drive. Or maybe it was because the snowy, cloudy weather was basically obscuring the surrounding landscape save the trees on either side of the road. The 2.5 miles were turning into somewhat of a slog. And, unless you’ve got special running snowshoes, it’s kind of difficult to move very fast. I kept wondering if we should’ve just taken the trail instead. At least Cassie seemed to be enjoying herself. Seeing her face light up and her tongue hang out as she charged and plowed through the snow made seemingly dull moments so much more fun.
The snow covered footbridge crossing Tumalo Creek indicated that we were just around the corner from the iconic viewpoint of Tumalo Falls. Despite my less-than-enthusiastic attitude about Tumalo Falls Road, I was completely entranced by the dark blue water of the creek flowing through marshamallowy mounds of snow. A perfect prelude to the viewing of the majestic falls just ahead.
Although we’d seen tons of people along the way, there wasn’t a single person at the viewpoint when we got there! For a few short minutes, we had a magical view of Tumalo Falls all to ourselves. It definitely made the semi-boring walk much more worthwhile.
We continued a short ways uphill to reach the viewing platform at the top of the falls. It wasn’t nearly as spectacular as actually seeing the falls, but it did offer more space to relax, sit down, and (if I hadn’t been snapping pictures the entire time) enjoy a snack or lunch. It was still snowing though and Cassie started to shiver after a few minutes, so we didn’t break long before we headed back down. Tumalo Creek Trail continues up past this point though, and Mack and I are already making plans to come back after the snow melts to get in some long trail running miles while exploring the numerous other waterfalls along the creek!
After getting dinner and snacks at a nearby Market of Choice, we drove back out to Tumalo State Park to set up camp. Our plans to backpack in the snow may have fallen through, but we did get to do a less strenuous form of snow camping at the park campground! The spot was already dug out for us, so all we had to do was set up the tent and make sure everything was staked down firmly in the snow. At least we didn’t have to bust out the shovels. We capped off our evening with a mini boysenberry pie from MOC and a steaming cup of cocoa.