References: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland by Paul Gerald; Outdoor Project
Evergreens coated in powder. Fields dotted with marshmallow boulders. Frozen crystalline features dangling from cliff faces, fallen logs, and tree limbs. Majestic waterfalls cascading down into icy blue rivers. Mount Hood National Forest is a winter lover’s dream. Despite the unfortunate low snow year, it still managed to enchant us on our brief pit stop heading back from Smith Rock State Park.
We arrived at the trailhead sometime mid-morning, still sleepy-eyed (with the exception of Cassie, who was ready to get the hell out of the car) from our early morning alarm. Being the middle of the week, there was only one other car parked. Another uber-popular hike to enjoy without the crowds! We took our time getting dressed for the snowy conditions having just come from the high desert, but a quick jaunt on the first several yards of the trail indicated that we wouldn’t need snowshoes, just our microspikes. This was both a depressing revelation (so little snow compared to the same time last year!) but also a relief (no cumbersome gear attached to my feet).
The first part of the hike on East Fork Trail #650 parallels Highway 35. Once we turned onto the Tamanawas Trail that sign of civilization fell away as we ventured deeper into the wintry forest. The foreboding, dark waters of Cold Spring Creek rushed alongside us as we walked. Snow fell from the trees with the warming temps, sometimes as gentle sprinkles, other times as heavy snowballs. Cassie loved this and bounded ahead to chase the falling snow on a few occasions. One such occasion forced us to put her back on leash though after she chased some falling snow off the trail and sprinted into the woods. I panicked as we searched and shouted for her, nearly breaking down in tears until I heard Mack yell back to me that he’d gotten ahold of her (10-15 minutes after she’d run off). We’ve been pretty flexible with Cassie over the past year, allowing her off leash in places where it’s okay (i.e. no regulations in place and generally uncrowded) because she’s always remained close to us and has exhibited good recall. This was a necessary reminder that she’s still an animal and will get distracted when we least expect it.
I was a little on edge and working to normalize my vitals following the Cassie fiasco. Tamanawas Falls turned out to be the perfect remedy for my anxiety. When we turned the corner and the waterfall came into view I was immediately awestruck and pleasantly surprised. I had actually expected it to be smaller based on photos I’d seen! I was of course ecstatic to see how truly spectacular these falls were in person. We carefully picked our way down the icy trail to the creek for a better vantage point then proceeded to hop through the field of frosted boulders until we reached a clear boundary where the surrounding snow was tinged with a glacier blue sheen, a color made even more brilliant by the juxtaposing dark hue of the creek and the cliff from which the falls tumbled. It was difficult to tear ourselves away, but more hikers were starting to make their way to the falls. It was time to relinquish our prime spot(s) and give other visitors a chance to explore.
On the return hike, we made time to stop and explore some of the more simple delights along the trail. There were several mini-falls to be enjoyed within Cold Spring Creek, a few of which cascaded into one another through a mesmerizing series of aqua-colored pools. There was so much to see on this short hike!
The sun came out as we turned back onto the East Fork Trail, filtering warmth and light through the trees and making the snow on their limbs melt increasingly fast. We spent a good part of the hike back keeping our eyes and ears alert for these snow bombs, doing our best to dodge them whenever they happened to fall. Nonetheless we enjoyed the peaceful forested snow stroll, as well as the small sunbursts and patches of blue sky that greeted us through the trees every so often. On the final footbridge crossing before reaching the parking area, I lingered a few extra moments. Gazing out over Hood River, now a brilliant shade of blue thanks to the sunlight, I couldn’t help but reflect briefly on the soon-to-be-over year 2017 and all of the wonderful adventures and experiences that came with it. What does 2018 hold for our little family?
Since getting more into trail running this past year, day hiking has become less and less common for us. However, with our last race of the season coming up the following weekend and a busy weekend of work events preventing us from doing anything too long, strenuous, or far from home, we decided to head out to Cape Horn with Cassie to make the most of the surprisingly nice fall weather forecast.
The trailhead was packed and we ended up parking a short ways up the road since the lot was full. With so many closures on the Oregon side due to the damage caused by the wildfire, I imagine Cape Horn is now more popular than ever. Despite seeing numerous groups as we started out, we still managed to find some solitude every now and then. The first part of our hike (we started with the upper section) had us climbing switchbacks through a forest bursting with fall colors. I actually completed this hike the previous year with a few friends (no Mack, but Cassie was with me). We went in late November after Thanksgiving, so the fall brilliance had come and gone. It was nice to come back at the height of it all.
After just over a mile we were rewarded with our first view overlooking the gorge at Pioneer Point. Patches of golden orange dotted the usually green landscape as we looked east toward Hamilton Mountain and Beacon Rock. Even the Oregon side looked stunning. From a distance (and with the sun shining so brightly), the scorched land wasn’t as evident. The trail dropped down soon after and met up with an old wagon road so heavily blanketed in fallen leaves that I could hardly see my boots as we walked through.
After crossing Strunk Road, we continued onto a gravel lane surrounded by green fields and a few houses. A short, pleasant countryside amble before ducking back into the forest. We reached the Nancy Russell Overlook (named for the founder of Friends of the Columbia Gorge), characterized by a beautiful stone amphitheater and a sprawling view of the gorge. I feel a little silly that I didn’t take a picture to include for this post, but it was incredibly crowded and we didn’t stick around very long. We headed back into the peace and quiet of the forest, basking in the increasingly vibrant fall colors. The trail descends down to Hwy 14 and (to avoid having hikers risk becoming roadkill) crosses it by way of a tunnel beneath the road.
The views became more abundant on this half of the hike now that we were on the lower section and switchbacking down alongside the cliff. We passed several vistas along the way that offered expansive views of the river, as well as lonesome Phoca Rock and the strange basalt column, Cigar Rock. This section did have it’s downsides though. The wind was incredibly strong, making it difficult to take any sort of break at the viewpoints we came across. In addition, now that it was getting into the afternoon, there were a lot more people on the trail, some of whom weren’t so great about practicing basic trail etiquette. My penchant for picture taking often times meant we just let people pass us until we were left alone, garnering us a few more moments of solitude.
I was especially happy to experience solitude when we arrived at the wooden footbridge in front of Cape Horn Falls. With no one around, we were able to take the short side trail up to the falls and have the spot all to ourselves for a few minutes. The falls weren’t anything spectacular (at least when we were there). They were more of a trickle really. Being in an isolated spot away from the increasing foot traffic (with a nice view of the footbridge down below and the river beyond that) was the primary appeal. After crossing the bridge, we began a steeper descent to the end of the trail, where we were spit out onto Cape Horn Road.
The final 1.3-mile uphill stretch was all on road (save for a very brief section of trail right before the parking lot). Thankfully, we still had some lovely views along the way combining the steep forested hillsides and basalt cliffs that characterize the gorge with the simplicity of the countryside-esque properties that we passed along the road. All in all it was a morning (and partial afternoon) well spent and a lovely return to our original adventure of choice, day hiking.
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.
Since Mack and I began backpacking together over two years ago, it’s always been just the two of us. Hell, even a majority of our day trips (hiking and trail running) are done alone without the company of other friends. At the end of last summer, we and a couple of friends, Kaylyn and Evan, threw around the idea of doing a trip together in the future. By January of this year, we’d figured out dates, picked a location, and solidified the route!
Two weeks before our adventure was to begin, we found out that Gothic Basin (near the North Cascades), our intended destination, was still under quite a bit of snow. Neither of us wanted to haul snow gear up to camp nor deal with sketchy trail conditions/navigation for this particular trip, so I frantically searched for another option. Just like two years ago when Mack and I were turned down for the Wonderland Trail and looking for another option, Douglas Lorain’s Backpacking Oregon saved the day. The Elkhorn Crest Trail, a point-to-point route along the Elkhorn Mountains (a subrange of the Blue Mountains) in Eastern Oregon, presented itself as the perfect alternative.
Day 1: Marble Pass Trailhead to Twin Lakes (4.8 miles, plus additional 3-4 miles hiking up to the trailhead; 4 hours 18 minutes, breaks included)
On Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours since returning from Glacier Peak, Mack, Cassie, and I made the long drive out to Anthony Lake. Our trip didn’t officially start until the following morning, but getting a few hours of sleep in the car sounded far more appealing than driving out at 2 or 3 am in order to make an 8 am shuttle pick-up. Kaylyn and Evan opted to do the early morning drive and at 8 am we all piled into the shuttle that would take us to Marble Pass.
It probably sounds a little ridiculous that we decided to hire a shuttle, especially since we had two cars to work with. However, the forest road leading up to the trailhead is notoriously rough and steep. Neither of our cars seemed suitable and we didn’t want to take the chance of bottoming out on the way up or back down this road. Ironically enough, our shuttle ended up breaking down just as we were starting up this section! We ended up with a few extra miles tacked onto our low mileage day, so it wasn’t too bad for us. Unfortunately, our poor driver (with no food or water, low battery on his phone, and no other coworkers to come get him) had to hike back down in search of a ride to get back to work! (We found out after the trip that he didn’t have to hike too long before getting a ride)
After just over an hour and a half of hiking, we finally reached Marble Pass TH around 11 am and took shelter from the sun below some trees to enjoy a short lunch. Less than five miles until our destination for the day!
Although walking along this completely open ridgeline meant full exposure to the hot sun, it also meant stellar views as we hiked. Since the trail stays primarily on the west side of the Elkhorn Crest, the most prominent views for the day were of the Sumpter Valley and Phillips Lake to the southwest. We continued at a leisurely pace, watching our footing on the loose volcanic rock comprising much of the trail surface. A few patches of snow served as a small reminder of the long, harsh winter that had hit this area earlier in the year. Cassie, being the snow-loving dog that she is, seized every opportunity to roll around in them to cool herself off.
The four-ish miles to the junction with Twin Lakes Trail went by fairly quickly (most likely due to the lack of elevation change). The cool, sparkling waters of the lakes in the basin below beckoned to us after hours in the sun. At the junction, we also got our first taste of the high mountain goat population in the area! Just as we were approaching the junction, Evan spotted one a few yards in front of us. Fortunately, these goats appear to be less habituated to people (unlike those in the Enchantments) and it quickly scampered off when it saw us. We made our way down the switchbacks of Twin Lakes Trail, eager to make camp and check out the lakes.
It was just before 1:45 pm when we finally made it down and finished our hiking for the day. We set up our camp within a small grove of trees then walked down to Lower Twin Lake, the larger and more accessible of the two lakes. We saw at least three mountain goats on the opposite side of the lake. One stood/sat perched on a rocky overlook as if to oversee the goings-on of the lake below. Another two or three walked along the edge of the lake, grazing here and there along the way. I don’t recall ever seeing this much wildlife on any of our trips so it was pretty exciting to experience!
After getting some relaxation time down at the lake, we returned to camp for dinner. Mack and I went about our semi-lazy routine of heating water in the Jetboil to throw on our instant mashed potatoes. Kaylyn and Evan actually made an effort and brought along a delicious mixed vegetable chili that they cooked/reheated in a pot! They were kind enough to share some of the chili with us. It tasted fantastic mixed in with our mashed potatoes. As much as I hate cooking (both in the outdoors and in everyday life), that chili had me reconsidering my “cooking takes too much effort” stance.
Mack, Cassie, and I decided to go for an evening stroll around the lakes area. Although we hadn’t seen too many goats since being down at Lower Twin Lake earlier, we did see the same goat several times throughout the afternoon wandering through the campsite areas. This time, it was grazing along the shore as we walked. Surprisingly, Cassie did not seem too bothered. After reaching the far end of Lower Twin, we decided to walk back up and see the more hidden Upper Twin Lake. The rocky cliffs above Upper Twin blocked out the sun, making the area more cool, shaded, and moodier compared to Lower Twin. All the visitors to the basin stayed down near Lower Twin, so Upper Twin remained calm and quiet, completely void of people with the exception of me and Mack.
Back at camp, our curious goat friend returned again and again, sometimes sneaking up on us while we were lost in conversation. Despite its persistence, it always ran away when we shouted at it or tossed some stones in its general direction. I did take advantage of the fact that it kept returning and snapped a few photos (from a good distance away I should add, zooming in with my camera). Not sure when I’ll get to see these magnificent creatures up close again! We turned in for the night and kept our fingers crossed that our food bags would still be in tact when we woke up.
Day 2: Twin Lakes to Summit Lake (12.8 miles; 7 hours 15 minutes, breaks included)
Despite knowing that our second day would be our longest, we decided to take our time in the morning. Why rush? We had all day to get to camp afterall. We didn’t start the hike out of the basin until 9:15 am. Just like the day before, the sun was shining and the sky was clear. Another fortunate bluebird day on the trail!
Prior to the trip, we’d discussed the idea of scrambling up Rock Creek Butte (the highest point in the Elkhorn Range at 9,106 feet), but with the late start we decided against it. It was difficult to pass it by and not give it a go though. Maybe next time! A little over five miles into our hike we arrived at the junction with the Pole Creek Ridge Trail. It was 11:45 am and this junction would be the only one until the junction with Summit Lake Trail (still another 6.6 miles away). We settled down here for a few minutes to eat some lunch and take in the view of the Blue Mountains stretched out before us.
After our lunch break, Mack and I noticed Cassie becoming more and more lethargic. We’d been giving her water and snacks regularly, but Cassie is picky sometimes. She really only likes to drink water from streams, creeks, puddles, and ponds,–basically anything that’s not her water bowl–so sometimes when we tried to give her water, she refused to drink. Her energy level continued to drop dramatically and she was breathing heavily. Any time we walked through an ounce of shade, she would plop down, sprawl herself out on the ground, and refuse to budge. Concerned that these were the first signs of doggy heat stroke, we removed her pack, allowed her several minutes of rest each time we reached a shady spot, doused her in water to cool her down, and even carried her in our arms when she didn’t want to walk. Although Cassie has dealt with heat before and completed far more strenuous hikes, climbs, and trail runs, this was the first route we’d done with her that lacked water sources. Thankfully, after we’d made it through (very slowly I might add) a majority of the 6.6-mile stretch, we came across an ice cold spring. Cassie immediately sat down in the water, drank to her heart’s content, and stayed there the entire time we filled up our water bladders and bottles.
The next section of the trail was one of my favorites. Although volcanic rock still made an occasional appearance, granite was now far more prevalent. We were also walking beneath more trees, and through more grasslands and sections bursting with wildflowers. It also felt like we had traveled deeper into the mountains. The valley and farmland below that we were able to see earlier was no longer in sight. Now it was just green, forested mountains. Cassie’s spirits seemed to be lifted after that dunk in the spring, so we were able to move at a quicker pace then we had been. Before we knew it, we’d reached the junction with the Summit Lake Trail.
We walked beneath granite cliffs, then descended into the cool shade of the forest. I’m quite certain this was the first time we’d entered a legitimate forest since beginning the trip! In addition to the relief it provided from the sun, we were also rewarded with a couple more water sources. We exited the forest shortly after and looked down below on Little Summit Lake, initially thinking it was Summit Lake (which would’ve been disappointing considering this lake looked more like a bog). A quick map check reassured us that Summit Lake would be on the other side of the trail and above us (not below us). As if by the power of our collective wishful thinking, we found ourselves gazing out over the true Summit Lake just a minute or two after the map check.
Not only was the lake itself enchanting, but the basin that holds it, surrounded by unnamed, 8,000+ feet granite peaks, stopped me in my tracks multiple times while we sought out a campsite. As soon as we found a site large enough to accommodate both of our tents, we dropped our packs and walked out to the water via a rocky peninsula jutting out from the camp area. The granite peaks at the southern end of the lake were perfectly reflected in the calm, still water. It was 4:30 already, so enjoying a swim in the lake now made more sense than setting up right away. Cassie, on the other hand, had no interest in getting in the water. She stayed nearby and curled up beneath a tree, falling fast asleep within seconds.
The rest of the evening passed quickly since we arrived later in the day. We spent much of it around the fire ring talking, eating, chasing away pesky ground squirrels. I hadn’t experienced such a socially involved backcountry trip since my NOLS course two years ago, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it until now. Before this trip, Mack, Kaylyn, Evan, and I hadn’t spent much time together outside of infrequent social gatherings, and yet here we were getting to know one another in a far more vulnerable setting. I was actually pretty amazed at how well it was all going!
We continued to enjoy solitude as the afternoon melded into the evening. Although I did see one or two other people at the southern end of the lake, not a single person came out to the northern tip where we were camped. We had the place entirely to ourselves on a beautiful summer night. A perfect ending to our final full day in the Elkhorns.
Day 3: Summit Lake to Elkhorn Crest Trailhead at Anthony Lake (10 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)
In an effort to make it out by noon and avoid hiking in the heat of the day, we departed Summit Lake at 7 am, stocking up on water at the creeks we’d passed in the forest the afternoon prior. Despite experiencing slight confusion at a four-way junction near Columbia Hill (after getting back on the Elkhorn Crest Trail), the rest of the way was straightforward and easy to navigate. We skirted the west side of Mount Ruth, another stunning, pyramid-shaped granite peak, and dropped down to Lost Lake Saddle, where we enjoyed mountains views, as well as a view of Lost Lake down below. We ended up seeing quite a few lakes on our final day!
Following the junction with Lost Lake Trail we continued along the west side of the crest, still gaining elevation and wondering when we’d finally get to the downhill section. After Cunningham Saddle, the terrain to the west of us transformed from mountains to spacious meadow. It looked so clean cut I thought we’d stumbled upon a golf course in the middle of Wilderness. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t think to take a picture here.
At Dutch Flat Saddle/Dutch Flat Lake Trail junction, with only 3.5 miles remaining, we took a break in the shade to load up on whatever snacks we had left. As soon as we started walking again, we ran into several people and three or four dogs coming down from the saddle near Angell Peak (our final climb of the day we found out!). It was the most people we’d seen since hiking to Twin Lakes two days earlier and reminded us that we were basically back in the frontcountry. Solitude was officially over. Thankfully, the final trek down from the saddle was one of the most beautiful sections of the entire hike that day. Fields of granite boulders, forested mountain slopes, and the prominent Van Patten Butte rising high above the slightly hidden Black Lake comprised the picturesque landscape before us. After reentering the forest area adjacent to Black and Anthony Lakes, we were back at the car in 20 minutes or less. It was exactly 12 pm when we stepped into the parking area.
We treated ourselves to pizza and beer at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort (which is where we ran into our shuttle driver from Friday) before making the drive back to Portland. Although we didn’t discuss it, I can definitely see all of us plotting out more backcountry adventures together in the future. As much as Mack and I love adventuring alone, going with friends brought even more joy to the experience than I thought it would. A pleasant surprise that I hope we can make happen again.
Map: Green Trails Map 428S: Columbia River Gorge-West
References: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland by Paul Gerald; Oregon Hikers
I usually write about new hikes, but Table Mountain is actually one that Mack and I completed last Fall. Unfortunately, the weather was so terrible that by the time we reached the summit, we were in a cloud getting pummeled by heavy rain and strong winds. We still had fun, but I decided not to post about it since I didn’t get any photos that encompassed how incredible the summit was. In fact, I was worried we would run into the same scenario this time around. The forecast called for rain all weekend. However, on the drive to the trailhead, consistent sun breaks and blue skies behind the clouds kept my hopes up.
We parked at Bonneville Hot Springs and waited for some new friends (yay social media!) and their two pups to join us. In addition to hiking with new people, we were also starting from a different trailhead than the year before. The more official starting point for this hike is the Bonneville/Tamanous Trailhead, but it tacks on about 6 miles roundtrip. Since we were all planning on attending Portland Alpine Fest’s Summit event later that evening, we opted for the shorter hike starting from the hot springs resort.
We started our hike together just after 10:30 am. I was a little worried about navigating the beginning stretch. The descriptions provided by the OregonHikers website and Paul Gerald’s book make it seem complicated and warn that the section is not well marked. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find lots of less official signage (see below) that made getting lost very unlikely.
After we picked up the trail in the forest, we let the dogs off leash. Although Ali and Brad were used to having their dogs hike with them unleashed, this was our first time letting Cassie do so. I was anxious at first (just thinking back on prior experiences with my childhood dogs), but I definitely wanted Cassie to experience a little more freedom and get a chance to socialize with other dogs. Mack and I were both pleased with how well she did! She never strayed too far (except once when her and one of the other dogs went down a side trail) and she constantly checked on us or waited for us if she felt we were too far behind. I swear she was smiling the entire time! In addition, she got along incredibly well with Fiona and Kaya (especially Fiona, the more adventurous of the two). After a couple of easy miles in the forest (with one open area where you can see Table Mountain and the “rabbit ears”/Sacajawea and Papoose Rocks in the distance), we turned onto the PCT for a short stretch until reaching the junction with Heartbreak Ridge Trail. The signage here had also recently been updated since our last hike. I didn’t even know the name of the trail last time! Now there was an easy-to-spot sign just a few yards up.
The Heartbreak Ridge Trail is notoriously steep (1600 ft in 1.2 miles). It’s basically a slip n’ slide in wet weather, so I was anticipating the worst with all the recent rainfall. To our surprise, the terrain was completely stable. I don’t think any of us slipped once! We did get our calves burning though. The trail eventually popped us out at the base of a large talus slope (meant to keep hikers from trampling through fragile alpine meadows). Last year, Mack and I bushwhacked through what we assumed was an overgrown trail and popped out 3/4 of the way up the slope. This time there was better signage (little wooden plaques marked with a broken heart) to keep us on the correct path. We took our time scrambling to the top, turning around every so often to take in our first spectacular view of the gorge. It was fun to watch Cass mountain-goat her way up. She was the first one to reach the top, where the trail re-enters the forest. I made sure I was a close second so she didn’t get tempted to bolt down the trail before we all reached it.
The remainder of the trek to the summit was relatively easy going compared to the steep stretch at the beginning and the talus slope we’d just climbed. When we reached the top, I hardly recognized it. It had been completely shrouded in fog when we’d hiked it last. This time I was able to appreciate the sweeping meadow, expansive views in all directions, and vertigo inducing drop-offs.
We headed toward the southern viewpoint that overlooks the gorge (including Mount Hood on a cloudless day) and other sheared cliff faces off to the side. For the sake of time, we only explored this viewpoint, but the northern end of the plateau offers views of the Washington volcanoes.
Rather than doing an out-and-back, we decided to take a right at the junction just below the summit, which would eventually drop us onto the PCT about a half mile up from the Heartbreak Ridge junction we originally ascended. We figured it would be easier than descending that talus slope again. We were wrong. Instead, we ended up switchbacking down along a very exposed ridge comprised of smaller loose, wet (i.e. slick) rocks. I definitely would’ve preferred the talus slope. Once we were back in the forest and walking on packed dirt, our pace quickened and we reached the PCT junction in no time. This final stretch was definitely a lot less steep than the Heartbreak Ridge descent we would’ve endured if we’d done the out-and-back.
The rest of the hike passed quickly as we hurried back to our cars to escape the rain (falling pretty lightly at this point) and, more importantly, to get back to Portland in time for PAF. We reached the parking lot a few minutes after 4 pm. Although we ended up having to rush getting ready for the evening when we got home, I’m so glad we ended up hiking. Not only did Mack and I finally get to fully appreciate Table Mountain’s summit, we also made new hiking friends and introduced Cassie to new doggy pals and off-leash hiking. All in all, I’d say it was a worthwhile and successful day outside.