Columbia River Gorge Triple ‘D’

  • Date: November 25, 2018
  • Start: Wahkeena Falls Trailhead, Starvation Creek Trailhead, and Dog Mountain Trailhead
  • Distance: 26.6 miles
  • Duration: 11 hours (commute time between trailheads included)
  • Elevation gain: 10,000 feet
  • Type: Loop (Devil’s Rest) and out-and-back (Defiance and Dog)
  • Map: Green Trails Map 428S: Columbia River Gorge-West

A glimmer of daybreak shone faintly in the distance as we moved like shadows through the darkness. I don’t generally like running during non-daylight hours, but the paved, even trail leading to the top of Multnomah Falls presented no threat to my footing and I was able to move with confidence and certainty. We paced ourselves as we climbed switchback after switchback, reminding ourselves that we still had a number of miles and a good chunk of vert ahead of us. Afterall, this was only the beginning of a beautiful first weekend back on some of our favorite gorge trails on the Oregon side since the devastating wildfire over a year prior. What better way to celebrate their reopening and continued healing than with a little adventure run?

Devil’s Rest (8 miles; 2 hours 44 minutes, breaks included)

The Columbia River Gorge Triple ‘D’ challenge has been on our ultra-running bucket list since before we had even completed an ultra distance! We put off doing it for the longest time though because the gorge is our “backyard” and using our precious weekends to head there instead of a place we’d never explored seemed silly. We took this beautiful place for granted, and it took the Eagle Creek Fire sweeping through this beloved area for us to realize it. Dog Mountain remained open of course since it’s located on the Washington side, and Mount Defiance eventually reopened in the spring or early summer, but Devil’s Rest remained the missing ‘D’. Then, the day after Thanksgiving, we got the good news. After a failed attempt Saturday–which at least allowed us the chance to run up Angel’s Rest–we returned on Sunday determined to push on and put it all together.

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The run up to the top of Multnomah from the Wahkeena Falls Trailhead brought us into the first moments of daylight as we crossed the culvert bridge over the creek. We continued through Dutchman Tunnel and up past Weisendanger Falls, struck with sadness by the sight of the scorched landscape, yet amazed and overjoyed by the vibrant signs of recovery. The gorge was still the gorge, resilient and adaptable in the face of human-induced trauma.

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Above Weisendanger we turned onto Wahkeena Trail for a brief stretch before the gradual ascent to the summit via Devil’s Rest Trail. Upon reaching the treed in high point–characterized by giant, mossy boulders and a seemingly unofficial wooden sign hanging off one of the nearby trees–we grabbed a quick selfie then proceeded to enjoy the long, rewarding downhill back to the car, pausing every so often to savor some sorely missed gorge sights, especially the quaint but magical Fairy Falls. By mid morning, just as many others were beginning their hike up, we were back at the car and ready to tackle the next, and most difficult, ‘D’ of our challenge: Mount Defiance.

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Mount Defiance (11.76 miles; 4 hours 50 minutes, breaks included)

At 4,960 feet, Defiance is considered to be the highest point in the Columbia River Gorge. By itself, it comprises nearly half of the elevation gain for the Triple ‘D’ challenge! We were extremely pleased to be starting the route at a reasonable late morning time. As anticipated, there was very little running involved once we left the Historic Columbia River Highway. The gain was mild at first past Lancaster Falls and through the powerline corridor. Then we entered the forest, where the trail’s notoriety truly begins. It’s unrelenting steepness made even power hiking a struggle at times. Mack and I had only ever hiked Defiance once nearly three years prior. Within those three years I’d somehow managed to downplay the difficulty of the route in my memory.

A couple miles into our crawl up the mountain, we met a hiker coming down and casually inquired about the conditions further up. His response: at least a foot of snow–likely more than that–in the last mile or two before the summit. Oops. I looked down at my blown out Altras covered in holes and also remembered that we’d left our microspikes in the the car. We continued up anyway since we hadn’t reached the snow yet. No point in turning around until we absolutely had to. What started out as a light dusting further up very quickly turned into well over a foot of relatively fresh snow. Fortunately for us, hikers from the past couple of days had packed down a pretty decent boot path that we were able to walk/run on even without the aid of microspikes! Nonetheless it was another important reminder about being better prepared with potentially necessary gear and research regarding snow levels.

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The views over the the final couple of miles were just as stunning as I remembered, especially with Pahto standing guard to the north and Wy’east practically glowing beneath the early afternoon sun to the south. The wintry conditions made things slow going since we weren’t able to run even some of the flatter sections in the deep snow but soon enough the out-of-place radio tower came into view, signaling the end of our second big climb of the day. Our feet were soaked and freezing as we jogged the last few feet to the summit. Our breather at the top lasted all of 30 seconds–enough time to take out my camera and snap a selfie–before we hightailed it out of there, excited to reach dry trail again and warm up/air out our cold, wet shoes, socks, and feet.

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The struggle of the steep climbs and deep snow were forgotten as we flew down the trail with reckless abandon, filled with endless stoke about having completed our second summit. Only one more to go! We were doing it. We were finally doing it. The fog from earlier in the day had lifted at last as we re-entered the powerline corridor. I looked out across the Columbia to the Washington side. The unmistakable bare summit of Dog Mountain was staring right back at me. I smiled and held my gaze. Just a couple more hours.

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Dog Mountain (6.9 miles; 2 hours 9 minutes, breaks included)

The parking lot was nearly empty as we pulled in. Sunset was scheduled for something like 4:30 or 4:40 pm. It was nearing 3:30 as we laced up our shoes for the last time and started up the trail. Our legs were pretty shot by this point, having covered nearly 20 miles and over 7,000 feet of gain since 6:30 am. Our power hike was more of a desperate crawl but at least we were making steady progress. Within the first mile, we passed most of the remaining Dog Mountain hikers as they were descending to their cars. One of them was actually the hiker we’d run into on Defiance who had warned us about the snow! He recognized us and congratulated us on our efforts that day.

Daylight was fading fast at the lower viewpoint, so I decided to snap our “summit selfie” here in the event it was too dark for a real one at the top. It had been a long time since we’d done an adventure that both started and ended in the dark. There’s something so fulfilling about being outside from dawn until dusk, pushing your limits and making every second count. In the final minutes before sunset, we were en route to the summit on the last exposed and winding stretch along the dry meadow grasses.

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Blue hour descended upon us as we completed the last hill and stepped onto the summit. We took a few minutes to let our accomplishment soak in as we stood side by side in complete solitude, reflecting on the millennia of cataclysmic events that led to the remarkable landscape that now lay before us, and how this place will continue to survive and adapt to our constantly changing world long after our generation has passed. How fortunate we are to be seeing so much of it while we’re still here, I thought.

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It wasn’t quite dark enough to warrant headlamps as we began our run down the mountain but we put them on anyways to avoid further breaks and stops. Although the Dog Mountain Trail isn’t nearly has “polished” as the switchbacks heading up Multnomah, I still felt that same sense of security and confidence that I’d experienced in the morning, even when complete darkness finally set in and we were picking our way over rocks and roots. We arrived back at the car within the hour (of leaving the summit), thus concluding our first–of hopefully many–full day run-ventures in the Columbia River Gorge.

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Prairie Creek & Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks

  • Date: February 17, 2018
  • Location: Northern California
  • Start: Prairie Creek Visitor Center; Stout Grove Trailhead
  • Distance: 11.5 miles (Prairie Creek); 5.6 miles (Jedediah Smith)
  • Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes at Prairie Creek (breaks not included); 1 hour 17 minutes at Jedediah Smith (breaks not included)
  • Type: Balloon route (Prairie Creek); out-and-back (Jedediah Smith)
  • References: Redwood Hikes

My eyelids flickered open slowly as I sat curled up in the front passenger seat, huddled beneath the fleece blanket that lives in my car. Peering out the window, I realized we were close. It’s not called the Redwood Highway for nothing. Our post-work, all night commute was finally coming to an end. Soon, I wouldn’t be gazing through a glass pane at the primeval giants lining the road. Soon, we’d be able to step out of the car and run amongst them.

Our weekend run-cation in Northern California was a relatively spontaneous one. I was originally supposed to host a snow camping event for PNW Outdoor Women and Mack was registered to run a race in the Chuckanuts. Unfortunately, an impending winter storm forced me to cancel my event and Mack’s race was canceled due to a fatal plane crash on the course. Weather was looking horrendous throughout Washington and Oregon, so it only seemed logical to head south.

 

Miners’ Ridge and James Irvine Loop

Our first adventure of the day was exploring Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a place that holds a particularly special place in my heart. Back in 2012, when I packed up my Honda Civic and made the drive up from Yorba Linda to Portland to move in with Mack, this was where I stopped on my second day of driving. Having just graduated from college and uprooted myself from my family, I was filled with anxiety about the new chapter I was about to embark on. Those hours spent in Prairie Creek brought a sense of peace and stillness that I hadn’t experienced in months. I was excited to be back to share the wonder of this place with Mack.

We started the loop shortly after sunrise while the park was still quiet and were immediately greeted by some of the most magnificent redwoods right outside of the visitor center! The golden grasses of Elk Prairie across the way were soon out of sight as we delved deeper into an ancient forest of redwood and spruce via James Irvine Trail. The forecast for the day called for rain, but Prairie Creek remained steadfastly sunny. The light bursting through the tree canopy only added to its idyllic quality.

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Can you see the profile of a bearded face?
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Trees along James Irvine Trail

Ironically enough, the most magical part of Prairie Creek had nothing to do with the coastal redwoods! After a few miles on James Irvine, we descended into Fern Canyon, following Home Creek’s narrow path through towering walls densely coated in a lush layer of ferns and mosses. We had an absolute blast scrambling over downed trees and splashing through the creek (which served as the only trail surface at times). My 90’s nerd-child self delighted in the fact that I was getting to channel my inner Julianne Moore/Sarah Harding and explore a scene from The Lost World: Jurassic Park, too! The vertical walls became lower and lower until we were eventually spit out onto the grasslands of Gold Bluffs Beach.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I hate running on the beach. Sand is one of my least favorite surfaces in general. I tried to convince Mack that it would be more fun to just do an out-and-back and return the way we came (mostly because I wanted to see Fern Canyon again). Unlike me, Mack is more of a beach person and enjoys getting his ass kicked trying to run in the sand. He encouraged me to continue the short 1.5 miles to Miners’ Ridge Trail. We were only there for the morning afterall. Wouldn’t it be nice to see another part of the park?

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Entering Fern Canyon

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I think I recognize this section from The Lost World
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Gold Bluffs Beach
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These elk appeared to be in a heated battle just moments earlier

I’d naively expected Miners’ Ridge Trail to be similar to–if not a spitting image of–the James Irvine section, but it felt surprisingly different, possessing a greater air of mystery even. Everything seemed darker and more dense, from the trees themselves to the lush underbrush covering the forest floor. The trail does sit a bit higher in elevation than James Irvine and spends less time along a creek. I imagine this contributes to its pleasantly contrasting qualities. We were definitely happy to have experienced a different section of the park as opposed to completing a return along the same route. Back at the car, the crowds were starting to pick up. After a small snack/early lunch we were back on the road headed to our next running destination.

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Trees along Miners’ Ridge Trail

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A particularly gnarled old-growth tree on Miners’ Ridge Trail
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Beautiful giants right outside the visitor center

 

Stout Grove and Mill Creek Trail

As per usual, we’d taken longer than expected to complete our first route. In addition, we also took a wrong turn on the way to the Stout Grove Trailhead and had to backtrack. We didn’t arrive until after 1 pm. We originally planned to do a longer route here along Mill Creek to reach Nickerson Ranch Trail and the Boy Scout Tree Trail. Although we ended up cutting the mileage by over half, the small amount of the park that we did explore was still enough to experience its beauty and quiet majesty.

We started out in the Stout Grove, a short stroll from the parking area. Its not known for having the tallest trees of the Redwood State Parks, but its certainly an impressive and unbelievably scenic stand, even more so than any section of Prairie Creek (in my personal opinion)! It was also surprisingly lacking in crowds and tourist groups, and there weren’t any trailhead kiosks and signage present. Their absence gave the entire grove a more wild, untrammeled feel (despite the existence of a trail). I could’ve wandered around this half mile loop for hours and still be in constant awe by the end. There was still the Grove of Titans to see though, so we moved on and planned to complete the short loop on the way back to the car.

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Admiring trees in the Stout Grove
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The famous Stout Tree (I think…)

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After crossing the unexpectedly frigid waters of Mill Creek, we continued on Mill Creek Trail, passing through another, more hidden grove of redwoods. The subsequent miles were a little less interesting until the titans came into view. Unlike Stout Grove though, the Grove of Titans are more spaced out rather than densely packed together. The thick underbrush made them difficult to spot at times and the largest of the trees were off-trail. The photos below definitely don’t do justice to their grandiose stature, but staying on the trail was necessary to protect the fragile landscape from further erosion. We turned around just short of Howland Hill Road (where most people start the Grove of Titans hike) as the forecasted rain finally hit.

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Entering the Grove of Titans

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Re-entering the Stout Grove felt like returning home to a place of comfort and warmth (despite the fact that it was still cold and wet outside). Our “run” through the grove before returning to the car was more of a slow and stately jog in order to truly connect with the timelessness of these silent guardians that have stood watch for (potentially) hundreds of years. Of all the areas (of both parks) that we’d explored throughout the day, this was my favorite. It was a fitting place to end our mini-tour of the Northern California coastal redwoods.

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Back in the Stout Grove

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We meant to include a second day of adventure running on the Southern Oregon Coast, but, unfortunately, the winter storms up north made their way down to us. We woke up in a rest stop to torrential rain, several periods of hail, and even some snow when we started the drive! A tickle in my throat (which, by the next day, turned into a debilitating cold and fever) further convinced me that our run just wasn’t meant to be. Thankfully, as we drove back up the 101, the weather let up briefly and allowed us to explore a couple highlights of the Oregon Coast Trail that we’d hoped to run. To put it simply, they were nothing short of amazing, and I was more than a little sad that we’d bailed on our plans (until the weather moved back in and I remembered we had good reason). It wasn’t quite the Sunday we envisioned, but we still had Saturday’s magical redwood tour and now we have more reason to plan another coastal adventure down this way in the future.

Looking out at the next section we’re going to explore: Natural Bridges
Mack (the white speck in the middle) hiking/scrambling the spine of one of the bridges

I hiked and scrambled down too to experience this view

 

Wilson River Trail E2E2E

  • Date: January 27, 2018
  • Location: Tillamook State Forest
  • Start: Elk Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 42 miles (only completed 39-ish)
  • Duration: 10 hours 15 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 3950 feet (one way)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: Oregon Hikers

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. That was the only word (minus a certain descriptive expletive preceding the word “stupid”) racing through my head as we stumbled through the Tillamook State Forest in the pitch black. Our inadequate sources of light barely lit up the trail a few feet in front of us. I became more and more paranoid with each step, terrified that I would take a fall and injure myself, or that we’d have a surprise encounter with any of the nocturnal predators that lurk in the forest. The rain was coming down hard at this point, but it was fear that saturated me, seeped into my skin, resonating deep within my bones. Why had I thought this would be a good idea?

We started late in the morning just before 7 am. It seems silly to call that “late” since the sun had yet to rise, but 42 miles was a very new distance for us. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect but I anticipated needing the entire day. It was already raining when we started up the first hill leading out of the campground parking area. Once we were in the trees we were somewhat protected. Mack had me lead so he wouldn’t end up running too far in front of me. My legs were still getting reacquainted with this sport. Mack had been doing a fantastic job of keeping up his big mileage weeks over the past couple of months since our previous race in November. I, on the other hand, stopped running entirely for 20+ days in December and early January. I could blame that hiatus on my busy schedule but, at the heart of it, was lack of motivation and feelings of defeat. My hope was that Wilson River would light a fire under my ass and reignite the spark that had been missing from my most recent attempts to get back into it.

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A cloudy dawn in the forest

We weren’t greeted with sunshine, just cloudy skies and fog, but daylight allowed us to put away our headlamps and pick up the pace. Silhouettes and shadows were replaced with a sea of green. Sword ferns, salal, and Oregon grape blanketed the slopes while moss coated the trees and rocks. Despite being the dead of winter, the forest was already exhibiting signs of spring. Even from a few of the viewpoints from up high along the route, snow was nowhere to be seen as we looked out over the forested mountains of the coast range. At least it was one less obstacle to deal with. Although the trail itself offers some of the best (if not the best) tread for running, its constant undulating elevation profile makes it deceptively challenging. The first 9-10 miles alone (from Elk Creek to Diamond Mill) gain 3500+ feet!

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Lots of mini-falls and creek crossings

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One of the Lester Creek Pinnacles

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The Diamond Mill suspension bridge over the North Fork Wilson River brought an ironic sense of relief. We weren’t quite halfway through our end-to-end (and barely a quarter of the way done with the entire run!). I think the relief I was feeling stemmed from my memory of running the Elk-Kings 25K back in 2015. At this point in the route, there were less than 3 miles left to run. If only the same could be said about our current situation. We took a short snack break after crossing the deceptively slick bridge then continued on more mellow terrain past Lester Creek Falls (which we’d never noticed until this run), Jones Creek Day Use Area, and the beautiful Tillamook Forest Center. Another false sense of relief swept over me when the Wilson River Suspension Bridge came into view. If this were the Go Beyond Racing event, we’d be running across that bridge to a victorious finish, nourishing food and refreshments, and warm and dry clothes back in the car. On the contrary, all was silent. There was nobody and nothing waiting for us across that bridge. We were alone, and the comforts I was fantasizing about were miles away at Elk Creek Trailhead.

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Suspension bridge at Diamond Mill
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North Fork Wilson River (looking south from the bridge)
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North Fork Wilson River (looking north from the bridge)
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Just my luck…
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Lester Creek Falls
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Wilson River Suspension Bridge and Tillamook Forest Center

We enjoyed a few more miles of minimal climbing, taking in the views of Wilson River now that the trail was practically hugging it. The rain continued off and on, and the seemingly endless creek crossings left our socks perpetually soaked. Continuous movement was the only way to stay warm. There were some upsides though. I absolutely hate running in the heat (basically any temp above 70-75 degrees), so the cool 40-50 degree weather kept me from burning out too fast. In addition, the cold and wet kept potential crowds–well, Wilson River Trail never gets that crowded per se–at bay. I’m pretty sure I could count the number of people we saw all day on one hand.

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Particularly lush section along Wilson River
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Wilson Falls
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New favorite adventure running sustenance

The final stretch between Wolf Creek Road and Keenig Creek Trailhead saw another 1000+ feet of elevation gain over the course of six miles. It wasn’t much compared to that of the first 9-10 miles, but we were very much ready for a break (and to be halfway done). I was starting to feel a bit of pain in my right knee, which made the miles go by even slower and caused my level of stress to skyrocket. Thankfully, as soon as we hit Cedar Butte Road, the pain seemed to subside (or was just overshadowed by my immense excitement that the rest of the way was downhill). We flew down 1.5 miles of switchbacks before bursting through the trees and into the empty parking lot, exhilarated and exhausted. 21 miles down, but 21 to go…

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Wolf Creek
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Wolf Creek
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And more Wolf Creek
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Keenig Creek Trailhead = halfway done!

What goes down must come up. After a fairly brief snack break and some reluctance to begin again, we headed back up the switchbacks I’d been so ecstatic about earlier. Now I was groaning as I forced my tired legs to hike uphill. High spirits resumed once we reached Cedar Butte Road again and were able to pick up the pace. I took my final photos of our run–though I was still under the impression I’d be taking a couple more back at the car when we finished–shortly after we crossed Wolf Creek Road.

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Crossing the footbridges at Wolf Creek
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Yeah…can’t get enough of Wolf Creek apparently
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Still many miles to go

Reaching the Wilson River-Footbridge Trail junction (just over six miles in) felt like forever and definitely hampered my will to continue. It was already getting late into the afternoon, too. Sunset was about an hour away and we still had 15 tough miles remaining. I can’t speak for Mack, but my body started to shut down at this point. I shuffled along the best I could but ended up having to walk–more like crawl–at a time when we really needed to be moving fast.

The sun was already beginning to set by the time we reached the Tillamook Forest Center. At the pace we were going (because of me), I knew it would be hours before we reached Elk Creek Trailhead. Of course, we’d forgotten to bring along our Garmin inReach and had absolutely no cell service to call and let our emergency contact know that we’d be running very late. I could feel the panic start to fester in me (mainly because I didn’t want SAR called on us due to lack of communication). I even suggested to Mack that we bail at the Jones Creek Trailhead and run along Hwy 6 to Elk Creek Trailhead (which would’ve cut our remaining mileage in half) so we could return at a reasonable hour and get in touch with our contact. He thought it would be more dangerous, so we stuck to the trail.

It was completely dark when we crossed the North Fork Wilson River and headed back into the forest to work our way through the most difficult/strenuous section of the route. It was primarily uphill so I wasn’t running. Hell, I was barely able to power hike. Emotions began to pour out of me. I was angry and frustrated with my abilities, as well as the fact that we’d forgotten to bring such an important piece of equipment (that we’d specifically purchased for situations like this!). At some point it started raining again. We picked our way carefully up and down the trail, depending primarily on Mack’s handheld flashlight since my headlamp was completely inadequate. We ran whenever possible, but moving in the pitch black was slow going to say the least.

At long last,–literally, we’d been moving for over two hours since crossing the North Fork–we reached the junction with Kings Mountain Trail. Our trailhead was still nearly four miles away and it was already 8 pm. We decided to head down to Kings Mountain Trailhead (a short 0.1 mile away). Upon reaching the parking lot, every last ounce of energy that I’d sustained with adrenaline for the previous two hours suddenly left me. My entire body seemed to go limp. I could barely see straight or stand up. Mack headed down Hwy 6 in the rain to pick up his car at Elk Creek about 2.5 miles away. I was too drained to move and sat in the rain shoving Goldfish into my mouth. I finally picked myself up and spent the remainder of my time shut inside the toilet, shaking and shivering in the 30-something degree weather. This image, sitting in a trailhead toilet, beat down and unable to even complete the final 2.5 road miles to the car, felt like the epitome of failure in that moment. I sat dazed in the car on the way home, staring at the streaks of water splash across the window, dreaming of BBQ and pineapple pizza to take my mind off of my immense disappointment.

Artist Point

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

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

Our best family portrait ever captured by Stacia

 

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

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

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

Austin Pass Visitor Center below Table Mountain
Another of Austin Pass Visitor Center
About half of our group

Typical snow-eating Cassie with Kulshan Ridge in the background
Mount Shuksan!
“Why are you humans so damn slow?”

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

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

Good afternoon, Baker!
Yeah…we had a big group

Another view of our row of tents
Crowd gathering to hear the Musical Mountaineers!
Rose (keyboard) and Anastasia (violin), the Musical Mountaineers

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

Photo by John

Photo by (other) Jon
One more Shuksan shot (by Stacia)

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

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

Dinner in the dark
Cassie and Meghan
Such a bright and clear night!
Midnight wanderings
Midnight wanderings continued

 

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

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

Morning snuggles
Chasing the sunrise

Morning light on Baker

Shuksan sunrise
Finally warming up

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

Breakfast time

Cassie with Stacia and Jon
The crew

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

Tamanawas Falls

  • Date: December 28, 2017
  • Location: Mount Hood
  • Start: East Fork-Tamanawas Trailhead
  • Distance: 3.8 miles
  • Duration: 2 hours 34 minutes (breaks included)
  • Elevation gain: 500 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Map: Adventure Maps: Mount Hood Area
  • References:Β 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: PortlandΒ 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.

Licking the ice rather than drinking the water
Alongside Cold Spring Creek
So many marshmallows

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.

First view from the trail!
View from the creek

Family portrait

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!

Can you see the tiered formation?

Icicles

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?

Sunny and snowy forest walk

Hood River from the footbridge
Another view of Hood River
What a multi-sport trip (with Cassie) looks like in my car