THE PLACE TO GO WHEN YOU CAN'T GO BACKPACKING

Author

James Robberson

James Robberson has 5 articles published.

Washington Hikes for Visitors of All Abilities

in Trails by
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As hikers, we feel compelled to send out pictures of the beautiful places we’ve seen in our backcountry travels. As hosts, we feel compelled to take our guests to these places if they’ve requested to see them. But as hikers we’ve all struggled to find the right hikes for our visiting friends and family with varying fitness levels. Fear not, we’ve created a list that will help you settle on a Washington hike that is just right for the wide range of visitors you’ve let move into your guest room.

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If your guest:

Spends most of their days killing aliens from the stained couch of their living room command center, has ordered pizza after midnight at least twice in the last seven days, takes the elevator instead of the stairs up a single floor, considers a trek out to the mailbox the prerequisite amount of physical activity for one day and probably won’t die from a bit of exercise…

Take them to:

Mt. Rainier and do the Borough Mountain hike. This is a late summer hike that starts from the Rainier Gift Shop at the top of Sunrise (plenty of trinkets and bags of Cheetos), wonders by a neon blue lake fed by melting glaciers and ends up on top of Borough Mountain One where the views are monumental. Since it’s an out and back treck, this hike can be as long or short as you want it, so you can always abort if video game withdrawal kicks in. To hike to the top of Borough One prep your guest for about 5.4 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation. Pack a lunch, because you’ll want to stay and enjoy the top for a while and bring an extra set of poles, because lingering snow can make the trail a little sketchy.

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If your guest:

Spends most of their days sitting at a desk typing TPS reports, has been to the gym at least twice in the last seven days, has been thinking about running a 10k for the past five years but has never actually gone through with it and orders skinny lattes and sandwiches with no cheese…

Take them to:

Mt. Rainier and hike the Spray Park Loop. This hike opens up after July 4th and is a bit of a drive from Seattle, but it’s worth the car time. The hike starts at Mowich Lake, a huge alpine lake that captures pristine reflections of Rainier. The trail rambles up through an old growth forest to an alpine meadow at the base of the mountain where the wildflowers are as dense as tourists at the original Starbucks; and not once will you encounter a PC Load Letter error. To reach the alpine fields you’ll cover a distance of roughly 7.0 miles and gain about 1,000 feet of elevation.

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If your guest:

Spends most of their days gardening or knitting, remembers the days of external frame backpacks and canvas tents, likes to tell you stories of how they used to run seven miles a day when they were your age, and still has that mental toughness to bag a fairly difficult hike…

Take them to:

Mt. Baker and hike the Park Butte Trail. The hike starts low and winds through some beautiful open scenery, then crosses a glacial stream and begins gaining elevation pretty quickly. This is a steeper hike, so you’ll need to take it slow, but once you exit the forest the views open up on Mount Baker in all its glory. To get to the top you’ll cover 5.0 mile and gain 2,000 feet of elevation. Again this is an out and back trek so you can turn around if your guest decides they’d rather be knitting than panting heavily. If they’re still feeling great once your reach the top, you can branch off at a fork in the trail to Railroad Ridge Grade and hike up to a ridge that peers down into the expanse carved by a glacier.

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If your guest:

Has the ironman symbol tattooed somewhere on their body, drinks beverages that look like ground up moss, runs 5 miles before you’ve changed out of your pajamas, and is currently training for their next trip to Leadville…

Take them to:

Mt. Rainier and hike the Wonderland Trail to Indian Bar/Cowlitz Divide. This is another late summer hike, but is far enough out of the way that the crowds are manageable the few months it’s open. The trail begins from the Box Canyon trailhead and climbs precipitously from mile one to mile three. After about three miles you’ll crest the ridge and the climbing will be mostly over. The next four miles you’ll wonder along the ridge with only the views of Rainier to occupy your time. Depending on daylight, you can make this hike as long as you want it to be. If you hike the backcountry ranger station at Indian Bar and turn around you’ll end up tallying about 15 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Bring something to wash down the huckleberries, because they are thick and untouched in this area.

Trail Personalities Part 2

in Fireside by

You know they’re out there. Here are three more trail personalities.

After countless hours on the trail a hiker begins to notice recurring trail personalities, different individuals with strikingly similar tendencies. My first three have already been revealed. Three more favorites today.

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THE SPONGE: If there is one thing that a northwest hiker knows, it is how to dress on a rainy day. The sponge, however, missed this day in Seattle hiker’s training 101. On sunny days the sponge stays home. On rainy days he heads to the trail dressed entirely in cotton. The Sponge gives no thought to the weather forecast, or the fact that it’s been raining for 29 days straight. His attire is something a normal person would wear to a Mariner’s game, or to lay around the house on Saturday to watch college football. Rain gear, who needs it? He has a Metallica t-shirt and some holey jeans. Water-repellent pants and shoes, not a chance! He needs to be nimble and fast so he wears sweat pants and some light-weight mesh running shoes. Backpack, I don’t think so. All the sponge needs is a water bottle and a pocket full of gummy bears.

THE TRAIL STATUE: The Trail Statue is often encountered alongside the trail equidistant from the trailhead and the turnaround point. The Statue doesn’t have the physical endurance of an Olympian, but he does have enough motivation and self-confidence to start out on that difficult trail. From the onset The Statue’s motivation springs a leak and drips onto the trail like a broken fuel line. The Statue always makes it up the first steep part of the trail, the good ones make up the second hump, but by the third steep incline their tanks are empty. Sitting there in purgatory, The Statue isn’t ready to give up on the goal destination, but his body isn’t cooperating. The opposing forces of pride and fatigue freeze the statue like a hero that has stared into Medusa’s eyes.

THE TIME TRAVELER: It is common practice for most hikers to keep a mental odometer of their mileage as they work their way towards a final destination.  It is also common practice for hikers to conduct accuracy checks on this odometer as they approach their turn-around point or campsite.   These checks usually occur when the brain’s notification mechanism begins its steadily increasing pings of “we are really close…I mean really, really close.”   In almost all cases, the hiker resists the urge to pull out the map or read the hike description they’ve printed. Instead, the hiker chooses to direct inquiries at fellow hikers passing in the opposite direction.  What the out-bound hiker seldom realizes is that upon reaching the turn-around point, the home-bound hiker has become a Time Traveler.  The half-finished bag of Doritos in the car has fully captured the home-bound hikers focus; it’s short-circuited his mental clock and the two miles he’s covered from the turn-around point has only taken “five minutes.”  In almost all cases, the Time Traveler rounds out the good news with an emphatic “you’re almost there!”

Trail Personalities

in Fireside/Trails by

You know they’re out there.

The human brain is driven to recognize patterns, to identify recurring themes in our external environment. A hiker’s brain is no different, and after countless hours on the trail a hiker begins to notice recurring personalities, different individuals with strikingly similar tendencies. My first three favorites today.

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THE OFFENSIVE LINEMAN: In the world of obstruction, The Offensive Lineman reigns supreme. His sole objective, his primary focus in life, is to ensure that you are moving as slowly as possible towards your final destination. This individual, uncanny in his ability to ignore passive coughs, telepathic in his capacity to swerve in anticipation of your passing moves, relentless in his dedication to maintain the lead. Nature has not blessed him with speed, nor the humility to let you pass by, but it has blessed him with the heart of a lion. Pass carefully, or you could end up in a ravine on the side of the trail.

THE TELEPORTER: Halfway up the trail and your thighs feel like an angry gorilla has been tenderizing them like an overripe banana. Three quarters of the way there and you’re debating whether to pawn your hiking gear or sell it all on Craigslist. Ten feet from the top and your calves are locked into a shriek-inducing, toe-curling cramp. Once on top you collapse in a heap to enjoy the hard-earned victory over a grueling hike; but before your calves let go The Teleporter wanders into view, a frail elderly type no less than 133 years old, shuffling to a stop with a smile on his face. His pack is twice the size of yours, his walking stick is ten times heavier than your titanium trekking poles, and he smells of Ludens and moth balls. You have no idea how this man has arrived at this destination looking so rested and self-confident, but you suspect there is a technology involved that is unavailable to the young and arrogant.

THE UMBRELLA: In the world of spectator sports there is a special hatred for the umbrella. Most professional stadiums no longer allow them, but for amateur affairs it’s not unusual for an umbrella to appear on soggy afternoons, blooming like a flower from the seat in front of you at the stadium. One thing that most umbrellas have in common (aside from the fact that you will immediately die if you open one indoors) is that the human eye cannot see through them. On the trail, The Umbrella takes the form of an iPhone photographer. This individual usually arrives just moments before you and has settled down for a long photo-shoot in the middle of the most perfect photographic scene of the hike. In all cases The Umbrella loiters around long enough to snap 37 blurry, poorly composed iPhone pictures. In most cases The Umbrella leaves the scene after the alpenglow has disappeared into the night alongside your dreams of a National Geographic feature.

There are  more Trail Personalities to come. Next up: The Sponge, The Trail Statue and The Time Traveler.

 

Hiking Glacier National Park – Five Days and Seventy Miles

in Trails by
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What my wife and I truly love about hiking can be distilled down to three critical components: (1) hot coffee in the morning, (2) lunch with a view, and (3) a hot shower to close things down. Sure, warm clothes, a soft sleeping pad and beautiful weather are not frowned upon, but for us these are the three legs of the stool. We’d structured our trip to Glacier National Park, a stunningly beautiful, inconceivably photographic hiking mecca at the northern end of the U.S. rocky mountains, around this checklist and we had, with much focus, determination and perhaps a bit of inflexibility, managed to check all three boxes off each day on the first four days of our trip.

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On the fourth night the rain had started early enough post shower for us to skip the campfire conversation and hot chocolate and retreat to the protection of the tent.  After covering fifty miles in four days, the soft patter of rain on the Nylon Ripstop fly and the synthetic goodness of a Big Agnes down sleeping bag on top of a Paco Pad had quickly ushered us to sleep.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a “Paco Pad” is the Rolls Royce of sleeping pads, more expensive than most tents they’re used inside of and more comfortable than a soft sand beach with marshmallow pillows. We had been graciously loaned these pads by the company we’d hired to show us around the park, Glacier Guides. The pads are, I am told, the choice for most river guides because they have an invaluable ability to float, they are extremely waterproof, and they do come in sizes large enough for a small band of refugees (and maybe one small terrier) to flee Cuba on. I’m also told you can use them to pad the sharp edges of your beer cooler, which may be their most important feature of all.

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As the world slowly came back into focus inside the dusky blue glow of our tent many hours after falling asleep on one of these treasures I realized there was an inquisitive voice floating questions at us from outside.

“Guys…are you okay in there?” our guide Jen asked with a hint of amusement in her voice.

“Uh…yeah, all parts seem to be moving as expected” I responded without much consideration.

“That’s good.” A pause as she moved on to the more important question. “Are you dry in there?”

When waking up after a night of steady rain this is typically not the question you’d like to hear from someone standing outside of your tent. On this particular occasion the question was asked with the hint of concealment and punctuated with an intonation of impending revelation. I reacted how one would expect a person inside a tent to respond to that particular question, with a quick police-style pat down of my sleeping bag, the smelly clothes scattered around my head, and the floor beneath my sleeping pad.

After a second pat down I accepted that all important items were perfectly dry, but an interesting thing happened as I continued to investigate.  Really, the best way to describe what happened next is with a sound; that sound would be BLOOP.  I’m not sure if that was really the sound the water made as I poked the bubbled-up floor of my tent with an index finger and watched a ripple expand from the water bladder surrounding all sides of my Paco Pad island, but that’s not important.

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After a second and third gratuitous poke we decided to evacuate the tent.  As we unzipped the circular mesh tent door we discovered that our shelter was positioned ever so perfectly in the middle of a pool of muddy ankle deep water.  A quick splash through the pond, a photograph, and a jerk of the tent to higher ground put us in good standing again.  As we dragged our gear out and broke down this 10 year old, heavily used tent we didn’t find an inch of damp cloth, not a single bead of moisture on the inside (thank you, Kelty).  Some trips, against all odds, manage to avoid all attempts at unpleasantness and this trip to Glacier had succeeded at accomplishing just that.

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We ended up spending that last day circling Rising Wolf Mountain, a massive, glacially-carved hunk of granite overlooking Two Medicine Lake.  Our mandatory coffee was sipped at a small diner in the company of local farmers, lunch in the company of a chilly, low sitting cloud on top of a ridge, looking down at two alpine lakes thousands of feet below us. After lunch we’d headed higher, disappearing into the clouds that had settled on the mountain top. We’d traversed the pass gingerly, across narrow ledges dusted with snow from the previous night’s storm. On a rare occasion, when the clouds felt like we had earned it, they’d break and give us a peak at of the U-shape valleys below and the glaciers sitting like cream colored throw blanket on the peaks across their expanses; and after 17 miles, when the choice was given to us to take a boat or hike two more miles, we’d hiked.

Yellowstone – Rugged as Ever

in Trails by
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Over the course of four days, with a guide to help us find the best hikes, my wife, our guide and I covered sixty miles in Yellowstone National Park, seeing countless wide-open meadows, miles of meandering streams, and some of the best scenery one can hope to find anywhere in the world. I counted as we passed mile after mile, and we encountered ten people over the course of these four days in the backcountry. This number was admittedly very surprising to me because it completely contradicted our experiences on the road driving to the trailheads.

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I glanced through a high-powered scope watching as the larger of two wolves nipped the hind quarters of the smaller of two grizzlies.  The four animals were engaged in some type of standoff, with the canines shooting in to harass the slower bears and then retreating as the larger, more powerful grizzlies reversed course and charged back at the nimble wolves.  This dance went back and forth for thirty minutes or so as members of our group debated why these four were going at each other.  Some suggested a kill was being guarded, others thought the wolves might be guarding a den.  A consensus was never reached on the topic, but such is the nature of observation from a mile and half away.  A consensus was reached, however, on how lucky we are to have not chosen the trail passing immediately by the scene for that day’s hike.

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Only twelve hours earlier, on the way to the trail that morning, I had listened to my guide tell the story of a fatal grizzly attack that occurred in 2011 in the park. In the early summer months Brian Matayoshi and his wife Marylyn surprised a mother grizzly while on a hike. The sow, acting in defense of her cubs, charged the two hikers. Brian attempted to distract the bear from his wife. Marylyn ran, but the bear tracked her down shortly after brutalizing her husband. Marylyn’s backpack absorbed most of the bear’s fury and she escaped with minor injuries, but Brian died from his injuries.

Our guide wrapped up this story up as our minivan slowed to a stop. Looking uproad, we saw that we had come across what is commonly referred to as a “bear jam”, a cluster of cars and people in the road most probably looking at something brown and fuzzy in the distance. Eventually we moved close enough to find a parking spot and jump out of the car to find the subject of everyone’s interest. With a little direction we were able to find, using only our 10X zoom binoculars this time, a mother grizzly and three playful cubs tromping through high grass that separated a meadow from a wooded area. We loitered and enjoyed the scene for a while, then hopped back in the car and continued on our way. We probably would have stayed longer if that hadn’t been the second grizzly with three cubs that we had seen in the last hour.

These types of scenes, and the frequency at which they occur, make Yellowstone a destination for over 3 million visitors a year (3.4 million in 2012). Combine this with the fact that at over 3,472 square miles, Yellowstone only maintains 466 miles of road and you begin to understand the term “bottleneck.”  It’s an especially infuriating type of bottleneck, where the liquid can suddenly freeze and remain stuck for hours at a time. The bottlenecks are a necessary evil, but can be mostly avoided through a few simple maneuvers. First, get up early and pack a thermos of coffee. Second, when you pass a trailhead that looks appealing, stop your vehicle and turn off the engine. Third and most importantly, grab your bear spray, throw on a backpack loaded with the ten essentials and walk away from the road.

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After much trail time to consider, I formed some ideas on why there might be such a problem with traffic but few hikers on the trails. There are over 1,000 miles of trail in the Yellowstone backcountry. Every mile of these trails is wild and unfiltered (with perhaps the exception of a few boardwalks). At last count there were over 700 grizzly bears roaming the parks through which these trails cut. We had witnessed eight sightings of this beast in a single day, and had listened to one extremely disconcerting tale of an encounter gone wrong. Is there any stronger deterrent out there?

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Let’s take it one step further (I work with numbers so I like to quantify my ideas). Let’s say only two percent of the park’s annual visitors are willing to set off into the wild with Ursus arctos horribilis (yes,the Latin name for the North American Grizzly contains the word horribilis); that’s roughly 168,000 brave hikers per year. Spread most of those hikers out across the four summer months (eighty percent or so), and you have 13,500 hikers visiting the park a month during the summer. Assume that the average hiker decides to spend a week in the park, and that drops the number to 3,400 hikers walking the trails per week. Split these hikers across 92 trail heads in the park and you have 36 hikers per trailhead. Assuming that there are about 6 or so good hours to start your hike and you end up with 6 departures per hour, or one every 10 minutes. Now take this inconsequently small number and divide it by 1,000 miles of trail and you get a lot of solitude. Enjoy them, but only in groups of three or more…and don’t forget your bear spray.

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