From where we sat with our backs against a white-speckled granite rock on the top of Mather Pass at 12,100 feet in the southern Sierra, the view could have fit with any good post-apocalyptic science fiction novel: bare jumbled rock spreading away to the horizon south and north, rimmed by the next column of stark dry peaks, sparse alpine plants clinging to fragile rootholds, scattered tarns reflecting the striking blue sky above, and not another soul in sight for miles. It would be easy to imagine that something big went “BOOM!” here and the lifeless land had not yet healed its scars.
Editor’s Note: Catch up on the author’s John Muir Trail Part I here
The Bighorn Plateau, as seen from the John Muir Trail, is an enigma; a broad, panoramic expanse of golden grassland, waving lupine and scattered, majestic Foxtail pines in the midst of one of the most rough-and-tumbled fault-block granite mountain ranges in the world. Apparently, according to geologists, the Plateau and the adjoining gently sloping country up to the Whitney summit were remnants of an ancient eroded north-south mountain range from the Cretaceous, lifted dramatically up with the rest of the range in the series of cataclysmic events that raised the Sierras. Subsequent faulting and uplift would raise the younger crags around us, and glaciers would scour the Plateau and the lower flanks of Whitney, but where we walked the topography under our feet was very old indeed.
The John Muir Trail’s narrow tread stretched ahead across the flatland as far as our eyes could see, with ghostly grey-blue peaks framing the vista from southeast to northwest in the far distance, and the shadows of fast-scudding clouds zipping quickly westward across the flat lands in front of us. One of the cuts in those high granite walls on the horizon was legendary Forester Pass, the high point of the entire Pacific Crest Trail at 13,153’ elevation, and our target for first thing the next morning.
We had left our camp at Crabtree Meadow below Mount Whitney at first light that morning and headed north on the John Muir Trail. It was day four of our journey, and we were amped by our previous day’s success reaching the summit of Whitney with energy to spare. Almost before our day had fully begun we had already reached Wallace Creek and the junction with the High Sierra Trail, a 50-mile west to east traverse of the Sierras from the Big Trees area of Sequoia Park. The campground here was bustling, one of the few concentrations of humanity (other than Whitney Summit) that we would encounter on our entire 11-day, 140 mile journey on the southern John Muir Trail. In recognition of its heavy use, the park had even installed bear lockers near the junction.
From Wallace Creek the trail climbed steeply up through the trees over a sequence of moraine benches before suddenly dumping us onto the Bighorn Plateau. Winding mostly north-northwest, our path took us past clusters of squat but majestic Foxtail pines, a rarified breed found at treeline only in this part of the southern Sierra and in another small refugio in the Klamath Mountains of northern California. Like their famous relatives the Bristlecone Pines, Foxtail trees are capable of great longevity. Clinging to rocky treeline flats and exposed crags, their lives are seriously harsh – sheared and seared by lightning, twisted and broken by wind, stunted by snow and short seasons. Many trees show only tiny strips of living tissue on the outside of massive stems of naked polished wood. And yet they successfully reproduce, their artful cones like small elaborate woodcarvings displayed on the trees’ few residual green limbs, and young trees pushing up through the rocks and kitty-litter-granite soil under our feet. One could only stand back and admire their strength and fortitude.
By mid afternoon, dark thunder clouds threatened and we pitched our tent under the trail side stand of trees near picturesque Tyndall Creek, a bubbling, cheerful watercourse draining the several stark lakes immediately beneath the steep rock headwall leading up to Forester Pass. Lightning began to flash and rain pelted the trees and dry duff around our tent, but the storm passed almost as soon as it had begun, a pattern that would prove typical of our entire trip. Through-hikers determined to complete their 25 to 30 miles per day would just keep walking through the torrent, heads down, seemingly willing the lightning to miss them. We had planned our trip with a bit more genteel schedule, allowing us to make camp every day before the storms hit and watch the weather spectacle from the vestibule of our dry tent with a hot beverage. Wandering a bit after the storm had passed, we climbed briefly to treeline and the lonely trail marker for distant Lake South America, beside a rocky footpath heading off into the vast rolling empty moraine land beyond the darkening horizon. More desolate and forbidding country we could scarce imagine, and we skittered back to our warm camp for dinner.
Another early wake-up, this time full of anticipation for the crossing of Forester Pass five miles ahead. The light of morning provided a more optimistic perspective on the desolate tarn-studded rockland of the high basin before us. Several snow-fed lakes lined the trail, not a ripple fouling the mountain reflections in their grey surface. Finally there was no way to avoid the reality: the trail to the pass was going to go straight up a vertical rockpile. Yet arriving at its edge a real gravel trail actually wound through and around the rocks taking us steeply and unerringly to the sharp notch that was Forester.
A sign with the elevation was a photo-op, documenting our conquest of the pass with the high basin and lakes stretching behind the sign to the south. The trail descended even more precipitously as it had climbed, winding down through the scree, back to treeline and a camp in the trees of Vidette Meadow with a fantastic view of the sunset on East Vidette Peak.
So this was to be the rhythm of our days in the southern Sierra. In a single day we would traverse the stark rocky heights brooded over by the scattered massive Foxtail, on a long gradual climb to a headwall and high pass, then back down around snowmelt tarns and through picturesque sub-alpine and lush mid-elevation forests to cross an east-west river drainage before climbing again to camp at treeline under the next pass. Long approach, headwall, pass, descent, river crossing and then another long approach to the next headwall. We came to savor it and to look forward to each day’s unfolding of the pattern.
Our path at sunrise the next morning followed busy Bubbs Creek downhill, the spires of the Kearsarge Pinnacles shadowing our path and catching the early sun just above us to the north and east. The milestone for this day, our sixth on the trail, was to meet my brother, his wife and two robust young sons from Bishop who were carrying in our resupply over Kearsarge Pass, accompanying us over Glen Pass, and spending the weekend with us at Rae Lakes. Amazingly, given all this empty country, we made our rendezvous as planned at mid-morning and headed uphill toward Glen Pass.
The trail over Glen Pass was a mass of boulders, our trail appearing to have no clear sense of purpose other than to make their way around the enormous obstacles in the path. An unnamed lake just below the trail offered the boys a welcome diversion and they leaped into the water from the adjoining rocks buck naked and screeching with joy. A chance to dry on the warm rocks, a bite of lunch, and we finally made it to the actual pass and glorious views of the spectacular deep jade green Rae Lakes lined with white granite below.
It was a scamper down the steep trail from the pass to the lakes and some of the loveliest camps we were to find on the entire John Muir Trail. Smooth promontories of white granite extended out over the lakes, flat white boulders afforded view-filled tent spots with lake views and sunset on the peaks of Mount Rixford and the Painted Lady to the east, and meadow and rock edged the lake in an artfully curved shoreline. Our youngest nephew caught a small golden trout on a handline, enough for a carefully pan-fried quarter-sized bite. Life could hardly be better.
The next morning, we wandered up a steep side trail into the aptly named Sixty Lakes Basin, soaking in the steadily expanding views of the lakes, contrasting white rock and emerald conifers below, before we had to pack up to allow my brother’s family to get back over the pass and home. It was just a short distance down-trail for John and me to Arrowhead Lake where we pitched our tent in the now kid-less quiet of the woods by the shoreline.
Next: John Muir Trail Part III: The Golden Staircase, Muir Pass and Evolution Basin
Editor’s Note: We’re in the thick of winter. Many fantastic trails are closed or inaccessible and some of our most beloved peaks are out of reach. These photos from Mark Griffith’s late summer climb up Ruth Mountain are gorgeous reminders of just how awesome the North Cascades are after winter has melted away and the trails meander freely through both snow and heather on their way to our favorite summits. Mark’s pictures and musings have all of us at SBM dreaming of summer and adding Ruth Mountain to the 2013 tick list. Enjoy!
Good Morning Ruth
View of Ruth Mountain coming along the ridge of Point 5930′.
Awe and Wonder
Laying on the trail at Hannegan Pass. Facing Ruth the heavens lay above me like a black canopy stretched out; dotted with the million pricks of light, almost tangible and within reach at times and at others far off with a vastness that was overwhelming. How seldom do I contemplate the awe of the heavens. How seldom do I have the opportunity to lay beneath its black cloak? The Milky Way stretched wide across the sky, a band of unfathomable depth, silhouetted on one side by mighty trees rooted to the earth, with their branches seeking skyward.
I could feel my mind and heart expanding at times to embrace in wonder the awe of their immensity and at other times the shrinking insignificance of my place relative to their vastness.
View of first Shuksan and then Baker behind the lower ridges of Ruth Mountain from the heather saddle below Ruth and Point 5930′
Ridge Line Around
View back down on Point 5930′ and a crevasse on the upper snow slopes of Ruth Mountain. This was the only real crevasse and easily avoided. The snow was soft and crampons were a bit of an overkill but the ice axe was necessary.
Nooksack & Shuksan
The Nooksack Glacier hanging above the deep valley on the backside of Mount Shuksan.
The spires of the Pickets as seen from the summit of Ruth Mountain.
Editor’s Note: Seattle Backpackers Magazine is pleased to publish this call to advocacy from the Sierra Club to protect the Okanogoan-Wenatchee National Forest Wildlands that currently stand on the precipice of change.
The ski and snowshoe season is upon us and if you are anything like me you will be traversing I-90 as you head up to Snoqualmie, or maybe you prefer U.S. Route 2, taking you up to Stevens Pass. While the heavy snowfall forecast for the North Cascades will surely meet your winter recreation needs you may also consider this unique forest for the backpacking opportunities it brings as the snow finally melts, giving way to spring and summer.
Just over the North Cascades ridgeline rests one of Washington State’s most cherished natural treasures, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. However, this majestic jewel of the Northern Cascades is facing a steady, unrelenting invasion from motorized vehicles. Destructive dirt bikes and four-wheel ATVs are carving up this spectacular landscape — endangering precious wildlife habitat, ruining peaceful world-class recreation and jeopardizing our water quality. The longer we wait to protect pristine roadless areas the more encroachment there is. Increased road building that fractures the landscape and crowds out wildlife diminishes the natural beauty of the forest.
In the coming months, the Forest Service will have the opportunity to protect the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest by recommending sensitive areas for Wilderness designation. Wilderness offers the highest level of protection possible. But it is up to you and me to make sure they carry out their mission to protect our beloved wild places.
Central Washington National Forests encompass roughly four million acres of public land, featuring miles of trails, a cadre of wild rivers, crystal clear alpine lakes and iconic mountain vistas. Currently, the Okanogan-Wenatchee boasts eight pristine wilderness areas coveted by backpackers for their natural character and prehistoric solitude. The eight awe-inspiring Wilderness areas range from the Pasayten Wilderness on the northern edge of the forest, to the Goat Rocks Wilderness area that resides just below U.S. Route 12 and White Pass. Each has unique characteristics that make these the most pristine areas of the forest and if protected in perpetuity forever available to our kids and grandkids to hike, ride, and play in.
While many outdoor adventurists regularly trek across this forest it seems that few know about the Forest Services’ ongoing efforts to modify the way it manages the forest. These changes can immediately impact hikers, fishermen, campers and boaters alike. For instance, the Forest Service may open up a trail to dirt bikes that has traditionally been for horses and hikers only. Imagine being out with your family, searching for solitude and instead finding the dust and noise these destructive vehicles leave in their wake. You may be peacefully snow-shoeing only to find out that even the non-motorized areas of the forests are now open to snowmobile traffic throughout the entire winter! These types of scenarios are governed by two ongoing processes, formally referred to as the Forest Plan Revision and Travel Management Plan Revision. I think of both as opportunities to protect trails and expand our coveted Wilderness areas. These are chances to change the rules and take back parts of the forest that have been sliced up and invaded by snowmobiles, ATV’s and dirt bikes.
It is easy to get involved and little actions go a long way. Forest-loving volunteers from all over the state are stepping up; some are leading outings to special places and educating trip participants, others are writing short and sweet handwritten letters addressed to Forest Supervisor Rebecca Heath, who is in charge of making some of the biggest decisions.
Some will testify at public hearings, while others make phone calls to community members to encourage the public to show up. And while we wait for new opportunities, volunteers schedule planning discussions so that we are on track to preserve what is left of the natural world. These processes represent considerably rare chances for public input that only come around every twenty years or so and we should be taking full advantage of them. The next opportunity for public input is scheduled to occur sometime in 2013 but now is the time to sign up. Now is the time to raise your hand and learn more about how you can get involved. To get involved or learn more please contact me, Graham Taylor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 378.0114 x328.
We have Wilderness is because of citizen activists and regular everyday backpacking nature lovers like you. Those who came before us recognized the value of the wild. Folks witnessed a developing world and knew they should put some aside, save it and invest in it so that it can be enjoyed in the future. American’s had an extraordinary opportunity to preserve a time machine that could take people back thousands of year before concrete and motors took over. The advocacy of our forefathers provided overwhelming benefits; natural universities for scientists and poets to learn from and gain inspiration, habitat for endangered wildlife and endemic plants, and thousands of acres open to generations of outdoor adventurers. Now is our chance to do the same for our children and grandchildren. Now is our chance to realize, as the indigenous peoples of these lands did, that “we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Now is the time to preserve what we have, restore what is lost and create more Wilderness.
Unfortunately, when given the opportunity, the Forest Service demonstrated an aversion to adding Wilderness. In 2011 they released a preliminary Wilderness recommendation suggesting that only 12 percent of eligible roadless lands should receive protection. If the Forest Service’s suggestion rules the day we will have to wait another two decades before we can permanently protect some of our most beloved wild places here in Washington. In that time, those places may be unrecognizable, gone or changed forever.
The Forest Service’s decision left out places long-prized by legendary mountaineers like Ira Spring, and Harvey Manning; places like the Golden Horn, Long Swamp, Tiffany and Granite Mountain. Further south, the Service declined to nominate any new Wilderness in the Entiat and Chelan ranger districts, ignoring North Navarre Peak, Nason Ridge and the ancient old-growth forests in the surrounding Bumping Lake in the Naches district. In perhaps the most coveted region, the Teanaway, the Forest Service decided to recommend only 15,000 of 75,000 available acres for road-free “primitive” recreation. Many viewed this as a give-away to motorized user groups including dirt bikers, snowmobilers and quad riders. Many hikers shook their heads and have come together to advocate for human-powered recreationists who demand the protection of these ever-receding wildlands. Working in unison with the Sierra Club recreation groups like The Cascadians out of Yakima and Wenatchee’s El Sendero chapter of the Winter Wildlands Alliance have signed letters endorsing upwards of 70 percent of eligible roadless lands for Wilderness. The Conservation Community submitted over 34,000 comments to the Forest Service in 2011 echoing the call for more Wilderness. However, our work is not done and we will need to surpass these great results in order to get the Service on the right track.
Still, our current coalition is not strong enough to sway the Forest Service. And while our coalition of support is growing, we need recreationists to put on their advocacy caps, get out their pen and paper and write letters to agencies that illustrate the value of these places. We must take our friends and family to these places, educate them and let them fall in love as we have. Once people comprehend the value of these places and the experiences they offer then they will be eager to schedule meetings with decision makers and do whatever it takes to spotlight the enormous benefits protection brings to the forest and our beloved Washington State.
The time for action is ripe and as we cozy up for another long, dark winter we can prepare for a new year that will bring more opportunities for engagement. Long delayed, the Forest Service has promised to release the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Travel Management Plan early in 2013, to be quickly followed by the DEIS for the Forest Plan Revision. Both of these processes will offer our community a chance to engage, to talk with the Forest Service about how we use and value our public lands. And if we work hard enough, the snow may just melt in time for us to enjoy new Wilderness, for the first time.
To get involved or learn more, please contact me, Graham Taylor at email@example.com or (206) 378.0114 x328.
The resurrected Pratt River Trail No 1035 provides a good answer to the hiker’s question as to where to hike in November. The Pratt River Trail is an old trail given a new life from the work of the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, the Trio Construction Company from North Idaho, Washington Trails Associations, other organizations and volunteers. It is believed that miners were the first to blaze a trail to Pratt Lake at the turn of the century; there were gold claims in the region, including claims on Chair Peak. In the 1920s and 30s a logging railroad line was built to provide loggers access to timber. The railroad logging in the valley ended in the 1940s. Logging continued in the valley until the 1970s – a temporary bridge gave truck access across the river to a section of land owned by Weyerhaeuser which was acquired by the Forest Service through the 1999 Huckleberry Land Exchange.
When the railroad was dismantled it began its second life as a trail through much of the twentieth century, until an old suspension bridge over the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River was lost, making the trail too rugged for most hikers.
For many of us, November is our least favorite month to hike – we don’t call November the “no” month for nothing. There’s not enough snow, there’s not enough daylight to venture far, there’s little sun and it rains a lot. What’s a hiker to do when days are short, dark and wet?
Many hikers turn to trails in the Issaquah Alps or trails near North Bend, especially hikers who live in the Puget Sound. Days are too short to venture further to more spectacular settings and not all hikers are into skiing or snowshoeing. The trails in the “Alps” help us stay in shape and help ward off the weight gain associated with the holidays. We hike there too – even when the consistency of lowland trails squishes like sodden cereal under your boots and the camera seldom comes out of the pack.
Lest you think I am denigrating lowland trails, think again. With a little imagination, hikers who are also photographers can find something to photograph – even in the worst weather Nature can dredge up from her nightmares. Raindrops sparkle on fern fronds, flickers of color from ancient Solomon’s seal and generous mushroom displays break up the monotony of cookie-cutter second and third-growth forests that need a century or two to achieve old-growth status and grace.
For a change of scenery, consider trails off the Middle Fork Road just outside North Bend. The Pratt River Trail provides another resource during what some call the “shoulder season” hikes.
The road leads to several popular trailheads; Mailbox Peak, Granite Lakes, the Bessemer Mountain Road, Marten Creek, the CCC Road and finally, the Middle Fork (Gateway) trailhead, which offers a plethora of possibilities for hikers until snow makes travel on the Middle Fork Road too daunting for passenger cars.
Though the Pratt River Trail is unfamiliar to many hikers today it was well-traveled before the 1980s, first by miners and loggers. Long before some of us even laced up our hiking boots the trailhead was located on the northwest side of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River. A footbridge crossed the river then but the bridge is long-gone and was never replaced. Hikers seeking the Pratt River Trail either had to ford the river (a potentially dangerous undertaking except when stream levels were low) until the Middle Fork Bridge was constructed then hike downriver on a fading network of trails and old railroad grades where in some places route-finding skills were a necessity.
Today the “new” Pratt River Trail links to the Pratt Lake Trail also a challenging trail given short, winter days. Before the Pratt River Trail was given new life the trail more or less paralleled the river downstream (from where the Middle Fork Bridge is today) and led to Rainy Creek where another old trail (unsigned) climbed to Rainy Lake. The main trail continued near the river to where the old Pratt River Trail came in from the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River. Then the Pratt River trail was rough and in places hard to follow. All this was unsigned and not maintained except by boots.
That’s all changed. Today you can hike not only to the designated Rainy Lake trailhead but to a junction where you can hike to a stately grove of old-growth trees or continue on up to Pratt Lake where the Pratt River Trail ends (that would involve a long one-way hike with a car shuttle; best done on a long, summer day).
We hiked the trail in October and were not only impressed with the work that has gone into making the trail more hiker-friendly but also the beauty of the forest. Some stretches of the trail looked a little raw around the edges but vegetation will quickly fill in the gaps. In late October the fall color was still vibrant and that only enhanced what was already a beautiful trail.
Today, a sturdy footbridge crosses Rainy Creek. Before the bridge was built the ford of Rainy Creek could be dicey unless you hiked the trail frequently enough that you’d memorized the route and the trail was not signed then. One stretch of the “new” trail was blasted into a rocky outcropping to avoid a tangle of brushy and oft-muddy tread.
Today tributaries are also bridged and the trail has been moved further away from the oft-raging Snoqualmie River though you can still exit the trail and follow short, fading spurs that lead to closer views of the river.
A ways past the junction with the Rainy Creek Trail the trail reverts to an old logging road lined with graceful alders. This is a very pleasant stretch any time of the year though once you leave the old road the trail becomes a little more difficult to follow to the junction (signed) where the Pratt River Trail climbs to Pratt Lake and the spur that climbs to the designated “Big Trees.”
We hiked the short spur to the big trees though the trail is overgrown and difficult to follow. There we came upon a Douglas fir so magnificent that an old sign boasts its stats.
With the new trail you’ll miss the ancient puncheon that many of us remember from the old trail but the new trail is elaborate and does not detract from the grandeur of its surroundings. While there are no “big” views on the new trail there were never “big” views from the old trail either. This is a forest walk but it is forest at its best.
To get there: From North Bend continue east on I-90, get off at Exit No. 34 (468th Ave SE), turn left under the interstate, continue on 468th Ave SE, pass a collection of service stations (also known as Ken’s Truck Stop), continue a short way then turn right onto the Middle Fork Road No. 56 (Dorothy Lake Road) and continue about 13 miles to the Middle Fork Trailhead (Gateway Trailhead). A Northwest Forest Pass is required. The road is often rough with pot-holes and water on the road; check road conditions before you head out, especially if you have a passenger car. Snow often closes the road by winter.
Additional information: The hike to the junction with the Pratt Lake/Big Trees trail is 9.6 miles round trip with about 1,650 feet of gain. The maps are Green Trails No. 174 Mount Si and No. 175 Skykomish. For current trail/road conditions call the North Bend district of the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest at 425-888-1421 or visit their website: www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs to volunteer for trail-work visit the Washington Trails website at www.wta.org .
Note: The Pratt River Trail (No. 1035) now begins at the junction with the Middle Fork Trail No. 1003 at the Gateway (Middle Fork Bridge). The other end of the Pratt River trail is Pratt Lake.
The tires of my hybrid bicycle kicked up golden leaves as I careened down the asphalt path. The afternoon light filtered through the towering forest of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail bathing the trees in a gold and red hue as the cold late September chill bit at my exposed face.
I had now gone ten minutes without seeing another person, my partner had ridden far ahead, and I enjoyed the hilly ride, flanked by the forest on one side, and the muddy waters of Cook Inlet on the other. As I came speeding around a curve, I suddenly heard a thundering crunch in the trees. I saw two other bikers, cautiously pulled off to the side, and in the thick brush, I saw unmistakable giant antlers.
The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a twelve-mile path that runs just south of Anchorage, Alaska starting in Downtown and ending in Kincaid Park. It is popular with runners, bikers, and skiers in the winter, offering long pleasant stretches broken by challenging uphill climbs and surrounded by spectacular scenery the entire way through. My friend Nicole and I rented our bikes from a local shop in downtown and started the trail near the railroad yard. The trail immediately drops through a residential area, crisscrossing through several scenic parks, where the backdrop of the Chugach Mountains spectacularly reveals themselves on a clear day. For the first mile, the trail runs parallel to the famed Alaska railway, and then drops into a series of tunnels passing under the tracks, where freight and passenger trains frequently cross overhead. As the trail leaves the residential area and drops near the bay, there are a series of precocious drops where bikers are wary to not speed off the cliff that separates the inlet and the pathway.
On a beautiful fall afternoon, the leaves had already fallen, carpeting the trail in a cascade of yellow and red. The trees offered little areas for the afternoon sun to creep through so there was a slight chill passing through the length of the road. About five miles in, the trees cleared and suddenly we had an uninterrupted view of Cook Inlet and Anchorage’s resident peak Mount Sustina. We took a break to watch the fishing vessels crisscrossing the waters of the inlet, and watched the myriad of people who were on the trail each in their own way, running, biking, dog walking, it seemed like all of Anchorage was enjoying the breathtaking scenery.
After a short break we followed the trail farther down entering a downhill portion, followed by a challenging uphill curve. Just before entering Earthquake Park, a commemoration to the devastating 1964 earthquake, Mount Sustina suddenly pulled aside and revealed one of the biggest highlights of the ride. Just behind was an enormous glaciated peak, standing extremely wide and punching above the surrounding clouds. I was staring at the 20,327 ft. Denali in it’s majestic glory. I had not expected for it to be visible from Anchorage, but on a clear fall day, we could see for miles across the inlet.
After a quick break and reflection in Earthquake Park, Nicole took off far ahead of me and I remained to get more pictures of Denali. I sped off from the park now entering a more remote and curvier section of the park. It was well known that wildlife became more prevalent as we went farther from the city, and as I took that last curve, two antlers came into full view.
Parked on the side of the road was a giant moose, a bull evident from his towering antlers. Farther in the bush I could see a smaller calf, obviously being watched by an attentive and cautious father. Moose are temperamental creatures. They can easily anger and charge at any moment and this large specimen, standing just slightly at the edge of the road made it too perilous to cross. If they feel like their space is being crossed, they will charge at anyone who they feel is responsible, regardless if they are the offender or not. They have a powerful kick and also use their antlers for defense. The key to a moose encounter is remaining still and not making any sudden movements. If the moose charges it’s best to hide behind a rock or a tree and if down on the ground, protect the head and play dead.
The moose was clearly agitated, snorting and twisting its head from side to side. A couple stood cautiously on the other side of the road and after a few pictures I silently walked my bicycle past the animal as he hoofed his way back toward the calf. Moose aren’t the only animal prevalent on the trail as bears and wolves have been spotted during the winter months but uncommon in early fall.
Following my encounter with the moose, the trail curved away from the coast and flowed into a series of hills with the apex coming just under the edge of the runway at Anchorage International Airport. Here, on the precipice of a seaside cliff and downtown Anchorage against the Chugach Mountains I watched 747’s taking off and come loudly soaring overhead. It was plane watching like I’d never seen anywhere else and gave way to spectacular photographic opportunities.
After the airport I encountered one more moose, a female this time, resting quietly on the grass, harmlessly munching on leaves. These creatures appear out of nowhere and can startle unsuspecting runners or bikers, so I responsibly warned everyone up ahead. The trail took some final uphill curved sections through wide fields and finally rode a gentle downhill into Kincaid Park where I was reunited with Nicole, who had gone farther ahead and expertly weaved her way past the moose.
The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a classic of the Northwest. It’s spectacular views, unique locations, and up close animal encounters makes it one of the most thrilling biking trails in the west. Its accessibility and convenience allow it to be ridden back and forth in a single afternoon, and it offers a series of alternate return routes to Downtown Anchorage. We decided to go back the same way we came, once again stopping for the planes, not running into any more animals, and arriving back in town roughly three hours after we had started. A final view of the Chugach Mountains announced our final stretch as we pulled into the city and after parking our bikes we celebrated having completed the classic trail.
Here we are in the 21st Century, wired and wireless, tuned into the web and the tweet-o-sphere, skeptical of everything, and yet our fantasies still involve tales of darkness and transfiguration, for example, with werewolves.
It’s not wildlife encounters that put us on edge – it’s the encounters with the unseen. There are no tracks or growls, but the experience that watched feeling that all prey knows.
Anyone who hikes in the mountains (if they are not plugged into their electronic gadgets), has probably felt eyes staring at them, or felt the hair on the back of their neck tingle and stand up on end at one time or another. What caused that crunch of leaves? In which direction did that twig snap?
Ghost encounters abound. The old Bush House Hotel in Index has one; the avalanche chute at Wellington, site of the railroad disaster that cost so many lives is rumored to be haunted. Certain lakes, such as Lake Janus have a reputation as being haunted. And what hiker in the Pacific Northwest has not heard of eerie encounters with the mysterious Stick-Indians over the years?
Tunnels, mine shafts, and caves are fascinating to most of us. The tunnels along the Robe Canyon Trail lure many hikers to explore: they are off-limits to hikers and they should be (they are in danger of collapsing). Plus, the trail is prone to mud-slides. Nature is scary enough without ghosts and werewolves!
Our encounter began innocently enough on a Halloween hike to the old railroad tunnels along the Stillaguamish River near Robe. It was a dark and stormy day–no, really it was–such weather is normal along the Mountain Loop Highway.
Since it was Halloween we’d planned to hike to the entrance of the first tunnel; the rain kept pounding, the wind continued to howl and we were drenched. Despite the gloom our spirits were high, we’d brought Halloween treats to celebrate the occasion. We did not get too far, most of the trail was under water from the heavy rain.
After struggling with umbrellas turned inside out by the wind we gave up and headed back to the cars, opting to head further east to the Big Four Picnic Area since it had a covered picnic shelter. It was still raining and blowing but the shelter gave us enough protection to have lunch, share Halloween treats, and socialize with our companions.
Meanwhile, our friend Kim, an avid hiker known for an insatiable sweet tooth (like most of us), walked toward the edge of the woods to take photos of the fading fall foliage. Her sudden scream cut across our conversation; we dropped our candy, watching in horror as something big began to drag her into the brush.
Without a second thought we charged out of the shelter to rescue her. Our approach apparently startled the creature and it bounded away but Kim was shaken, wet to the bone, and there were even scratches around her throat. We brought her back to the shelter to treat her scratches and pour hot cider down her throat. Needless to say our picnic was over and it was a solemn and frightened group who stopped at the Verlot Ranger Station to report the attack.
A couple of years and a few bad dreams later we ventured out on another Halloween hike (not along the Mountain Loop); even Kim would not let her encounter with the werewolf stop her from enjoying another Halloween hike. This time we ventured into the rain again to hike the Iron Goat Trail from the Martin Creek trailhead below Steven’s Pass.
Not wanting to get soaked we hiked west along the railroad grade past a couple of the old snow-shed ruins, stopping for lunch out of the rain just inside a tunnel for shelter. It must have been the Halloween treats that brought it out.
We dropped our Halloween candy when we heard growls from the tunnel and a beast, at least six feet tall clothed in tattered men’s clothing; sharp teeth and claws of a wolf, with the wild red eyes. Wolves do not charge on two legs and no wolf ever howled that could match the blood curdling howls echoing from the tunnel.
Dropping our sandwiches and Halloween treats we ran like rabbits down the trail back to the cars; apparently the food satisfied it as it did not follow us. It wasn’t until we reached Skykomish that we stopped in a warm, well lit diner that we began to collect our thoughts and talk about what we had just experienced.
We also knew that reporting such encounters (even with photos) would expose us to scorn and ridicule. We agreed that this tale would go no further and that only when time had passed would any of us speak of it in the most general of terms.
We also believe that the werewolf of the Iron Goat Trail was the same (or at least related to) the werewolf we’d encountered at the Big Four Picnic Area. If you are planning a Halloween hike you might want to take pickles rather than candy. One thing we know for sure – these werewolves have a sweet tooth!
This Halloween Kim and other companions are venturing out again on another Halloween hike. As for us, we’re staying home, content to watch scary movies on television rather than risk a werewolf stealing our candy – or worse.
Hikers braver than we can find other sites in which they might encounter something “scary”, the Snoqualmie Pass tunnel being just one of several.
It’s like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. The place is wild, exotic and oozing with an air of mystique. The roadside shack resembles the little bird boxes I was used to seeing nailed to trees in the garden of my parents’ suburban family home. This box, perched on the cliff edge that is holstered up by a few pieces of bamboo however, is made for people.
Inside, an exposed light bulb hangs from a hook taped to the roof of the corrugated tin roof. A soft light glows from the candles flickering inside the glass case, a shrine to the Hindu god, Shiva. In front, a garland of jasmine flowers hang next to the incense sticks that burn slowly, filling the room with the delicate fragrance of patchouli.
A number of unclaimed electricity wires hang like tree-vines. In the corner is a small cockroach refuge where a clump of ruddy coloured shiny bodies huddle together. Beneath my feet, I peer through the floor boards. Through the cracks reveal the deep slippery plunge – any coins that escape down these crevices would fall into the deadly oblivion of the Kali Gandaki River that flows below, prizing the ground apart leaving a dark lacuna that slices through the landscape.
I am in Nepal; a country where the bravest men claim the prestigious title of Ghurkhas, where the people have spearheaded a revolution to overthrow their monarchy, and a country that is now braving the teething pains of an emerging democracy. Conflict has long deprived the country as its righteous position as a traveller’s destination, but now, the war is over and tourism is now taking the center stage.
The country is positioned like a small wedge in between two of the world’s big players – India and China. The southern landscape consists of steamy jungles and swampy wetlands where elusive tigers, gangly wading birds and chunky rhinos reside.
The northern border is an entirely different matter. The Himalayas are draped across the scenery, complete with a multitude of small hamlets where time has stood still, isolated in a cocoon of traditionalism having access only by foot. Alluring trekkers to pinpoint their ‘to do’ destination map, the world’s highest peak – Mount Everest, is also claimed along with a lavish sprinkling of other impossibly impressive mountains, making for an adventurer’s playground.
I’m on the ascent to the magnificent Annapurna range that has an unparalleled reputation for breath-taking views, quaint Sherpa villages and an enviable array of flora and fauna. My first stop is Hyangja – a Tibetan refugee camp where I enjoy fuelling myself with freshly steamed buffalo momos and hot chai in preparation for walking that awaits me.
I’m hoping to see some of the estimated 900 bird species that dwell here, especially the Himalayan Monal, Nepal’s national bird. Also on my check list, are the soft-coated, gentle yaks that tackle the tough terrain saddled with goods to trade between the various villages that speckle the mountains. Ambitious, maybe, but leopards and red pandas have been sighted by some of the lucky ones – I keep my fingers crossed.
However, the twinge of superstition and curiosity nags me, hoping I might also catch a glimpse of another legend that currently lives in the same book of mythical creatures shared by the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot – the Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman. But, with more realistic expectations, I set off with a pair of binoculars, my book – ‘Wildlife of Nepal’, and my worn in, scotchgarded pair of hiking boots.
The following day, my alarm clock rudely awakens me at 5.30 am, interrupting my peaceful, jetlagged sleep. I’m setting out early on my journey to gently introduce myself back into my trekking pace after a brief flirt with the decadent dining scene of one of Nepal’s top tourist haunts – Pokhara. Today is tame – climbing only 200 meters to Lumre Riverside.
It provides a sterling opportunity to walk and watch the wildlife I pass. I sit next to the riverbanks – circling above is a large menacing looking vulture, searching for carrion. A little higher, a kite patrols the area. Skilfully darting into the water are resplendent turquoise coloured crested kingfishers, fishing alongside spotted forktails. As I continue, I see a couple of white-capped water redstart bathing in the shallow enclaves of warm water and nimbly shaking the moisture off their soft, fine feathers.
The next day I am excited to be heading to the famous Rhododendron forests that paint the mountainsides with colour. It is like stepping into a wild florist, packed with an overwhelming amount of flora. Rhododendrons alone compose over 30 different species of flowers, so receive the well-deserved title as being Nepal’s national flower.
This is Mother Nature’s answer to how to create a flawless flowery wonderland – a sure winning draw card that could trump even the most skilful prize-winning gardener for the perfect patch. The plants and trees provide a haven for an abundance of bird varieties, yielding a bounty of food such as seeds and insects. As such, many of the trees are colonised by the charming flowerpeckers and rubythroats. As I venture deeper into the flower-filled forests, the landscape begins to metamorphose, adopting the appearance of a more alpine vista.
My climb continues to soar into the skies. Then I hit Korchon – situated at an altitude of 3600 meters. For many that venture into these ranges, they’re looking for that infamous picture-postcard view. The view that is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring panoramas that any eyes could see. The jewel in the crown of the Annapurna mountain range: the majestic Machhapuchere peak, framed by the immediate scenery consisting of the floral wilderness that is alive with the sounds, scents, and sights of flora and fauna. Protruding 6,995 meters into the horizon, spiking the sky with its razor sharp pinnacle, it makes the ambiance of the area truly mesmerizing.
Recovering from the sights that have left me in a warm and fuzzy daze, I continue to weave around the wooded paths that crawl with wildlife. I realize I’m faced with the dilemma of where to turn my attention to. The giant magnolias look and smell stunning. Fire-tailed sunbirds light up the trees with dramatic flashes of amber.
The avian chorus is fore-fronted by warblers, singing their tune against the accompaniment of laughing Thrush. The bark that encases the Acer trees are constantly preened by the rusty-flanked tree creepers that feast on the harvests. Overhead, buzzards and golden eagles cast their silhouettes against the backdrop of the endless snow-capped mountain range as they gracefully glide with just a few intermittent flaps of their enormous wings.
The next day I follow the trail that leads me to Pipar Gully. Although birds are still abundant, this is also home to a number of other animals that line the way. Resilient Himalayan tahrs and bharal graze on the foliage. Catching sight of the beautiful coloured rosefinches isn’t a challenge, scattering only when I am drawn too close by their enchanting winsomeness.
As the sunset begins to sink into the bewitchingly beautiful scenery, dusk rolls in bringing the night-shift fauna foragers en-tow. In the distance, I make out a cat-sized figure waddling around with a tail as bushy as a feather duster. Not allowing its cover to be blown, the little creature remains vigilant. I am as still as a statue. I’m beyond thrilled – it’s an adorable warm russet coloured red panda.
The climax of the journey doesn’t end there. Pipar continued to introduce me to some spectacular animals. The national bird of Nepal – the flamboyantly coloured Monal or Daphne pheasant, strikes a pose with its iridescent plumage matching the colours of spilt petrol. The flashes of electric blue and azure turquoise leave me puzzled as to why the neighbouring national bird of India – the peacock, steals so much of the limelight for this bird category.
With my journey drawing to an end, I head down through the Seti Khola passing through several archaic villages. Still alive with a plethora of pheasants and a medley of butterflies, it provides a good chance for me to be slowly re-introduced into civilization and to dwell on many of my humbling experiences. I’ve witnessed so many visually stimulating sights and have been on sensory overdrive, being confronted with so many gems.
Who would have thought that this small country could have kept all these natural wonders secret for so long? Well – the cat is out of the bag now. Although I wasn’t able to spy a Yeti, Nepal is a treasure trove tempting both adventure-thirsty trekkers, bird-loving twitchers and everything else in between.
Editor’s note: If you haven’t yet read Part I you should!
A mountain is the best medicine for a troubled mind. Seldom does man ponder his own insignificance. He thinks he is master of all things. He thinks the world is his without bonds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only when he tramps the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures about him, to come and go as he will, does he awaken to his own short-lived presence on earth.
— Finis Mitchell, “Wind River Trails”
We awakened on day nine of our Wind Rivers traverse to a red sky and high clouds skipping at high speed above our East Fork River meadow campsite. This was our biggest day, the day we would cut away from the Highline/Fremont trail system we’d been following for more than a week to cross over the Continental Divide and see the other side. Our plan from there was to traverse south over the very high Lizard Head bench and descend to the Popo Agie River, turning back west to reach and explore the stunning Cirque of the Towers. But those plans depended on good weather, and certainly no lightning storms. There was considerable uncertainty on that point as we had our breakfast at East Fork River.
Still, there was blue sky around and behind those ominous clouds blowing in from the west, and we packed up and headed east with the breeze at our backs. The junction with the Pyramid Lakes-Washakie Pass trail was so poorly marked that a fellow hiker had left a note on a trailside boulder pointing the way north. After much consultation with maps and compass, we agreed with the unknown hiker and set off downhill toward a crossing of Washakie Creek below and the gathering peaks beyond. Finding the trail just before the creek, we made the rock-hop crossing easily and headed uphill.
Soon reaching the junction of the Pyramid Lakes and Washakie Pass trails, we struggled with our eagerness to explore the Pyramid Lakes basin against the sensible option to get ourselves across the high pass before any bad weather broke. Sensibility prevailed, and as consolation, beautiful Skull Lake and the peaks of the Pyramid Basin were soon revealed in splendor from our trail: a massive cirque of granite towers including Mt Geikie, Ambush Peak, Raid Peak, Mt Bonneville, Glissade and Tower Peaks and Mt Hooker. We marked in our mental notes, “return here for a week of scrambling!” Turning our eyes forward, we aimed our eyes to the saddle of Washakie Pass high up the ridge ahead and followed the well-trodden, generally smooth trail up through the stark boulderfield, traversing the north slope of the basin before crossing over and back to reach the pass about five miles from our morning’s starting point. Before us stretched brand new country – unbelievably, an even higher concentration of lakes under sheer cliffs with the thick forested valley of the Little Wind River winding north-south just beyond. Our destination for the night was up on a bench just beyond the river. Finding shelter in the lee of some big boulders, we had our lunch in the warm sun.
It wasn’t long before premonition prickled (along with increasing winds and greying skies) and we hustled as quickly as good sense would allow to pack up and pick our way down the very steep boulder and talus field to the shelter of lower ground below. As the trail wound first around Macon Lake and then Big and Little Washakie lakes under the sheer cliffs, the skies opened and pelted us with huge raindrops, then ice pellets, dropping with great force. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed and bounced back and forth, amplified by the peaks surrounding us.
Heads down, we descended around the lakes and then down, down to the banks of the North Fork of the Little Wind River at about two and a half miles from the pass. One tent on a hump overlooking the river flapped forlornly in the deluge. We crossed the river, again able to rock-hop without difficulty, and climbed back up the forested ridge a mile and a half to an unmarked side trail to good sheltered camps on the west side of Valentine Lake, our destination for the night.
As we reached the lake, the skies cleared and the sun re-emerged, so we soon had tents up and gear drying on every branch and flat surface. Looking across the lake, to the south and west we could see the distinctive shape of Buffalo Head, Payson Peak and the ridge extending south beyond. To the east loomed the five miles of high, very exposed bench we hoped to climb and then traverse the next day, with Cathedral Peak just showing its top beyond. The progress of clouds across the sky indicated very high winds at the level of the bench and a continuing potential for lightning. As we ate our dinners and prepared to settle for the night we soberly discussed our options, including reversing course and heading back toward Washakie Pass where the distance of high exposure was less. The opportunity would still exist, we reasoned, to circle around via the Big Sandy trail and over Jackass Pass for at least a day visit to Cirque of the Towers.
As day ten dawned, a call on our satellite phone to the Shoshone Ranger District office provided a promising report of sunny, clear weather and winds below 30 mph on the bench, so we set off from Valentine Lake and climbed around Buffalo Head peak on a blasted-out trail clinging to the rocky north slope above Little Valentine Lake and Valentine creek drainage to reach an unnamed divide (we christened it Lizard Head pass). Here the Bears Ears trail turned to the north and our trail to the bench turned south. A pack train passed us heading out to Dickenson Park via Bears Ears trail.
Just ahead at the divide was an incredible chasm dropping 2000 feet or more to the source stream for several lakes to the east. The wind blasted us here, a reminder of the fallibility of weather forecasting. Still, undaunted, we turned our faces into the blast and ascended under Cathedral Peak onto the bench. We found ourselves in an incredible, almost unearthly landscape shaped by glaciers, rivers and inexorable wind – a quarter-mile-wide bench with little vegetation, piles of boulders, a high ridge some thousand feet above us to our east, and a steep thousand-foot drop to our west with the myriad peaks along a hundred miles of the divide stretched out beyond. The wind, mostly in our faces but sometimes blissfully off the starboard bow, was like a living thing, blasting, swirling, sometimes even lifting us up so that we would stagger to keep our footing. Midway along, we were able to find a blocky tower of rock trailside that provided shelter in its lee so that we could hunker down, eat lunch and recover from the onslaught. Somewhat recovered, we pushed on to the point where we finally, five miles from the divide, found ourselves looking down steeply to the Popo Agie River a thousand feet below. Like Dorothy and her companions rushing across the meadow toward the Emerald City, we left the ridge and made short work of the rocky traverse under Lizard Head peak to the bottom where it was blissfully warm and windless under the trees. Along the way down were our first glimpses of some of the fabled peaks of the Cirque: Mitchell Peak, Warbonnet, the Warriors. We turned back east along the Popo Agie, and soon found ourselves crossing Lizard Head Meadows with the full spectacle of the Cirque dead ahead, one of the most photogenic spots of our trip to that point. In another mile we reached the meadows before Lonesome Lake (no camping within a quarter mile!) and set up our tents along the lazy river with the Cirque above us in all its splendor. The sunset provided the best alpenglow of our trip, with gold turning to salmon turning to bright orange on Pingora Peak, Wolfs Head and the Warriors and reflecting on the calm waters of the Popo Agie.
That night and the following, down in our meadow, were the coldest of our trip yet, with solid ice in water bottles inadvertently left outside the tents. However, in our open valley, the sun reached us quickly and warmed us so that we were able to start out in shorts for our exploration of the Cirque on day ten. Picking our way on the maze of trails and then up the boulders, we first traversed under Warbonnet and the Warriors, stopping in amazement to gaze at the thinness of the knife-edge ridge on the crest of Warbonnet. Climbing around behind Pingora, we could see the tiny blue shimmer of Hidden Lake nestled under Warrior II. Soon the way became a mix of trail and boulder-hop, but we easily found our way to Cirque Lake which reflected the dramatic spires rising above it – the Watchtowers, Symmetry and Block Tower, distinctive Sharks Nose, and Wolfs Head. Two rock climbers from Pocatello nearly sprinted past us and, within a half hour, found their way free climbing to the top of Wolfs Head as we watched their progress from a snack spot by the lake. Editor’s note: To learn more about the incredible geology the Wind River Range visit the author’s “A Short-And-Sweet Geology of the Wind Rivers.”
Leaving the climbers to their views, we backtracked and then circled around the front of Pingora, looking straight up to see ropes and orange gear bags from a climbing party well on their way to the top of this classic route. Though there was no obvious trail, we were able to see our next objective which was Texas Pass, an alternative and shorter way into the Cirque from East Fork River via Shadow Lake. Soon the way was marked with cairns (which we augmented along our way) and we pushed on up the rockfield and across a small residual snowfield to the sign marking the obvious saddle of Texas Pass. The path up from the other side was very steep, but a viable trail made its way through the boulders from the lake basin below. Dropping back down from Texas Pass, we made a short detour to the top of Skunk Knob for more views before descending steeply back to the trees and meadows of Lonesome Lake and the Popo Agie.
So finally we awakened to the last day of our journey, another icy morning (this time we postponed breakfast until 7 am, waiting for the sun to reach camp). The trails wound in unmarked profusion past Lonesome Lake and up toward Jackass Pass, finally converging halfway up to wind fairly gently along the grassy slope to the pass about a mile from our camp.
We took considerable time here taking pictures of Warbonnet, now just above us, and the peaks of the Cirque to the north, before heading down.
Soon it was clear why stock is discouraged from climbing Jackass Pass. The way down was a very steep boulder hopping exercise down to rock-bound Arrowhead Lake (no camping spots obvious here) before climbing again on a trail blasted in the wall and winding up and down over boulders and loose rock before finally reaching level trail along North Creek, about three miles from the pass and about a mile above Big Sandy Lake. The lake was blissful, a chance to soak feet and refresh ourselves with views across to even more future scramble routes to the south along Deep Lake and among the Temple Spires. Then, with the typical mix of relief and regret, we followed the gently descending forested trail along the final five miles to our oasis for the last night, the Big Sandy Lodge, with real beds, showers and home-cooked dinner and breakfast. Our shuttle from the Great Outdoor Shop picked us up on time the next morning for the two hours back through barren ranch country to Pinedale, where we picked up our cars and gear from the Rivera Lodge and set off on the long drive home.