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Hike to the Tolmie Peak Lookout

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Tolmie Peak Lookout

The road to Mowich Lake in Mount Rainier National Park may still be closed for the winter, but the summer hiking season is coming on us fast. That means its time to start planning your hiking bucket list so that you’re fully prepared to take on the season. And the trail to the Tolmie Peak Lookout in the northwestern corner of the park is definitely worth spending a summer day on.

To get to the trailhead, you’ll have to first brave the 17 mile Mowich Lake road – although usually accessible for all vehicles, prepare for a bumpy ride. My very low suspension Tolmie Peak LookoutHonda Fit made it to and from the trailhead safely, despite a few close calls with large potholes, with a great new coat of adventure paint, a.k.a. mud and dust. The trail begins winding through the woods on the banks of Mowich Lake, a great stop for a picnic lunch in its own right, and continues for 1.75 miles at a fairly consistent elevation until you reach Ipsut Pass. On another day, plan to turn right here and take the Wonderland Trail clockwise around the mountain. For a day hike, you’ll want to keep left and continue on to Eunice Lake. When you reach the lake, you’ll get your first clear sight of Tolmie Peak and the lookout tower on its western spur.

Tolmie Peak Lookout

Take a break at Eunice Lake to dip your feet in or have a snack, because, after this, your hike will begin in earnest, gaining the majority of the hike’s elevation in the short trek up to the lookout. After a few switchbacks, you’ll see that the views from the top are more than worth your effort. On a clear day, you’ll be treated to a front row view of Mount Rainier’s northeast face as well as a 360 degree showing of the highlands around you. I made it to the lookout when the surrounding peaks were shrouded in fog, making for a different, but debatably equally beautiful experience.

Tolmie Peak Lookout

The lookout itself was unoccupied and locked, but you can still peer in through the windows and imagine yourself spending a night tucked in this secluded alpine getaway. With clouds covering the wilderness below, I got the impression that a night in the Tolmie Peak Lookout tower would be quite the otherworldly experience. Tolmie Peak LookoutSpend some time enjoying the views from the top before heading back down to complete the 7.5 mile out-and-back.


For more Spring hike recommendations, check out our Where to Hike in 2015 series.



Hike Palo Duro Canyon

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Palo Duro Canyon

Not everything is bigger in Texas. Case in point: Palo Duro Canyon is only the second biggest canyon in America behind the Grand. And it’s not even close. Palo Duro is about 800 feet at its deepest point, compared to the Grand’s vertiginous 6,000-foot rim-to-base plunge. But while it’s not as jaw-droppingly vast as its Arizona cousin, Palo Duro is breathtakingly beautiful.

Palo Duro CanyonWhen Georgia O’Keeffe made her home in the Texas Panhandle, she hiked through and painted the canyon frequently. She described it as a “burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” There’s no hint of that geologic drama as you approach the canyon. Driving in from any direction, it’s hard to imagine there could be anything but infinitely horizontal prairies and cattle ranches. But then like a jolt, the earth opens up and white mesas, red hoodoos and exposed strata begin to twist like branches into the horizon.

Nights in the canyon can be equally vivid. The nearest source of significant light pollution is Amarillo, 25 miles to the north, which allows for a field of stars so unhindered that it can be tricky to pick out even the major constellations from the backdrop of distant stars not normally visible. The Canyon’s nocturnal soundtrack is intermittent howling from multiple coyote packs, which may be unnerving when you’re zipped in your tent. But the bays gradually become hauntingly beautiful.

There are over 30 different trails throughout O’Keeffe’s seething cauldron – including some set aside for horses and mountain bikes – but the highlights can be seen in the following three hikes.


The Lighthouse

Palo Duro Canyon

This is the postcard icon of the park. It’s Palo Duro’s Half Dome and Delicate Arch. This 310-foot hoodoo cannot be seen from the road and stands at the end of a three-mile hike that bends behind Capital Peak. The path is relatively flat, except for a final scramble up a sharp incline over boulders and sand. It’s one of those bring-plenty-of-water hikes that traverses parched earth with little shade. But the monument and the view from its stone jetty are outstanding.

Palo Duro Canyon



The Big Cave

Palo Duro CanyonWe hadn’t heard about this landmark before arriving, but when we saw “The Big Cave” listed as a point of interest on our park map, we had to investigate. And it turned out to be the highlight for our kids. Scrambling over boulders to a shallow, but dark-enough vertical maw was a perfect micro-adventure. Accessible and exhilarating, it’s the thrill Disneyland tried to create when they stuccoed together Tom Sawyer’s Island.










The Rock Garden

When I asked the park ranger – a petite woman with slow, friendly Texas drawl – which trails we should be sure to take, she immediately answered, “Oh, you have to see the Rock Garden. It’ll give you cold chills, it’s so beautiful.” The Rock Garden Trail is a relatively new addition to the canyon, debuting in late 2012. From the trailhead, the path winds through the eponymous rocks and boulders, creating an otherworldly landscape unlike anything else in the park. It’s the only trail in the canyon that leads to the Palo Duro’s rim – and the elevation gain of over 600 feet in 2.39 miles makes it one of the more difficult hikes in the canyon. But the ascent is a great way to end a visit, because the panorama lets hikers take in almost the entire canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon


For detailed park information, visit

Hike Saddle Mountain

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Hike Saddle MountainIf you have ever driven to Astoria across the Columbia River upon the great length of the Megler Bridge – its far end lost in haze and sea spray to Astoria – and seen looming above this white city on the river a massive triple-peaked mountain, you have no doubt wondered as to what its name may be.

Crowning the Oregon Coast range, Saddle Mountain is an anomaly in this otherwise somewhat drab line of nondescript hills and ridges that extend from California to the Columbia River. ThisHike Saddle Mountain peak has seen many ages come and go, from ancient lava flows to sheets of glacial ice, to dense forests of giant trees that rolled in an unbroken sea from the Pacific to the Cascade Mountains, before all were felled when settlers crossed the land and sea to colonize this wild region. Now Saddle Mountain occupies a small state park just large enough to contain its bulk, the edges of the park sharply defined by ragged clearcuts. Despite the visual blight of this industrial forest land, the views from the top are amazing, unequaled in their breadth and singular nature. From how many other peaks might one’s gaze follow a mighty river from the snow-clad volcanoes of the Cascades through the hills and farmland to the Pacific Ocean?

Hike Saddle MountainTo reach the foot of Saddle Mountain is an adventure in itself. Whether from Portland, Astoria, Longview or the Oregon Coast, you have to drive long circuitous highways to a narrow side road that strikes out in a higgledy-piggledy tangle of curves winding through a narrow corridor of parkland, occasionally blighted by views into adjacent clearcuts. Just when you think this drive might be endless, the mountain looms before you, intimidating in its appearance, yet just begging to be climbed.

The trail dates back to the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) era and is as impressive as all such trails and other constructs of the CCC are. The climb to the peak is 2.6 miles and is popular, so don’t expect solitude. There is a long ascent through trees with meadows, views and precipices ever increasing in size and number as you climb. Hike Saddle MountainEventually, the trail breaks out into a vast alpine prairie, perched precariously atop basalt cliffs. This is a rare remnant of the prairies that crowned all of the peaks in the coast range following the retreating glaciers of the last ice age, and all but a few of which have been swallowed up in the encroaching forests. Rare plants, such as the Saddle Mountain Buttercress, and chocolate lilies, as well as endangered butterflies, such as the Oregon Silverspot butterfly, grace these delicate fields, some hovering on the brink of extinction. Tread with care.

The final section of the trail may bring on a case of vertigo as it traverses the massive mound of basalt, where winding switch backs are situated above yawning voids. This harrowing stretch yields the greatest reward, with a wide summit replete with the aforementioned stunning views a hundred miles wide. Not only will you have attained the highest point in the Coast Range, but the hike will also bring home the power and scope of the ancient Columbia River basalt floods, which have influenced the topography of much of the Pacific Northwest.

Hike Saddle Mountain

Other nearby hikes include trails in Oswald West State Park, the Banks-Vernonia Rail trail, Neahkahnie Mountain, as well as numerous smaller parks and points of interest such as Fishhawk Falls in Lee Wooden County Park. A weekend in Northwest Oregon, whether spent strolling through alpine prairies filled with spring flowers, or poking about the sea-mist haunted forests of the coast is a tonic for cabin fever while the high country is still blanketed in snow and slush.

Hike Saddle Mountain

Where to Hike in 2015: Pasayten, Glacier Peak and Goat Rocks Wilderness

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Have you completely filled in your hiking schedule for the summer? Hopefully there is still some room to add a few more hikes, because these are three places you need to visit! Check out these recommendations for where to hike in 2015 in the Pasayten, Glacier Peak and Goat Rocks wildernesses.

Goat Rocks Wilderness

Where to Hike in 2015
Mount Rainier and Packwood Lake from the Lily Basin Trail

The Goat Rocks boasts some of the most scenic stretches of trail in all of Washington, unbelievable amounts of wildflowers, perfect views of Mount Rainier and Adams and the Knife’s Edge – a section of the Pacific Crest Trail that you have to hike to believe.

There are so many places to see here: Goat Lake, Lily Basin, Snowgrass Flats, Cispus Basin. Although this wilderness sees many visitors, especially along the PCT, it’s easy to drive to and the hiking is not very difficult.

Break out your guide book and make sure to visit the Goat Rocks this summer.









Glacier Peak Wilderness

Where to Hike in 2015
Spider Meadows and Phelps Creek

One of the more popular treks in Glacier Peak Wilderness is the Spider Meadows – Buck Creek Pass Loop.

The trip up and through Spider Gap and down to the Lyman Lake Basin  is one of my favorite trips… ever!

Just last October the Suiattle River Road was reopened after 11 long years, giving access to many fantastic routes.

Another glorious loop in Glacier Peak Wilderness is along the Entiat River with a trip to Ice Lakes.

Where to Hike in 2015
Upper Lyman Lake


Pasayten Wilderness

Where to Hike in 2015
Lakeview Ridge in the Pasayten Wilderness

The Pasayten Wilderness is where you go if you want to get lost. You can sometimes go days here with out seeing another soul.

Most hikers visit the western side, close to Hart’s Pass and the PCT (which is my favorite part of the trial in Washington), but I recommend that you make the long drive over to Tonasket and get started hiking on the Pacific Northwest Trail (also known as the Boundary Trail) and trek the 30 fantastic miles to Cathedral Pass and Amphitheater Mountain.

You’ll pass the old Tungsten Mine and Apex Pass and, if you do the hike in early October, you’ll see the most stunning display of larch in the state.

Where to Hike in 2015
Amphitheater Mountain

Where to Hike in 2015: Snoqualmie Pass

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It looks like you’re going to have to start planning your spring and summer hiking wishlist a bit early this year since winter seems to have passed us by. With all the sunshine we’ve had, this backpacker certainly isn’t complaining! There’s a lifetime of hiking in Washington, so this guide for where to hike in 2015 in the Snoqualmie Pass region should give you a foot hold on one place to start. Get planning and get out there!

Ira Springs Memorial Trail – Mason Lake

6.5 miles roundtrip

Where to Hike in 2015

This hike is a bit of a thigh-buster, gaining 2420 feet of elevation in just over three miles, but is well-worth the work out. The trail begins by switchbacking through lush forest before emerging onto a sunny ridge. Hike to Mason Lake on a clear day, and you’ll get views of Mount Rainier, the Olympics and the South Cascades. Once you dip down to Mason itself, enjoy the afternoon on the banks of a pristine alpine lake, sunning on the rocks around the edges. There are multiple tent spots for camping up at Mason Lake, but the trail gets busy during the weekends during the summer. Make sure to get out there this spring while the trail will still feel secluded!

Where to Hike in 2015


Snow Lake

7.2 miles roundtrip

Where to Hike in 2015

I’ve heard the route to Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness referred to as a wilderness “superhighway,” and for good reason – the trail receives a flood of visitors during the peak hiking season of May through September. However, if you go during the shoulder season, you can find some piece and some of the best views around. Snow Lake is a stunning hike along talus slopes and under beautiful foliage. When you get your first peek of the lake at about three miles in, you’ll understand why this hike is so popular – Snow Lake is a true gem. Meander your way down to the lake shore and spend the day taking it all in.


Mount Si

8.o miles roundtrip

Where to Hike in 2015

The hike up to Mount Si is a Washington classic. Every year, people from flock from Seattle for the punishing four mile, 3150 feet journey to the top. Here, it’s all about the views. At about 4000 feet of elevation, the summit of Mount Si will give you near-360-degree views of the Cascades to the north and south. Pack your camera and try and catch the trail on a weekday to miss the crowds.

Where to Hike in 2015


Annette Lake

7.5 miles roundtrip

Where to Hike in 2015
Photo by John Brink

On this trail, you’ll pass Douglas firs, wildflowers, and waterfalls, all on your way to a stunning alpine lake – sounds pretty great, right? You’ll also get mountain views and a place to camp once you arrive at the lake, all for just a little over three miles in and 1400 ft of elevation gain. Make sure to pack a lunch and relax at the lake to enjoy this spring and summer hike to its fullest.


Pratt Lake Trail – Granite Mountain

8.6 miles roundtrip

Where to Hike in 2015
Photo by laffertyryan

You’ll have to earn your views on this hike – but you’ll be glad you did, as views abound at the top of Granite Mountain. Be careful hiking Granite Mountain early in the season when there’s still snow on the trail, as there is a potential avalanche danger just before the junction to Granite Mountain Trail. You’ll hike past – and over – large granite boulders on your way up to the top. Look out for the views to your south if you’re hiking on a clear day. Catch your breath at the summit, and take it all in!

Where to Hike in 2015: North Cascades

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Where to Hike in 2015
Copper Ridge Sunset

This year’s warm start has me already thinking about backcountry trips. From the way it looks now, we may be heading for a wonderfully long hiking season this summer! The North Cascades offer so many opportunities for long and short trips; it’s hard to know where to start when making the summer wish list. Here are a few ideas on where to hike in 2015.


Copper Ridge – Whatcom Pass Loop:

This 3 to 5 day trek through the North Cascades National Park is one of the must-do trips in the Pacific Northwest.

Where to Hike in 2015
Chilliwack Salmon

Starting from the Hannegan Pass Trailhead, the loop visits Copper Ridge, plunges down to the Chilliwack River (filled with salmon in early August) and then loops around and back. A side trip to Whatcom Pass and the Tapto Lakes is highly recommended.


Sahale Camp:

This hike is frequented by day-hikers, but to truly appreciate its glory, you need to spend the night there. You’ll need a permit and will have to carry a pack up, but it’s infinitely worth it!

Where to Hike in 2015
Morning at Sahale Glacier Camp


Horseshoe Basin:

Horseshoe Basin is much less visited, though close by Cascade Pass. The circle of granite fangs draped with glaciers and waterfalls and filled with wildflowers is a sight to behold. Be sure to pay a visit to the Black Warrior Mine!

Where to Hike in 2015
Horseshoe Basin


Maple Pass – Lake Ann Loop:

This 7 mile loop trail is a favorite for a reason: It’s awesome! Camping is possible along the route, you can bring your dog and no permits are required. This hike is especially beautiful in late July- early August (because of the wildflowers) and also in early October for catching the larch trees turning color.

Where to Hike in 2015
Lake Ann from the Maple Pass Trail


The Enchantments:

Where to Hike in 2015

Who doesn’t want to be Enchanted? Gnome Tarn, Isolation Lake, Prusik Peak, Perfection Lake. These are all places you have got to visit. October brings orange larches, a spectacle not to be missed. Permits to stay overnight are offered through a lottery, which ends on March 3rd.

Where to Hike in 2015
Colchuck Lake, Enchantments


May this hiking season be your best ever!

The Movie Wild Spurs New Permitting System on the Pacific Crest Trail

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Wild Spurs New Permitting System
Reese Witherspoon portraying Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail in the movie Wild – Source: The Telegraph

If you’ve recently been motivated by the blockbuster movie Wild, staring Reese Witherspoon, to hike the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico to Canada, you’re not alone, but the National Forest Service is saying to get in line – a long line.

Because of the success of the dramatic movie depicting Cheryl Strayed’s self-defining pilgrimage on the PCT, aspiring thru-hikers have flocked to Campo, a small town east of San Diego on the Mexican border to follow in Strayed’s and Witherspoon’s footsteps. This record setting influx of hikers has crowded the trail and the campsites on the southern leg of the trail. In an effort to reduce the human impact on the sensitive desert ecosystems of the southernmost part of the PCT, the Forest Service has instituted an unprecedented permitting system for the popular trail.

Wild Spurs New Permitting System
Southern PCT terminus near Campo, California – Source:

The new online permitting system will only issue permits for 50 thru-hikers a day. Those that want to apply for a permit can go to the Pacific Crest Trail Association permit site. The instructions say that a calendar on the permit page will let you check which days still have permits available. On the day that I checked the site, the calendar was not functional, and it was impossible to tell what days were still available to start the hike. Perspective thru-hikers beware; the permit process is new and reacting to an overflow of hikers, so expect major issues… by midsummer, Campo could look more like Burning Man than a place to start your life-affirming hike.

Bob Woods, North Cascades Regional Director of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, believes the movie has created an increased awareness of the trail that will result in record breaking use in the next few years. Woods emphasizes the Association’s mission to protect the trail experience for all of its users, “It is about the journey, not the destination,” says Woods. Hikers worried about crowds on the southern leg can always start the journey on Washington’s less crowded northern portion of the trail, recommends Woods.

Wild Spurs New Permitting System
Dramatic volcano views on Washington’s leg of the PCT – Source:

Washington’s northern leg of the PCT is 500 miles from the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River to Monument 78 on to the Canadian border. This section boasts some of the most beautiful and dramatic views of the entire trail. Hikers will cross several high passes spying the State’s famous glacier capped volcanoes then descend into mountain valleys full of colorful wildflowers.

Wild Spurs New Permitting System
Fall colors in the North Cascades portion of the PCT, WA – Source: Dutch Franz

If it seems like the PCT has been getting a lot of press lately, it has. Besides the critically acclaimed movie Wild, Seattle native and Shorecrest graduate Joe McConaughy recently set the record for the fastest supported thru-hike (endurance run) of the PCT. McConaughy completed the journey in just 53 days, averaging 55 miles a day and losing nearly 20lbs in the effort.

Wild Spurs New Permitting System
Joe McConaughy at the PCT northern terminus after a record setting thru-hike – Source: Seattle Backpackers Magazine


Five things to know before doing the PCT:

1. The Pacific Crest Trail Association is a great resource for information and for connecting with the PCT hiking community, find them at

2. Permitting can be tricky, particularly in California – do I really need a campfire permit? Plan early and know the rules so that you don’t get delayed or fined. Learn more about permits at

3. Natural disasters effect parts of the trail causing detours and closures – be sure to get the latest trail status at

4. The PCT is a strenuous hike – get in shape before you go so that you can enjoy the views and the spiritual rejuvenation of nature. Find personalized trekking workouts by Transformational Journeys at

5. Food can be a problem on a long hike – learn how to plan your resupply at The folks at Plan Your Hike list all of the route resupply points and offer great advice on everything PCT, check them out at

Silver Falls State Park

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Silver Falls State ParkThis is the time of year when most residents of the Pacific Northwest turn their minds towards escape. The damp, dreary months of winter bring thoughts of trips to Hawaii to the minds of cabin fevered lovers of the great outdoors. But I say, rather than run from the precipitation exuding from the sky and the land all around us, it’s time to embrace it. Resist the tourist covered sunny beaches, and head for the solitude of the rain forest. Forget an afternoon sunset watching ocean waves, and slip behind the cascading sheets of a raging waterfall. Abandon the glamour of a glitzy, full service, wallet-draining hotel, and discover the joy of a rustic log cabin with reduced rates and a tiny electric heater that feels better than all the sunshine in Hawaii after a day spent hiking in the drenching rain.

Silver Falls State Park – the largest State Park in Oregon – is a rainforest paradise nestled among the bucolic fields of the Willamette Valley. One minute you’re driving past the umpteenth family farm, the next you’re transported to a land of dark forests, swirling mists and the roar of towering waterfalls tumbling from cliffs of ancient basalt. The scenic highway gives the casual motorist a respectable tour of the parks attractions, rich with easily accessible viewpoints of waterfalls. However, to truly experience this park, one must dive headlong into the torrential rain of winter and the drenching spray of the falls.Silver Falls State Park

Although there are plenty of great trails within the park, you can see the best of the waterfalls all in one particular hike: the Trail of Ten Falls. Starting from the large parking area near South Falls, the trail descends into the canyon, looping behind the pounding torrent of water that is South Falls. Silver Falls State ParkThe trail meanders along the creek before passing behind yet another waterfall (Lower South Falls). Just past the base of the falls, you can shorten the loop by taking the Maple Ridge trail back to the trailhead for a total of 2 ½ miles. For more falls, continue on up the north fork of Silver Creek, passing pleasant Lower North Falls and, shortly thereafter, the short side trail to the ethereal Double Falls, followed by small Drake Falls. The best falls of all is next. Middle North Falls is a wide, crystalline sheet of water, behind which runs a trail leading to an epic view of the falls and canyon atop a mist-drenched cliff. Twin and Winter Falls are found soon after, and the trail culminates in one last rain fueled cascade, North Falls, and yet another behind-the-falls walk. Before returning to the trailhead via the Rim Trail, there’s an option to visit another waterfall half a mile up the creek, its name – Upper North Falls – sharing a similar amount of originality with the rest of the falls in the park. Naming these various falls after the cardinal directions makes them seem somewhat blasé, but each has its own personality, and still provokes a feeling of awe as it comes into site around a bend in the trail.

Silver Falls State ParkOf course, those not blessed with the time or energy necessary for this loop of nearly 9 miles can easily see the best the park has to offer in a series of short hikes – most of the falls can be reached in less than a mile each. There are over 25 miles of trails traversing 9,000 acres, and especially in the gray days of winter, you can find solitude on the twisting forest paths that traverse the rambling ridges and verdant valleys of the Eastern Park. A trip in early spring will bring contrast to the gray of winter as trillium, orchids and flowering currant adorn the valleys and hillsides.

Normally, I’m a tent camper, whether high in the mountains or in a campground, but after a day of driving and hiking in the pouring rain, crawling into a damp bag in a drippy tent is not terribly appealing. Much more desirable are the park cabins, cheaper and easier to reserve in the off season. With a covered porch and plenty of bunkbeds, it feels like luxury, especially while playing cards at the table inside with the rain pounding on the roof and damp clothes steaming near the heaters.

Silver Falls may be a long drive for some – around six hours from Seattle – but it’s a great destination for a few days of rainforest exploration. Also, it makes an ideal stopover on the way to central Oregon or Northern California. Combine the trip with a visit to Smith Rock, the lava fields of Bend, the painted hills or with a trip to the Redwoods and a tour of the Oregon Coast.

Between rain-soaked sojourns amid loud falls and quiet woods, and the tempting possibilities for adventure beyond the borders of this beautiful park, few will visit Silver Falls and leave with their cabin fever intact.

Silver Falls State Park

Now Playing at the Pasayten Wilderness Amphitheater

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Editor’s Note – To get the full story on Jim’s trip to Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, check out his article Hiking with Horses: How Aging Hikers Can Take on the Wilderness.

Pasayten Wilderness
At sunset, the granite turned from grey to amber and to gold red before blending into the black of night. Photos by Linda Knutson.

The Pasayten Wilderness Area in Washington State has many glorious spots, both intimate and expansive, but the massive, 1,000-foot-high granite spires of Amphitheater Mountain are, I think, the most dramatic. They wrap themselves around Upper Cathedral Lake, packaging it like a precious gem in ever-changing hues of grey and ochre and violet and red. At dusk, when the focus is typically the sunset itself, you, instead, turn your back to the west and watch the half-hour light show on stone and water. It’s breathtaking to see— in a silence so complete that your mind plays its own symphony of sounds.

Our group spent seven days camping on a rise above the western lakeshore, fishing Upper Cathedral in the evenings after a full day of hiking to surrounding lakes and features. Mornings came early, partly because most of us were used to getting up before six, but mostly because we would hear hooves on the granite boulders near our tents: tiny hooves of mountain goat kids scurrying up, then skidding down the rocks in playful games of King of the Mountain.

Pasayten Wilderness
Each morning we awoke to the clattering of tiny hooves on boulders in our campground.

Before this trip, sighting a goat on a distant ledge was reason for excitement, but the dozen or so goats that showed up each morning at our campsite were not shy of humans. They encircled us, coming within a few feet, the kids playing games while the nannies nibbled the new grasses and plants that grew at that 7,400-foot elevation. Although we were worried at first, we soon realized that, though they were curious, they showed no signs of aggression, nor did they seem a bit worried that we would harm them or their offspring.

Pasayten Wilderness
This male was clearly submissive to Geraldine, the matriarch.

We soon discovered that the goats were likely there to “harvest” the salts from campers’ food waste and urine, a far less romantic reason than we had hoped. We had all camped at elevations where goats were known to live, yet none of us had ever heard of goats doing this. Why here? The season at that remote site is short and access is only for long distance hikers and horseback riders, yet the mountain goats had learned to associate with humans much like their domestic counterparts in the lowlands.

Pasayten Wilderness
Linda Knutson excitedly captures the first day’s visit of “our” mountain goats. By week’s end, the goats’ morning ritual was ignored. Photo by Vicki Black.

Each day the goats would spend the morning in our camp, then about noon and in small groups, head up the talus slopes of Amphitheater, often to one of the remaining snow patches, then circle the lake and come down again on the northeast shore, presumably to visit other camps for new salt deposits. By early morning, they were back, playing noisily on the granite boulders.

Watching them, particularly the kids and a stately dominant female we named Geraldine, became the highlight of this most remarkable trip.

Pasayten Wilderness
Geraldine, our name for the dominate female of the herd, was unfazed by horse or human, clearly owning the space we called home for a week.


Tricky Trails

During our days there, each couple took a different trail route that fit our personal interests and physical abilities, but we learned quickly that the available maps were not reliable. Lower Cathedral Lake, we learned, was best reached by way of an “unmaintained trail,” which was signed as such just west of Upper Cathedral, but was not marked on any of our maps. With much easier hiking, and an often shady trail, this route went fairly direct from one lake to the other, with a view of Lower Cathedral that helped us keep our bearing. There were some rocky patches and felled logs that crossed the path in places, but nothing too difficult to climb around. (It is not a trail for horse travel.) The primary route to Lower Cathedral, however, was considerably longer with several hundred feet of trail underwater in a wide meadow. It, too, was easy to walk around on higher ground, but with a longer route and less interesting scenery, we couldn’t see the point.

Hiking to the top of 8,358-foot-high Amphitheater Mountain was accessed by an unmarked, but clear, trail a few hundred feet east of the junction of trail 533 (to Lower Cathedral Lake) with trail 565. We didn’t attempt to summit Amphitheatre due to time, but expect the final assent to be as easy to follow as the unmarked trail around the mountain’s base. Again, the trail to what we suspect is an incredible view, is not marked on either the forest service or Green Trails maps we had.

Pasayten Wilderness
This trail to Remmel Lake accessed the lake from the north with Remmel Mountain in the distance. Our maps showed no trail on the north side, but instead positioned the trail along the southern shore.

The third trail I’ll note was even more confusing, however. It is marked on all maps we referenced, but from what we could see, all are wrong. Finding Remmel Lake, became a challenge. One couple in our group had actually seen a glimpse of Remmel early in the week, but assumed it was a pothole rather than the third lake we most wanted to see. All of our maps placed trail number 510 running along the south shore of Remmel Lake. However, the trail from which we accessed Remmel was on the north side of the lake. We assume that at some time the trail was rerouted to the north side of this picturesque lake, but the maps never updated. If there is a south-side trail, we did not find it. Inaccurate and incomplete maps and inadequate trail signage seem to be the rule in that part of the Pasayten. Fortunately, the forest is open enough and peaks are prominent enough to find your bearings.

The mountain goats and sunsets were easily the most exciting things to see on this adventure, but the time with great friends in the magical Pasayten will be the lasting joy. Few places on earth can evoke the glory of nature better.

Pasayten Wilderness
The dramatic face of Amphitheater Mountain rose 1,000 feet above our campground.

Hiking with Horses: How Aging Hikers Can Take on the Wilderness

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I think we can all relate to and prepare for living unconnected and in natural grandeur, but we don’t think about the wonderful gift of living in the here and now… so rare in today’s world.  That’s what stays with me from time in the wilderness… and draws me back to it.


Hiking with Horses
Ampitheatre Mountain – Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness- Photo by Gary

The last time the massive, nearly 1,000 vertical granite face of Amphitheatre Mountain struck me with awe was in 1964. I was 16 and on my last annual family vacation to the far reaches of Washington’s rugged Pasayten Wilderness – then designated as a primitive area. I later served as a fire lookout on both the northern and southern border of the Pasayten and had returned to do a backpacking trip in the area, but the prize – Upper Cathedral Lake and its backdrop of Amphitheatre – were only grand memories.

At 66 and out of shape, I knew my opportunities to revisit the lake were numbered, so I wrote to a few adventuresome friends asking if any would join my somewhat reluctant wife and me for a week in the Pasayten. We would ride horseback 20 miles into a dropoff site near Upper Cathedral, spend the week hiking daily to points of interest, and then have the packer return and take the gear out on the final day. Four friends agreed.


The Intrepid Six

One replaced hip with the other not functioning well, two knees slated for replacement, an overweight guy with a torn rotator cuff and three physicians with a bag of pain relievers to keep us going made up our gang of six. We still thought of ourselves as backpackers, but the bad joints that had come with our social security cards told us otherwise. Our goal was to reach Upper Cathedral Lake first through 12 miles of recent burn along Andrews Creek, and then undertake the final eight miles through virgin forest. The constant, steady climb along the creek was a killer for man and beast, but the last eight miles were glorious, with vast mountain meadows, fir and pine forest and sweeping vistas of the primitive areas in Washington and British Columbia.

The trail was often more of a rocky gully from spring runoff than it was a trail, with uneven boulders and a fine layer of dust forming the stairway through a burn so total that miles passed before even a lone spruce survivor was found. Fireweed, willow and lodgepole pine that had sprouted and grown since the Tripod Complex fire of 2006 were about the only sizeable living plants in the understory of hundreds of thousands of grey-weathered poles that posed like grave markers in a cemetery of ash and stone.

Hiking with Horses
Greying, dead tree trunks were the only over story for the first twelve miles of the Andrews Creek trail – Photo by Linda Knutson

In the four hours of travel it takes to climb to Andrews Pass, the only sign of wildlife we saw were two does at the pass, and they seemed stunned by the devastation, standing just feet from the trail, not moving or showing much sign that they knew we were passing. It was eerie. The only relief in that long, lonely stretch of deep canyon were heavily fruited huckleberry bushes and wild raspberries that ran from the trail to the creek bed – that and the crashing flow of the fast-moving creek that remained unchanged after the Tripod destroyed nearly every living thing in its drainage.

Backpacking up Andrews Creek simply hadn’t been an option for us, so we had chosen to hire Cascade Wilderness Outfitters to ferry us and our gear into and out of our main camp.

Horses? Even worse, mules? Backpackers hate them! Poop on the trails, flies, trail damage, the smell! We had been negative toward horseback riders on wilderness trails, too. But life is a compromise, and we, perhaps selfishly, chose to ride. We did stay off the Pacific Crest Trail and avoided all but a short stretch of the Pacific Northwest Trail, which should offend fewer Seattle Backpackers readers, but not all.

Hiking with Horses
Using horses and mules to transport supplies allowed 80 pounds per person, something unheard of for backpackers – Photo by Linda Knutson

The youngest of our party, Marge Henderson, turned 60 during our trip. She and her husband, Mike Maples, two of the physicians, were in excellent condition, but both with busy careers. They joined us to take advantage of the time saved by using livestock. They hiked separately once we were at Upper Cathedral, wanting to go longer distances than the rest of us, but returned to the group campsite at the end of each day.

For Ron Sell and his wife, Linda Knutson, the week meant hiking in territory neither had seen, though they had previously hiked the wildflower-rich Horseshoe Basin to the east of the Cathedrals. World-class gardeners, the couple found this an irresistible opportunity to see more of the wildflowers that cover meadows throughout the Pasayten. But bad-knees-Ron, especially, would not have attempted Andrews Creek by backpack. At 70, he could still easily out-hike me when not burdened with a pack, but it would not have been possible for him with one. He and his wife, like me and mine, knew that as older hikers, we needed to take advantage of every year we could to still do any hiking. If surgery was part of the schedule, it had to be worked around.

Hiking with Horses
Ron Sell made the best of a comfortable boulder, catching a little siesta in the afternoon

For Vicki, my wife, getting to the Cathedrals was to see the area I had been talking about for over 40 years of marriage. And for me? I had to go one more time and, at 50 years to the week, the first week of August 2014 seemed like the right time.

We’ve all met hikers in their 70s and 80s who have the ability to backpack as they did in their youth, but the numbers are small. Using horses and mules makes the deeper reaches of the Pasayten accessible for older hikers to do the hiking they most enjoy and don’t want to give up on just yet. Plus, the added cargo possible allows for full-sized air mattresses, real food and copious amounts of wine and beer – comforts that are more essentials than luxuries as one ages.

Hiking with Horses
At the end of each day of hiking, our group made it back to camp for an evening of friendship near the shore of Upper Cathedral Lake – Photo by Linda Knutson

Even with horses, there was the stiffness and pain of hours in the saddle, but the discomfort was bearable because we knew it would make reaching the Cathedrals possible. The glory of Upper Cathedral Lake and especially the dramatic face of Amphitheatre Mountain are life-time experiences Pacific Northwest hikers should not miss at any age – even if it takes a horse or mule to make it possible.

 A Note from Group Member and Photographer, Linda Knutson:

Because of physical infirmities, Ron and I can no longer do the backpacking we did in our younger years.  But we love camping in the wilderness and by having a horse packer haul both us and our gear into the Pasayten Wilderness, we were able to still have this experience. Ron had only ridden once before back in his college days, over 50 years ago, so he was a true greenhorn.  I hadn’t been on a horse for about 20 years, and now had an artificial hip, so we were both concerned how we would do.  As it turned out, the trip was truly amazing in every way. First of all, we survived the ride in, though we were a little stiff and sore the next day after almost seven hours in the saddle. We camped in a beautiful spot overlooking Upper Cathedral Lake just two miles from the Canadian border where, for over half the time we were there, the only other living creatures we saw were mountain goats.  Having pack mules haul our gear allowed us to have an incredibly comfortable camping trip.  Thunderstorms, amber evening light on Amphitheater Mountain followed by brilliant sunsets, fresh rainbow trout, delicious meals, daily hikes, hot showers before dinner and the ever-present mountain goats who each morning visited our camp with their kids and appeared to be as curious about us as we were of them are just some of the indelible memories from our trip. Plus a most unforgettable ending where we had to be evacuated a day early because of new wildfire activity in the valley 20 miles below.

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