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.