Friday, August 19, 2016

Hike to Camp Muir, WA

where the question of mileage isn't the point...

When I asked a park ranger at the Paradise Visitor Center of Rainier National Park last Sunday morning, “how many miles is it to Camp Muir from here?” he responded with “the mileage doesn’t matter, but the 5,000 feet elevation gain does.”

When I inquired if I would be able to do the hike without crampons or poles, he gave me a cautionary once-over, assessing my trail-worthiness.  I guess my worn pack, scuffed boots, and dingy field clothes suggested I’d been out hiking once or twice (or was a homeless youth) and he said I’d be fine, but warned me that the hike “is a bear.”

What drew me to this hike was a friend’s nudge to check it out after I’d expressed some doubt that I’d ever try to technically climb a peak.  He marketed the hike to Camp Muir as one that would take you the highest and closest to Rainier without a climbing permit.

Like a moth to flame…I was drawn to the idea.

The first two miles of the trail are heavily traveled by visitors, so I suggest getting there early.  I started at 0800 and I would recommend starting no later than that.  You will most certainly not have the trail to yourself, but you won’t find yourself in a flood of visitors either. 

Follow the Skyline Trail from the Paradise Visitor Center past Glacier Vista.  Shortly after a steepish switchback section you’ll hit the sign pointing onward to Camp Muir.  If you hit this hike late in the summer on a fine weather day like I did, you’ll be delighted by sights of wildflowers in bloom, the singing flow of Pebble Creek, and sightings of marmots (my favorite trail-time friend).

Right after you cross Pebble Creek, you’ll begin the climb up and through Muir Snowfield. 

This was the first point I very nearly turned around. 

Everyone around me had crampons and poles…and I couldn’t decide if I was being stupid or not attempting to do this hike up through a snow field with just my field-warn, shoe-goo-repaired, hiking boots.  After a few moments hesitation, I saw another hiker without crampons and poles.  That was enough.  I decided, “well…let’s just go as far as we can go.”

As it turns out, if the weather is good, you are completely safe doing this hike through the snowfield with boots alone (long as they have some traction…so leave the converse sneakers at home).  The trick, I found, was to follow someone else’s footsteps, and that seemed to allow me to stay on some grippable ground.  The slope is never so severe that I feared I’d slide backwards, but (quite frankly) there were several moments which I looked back behind me for the view, saw the slope I’d have to go down later on and grew afraid.

These were the several other moments where I very nearly turned around.

I elected not to look back anymore (there’s a metaphor for traveling through life somewhere here…).

The first 2 miles up to the snowfield was a steady incline, however, not really anything notable compared to climb onward on the snowfield itself.  The snowfield section is where “the bear” I was warned of begins. 

And it just seems to keep going.  However, as you go you realize you are so close to Rainier you feel you might reach out and touch it.  The glacial blue of the snow becomes an intoxicating vibrancy.  It makes you feel giddy for the loveliness of it.

As you hike on, there are several times you will find yourself thinking “surely at that horizon line, I’ll be there.”

But, you won’t be.

Fear not – eventually, you will be.

Camp Muir, at last in view, stands like Shangri La.  Ironically, the closer the end seems the more often you have to stop for breaks to ease your burning lungs and muscles.  It is a delightfully sort of burning though.

The view from the Camp is spectacular if you can manage to hit it on a day of good visibility.  I was met with such fortune and could see Mt Adams, Mt Hood and Mt St Helens on the distant horizon.  The blue of distance of the mountain range filling my sight below was a lovely lullaby, drawing you both deep into the scenery and deep into yourself.  

I could have lingered there for many a long, lullabyed day dream, but (as I mentioned before) I was nervous about the trip down, so I figured I better give myself as wide a time window as possible to take my time.

Turns out, the way down is not something one should “take their time” with.  Not only is it nothing to be nervous about, but is safer to go at quickly rather than slowly.

I began to notice that others around me were electing to slide rather than hike / walk down…that this actually seemed the wiser method.

There is a sort of skating method in which one is somewhat jogging with gravity down the slope, and sliding on the tread of your boots when possible to traverse the terrain more quickly (prepare for shaky-cam):

There is glissading (didn’t realize at the time this is what I was doing, just following the model of the rest around me):

Be sure to bring some rain pants or at least a plastic trash bag so you can slide your way down in fine, Rainier fashion.  It was a delight and nothing to hold a fright over. 

Hiking guides warned the trip could take as long as 9 hours, but it mostly depends on how much you push your pace on the way up.  Only you can know how you go at inclines.  Fast or slow, this is an experience not to be missed…I’m sure glad I didn’t turn around.

Elevation Start: 5,400ft
Elevation End: 10,188ft
Estimated hiking time: 5 – 9 hours
Mileage: 9 miles (roundtrip)

I read on a few blogs some cautionary notes about weather.  Be wary of sudden changes in weather and try to attempt the hike on a clear day, without the whisper of a storm.  Regardless of the forecast bring extra layers and emergency warmth (space blanket, etc.). 


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Twin Peaks, WA

With a conveniently-located trailhead (right on highway 12), a taste of the PCT, and a lesser-traveled section of trail leading to a summit of sorts with a panoramic view including Mt Rainier…this hike seems almost too good to be true.  I’ll admit though – I was judging a trail by its name when selecting it for my Saturday outing -  “Twin Peaks” - due to an old TV show I have an affection for…

Most of this hike is a very gradual upward grade.  So gradual, in fact, you barely register you are going uphill…until the very end during which point it is undeniable you are going uphill…but we’ll get to that later.

From the parking area* you immediately cross Clear Creek and soon pass by Leech Lake (aren’t you just dying for a dip in that lake based on its name?).  Somewhere around 2 miles you’ll pass a boulder field where I believe I heard (but sadly never caught sight of) a pika. 

The trail enters forest once again and soon you’ll find yourself passing into Goat Rocks Wilderness.  Pass by Ginnette Lake, a boggy pond, and then you’ll hit the trail junction.  The trail sign for Twin Peaks Trail 1144 is high up in a tree and easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it.  The start of this trail branching off of the PCT descends into a lush meadow and flattens out before your grunt to the peak begins.  There are some fallen debris you’ll be required to scramble over, but all part of the charm of this trail if you ask me.

Leech Lake

It is fairly straight up to the first of the Twin Peaks, but you have plenty of excuses to stop for a breather on the way because each step opens up your view of Hogback Ridge, Dog Lake, and Mt Rainier.  Don’t give up or give in before the high point though…it is completely worth the effort. 

Dog Lake
Hogback Ridge?
Hogback Ridge?
A bare, gravel-covered ridgeline leads you to a neighboring peak if you fancy a bit more exploring at the elevation.  Here you find a bone yard – bleached, burned trees standing as sentinels and a haven for birds.  If you are a birder, you’ll delight in this area so bring your binoculars.  There is something serene and lovely about the skeleton trees in contrast to sky, something marvelously uplifting of seeing how something burned and long dead providing the backdrop for the liveliness of dark-eyed juncos and grey jays

bone yard

The hike back down is almost entirely downhill, so you can complete this hike somewhere in the 4 – 5 hour range, even with lingering at the summit for a long while like I did.  If you rally to getting an early start you’ll find you had the whole hike to yourself as you pass small groups of late-morning hikers on your way out … feeling slightly smug at your achievement of “early bird catches the worm.”

There are many benefits to getting trail time and peak time entirely to oneself.  And I experienced a new one this week.

I had brought a letter from a friend to read at the peak – seemed a novel thing to do.  I didn’t know exactly the words it contained, but apparently it was something God really wanted my heart to hear, because it struck me deeply, and permitted me to cry.

I don’t know if you’ve ever cried aloud, alone, on a mountain peak.  But I now believe it to be one of life’s essential experiences.

It doesn’t have to be a mountain peak actually.  It just needs to be somewhere solitary, with no other human around, and no human sound.  Somewhere exposed so you can let yourself be exposed.  Let your heart be exposed to yourself.

At any rate, reading this letter in this space brought me to tears. They surprised me, but it was sort of intoxicating.  It felt like I was tapping into something not allowed.  Something I should have had to pay extra for.

I hesitated to share this because if you aren’t a melancholy soul, then you likely won’t understand what I am describing.  I mean, if you are all smiles and laughter all the time – marvelous for you. I mean that sincerely and not sarcastically.

But that is something I just can’t be and don’t understand. I know for myself, and I think it generally true for most of us, that we need to allow ourselves be a little more raw every once in awhile…a little more real…a little more exposed.

If you are a melancholy soul you will understand entirely that to cry is not always (or even usually) something to be a cause of concern. I wonder over the social reaction to crying.  We are always trying to stifle it, apologize for it, fix it, hide it.  Our knee-jerk reaction to someone crying is to say something like “don’t cry” and attempt to comfort them to stop the crying – stop not to let them cry.  If we are the one crying, we try to hide our face, turn our head, or apologize for crying.  We try to choke it down, bottle it up, push it away.

Why is it so very much “ok” to smile and laugh, but repulsive and shameful to cry and shed tears?  Why do we apologize for it?  Why do we try to snuff it out before it starts?  Why don’t we just embrace it?

And please don’t misunderstand, the crying had nothing to do with loneliness or being alone.  It wasn’t painful, it felt more like cleaning out something that was gathering dust, something beautiful that needed to get access to oxygen, something that was essential to my breathing.  Something that needed to breathe itself.

It felt therapeutic to be up there alone, mountain ridges all around me, Rainier in the distance, a symphony of bird calls giving texture to the air.  I was hard-pressed to leave.  Hard pressed to let the moment go. 

So, I’m risking to share it here so that if you ever get a chance to experience something similar – don’t let the moment go.

so, let go...there's a beauty in the breakdown (frou frou) 

*Note: Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful annual pass required & don’t forget to fill out your wilderness pass (free at the trailhead) before you begin.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Gladys Divide & Flapjack Lakes, Olympic National Park, WA

Olympic National Park has long been a place I hoped to visit.  There have been several years now of me drooling over photographs and sequences from films of these moss-shrouded, hyper-green, gloomy woods.  I needed to walk in these woods someday.  It being a holiday weekend, and Olympic National Park being a bit of a drive from where I am currently living, I thought it my best chance at getting a visit in…but I was worried that droves of other visitors might deflate the balloon of my long-held dream of hiking in this park with some semblance of solitude.

So, I began researching lesser-known hikes in the park…and I stumbled upon Flapjack Lakes. 

I got to the trailhead (near Staircase Ranger Station) to start my hike around 1015.  There is a gravel / dirt parking lot there to leave your vehicle.  Look for the “North Fork Skokomish River” trailhead sign just slightly uphill from the lot, which will advertise that the “Flapjack Lake Junction” is 4 miles onward.

Those 4 miles are on a well-groomed, wide, trail through moss-covered old-growth trees.  Seriously old – huge cedars and firs that drip age into the air, seem to breath out something ancient for you to breath in.  The thickness of the moss there inspires delightfully dusty thoughts, and if you are an old soul fond of dusty things like me, you smile wide like a kid in a candy store as you pass by – hungry to devour the sweetness of it.  

Around 4 miles in you reach the trail junction, with a sign advertising that Flapjack Lakes themselves are 4 miles further on.  This is where the elevation gain more tangibly begins – first moderately, and then in a way that can’t be overlooked.  It is not a killer climb, but you do breath harder for certain.  

The views along the way help though – creek crossing, waterfalls, wildflowers, and bombardments of green.  Before venturing to Olympic National Park, I hesitated to do so thinking that perhaps I’d built the place up too much in my mind.  After all, I am currently living in a Washington forest – how different could the Olympic peninsula woods be then the ones right outside my door?

They are different. 

I tried to articulate just how they are different.  It has a lot to do with the level of green.  In the Olympic woods it is as if the green volume has been turned all the way up.  The green is almost blinding in its vibrancy - intoxicating & entrancing.  You find yourself surprised that so much green can exist in one place without exhausting the world’s overall supply.   Maybe it does…


This national park seems like it could double as a Land Before Time theme park.  So ancient feeling and green that surely dinosaurs must roam around here somewhere.  And I know what you are thinking – “so…like Jurassic Park?” But, no.  This is not what I mean.  This Land Before Time Park is more whimsical and far less hazardous to your life expectancy. 

(And raptor-less, did I mention it is raptor-less?)

Anyways, on this section of the hike I had a pretty incredible encounter.  Not a dinosaur, but for me just as exciting a gift.  A mother mountain goat and her cloud-fluffy kid walked down the trail toward me.  We both stopped and regarded each other for several minutes.  Both curious and uncertain about the other’s intentions.  I had just recently caught sight of my first mountain goats in the wild a week ago, but from a very far distance, such that I could only view them as specs through binoculars.  Now they were 20 feet away.  I was breathless honestly, and thankful that they let me drink in the sight of them for a bit.

After crossing Madeline Creek via footbridge and passing by a very lush waterfall on your way switchbacking uphill you’ll hit another trail junction – Flapjack Lakes is upward.  The last grunt here is the hardest, but you made it this far so – carry on. 

When you reach the lakes there is a camp sign giving you instructions on where to camp and how to store your food (they provide bear wires here).  I went to the farthest reaching campsite near a creek in the hopes of getting some solitude.  

bear wire

After quickly setting up my tent (I prefer sleeping out…but this is Olympic National Park and rain can spontaneously regenerate from sunshine, right?), it was around 1430 and I decided I had enough daylight and sufficient energy reserves to make an attempt at Gladys Divide.

Candidly, I very nearly didn’t rally to this endeavor.  I wasn’t sure I had the mental or physical energy for any more uphill battles.  But let me tell you – try with all your might to rally to this cause because to miss the sights on the way would be a tragedy.

The hiking guide (see the end of this post) I read regarding this hike said it was “3 miles” from Flapjack Lakes.  I don’t know if that meant 3 miles round trip or 3 miles one-way…it feels more like 1 mile round-trip honestly because the views provided along every step make time and distance non-existent.

After maybe 20 minutes of switchbacks up, I felt as if I’d walked through a portal into a realm that is some fabulous combination of Middle Earth’s Rohan meets the backdrop scenery of The Sound of Music - carpets of wildflowers nestled up to deliciously grey, impossibly toothy, looming peaks.  Slates of snow with boulders and streams peaking through create Nature’s patchwork quilt.  And all this before you even get to the divide marker.

Once at the Gladys Divide marker (5000ft), you are additionally blessed with a stunning view of a valley below and more of the Olympic mountains beyond.  The view across the way warrants pause to drink it in – so pause to drink it in.  I was fortunate to hit this spot on a clear day but with clouds drifting in – delicate wisps that seemed to me the mountains' delicate thought clouds, brooding, but a catalyst of mirth for a melancholy soul like myself. 

 I was up to Gladys Divide and back to my camping spot at Flapjack Lakes in under two hours, including the pause to drink in the view.  After dinner, I fell asleep shamelessly by 1900 (ah the exiting Saturday nights of a 20-something) to the sound of the creek flowing nearby.

Sunday I was packed up and on the trail down by 0545.  I selfishly wanted the trail to myself, and I figured an early sunrise out would permit me that.  And permit me it did.

if you want ancient forest air
with a mountain goat flair
some wildflowers here and there
and toothy peaks (tree-bare)
this is the hike for you.

**For another (better) trail guide –

Note: If you decide to do this one-day camping venture, you’ll need to pay park entrance ($20), unless you have an annual pass ($80), which I recommend investing in if you think you’ll have at least 4 visits to federal lands at some point in a year.  You’ll also need to reserve in advance a backcounty permit ($5) to camp at Flapjack Lakes.  I believe there are some day-of permits possible, but better safe than sorry if you ask me.