Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Orcas Island Hiking: Turtlehead Turns Heads

While Washington's San Juan Islands are known as a boating and kayaking mecca, Orcas Island offers miles of well-maintained trails through forest and mountain peaks. A splendid addition is the new trail (opened late 2013) off the north end of Turtleback Mountain out to Turtlehead Preserve (aka Orcas Knob).

On a brilliant spring day my friend Steve, who lives on Orcas, took us up the new trail for the breathtaking view from Turtlehead Preserve. He was involved in the effort to secure funding via the San Juan Preservation Trust and San Juan County Land Bank for this beautiful addition to the Turtleback Mountain Preserve. (For specifics on the effort, this story in the Island Sounder provides more detail.)

We meet at the North Trailhead of Turtleback Mountain Preserve (off Crow Valley Road, next to the historic schoolhouse) and head up the gentle grade (an old road bed) through the forest.  After about 1.5 miles, the short detour to the Waldron Lookout is worth a quick trip for the first of fantastic views.

When I hiked here last (November 2012), the trail to Turtlehead Preserve just past the Waldron Lookout detour wasn't yet openBut today we take the well-marked cutoff at the saddle and plunge into the woods through what appears mostly second-growth and remnant old-growth forest.

Save for a couple young women we pass, we're the only ones out here on a gorgeous sunny weekend afternoon. Nothing beats getting outdoors on off-peak days/season to avoid crowds of like-minded hikers.

After meandering through the forest for about a mile, with a bit of up and down, partly along an old grade and winding through trees, we get glimpses of the glorious island views.  I pick up the pace.

Soon we scramble up onto the balds to an open native grass savannah, with "tiered" rocky outcrops. Needless to say, the panoramic views of the Salish Sea and islands are SPEC-TAC-ULAR.

Looking south, Olympic Mountains in the distance on the Olympic Peninsula.
While up here gulping in the magnificent day/panorama, we try to be mindful of the delicate native grasses and flowers. Things are still green and flowering in April, but by midsummer things are likely much drier and brown up there.

And then it's an easy amble back down to the trailhead.

Big thanks to all the organizations and volunteers who helped plan, develop, and build this marvelous trail (the San Juan Preservation Trust, San Juan County Land Bank, Washington Trails Association, Washington Conservation Corps, and  local volunteers)!

Have you been to Turtlehead yet?  Would love to hear your Orcas/San Juan Islands hiking experiences in a comment below. Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.
Happy hiker!

When You Go
Here is an excellent trail map with specific information at the San Juan County Land Bank website. I think overall we hiked a little over 4 miles, and this is not a challenging or difficult hike (but I did break a sweat). Turtlehead is at 1,005 feet above sea level.

Methinks that the south access trailhead to Turtleback Mountain is more popular, with more open views.  To get to Turtlehead, we hike through a few miles of woods until we're rewarded with the views. For this reason, this will probably stay a lesser visited trail. And for this reason, a good reason to go.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hiking Esmeralda Basin: In Celebration of Wildflowers and Mountains

As snow recedes from higher elevations in the Northwest, fragile yet hardy wildflowers spring to life.  While the wildflowers around Paradise on Mount Rainier are legendary, mountain meadows with wildflowers are all over the Cascades. 

Over Fourth of July weekend, we hike up to Fortune Creek Pass through Esmeralda Basin in the Teanaway region of Washington's central Cascades. On the way up we pass gorgeous mountain meadows spiked with brilliant Indian paintbrush, shooting stars, and more.

Our hike began at the end of the road up the North Fork Teanaway basin, at a trailhead for numerous excellent Teanaway hikes. Here on the eastern crest of the Cascades, the landscape is more arid, with less thick underbrush and more pine trees.

I'd done this hike back in the 1990s, but this time we see many diseased and dying trees as we start up the trailthe curse of the pine beetle, fire suppression, and likely climate change.  It's noticeably different.

But the healthy creek swollen with snowmelt is a nice contrast. As the trees transition to subalpine varieties, they appear healthier.

A mile or so up the trail, which angles up Esmeralda Basin at a gentle grade, we start passing more wildflowers. The real treat, though, is the brilliant meadow full of flowers.

Magenta paintbrush in foreground
Shooting star

We pass a few more meadows, amble along sideslopes, and walk up a few switchbacks to the last stretch through a quickly melting snowfield. Before I realize it, we've reached the saddle at Fortune Creek Pass. Overall it's a pretty mellow 3.5 miles here, ascending over 1,700 feet.

And the views!  

Hawkins Mountain

Fortune Creek Pass

Mt. Daniel in the distance.

Name that peak!

So we pull out sit pads and take a leisurely break enjoying the view and our lunches.  Not a bad way to spend a day.

Up here on the exposed ridge at almost 6,000 feet in elevation, the flowers are more sparse and hardy.

Since this is not a steep hike, the trek down doesn't batter the toes or knees like some downhill hikes can do. We stop and take lots more flower shots and wind up back at the trailhead a little less than 6 hours after we started.

Friendly hikers

Scarlet gilia

Six hours has passed? Times flies when you're outdoors in a beautiful mountain valley surrounded by wildflowers, happy hikers, and sweet fresh air.

Have you hiked in the Teanaway too? Would love to hear about your trip or favorite hikes in the comments below.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

When You Go
A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead. From Seattle area, take I-90 east to Cle Elum, then exit east of town to Blewett Pass/SR 970. Take SR 970 north to the Teanaway Road. Follow the North Fork Teanaway Road to the 29 Pines Campground where the pavement ends at a fork in the road. Take the right fork, FR 9737, 10 miles to its end at trailhead #1394, Esmeralda Basin.

Don't forget your sunscreen! It gets hotter and drier here than on the western side of the mountains.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Seattle Summer Sunsets: Drama in the Sky

How did you celebrate Fourth of July weekend?

Sure fireworks are fun to oooh and aaahhh over, but you don't have to wait for fancy exploding chemical concoctions for spectacular displays in our skies. Just head down to a beach on Puget Sound, or anywhere with a good view west, and plop down on a log/sit pad/beach towel for the show. 

It has become a regular pilgrimage for me to head down to Carkeek Park, Golden Gardens, or occasionally Discovery Park to shoot the sunset.  Some nights a dark gray marine layer of clouds rolls in and settles high over the Olympics across the Sound, blotting out much of a show.

But overall clouds heighten the drama. We do clouds well here in the Upper Left Hand Corner.

 I'm not alone in heading to the Sound's edge for the evening show.  Families and friends bring picnics and revel in our sunsets.

And of course the Olympics heighten the spectacle, whether draped, partially obscured in clouds, or flying free and clear.

 As I watch the sky show and kiss the day goodbye, I try to appreciate the fleeting beauty of each moment.  These sunsets go by quickly, with subtle and dramatic changes in light and color over the course of 30 minutes or less. I see it as analogous to the course of a lifetime, in way.

Which of course has to include some fun.

So I hope you enjoyed the holiday weekend and enjoyed a sunset or two. And  tell me about it with a Comment below!

Thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hiking Larch Mountain's Crater Loop: Through an Enchanted Forest

Sure you can drive almost to the top of Larch Mountain for the stunning panorama of Cascade volcanoes.  But equally wonderful is the 6-mile loop from the summit parking lot down through moss-draped forest into an ancient volcano crater and back. And you'll  get a good heart-pumping workout, too.

A few weeks ago I meet up with some former high school classmates (thank you FaceBook) on a cloudy June morning for a hike at Larch Mountain. We grew up in East Multnomah County just east of Portland, Oregon, so like homing pigeons we rendezvous in Fairview/Wood Village for the 30+-minute drive up the Sandy River and beyond on the Historic Columbia River Scenic Byway. (Just reopened on June 24, 2014, after a major rockslide.)

Yikes! Highway has since reopened.
Although I developed an adolescent passion for Cascade volcanoes and could rattle off all their names and elevations (Mt. Hood/Wy'East, elevation 11,245 feet; Mt. Rainier/Tahoma, elevation 14,410 feet....), I didn't know or remember that Larch Mountain is an extinct shield volcano until I researched hiking there for today's outing. 

With a fairly early start, we arrive at the end of the road at Larch Mountain around 8ish, where only one other car is parked so far on a Saturday morn. The Larch Mt. trailhead with a big sign is easy to find on the left side of the lot, and we head down the well-maintained trail (#441) into the misty forest.

Essentially the trail descends into the old crater and loops back up, with an elevation gain and loss of about 1,300 feet.  However, it just seems like a walk through a forest and we  can't particularly tell we're in an ancient caldera.

As we descend, we're engulfed in increasingly thick green underbrush, with sweet early summer wildflowers alongside the trail.

Bunchberry dogwood

Wild rhododendron
To complete the loop, there are a few junctions along the way. We didn't bring a map, but it's pretty easy to figure out we're not going all the way down to Multnomah Falls today (but would love to do that 6.8-mile hike some day). At the first junction about 2 miles along, we take the Multnomah Creek Way Trail #444.

Not far beyond the junction we come to an old log bridge over a boggy creek and stop to swig some water and enjoy the lush, profusely green forest around us. At the junction just past the bridge, we stay right on Trail #444.

 A little ways on we pass the one open area of the whole hike, an almost-filled in lake which apparently is deep in the old crater. Then we meander along the trail with a few ups and downs through what feels like an enchanted forest.  I tell Colleen I truly feel nourished by walking through a healthy forest like this, and she enthusiastically agrees.

Nurse log
After another mile or so, part of which follows a fairly flat old logging railroad grade, we go right at the Oneonta Trail #424 for the last mile back up to the road. We've seen just three other groups of hikers this morning, which I consider pretty good so close to Portland.

On the last stretch up through the forest, we pass huge old stumps along the trail with vine maples and other shrubs sprouting out of the tops, like so many mega-sized green bouquets. Most of the mountain was logged off in the early 20th century, although old growth remains in parts of the crater.

And suddenly the trail dumps us onto the road, where we walk up the last 3/10 mile to the car.  Even though it's socked in up here today, we still dash up and down the paved trail to the small summit lookout at Sherrard Point, an old basalt lava plug.

Views not so much today

Looking down from viewpoint

By the time we leave, the parking lot has started to fill up, despite the clouds and lack of views.  Of course, any Northwesterner knows, often the best time to be outdoors  is NOT on the bluebird days (which we do love too). 

Maybe next time we do a car shuttle and hike down to Multnomah Falls. But on a day enshrouded in clouds and mist, a hike through the emerald green forest up here at Larch Mountain with old friends/now new friends was just perfect.

Have you hiked this trail or down to Multnomah Falls from Larch Mountain? Would love to hear about your trip or other favorite hikes in Comments below. Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

When You Go
For particulars, a map, and directions to Larch Mountain, click here. Larch Mountain and the trail system is within the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, and a Northwest Forest Pass or $5 fee is required to park. The road to Larch Mountain is only open during the summer and fall and generally closes by November. This year the road opened in late May.