Thursday, July 21, 2016

Around Mt. Rainier: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to Sourdough Gap

While books, movies, and social media have drawn thru-hikers to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail from all over the world the last few years, here in the Pacific Northwest we've been day hiking and backpacking the PCT for decades.   

One of my favorite day hikes on the PCT is the section from Chinook Pass just north of Mt. Rainier to Sourdough Gap and a bit beyond. The visual feast along the trail is spectacular. (Volcanoes! Craggy peaks! Alpine lakes and meadows! Wildflowers!) Just driving to the trailhead along the Chinook Scenic Byway offers magnificent scenery and close views of Mt. Rainier.

Because the trailhead starts over a mile high (elevation 5,400 feet), as soon as you start hiking, bam! You're in gorgeous alpine high country, with lush greenery and wildflowers lining the trail during the summer.

Initially the trail parallels Highway 410/Chinook Scenic Byway, but the road quickly descends down the valley toward eastern Washington. Colorful and delicate wildflowers like scarlet and magenta paintbrush, subalpine lupine, and bear grass line the trail. By September they'll be done, but now a splendid display is happening.

Scarlet paintbrush

Bear grass

This far from Seattle (it took us about 2 hours to drive here on a Sunday morning), the crowds aren't quite so heavy as the PCT at Snoqualmie Pass. But the first leg, about 1.5 miles, to Sheep Lake is well-traveled. This lovely alpine lake is an easy backpack destination for families with kids because the trail is fairly flat.

Sheep Lake
After stopping at the lake to shed layers, we continue upward into increasingly beautiful alpine meadows and views. Although the grade steepens a bit, it's still an easy ascent.

This early in the season, before the masses of PCT thru-hikers pass through in August/early September, there's not as much traffic past Sheep Lake. Maybe the weather forecast for afternoon thunderstorms in the Cascades kept some hikers away.  

We reach Sourdough Gap (literally a gap in the rocky ridge) and drop down to traverse a talus slope toward the next saddle. A couple hundred yards on we reach the PCT junction, where the PCT starts descending. We stay high.

Sourdough Gap, looking back toward Chinook Pass.

We continue to the saddle, where the trail drops down toward Crystal Lakes.  Just below the saddle we enter Mt. Rainier National Park, where Tahoma finally reveals a glimpse of herself behind the gathering clouds. (Factoid: Tahoma/Rainier is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.)

Here in the national park, dogs aren't allowed. As we settle for lunch on a knoll overlooking upper Crystal Lake, an unmistakable canine howl reverberates across the basin, not too far away (OWOOOOOOOO). Pretty soon a whole chorus starts calling to each other, echoing all around us.

It's primal and awesome.

I'm momentarily thrilled that it might be wolves, but another hiker above us says, no, just coyotes. (Howl not deep enough and yipping.) So that bucket list item is not yet checked off.

Lunch spot view not too shabby. Upper Crystal Lake.
With a car shuttle, you can continue down beyond the Crystal Lakes to a lower trailhead, but today we turn back at this point, making it about 7 miles roundtrip.

Back at Sourdough Gap, we meet the first PCT thru-hiker I've seen this year. Friendly "Connecticut" (his trail name) is happy to share trail stories as we scramble to keep up with him.  I always love to talk to thru-hikers about their journey and where they came from. Connecticut, who's doing the less common north-to-south thru-hike, started his journey about two weeks ago.

Connecticut, going all the Mexico.
Back at Sheep Lake, we notice the clouds are turning bruised dark, and then a sharp crack of lightning and the deep rumbling of thunder rolls overhead. I do not like being in the mountains during a thunderstorm.

With little spits of rain possibly threatening a downpour, we pick up the pace. I figure our hiking poles are little lightning rods. By the time we reach the car, we shaved about 30 minutes off our ascent time.

Lucky us, just as we're pulling out of the parking lot, it starts raining. All in all, a great hike. We drive away with that endorphin-fueled mountain high I always get after a good day on the trail.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
The trailhead to the PCT is about 1/4 mile beyond Chinook Pass if you're coming from the west side of the Cascades. You'll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park since the trail starts in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest before entering Mt. Rainier National Park. From the Seattle area, it's about 150 miles roundtrip drive (more if you're coming from north Seattle like we did).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Victoria B.C. Day Trip: By Sea for Tea at the Empress

Part 1 of 2 about a terrific day trip to Victoria, B.C., from Seattle via the Victoria Clipper. 

One of the great things about being in the Pacific Northwest is our proximity to beautiful British Columbia, Canada, just a few hours north of Seattle. A fun way to travel north is via the Victoria Clipper, direct from downtown Seattle to Victoria's Inner Harbour in less than 3 hours.

While I usually head to B.C. for epic kayaking, hiking, or skiing, sometimes I go for more urban pleasuresLast weekend I had a thoroughly enjoyable day in Victoria, B.C., with my niece Willa via the Clipper, where we indulged in the famous Victorian-style tea at the grand and historic Fairmount Empress Hotel.

It's an early morning start for sure, with a 6:30 a.m. check-in at Pier 69 on Seattle's waterfront, but definitely worth the predawn wake-up. Because we went just for the day, we opted for the 7:30 rather than 9:00 a.m. departure to make our reservations for tea and have more time to explore.

And we're off! Seattle skyline receding in the Clipper's wake.
First, I'd like to say the Clipper staff and crew were exceptionally friendly and helpful on the trip up and back. Everyone was already in vacation mode, but the crew added to the ambiance. For onboard food and drink, they feature as much Northwestern fare as possible, and I enjoyed some excellent tea and a sandwich for breakfast, while Willa had locally made Greek-style yogurt and fruit.

As Willa napped enroute, I chatted up other travelers. Although I heard several languages besides English being spoken, interestingly, most of the people I talked to were fellow Northwesterners from Washington and Oregon.

Just arrived. The Empress from the Inner Harbour.
After disembarking about 10:30 a.m. at the Clipper terminal, we wandered over to the Empress a few blocks away for our tea reservation at 11:15. While the Victorian tea is traditionally a mid-afternoon treat, for us it was perfect timing. This early lunch left us more time to explore in the afternoon.

The impressive French chateau-style Empress facade.
Recently renovated, the tea lobby is spacious and light in an Old World charming way.  We were seated close to the big windows shown in the photo above at the old entrance.

Even though it's not promoted as such, this was a filling and satisfying lunch for us both. Our ├╝ber friendly server Jan (yes, everyone who served us all day was gracious) started us off with an impressive tea selection. I chose a delicate, floral jasmine tea, while Willa went for a fragrant mint. (Neither of us are caffeine fiends.)

The Empress Tea China was first used here for the 1939 Royal visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

We're each given our own pot with a timer for steeping, and when I understeep, Jan quickly refreshes my pot so I can get a stronger steep. Because it's about the tea. And the sweets, scones, and tea sandwiches, which are perfectly prepared and decadently delicious.

"It doesn't feel like it's warm, but inside it's perfect," said Willa as she raved about the creamy, soft warm Empress signature raisin scone, served with English-style clotted cream and strawberry jam. 

Neither of us could finish everything, but I tasted a bit of each treat.  My favorite tea sandwich was the island egg salad with basil on a mini brioche bun. My favorite sweet was the chocolate cremeux dome tart, while Willa's was the passion fruit strawberry pavlova. And the warm raisin sconedivine. As I ate it, I thought to myself: This might be the best scone I've ever tasted.

I've never seen my petite gymnast niece eat as much food in one sitting. Now, Empress, that's saying something about your excellent fare. To quote my niece:

"Canada, you Empressed me." 

We lingered over the tea for as long as possible, but it was time to move on and go explore for a few hours.  Check back soon for the next post about walking around the Inner Harbour area!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
The Clipper ferry departs Seattle for Victoria seven days a week (weather permitting), check schedules and fares here. Because we traveled on a weekend, we got reservations for tea at the Empress in advance. Here is their tea menu. They accommodate dietary needs (e.g., my niece is a vegetarian and got meatless sandwiches), especially if you let them know in advance. They do have a dress code, so basically leave the torn jeans, sports clothes, and flip flops at home and opt for smart casual attire (or dressier if that's your thing). I wore clean jeans and a jacket, which was fine.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hiking Downey Creek: Solitude on the Trail

With the explosion in hiking popularity here in the Pacific Northwest, I've stopped going to some of my former favorite trails on weekends (when most of us can hike). Heavy trail traffic, difficulty parking at trailheads, increasing litter, and noise take away from what I love about being in the mountains.

So it's a thrill these days to hike 6 hours in the Cascade Mountains without seeing any other hikers. We enjoyed this solitude in nature on a holiday weekend no less, just two hours drive from Seattle.

I'm tempted to not divulge this quiet trail, but that would just be silly. After all, we did this hike based on author Craig Romano's notice on FaceBook that the Downey Creek Wilderness trail was the Hike of the Week

I expected a busy trail. Instead, just one other party signed the trail register before us on a Saturday morning. And none came in after us.

After driving over 20 miles up the Suiattle River Road off Highway 530 outside Darrington, the last 10 miles on dirt/gravel, we pull into the parking lot after initially passing it by. (There's no sign at the lot entrance. Intentional?)

As far as trails go, it doesn't exactly shout "Here I am!"  We wander up the parking lot looking for it, dead-end, backtrack to the sign (INSIDE the parking lot), and finally notice the small trail. Then we cross the road and start up into the woods.

And the woods!  Lush, lovely, enchanting, park-like, scattered old growth...this is what the Downey Creek hike is all about. 

The masses are no doubt across the valley scrambling up Green Mountain to spectacular views. Here, we wander through the forest skirting steep slopes, crawl over a few big downed trees across the trail, slosh through and over streams, and wish for clouds (well, at least me) so the light would be better to shoot this lovely place.

Don, Jennifer, and Betty crossed the log. I walked across rocks in the stream.

As we head up the trail, the elevation gain is pretty mild. Jenifer's GPS, which we don't think was entirely reliable, recorded a total gain of about 1,700 feet (up and down) for the day. The WTA description says a little over 1,200 feet elevation gain. The most consistent uphill is the first half mile before we enter the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Then the trail traverses a steep hillside, with Downey Creek rushing a few hundred feet below. Thankfully notches have been cut in the two big trees across the trail, so you can step without sliding down the trunk onto the steep slope below.

Particularly lovely  were the sections of forest floor covered with moss, like a plush green carpet. (Sorry, I didn't get the best shots due to the sunlight glare.)

About 3 miles along we finally reach some clearings in the forest and draw closer to the creek.  Across the creek, the historic fire lookout on Green Mountain is visible far above us. (It's there in the photo below on the right side of the green mountaintop.)

As the trail passes near the creek, it crosses over marshy areas rich with native moisture-loving plants like skunk cabbage, ferns, and devil's club, on boardwalks. This is where the bugs like to hang out. Not too bad today though.

We dine right beside the trail in a mossy spot just above the rushing creek because, of course, there's no one else out here. (Look for a future blog post about trail lunches; I love seeing the variety of food everyone brings.)

Right before the trail leaves the stream again we find a nice clearing with a firepit and some makeshift benches, a perfect campsite. We think we've reached the 4-mile point here, although the GPS says otherwise (3.3 miles).

While the trail continues another few miles (6.4 total) to a steep incline that climbs up to Dome Peak and the southern end of the legendary Ptarmigan Traverse, we opt to turn around here. (The Ptarmigan Traverse is the North Cascades equivalent to the Alpine Haute Route.)

Overall, we estimated either an 8-mile  or 6.5-mile hike. My legs told me the shorter length, but a couple others thought it was farther. There aren't markers along the trail, so it's hard to tell since we didn't count the streams we crossed. I'll see if I can figure it out and get back to you. :)

After Hike Eats
By the time we get back to the car and arrive in Darrington, it's around 5 pm and we're all pretty hungry. The proprietor at River Time Brewing recommended the Hawk's Nest sports bar, where they serve his beer along with food. 

Gotta say, the burgers and my pork slider are just okay, but the real standout is the Tater Tots. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, a Northwest classic. Figure you'll share because the portions are huge. The side order is a pound. Yes, a pound of tater tots.

Hopefully I consumed fewer calories in tots than I burned on the trail. 

So have you hiked the Downey Creek trail? Or perhaps even passed through on your way up or down from the Ptarmigan Traverse? I definitely want to go back in the fall, perhaps on a misty morning, armed to shoot with my Pentax.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
Drive Highway 530 north from Darrington or south from Highway 20 near Rockport. Turn east on FR 26, the Suiattle River Road, and drive to a parking lot on the other side of Downey Creek bridge, approximately 20 miles from Highway 530. The last 10 miles or so of this road is gravel, and watch out for big rocks on the road at about 20 miles along (and a short distance from the parking lot). You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here.