Trail's End

Operation: Last Backpacking Trip of the Season? Allison’s email showed up in my inbox, posing the question for the final (maybe) overnighter of the year. It seems like the weather is reversed this year- September was October and October is now September, with glorious fall light, color and warm temps. Our last hoorah before the rains settle in.

color along the Tamanawas Falls trail

We never took the overnighter. Somehow, neither one of us was feeling it. Instead, Allison proposed a “pokey” (her words, not mine) hike, with no promise for the spectacular, but rather a sleuthing trip for a field of larch on Mount Hood’s east side. With Allison, “pokey” is usually a good workout. I was in.

The sleuthing began on the very well-traveled and maintained trail to Tamanawas Falls (soooo much prettier in winter), then began a climb into unknown territory along the little-used Lambertson Spur trail. 37° and frosty at the trailhead, we ended the hike stripped down to shorts, occasionally yodeling “It’s October!” to no one in particular.  

October. In less than a mile, it will be shorts & T-shirt weather

At one point, Allison turned to me with apologies for the “not spectacular” hike, and I shrugged, grinning ear to ear. I was just glad to be out. I’ve been very, very short on summer mileage this year- it felt beyond words good to just walk, to be outside, exploring the woods. Besides, I already won the lottery on the morning’s drive: a bushy-tailed, feline shadow leap across Highway 35 as we rounded a corner. In seventeen years of hiking in Oregon, I’ve never seen a cougar in the wild. Now, I won’t lie and say I’m not glad that we didn’t meet on the trail…still, really cool to see one even if it was only a transitional shadow bounding across the pavement.

looking for pots of larch gold at the end of the trail
Oscar in full-terrier mode, enjoying the great outdoors

And the larch were beautiful- a golden climax community at the end of the remains of the Lambertson Spur trail.

Mount Hood Wilderness, Oregon
~10 miles, ~3,000 feet elevation gain

The Country of Marge

The Mount Margaret Backcountry, on the north side of Mount Saint Helens, is absolutely spectacular. It’s one of those places, that when you finally end up smack dab in the middle of it, you find yourself wondering how the hell it took you so long to discover it in the first place. 

me, loving the Mount Margaret backcountry, serenaded by Hood & Helens

Part of what makes the country of Marge so damn difficult to discover is that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Well, that is, unless you live in the middle of nowhere. No matter how fast you drive, certain trailheads are simply about (more or less, depending on traffic) 3ish hours from Portland or Seattle. Benefit? Cuts down on touristy hoards. Drawback? Unless you are doing an overnighter, a long day hike turns into a serious, all day commitment with at least 6 hours of driving. Worth it? Absolutely.

Mount Adams & Meta Lake

Helens over Spirit Lake

Norway Pass holds fond memories for us both- a late fall day, chill wind, no other souls in sight, the mountain and Spirit Lake our only company, a world of blue and red and gold, startling a small herd of elk not ten feet from us. We came this day in hopes of recreating that day- all color and wildlife and solitude- not always a successful endeavor as we have found from previous attempts. But still worth a shot.

Mount Margaret backcountry, October 2010

Helens & Spirit Lake from Norway Pass, October 2010
Spirit Lake, Mount Margaret in the background, October 2010

Independence Pass Trail, October 2010

Near the junctions of the Independence Trail and Norway pass, the trail was washed out by late, record September rainfall, so we headed right and up, towards Mount Margaret (second highest peak in the Mt. Margaret backcountry) instead. I was like a kid in a big candy store, heading into an area of the backcountry I’d never been to before. Perfectly compliant, the landscape was all gold and red, backlit with a brilliant blue sky. It was a five peak day- Rainier, Adams, Hood, Helens and Jefferson all visible and punctuating the horizon. The elk and goats were missing though, shy due to hunting season in full throttle, the strangely warm temps, and the six other surprise hikers we saw that day. 

all the colors of fall....

Mount Rainier, Boot & Obscurity Lakes, Mount Margaret backcountry

About five miles in, we came to the junction of the Boundary and Whittier Trail (NO thank you- the Whittier trail is exactly that kind of trail that my vertigo, unfortunately, cannot handle).  Two hikers perched, mountain goat-style, atop Mount Margaret (5,840’), another mile-ish away. After watching another two hikers don extra gear and begin kicking steps into the icy snow on their way to the summit, Andy and I decided to leave Ms. Marge for another day- we don’t suffer from “summit fever” and without proper gear had no interest in attempting the climb on icy slopes above a steep, snow-filled basin.   

Mount Margaret & Helens

Regardless of the lack of the promised views from atop Mt. Marge, the day was far from disappointing. We traversed back along the high, spiny ridges, marveling in the color, the mountain views and the beauty of the valleys laid out before us. No elk and no goats, but no disappointment. We'll be back. 

MOUNT MARGARET (or, pretty close)
Mount Margaret Backcountry, MSH National Monument, Washington
~10-11 miles, ~2100 feet elevation gain

Blast Zone Therapy

Sometimes, life throws you curve balls. When curve balls come flying my way, I look to the mountains. There is something elusive yet incredibly therapeutic about just walking for hours, about giving it all back to the earth, letting that which is so much bigger than you absorb it all back. (Too hippie? Ah, well, I’m waxing poetic tonight).

I won’t try to explain what I mean, not in too many words. It’s kind of one of those things that either does or doesn't work for you (fellowTrail Snail blogger describes the therapeutic power of endorphins the backcountry offers far better than I ever could, so check her out if you want a detailed and beautiful journey of what the wide-open world can bring).  

Lately, I’ve been working out a few curve balls, and life recently took a stab at a friend, so an early week hike found us both hightailing it to the high country for some mountain therapy.

Originally from Colorado, J.B. is adjusting to “Pac Northwest” weather (aka rain and clouds vs. perma-sunny skies). Our recent, surprise burst of sunshine and warm temps was too good not to take advantage of so we headed to Mount Saint Helens for some alpine, blast-zone therapy. 

Helens from the Devil's Elbow

New to the area, I warned J.B. that some people don’t particularly care for Helens. She’s a stark, decimated landscape… my experience is that people either find the area to be beautiful and intriguing or dirty and boring. Obviously, Helens is one of my favorite areas, and I love finding the beauty in that raw, devastated landscape through the changing of the seasons.

After a rough start to the morning that included lots of coffee and cinnamon rolls, we hit the trail from Johnston Ridge Observatory with no particular plan beyond walking and enjoying the views. Originally thinking to head up to Harry’s Saddle, instead we jumped down the Truman Trail and headed into the heart of the blast zone/north face landslide. It was a great decision- slightly warmer than higher up, we shed some layers and caught stellar views of Spirit Lake from  the trail and surprise stalked a few elk herds along the way. 

Adams peeks over the Mount Margaret backcounty & Spirit Lake

J.B. takes it all in

Hello, Elk

Everything this day was beautiful- the air was that perfect fall blend between cool-yet-warm-in-the-sun, the elk were out, the mountain had a new coat of white which contrasted nicely with the fall color and light on the barren landscape. Thanks to the government shutdown, we were the only people on the trail beyond the observatory (still technically open but no services in sight). 

Shadow shenanigans, Coldwater Peak in the background

the mountain's devastated, but beautiful, north face

Solitude + beauty = mountain therapy. Check it out next time life throws you lemon curve balls.  

MSH National Monument, Washington
~9ish miles