An Accidental Half

Helens from the Loowit trail, 4600'

The truth about trails on Helens is that they are ever-changing. The pumice ridden landscape and loose soils are tenuous at best- they enjoy throwing washouts and reroutes in a hiker’s general direction. Sheep Canyon on the mountain’s southwest side testifies to the mountain’s fickle nature: in 2002, the original access road simply washed out, and the new Blue Lake trailhead continues to suffer the occasional reroute to this day. 

one of many deep canyons scoured by the mountain along the Loowit trail

Andy and I were looking for some decent exercise, nice views, absent crowds and maybe some elk sightings on the Sunday after his birthday. The Sheep Canyon loop on Helens seemed to fit the bill, bonus points included since we had never been before (we’re continuing that theme of exploring new-to-us local hikes that somehow seem to have never hit the radar).

Like all new hikes, curveballs happen. On this one, mileage seemed to be the main issue.

We started out from the Blue Lake TH under grey skies and cool wind…mountain weather is always fickle, especially during the shoulder season. The trail clearly has seen some abuse- evidence of washout after washout after washout was evident everywhere, the track strewn with boulders and scree and loose sand. Near lovely and charming Blue Lake, we crossed Coldspring Creek and immediately entered dark, deep, woods exploding with the remnants of fall color and bursting with more mushrooms than I have ever seen. I need to learn some fungi identification. I'm sure we passed more than a few edibles.

Blue Lake trail, hiking through the scar left from a washout

disappearing into big trees

last of the fall color on vanilla leaf

My guidebook says it is only 2.5 miles to the junction with the Sheep Canyon trail- although I don’t hike with a GPS, between new sign mileage and my standard hiking time, I’m putting it at closer to 3.5 miles. Yes, we were meandering, and yes, we stopped twice for horseback riders, but we weren’t going all that slow; still, it took us two hours to reach the junction. Taking a snack break at the creek, we pondered our loop (I’ve wanted to explore this area for some time), and decided to at least head up to the Loowit Trail before reassessing. From there, it took us only 45 minutes to hike the 1000 feet, 1.7 miles up to the Loowit Trail. 

Loowit trail junction- the dog *thinks* she can catch crows

So yeah, I’m going with the idea that there are some mileage issues on this one.  

Once on the Loowit trail, a plan took shape- instead of completing the traditional Sheep Canyon hike, what if we explored east, making a big loop utilizing the Loowit, Butte Camp Dome and Toutle trails? Mileage wise it didn’t look any longer than the original Sheep Canyon loop…

I admit, I’m fascinated with the Loowit trail, the round the mountain hike that circumnavigates Helens. I’ve spent little time on it, save sections. It’s dirty, hard on the feet and exposed. So I was excited to piece together this short section from Sheep Canyon to Butte Camp Dome. My guidebook said two miles.

I think it probably used to be two miles. Until we had to detour around this: 

green mossy trail

cairns lead the way...

places like this make you feel small

showing off my skills (not) (photo by AJP)

what you climb into, you must climb out of (photo by AJP)

The truth about Helens: she’s an artist. She remolds, reshapes, and rescores her landscapes annually. I suspect this section was closer to 3.5 miles with the detour, but who knows (probably people with GPS).  The wind was raging, dragging clouds across the summit. We watched the dog chase (and fail to catch) crows surfing the gale. We added layers, the temperature and wind chill significantly lower than when we began our day. We negotiated numerous washouts, one of the Loowit’s trademarks. The sun came out at our high point near Butte Camp Dome, backlighting the meadows in absolute splendor. This entire stretch along the Loowit was simply stunning- all high and wild, all gold and wind. 

yet another washout- see the Loowit is on the other side?

mesmerized by light & clouds
Andy, on the Loowit, taking it all in

it was an afternoon of juxtapositions: all clouds...

and light and clouds...

clouds and light and views and wind...

and finally, the mountain

From here, we left the high country, turning down the Butte Dome trail on the final leg of the loop. Just before entering the trees, Andy stopped to the sound of an elk bugling…close, very close. We turned, grinning at each other madly. Continuing down the trail, not fifty yards down, we heard the panicked woofing of a small herd seconds before they proceeded to thunder their way directly in front of us, cross the trail and careen down the hillside. Short, fleeting, and kind of awesome.
We made good time, continuing at a quick pace down the Butte Camp Dome trail, which loses elevation at a good clip; we were now racing sunlight (4:40pm) back to the Blue Lake TH.

leaving the Loowit & Helens
heading down the Butte Camp Dome trail

My guide and maps said 4 miles. Trail markers said ~5.5 miles. We made it back in just over two hours, so fairly sure it’s closer to the five miles. Oops. My grandiose “ten mile tops, I promise” day turned into about fourteen? Andy was a good sport about it, but most people I know don’t tolerate high alpine half marathons on accident. One of the many reasons I love my husband [GRIN]. 

He's such a good sport

Truthfully, it was a lovely loop- long and lonely. We were mesmerized by light, got to see some elk, wandered old growth and high alpine, explored some new terrain. The diversity of Helens always brings me back. 

Mount Saint Helens National Monument, Washington

An Afternoon at Beacon Rock


looking back at Beacon Rock from Ives Island

We’ve been neglecting our kayaks.

Still new to kayaking, we’re slowly gathering our list of trips, finding places we like to go. It’s a lovely afternoon; our summer prevailing into fall, only with that gorgeous, slanted golden light that only fall has… 

We purchase the myriad of confusing, required use fees: the controversial Discover Pass for Washington State Parks and DNR lands (guess I’ll be getting my hike on at Hamilton & Silver Star this winter) plus the required day launch permit fee for boating. Finally, all the monetary boringness out of the way, we put into placid, gorgeous waters near Beacon Rock

placid waters

Andy stands on the shore before settling in, arms crossed, his body relaxed and taking in the view. I love it when he looks like this. 

being a goof

Sheltered by Pierce and Ives Islands from the main body of the Columbia, we explore the tranquil inlet, currently shallow enough to avoid power boats. We stalk myriad of water fowl, herons, and bald eagles, the sun on our shoulders. We float through river plants, paddles occasionally tangling in the greenery. The bones of salmon litter the shallows, picked clean. Elk prints pattern the shores of both islands. 

Checking out the Oregon side of the Gorge

Once in the main body of the Columbia, our bodies engage the river, battling current and wind, the strength of which never ceases to amaze me. The gorge is a powerful place, not to be underestimated, and this river makes you work for it. Most people new to kayaking assume it’s all in your shoulders. Truthfully, it’s more a core activity, with shoulders coming in to play for finesse and technique. Our hips and legs are engaged with the boat, anticipating the movement of the river, how it’s trying to turn us. Torsos are fully engaged for power as we fight against both current and wind. In the end, the entire body feels jello-ish from stabilizing for so long.

We beach the boats, rip out the snacks, and bask in the sunlight on a beach. I lay back, knees propped skyward and it’s lights out, I’m that content. Andy stalks non-existent deer and meanders further up the beach, scouting future trips. 

I found Nelly

Andy's ride

We’re still very, very new to kayaking and make no mistake, the Columbia is not a river to underestimate. Come fall and winter and spring, it is a powerful place with current, wind and temperature in full play: conditions not to be taken lightly. It’s more reminiscent of kayaking in the open ocean than a river. We hope to be participating in future skills classes in the Columbia and the ocean in order to learn how to navigate both more safely. 

heading back home- Beacon Rock & Hamilton Mountain in the background
This day though? This day was perfect. Warm and calm enough to test the waters. And throw in a nap or two.

Divide Trail

Hood from Gunsight Butte, Badger Creek Wilderness
gnarled beauty on Gunsight Butte

Continuing the theme of new-to-me trails…

East of Hood (my favorite backyard Portland stomping ground) lies the Badger Creek Wilderness. It’s a medium sized wilderness that packs a lot of punch into its 29,000-ish acres. Badger Creek is situated on that ecosystem dividing line between the wetter, western and drier, eastern Cascades….it’s generally steep, less maintained and somewhat less crowded than Mount Hood.

I’ve done very little exploring in this area. This is probably due to the fact that really scary forest service roads (I don’t mean the ones that are rocky and washboarded and filled with potholes, I mean the ones that feel like they will drop you off a cliff at a moment’s notice), don’t agree with my acrophobia…I have a distinctly less-than-fond memory of trying to reach Badger Lake many years ago with Andy on a road that had me close to hyperventilating. Our second experience in Badger Creek was beautiful but also spent trying to outrun a thunderstorm near Ball Point. Third time’s the charm. 

outrunning thunderstorms near Ball Point, May 2010

Last year, on a larch stalking hike with Allison, my interest in Badger Creek grew more pronounced as she pointed out the area from our high point on Lambertson Spur. A year later, headed up Highway 35, I am on my own larch & color hunting expedition, and the drive alone did not disappoint- a world of color was on full display as I headed toward the High Prairie trailhead, the air and light picture perfect reminiscent of fall. 

deep forest/fall color along the Divide Trail, nearing the Palisades

From the High Prairie trailhead, it is only 1.2 miles and just under 600 feet of elevation gain to the summit of Lookout Mountain. At 6,525 feet, it is the highest point in the Badger Creek Wilderness and offers sweeping views of the central Oregon desert, the Cascade Crest, and multiple peaks: on this day I had Hood, Helens, Adams, Rainier, Jefferson and the Sisters. Score. 

Hood & Lookout Mountain
From Lookout Mountain, the Divide trail loses some 700+ feet in elevation (steeply, at times) to arrive at Palisade Point, a lovely series of rocky outcroppings with expansive views of its own (alas, my vertigo won out so no scampering on the rocks for me…I’m sure views from on top of the Palisades are amazeballs). 

Palisade Point
My original plan for the day had been to head out towards Flag Point, another two miles down the trail. According to Allison, Flag Point is “Larch Ground Zero”, and from my vista on Lookout Mountain and Palisade Point, I could see golden trees shining likes torches in the sun. I wasn’t feeling my wheaties this day though, and reluctantly decided that a ten plus mile day was beyond me. Ultimately it was a good call as the weather began moving in by afternoon- a hike I began in shorts and a short sleeved shirt ended in a puffy and wool hat. 

golden, western larch

weather moving in over Hood, from Lookout Mountain

Ah, fall. My favorite season. 

Badger Creek Wilderness, Oregon
~6 miles, ~ 1200 feet elevation gain