Spring Break Gear Test

Backpacking in March. This could get interesting.

Looking out my office window, I can’t say it is going to rain, but I also can’t say it isn’t. The sky looks ominous, but it may also simply remain ominous and overcast. We’re heading east of the Cascades, where the forecast looks to be drier, but in the PNW in March, forecasts are a relative thing. Both of us stir crazy to get out, Shel and I have been planning this quick overnighter for a while (I think she officially has the bug, GRIN), so we’re giving it a go regardless of what it looks like outside the window.

My loaded down with just-in-case shit backpack still only weighs in at a little over 26lbs, water included. Not perfect yet, but getting there, and a far cry from the 40+ lbs I was carrying when Andy and I first started backpacking a little over a decade ago. The dog is bouncing around the house as I wait for Shel to arrive, and I re-eyeball the dark sky from inside my cozy home. 

spoiler alert: it's not raining at the trailhead, but it's still pretty ominous looking out

I want to go backpacking in this, at 4000 feet? I must be insane.

Good thing I have insane friends. 
Badger Creek Wilderness, Oregon 03/25-03/26/2015
~9 miles, ~2150 elevation gain

This has been a very unusual winter for us, and one of our driest on record. The lack of precipitation and snow directly correlates with trails that are normally snowbound at this time of year being wide open. The flower bloom in the eastern gorge is early. So, time for a backpack.

Andy and I sold the Nemo Meta 2P this winter. Although it was a good, lightweight two person trekking pole tent, I was getting really tired of the condensation buildup issue common to single wall tents. Always a gear junkie, I’m trialing our new Brooks Range Tension 30, which has dropped a pound off of our old tent. And the space ratio for a tall guy like Andy is better too.

I’m slowly upgrading gear and dropping weight/ounces. The only gear still left over from my old school days (2004- shameful, I know) are my Marmot Sawtooth 15° bag and the bomb proof, field serviceable MSR Miniworks water filter. I haven’t found a bag yet with the warmth/weight/cost ratio of the Sawtooth, which has made it hard to upgrade (mostly because I’m not quite ready to jump into the $400+ range for a bag), and the filter has saved my tail a number of times with glacial flour streams. They are both, by far though, some of the heavier items in my pack.

When Shel showed up with Dave in tow, I found out everybody, not just me was trialing new gear. Shel had a new tent, stove and water filter. Dave, getting back into backpacking after a hiatus, was trialing almost everything new.

photography/trail shenanigans

I was glad this was going to be a short and sweet overnighter. Nothing like being forty miles into wilderness determining you hate your gear.

Passing thru Government Camp, we hit snow and rain. It was positively dismal. I really, really hoped the east side was drier or this was going to be a short trip.

The gamble paid off. While not exactly sunny and dry, it was only drizzling off and on. More than manageable. The new snow that hit Hood over the weekend appeared nonexistent here. Starting up the School Canyon trail toward Ball Point, we were initially bundled up against the gray skies, cool temps and wind, but quickly began shedding layers with the climb.  

Suspended between the end of winter and beginning of spring, the trail was newly green and is going to be a veritable flower explosion in the next month.

I’ve been as far as Ball Point before; beyond that, this entire trail was new to me. A continuation of my explorations in the Badger Creek Wilderness. We had initially wanted to backpack in the gorge, but forgot it was spring break….in our hunt for solitude, we ended up here. It was a good choice. We saw only one other person, as surprised to see us as us them, on our way out the second afternoon.

approaching the saddle, 3250' elevation, by Ball Point

It’s clear the trail doesn’t see much use or maintenance. We worked our way across, over and under several blow down in the burn zone around the north side of Ball Point. Temperatures dropped as we gained altitude, but we were sheltered from the wind as we entered cool, pine forest. Camp robber jays followed us along the trail, but remained strangely absent after we made camp. The pine forest gave way, finally, to an open meadow sprinkled with juniper, ponderosa and blooming manzanita, and littered with rock gardens.

burn zone: ponderosa detail

Shel, contemplating one of many blow downs

Pepper, trying to figure out why this is so hard for us humans

Dave led the way, entering cooler, pine forest

blooming manzanita

We made home for the night at the helispot, watching the sky gradually clear, taking in the world.

camp and clearing skies, evening chores

A long time hiker, solo traveler and camper, last year, Shel decided she was hooked by the backpacking bug and has been gradually hoarding/acquiring new gear all winter. Woman after my own heart.

new tents: the Brooks Range and the Big Agnes

still loving the GSI and Soto set up

That night is one of the coldest I have spent in the backcountry. I rarely fully zip up my bag, but this particular night I was very, very glad to have the down mummy in full mummy mode. Which meant the dog commandeered the toe box, and a fight for space and the sleeping pad ensued all night. Pepper still has a lot to learn about backpacking manners.

That said, it was really, really nice to wake up in the morning to a double wall tent. I’m kind of over the single wall condensation issue.

The following morning was stark contrast to the day before- sunny skies that, by 10:30, had us stripping to shorts and T-shirts for the hike out. In March. It’s a bizarre spring.

the open meadows near the helispot were full of great rock formations...

and twisted trees...

and more rock gardens

We backtracked from the helispot to the junction with the Little Badger Creek trail and began the plunge down the trail- steep. Toe-smashing steep. But short. At the junction of the two trails, we took some time to explore the creepy Kinzel mine and the remains of the old cabin, met our only fellow hiker of the trip and proceeded out on the Little Badger Creek trail.

the descent to Little Badger Creek was short, steep and quick

And what a lovely trail it is. Rambling and rolling through open, dry eastern forest, it was dotted here and there with wildflowers trying to break through, all the green of spring exploding. It was very peaceful, very quiet. Our trio hiked our own hike, occasionally coming together, but more strung out on the trail, the dog bouncing between us, deep in our own thoughts.

lovely Little Badger Creek

Definitely a lover of the alpine, I am challenging myself more to enjoy different types of backpacks. It’s no secret that the high country calls to me, but I found myself entirely enamored by this little trip. Short, sweet, pastoral, and quiet. Pretty perfect.

The new tent rocked too.

Alone on Zigzag

popping out of forest on to the ridge to...THIS

The temperature is supposed to hit 70° today. In March.

I originally wanted to hit up Catherine Creek today, but the warm temperatures make me leery. First, I’m not sure my still-not-quite-ready-for-summer self has accepted that winter just never arrived this year. I’m also hunting solitude, views, and something new. Seventy and sunny on a Friday afternoon does not equate solitude in one of the more beautiful hikes in the eastern gorge.

Tick season has also arrived, which means I’d be leaving Pepper at home if I hit up Catherine Creek; once the hiking gear comes out, it is really difficult to explain to the bouncing bundle of exuberance wrapped up in dog suit why I’m leaving her behind. (And I have no intention, Frontline or not, of ever taking my dogs back into tick territory again. Been there, done that. Disgusting.)

So, the hunt for solitude/views/something new leads to me heading to East Zigzag, which in all my time prowling Hood I’ve never done. Climbing the forest service road to the trailhead, however, has me gritting my teeth and using choice words as I navigate the Subaru around exposed road bed, huge potholes, and areas muddy enough that I actually find myself hoping I don’t get the car stuck. One of the more rattling five miles I’ve gotten the car through.

Solitude though? Check. Trailhead officially deserted.  

The Burnt Lake South trailhead (3300’) starts as a continuation of the old jeep road- two miles of which, in many ways, were better than the road I just drove up (irony here I’m sure). I wasn’t sure what conditions would be exactly, but over the course of the hike I experienced deep woods, open meadows, tiny forested lakes and one of the better viewpoints of Hood that I’ve seen.

After two miles, the path starts to open up- true trail now, it progresses through increasingly open meadows intermittently choked with slide alder. The flora is still hibernating, but the floor of the woods bears the skeletons of last year’s ferns and flowers, and I find myself making a mental note of this as a potential wildflower hike. 

slide alder skeletons

Up to Devil’s Meadow (4000’) the trail has been a well-graded, warm-up hike. About a half mile beyond the meadow, the trail stops screwing around and launches up the hillside thru dry, open woods, the grade eased by the courtesy of seven switchbacks. The climb is broken up by traverses around and scrambles over several blow down, the joys of early season hiking. Oh well, I was looking for exercise.

And then I pop out on to the ridge, to one of the best vistas of Mount Hood on a hike outside of the high alpine. I can see Paradise Park, Mississippi Head, Burnt Lake, McNeil Point and the giant, glacier stream carved valleys on the mountain’s western face. Another steep, 0.3 mile climb has me summiting East Zigzag, 4971’ and site of former lookout tower. There’s only a smattering of old snow on the summit. Sadness. We should still be buried right now. 

Burnt Lake from the climb to East Zigzag and Hood

East Zigzag summit 4971'

Thanks to a stiff wind and increasing clouds, I bundle layers on the summit and eat lunch, enjoying the silence of the world. I love and adore hiking with my husband and with friends, but I am finding myself increasingly enamored with solo hikes, almost to the point where I enjoy it more. I suppose it’s simply that there are different qualities to participating in activities with others vs. solo excursions, different appeals. But for me, there is a joy to the rhythm of solitude in the woods, where I simply only have to worry about me. 

70 degrees? Not here

For example, as I head down from the summit, I pass along a barren ridge with distant views of Rainier, Helens and Adams. It’s steep and slick, the ground underneath conducting a rock….then rooooooll symphony underfoot. It isn’t spectacular today, there are no wildflowers, it’s cool at the summit, increasingly overcast and it’s a decently tough hike. Alone though, I have only myself to answer to; the ridge is barren, but I see it as golden winter colors alive with the potential for summer. I’m sweating and winded but my body is thrilled with the exercise, with the wearing out of my brain chatter, leaving the work week behind. 

Weather moving in as I drop off the summit. It's gotten increasingly overcast & cool, but it's still beautiful

I don’t know why I love this, but I do.

After dropping down the ridge, I decide to visit Cast Lake, a tiny, hidden lake deep in the forest over on this side of Hood and some place I’ve never been. It’s quaint and not the sort of lake I would take this much time to get to normally, but it adds another 1.2 miles of exercise to my hike. Curiosity satisfied, I blaze the three miles back to the trailhead in about an hour before white-knuckling the drive out of the trailhead home.  

crawfish filled Cast Lake. Kinda meh.

Verdict? This wasn’t a particularly spectacular hike on this particular day. Although it was more wooded than I expected, I suspect the wildflower meadows in season are beautiful, and the Hood vista from Zigzag was top notch. I think the traditional Burnt Lake hike is overall lovelier, while this approach, via Burnt Lake South affords more solitude, courtesy of that nasty road. Overall a wonderful lovely and lonely day in the woods. Soul therapy.

9.2 miles, 1700 feet elevation gain
Mount Hood Wilderness, Oregon

Uphill both ways-

8.4mi, 1600 feet elevation gain
Silver Star Roadless Area, Washington

Hands down, one of the best local hiking areas for experiencing wildflowers is Silver Star. Ah, Silver Star.

Even though we haven’t had much of a winter (or any, really, at all), it still is not yet the season for wildflowers. But Silver Star has many, many charms. So, while today isn’t about flowers (yet), it is about introducing a good friend to the wide open beauty that is Silver Star in the shoulder season. The sky is bright and the sun warm (which leaves us alternating between sweating in the sun and putting on puffies in the shade, where ice still lingers on the trail). Today is about the juxtaposition of a landscape poised between its winter and summer selves. Today is about just getting out, feeling the sun and the wind and being under open sky. 

Hood from the Bluff Mountain trail

With J.B. it’s always a late start…the benefit to late starts is experiencing that coveted, late afternoon light. She’s going to be my go to, sunset hiking buddy come summer.

En route to Silver Star I find myself, as I always am, mildly amused by Silver Star’s official name- the Silver Star Roadless Area. The entire area is littered and scarred by old, abandoned jeep roads, and the roads leading to the trailheads aren’t in much better shape. Sometimes it feels like an off road adventure to the trailhead. It’s worth it though. 

homemade trail marker

And today is no exception. We are treated to views of Helens, Adams and Hood, lingering winter colors and a wide open landscape on our trek to Little Baldy. A little-too-late of a start and evening plans in Portland nixes plans to get to Little Baldy’s summit, but it doesn’t matter. We see one other person briefly, on their way back and no other souls all day. Just us and the pups. 

Shenzi nose. Aw, the luv...

The Bluff Mountain trail is a fantastic, lofty ridge walk, and it is possible to follow it past Little Baldy to Silver Star’s summit. I suspect that the best part of the walk opens up here. Stretched out in the sun, enjoying a snack, J.B. and I make future plans for a long, 12+ mile day here this summer amid the flower bloom. 

Summer plans: another two miles to Silver Star's summit from Little Baldy

Making our way back, we traverse one sketchy/almost-washed out section of trail, admiring views of Helens in the distance and commenting how this trail is truly uphill both directions. Initially an old road, the Bluff Mountain trail converts to true trail somewhere around two miles in, then drops into a traverse of a wide open bowl before resuming its climb towards Little Baldy. 

J.B. winding along the cliffs

Like I said, uphill both ways.