Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Earl Peak

Stuart Range from Earl Peak
7.5 miles round trip, 3400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, steep final ascent
Access: Rough gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Earl Peak, in the Teanaway region of Washington State's Cascades, is a lofty summit with wide views on the sunny side of the Cascades. The hike to the peak is a journey with numerous delights during early summer- the trail features wildflowers, verdant meadows, shaded forests, and burbling streams. While similar in nature to many other Teanaway hikes, such as Navaho Peak or Iron Bear, Earl is still a gorgeous and worthwhile hike and a good escape from the crowds on the western slopes of the Cascades.

I hiked Earl Peak on an early summer Sunday when dreary weather was forecast in Seattle and in the Western Cascades but the sun was out over the Teanaway. A good friend and I left Seattle taking I-90 east, driving into the rain as we crossed Snoqualmie Pass. By the time we reached Cle Elum and left the interstate, clouds had given way to bright sunshine. We followed Highway 903 through Cle Elum; the road turned into Highway 10 after leaving town. About three miles past the town, we stayed to the left to head onto Highway 970 in the direction of Wenatchee. Another four miles on, we turned left onto Teanaway Road and followed the paved but narrow road along the Teanaway River, with good views of both the Teanaway and Stuart Ranges appearing before us. The paved road changed to a good gravel when the road entered Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest; we followed the gravel road for a little over a mile past a bridge over Stafford Creek to the junction with NF-9737. Here, we took the left fork and followed it to the junction for the road to the Beverly Turnpike Trailhead, which was just before a bridge over Beverly Creek. This road was very bumpy and rocky; while it can probably be handled by most low clearance vehicles, we decided not to risk it and parked alongside the road and walked the final mile to the trailhead.

From the trailhead, we immediately crossed a well-built bridge over Beverly Creek and began a gentle ascent along an old roadbed on the right bank of Beverly Creek. Wildflowers bloomed near the trail and we saw many butterflies flitting around, busy with the business of pollination.

Butterflies!
Half a mile into the hike, we came to a junction between the Beverly Turnpike Trail and the Bean Creek Trail. Here, we took the right fork to ascend towards the Bean Creek Basin. This trail began climbing with a steeper grade as it climbed along Bean Creek. A few hundred meters past the junction, the trail crossed Bean Creek via an easy rockhop.

Bean Creek
After the creek crossing, wildflowers along the trail exploded: the path climbed through grassy slopes filled with lupine, paintbrush, hogweed, scarlet gilla, and columbine.

Trailside flowers
The trail then climbed steadily uphill on the left bank of Bean  Creek, passing through a forest with some enormous old growth trees and frequent clearings with profusions of wildflowers. Bean Creek was never far from the trail, allowing us to hear and see it as it made many short leaps on its way down towards Beverly Creek and eventually the Columbia River. The trail climbed continuously to reach a second crossing over Bean Creek around two and a quarter miles from the trailhead.

Bean Creek
The second crossing over Bean Creek was one of the most quietly beautiful spots on the entire hike. Here, the clear, clean waters of Bean Creek leaped joyfully through green meadows dotted with blooming paintbrush and shooting stars.

Shooting stars
After crossing Bean Creek, the trail crossed through a few small meadows and then began the switchback ascent towards a saddle on the south ridge of Earl Peak. It is just under a mile from the creek to the pass; in this stretch, the trail climbs 1000 feet. As we ascended through a mixed mountainside of forest and clearings, the views improved steadily: red-topped Bean Peak grew progressively shorter and the spire-like summit of Mount Stuart, the seventh tallest peak of Washington State, emerged steadily above the nearby ridges. White, pink, and purple phlox lined the trail at various points during the ascent. Arriving atop the saddle, we made a left turn and followed an unmarked spur trail that ascended directly along the south ridge towards the summit of Earl.

View east from above the saddle
The final ascent is very steep: the trail ascends 800 feet in a half mile. The trail was very direct, skipping the use of switchbacks and instead tackling the mountain's south ridge head-on. Footing was occasionally loose and the trail was quite rocky here; some mild scrambling was necessary at points. After reaching an initial false summit, the climb eased briefly before resuming its brutal incline on a final push to the peak. Along the way, views improved exponentially: Mount Stuart and Ingalls Peak rose higher and higher above the peaks in our vicinity, Mount Adams appeared to the south (Mount Rainier would have been visible as well on a clear day), and we could spot the windmills in Kittitas Valley near Ellensburg.

Bean Creek Basin, Ingalls Peak, and Mount Stuart
The trail devolved into a pile of loose rocks as we approached the summit; a bit of rock scrambling was necessary at the very end to reach the top. We signed the register and then enjoyed the views: at the summit, we had a 360-degree panorama of the Cascades and the desert. The Stuart Range dominated the northern viewshed, the gnashing granite peaks of Stuart, Sherpa, Argonaut, Colchuck, Dragontail, Little Annapurna, and McClellan rising dramatically from the valley of Ingalls Creek. The rocky ridges of the Teanaway continued to the east and west from the summit of Earl Peak: I spotted the trail from Navaho Pass to Navaho Peak as well as nearby Iron Bear Peak, all destinations on previous hikes. Three Brothers rose to the right of Navaho Peak. To the west, red-stoned Bean Peak stood across Bean Creek Basin and its lush green meadows; Ingalls Peak rose a little farther in the distance. Much farther away rose a line of snow-capped peaks deep in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness: Chikamin, Summit Chief, Lemah, Bears Breast, Daniel. Kittitas Valley was visible to the southeast with the ridges near Yakima Canyon- Manantash, Umtanum, Yakima- defining the southeastern horizon.

Little Annapurna, McClellan Peak, Navaho Peak
Earl Peak summit
We enjoyed the sun and the views, took a nap at the summit, and then made our way back to the car and had a rare bear sighting on the hike down.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Skyline Divide

Mount Baker rises above Skyline Divide
8 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Long gravel road with potholes to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required

Skyline Divide is a hike that lives up to its lofty name: this trail follows a meadow-filled ridge emanating from the glaciated Mount Baker and delivers miles of knockout views of Washington State's North Cascades and of the Pacific Range in British Columbia.

I've hiked Skyline Divide twice. On my first visit, intermittent clouds hid Baker and many of the other nearby peaks but I found August wildflowers in full bloom; on my second visit, the skies were clear and the views stretched to forever on a late fall day when patches of fresh snow had already begun to coat the Cascades. To reach Skyline Divide from Seattle, follow I-5 north to Bellingham and then follow Highway 542 (the Mt. Baker Highway) east a little past the town of Glacier to Glacier Creek Road. Right turn onto Glacier Creek Road and then immediately left turn onto Forest Service Road 37, a gravel forestry road. Follow this often-bumpy road uphill for 12 miles to the trailhead.

At the trailhead, we signed the register for entering the Mount Baker Wilderness and then hit the trail. The initial two miles of the trail involved a 1500-foot elevation gain through the forest on steady switchbacks; towards the end of the climb, small clearings began opening up with views of the nearby Twin Sisters. In summer, these clearings were filled with blooming wildflowers. At the two mile mark, the trail gained the meadow-covered top of Skyline Divide. In the summer, these meadows were lush green and filled with blooming wildflowers including heather, arnica, lupine, and valerian; in fall, the grasses had turned yellow and brown. A side trail led towards the north towards the top of a small nearby knoll, while the main Skyline Divide Trail continued south, heading towards the grand form of Mount Baker directly ahead.

Skyline Divide in summer
While my summer visit had limited views, during my fall visit I was able to fully enjoy the views as soon as I reached the ridgeline. Shuksan and Baker were the two crowning glories of the view, but a vast array of other North Cascade peaks were visible: Ruth, Challenger, American Border, Tomyhoi, Church, and Redoubt were only some of the many summits that lined the horizon.

Shuksan and the North Cascades
From here onward, the trail stayed out in the open, delivering knockout views along the entire length of the ridge. Skyline Divide is a ridge with multiple knolls, or tiny summits; hikers can follow the ridge for as long as they wish, though hikers who choose to follow the ridge further will find ever better views. As I continued along the trail, going up and over one knoll and then going around the next, views opened further in all directions. To the north, the Canadian peaks of the Pacific Range were visible; to the northwest, a layer of haze at the base of the mountains covered the Fraser River Valley and the city of Vancouver. Patches of gold dotted the valley of the Nooksack River, islands of autumn deciduous trees in a sea of Northwest conifers.

View out into the Fraser River Valley and the Vancouver metropolitan area
Looking into the Pacific Ranges in Canada
The highlight of the view was still Mount Baker- Komo Kulshan- which rose ahead of us on the trail as we followed the spine of Skyline Divide. The Roosevelt Glacier poured down the north face of Baker while the Coleman Glacier could be seen flowing down from the saddle between Baker and Colfax Peak.

Mount Baker
While the first two miles through the forest on this hike are ordinary, the latter part of the hike through open meadows make Skyline Divide a superlative day hiking destination. While I've listed the hike as being 8 miles round trip here, which covers hiking through the first four or five knolls along the ridge, very ambitious hikers or hikers who simply want to enjoy more of the incredible scenery here can continue over five miles from the trailhead with over 3000 feet of elevation gain to Chowder Ridge, which begins to lead up the slopes of Mount Baker. The wildflower meadows are confined to Skyline Divide itself and end at the base of Chowder Ridge; Chowder Ridge may be snow-covered until late in the season.

Summer wildflowers at Skyline Divide
At our turnaround point on our fall visit, views were spectacular in all directions and extended from Black Peak, deep in the North Cascades, to Vancouver Island. Laid before us was a panorama that included peaks named Judge Howay, Church, Redoubt, Challenger, Eldorado. The andesite columns and summit plateau of Table Mountain were visible at the foot of Mount Shuksan, the spire-crowned glacier throne of the North Cascades. We were amused when we passed a group of hikers doing a scantily-clad costumed photoshoot near the trail here.

Church Mountain, Skyline Divide, and American and Canadian Border Peaks
View through the Cascade foothills towards the San Juan Islands
Shuksan
The deep North Cascades, including Black and Eldorado Peaks
I highly recommend this trail as one of the highlights of hiking in Washington State.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass

Larch Valley and the Ten Peaks
7 miles round trip, 2400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canadian National Parks pass required; parking extremely limited

Larch Valley, just uphill from Moraine Lake and nestled below the Ten Peaks in Alberta's Banff National Park, puts on one of the finest displays of fall color on the planet each September; the trail to Sentinel Pass brings hikers into a harsh alpine landscape at the highest trail-accessible point in the Canadian Rockies. This hike has an extremely special place in my heart: at age 10, my parents dragged me up this trail to Larch Valley on what, looking back, I consider to be my first true hike. While I had hiked trails earlier in my life and had just earlier that day hiked the flat trail out to Lower Consolation Lake, my journey up to Larch Valley was the first time that I came to associate the discomfort and misery of hiking with its rich rewards. Since that June day when a young Chuhern complained incessantly of being tired and out of breath and muttered that the switchbacks would surely kill me, I've covered a distance and elevation gain sufficient to cover the entire Pacific Crest Trail and hiking has become one of the most important aspects of my life and my identity. Revisiting Larch Valley, I found the area to be even more beautiful than I remembered, helping me understand how this one place ended up being the hike that launched a thousand hikes.

A note: the Lake Louise/Moraine Lake area frequently has grizzly bear problems, so Parcs Canada often issues requirements that hikers in the area must travel in groups of four or more. I was lucky enough to visit when grizzly activity was low and it was both legal and reasonably safe for me to hike alone. I'd still recommend that you carry and know how to use bear spray when hiking here.

Visitation to Banff National Park has exploded in the past two decades. During my first two visits to Moraine Lake, my family was able to drive directly to the trailhead and park there and explore; for my latest visit, I discovered that a shuttle bus system had been implemented and that parking at both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake were limited to the few visitors who arrived early in the morning before the parking lots filled. The Moraine Lake parking lot, I was infomed, filled by 7 AM every day; to deal with this, I woke up at 5 AM and drove up to the lake from Lake Louise Village to ensure that I would snag a parking spot. I napped briefly in the car as I waited for it to get light out on that overcast day. Even a weekday visit (I came on a Monday) warranted such measures.

At sunrise, I decided to first check out Moraine Lake before heading up to Larch Valley. Moraine Lake is rightly famous: the Wenkchemna Peaks (or the Ten Peaks), a multi-summited rock wall, rises above the most extraordinary turquoise waters. Even upon seeing the lake for the third time in my life from the Rockpile Trail, I could not help but stare agape at one of the truly wonderous natural gems of our Earth.

Moraine Lake
Returning to the parking area, I headed out on the hike to Larch Valley. From the lodge next to the parking lot, I began following the Moraine Lakeshore trail south along the lake. Within meters of leaving the parking area, I came to the junction with the Larch Valley/Eiffel Lake Trail. I took the right fork here and began to follow this broad, well-built trail uphill.

The trail embarked on a series of switchbacks as it climbed up the western side of the valley holding Moraine Lake. These ten or so switchbacks are reasonably graded and the trail has an excellent tread, which made the ascent quite easy for me now; at age 10, these same switchbacks were tortuous on my first hike, faced with my first extended uphill climb. The younger me, tired and out of breath, doubted it was humanly possible to reach such a place as Larch Valley. There was a certain sense of satisfaction gained when I made quick work of the switchbacks and arrived at the junction with the trail to Eiffel Lake, 1.5 miles from the trailhead, in just over half an hour, having stopped during the journey up only to admire the partial views of Moraine Lake below.

Moraine Lake along the climb
At the trail junction with the Eiffel Lake Trail, I took the right fork towards Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass. Almost immediately, the trail left the spruce fir forest of the ascent and entered a golden larch forest. The trail climbed slightly more before leveling out as it entered the lower part of the valley. Mountain slopes coated in golden larches were visible to the north along the slopes of Mount Temple.

Entering Larch Valley
My early start had paid off: there were only a handful hikers on the trail when I entered Larch Valley. The scenery here is at once majestic and idyllic: the Ten Peaks tower over forests of small larches and meadows dotted with scattered rocks. A log bridge spanned the creek in Larch Valley; in September, the creek had dried completely. This bridge was quite memorable for me: at 10, I sat on the bridge at the end of the hike, exhausted, and watched the clear June waters of the stream burbling through the meadows. At the time I was tired, hungry, and a little miserable, but something about the scene around me ignited a flame, a love for the outdoors, an insatiable wanderlust and a yearning for the mountaintop that has yet to be extinguished or even dimmed. The half hour I spent admiring the Ten Peaks here years earlier had set into motion the development of the current me.

Log bridge in Larch Valley- a location of pivotal significance in my childhood
Larch Valley
The trail continued wandering through the relatively flat valley, passing through meadows lined with larches. The Ten Peaks formed a commanding backdrop and the sun poked through the clouds at intervals.

Larches backed by the Ten Peaks
The half of mile trail threading through the golden colors of Larch Valley is among the most glorious stretches of trail anywhere. A gentle ascent with falling streams, fiery colors, and snowcapped mountains- what more could one ask for?

Larch Valley
The larches thinned out as the trail began to emerge above the treeline. Here, the larches faded to alpine meadows; the Ten Peaks rose to the south and the great bulwarks of the Grand Sentinel and Mount Temple rose ahead of the trail. I was lucky to arrive early enough in the morning to enjoy this scenery without too much company; by the afternoon, the scene was a little less idyllic with scores of hikers, many carelessly tromping on the meadows or blasting music from speakers.

Larch Valley
Larch Valley
The Pinnacle and the Grand Sentinel
Above the treeline, the trail traversed through barren landscape of meadow and rock, passing the lower of the Minnestimma Lakes before coming to the cold, stony main Minnestimma Lake. Sentinel Pass rose directly ahead, a forbidding saddle between two great, cloud-ensconed mountain thrones rising on either side of the lake. The trail followed the northern edge of the briefly before branching off to begin the final stretch, which climbed about 700 feet in less than a mile.

Mount Temple rises above Minnestimma Lake
Leaving Minnestimma Lake, the vegetation thinned as I entered a realm of snow and rock. The trail ascended through scree slopes as it approached the formidable rocky slopes of the pass.

Climbing towards Sentinel Pass above Minnestimma Lake
The trail ended up being not as bad as it looked: a pair of switchbacks through the final scree slope brought me to the pass itself. I scrambled up a small rocky prominence just north of the low point of the pass to survey the surroundings.

The barren, harsh route to Sentinel Pass
The far side of the pass was a wild world of harsh rock spires and snow. Paradise Valley lay far below, with a handful of golden larches visible above the green, conifer-coated valley floor. The Grand Sentinel and Mount Temple, both massive towers of well-ordered sedimentary rock, rose to either side of the pass.

Looking down into Paradise Valley from Sentinel Pass
Looking back from where I came, the Ten Peaks formed a solid wall of rock, snowy peaks above Larch Valley and the Minnestimma Lakes. The gentler delights of Larch Valley seemed so far away in the harsh landscape of Sentinel Pass. This is the highest trail-accessible point in the national parks of the Canadian Rockies; while the trail isn't easy, this is a reasonably straightforward way to enter an alpine world usually denied to day hikers and casual tourists.

Minnestimma Lakes and Larch Valley below the Ten Peaks
I met and shared my Larch Valley story with a number of hikers who I shared the trail with that day, including a photographer, Rick, who had recently moved to Okotoks (a Calgary suburb) and Revanth, a student from Halifax who was taking an ambitious trip with a relative through the Canadian Rockies. All in all, I took my time and enjoyed this overwhelmingly nostalgic spot, spending over 7 hours on the trail. I descended just in time, returning to Moraine Lake as a sudden snowstorm moved in. The waters of Moraine Lake, placid that morning, had turned to whitecaps, with canoers struggling to return to shore in the rough wind and waves. As I drove down, hail and snow fell heavily; by the time the clouds broke briefly when I was down in Lake Louise Village, the slopes of Mount Temple were covered in a frosting of fresh snow.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Dunes Overlook

Great Sand Dunes
2.5 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance fee required

While Colorado's Great Sand Dunes are best appreciated by hiking into the dunes themselves, hikers looking for a more relaxed outing can consider hiking up to an overlook on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Range just off of the Sand Ramp Trail. This is a relatively easy hike with just a smidgen of uphill at the end and offers decent views of North America's tallest sand dunes.

This was the last hike that I did on a three-day February trip to the San Luis Valley. The first and third days of my trip had decidedly unpleasant weather, both featuring snowstorms; the thermometer broke above freezing for only a few hours in my entire trip. On my third day, I returned to Great Sand Dunes National Park after driving across San Luis Valley in the morning to visit Penitente Canyon; after being snowed on at the foot of the San Juan Mountains, I drove back across the valley to the Sangre de Cristos. To reach the trailhead from Alamosa, follow US 160 east and then Highway 150 north along the Sangre de Cristo Range into Great Sand Dunes National Park. Follow the paved road to its end at the Pinon Flats campground; in the summer it may be possible to park at the true trailhead off the B Loop in the campground, but winter visitors will likely have to park at the campground amphitheater as the campground itself is closed.

From the amphitheater, I walked past the closed gate on the campground road and followed it uphill to the B Loop; halfway through the B Loop, I came to the trailhead for the Sand Ramp Trail. I hopped on the snow-covered trail here and began to follow it north. Luckily, one other hiker had already come this way since the snowstorm two nights prior, leaving a set of tracks for me to follow.

The Sand Ramp Trail quickly exited the pinon pine forest into open scrubland. Views opened of the dunefield; the peaks of Sangre de Cristo, such as nearby Mount Herard, would usually be visible but at the moment were buried in clouds. The sand of the dunefield was intermixed with snow that had fallen in the storm just two nights before. Strong winds were whipping through the dunes: I could see plumes of sand blowing over the crests of the highest dunes. Looking at the undulating dunes, I could understand Zebulon Pike's description of them as looking like a sea in a storm.

Sand dunes from the Sand Ramp Trail
About a half mile from the trailhead, the trail dropped into a small ravine and crossed a creek, then climbed back out into pinon pine forest. The nearly untouched and unbroken snow cover gave the entire landscape a surreal and magical feel: what an odd sensation to be in a desert coated with snow!

Snow cover along the Sand Ramp Trail
Just slightly further down the Sand Ramp Trail, I arrived at the Dunes Overlook spur trail. I took the right turn here to follow the half-mile Dunes Overlook Trail uphill. The trail made a switchback on its brief climb as the trail made its way up along a ridge extension of the Sangre de Cristos.

A half-mile up the spur trail, I came to the lower of the two overlooks. A small wooden bench in a clearing provided a nice view of the dunefield, with the tall peak of High Dune easily identifiable. Looking north, I could see the Castle Creek dunes piled up steeply against Medano Creek. Looking west past the foothill dunes, I could see out into the sand sheet and sabhka in San Luis Valley, including the glassy surface of San Luis Lake in the distance. With clouds on the horizon, the San Juan Mountains weren't visible at that time, but presumably it would be possible to see the peaks on the other side of San Luis Valley on a clear day.

Great Sand Dunes from the lower overlook
The set of tracks that I had followed up turned around from the first overlook, but the trail continued uphill along the ridge crest. I followed the trail through the snow uphill through one steep section to reach the second overlook, which had another bench and provided a partial view of the dunefield and of the Sangre de Cristo Range to the south. From here, I could see deep into the undulating interior of the sand dunes.

Interior sand dunes from the upper overlook
Zapata Ridge, the Sangre de Cristo Range, and San Luis Valley
I retraced my steps to the trailhead and then began the long drive back to Denver to return to Seattle.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Little Mashel Falls

Middle Falls on Little Mashel River
5.5 miles round trip, 700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

There's nothing little about Washington State's Little Mashel Falls. Near Eatonville, the Little Mashel River makes a series of three drops on its descent to meeting the Mashel River. Fed primarily by winter rains, these waterfalls are most spectacular in winter and spring, when constant rains give the river a thunderous flow. With recent improvements to the trail, this slightly over 5-mile round trip hike from the University of Washington's Pack Experimental Forest is an excellent way to see the falls.

I hiked to Little Mashel Falls with some friends on a rainy February weekend. From Puyallup, we followed Highway 161 south through Eatonville to its junction with Highway 7; after turning left (east or south) onto Highway 7, we followed it for a half mile to the entrance of Pack Forest on the left (east) side of the highway. Turning off into Pack Forest, we followed the main road in the forest (453rd St E) uphill to a trailhead parking area.

Leaving the trailhead, we followed the dirt road heading east (the road parallel to the parking area). We followed this gravel road east for 1.8 miles; there were a few gentle ups and downs but the road was generally flat. At a few points, other gravel roads came up to join the road, but the main gravel road was always fairly obvious. The road cuts through the Pack Forest, which is an experimental forest for studying sustainable forestry run by the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

At 1.8 miles, the road entered a small clearing and came to a fork; the trail to the falls follows the road on the left, so we headed left and continued east. We followed this road for a quarter mile, passing some small clearings on our right, and came to an intersection with a spur trail on the left marked by a rock with the word "FALLS." Here, we finally left the system of gravel roads and headed onto a single track trail. This trail circled around a small pond and soon began a descent as it entered the gorge holding the three falls on the Little Mashel River. The trail, which to this point had been excessively mild with virtually nonexistent elevation gain, was about to get a bit more exciting.

The falls trail came to a junction after a short stretch of descent. Here, the trail off to the right led towards the Upper and Middle Falls while the trail that continued to descend led down to the Lower Falls. We decided to check out the Middle Falls first; the Upper Falls trail branched off from the Middle Falls Trail and led further up a stream valley, but the Upper Falls were a little underwhelming and couldn't be seen well from the trail. The Middle Falls trail made a steep descent down to the Middle Falls. Reading past trip reports before the hike suggested that this trail used to be extremely muddy and poorly maintained, but it was in good shape during my hike. The trail descended to the base of Middle Falls, which was a roaring, 90-foot tall sheet of water that is among the most impressive waterfalls in Washington State. In mid-winter, the sheer power of the water is overwhelming: all of us were quickly drenched by the falls' forceful spray.

Middle Falls
After eating lunch just uphill from Middle Falls, we returned to the main falls trail and took a right, following it down to Lower Falls. At the very bottom of the gorge, Lower Little Mashel Falls was a pretty 40-foot cascade. We spent some time admiring the tumbling water and the greenery of the gorge before heading back the steep uphill of the trail and then returning to the trailhead.

Lower Falls on Little Mashel River
A word of warning: a few social paths lead to the lip of Middle Falls. If you choose to visit the top of the falls, be extremely careful; multiple people have died at the falls in the past few years. Don't enter the river above the falls and avoid putting yourself in situations where a slip could be fatal.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Misery Ridge

Crooked River at Smith Rock
4 miles loop, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Oregon State Park fee required

For non-climbers, the astounding spires of Smith Rock can perhaps be best appreciated along the four-mile loop hike over Misery Ridge that travels through the heart of this rocky wonder in central Oregon's high desert. Smith Rock is a climbing mecca, one of the birthplaces of American sport climbing; it also an incredible natural feature with soaring rock pinnacles rising above the placid Crooked River. It is an absolute highlight of Central Oregon; don't let the fact that Smith Rock is just a state park deceive you into thinking that the area is somehow a second-rate natural area. While most reasonably fit hikers will enjoy the Misery Ridge Trail, it's not for everyone: portions of the trail are quite steep and narrow and are best done with boots with good traction and hiking poles. Many visitors to the park attempt the climb up and over Misery Ridge with minimal water and wearing inappropriate footwear, making the trail somewhat more dangerous than it should be.

I visited Smith Rock State Park on a Memorial Day weekend trip to Bend, Oregon. To reach Smith Rock from Bend, follow US 97 north from town past Redmond to Terrebonne and take Smith Rock Way east. Follow signs the rest of the way, turning left onto NE 17th St, left onto Wilcox Ave, and left again onto Crooked River Drive. Follow Crooked River Drive into the park and try to find parking near the visitor center. There are automated pay stations scattered throughout the park's many parking areas. As Smith Rock's fame has grown in recent years, expect crowds at the park.

From the visitor center, I followed the Rim Rock Trail north to a shelter on the rim of the canyon where the main trail descended into the canyon. This spot already delivered a stunning view of Shiprock, a prominent nearby formation, and of the many other buttresses and pinnacles of Smith Rock. The Crooked River flowed lazily around the foot of the tuff spires. Smith Rock's geology differs from the surrounding area: while this part of Oregon is dominated by flood basalts, Smith Rock itself is composed of much older tuff formed by the collapse of an ancient caldera. Erosion by the Crooked River has exposed the Smith Rock tuff and carved it into its current dramatic form.

Crooked River and Smith Rock
I descended to the Crooked River Bridge via the Canyon Trail, which was a broad emergency road and had a much gentler grade than the steeper Chute Trail. The Canyon Trail was also substantially quieter than the Chute Trail, which most visitors were using to access the bridge. I was glad to check out the Canyon Trail, as it provided some unique and beautiful perspectives on Shiprock.

Smith Rock
At the base of the canyon, the Canyon Trail joined back up with the Chute Trail and passed a round, manicured grassy lawn that apparently serves as a helipad. I crossed the bridge over the Crooked River and found myself at the foot of the towering 600-foot cliffs of Smith Rock.

There are two options for completing the Misery Ridge loop: heading clockwise and saving the Misery Ridge climb for later, or hiking counterclockwise and tackling Misery Ridge first. I chose to get the uphill over with early and took the Misery Ridge Trail at the fork after crossing the bridge.

The Misery Ridge Trail wasted no time, immediately jumping into a steep switchback ascent up the slopes of the rock. The rock faces above the trail were dotted with climbers challenging the many routes on Smith Rock's tuff. I found many small caves in the tuff itself, which reminded me of the similar rock found at New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument, where Puebloan peoples carved cavetes into the tuff of the Jemez Caldera. As I followed the switchbacks uphill, the views improved and I soon had a great overview of Shiprock, the Crooked River, and the trails leading down into the canyon from the parking lot across the river.

Crooked River Canyon, Shiprock
After completing the first set of switchbacks, the trail began to traverse to the north, wrapping around the side of the rock. This soon brought me to the northeast side of Misery Ridge, where the trail overlooked a sharp bend in the Crooked River as it flowed past a particularly notable rock tower called the Monument.

Monument at Smith Rock
The trail continued climbing steeply, embarking on a second set of switchbacks as it began to head up a break in the cliffs towards the top of Misery Ridge. As I climbed up, views improved with a line of peaks emerging behind Misery Ridge and with more and more of the Terrebonne countryside coming into view.

Crooked River flows below Monument
After a sustained climb from the bridge, the trail finally leveled out upon reaching the crest of Misery Ridge. A large rock here overlooked the terrain to the east and was a popular lunch spot: from here, I could look down to see the bend in the Crooked River, Monument, Newberry Volcano in the distance to the south, and Mount Hood to the distance in the north.

Mount Hood in the distance
The true summit was off of the main trail; multiple spur trails led towards the high point of Misery Ridge. While I came slightly short of reaching the true high point, I scrambled my way up a use path to one of the many rocks with almost 360-views just below the highest rock. The panorama here was excellent: in addition the bird's eye view of all of Smith Rock and of the Crooked River's circuitous path, this spot also provided views of the Cascade volcanoes on the western horizon. Mount Bachelor, Broken Top, the Three Sisters, Mount Washington, Black Butte, and Mount Jefferson formed the western skyline. Just beyond the volcanoes was the cloud layer blanketing the western Cascades, which had missed out on the glorious sun east of the mountains. Between Smith Rock and the Cascades were green fields in the desert watered by the plentiful melting snows of the mountains.

Broken Top and the Three Sisters and the irrigated Oregon high desert
Broken Top, Mount Bachelor, and Smith Rock
Mount Jefferson
The trail delivered consistently good views as it crossed the crest of Misery Ridge. On the northwest side of the ridge, the trail began to descend down the ridge. Here, views were still spectacular: I could see the Crooked River flowing to the north below the cliffs of Smith Rock with Black Butte, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood rising on the horizon. Right in front of me stood a massive free-standing rock formation, the Monkey Face. A look at the top of this particular rock tower made the name self-explanatory: the upper portion of the rock bore a striking resemblance to a monkey's head.

Monkey Face with Black Butte, Mount Jefferson, and the Crooked River
The descent from Misery Ridge featured constant views of Monkey Face and the Crooked River as the trail made a series of switchbacks. One of the more unique views of this scene was from a small rock cave directly off the trail: a cavity had been eroded into the heart of a boulder, creating a crawl space that easily accommodates two people.

Monkey Face from a small rock cave
 Monkey Face is one of the most popular climbing objectives in the park and was packed with climbers ascending the east face and rappelling down from the nose/mouth area when I visited.

Rappelling down and climbing up Monkey Face
The Misery Ridge Trail intersected with the Mesa Verde Trail at the base of Monkey Face. Here, the right fork led towards the First Kiss wall; I took the left fork, which followed the base of the Mesa Verde Wall as the trail gradually descended towards the Crooked River. The higher stretch of the Mesa Verde Trail featured beautiful views of Smith Rock's spires rising above the Crooked River with the Three Sisters and Broken Top in the distance. One of the more disconcerting sights on the hike occurred on the Mesa Verde Trail: an emergency stretcher was installed by the trail here, a reminder of the occasional dangers of sport climbing.

Crooked River, Smith Rock, Three Sisters
The Mesa Verde Trail eventually made its way down to the level of the Crooked River, where it intersected the River Trail. I followed the River Trail south as it made its way around the southern tip of Smith Rock. The riverside views here were excellent: the late afternoon sun lit up Monkey Face and many of the other spires on the western side of Smith Rock.

Crooked River and Monkey Face
The trail followed the river upstream, rounding the southern tip of Smith Rock. As the trail wrapped around towards the north, Shiprock came back into view: I was nearing the end of the loop. The low angle of the evening sun created dramatic lighting over this landscape of outcrops.

Crooked River reflections
While there were many extraordinary rock forms at Smith Rock, I found the Smith Rock Group and the Phoenix Buttress to be among the most inspiring and dramatic forms. The spires here soared above the Crooked River and, although smaller in scale, reminded me of the cliffs of Zion and Yosemite.

Phoenix Buttress of Smith Rock
The stretch of rockwall just south of Shiprock was packed with climbers, with tens of groups attempting the variety of different routes up the sides of Smith Rock. After passing Shiprock, I arrived back at the footbridge and closed the loop. After crossing back over the bridge on the Crooked River, I took the steeper Chute Trail back uphill to the Rim Rock Trail and the parking area.

This is a remarkable hiking trail and an exceptionally beautiful destination. While hikers visiting Smith Rock won't be able to avoid the crowds, sharing the trail with hundreds of others is worth it for such a unique hike.