Wednesday, May 25, 2016

San Gabriel Peak

View of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean at sunset from San Gabriel Peak
4 miles round trip, 1150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $30 annual or $5 one-day Adventure Pass required. Mount Wilson Road is narrow and winding and maybe not recommended for trailers and RVs.

The San Gabriel Range rises abruptly from the plains of the Los Angeles Basin, quickly transitioning from sea level to over 10,000 feet at Mount Baldy. This vertical relief makes the San Gabriels a particularly dramatic mountain range. One of the greatest viewpoints of the range is also easily accessible: it's only a short hike of less than 2 miles each way to the summit of San Gabriel Peak from the Mount Wilson Road. San Gabriel Peak is the second highest point in the front range of the San Gabriel Range and offers a sweeping view of the range along with the entire Los Angeles metropolis and the Pacific Ocean. This hike fits the bill for anyone seeking maximum views for just a slight challenge. The hike described here visits not just San Gabriel Peak, but also neighboring Mount Disappointment, which adds just an extra half mile round trip but provides a slightly different view.

I hiked this trail on a November day, just a little while after some storms had dusted the higher peaks around Los Angeles with snow. I drove to the trailhead from West Los Angeles, taking I-10 east to downtown, then skirting to the west of downtown on Route 110 north, connecting to I-5 north, then taking Route 2 north towards Glendale and La Canada Flintridge. After passing the Verdugos, I merged onto I-210 east from Route 2 and then left on the first exit on I-210 for Route 2 heading north at La Canada Flintridge. Coming out, I turned left and headed north on the Angeles Crest Highway. I followed the windy mountain road uphill to the junction with the Angeles Forest Highway; here I stayed to the right and continued onward to the junction with the Mount Wilson Road at Red Box Gap. I turned right and followed the Mount Wilson Road uphill to the trailhead at Eaton Saddle, where there was parking on both sides of the road.

I put up my parking pass and then started hiking down the gated Mount Lowe Road, which headed off to the west (off to the right side of Mount Wilson Road). The road cut across the open slopes of San Gabriel Peak, offering immediate views of rocky Mount Markham and the endless grid of the Los Angeles suburbs near Pasadena. The trail itself- having been a former road- was quite wide and still in decent shape, which made for easy hiking with just a slight elevation gain.

View of the city from Mount Lowe Road
The south slope of San Gabriel Peak became increasingly sheer: at one point, the rocky face of the mountain was steep enough that the road circumvented that segment by a tunnel. The Mueller Tunnel was dark and a little damp but was short enough to not require a flashlight.

Mueller Tunnel
Soon after passing through the tunnel, at about two-thirds of a mile from the trailhead, the road arrived at Markham Saddle, nestled between San Gabriel Peak and the sharp form of Mount Markham. A water tank lay off to the right of the trail at the gap; I walked past the tank and the gap itself to find the trail to San Gabriel Peak itself, which was unmarked and branched off to the right just past the saddle. I followed this much narrower trail to the right and began a stiffer ascent up a set of switchbacks that led to the slopes of the mountain above the saddle. From this vantage point, I had a remarkable view of Mounts Markham and Lowe and Eaton Canyon down below. The trail itself cut through a barren slope that had burned just a few years earlier in the 2009 Station Fire. After the initial switchback ascent, the trail began cutting north along San Gabriel Peak's west face, ascending as it headed towards the gap between San Gabriel Peak and Mount Disappointment. The trail was quite narrow and eroded in places, so be mindful if you're uncomfortable with heights.

San Gabriel Peak Trail
Once the trail reached the saddle between San Gabriel and Disappointment, I chose to visit the lower peak of Mount Disappointment first. I took the left fork at the saddle and quickly came to a helipad and then a fire road. I followed the left switchback of the fire road uphill to the summit of Mount Disappointment. Small patches of snow remained in shady areas near the peak: snow had apparently reached this fairly low elevation already.

In a way, the summit of Mount Disappointment lives down to its name. Disappointment is not a wilderness peak: it's a mountain capped with numerous communications towers, with many views obscured by a fence protecting the towers at the true summit. However, the views are still quite good, and by walking around the fenced-off towers, I was able to piece together a 360-degree view of the area. The most notable section of the view was to the west: There was a direct view down to Red Box Gap and out to Strawberry Peak, the tallest peak in the front range of the San Gabriels. This part of the view wasn't visible from San Gabriel Peak, since from that angle it's blocked by Mount Disappointment.

Strawberry Peak and the Front Range from Mount Disappointment
The pyramid of San Gabriel Peak itself dominated the view to the east; I could also see snow-coated Mount Baldy and the other high peaks of the back range. I stayed at the summit for about half an hour and had no company, even on a holiday weekend.

San Gabriel Peak from Mount Disappointment
I returned via fire road to the saddle between San Gabriel and Disappointment. This time, I went straight across the gap and began heading uphill on the trail that climbed San Gabriel Peak. The trail switchbacked and climbed aggressively up the mountain. Sections of the trail were fairly narrow or eroded and steep, making for occasionally uncomfortable hiking. In addition to the excellent views outward towards Los Angeles, the plentiful succulents on the mountain slope made the trail quite scenic.

Succulents along the way to San Gabriel Peak
A final push brought me to the summit, about half a mile from the saddle between the two peaks. The summit has a 360-degree view, but it's necessary to walk around a bit to see all parts of the view, due to the plentiful vegetation.

Mount Wilson Observatory was visible just to the east: the collection of domes and towers was built atop of the next mountain down due to the clear skies of the past. Light pollution and smog now render the summit of Mount Wilson a less excellent site for astronomy than before, but they haven't erased Mount Wilson Observatory's place in the history of science. The observatory's Hooker Telescope was once the largest in the world and was used by Edwin Hubble to show that the universe was expanding, an observation that was key to formulating the Big Bang theory.

Mount Wilson Observatory from San Gabriel Peak
The Three Saints were visible to the east. In the distance, the peaks of Mount San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Peak rose above the horizon. These two peaks, the tallest in their ranges, have some of the greatest prominence of any mountains in the lower 48; San Jacinto rises over 8,300 feet directly from San Gorgonio Pass. Closer in, the snowcapped summit of Mount San Antonio- better known as Mount Baldy- glowed in the light of the setting sun.

Mount Baldy
The rest of the view was equally impressive. The north was dominated by the higher peaks of the San Gabriel back range, while the lower peaks of the front range stretched off to the west. To the south, I could see a large portion of the endless sprawl of Los Angeles and its attendant suburbs; far beyond, I could make out Palos Verdes and Santa Catalina. To the west, the sun set over the Pacific Ocean as the evening lights in San Fernando Valley began to glimmer.

The San Gabriels from San Gabriel Peak
Sunset on the Pacific Ocean
Dusk on the San Fernando Valley
I stayed at the summit for nearly an hour, taking in the view until sunset. At dusk, I retraced my steps back to the trailhead. There's much to recommend about this hike: the view at the summit and the surroundings visited along the trail itself were both excellent, and the trail is just enough uphill to make it seem like an actual summit hike while simultaneously being short enough that most reasonably fit people can finish it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Hanford White Bluffs- North Slope

The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River
6.5 miles round trip, 530 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; some route-finding is necessary
Access: No pass needed. Good gravel road to trailhead.

Hanford. For half a century, the name of this remote corner of the Washington desert was associated with the nuclear bomb. The Manhattan Project chose this desolate site as the place to generate plutonium for the bombs detonated at Trinity and Nagasaki. Today, the connotations of death and decay have yet to fade: leaking nuclear waste and widespread contamination has made the area inside the Department of Energy site the most contaminated Superfund site in the nation. Yet amidst this decay, the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, a great bend in the Northwest's mightiest river, is a landscape of life. The secrecy around the bomb and the Hanford site allowed this corner of the Columbia Basin to escape farming and retain its wild sagebrush character and also ensured that this last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia in the United States remained undammed. The end of the Cold War heralded the end of weapons production at Hanford. During his last year in office, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to declare a portion of the Hanford Site's sagebrush country as the Hanford Reach National Monument and transferred it to the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The White Bluffs North Slope hike explores a cliff-lined stretch of the Columbia in the Hanford Reach National Monument and visits some of the greatest wilderness sand dunes in Washington State. The hike has minimal elevation gain and thus is not physically difficult to hike; however, the trail does peter out at the first set of sand dunes, about two miles from start; accessing the second set of dunes near the White Bluffs requires some basic navigational skills. Additionally, the trailhead is not marked at all and can be a little difficult to locate. Most hikers will find the trip interesting enough for the sand dunes and the views of the river, but those interested in history or ecology can gain a particular appreciation for this hike due to its distinguishing characteristics in those aspects.

I hiked White Bluffs on a stormy day. Flood watches and warnings had been posted all over Western Washington, so I decided to try my luck on the east side of the Cascades. The storm followed me into the desert, though undoubtedly the brief light rain during my hike was trivial compared to the two inches of precipitation at Snoqualmie Pass that day. I followed I-90 east from Seattle across the pass and past Cle Elum and Ellensburg. After crossing the Columbia River at Vantage, I took the first exit after the bridge for State Route 26. I followed Route 26 south briefly before taking the right fork for Route 243 south when Route 26 began to climb up the columnar basalt cliffs and away from the river. I followed 243 south along the Columbia River past Wapanum Dam and Sentinel Gap to Mattawa; here, I turned left onto Road 24 and followed it east through the irrigated farmland at the foot of the Saddle Mountains. I continued on Road 24 until it met up with State Route 24 (how confusing!); I turned left here and followed Route 24 east for at least another 10 miles until I came to the junction with a gated gravel road leading into the Wahluke Unit of the Hanford Reach National Monument. I turned right onto this road; the gate is open until sundown every day. As I followed the gravel road south, a sudden blast of wind from the storm rolled a tumbleweed across the road. While this might be a common desert sight, I was shocked and a little thrilled to have seen such an iconic sight of the western desert. I followed the gravel road until it came to a four-way intersection. Here, I turned right to head towards White Bluffs landing. After the turn, the road became paved once more. The paved road headed west over the flat Wahluke Slope before descending down a gully cut into the White Bluffs to a small level area near a boat landing. The trailhead was at a small gravel spur road on the right side of the paved road reached right after coming out of the gully. If you reach the boat launch, you've driven too far.

The Washington Trails Association website indicates that a Discover Pass is needed to park at the trailhead: however, this is incorrect. The trailhead lies on land operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and not the State of Washington; additionally, there isn't much of a "trailhead parking area" to speak of anyway.

The trail heads north from the parking area, directly towards the White Bluffs. It immediately climbed up a lower set of bluffs and brought the first views of the Columbia.

Ascending White Bluffs
A few hundred yards past the trailhead, the trail started a second climb that brought it to the top of the second set of bluffs, placing the trail maybe two hundred feet above the river. The trail continued skirting the top of the bluffs for the next two miles, providing consistently good views of the free-flowing river and a large island that split the river in the Reach. A part of the Hanford Site came into view when I turned and looked back- the remnants of the F reactor lay to the south. It was easy to see how the bomb could've been kept a secret throughout its development in this empty landscape.

White Bluffs at Hanford
The views of the river were made all the more impressive by the fact that in the Hanford Reach, the Columbia River flows. At face value, this seems like nothing special: after all, rivers flow. But within the borders of the United States, the Hanford Reach is the only place the Columbia River flows, the only place where the great river of the Northwest is not slackwater. From the Bonneville Dam at the beginning of the tidal Columbia to the upper reaches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake at the Canadian border, every section of the Columbia River is dammed save this stretch between the Priest Rapids Dam near Sentinel Gap and the McNary Dam near the confluence with the Snake. The siren song of cheap hydroelectric power proved too strong to save any part of the Columbia River besides the stretch kept off-limits by a secretive Manhattan Project site.

The cheap and plentiful hydropower birthed Hanford in the first place. The unprecedented electrical output of the Grand Coulee Dam provided the energy necessary for plutonium enrichment at Hanford. During the war, the populace of the towns of White Bluffs and Hanford were relocated and a wide perimeter of sagebrush around the site's nuclear reactors was put in place to maintain secrecy. This perimeter remained through the end of the Cold War: even as the rest of the Columbia Basin turned into a network of dams, irrigation canals, and reclaimed agricultural fields, the land around Hanford remained sagebrush and sand. Inadequately rigorous disposal of nuclear and chemical waste during plutonium production turned the west bank of the Columbia into a toxic Superfund site. Luckily, the waste problem has been largely localized to the Hanford Site side of the river, leaving the Wahluke Slope on the east side as a haven for wildlife. Today, the Hanford Site remains largely off-limits to visitors except on guided tours operated by the Department of Energy and the National Park Service.

The contrast was striking: on the other side of the river, a symbol of death and decay, on this side of river, a quiet, unassuming sagebrush wilderness full of life, saved only because of the secrecy necessary for the Faustian creation across the river. Salmon swam in the river below and Canada geese glided silently above the Columbia.

Birds in flight at Hanford
About two miles into the hike, the trail died out as I approached the first sand dune on the hike. The first complex of sand dunes was rather small, though the dune itself was still at least 40 or 50 feet tall. As I climbed the dune, my feet alternatingly sinking into sand slope, I saw in wonder the 30-mile-per-hour winds whipping sand past the crest of the dune. Standing atop the crest of the dune, I could feel sand blasting around my legs: it almost seemed as if I were fording a river of sand.

Windblown sand
Among the blowing sands, I spotted a Jerusalem cricket, a species that is neither a cricket nor a resident of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Cricket in the sand dunes
Past the first set of high dunes, I wandered through a sandy area with more vegetation. At this point, there was no trail; I simply walked in the direction of the next set of dunes that I saw. As I walked towards those dunes, the storm rolled in, completing engulfing the Saddle Mountains to the north with clouds and rain. Before the storm reached me, the cloud cover momentarily broke and the sun illuminated the sand blowing on the nearby dunes.

White Bluffs sand dunes
Across the river, I spotted the cocooned shell of the H reactor, one of the many plutonium enrichment reactors at Hanford. In total, nine plutonium enrichment reactors were built at Hanford, three of which were finished during WWII to provide plutonium for the bombs being assembled at Los Alamos. H reactor was built later during the Cold War; at the height of weapons production, Hanford and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina provided all plutonium for warheads built in the United States. At the end of the Cold War, the Hanford reactors were decommissioned; the buildings around the reactors were torn down and the reactors themselves were left in place and cocooned in protective covering. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park- a recently established park preserving sites at Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos- now offers tours of B reactor, the first large-scale nuclear reactor to go critical, a rare chance to enter and visit an otherwise strictly off-limits zone.

Sand dunes, with cocooned Hanford H reactor across the river
At the foot of the second set of dunes, I donned my rain gear and sat down in the sand to momentarily escape the driving rain and the intense wind. It was not apparent as I hunkered down whether much of what was hitting me was sand or water; but I waited out the brief period of heavier rain and then began to ascend the second dunes once the rain transitioned to light showers.

The second set of dunes was substantially more impressive than the first: there were perhaps as many as seven or eight sand mounds all connected along a single ridge of sand. I followed the crest along the dunes, struggling as I fought the collapsing sand up each dune. The views from the top of the highest dunes to the flat Wahluke Slope, the river, and the surrounding mountain ranges were quite remarkable.

Sand dunes
The Columbia River at White Bluffs
After descending the tallest dune, I decided to call it quits for the day. There was still a decent amount of sand that stretched northward- it would certainly be possible to extend the hike beyond where I stopped and explore to the end of the expanse of sand. I slid down from the sand crest to a sandy basin on the east side of the tall dunes, then walked along the base of the dunes until I reached the sandy inter-dune area. From there, I retraced my steps to the trailhead, leaving the monument just after the sun set. I didn't see another person all day on the trail; the only other people I met were a couple of guys from the Priest Rapids Hatchery who were catching some salmon from the river at White Bluffs Landing to stock the hatchery. Although it hasn't been well advertised, the landscapes at Hanford are extraordinary and well worth the trip from Seattle.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Upper Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls and Half Dome
7.6 miles round trip, 2600 feet elevation gain (add 2 miles if walking from Yosemite Village)
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: $30 weekly admission fee to Yosemite National Park; parking near the trailhead is extremely difficult on weekends and during the summer.

After winding south from their source on the slopes of Mount Hoffman, the waters of Yosemite Creek embark on the most spectacular free-fall on the continent as they leap down the sheer granite cliffs of Yosemite Valley. The combined drops of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and the Middle Cascades measure more than 2,400 feet tall, making the waterfall the tallest in North America. The Upper Yosemite Falls Trail brings hikers up close and personal with the Upper Falls, the most impressive of the three drops, delivering both mist at the base of the upper drop and the incomparable thrill of gazing directly down the falls themselves. It's an understandably tough proposition: hikers hoping to reach the top of the upper falls must hike from the Valley floor up to the Valley rim. The views of the falls and of the Valley from the above make the hike undoubtedly worthwhile, although those with vertigo may want to skip the dizzying view and hewn rock staircase at the top. This hike is best done in the spring: Yosemite Falls is at highest flow when the spring melt of the Sierra snowpack is in full force. Come between March and June and you'll probably see an engorged Yosemite Creek thundering off the cliff; August visitors may not even see a waterfall at all. As this hike climbs up the south-facing cliffs in the Valley, it's also free of snow earlier than most other trails to the rim and can provide Valley views matching those from Glacier Point when the road to Glacier Point is still closed.

I hiked this trail with three friends from the Bay Area on a late March weekend. We set out early in the morning from the Bay Area and headed out into the Central Valley, then took Highway 120 east from Manteca all the way into the park through the Big Oak Flat Entrance. At the entrance of Yosemite Valley, we took Southside Drive through the valley bottom all the way out to the Upper Pines Campground, where we had luckily snagged a spot for that weekend. After setting up our tent, we made the fatal mistake of driving the few miles between our campsite and the trailhead.

Even though Yosemite Valley is one of the continent's most hallowed natural spots, it's also one of the most heavily visited tourist sites as well. During the summer and during sunny holiday weekends (like the weekend of our visit), this leads to traffic jams that puts to shame the rush hour gridlock seen on the DC Beltway or California freeways. The three mile drive from Upper Pines Campground to Yosemite Valley started out reasonably enough as we passed by Curry Village (now Half Dome Village) and turned onto Northside Drive. But then the traffic stopped and didn't start again. We inched our way to the beginning of the turnoff for the main parking lot at Yosemite Village; after turning in, we spent nearly a full hour moving slower than a snail's pace as the line of cars looking for parking spots inched through the lot. After we finally found parking, we still had to make the roughly mile-long walk from the parking lot at Yosemite Village to the trailhead at Camp 4.

Luckily, the walk was extremely scenic. We exited the lot by cutting through woods at its western end to reach Sentinel Drive, then we followed a boardwalk out onto Cook's Meadow. As we cut across Cook's Meadow, we got our first direct view of the falls. The upper drop of Yosemite Falls is so tall that water plunging from the top turns almost entirely to mist by the time it reaches the base. Unlike shorter waterfalls, where water often appears to plunge, here the falling water almost seems to float; you can almost count the seconds between a pulse of water leaving the lip of the waterfall and arriving at its base.

Yosemite Falls from Cook's Meadow
Cook's Meadow also provided nice views of the Sentinel, a rocky spire that is perhaps one of Yosemite Valley's most underappreciated features, and Half Dome.

At the far end of the meadow, we hopped onto the path paralleling Northside Drive and followed it past the Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead to Camp 4 and the trailhead for Upper Yosemite Falls. A little over a mile of walking from the Yosemite Village lot, we came to the the junction for the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, just slightly uphill from Camp 4. Although the closest parking to the trailhead is here, you can't actually park here unless you're staying at Camp 4 (similarly, you can't park at Yosemite Lodge unless you're staying overnight there).

Camp 4 is perhaps the most famous campground in the world. Yosemite is no less than the center of pilgrimage to rock climbers, many of whom make Camp 4 their home during their time in the park. Some of the most astounding feats of human physical achievement have been conceived and planned in this slapdash collection of tents just west of Yosemite Lodge.

From Camp 4, we turned north and uphill onto the Yosemite Falls Trail. The trail immediately embarked on a stiff uphill climb up stone steps and sharp, short switchbacks. The first two-thirds of a mile contained over a dozen switchbacks as the trail climbed relentlessly uphill under the tree cover. Occasionally, the Sentinel or other nearby Valley features were visible, but this stretch of trail was not particularly rich on views. After climbing the good part of a thousand feet uphill, the trail leveled out a little and began to cut east along the side of the north wall of the Valley. After crossing a few seasonal streams and delivering some reasonably good views of the Valley, the trail pushed its way up to Columbia Rock. This outcrop, about a mile away from the trailhead and a thousand feet up, delivered a commanding view of the east end of the Valley and Half Dome.

Half Dome and North Dome from Columbia Rock
Past Columbia Rock, the trail made a short, steep climb around a large outcrop on the Valley wall before rounding a corner and descending slightly to a head-on view of Upper Yosemite Falls.

Upper Yosemite Falls
The trail began climbing once again after approaching the base of the Upper Falls. A long set of switchbacks brought us uphill through a wooded gully cut into the cliff just west of the falls. Mist from the falls showered us as we ascended the switchbacks. At some of the switchback turns, we found impressive views of the falls and of Half Dome and Glacier Point.

Upper Falls
The climb through the gully appeared endless at times: we spent the good part of an hour ascending the aggressive uphill switchbacks. The views of the vertical granite walls around us provided a respite on our climb but also reminded us how much uphill we had left ahead of us.

The switchbacks began to level out a little over 3 miles past the trailhead. As we approached the side of a tumbling stream, we finally arrived at a trail sign indicating that we had reached the rim of the Valley. At a junction with the trail to Eagle Peak, we stayed on the trail heading towards Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point.

Large patches of snow, up to five feet deep in places, covered much of the flatter terrain around the rim. After crossing a stream, we walked through the snow for a short stretch before coming to another trail junction: here, one trail led left towards Yosemite Point while the other turned downhill to the right and led towards the top of Yosemite Falls. We took the right fork and followed the footsteps in the snow down to the rim of the canyon.

The granite bench at the rim provided a stunning overview of the Valley. Although Half Dome was no longer visible, we could see Mount Starr King, Glacier Point, and Sentinel Rock. Sentinel Dome, still clothed in early-season snow, drifted in and out of the building clouds.

Western end of the Valley
We followed a set of stone steps downhill from the rim viewpoint down to the banks of Yosemite Creek. Here, the stream that fed Yosemite Falls plunged over a set of cascades that would have been impressive enough in their own right were they not just upriver from the tallest waterfall on the continent.

Cascades above the Upper Falls
In the final stretch of trail to the lip of the falls, we descended a set of narrow stone steps hewn into the granite of Valley rim itself. The stairs brought us to a small bench just above where Yosemite Creek began its 1400-foot freefall. Holding on the railing at the edge of the cliff, we had a stomach-churning, jaw-dropping view directly down the falls. We could even see the creek recollecting itself at the base of the falls to form the Middle Cascades. The collection of buildings that made Yosemite Village lay just to the left of the falls. The view was equally impressive at eye-level: Glacier Point, the Sentinel, and Sentinel Dome were directly across the valley from where we stood.

Looking down from the brink at Upper Falls
Mount Starr King, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Sentinel Rock
Due to our late start, we only stayed at the top of the falls for a short time before heading back. We skipped the side trail to Yosemite Point, which I've read is an excellent vantage point from the Valley Rim that even rivals the view from Glacier Point. We made our way quickly down the switchbacks and managed to work past the slippery rocks on the mist-drenched section of trail before dusk set.

We finished the descent in the dark with our headlamps. A decent number of hikers were caught in the dark on the trail without any light source- don't let this be you! Be sure to start hiking early enough in the day to return by sunset or come prepared for night hiking. By the time we reached Camp 4, we were all fairly hungry and tired but still had to make the trek through the Valley back to the parking lot at Yosemite Village. Luckily, the general store at Yosemite Village did not close until just after we arrived there, allowing us to pick up some much appreciated calories in the form of Fritos and over-processed liquid cheese product to accompany our chili dinner. When we returned to the lot, we found that the traffic from earlier in the day was long gone: our car was one of the few remaining.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Whistler High Note

High Note Trail above Cheakamus Lake
6 miles one way, 1000 feet elevation gain (2200 feet elevation drop)
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Whistler Blackcomb Summer Lift Ticket (~CA $50 per person), gondola and chairlift to trailhead

Okay, so the High Note Trail is cheating: this is a hike from the summit of Whistler Peak, at the heavily developed Whistler Blackcomb Resort in British Columbia, down to a gondola station on the mountain's slopes. The extraordinary number of chairlifts at Whistler Blackcomb allow this hike to be done as a one-way descent, providing maximum views for minimum effort. Hikers who enjoy the feeling of earning their summit will have to swallow their pride to enjoy this trail, though the path through some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in North America makes it well worth it. While Whistler is better known for its winter sports- Whistler Blackcomb hosted many downhill skiing events during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics- the area has just as many recreational opportunities during the summer.

I hiked this trail with my parents when they came to visit the Northwest. We stayed in Squamish, a town about an hour south of Whistler; we arrived in British Columbia just a week after the area was flooded with smoke from a massive wildfire out by Pemberton. We took Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, north from Squamish (having arrived in Squamish from Vancouver on Highway 99 the day before) to Whistler. We turned right into the Whistler resort area at Lorimer Road and followed the parking signs to the large free parking lot at the north end of the resort area. We then followed Blackcomb Way south to the base of the gondolas and purchased summer chairlift day passes (unfortunately, single ride tickets weren't available). We then took the Whistler gondola from the base at the village directly uphill to Roundhouse Lodge high up on Whistler Mountain. After taking some time to explore other parts of the area by gondola (including taking the Peak 2 Peak across to Blackcomb Mountain), we walked from Roundhouse Lodge down to the base of The Peak chairlift, which brought us up to the very summit of Whistler Mountain. The final chairlift ride provided remarkable close-up views of the glaciers high up on Whistler.

Glacier view from the chairlift to Whistler Peak
This is that rare and odd hike where the 360-degree view comes at the beginning: after disembarking from the chairlift, we wandered around the flattened summit, looking out to the glacier-capped peaks of Garibaldi Provincial Park and the endless ridges rising west of the Whistler. We took in the view and took a few photos with the Inukshuk at the summit before following signs for the High Note Trail downhill.

View from Whistler Peak
The initial trail down from the summit was fairly rocky and steep; the trail descended down the west side of the mountain and afforded many views down to the resort town of Whistler and south to Mount Garibaldi and Black Tusk, a very distinct, sharp peak. We hiked past numerous tell-tale signs that we were in a major ski resort: ski runs were marked all over the place, depriving the landscape of any feeling of wilderness. The excellent views compensated for this distinctly unwild feeling.

View to the peaks of Garibaldi Provincial Park
Whistler
After a substantial descent from the summit, the trail intersected with a ski run leading back to the summit. We crossed the run and continued on the High Note Trail; here, a sign warned hikers that beyond there would be real trail, a little odd considering the descent from the summit offered perhaps the least stable footing of any point along the hike. We continued on the High Note Trail, which briefly entered some woods before emerging onto the beautiful open meadows on Whistler Mountain's south slopes.

High Note Trail
High Note Trail
The mile that followed was some of the most enjoyable alpine hiking found anywhere. The trail winded its way through open meadows littered with wildflowers and butterflies, occasionally crossing small bubbling streams. At this point, there were no signs of the ski resort, making the surroundings seem substantially more natural. There were constant, excellent views of the glacier-capped peaks of Garibaldi Provincial Park across the valley of Cheakamus Lake as well as of the sharp spire of the Black Tusk. Soon, views of the shining turquoise waters of Cheakamus Lake itself emerged below, providing a vivid contrast to the dense evergreen forests of the surrounding mountain slopes.

After staying generally flat or slightly downhill along much of the mountainside, the trail made a slight climb, cutting through a talus slope, up to the saddle between Whistler Peak and Piccolo Summit. Piccolo is the first of three minor summits on Whistler Mountain southeast of the main peak; collectively known as the Musical Bumps, Piccolo, Flute, and Oboe Peaks separate the ski resort from Singing Pass. At the saddle between Whistler and Piccolo, the High Note Trail intersected with the Half Note Trail, which led back towards the summit of Whistler. We took the right fork to stay on the High Note Trail, which began to cut across the southwestern slopes of Piccolo. More open meadows and views of Cheakamus Lake followed.

Cheakamus Lake
The most difficult section of the trail soon followed: the trail made a sharp turn to the left and scrambled up an eroding slope, then came to a metal boardwalk that skirted the side of a rock and then descended at a steep angle back to solid trail. While most people won't find this segment too troublesome, hikers who don't enjoy scrambling or who have acrophobia may find this stretch of trail unpleasant.

Scramble section along the High Note Trail
Past the short scramble, the trail continued to wind along the open meadows on the slopes of Piccolo, with plenty more beautiful views of Cheakamus Lake. On the far side of the Piccolo, the trail began to climb again towards the saddle between Piccolo and Flute; while following the trail through a talus slope, we noticed a marmot lounging lazily near the trailside on some rocks. It was apparently habituated enough to humans that it didn't even bother sounding a marmot warning whistle when we passed by.

Trailside marmot
At the saddle between Flute and Piccolo, the trail split once again. Here, the right fork headed towards Singing Pass and Russet Lake, continuing along the Musical Bumps. We opted to continue on the High Note Trail, which was the left fork. The trail cut across the flat, meadow-filled saddle and led to new views of the Mount Overlord and the valley between Whistler and Blackcomb.

Saddle between Flute and Piccolo summits
Past the saddle, the trail remained in the alpine. We hiked high above a barren, beautiful bowl surrounded by multicolored ridges, then entered the lush bowl of Symphony Lake. Here, we re-entered ski resort territory: a ski lift cut across the mountainside here towards the summit of Piccolo. Symphony Lake itself was a large pond nestled in a tiny cirque on the slopes of Piccolo. The trail wound down to the side of the lake, then crossed the lake's outlet stream in a flower-strewn meadow. From here, there were incredible views of the glaciers on Mount Overlord and the rocky peak and ski runs of Blackcomb Mountain.

Blackcomb Mountain from near Symphony Lake
Past Symphony Lake, the trail embarked on an uphill ascent of a few hundred feet as it cut up the side of a ridge. A stretch of this trail cut through a talus slope, offering mindblowingly spectacular views of Overlord and the green meadows and bowls near Symphony Lake.

High Note Trail near Symphony Lake
Past the talus slope, the trail dove into one of the few forested stretches of the hike. We continued uphill through the trees until we rounded the end of the ridge, where we found spotty views of Blackcomb Mountain and patches of Indian paintbrush and other summer wildflowers lining the trail. As it was getting late in the day, we were also glad to look northwest and realize that we were within line of sight of the Peak-2-Peak gondola, meaning that the end of the hike at Roundhouse Lodge was no longer too far away.

Paintbrush
After rounding the ridge, the trail dropped downhill gently to the shores of Harmony Lake. At this late hour, the small lake on the east side of Whistler Peak was now entirely in the mountain's shadow; the lighting allowed for nice reflections on the lake. We followed the boardwalk around the east and north shores of the lake before starting a final short climb through sparse woods back to the developed area around Roundhouse Lodge.

Harmony Lake
The trail circled around a fenced-off pond then gently cut across the meadows down to the gondola station at Roundhouse Lodge. Once we reached the gondola station, we hopped on a downhill gondola to return to Whistler village.

The network of gondolas and chairlifts at Whistler make this hike relatively easily accessible and easier than most other hikes that access such alpine scenery. It's important to note that this doesn't make this an easy hike; but it's a good choice for hikers looking for a more leisurely way of reaching the alpine.