If you were to ask me, interview style, what my biggest weakness is, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer. Not with my body aching as it does from sunburnt head to blistered toes. No, I would not pause in telling you that I often underestimate the challenge of my grand ideas. I don’t come up short, but the finish line is only reached through much pain and suffering along the way. I was acutely aware of this habit yesterday afternoon as we faced our final climb of an arduous weekend spent backpacking the Teanaway Valley. The climb, a 2.5 mile grunt climbing 2,200 feet up Bean Creek, was a stark reminder of how much easier these types of trips seem in the planning stages.
Equipped with a new 2-pound, two-person tent, one of the lightest and most compact on the market, we set off to explore one of the most picturesque areas of central Washington. The Teanaway Valley in Wenatchee National Forest is a place I’ve gone mountain biking numerous times over the years, and on some of these very trails, but never on foot, and never such a route. We began at the seldom-used Standup Creek trailhead, at the end of a steep dirt road featuring a dozen water bars that nearly damaged our car. We bottomed out on several of them on the way up and dug the front into a few more on the way back down. Fortunately, the car survived to deliver us to the overgrown, un-maintained Standup Creek trail (#1369). Up we went, hiking seemingly straight uphill at times. Four miles and three-thousand feet of elevation later, we reached our reward.
The descent into the adjacent drainage valley was covered in snow drifts, requiring some tricky route-finding. While Kristin can dance her petite frame across the drifts without care, I broke through on more than one occasion, plunging me groin-deep in snow. Fortunately, the east-facing slope only held snow above 5,600 feet and we were soon onto the Stafford Creek trail (#1359) and climbing again. The upper Teanaway Valley features a ridge that runs east-west at roughly 6,200 feet above sea level. Either side of this ridge is fluted with a number of drainages, V-shaped valleys that tumble down into the main creek on either side. On the south side, that’s the Teanaway River, to the north it’s Ingalls Creek. There is no flat land in this area. To hike it is to commit yourself to rising and falling in and out of these various drainage valleys. But the view of the Stuart Mountain Range to the north makes it all worth it.
Forest fire swept through the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge several years ago and many of the trails that descend this lesser-visited area have been left to return to nature. Oh, they’re still on the maps, but carry the warning: “Trail overgrown, hard to find.” Dropping off the north side of the County Line ridge, between Navaho Peak and Iron Peak, are several of these hard-to-follow trails. We sat atop the ridge, enjoying the view of the Stuart Range while eating our tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches, and decided to go for it. The upper reaches of the Cascade Creek trail (#1217) was buried in snow, but the map showed a dashed line staying just left of the creek. If we skirt the snow to the left, and double back towards the creek, we should intersect the remnants of the trail. Or so we thought.
In reality, the trail is gone. Completely. There are also several creeks, cliffs, and a jumble of fallen trees littering this scarily-steep valley that made this descent one of the most arduous things either of us have ever done on two feet. The trail, just 2.4 miles in length, descending some 2,400 feet in elevation, shouldn’t have taken more than 40 minutes to descend. If the trail was a thing. It was not. Instead, we spent 3 hours bushwhacking our way down the Cascade Creek drainage. We stumbled across the remnants of the trail on several occasions, only to have it disappear under a tangle of fallen trees and adolescent alders steps later. Visibility was seldom more than twenty feet as the spring growth was borderline impenetrable. Three nervous hours of treacherous descending only to be met with the roaring waters of Ingalls Creek. Clinging to the banks, and dancing from one rock to the next in hope of a reasonably dry crossing, we saw our hope evaporating. Screw it. Planting my trekking poles with all my might to brace against the current, I waded out into the water. I have no idea what voodoo magic my newly-purchased hiking pants had been enchanted with, but they did an astoundingly good job of repelling the frigid water as it raced around my knees and thighs. Kristin, some eight inches shorter than me, followed next and managed to step so the water never crested her thighs. We scrambled out of Ingalls Creek on the north bank, intercepted the Ingalls Creek trail (#1215) and found an empty campsite mere steps away. Incredibly, it was the campsite marked on the map that I had hoped to find.
We pitched camp, made a fire, put our boots and socks too close to said fire, and piled into our rather snug tent at 8:30, exhausted. We woke several times due to the cold, but otherwise slept straight through the night until after 8 a.m. Eleven hours of sleep should have been enough rest, but day two proved harder still.
There was an unspeakable dread lingering over our camp as we had our granola and coffee: the fear that the uphill climb out of the Ingalls Creek area was going to be as difficult as our descent into it was. Fortunately, the trail we were to take back to the south didn’t bear the “trail overgrown, hard to find” warning. It was also marked as being open to equestrians so, in theory, it should be a bit more well trodden. And it was. Our climb up Fourth Creek (#1219) was an enjoyable, scenic several miles that climbed relatively gently compared to the steep ascents of the prior day (and of those to come). Unfortunately, the easy three miles we anticipated along Ingalls Creek were anything but. The forest fire had left the area a maze of pick-up-sticks. And this being part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (note the capital “W”), trail maintenance can be done with hand tools only. No chainsaws allowed in Wilderness. So, for three miles, we climbed over, under, and around countless fallen trees that aren’t likely to be cleared anytime soon. No wonder we didn’t have to compete for a backcountry campsite: few people make it more than a few miles up the Ingalls Creek trail!
Our re-crossing of Ingalls Creek three miles upstream (and past several tributaries) was far easier. The cold night had also brought the flow rate down a bit — rivers run highest in the mid afternoon after the sun had all day to melt more snow. We were able to cross without the water lapping above our knees. Which, since we had another 12 miles to go, was nice.
From Fourth Creek we descended the Beverly Creek trail (#1391), took a deep breath, and turned up the Bean Creek trail (#1391.1). We were spent. The blisters on my heel had torn free, the skin flapping around under my socks. The heat of the day and the weight of our packs had begun to take its toll. I so wanted to be done. Kristin, forever steady, just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and urged us on. Conversation soon shifted to the plate of ribs we would enjoy back in Cle Elum, once we got to town. And, before long, we were cresting the Bean Creek divide and about to descend into the Standup Creek drainage, ready to complete our lollipop route with a 4-mile descent back to the car. We ran into another couple enjoying the view from atop the divide. They had done a similar overnight hike, minus the descent to Ingalls Creek. They too spent 3 hours bushwhacking along a portion of forgotten County Line trail. Mutual badassery was agreed-upon.
Our hike was ultimately just 25.4 miles according to our GPS, but included 8,750 feet of elevation gain. That’s a whole lot of climbing for such a short distance. Too much if you ask me. This was a beautiful place to go hiking, but I can’t say I’d ever do this route again. There’s no reason to drop down to the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge again, least of all on any of the overgrown trails that should, in all honesty, probably be removed from the registry, erased from the maps, and left to revert to nature. It would be far too easy for someone less experienced and less fit to get in a very bad predicament attempting the descent down Cascade Creek. The sign atop the County Line ridge pointing to where the trail used to be is only tempting fate. But, for those who want an adventure, a physical test, and are looking to surround themselves with tremendous views and few people, this is a route worth considering. We only encountered other hikers on Stafford Creek and Bean Creek trails. Otherwise, we saw nobody. It was just us, the mountains, and our thoughts.