Tag Archives: Hiking
16 September, 2016

The Burning Mountains of Portugal

I first smelled the smoke during the drive to Alcobaça. We were headed inland, taillights to Nazare and its worlds-largest-waves, when that first acrid whiff I find to be so intoxicating snuffed out the lingering scent of sea air. Later, I downshifted to first and piloted the car up the meandering, olive-lined alleys to the castle town of Ourem, pondering the oddity of a world in which fire can overtake water. The smoke intensified. While reading poolside at our pousada, I could feel the ashen clouds floating across the valley, the smoke on the crystalline water, delicately smothering my book and body as it perfumed my hair with wildfire aromatics. Peering over the wall of the hilltop village we saw a ridgeline on fire across the valley. A wall of smoke hung just above the horizon, masking the burning garnet in gray gauze.

Sunset during wildfire.

Sunset amongst the wildfire smoke and ash, viewed from Ourem.

Long Waits and Late Nights in Lisbon

Though a friend tipped me off to the presence of wildfires burning in the Portuguese countryside several weeks before our trip, the only smoke encountered in the capital city was that of the cigarette variety. Despite an abundance of signage announcing the country’s new tougher, anti-smoking ordinances, ashtrays were nearly as common as houseflies. The presence of cigarette smoke was jarring – I often go months without encountering any at home – but the flies were far more annoying. As was the waiting.

We stepped off our overnight flight to Lisbon and joined a crowd the likes I’ve which I’ve seldom seen outside of Seahawks games. A single line of people serpentined back and forth though dozens of hairpins, crossed the terminal from end to end, and eventually (thankfully after we had gotten on it) extended up the stairs and back toward the gates. Well over a thousand people queued to pass through an immigration checkpoint manned by just three agents. Over a thousand tired, anxious travelers stood in orderly fashion wondering what crimes they committed in a prior life to deserve such hell. I may have preferred an encounter with the Langoliers than so much humanity in so little space.

Long lines in Lisbon.

The rental car lines at Lisbon airport at 11am on a Monday.

The clock soon struck nine and another half dozen agents took their positions. Time to get through immigration: 1:45. We encountered a similar crush of people three days later, upon returning to the airport to pick up our rental car. Understaffed? A victim of its own popularity? Yes and yes. But also friendly. I’ll still take it over Newark.

Having not spent enough of our first day in Lisbon waiting in line, we dropped our bags at our hotel and promptly walked downtown to join the throngs in line for the famed Tram #28. The electric trams of route 28 travel through the hilly, graffiti-covered Alfama district of Lisbon, passing the city’s castle and other major sights. That it was over 100 degrees out and there was no shade didn’t matter. That the only people on line were tourists didn’t register.

Our travel skills were as rusty as the trolley tracks we waited alongside and whether it was the heat, the sleep-deprivation, or sheer laziness, we stood in the searing heat for over an hour waiting for the so-called “Tourist Tram.” And when the tram finally banged and clanged its way up and around a few hills in an ugly, littered, battered neighborhood, that layer of rust we’ve accumulated since returning home was knocked free and we alighted at the first stop we could.  What were we thinking?

Lisbon castle steps.

We followed this couple down the stairs, looking for a way back into town, only to discover it was a dead-end. Oops.

If asked to sum up our time in Portugal, I would describe it as a ten-day pub crawl broken up by long drives in the mountains, some nice meals, and a few side-trips to gawk at architectural marvels of centuries past. And in this regard, we were almost thankful for the heat as it made the Sagres and Super Bock – Portugal’s answer to the ubiquitous light lager that plagues every country – somewhat palatable. Our three nights in Lisbon went by quickly.  A trip to Belem to see the glorious Monasteiro dos Jeronimos and the hip LX Factory enclave on day two; a train ride to Sintra (Portugal’s less glitzy answer to Versailles) on day three.

Lisbon fog.

The big bridge in Lisbon with a wonderfully low fog bank. Reminiscent of San Francisco Bay.

The highlight of our time in Lisbon was spent eating and drinking. A late meal of tapas in the Bairro Alto neighborhood preceded a marvelous time spent listening to Fado with three new friends we shared a table with. Kristin had done her homework and learned of a hole-in-the-wall Fado club named A Tasca do Chico where many Fado singers have gotten their start. Singers drop in and perform in the darkened pub that sits no more than thirty while two guitarists – one on a Portuguese twelve-stringer and another on a Spanish six-string – provide accompaniment. Fado is folk music best sang loud and passionately. It’s about heartbreak and loss, and this will be evident to you with or without a friendly Lisboan artist buying you beers. Think of it as Flamenco without the dancing. Two performers this night stole the show. The last of which, a young, petite woman in stiletto heels, tights, and a breezy blouse could not be topped. We saw no reason to stay beyond her 2am performance.

Downtown Lisbon.

Downtown Lisbon. All cities should be so pedestrian-friendly.

One challenge you might have in visiting Portugal is that there are limited dining options available on Sundays. In this country that takes eating late to a level that even Italians would question, most restaurants shutter after lunch on Sundays. This is where talking to a local can really come in handy. We were directed to an admittedly trendy restaurant in the Chiado neighborhood called Sacramento. Wandering in without a reservation, we weren’t sat until nearly 11pm, but the meal was worth the wait. Tourists and locals blend in this swanky establishment for modern takes on Portuguese classics and a rather stellar wine selection.

The night ended with my asking for the bill in such near-perfect Portuguese, complete with accent, that the server did a double-take. Her flattery led to a twenty-minute chat about language which I’ll spare you, except to encourage you to make an effort to go beyond ola and obrigato when you visit.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace from atop the mountain in Sintra.

Walking the High Mountains of Estrella

The Audi A1, a car every bit as virile as the two-buck steak sauce that shares its name, barely fit through the stone archway leading up the cobbled streets to our pousada in Ourem. After three days of touring and imbibing in Lisbon, a brief stop at Buddha Eden (the most WTF thing of all the WTF things) and a lunchtime tour of the magnificent monastery in Alcobaca, I was thrilled to park the car and settle into two nights of eating well and doing nothing.

Portugal’s network of pousadas – historical buildings of significance transformed into inns of varying degrees of luxury – provides travelers with a unique opportunity to pillow up someplace unusual. The pousada in Ourem, where we stayed, was a 15th century hospital located quite literally in the shadow of a medieval castle. And for two nights it was our home, complete with half-board. Though a festival would be taking place the following week, the hilltop village of Ourem was deserted. The cobblestone alleys, the castle ruins, and the cafes were ours and ours alone. And while the other guests of the inn day-tripped to Fatima and other nearby towns of note, we enjoyed the quiet of the smoke-scented village and read by the pool and rested. For I knew we had a long day barreling down on us.

Alcobaca monastery cloister

I’m a sucker for cloister walkways of medieval monasteries.

I also knew better than to ask the hotel clerk in the mountain village of Manteigas about the routes we were planning to hike, but I did anyway. Locals, particularly those who may be inconvenienced by the trouble you get yourself in, will always try to steer to you to the safest option no matter how hard you try to convince them of your credentials. Boring! Thanks to a very helpful GPS-enabled map app and available trail descriptions and maps, I was able to narrow our day of hiking in Serra da Estrella Nature Park down to three options. The clerk confirmed that yes, the route I wanted to do – the only one with the 5-star difficulty rating — was the most scenic, but it was also overgrown, very hard to follow, and just two weeks ago an Italian couple staying at his hotel had to be rescued. He tried his best to steer me onto other shorter routes that held little interest, not realizing he was only increasing my desire with each word of warning. He also made the mistake of doubting Kristin’s abilities.

We'd be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

We’d be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

The twisty, cliffside drive to the trailhead – and ensuing race back down six hours later – were the highlights of the day. Those hours in between, spent hiking the Central Massif Route, were a tangle of slow-going searches for rock cairns and barely-visible trail blazes under a hundred-degree sun.

With the car parked at the highest point in mainland Portugal (the Azore Islands boast the country’s highest elevation), we followed the map out onto a rock-litter scrubland some 6,000 feet above sea level. There wasn’t a tree taller than myself as far as I could see. Nor was there any significant evidence of a trail. We followed the GPS track as best we could, stepping around cowpies and scampering down boulders, periodically encountering remnants of a trail here, a rock cairn there. We were making progress and eventually came to a trail sign. The route we wanted descended into a wide glacial valley from once-upon-a-time and down we went.

The scenery wasn’t really all that spectacular (though I admit it’s hard to impress those of us lucky to call the Pacific Northwest our backyard) but the route-finding difficulty lived up to the clerk’s warning. And though the jumble of rocks and bushes may not have been tall enough to provide respite from the searing sun, they were certainly tall enough to hide the cairns and blazes.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat. Anybody see a cairn?

The wildfires in this part of Portugal were to the north of us – out of sight and out of smell – but they were on our minds all the same. We weren’t so much hiking as we were swimming across a hillside of knee-high grass as dry as a Hindenburg-era newspaper impaled on a saguaro cactus. Down, down we went, ever so slowly into the valley, trying our best not to slip on the grass. Trying so hard to stay on the rocks for traction, all the while wondering if sneakers-upon-granite could produce a spark. I tumbled once, rolling sideways off the ledge of a rock, fortunately landing on two uninjured feet, straddling a shrub. I heard the camera draped around my neck clink off a rock as I rolled and immediately panicked. One spark would be all it took.

There was a lake in the distance but zero chance of reaching it before a fire would overtake us. I put the camera in my backpack and distracted myself by wondering if the trekking poles we left at home could cause a spark.

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

We eventually crossed a broad grazing land at the far end of the valley and though the route was supposed to continue up and over the shoulder of a mountain, we could find no evidence of it doing so. After several back-and-forth searches for cairns and footprints, we had had enough. The highlights were behind us and the trail was far too much hassle with too little reward. So we followed a connector trail down a very steep hillside to one of the most popular routes in the park – the Glacier Route. The 17 km route led from the upper trailhead down to the village of Manteigas where we were staying, roughly paralleling the wonderfully windy road we drove up. And though we were able to hitchhike a little of the way back to the car, we ultimately found ourselves walking several miles along the side of the road to the car.

The thirteen miles we hiked took nearly six hours. The beer and ice cream at the summit restaurant almost made it worth it. The drive back down certainly did.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town, after the wind had extinguished most of the candles.

We slept soundly that night despite live music echoing off our hotel until 2am for the second night in a row. Though it was a weekday, it was the culmination of a two-week Catholic celebration of the Lady of Grace (Lady of Miracles, some say). The prior night we watched as thousands of devotees marched in a candlelit procession through the streets of Manteigas as four women carried a large statue through town. An orchestra and live rock band played through the night as festival goers enjoyed plentiful meat, wine, and beer for token prices.

Sipping Our Way Along the Douro

Portugal didn’t find its way into our basket of travel dreams because we wanted to see Lisbon or go hiking in the mountains, as fun as those things were. Nor do we have any interest in joining the throngs of sun worshipers in Algarve. No, it landed in the basket because many years ago I viewed a travel show about wine that culminated with a segment on Porto and the famed vineyards of the Douro River Valley. If I was to return to Portugal in the future, I would spend the entire time in the Douro.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The Douro River spills into the Atlantic at Porto, only the second largest city in Portugal, but certainly the most photogenic. And the river that flows past its hilly, multi-colored structures, pours out of a massive network of terraced vineyards where dozens of grape varieties are grown, turned into wine, and shipped throughout the world. To visit the Douro is to be both awed by the scenery and overwhelmed by the options of wine tastings. And though September is harvest time and the busiest tourist season of the year for the vineyards and cellars of the Douro, the crowds were manageable.

Porto skyline.

The beautiful Porto.

And so we spent our final days sipping port, enjoying the view from the villa-turned-guesthouse we booked in Mesao Frio, and watching the river flow by. In Porto, we wandered the alleys and streets, shopped at a street market, attended a free outdoor concert with the Portuguese Philharmonic Orchestra, walked the surfer’s beach and ate grilled sardines, drank more wine and port than we care to admit, and fell in love with a city that was every bit as beautiful as it seemed on the small screen all those years ago. A city I probably won’t return to in this life, but one I’ll remember fondly all the same.

It wouldn't be a European TFG post without a few bikes in the midst.

It wouldn’t be a TFG post from Europe without a few bikes shown.

 

 

26 August, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #2

Earlier this spring I posted a quick rundown of some of the hikes we had so far done in Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book (see here). Though we’re nowhere close to having gone through the entire guide — a book that represents a small fraction of the boundless hiking opportunities in Washington — we did check quite a few more off the list. Some we did as part of the overnight backpacking trip chronicled here; others were part of our recent Enchantment Traverse.

Now that summer is winding down, we expect to get out even more. Nothing stokes the fire of my passion for the outdoors like the coming autumn weather. We’re still dealing with some unusually warm 90-degree days here in western Washington, but I expect the weather to break by the time we get home from Portugal in a couple weeks. There’s still a few higher elevation hikes we hope to get in before the snows return.  But enough about that, on to the next installment…

Puget Sound Lowlands

We didn’t plan on doing any more of the lowland hikes once the weather started warming up, but one day we just felt like going for a run — and wanted an excuse to stop at a pizza place we like. So back to the Everett area we went…

Spencer Island (Hike #9)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Pavement, Grass, Woodchip

Verdict: Great for locals or bird watchers.

Spencer Island Bridge

The jacknife bridge heading out to Spencer Island. Photo by HikeOfTheWeek.com

The actual Spencer Island trail is a short soft-surface lollipop hike on an island in the Snohomish River estuary, just east of Everett. We parked along the river and ran the multi-use paved Langus Riverfront Trail two miles then crossed a small pedestrian bridge to the island. The trail simply loops around the southern tip of Spencer Island, winding along cattails and making its way back across the island on a levee. There’s some nice viewpoints for you to see the Cascades and plenty of egrets and herons to spot (and the odd turtle or two). We were there to get a workout in so no photos. I doubt we’d ever return, as there’s just too many options closer to home.

Skykomish River Valley

While the upper elevation trails slowly melted out from their winter burial, we made a few trips to the western slope of Stevens  Pass, for a fewer mid-elevation hikes to alpine lakes.

Greider Lakes (Hike #12)

Distance: 8.6 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Steep, crowded, but a worthy hike to a scenic lake.

Boulder Lake (Hike #13)

Distance: 13.8 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Overgrown, un-maintained, and technically closed, but the prettier of the two lakes.

Boulder Creek Bridge

Kristin crossing the technically-closed, hope-it-doesn’t-collapse Boulder Creek Bridge.

We combined these two hikes into one lengthy trail run of about 19 miles or so. It made for a long day, especially since the Boulder Lake trail is technically closed. The bridge across Boulder Creek had been blocked off, the decking and railings removed, and the trail beyond it in a complete state of abandon. Nevertheless, after much hemming and hawing on the banks of the impassable creek, we decided to risk it. Though Boulder Lake was certainly a worthy destination, it wasn’t worth the miles of rock, blowdown, and overgrown trail we had to deal with to reach it. Doing Greider Lake after Boulder Lake was a test of mental and physical endurance. And patience — there’s an awful lot of people that hike to Greider Lake. A nice hike, but there are better nearby, such as…

Bridal Veil Falls & Serene Lake (Hike #16)

Distance: 9 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A must-do early summer hike.

Lake Serene

Lake Serene has to be one of the most beautiful, lower elevation alpine lakes in western WA.

This was another combo hike that we decided to “run” that could actually be done separately. The mountains around here are filled with beautiful cliff-ringed, snow-fed alpine lakes, but Lake Serene was absolutely one of our favorites. Getting there isn’t easy. The climb up to the lake gets incredibly steep and is mainly a staircase for a mile long stretch that climbs nearly a thousand feet in that span. One thing to be sure, there will be ample two- and four-legged companions to keep you company. This hike is very popular. But for good reason. Fortunately, many people choose to go only as far as the waterfall. We hit the lake first, passing the base of the falls on our way, and then detoured up to the top of the falls (you can practically walk out over the edge… and chance death if you’d like) on the return. The climb to the top of the falls is another half-mile, very steep trail, but the falls are quite pretty. I do believe Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls will become an annual hike for us going forward.

Wenatchee River Valley

I flew home from Vancouver, BC on a Friday night, packed my gear, and drove out to Leavenworth an hour later so we could finally, after 14 years in the PNW, complete one of the most beautiful hikes in the region. The following two entries make up the two ends of the traverse, but miss the best part in my opinion.

Snow Lakes (Hike #56)

Distance: 13 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Unless you’re descending from the Enchantments, do Colchuck instead.

Colchuck Lake (Hike #57)

Distance: 8.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Absolutely worth doing, even just as an out-and-back.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake towards Aasgard Pass and the way up into the Enchantments.

Our 20-mile traverse began with a hike up to Colchuck Lake. It’s not a particularly challenging hike and the lake offers excellent swimming opportunities, ample (permit-only) backcountry camping, and a gentle descent back to the trailhead. It’s absolutely worth doing as a day-hike, even if you don’t intend to climb Aasgard Pass and do the traverse. The other end of that traverse descends from Snow Lakes. I would NEVER hike up that trail unless I was training to climb Mt. Rainier. Let me put it this way: I hated descending from Snow Lakes. It’s very steep (roughly 4,000 feet in six miles) and can be annoyingly rocky in spots. Now, this isn’t to say that the Snow Lakes area isn’t very pretty. It is. But you will never catch me coming up from that direction. Given that Colchuck (and several others) are just a little further up Icicle Creek road, I don’t know why you’d use this for a day-hike.

Blewett Pass

Of all the hikes we’ve been doing from this book, the Blewett Pass trails are probably the closest to our home. They’re also unique in that , though east of the mountains, they still have that rugged Cascade mountain feel we west-siders expect, but with drier conditions.

Ingalls Creek (Hike #116)

Distance: 11 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Not unless you really enjoy climbing over fallen trees.

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from Ingalls Creek trail.

We hiked several miles of the Ingalls Creek trail during our overnight hike in the Teanaway Valley, hiking the section from Cascade Creek to Fourth Creek. I cannot begin to tell you how many dozens (hundreds?) of blowdowns we had to climb over. The Ingalls Creek trail runs along the namesake creek, at the base of the south side of the Enchantments. It’s a very pretty hike, particularly as recent forest fires have yielded clearer views at Sherpa Peak and the Stuart Range due north of the trail, but it appears to get very little attention from volunteer groups or the Forest Service. Trip reports on sites like WTA.org suggest that few hikers continue up the trail beyond Falls Creek (downstream of where we were).

Naneum Meadow (Hike #119)

Distance: 7 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pretty meadow, but a rough drive.

Mount Lillian (Hike #120)

Distance: 7.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail, Double-Track

Verdict: Great views across to the Stuart Range, fun geology.

Mount Lillian hoodoos

Kristin running past the hoodoos near Mount Lillian.

We combined these two routes in a 13-mile loop that proved a bit too rocky, loose, and steep for us to run much of. But it was totally worth it, despite me bonking halfway through worst than I had in years. The Mount Lillian area offers great views across to the Stuart Range and snow-capped mountains, all while switchbacking your way past sandstone hoodoos and other geologic oddities. I can’t say the portion of the trail connecting Naneum Meadow with Mount Lillian was terribly fun to run, but it was scenic, even with the scars of wildfire evident everywhere. You’ll actually pass several meadows in this area and the chance of spotting elk is always present. As is finding some morel mushrooms if you got in May. Some of the trails have been torn up a bit from moto usage (quads and dirt bikes) but the area sees very little use on account of the rough forest roads one has to navigate to reach the trailhead. We actually flatted on the way back out, forcing me to put the spare tire on when we got onto pavement.

Wenatchee

I’ve mountain biked this next trail multiple times and always felt bad for never exposing Kristin to the beauty of the area. This year, after riding amongst the wildflowers with a large group of fellow mountain bikers, I returned with Kristin the following weekend and hit peak-bloom.

Sage Hills (Hike #122)

Distance: 10 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside trails.

Verdict: A must-do the third week of April.

balsam root

Sage Hills area covered in balsam root.

We skipped the book’s 5.5 mile route in favor of the ten-mile loop I mountain biked the prior weekend, making sure to climb all the way to the top of the area for the most wildflowers. A lot of us try to ride Sage Hills every April, but I had never seen the wildflowers blooming like they did when we went running. The fields were blanketed in balsam root, lupine, and indian paintrbrush, among others I forget the names of. And of course, the area smells of sage. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking a hike (a hilly one, mind you) along a yellow-painted hillside, then head to Wenatchee in mid-April and hike Sage Hills. It’s worth the 2+ hour drive from the Seattle area.

8 August, 2016

Traversing the Enchantments

I hadn’t seen a cairn in at least ten minutes. But there were boot tracks, and I knew we weren’t lost. The trail had to be down there somewhere. Still, this provided little comfort as I stared down a vertical cliff, wondering how we were going to descend from a ledge we shouldn’t have come to. We stepped and dropped and scrambled our way to what appeared to be a dead-end. Going down wasn’t an option; going back up the way we came was a task I’d rather not consider. As I grabbed the branch of an alpine larch for balance and swung around the cliff, trying not to look down and hoping Kristin could make the maneuver, it dawned on me that perhaps we shouldn’t have waited so long to do this hike.

For twelve years we’d been putting off this bucket-list hike. My, how it would have been easier when we were younger. Fitter.

For fourteen years we’ve lived a short two hours from one of the most beautiful hikes in Washington state, if not the entire country. And yet here we were, finally, for the first time. How many times have we pushed it off on account of me wanting to go mountain biking or Kristin going to visit family or one of us being on a business trip. Or because we didn’t have a permit or didn’t want to go without the dogs. The excuses were endless. I spent the last week in Vancouver, BC for work and only returned home Friday evening. We pulled into an overpriced Howard Johnson near the trailhead late Friday night after a short detour home so I could pack. And the only reason we did was because the motel was paid for, else we may have canceled again. Sometimes you just have to commit.

Trekking Aasgard Pass

The shuttle deposited us at the wrong trailhead, leaving us with an additional three-quarter mile walk up the road. None of us in the truck realized until the driver had already left. It served as a nice warm-up before the uphill hike to Colchuck Lake, a turquoise gem we had hiked to once before for an afternoon swim with a visiting cousin.  I remember then looking across the lake at the vertical granite wall known as Aasgard Pass and thrilling at the thought of finally, one of these days, cresting the pass and taking in the views of the Enchantment Basin beyond.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake to Aasgard Pass, left of Dragontail Peak.

Guidebook author Craig Romano has this to say about Aasgard Pass:

Beyond the lake, the way continues as a climber’s route to 7800-foot Aasgard Pass. Only experienced and extremely fit off-trail travelers should consider attempting this taxing and potentially dangerous climb involving 2200 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile.

Looking across the lake this time, knowing where we were headed, I was ecstatic. We were finally going to do it. But did it always look so steep? The closer we got to the start of the climb, the more the butterflies began to flutter. And the further the top seemed. I’m not sure what I expected, but the boulder fields and drifting piles of moondust made the going even slower than I had expected. Just getting around the lake to the beginning of the climb was an ordeal. Cairns (piles of rocks) marked a suggested route up the pass, but there is no trail nor one right way to go. Boot tracks can be found zigzagging across the scree slope in myriad directions. The climb was slow going, sketchy at times, and occasionally puzzling.

Aasgard Pass

Kristin roughly two-thirds of the way up Aasgard Pass.

Rock climbers scaled a nearby spire. Granite boulders the size of buses littered the hillside. Remnant fields of snow and trickles of meltwater added to the scenery and the challenge. This was alpine trekking like we had never experienced it before. And two hours after leaving the shores of Lake Colchuck, we reached the top. Two hours of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other toil brought us up the 40% grade.

And it was absolutely worth it.

Isolation Lake

Kristin tasting the rainbow in a slice of heaven.

The Enchantment Lakes Basin

Perched high atop a mountain-ringed plateau in central Washington lies the Enchantments. A basin home to some two-dozen turquoise lakes with names like Inspiration, Perfection, Tranquil, and Crystal, it is the crown jewel of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. And it was in danger of being loved to death. A permit system now regulates overnight stays in the area during the peak summer months — and permits can be very hard to get for those who don’t plan months in advance. Fortunately for those with the fitness (or misguided confidence), the 19-mile trek across the Enchantments from one end to the other can be done without a permit, provided you complete the route in a single day.

mountain goat

Mountain goat frolicking on the rocks near our lunch spot.

It is not a place one wants to hurry through. Dozens of sparkling lakes dot the landscape amid fields of snow and endless outcrops of glittery granite. We took a seat on the banks of Isolation Lake and alternated bites of our sandwiches with mouthfuls of Skittles and dried fruit, all the while snapping countless photos. The lakes, the mountains, the goats and the marmots. Every direction a new and interesting sight.

Enchantment Basin

A view from the trail into one of the lower lakes.

Being One with the Mountain Goats

Despite the lake’s name, we weren’t alone. There were some other hikers, for sure, but people tend to get pretty spread out in such a massive landscape. No, those lingering within earshot were not human. Mountain goats grazed mere yards away. A baby goat cried to its mama. Two nearby goats scampered along the rocks. Others walked ahead on the trail. I had missed a chance to photograph a mountain goat some fourteen years ago after nearly walking right into one on the McClellan Butte trail and I wasn’t going to miss my chance again. The mountain goats proved to be accommodating models.

Enchantment Basin

Three hikers heading in the opposite direction traverse the upper basin.

Though the majority of the elevation gain was behind us, we still had some twelve miles to go. We could have spent days soaking in the views, but we had to keep moving. The crossing typically takes between ten and twelve hours for those of similar ability and we wanted to avoid finishing in the dark (though we did have headlamps with us, just in case).

Enchantment Lakes

Kristin crossing a snow field in the upper Enchantments.

The thing we quickly realized about this hike is that the elevation profile is misleading. Sure, the route is primarily flat and then steeply downhill once you’re past Aasgard Pass, but the surface is highly technical. The eight miles through the basin and down towards Snow Lake are extremely rocky, dotted with lingering snow fields, and require periodic scrambling. The trekking poles we carried alternated between essential and hindrance, as we often needed to use our hands for grip on the too-steep terrain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is a major comfort knowing how capable Kristin is when it comes to outdoor travel. Yet, this route was pushing the limits of our comfort zone.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

 

Stay low and try not to fall.

Stay low and try not to fall.

Twelve miles and some eight hours into the hike, we were ready to have it over with. The views were amazing, we saw ample wildlife — marmots, chipmunks, and at least two dozen mountain goats — but the terrain soon wore us down. Eleven hours of walking on granite soon had our feet hot and sore. Blisters formed on my pinky toes, and the stress of worrying about our footing and the precarious nature of the trail exhausted our minds. We spent the final five miles descending some three thousand feet on aching feet and wondering when and if we’d ever do this again.

mountain goat follows hiker

This particular goat followed us for a while.

I can’t answer that. Not yet anyway. I’d like to think we’ll return again in the future for an overnight hike. After all, there is so much up there that we hadn’t seen yet. And I really can’t think of anywhere I’ve been that is more beautiful. The photos, as impressive as I think they came out, don’t do the place justice. The landscape is just too big, the colors too stark, to fit in these little images. But if I learned anything, I now know not to underestimate the difficulty of this hike. It’s far harder than its measurements suggest. 19 miles and 5000 feet of climbing may not sound that hard, but this trip took every bit of eleven hours to complete with a modest amount of down time. Chew on that before you tackle it. And then have a great time.

Some parts of the descent made for some interesting moments.

Some parts of the descent were more interesting than others.

 

Perfection Lake

Hiking alongside Perfection Lake before beginning the descent.

12 April, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #1

Long before embarking on a two year cycling odyssey, prior to our amassing a stable of nine different bicycles (now only three), and before my love affair with mountain biking, we were hikers. Kristin and I stole away whenever we could during our college years to go backpacking. It wasn’t easy with my Saturdays being spent with the track team, not to mention our studies, but the Appalachian Trail ran just twenty miles from our campus in eastern Pennsylvania and we took advantage of it as often as we could. It wasn’t long before we had sectioned nearly 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail, biting off scenic chunks in North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, and, of course, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, our stomping grounds.

Hiking gave way to mountain biking and trail running over the years, but something unexpected happened after our bike tour: I wanted to go hiking. It wasn’t that I was tired of cycling — I’ve been mountain biking three to four times a week lately — but something else entirely. Something unexpected.

I missed our time together.

Spending 21 months with someone, virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week without interruption, can be a lot to get used to. It was. There were days we now joke about, in which we simply wanted to go eight hours without seeing one another. Please! The best birthday gift she ever gave me was a half-day of freedom to wander Paris without her. And for her without me.

We had our moments when we argued and yelled and occasionally cursed at one another (usually on a really hilly ride in hundred-degree heat or intense cold and freezing rain) and this excessive amount of togetherness is often the first thing married couples ask us about when they learn of our trip. But for every bit as challenging as that was, it’s been equally difficult readjusting to the opposite: seeing that same person for just a few hours each night is no longer enough.

Enter hiking. We picked up a copy of Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book, an excellent guidebook containing maps and directions and information for 125 different day hikes stretching from Whidbey Island to the town of Wenatchee and north to Chelan, essentially, a slightly north-of-center tract across the state from the coast to just east of the mountains, in apple country. I have a bin filled with dozens of trail maps for all over the state, but my knowledge of the trails along Highway 2 is comparatively lacking, given that we have always lived along I-90, the other major east-west route in western Washington.

Most of the really good hikes in Washington are buried under snow for seven months of the year, which raises another reason for buying this book: it contains a number of lowland and island hikes, many we hadn’t done before (much of our exploration has tended to be where it is legal to mountain bike). So we started going hiking — and sometimes trail running — once every weekend with that thought that it would be nice to check off each of the hikes in this book in a calendar year. We’ve done a couple of two-a-days and even spent a weekend away on Whidbey Island in which we hiked four separate trails in the book. Some are quite short, but we hope to be able to link together several of the trails into longer loops as the weather improves and the snow melts.

Below are some thoughts on the day hikes we’ve done so far, along with recommendations for those we feel are worth doing. The conversations we have and the dreams and plans we share during those hikes will remain private. For now…

Whidbey Island

Normally when we go to Whidbey Island it’s to go mountain biking and trail running at Fort Ebey State Park or to gawk at the bridge at Deception Pass. These other hikes were a first for us.

Double Bluff (Hike #1)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Sand and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Best left to the local dog walkers.

Double Bluff Whidbey Island

The rocky far end of the Double Bluff beach walk.

The hike is a flat four-mile hike (out and back) along the beach. It’s a fine hike for locals and very popular with dog owners as the dogs can safely run off-leash at the base of a bluff, but I wouldn’t make a point of walking this route again, given the nicer walk at Ebey’s Landing. That said, the beach at Double Bluff has better footing than the one at Ebey Landing so those with walking difficulty should consider it. It is scenic, just not as scenic as some of the others.

South Whidbey State Park (Hike #2)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path

Verdict: Do it for the old-growth.

western red cedar old growth

Western Red Cedar over 500 years old and saved from logging in the 70s by a couple of literal “tree huggers”.

This short hike on the inland side of the road loops past several amazing old-growth trees, including a Western Red Cedar over 500 years old. It can be muddy in spots (we were there in February) and the walk through the upland part of the park is along an old wagon road with younger alder trees and not entirely worth the effort, but it is a nice, small park with a very attractive forest.

Greenbank Farm (Hike #3)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Grassland

Verdict: Worth a visit while you wait for the galleries to open.

Greenbank farm.

View of the farm and bay from the grassy ridge.

A network of trails looping through the forest and across the grassy ridge provide a nice place to take a stroll before or after your visit to the galleries and cafe at the Greenbank Farm complex. Views of the water and an opportunity for off-leash dog play are abundant. The forest isn’t particularly pretty, but the grassy area is quite nice. It’s worth stopping, even if only to stretch your legs.

Ebey’s Landing (Hike #4)

Distance: 5.6 miles

Surface: Sandy Trail and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Arguably the best hike on Whidbey Island!

Ebey's Landing

Kristin along the bluff at Ebey’s Landing.

If we were to do this hike again, we wouldn’t bother descending to the beach as the cobble/gravel surface made for a very unpleasant 2.5 mile return trip. Instead, we’d simply stay on the bluff where the trail begins. Follow the bluff northward for wonderful views of the beach below and the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound. Combine this hike with a trip to Coupeville for lunch!

Goose Rock (Hike #5)

Distance: 2.5 miles

Surface: Hilly Forest Path

Verdict: Worth the effort!

Goose Rock trail.

The steep path up Goose Rock near Deception Pass.

The climb up to the bridge provides some great views of Deception Pass and the forested trail that loops around — and then over — Goose Rock is very scenic. The switchbacks up to Goose Rock are steep (400 foot climb in 0.4 miles), but the views are worth the effort. It was quite windy and cold atop Goose Rock when we went in March so bring a coat if you want to linger.

Hoypus Point (Hike #6)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Paved Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

View of Deception pass.

Looking across to Goose Rock from Hoypus Point Trail.

The closed-to-vehicles paved path that heads to Hoypus Point is a lovely mile-long trail offers plenty of majestic trees, waterfront views, and benches to enjoy. The trail that loops through the forest was exceedingly muddy in spots and relatively forgettable, save for a few areas of larger second-growth trees and towering firs and cedars.

Skykomish River Valley

We’ve never done any hiking along Highway 2 west of Steven’s Pass before. We were happy to have this guidebook motivate us to check it out.

Wallace Falls (Hike #14)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Exceptionally beautiful falls, but very crowded

Wallace Lake (Hike #15)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pleasant hike without the crowds

Wallace Falls.

Wallace Falls is certainly worth the effort (and the crowds).

We combined Wallace Falls and Wallace Lake into a single 10+ mile hike. We chose to do this on a cloudy day in early March when the falls were at their most impressive. Several hundred other people chose to do the same. It was quite surprising how crowded the trail was given the steepness of the terrain, but the view of the falls more than makes up for the extra people. As crowded as the hike to the falls was, the hike to the lake on the Greg Ball trail was every bit as empty. We enjoyed a very peaceful walk through a beautiful forest en route to the lake, only to have the rain start when we got there. These two hikes can be looped with a road, but we did them as a “Y”. Both are worth doing, but next time I’d go during mid-week.

Wenatchee River Valley

We did these next two in a single day and then went to Leavenworth for lunch and some light shopping.

Tumwater Pipeline Trail (Hike #52)

Distance: 2.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

This trail offers excellent views of the Wenatchee River and, in the spring, you’ll be able to watch some of the area kayakers having a blast in the meltwater. The trail crosses a water-logged bridge and then follows a rocky path along the side of a hill upstream for about a mile before seemingly petering out. It’s popular with dog walkers and those looking to stretch their legs before driving home.

Wenatchee River in spring.

Wenatchee River from the Tumwater Pipeline Trail, just beyond the bridge.

Peshastin Pinnacles (Hike #53)

Distance: 1.5 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside

Verdict: Leave it to the climbers

Peshastin Pinnacles outside of Cashmere is a postage-stamp of a park with several towering sandstone outcrops that are very popular with rock climbers. The trails that wind around the pinnacles are very steep, sandy, and not enjoyable to hike on. To be honest, I have no idea why this is even in the guidebook.

Peshastin Pinnacles

Peshastin Pinnacles are scenic, but not great for hiking.