This year’s backpacking season was one of short trips, being flexible, and changing plans. In March I was awarded a permit to backpack on the Big SEKI Loop in California in August. This 180 mile 10 day loop through Sequoia and Kings Canyon (SEKI) National Parks traverses the Great Western Divide and a section of the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails, plus a side trip to the summit of Mount Whitney. Unfortunately, this trip was canceled because of our cat Patches’ health challenges this summer. Shorter trips closer to home were needed through the summer, to be flexible so I could make it home quickly or cancel plans if Patches’ health went downhill.
So instead of training for a big trip, backpacking this summer was about exploring unknown areas close to home on short trips. Taking shorter trips also meant carrying less weight. The heaviest base weight I carried this summer (all carried gear minus food and fuel) was 10 pounds, with most trips in the 8 pound range. On my longest trip of 3 nights in length, that meant a total pack weight of 15 pounds or less, which included bear canister and ice axe.
2017 was a high snow year for the Cascades and the Olympics. Widespread snowfields lingered well into July in the high mountains, even as a record-long 56 day dry streak was well underway for Western Washington. The high runoff combined with plenty of sun made for a bountiful alpine flower season. All that dry, sunny weather also meant a long and active fire season all along the Pacific crest, from California to Oregon and Washington and far into British Columbia.
May and June – In the Rainshadow of the Olympics
The first few backpacks of the season started in May with short one-nighters into the mountains above Sequim – the center of the rain (and snow) shadow of Western Washington. The area around Blue Mountain and Deer Park campground above Sequim (before the road opens) provide relatively easy (and dry) tree line access next to a deep, forested valley (the upper Gray Wolf River valley). Marmot Pass and Mount Townsend are two other destinations near the Olympic rain shadow that usually open up to hiking in June that allow short, scenic one-night trips. Another enjoyable backpack takes the 14 mile Long Ridge Trail to the recently restored historic fire lookout at the summit.
July – The Olympic Interior
July was time to tread deeper into the Olympics as the snowfields continued to melt, making way for a burst of alpine flowers. It was also time to hike on some new ground I had been wanting to visit since moving to WA. One of the most scenic (and roughest) loop trails in the Northern Olympics starts from the highest trailhead in the Olympics (Obstruction Point) and visits the picturesque alpine basins of Grand Creek and Upper Cameron Creek. From there a primitive trail goes up and over Cameron Pass to the lonely flower gardens of Lost Pass. The trail then descends into the upper Dosewallips River valley for a while before climbing back up and over Gray Wolf Pass. After hiking down the long and poorly maintained Gray Wolf Pass trail, a trail climbs up to Deer Park and Blue Mountain. From there, the high and scenic Grand Ridge trail (the highest maintained trail in the Olympics) takes you back to Obstruction Point.
Perhaps the most popular backpack or long day hike in the Olympics is the Seven Lakes Basin and High Divide loop. This 19 mile loop starts at the iconic Sol Duc Falls and makes a high loop past Seven Lakes Basin and Bogachiel Peak (aka “bagel chip peak” per Ken G.). This loop can be extended another 6 miles by adding on the Cat Basin Primitive Trail, which passes through very scenic and relatively wild alpine country, past pretty Swimming Bear Lake and on the way to the Appleton Pass trail.
August to October – Exploring the PCT in the Cascades
By August it was time to take a rest from the Olympics and spend some time in the grand alpine playground of the Cascades. One of best hiking features of the Cascades is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT passes through over 500 miles of some of the best mountain scenery in Washington, most of it on well-maintained trail which is a joy to backpack on. This year wildfires closed at least one section of the WA PCT for a while and made much of the hiking season a smoky one.
One of the most spectacular sections of the WA PCT is Section J, which includes the Kendall Katwalk and the high alpine ridge that the PCT follows for over a dozen miles North of Interstate 90. Combining a 1.5 day hike of Section J with a 1.5 day hike on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie trail made for a scenic but smoky 65 mile, 3 day loop. One of the best parts of this trip was spending the last night at Goldmyer Hot Springs. This backcountry hot spring is maintained with a nice campground, bathrooms, filtered drinking water and a surprising “hot cave” that you can swim into – well worth the $20 to experience.
Another section of the WA PCT that’s hard to beat for its grand scenery, gently graded trail and abundance of golden larch trees in autumn is Section L, just North of Rainy Pass off of the North Cascades Highway 20. Due to nearby wildfires, Section L was at risk of being closed this September. But luckily, this section was kept open through the fires, allowing many through hikers to complete their 2650 mile PCT journey from the borders of Mexico to Canada. After hiking 44 miles North on Section L, you can pick up the Devils Pass and Jackita Ridge trails passing through the Pasayten Wilderness – all new country for me. This 70 mile, 3 day semi-loop trip included my longest day of backpacking so far – 30 miles in 11.5 hours from Rainy Pass to Harts Pass. This semi-loop required a 17 mile hitchhike along Hwy 20 to get back to the truck at Rainy Pass. The very next day, the first snows of the Fall season came to the mountains of Washington.
The third and last PCT section hike of the year was on the Northern part of Section H. This trip took advantage of the last two clear days before a strong Fall storm moved across the Cascades. This trip followed the Clear Lost and Coyote Trails (new ground) to the PCT at Elk Pass, then North along the PCT to White Pass. The second day of this trip brought freight train winds, cold temperatures, and descending clouds on the high peaks. Rather than spend a second night out in chilly, windy rain and snow, I hiked the whole way out to the trailhead (over an hour of night hiking by headlamp) so I could sleep under the insulated topper of my truck.
Late October – The Stark Beauty of Mt. Saint Helens
Most of the high Cascades and Olympics had up to 30 inches of snow from the last two Fall storms. The forecast showed a good weather window at the very end of October, with both clear skies and unusually warm temperatures. And fortunately, recent trip reports indicated that one particular alpine area of Washington had very little snow on the trials. So for the last backpack trip of the year, I visited the unique area of Mount Saint Helens.
The Woolit trail that circumnavigates Mount Saint Helens was an eye opening surprise – it quickly became one of my favorite trails the WA. Unlike most trails in WA of its length (34 mile by the shortest approach), the Woolit Tail spends most of its time near or above treeline, with long stretches of open, treeless alpine country. From the blast zone in the North to the lava fields in the South and to the crumbling, eroded valley crossings on the East and West, the trail provides beauty, challenge and close up views of recent volcanism on a grand scale.
Nearly the entire northern half of the Woolit Trail passes through the blast zone of the May 18, 1980 eruption. The unimaginable power of the eruption is on intimate display around every turn of the trail. All trees 10 miles to the North and nearly 20 miles East to West were felled by the initial 7 megaton blast of the eruption. The landslide that triggered the initial blast was the largest in recorded history. During the day’s eruptions, 0.7 cubic miles of material and 24 megatons of total energy was released from the mountain through lahars, pyroclastic flows, ash clouds and blasted debris, drastically changing the landscape on all sides of the peak.