|First Mt Jefferson sighting|
Bisected by the Pacific Crest Trail, access can be gained from several trailheads. However, last summer's Whitewater fire came perilously close to this scenic paradise, and although it was luckily spared, the most common trail access was not. With the Whitewater Trail closed, I researched my other options. Number one - I could follow the PCT south from Breitenbush Lake over Jefferson Park Ridge, but reaching this trailhead involved a long drive over a truly terrible road. Number two, I could access via the Woodpecker Trail, but that involved a perilous creek crossing. Not wanting to sacrifice my car or my body, I instead opted for Number three - using the South Breitenbush Trail (not be confused with Breitenbush Lake) to hike in from the west. Although road access to this trailhead was good, I faced a grueling 6 mile, 3000 foot climb. Usually a dayhiker, I'd never carried a loaded overnight backpack this far. Would I be up to the task?
|Paintbrush along a tiny stream|
Commitments that Friday morning meant an early afternoon arrival to the trailhead. Shouldering my monster backpack (did I really pack that much stuff?) in the midday heat, I began to have my doubts. Could I make it all the way to Jefferson Park? Was I fit enough? Apprehensions swirling in my head provided such a distraction that I walked right by the trailhead's wilderness permit box. Luckily, I didn't get very far before memory kicked in and I doubled back to grab a permit. (I'd be thankful later that I did!)
|Lots of gentians!|
The South Breitenbush Trail started out in lovely, shaded woods, and I enjoyed the first mile on a wide, well-graded path. Then the track became steep and rocky. But I took it easy, making frequent stops for water and snacks. Slow and steady I reasoned, would get me to my destination.
Climbing through nondescript forest, this trail wasn't super-scenic. It did follow a babbling brook, and about four miles in offered a few sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. However I think lack of eye candy actually helped my progress. I set my mind in climbing mode and kept powering upward. Around mile 5, I passed a group of backpackers. Three couples were resting beside the trail with packs off. Both the men and women remarked how difficult the hike had been - much tougher than they'd realized. As I strode by, still feeling strong, my ego swelled.
|My sweet campsite at Russell Lake|
However, by the next mile, I was ready to be done. The terrain had flattened out into alpine tundra, so I knew I was getting close. The scenery had become quite lovely - Mt Jefferson began to rise above the forest, and a few straggler wildflowers bloomed nearby. But I was hot, tired, and my shoulders ached from carrying a heavy load. Wandering through the meadows, I kept looking for the PCT junction. My destination - Russell Lake - wasn't far from there.
|Fantastic reflections at the lake's east end|
Although several of the small lakes in Jefferson Park had designated campsites, I'd specifically picked Russell Lake. Some lovely online photos of Mt Jefferson reflecting in this lake's waters had inspired me to come here for some images of my own. There was only four campsites at Russell Lake, so I hoped to arrive in time to score one. I really didn't want to walk any further.
Finally about 5:00, I came upon the PCT junction. Yahoo! A short half mile later Russell Lake's lovely blue waters came into view. A large group was already set up at the campsite nearest to the trail and the second site was also taken. After inquiring from the people at campsite number three, I was directed to the far end of the lake. Lo and behold, site four was still available! I'd made it! My gps read 7.2 total miles, a new backpacking record.
|Mt Jefferson reflections were nearly perfect!|
Wearily, I dropped my pack and quickly set up camp. After getting my tent up and gear unpacked, it was time to explore. Grabbing my camera I started following a faint user trail around the lake. As I walked, Mt Jefferson began to rise above the treeline, and by the time I'd reached the opposite shore towered above the lake. And best of all - it was reflecting perfectly in Russell Lake's waters! This was the image I'd come to capture. Late afternoon sun was illuminating the mountain, lake, and surrounding shoreline in vivid hues. Conditions couldn't have been more perfect. (The photo above was barely edited)
After prowling the shoreline and taking a zillion photos, a grumbling stomach sent me back to my campsite for dinner. A fallen log made the perfect chair and I enjoyed my meal with a stellar view of the lake. As I was finishing up a ranger stopped by, and after a bit of small talk, asked me for my wilderness permit. Whew - good thing I'd doubled back to get one! (Although in my haste to get back on the trail, I'd forgotten to sign my copy, which gained me a lecture)
|The best reflections were at sunset|
After the ranger finally left, I relaxed at camp. Then I noticed the light beginning to fade. Uh oh, I didn't want to miss the sunset! Rustling up my camera gear once again, I quickly trekked back to the opposite shoreline.
|Alpenglow on Mt Jefferson|
The sunset was impressive. Fading light illuminated Mt Jefferson in lovely hues of pink. The lake's reflection was just as amazing as earlier (if not more). Trying to keep my pack weight down, I'd opted to bring a monopod over a full sized tripod, and it stabilized my camera perfectly. I stayed in place until the last bit of alpenglow disappeared from the mountain's summit. I returned to my campsite by the light of a full moon.
|Morning views from camp|
Although I'm usually a terrible sleeper when camping, the day's exertions wore me out enough that I crashed early. Except for a 1 am potty break, I snoozed through the night. I was so tired, I ended up sleeping late and missing sunrise. Crawling out of my tent, Mt Jefferson peeped through the trees, seeming to wish me a good morning.
|Fall colors beginning to show|
It was a chilly morning. Clear skies quickly deteriorated. Heavy clouds moved in and the wind kicked up. Catching the weather report the day before, I'd heard rain was predicted by evening. Although I'd considered spending two nights, the thought of packing up a wet tent was convincing enough that I decided to head back that afternoon.
But not before exploring more of this beautiful bit of wilderness! After breakfast, I wandered the meadows near Russell Lake. The huckleberry bushes and grasses were just beginning their fall color transition.
|Meadow full of gentians|
I took the PCT south a half mile to nearby Scout Lake. Although the summer wildflower show was nearly over, the late-season purple-blue gentians were in peak bloom. I passed by one meadow chock-full of their lovely flowers.
Scout Lake, the most popular camping destination in Jefferson Park, had nearly all of it's dozen designated campsites claimed. Following the lake's west shoreline, I gazed at the picture perfect views of Mt Jefferson (no wonder everyone wanted to camp here!). Then I ventured over to neighboring Bays Lake. Although the mountain views weren't as nice, this lake with it's numerous coves guaranteed more solitude. On my way back to camp, I ran into the backpacking couples I'd met on the trail yesterday. The group reported they'd survived the hike in - barely.
|More lovely gentians|
Well, it was time to see if I'd survive the hike out. Packing up my camp, strong winds whipped my tent around, making folding and stashing difficult. And for some reason, all my stuff didn't quite fit back into my backpack like before. (How do thru-hikers do it? I'm such a backpacking wimp!)
My muscles protested as I hefted my (heavier?) pack onto shoulders still sore from yesterday. But there was only one way to get back to my car. The trail was waiting, ready or not!
The only thing worse than climbing 3000 feet is descending that same amount. The rough, rocky trail which wasn't as bad going up, was much worse (for me anyway) coming back down. The heavy weight on my back altered my center of gravity, so I had to be careful not to let momentum pull me down quicker than I wanted to go. A fall on this rocky trail would most certainly cause injury. My quads became tired after continually acting as brakes for my body. And of course, I was weary from the previous day's hike in.
|Late summer blooms|
It was a long, tough slog but I made it back to my car in one piece. After gratefully slipping off my monster pack, I congratulated myself on making it up and back down the longest, hardest trail I'd backpacked so far. (Yes, some of you more experienced backpackers may scoff at me, but I was proud of myself!) Not only had I gained confidence to try another trip, I had a camera full of lovely mountain photographs for my effort. Russell Lake's magnificent sunset was worth every bit of toil.
(And I'm already plotting future backpacking adventures for next year......)