Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Indian Heaven Wilderness Solo Backpack

As most of my blog readers know, I'm a day hiker.  I've tried a few overnight backpacking trips here and there, but they were always with my husband and he carried the majority of the heavy stuff (such as our old-style tent that weighed as much as an anvil).  However I'd always been interested in trying a solo backpacking trip and decided to make this one of my summer goals.  But before attempting to carry "all the things" by my little 'ole self, I needed to invest in some lighter-weight gear.

Obligatory sign photo

First, I swapped my huge Thermarest mattress for an airy fold-up sleeping pad.  Then my hubby and I ditched our hefty ancient tent in favor of a brand-new lightweight backpacking shelter (tipping the scales at a mere three pounds!)

Now to pick a date and destination.  Wanting to get into the Indian Heaven Wilderness this year, (my very favorite huckleberry-picking place) I chose the Lemei Trail into Lake Wapiki.  One I'd yet to explore, the trail was only 3.5 miles into the lake, perfect for a newbie backpacker such as myself.  I had the Friday off before Labor Day Weekend, so decided upon a one-nighter (enabling an easy bail if things didn't work out).

Giant pinecone!

Carrying everything I'd need for an overnight campout was a bit daunting at first.  But I laid out all my stuff, ditched the things deemed "luxuries" and cut back on my food (I have a bad habit of packing way too much).  I kept telling myself it wasn't the end of the world if I forgot something, it was just for one night.

Huckleberry leaves just starting to turn

The day of my big adventure dawned, and I took my time packing up, leaving my house after the morning rush hour.  It was a 2 1/2 hour drive to the trailhead (long drive for a dayhike - probably one of the reasons I'd never done this trail).  Reaching the trailhead around noon, I gulped down a cliff bar and shouldered my huge backpack.  Man it was heavy!  Could I make it 3.5 miles (all uphill)?

Lake Wapiki

The trail started out in a pleasant ponderosa pine forest.  Giant pinecones and thick huckleberry bushes covered the ground, some showing ripe berries.  At least I wouldn't go hungry on my hike in!  Taking my time, I slowly covered ground, picking any especially juicy-looking berries.  Although the first half mile was relatively flat, it didn't take long for the ground to rise.  And not only was the elevation getting higher, so were the temperatures.

My home for the evening

The Lemei trail alternated between steep and moderate, but it was uphill all the way.  With temps approaching 90 degrees, this made for a hot, sweaty slog.  I found it amazing how much a bit of extra weight could slow a person down.  The 3.5 miles seemed to take way longer to cover than if I'd been carrying just a dayback.

Golden morning light on the trees

But finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the sign for Lake Wapiki came into view.  Gratefully, I took the short quarter mile spur trail through thick woods (still uphill) before finally reaching a clearing.  I'd made it!  The lovely blue-green waters of Lake Wapiki were a sight for sore eyes (and back!).

Early morning reflections

When I arrived, there was only one party of day hikers splashing in the waters.  It appeared I had my pick of campsites.  Following a user trail around the lake, I spotted a sweet site right off the shore.  Surrounded by trees for privacy, it had a lovely view of the entire forest-rimmed lake.  This would do nicely!

Light filtering through the trees

After setting up camp, I briefly considered hiking to nearby Lemei Rock, only a about mile and 800 additional feet of climbing.  But the hot climb to the lake had done me in, so I was more than content to sit by the lakeshore with my book, dipping my feet into it's cool waters.

Blue water beyond the forest

By late afternoon, several other backpackers began to trickle in, most passing by my campsite, eyeing it longingly.  I struck up a conversation with one nice couple (with a very friendly dog) and discovering they planned to stay all weekend, offered them my site once I left the following morning.  I also chatted with a young man who'd hiked in with his family, including twin 19-month old girls.  He said the toddlers had walked most of the 3 mile trek by themselves.  Impressive!

Mt Rainier

It was a lovely, warm summer evening.  By nightfall the lake's campsites were full of backpackers, but all were very quiet and well-behaved (even the little kids).  After watching the sun dip behind a forested ridge above the lake, I retired to my tent with book and headlamp.  It didn't take long before sleep found me.  Although I woke up a couple of times during the night (sleeping pads are never that comfortable), I wasn't ever scared.  I actually felt safer here at this wilderness lake than a car campground (during my most recent Mt Rainier solo trip I'd endured a neighboring campsite full of drunk, noisy people.)

Fall colors starting

The following morning, I woke before dawn.  Hoping to capture a spectacular sunrise over the lake, I waited, camera in hand, for the first light to break over the cliff encircling Lake Wapiki.  But unfortunately daybreak was a bust.  However, I did capture some lovely golden light on the trees and reflections in the lake's still waters.

Lemei Rock

After breakfast, I decided to take the quick trek to Lemei Rock before packing up and heading back.  It was a steep climb from the lake to a ridge high above.  The views down into Lake Wapiki were mighty fine, as were the appearances of both Mount Adams and Rainier.  Crimson huckleberry leaves added color to the forest - a reminder that autumn wasn't far away.

Mountain goat sighting!

Lemei Rock is the highest point in the Indian Heaven Wilderness.  This eroded volcanic plug towers 300 feet above the surrounding terrain.  Although some people are known to ascend this rock (apparently it's not a technical climb) I opted to gaze from below.  As I was staring at Lemei Rock's summit, I spied a small white patch.  Upon closer inspection I realized it was a mountain goat!  I'd never spotted one in the wild here before.  In order to save weight, the lone camera I'd brought was my new Fujifilm mirrorless camera with only an 18-55 lens.  Not nearly enough zoom to get a good shot, but of course I tried anyway. 

Oh well, at least I got to see a mountain goat.  Definitely the high point of my trip!

Lake Wapiki view from on high

After the excitement at Lemei Rock, I returned to Lake Wapiki, packed up my gear, and told the nice couple my campsite was all theirs.  Then I once again hefted my huge pack for the return trip.  At least this time my trek would be all downhill. 


It was late morning as I made my way back down the trail.  Since it was Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I met dozens of hikers on their way up, most toting huge backpacks.  One man, in addition to his large backpack, was also carrying his tent in one hand and a growler full of beer in the other!  With so many people heading into Lake Wapiki, I was glad for my decision not to stay another night.  It probably wouldn't be near as peaceful.

Mt Adams

Back at my car, I pointed it towards home via the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge.  I didn't know it then, but it was the last time I'd see the Gorge in all her green finery.  Not two hours after I passed through, a huge fire erupted, started by kids carelessly throwing fireworks into the forest.  The fire would rage for weeks burning a large portion of my favorite hiking trails, shut down Interstate 84, strand 150 hikers, and cause hundreds of people to flee their homes.

If that wasn't bad enough, the following morning I learned a second fire had started in the Indian Heaven Wilderness, only a few short miles from where I'd camped the previous night.  All the hikers and campers had to be evacuated, some via different trailheads from where they'd parked.  I thought about the people I'd met at Lake Wapiki the day before - the nice couple who I'd given my campsite and the family with toddlers - and hoped they'd been able to evacuate safely.

More lovely autumn hues

My first solo backpacking trip was a success!  Although hiking uphill in the heat had worn me out, (how do those PCT thru-hikers do it day after day?) I survived and felt very little soreness the following day (save for my still undiagnosed broken toe, which was mighty angry with me).  Although I wasn't able to fit in a second trip this year, I'm already planning future backpacking adventures for next season. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fort to Sea Trail

Every American knows the story of Lewis and Clark.  These famous explorers traveled into the unexplored west in search of a fabled "Northwest Passage."  Although this route was never found, these men did successfully reach the Pacific Ocean.  Their party wintered near what is now the NW Oregon coast, in a place they named "Fort Clatsop."

Lewis and Clark didn't have these nifty boardwalks

Many years later, the National Park Service recreated Fort Clatsop in a place believed to be close to it's original location.  During the snowless winter of 2015, I made a visit to the fort.  While browsing around, I discovered a trail existed that stretched from Ft. Clatsop to the Pacific ocean.  This 6.5-mile "Fort to Sea" Trail attempted to replicate the path Lewis and Clark's men took when traveling to the coast. 

Fort Clatsop replica

I'd always intended to return and hike this trail.  But compared to the Gorge and Cascade Mountains, it looked a little bit boring.  Plus I didn't want to do a round-trip journey of 13 miles. 

Then my blogging buddies Hans and Lisa said they'd be visiting nearby, and was I interested in a hike?

Clatsop Ridge viewpoint

Hans and Lisa live full time in their 5th wheel and travel the country.  You can follow their adventures on Metamorphosis Road.  They'd spent an entire summer journeying up the Oregon Coast, finally landing near Astoria in late August.

Lush coastal forest

A perfect chance to explore the Fort to Sea trail!  Plans were made to meet my friends and leave a vehicle at each end.  This enabled us to do a shuttle so we'd only have to hike the trail in one direction.

Lots of ferns and mossy trees

On the appointed day, I left hot, smoky Portland for the Oregon Coast's cool, cloudy skies.  After weeks of above-90 temperatures, the chilly weather was such a relief.  I met my friends at the Sunset Beach parking lot.  Hans and Lisa piled into my Subaru and we headed towards Fort Clatsop.

Genuine Oregon slugs!

Once at Ft. Clatsop, we did a quick tour of the rebuilt replica of the fort itself, and walked down to the Lewis and Clark river's banks.  But my friends were eager to explore the Fort to Sea Trail, so upon locating it's beginning, off we went!

Halfway point

Lewis and Clark's party made several trips to the Pacific Ocean, in search of salt and to trade with the local tribes.  This trail is thought to cross forest, fields, and dunes similar to those traveled by Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.

Forest transitioning to brown

However, the first section of trail traversed through this lovely coastal forest on a nice wooden boardwalk.  Hmmm....don't think the Corps of Discovery had that luxury!


My friends and I climbed about a mile and a half through dense woods before reaching Clatsop Point.  At 370 feet, this was the highest point of our trek.  Despite the cloudy skies, we did enjoy sweeping views of the nearby forest and hills.


From our lofty perch, the trail then descended down into a lovely coastal forest, full of lush ferns and huge mossy trees.  I even spotted a bit of wildlife - two huge slugs stuck to a fallen tree!

Our hikers pause to pick berries

Several other trails branched off from the main Fort to Sea path, and Hans, Lisa and I commented it would be fun to explore these on a future trip.  Our trail was wide, evenly graded, and well-signed.  There was even a restroom at the halfway point.  (An amenity I know wasn't around in Lewis and Clark's day!)

Lisa found a ripe one

Soon after, the forest began to transition into pastureland.  My friends and I crossed over a slough via a nice wooden bridge and found a large patch of ripe blackberries on the other side.  Those plump, deep purple berries looked too good to resist!

Hans has a mouth full of berries!

Let the picking begin!  Perfect for a quick snack.

Hwy 101 underpass

After the berry patch, we began hearing traffic noise.  Soon our path dipped under Highway 101 via a sturdy concrete tunnel.  (Of course, there was no traffic in Lewis and Clark's day, except maybe large herds of elk)

Winding through a grassy farmer's field

On the west side of the highway we found golden farmer's fields and a cute country church.

Cute country church

And more rivers and sloughs to cross.  Luckily the parks service had built some nice bridges (poor Lewis and Clark's men would've had to wade through all these water bodies).

Bridge over Skipanon River

In this area, the trail was wedged between farmer's fields, sometimes hemmed in by fences on both sides.  Not exactly a scenic place to hike....

Crossing stiles

And for some reason, we had to pass through a couple wooden stiles that appeared to be located along property lines.  Not sure of their purpose.  Maybe to keep cattle out?

Narrow trail between fields

Lovely arched bridge over slough area

But luckily, the flat barren field areas were relatively short, and before I knew it we came upon a lovely arched bridge spanning another slough.  This was my favorite bridge of the entire trail.


The slough below had a large patch of lilypads floating in it's water.

Hans strikes a hikers pose

Passing by a couple of tiny lakes, I noticed the forest was beginning to thin, and the soil was looking a bit more sandy.

The trees begin to thin

Then we passed by the parking area for Sunset Beach, and Hans and Lisa's truck.  Not much farther now!

Almost there!

The final leg of our journey was a short trek through tall beachgrass.  We could hear the roar of the waves, and Lisa spotted a couple of kites floating in the sky.

The mighty Pacific

Ocean in sight!  I wonder if this was the same view that greeted Lewis and Clark upon their arrival?

Waving beach grass and dreamy blue hills

Although I hadn't expected much, I came away mightily impressed with the Fort to Sea Trail.  It passed through an amazing coastal forest, over beautiful sloughs and creeks, and ended at a scenic, windswept beach.  Although an easy trek for us modern adventurers, it made me appreciate the difficulties Lewis and Clark's party endured just to obtain basic supplies.

Great to reconnect with blogging buddies while trekking a historic trail.  Now on to Astoria for an after-hike brew at one of their wonderful pubs!  (Sorry Lewis and Clark, you were 210 years too early)

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

"Sauntering" on the Naches Peak Loop

 (The adventure three recap from my late August trip to Mt Rainier National Park)

There's a John Muir quote making the rounds on Facebook where he states instead of hiking, people ought to "saunter" in the mountains.  Muir described mountains as holy land and felt visitors should pass through slowly and reverently.  I liked his quote so much I shared it on both my personal and blog Facebook page.  When it comes to sauntering through the mountains, I'm a pro.  (Ask my friends, they'll agree)  Probably most of us photographers are.

Mt Rainer and the White River

There's no finer place to saunter than Mt Rainier National Park's Naches Peak Loop.  An easy 5-mile path circling the alpine meadows above Chinook Pass, this trail is a contemplative hiker's (and photographer's) dream.

Flowers and morning smoke at Chinook Pass

This would make three consecutive days of hiking (er, sauntering) on my broken toe.  Could I do it?  After the previous day's mega-trek to Burroughs Mountain, not only was my toe sore, so were lots of other body parts.  But Naches Peak Loop was the final trail on my Mt Rainier NP "must hike" list, so I bucked up and swallowed more ibuprofen.  A short drive on winding park roads got me to Chinook Pass, the start of today's adventure.

Pink asters

Due to the Norse Peak Fire raging east of Mt Rainier, Hwy 410 was closed at Chinook Pass.  Luckily, the parking lot and restrooms were still open, as were nearby north-south trails.  All three days of my trip, I'd been fortunate to have clear skies as winds had pushed the fire's smoke eastward.  But from the trailhead parking area, I could see a thick layer of smoke hovering on the eastern horizon, now slowly drifting towards the park boundary.


The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs through Chinook Pass.  Approaching the beginning of my day's loop, I admired a stunning log bridge that transported PCT hikers over Hwy 410.  Which direction to begin the loop?  Counterclockwise towards Tipsoo Lake, or clockwise towards Naches Peak?  I really wanted to cross that cool bridge first, so clockwise it was!

PCT hiker bridge over Hwy 410

Since half of the Naches Peak Loop follows this famous trail, I ended up meeting a few PCT thru-hikers as I sauntered along.

More of the PCT

East of Chinook Pass, Washington Hwy 410 hugged the side of a tall, steep mountain.  After crossing the PCT hiker bridge, I climbed a rise that provided epic views of the entire road perched on the cliff.  Smoke was beginning to filter through a valley between the peaks, creating interesting light.

Smoke from the Norse Peak fire

Hundreds of mop-haired Western Pasque Flowers (or as I like to call them, "Hippy on a Stick") covered the nearby slopes.

Fluffy "Hippy on a Stick"

Although still early morning, the mercury was already beginning to rise.  Sweating, I trudged uphill as my path rounded the eastern edge of Naches Peak.

Unnamed tarn

About a mile from the trailhead, I passed by a pretty little tarn, framed by mountains on three sides.

Lots of fluffy seed pods

I took a short side trip to check out the lakelet (which, according to my guidebook, was unnamed).  Lots more fluffy "hippies" covered it's shoreline, while Naches Peak's pointy summit rose high above.

Naches Peak in the distance

From this lakelet, the PCT climbed upward to the top of a ridge.  This ridgetop, the highest point of the loop, boasted breathtaking views of Dewey Lake, far below.

Dewey Lake surrounded by misty mountains

Dewey Lake's blue surface sparkled in the morning sunlight.  Smoke trapped in the adjacent mountain valleys made for some stunning scenery.  And great photographs too!  I may or may not have sauntered here for awhile.

Sparkling Dewey Lake

From this marvelous high perch the PCT then descended past the park boundary until reaching a junction.  The PCT headed eastward to Dewey Lake, while the Naches Peak Trail continued westward towards Tipsoo Lake.  Dewey Lake looked so inviting, I briefly considered taking the short side trip to check it out.  But my feet and legs were tired from two straight days of hiking, so I stuck with the original plan and continued on the loop.

Fabulous Mt Rainier views on the hike's 2nd half

My guidebook said the Naches Peak Loop was known for amazing views of Mt Rainier.  So far I hadn't seen one glimpse of the famous peak.  But that all changed in a hurry.  Rounding the first bend, Mt Rainier was front and center, filling the sky.

Wildflowers beside the trail

Just when I thought the scenery couldn't be topped, it got better.  I passed another tiny tarn with a perfect reflection of Rainier in it's waters. 

Battered butterfly

A few more asters bloomed along the trail, accompanied by swarms of lovely butterflies drifting through the air, sometimes landing and posing for my camera.

Rainier peeking between the trees

And of course, the grand mountain keep peeking out around corners, and between trees.

Mountain views to the south

For a short while, the forest opened up and saunterers such as myself were treated to expansive panoramas of the adjacent mountains.  A group of backpackers passed by commenting "This is truly God's country."

A great view around every turn

The Naches Peak Loop is one of the most popular hikes in Mt Rainier National Park and on this hot, August Saturday I was rarely alone.  I was continually being passed in both directions by hikers (and saunterers) of all shapes, ages, and sizes - people toting huge backpacks, families with kids, and day hikers holding only a cell phone and water bottle.

Yakima Peak and one of the Tipsoo lakes

Finally my trail led down to the first of two Tipsoo Lakes.  Having photographed these last year, I was now in familiar territory.

Tipsoo lake

Last year I'd visited Mt Rainier NP in late July, when wildflowers were at their peak.  But by late August, only a few wilted asters and yellow flowers ringed the first Tipsoo Lake.  Still, it was a lovely setting.

Rainier reflection

After sauntering around the lake, taking in the sights (and having a long conversation with a shaggy bearded old man that claimed he was a Forest Service biologist), I finally crossed the road to the lower Tipsoo Lake.  Although the high noon light was super contrasty, I still tried to capture Mt Rainier reflecting in it's waters.

Purple aster field above Tipsoo lake

Above lower Tipsoo Lake, the slopes were carpeted with the last of the summer asters.  A huge purple spot, it was mighty impressive!

My return trail wound right through the flower fields.  More sauntering and photography ensued.

Flowers everywhere!

My journey's final leg, I climbed a steep path for a half mile until the Chinook Pass parking lot once again came into view.  Coming upon a PCT section hiker, I directed her to the lot below, where someone was providing "trail magic" for weary PCT hikers (looked mighty deluxe - cold drinks, food, and comfy chairs to rest in.)

Aster close-up

Although I'd only covered a grand total of five miles and 700 feet elevation gain, it had taken me most of the morning.  The ultimate saunter!  There was so much fantastic scenery to photograph, I just couldn't rush through.  

John Muir would've been proud.

(Read the entire John Muir quote here.)