Friday, August 31, 2018

Fighting the Crowds on Saddle Mtn

I don't know what I was thinking....

All week long the local hiking websites and social media had been buzzing about the fantastic mid-June wildflower bloom on Saddle Mountain (practically guaranteeing that everyone and his dog would go there).  So I'm not sure what possessed me to visit that following Sunday.

Sunshine breaks through the forest

Maybe it was the fantastic weather forecast, promising sunny skies.  Maybe it was the lure of colorful wildflower-filled slopes.  Maybe it was the fear of missing out on the yearly bloom.  Whatever the reason, I woke up that morning and after a bit of hemming and hawing (do I really want to brave the crowds?) finally pointed my car west towards the Coast Range.


About 10 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, this lumpy, saddle-shaped mountain is the highest point in northwest Oregon.  On clear days, views stretch wide from all directions, encompassing the ocean, Columbia River, Nehalem Bay, and several Cascade peaks, from Mt Jefferson to Mt St Helens.  From May to June Saddle Mountain's high meadows are a wildflower lover's paradise.

Wild iris

A steep 2.5 mile path takes hikers to the mountain's summit.  Because if it's relatively short length, this trail gives a lot of bang for the buck, and is therefore extremely popular. 

The views begin

Due to my at-home idling, I didn't reach the trailhead until well after 9.  By then all open spots in the State park's tiny lot were filled, and vehicles were beginning to line the entrance road.  Having driven 45-odd miles to get here (plus a windy 7-mile entrance road) I wasn't about to turn around and head home.  So I carefully maneuvered by Subie onto the entrance road's narrow shoulder, making sure no part of my car was sticking out into the blacktop.

Field of pink

Right from the trailhead, I found myself behind a group of young people.  I followed them for a short distance before becoming captivated by a lovely sunburst breaking through the dense alder forest.  Stopping to capture the moment, I had a few moments of solitude before another large group tromped by.

Close up

This trail begins climbing right away, and it wasn't long before I reached the first set of switchbacks.  Already I'd passed several groups, and had stepped aside to let a few other hikers get around me.  A group of women in their late 60s to early 70s caught up to me while I was taking a photo and they zipped on by like I was standing still!  Throughout the rest of the day we leapfrogged each other.  I'd pass them during a break, only to have those uber-fit ladies catch up and leave me in the dust every time.

Can you see the people way out there?

After a mile of climbing, my efforts began to be rewarded with stellar views.  Rounded foothills and summits of nearby mountains extended out to the horizon.  This being the Coast Range, many of the hills were patchworked with bare spots from clear-cut logging.

First look at Saddle Mtn summit

Not only great views, I began to see bunches of wildflowers dotting the trailsides.  Columbine, Larkspur, and wild iris were abundant in the lower elevations.  There were also huge patches of a small fuzzy pink flower, of which unfortunately I didn't know the name.

Curvy path to the top

About two miles in I came to the "saddle," a broad dip in between the mountain's two summits.  From this vantage the upper summit and the winding path to get there were laid out before my eyes.  At the saddle's apex, steep cliffs dropped away sharply.  I could peer straight down for a bird's-eye view of the parking lot, 1200 feet below.

Flowers growing everywhere!

Due to heavy use, erosion has taken a toll on the trail system here, especially Saddle Mountain's upper reaches.  To keep soil in place on these steep slopes, chicken wire has been installed over the pathways to the upper summit.  Posts and cables lining the trail attempt to keep people from straying into the fragile meadows.

The never-ending climb

At the saddle, the trail narrowed to a one-way path.  The huge volume of people heading in both directions led to a traffic jam, and I ended up waiting several minutes for things to clear.

Trailside color

Then I got behind a conga-line of people slowly trudging uphill.  The final half mile summit push is the trail's steepest part.  And it is steep!  It was interesting to watch the different hikers traverse this last leg.  Some folks marched right up like it was no problem (mostly younger and fitter ones).  Then there were people that looked like they never hiked (wearing non-hiking footwear and clothing, no backpack, and maybe carrying a water bottle) that appeared to be having a hard time.  I spied many families with younger kids, and some of the little ones weren't very happy.

Lots of eye candy

Luckily, the adjacent meadows were putting on a colorful show to distract hikers from their uphill misery.  I took advantage of the beauty and pulled over for many "photo" (ahem-rest) stops.

Can you spot the ocean?

A final climb up steep steps and I bounded onto Saddle Mountain's summit.  And boy, was it crowded!  People stood everywhere.  I'd hoped to claim a seat on the summit benches but they were full (the older, uber-fit hiking ladies had commandeered all of the available spots).  So I stood next to an open area by the railing and marveled at the panorama spread before me.

Summit views

I'd lucked out with a clear day.  The Pacific Ocean was a hazy blue line to the west.  I could see the town of Astoria, and it's long bridge spanning the Columbia River.  Adjacent green forests and patchwork-quilt clearcuts spread out below.  To the east, snow-capped summits of Mt St Helens and Mt Hood were visible.

Crowded summit

I ate a quick snack, and watched a continuous stream of people arrive at the summit.  It was getting crowded real fast.  And noisy too.  No quiet solitude here today!  After about 15 minutes I decided enough was enough.  Time to get out of here.

Lovely pink flower

The first steep stretch of trail from the summit was a tough descent.  I had to keep the brakes on (via quads and knees) and lean into my poles to keep from sliding onto my rear.  But once I'd reached the saddle again, it was an easy downhill trek from there.  I met tons of people climbing up, even more than earlier.  Good thing I hadn't waited any later in the day to do this hike.

Lots of butterflies, but I only managed to capture this one

By the time I reached my car, vehicles lined the entrance road for a half mile from the trailhead.  As I stowed my pack and removed my boots, passing cars eyed my parking spot.  High time to leave this madhouse!

Despite the overabundance of people, I was glad I'd made the trip.  The views were stellar and the wildflower show gorgeous as ever.  And although crowds on hiking trails can be annoying, I try to look at it this way - it's good that so many people are outside, getting exercise, and enjoying the great outdoors.

Stats:  5.2 miles round-trip, 1600 feet elevation gain

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Bonanza, Boulder Ridge, and Boring Brewery

Young and John are excellent trail companions.  Not only are they always up for a challenging trek, they also love a post-hike brew.  So when I hatched a plan to hike from the Bonanza Trailhead across Boulder Ridge to the Wildwood Recreation Site, my friends were all in.

Sign-eating tree!

I'd been wanting to do this hike for sometime, but being one-way it required a car shuttle.  So we took separate vehicles to the first trailhead at the Wildwood Recreation Site, a mere 15 miles from the town of Sandy.  I left my car in the Wildwood's spacious parking lot, and while we were at it, Young and I took advantage of their nice restroom (hot running water and a flush toilet!)  Then we both jumped into John's truck for the short drive to Bonanza Trailhead.

Lush forest

Using directions from both an online hiking site and my Sullivan book, I attempted to navigate John to the little-used Bonanza Trailhead.  It turned out to be hidden in a very rural residential neighborhood at the end of a primitive grassy goat path (I wouldn't even call it a road).  I'd heard parking was extremely tight, with only a small area to the left of a closed road designated as a permissible spot.  Luckily, John's was the first vehicle that day, so we claimed what appeared to be the only legal place to park.  At least I hoped so!  As my friends and I stepped onto the Bonanza trail, I crossed my fingers that his truck wouldn't get towed.

Moss was plentiful!

The first mile and a half of the Bonanza Trail was fairly flat, easy hiking.  We ambled through alder woods paralleling Cheeney Creek, a beautiful brook boasting some nice looking swimming holes.  But it wasn't warm enough yet for a dip, and besides there wasn't time for swimming.  We had some serious miles and climbing ahead of us - 6 miles and 3000 feet of elevation gain to the top of Huckleberry Mountain.

Stonecrop flower

At 1.6 miles, we left the creek for good and our climbing began!  The trail switchbacked through a drier forest.  I began to notice a few wildflowers, mostly yellow stonecrop.  I was really hoping to see rhododendrons, and hoped I hadn't missed the bloom.

Bonanza Mine tunnel

Another mile of climbing brought my friends and I to the long abandoned Bonanza Mine.  The only visible sign of mining activity was a tunnel blasted into the side of a hill.  John was curious enough to wander in the cavern, but Young and I stayed safely outside, snapping photos from the tunnel's entrance.

Beautiful forest

My friends and I marveled that someone once hauled equipment into this area which was now roadless and quite remote.  Back at home, I did an internet search of the Bonanza Mine, but didn't find much information.  In the mid 1890s there were apparently a hundred mining claims in this area, mostly looking for gold.  Hard to imagine this quiet forest full of mining activity.

John spotted this unusual flower

From the mine entrance my friends and I climbed another 2.5 miles through the woods.  Although it was mostly thick woods, with no viewpoints, the forest was brightened by a few wildflowers.  Eagle-eye John spotted an unusual tall, candy-striped plant (whose name I've since forgotten).


And I found a few straggler poofs of beargrass blooming nearby.

I was happy to find blooming rhodies

Near the top of Huckleberry Mountain I was delighted to spot several bright pink rhododendron flowers next to the trail.  Although the lower elevation plants were done blooming, the higher elevation rhodies appeared to be still going strong.

Plaza Trail junction

After a long, sweaty toil crashing through wet brush (it had rained the night before) Young, John and I finally reached a sought-after junction with the Plaza Trail.  We'd now be following the top of Huckleberry Mountain for a mile before intersecting with Boulder Ridge.  We'd follow its spine for another two miles before descending another steep 2.5 miles down to the Wildwood Recreation Site.

Huge larkspur patch

Rambling across Huckleberry Mountain, the forest cleared and my friends and I were finally able to get some views.  Not only that, we came across a few wonderful patches of wildflowers.  Such as this huge field of purple larkspur.

Young gets the money shot

And more bushes full of bright pink rhodies.  Absolutely stunning!

More lovely rhodies

Last year Young and I had hiked across Boulder Ridge from Wildwood Recreation site to a wonderful viewpoint and lunch spot (see my post here.)  Of course it was decided we had to have lunch here again.  Approaching from the other direction, both Young and I tried to guess how far until we reached that same place.  Each bare spot got our hopes up that it was the one.  However, we hiked another half mile before finally reaching the clearing we remembered. 

Fantastic lunch spot

And, as lunch spots, go I'd say it was definitely in the top five!  A large bare spot in the ridge afforded amazing views of Mt Hood and the surrounding foothills.  Sadly, cloudy skies prevented us from seeing much of our favorite mountain.

We had the place to ourselves

Despite the hidden scenery, it was still a grand spot to rest and enjoy a leisurely lunch.  The sun came out, enabling Young and I to dry out our soggy boots and gaiters.

Back through the forest

Refreshed and refueled, it was now time to head downhill across Boulder Ridge to a reunion with my car.  Our trail led through lovely Douglas Fir woods, the forest floor covered in bright green foliage. 

Ultra-green forest floor

It was so pretty!  Young and I joked it was like following the "yellow brick road" but instead it was green.  My friends both agreed it was hands down the loveliest forest of the entire hike.  Photos just don't do it justice so you'll have to trust me.

This was prettiest forest of our hike

All day the sky had threatened rain, but reaching one final viewpoint before our steep descent, it appeared the wet stuff was imminent.  A huge misty cloud hung over the nearby hills.  Time to beat feet down the trail!

Rain threatened, but we never got wet

The final 2.5 miles were steep and long.  My knees and feet began to complain, so Young and I repeated our mantra that we say when things got tough - "Think of the beer!"  Promise of a frosty post-hike brew always gets me through the difficult final miles.

Ho-hum, time for a beer!

On our drive to the trailhead, I'd noticed a sign along the road for the "Boring Brewery."  Intrigued, I told my friends we had to check it out.  So upon completion of our hike, after hitting the restroom, and fetching John's truck (whew, it was still there!) we headed to this pub with the funny name.

The brewery's unusual name was due it's proximity to the nearby town of Boring, Oregon (The town has a sense of humor about it's name.  Apparently Boring has a sister city in Scotland named Dull - true story!) 

Post hike reward

Young and I couldn't resist a photo op in front of the sign - ho-hum!  And the beer wasn't bad either.  The place had a nice outdoor seating area so we pulled up a table and enjoyed brews and some snack items.  My friends and I liked the pub so much we'll for sure return again.

Exploring an old mine, climbing to amazing viewpoints, photographing wildflowers, trekking through the land of green, and drinking beer at a not-so-boring pub.  Just another wonderful outing in this beautiful Pacific NW!

Stats:  12 miles one-way, 3100 feet elevation gain - and we beat the rain!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Adventure on Elk Mountain

There's two kick-butt hiking trails in the Oregon Coast range - Kings Mountain and Elk Mountain.  Both have the reputation for steep climbs, so much so that the Portland Mazamas mountain climbing club regularly uses them as conditioning hikes.

It's nearly 3.5 miles to the Elk Mtn trail

I'd hiked Kings Mountain a couple of times (posts here and also here) and survived the grueling ascent.  Hearing that Elk Mountain was much more difficult than Kings I'd shied away from visiting it's steeper cousin.  However this past spring, with my goal of trying new hikes, curiosity got the best of me.  It was time to find out just how bad this trail really was.

Ferns lined the trail

I picked a Sunday in early June for my Elk Mountain conquest.  There are many ways to access this trail, the easiest being to park at the nearby Elk Creek Campground, where according to my hiking book, it's a mere 4.2 mile round-trip up and down.  But in my mind 4.2 miles wasn't much of a hike.  To add some mileage I decided on parking at the Kings Mountain Trailhead and taking the Wilson River Trail 3 miles to access the trail's beginning.  Combined with the climb up and down this would give me a good 10-mile trek.

(Many hikers opt to do the extremely difficult Elk-King traverse, bagging both peaks and traveling nearly 13 miles and 3500 feet of elevation gain.  I wasn't yet ready for that!)

Unknown pink flower

For various reasons, I ended up getting a late start, and it was nearly noon when I arrived at the trailhead.  Thinking the flat three miles along the Wilson River would be an easy romp, I only packed one bottle of water, and minimal snacks.  The trek up Elk Mountain wasn't that far distance-wise.  How long could it take?

The coast range forests were beautiful

So off I went through the fern-filled forest lining the Wilson River.  It was a lovely jaunt, and I took my time photographing the many huge mossy trees, plentiful ferns, and colorful wildflowers.

Huge mossy tree

Since the Wilson River Trail supposedly followed the Wilson River, I'd incorrectly assumed it would be flat.  Nope!  From the beginning this path climbed steadily until near mile two where it dived downhill to cross Dog Creek.


The view of Dog Creek from it's bridge crossing was quite lovely.  But then it was another fairly steep scramble up the opposite bank.

Crossing Dog Creek

It had taken me well over an hour of hiking with still no sign of the Elk Mountain Trail.  Just when I was beginning to doubt my directions, the path came into view.  But according to the trail sign, it was a mere 1.4 miles to the top.  I'd been expecting 2.1 miles (according to my hiking book), so this was even better!

Finally Elk Mountain trail's beginning

William L. Sullivan in his book "100 Hikes on the Oregon Coast and Coast Range" describes the Elk Mountain Trail as "scrambling up a steep, rocky crest with all the subtlety of a bobsled run."  I'd say he was spot on.  From the trail's very start it ramped uphill sharply, someplaces nearly vertical.  The path was a mess of slippery rocks and loose dirt.  As I ascended, I had to be careful not to slide backwards.  How was I ever going to get back down this?

I came upon a huge paintbrush patch

Not far up the trail I ran into a man and his very young daughter.  The man had a huge pack fully loaded and the girl was calmly eating Cheetos.  The man explained he and his daughter were training for a Mt St Helens climb (that explained the heavy load).  The girl was quick to announce that she was "six and half" years old.  I was amazed someone would take a young child on a such a steep, difficult hike.  But the little girl appeared to be having fun, and wasn't complaining in the least.  I left the duo behind as I continued my climb.

Paintbrush brightens up the cliff

One plus to all my climbing misery - orange Indian Paintbrush was blooming profusely on the trail's lower portions.  Gave me an excuse to stop and photograph (

Lovely orange paintbrush

I hadn't climbed too far before the tops of adjacent hills began to come into view.  Although the day was overcast and threatening rain, there was still enough scenery visible to reward my hard efforts.

The highway, far far down below

I kept slowly trudging uphill.  The steepness didn't let up in the least.  In some places I literally climbed hand over hand up the rocky slopes.  Sweat poured out of my body, I gasped for air, and my legs ached.  Stupidly only carrying one bottle of water forced me to carefully ration my fluid intake.

I have to be close, right?

Although the views continued to improve, the climbing did not.  I kept picking my way slowly uphill through the slippery loose dirt and crumbling rock.  I swear it was the longest 1.4 (or 2.1) miles of my life!

I was never so happy to see this sign!

I kept hoping the summit would be just up the next rise.  But, beyond that rise the trail would continue upward.  I dipped through four different saddles, each one getting my hopes up.  Finally I wound around a small hump and there on the top I glimpsed the summit sign and register.  What a sight for sore eyes!

Plastic tube inside summit box

I'd made it!  Happily I posed for numerous summit selfies then admired the fabulous view and blooming beargrass nearby.  After that I opened the register box and took out a plastic tube housing the trail register itself.

Summit register inside tube

It was fun to read all the fellow hiker's comments.  Settling down with a snack and a few sips of my precious water, I proceeded to leave my mark in the book.  Thinking the worst was behind me, I innocently commented "A tough climb but worth it."  Little did I know the worst was yet to come......

What I said before hiking back down

For I still had to get back down that steep, rocky, slippery treacherous trail.  Beginning my descent, I got a huge wake up call not five steps from the summit.  Without warning my feet slid out from under me in the loose dirt and I landed flat on my butt.  Picking myself up and continuing downward, not a quarter mile later it happened again.  The loose rock and soil acted like ball bearings underfoot.  Surviving those two sliding falls made me slow way down, gingerly watching my footing, and anchoring each step with my trekking poles.

A few blooming beargrass puffs

Downhill progress was painfully slow.  It was actually harder than climbing, because my legs had to continually keep applying the "brakes" via my knees and quad muscles.  My legs, already spent from five miles of travel (two of them uphill) were starting to tire.  Near the bottom, I actually sat down and butt-slid some of steeper sections.  It was easier on my worn-out leg muscles and safer than descending by foot.

I was happy to find beargrass!

Normally descending a steep hill takes much less time than climbing it.  Not so with Elk Mountain!  It took me the same amount of time to get back down that sucker.  I met several other hiking parties, some still climbing, others descending (all much quicker than me - how did they do it without wiping out?)  I even met a couple of trail runners - I can't believe anyone could run that trail, especially downhill.  And while creeping downhill about a half mile from the summit, I again met the man and his daughter still ascending.  Amazingly the young lady was as cheerful she'd been earlier.

Sweeping Coast Range panorama

I can't even begin to tell you what a relief it was to finally reach the Wilson River Trail again.  But it was almost 5 pm, my legs were toast, I was nearly out of water, and I was still three miles from the car.  However, I knew the only way to get home was to keep moving, so I put my brain on autopilot and concentrated on covering those final three miles (or 3.5 if you believe the sign) as quickly as my tired body would allow.

Obligatory summit selfie

It was a death march!  Quads, feet and knees protested, my dry throat begged for water, and my empty tummy grumbled.  I can't even begin to tell you how happy I was when I finally glimpsed the parking lot through the trees.

What a tough hike!  My knees and quads hated me for two days afterwards.  In retrospect, I now know why most people will hike up Elk Mountain and down Kings.  I may climb Elk Mountain again someday (well, not anytime soon) but I will most certainly not descend that trail - I'll find another way down!

Stats:  Wilson River Trail, 3 or 3.5 miles one way - Elk Mountain Trail, 1.4 or 2.1 miles one way, (depending upon which book or trail sign you believe) for a total of either 8.8 or 11.2 miles.  Elevation gain - 2000 arse-kicking feet in 1.4 or 2.1 miles!